Saturday, March 2, 2013

Mark Burnett Takes on 'The Bible' – Will Jesus Be a Survivor?

My wife looked at me like I'd just turned my Aquafina into Cabernet when I casually mentioned, "You know, I was watching The Bible this morning, and..."

The notion of watching rather than reading God's holy word may sound like blasphemy to some, but hey! It's the 21st century! Who reads anymore anyway? (Oh, except you, of course. And I'm very grateful.) I'll wager millions will be turning the Good Book into a visual medium at 8 p.m. EST Sunday, March 3 to behold the premiere of The Bible, a sweeping five-week, 10-hour miniseries event on History.

It's by no means an exaggeration to suggest that March 3 may be the biggest night in History's...uh, history. The Bible will be followed at 10 p.m. by the cable channel's first original scripted series, Vikings, itself a nine-week voyage into the very distant past. Talk about packing all your dynamite into one bang. (I can't wait to see how ABC's heavily-promoted new drama Red Widow, also bowing March 3 with a two-hour debut, will fare against both God and gods; "widow" may be the operative word.)

Which of these two History blockbusters did I concentrate on? Well, there's a no-brainer: the Vikings have Valhalla, and there's no way they're letting me in there! I'll focus on the promise of Heaven, thank you very much.   

Roma Downey as Mary. (A&E/Casey Crawford)
The Bible is executive produced by Mark Burnett, the programming whiz who through his reality-TV triumphs like Survivor, The Apprentice and The Voice has shaped much of what prime-time television is today, and his wife Roma Downey, best known as star of the appropriately-titled Touched by an Angel, who also appears in the series in the role of Mary. (Duh. If you were producing The Bible, what part would you take? Jezebel?) 

Their showbizzy stature in leading this production is more than enough to make Christians a bit jittery ("Which of the disciples will be voted off Gethsemane? Tune in next week!"), especially since Burnett and Downey had to know that biblical scholars, ministers, believers, people of other faiths – even atheists – would be waiting eagerly to dissect and rip apart every scene. To their considerable credit, however, they took the righteous path, crafting a vivid, awe-inspiring spectacle that strives to stay true to the Bible and bring its stories to life. (There's even a disclaimer at the top that reads, "This program is an adaptation of Bible stories that changed our endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the book.")

Diogo Morgado as J.C. (Joe Alblas/A&E)
Are there some liberties taken? Of course. I never knew, for example, that one of God's avenging angels in Sodom was the original Bruce Lee. But not so many as you might expect. The Bible is a pretty exciting read all by itself. It's a "greatest hits" condensation of Scripture, but any series whose first episode begins with Noah and his family being buffeted wildly in the ark and ends with the parting of the Red Sea (my, how CGI has improved since The Ten Commandments) has got to be something to see, no?

The Bible looks rich and feels solid. There are scenes, such as the first look at Pharoah's colossal palace, that literally took my breath away. Beyond Downey, there is a massive cast of largely international actors, and the average U.S. viewer probably won't recognize one of 'em. That's a good thing, because it takes one away from thoughts like "I can't believe they cast him as Jesus" (him in this case being the young Portuguese star Diogo Morgado) and allows you to focus on the stories themselves. I had no idea, though, that so many Old Testament figures sported British accents. And I swear that William Houston, the Royal Shakespeare actor cast in the role of Moses, is trying to channel the ghost of Charleton Heston. 

The special effects are really the star of this epic. You'll be as fascinated as delighted to see Lot's wife become a pillar of salt (she's depicted as a real shrew), and the interpretation of the Burning Bush is unique and unexpected. Actor Keith David, who has often been described as "the voice of God," provides the narration. However, since this is America, the land of religious tolerance, and History has opened the door, shouldn't a miniseries on the Quran be forthcoming? The Torah? The Book of Mormon? 

There are violent and bloody scenes in The Bible, as there are in the Bible, but they are necessary within the context of the narrative; Vikings is the only saga I can remember that begins with a savage, bloodthirsty battle for no other reason than to set the stage, then immediately becomes dull.

An international Irish-Canadian production (and you know how mild and gentle those Canadians are) created by Michael Hirst, the man who gave us The Tudors, Vikings is a simple story, simply told. Young, ambitious Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel) wants to take the Viking raiding party west this year to plunder new lands; his local chieftain, Earl Haraldson (Gabriel Byrne, looking extremely bored), says there ain't nothin' out there and tells Ragnar to stuff it in his helmet: they're heading east again, like they have every year. Frustrated, Ragnar defies his leader and secretly begins building his own longboat with the help of a whacked-out shipbuilder named Floki (Gustaf Skarsgård). In between, there's fighting.

The best part of the opening episode for me was when Lagertha (Katheryn Winnick), Ragnar's hottie wife, lays to waste two would-be home invaders who show up expecting to plunder her. (Viking women rock!) Other than that, Vikings is largely full of ship.

I'll give The Bible nine out of 10 remotes (only God is perfect, you know), Vikings four.

Plus What: Over two telecasts on premiere night, March 3, The Bible averaged 14.8 million viewers and 13.1 million total viewers from 8-10 p.m, making it the No. 1 cable entertainment program of 2013 and, obviously, the highest-rated series in History's history.

1 comment: