The Bible

The Bible debuts tonight on the History Channel at 8 p.m. Eastern.

Even a nonbeliever would have to admit that the Bible could make a hell of a cable miniseries. The source material, rife with dramatic miracles, violent spectacle, and the confluence of larger-than-life historical figures and the inexorable conflict of politics and faith, in the hands of and bold, visionary showrunner, and coupled with serious HBO money would pretty much redefine “must see TV.” (Am I alone in thinking David Simon would be terrific at this? Think The Wire: Jerusalem.)

Unfortunately, major broadcasting entities are unlikely to take on the task, risking as they would certain protests, boycotts, (and potential fringe violence) from those of the faithful unwilling to cede editorial control over the central text of Western religion to any mere mortal, no matter how well credentialed. Unwilling to do anything but present the most inoffensively-mediated narrative, the (TV) powers-that-be would do everything to ensure the enterprise would be submitted to an esteemed and carefully chosen conclave of clerics to assure that the viewing public would be subjected to nothing likely to offend.

Fortunately for the History Channel, whose 10-part miniseries The Bible begins tonight at 8PM, married co-creators actress Roma Downey and Survivor maven Mark Burnett have set their creative sights squarely on the wheelhouse of Downey’s erstwhile TV gig, the leadenly reverent, dramatically inert Touched By An Angel, presenting a Sunday school-friendly selection of biblical tales largely free from interpretation or nuance. Judging by the two episodes made available for review, the only people likely to be offended by such pedestrian storytelling are those (non-Christians, women) who might be offended by the source material itself. But more on them later.

The first episode is titled, appropriately, “In The Beginning” but starts off, perhaps less straightforwardly, already splashing around on Noah’s Ark, where the soggy patriarch regales his frightened family (and a rather meager, it must be said, collection of largely GCI animals) with God’s creation of the world. Except that we zip abruptly through a Garden of Eden montage before settling on the real subject of this first episode, the trials of Abraham. It’s a klutzy, unfocused (and immediately abandoned) opening to the series which, tasked with dramatizing the entire Bible in its ten episode run, has clearly chosen the most dramatic Old Testament stories for maximum entertainment value. (Episode three apparently devotes an entire hour to the relatively minor story of Samson and Deliliah, what with the blinding and the seducing and the toppling...)

As we watch Abraham, acting upon a message from God that only he can hear, uprooting his family and followers to a remote, inhospitable wasteland to await further instructions, the series’ weaknesses-and one welcome strength-become readily apparent. For one, not having HBO money to work with, the signature History Channel chintziness quickly becomes distracting. (Screener episodes claimed that all effects are a work in progress, but the series’ problems here are systemic.) It’s not necessarily fair to fault a series for its lack of budget, but if you’re going to bill yourself as “epic,” at least dress your sets more than they did on the average Xena episode. Working mostly in tight shots to disguise the meagerness of Abraham’s flock and utilizing the serviceably obvious History Channel green screenery for anything larger, The Bible persistently tries to wring larger-than-life resonance from the docudrama format, only pointing out its own pedestrian nature in the process. This, coupled with the standard “Biblical epic” dialogue strained of all quirk, eccentricity, or identifying character trait, and The Bible teeters precariously close to unintentional comedy, and tediousness.

The fact that it does not do so (for the most part) rests on the shoulders of its cast of (mostly British) character actors who, struggling man-and-womanfully against the stilted load they’re heaped with, provide The Bible with a dramatic tension the rest of the production seems hell-bent on avoiding.

As Abraham and his long-suffering wife Sarah, Gary Oliver and Josephine Butler, through sheer force of talent, wring something like actual characters out of this story of a man whose acts, if not actually directed by the Supreme Being, are those of a lunatic. Forget moving everyone to the middle of a bandit-infested nowhere, Abraham impregnates his servant girl Hagar (at Sarah’s insistence) so his line can continue, then (also at Sarah’s insistence) eventually sends both Hagar and their son Ishmael packing into that same wilderness. And then there’s the whole “sacrifice his other son Isaac because God told him to” thing. The role of Abraham is simply a dramatic dead end: If you don’t accept that God is guiding his actions, then he’s a monster. If you do, then he has no agency. A bolder production than this might attempt to incorporate some ambiguity to this tale, but The Bible is content to merely tell it.

What saves “In The Beginning” from a dramatic standpoint is that Oliver and Butler are simply too dedicated to their craft to create two-dimensional characters. As we watch Isaac being bound by his formerly loving father and tearfully begging for his life, well, it’s hard for Abraham to come back from that as a sympathetic character, except that Oliver’s affecting performance stubbornly refuses to reduce him to a stock figure. (His Brian Blessed-like force of personality also helps.) Josephine Butler as Sarah, too, collapsing in tearful joy that her husband has not, you know, stabbed their beloved son to death on top of a dusty mountain, successfully creates something like a real character in the midst of her Bible-mandated responses. (An especially difficult challenge since, as is inescapable in the source material, women in The Bible aren’t especially admirable. For all her loyalty to Abraham’s seemingly mad plans, Sarah’s petty and inconsistent, Lot’s wife is inconstant, and Hagar is portrayed as an all-too seductive homewrecker. The central, and persistent, misogyny of the series may be present in the Bible, but The Bible is clearly uninterested in analyzing such concepts in lieu of presenting an indifferently visualized illustrated Bible story. It’s accurate, but unseemly. A more thoughtful presentation might try to examine this dynamic, but that this is not. )

As Keith David’s narration, over triumphant music, asserts that “Abraham has passed the final test,” it’s an unexamined, uncritical celebration of what he’s done. But Oliver and Butler’s acting in this scene, wordlessly expressing the seemingly irreparable rift in their relationship, belies such a facile wrap-up to the episode. It’s the merest hint of characterization, almost a stealth counterpoint to the Sunday school lesson we’re being fed, but for anyone watching The Bible as a piece of drama, rather than simple doctrine, it’s as welcome as rain in the desert.

Similarly blessed and bedeviled, “Exodus,” the second episode, boasts a strong central performance (this time it’s Moses’ turn) from William Houston, whose Ian McKellan-esque booming voice and manner manage to convey simultaneously the character’s towering rage at Pharaoh’s unwillingness to free the enslaved Jews, his steely-eyed belief that he is God’s instrument, and even a tinge of sorrow for the plagues he unleashes on his captors and their children. (I’d take his “Let my people go!” over Heston’s any day.) It’s a good thing, too, as the heretofore threadbare look of the series is only magnified when, instead of scrub brush and rocks, the script calls for magisterial pyramids and widespread destruction. (Like Eden, the ten plagues get packed into a perfunctory montage.) Both elements of the episode come to a head with the Red Sea scene, where the pitifully small band of Jews (they look to number about 50) flee to safety as the pursuing Egyptian army is shot in close up and swept under some very CGI-looking waves while Houston’s booming command to “Follow me! God is with us!” provides a measure of gravitas the action sorely lacks.

Apart from these unexpected fringe benefits from overachieving stage actors however, The Bible offers little more than a rote Bible course-plodding, cheap, obvious, and largely bereft of the showmanship any religious epic worth its pillar of salt should understand.

Stray observations:

  • Although patchily deployed, Keith David’s innately authoritative sonorousness lends the borrowed authority of a Ken Burns documentary to the proceedings that it otherwise hasn’t warranted
  • The Bible’s attempts at jazzing up the action of each episode are especially silly. Apart from the young Moses/young Pharaoh sword duel in “Exodus,” there’s a scene from “In The Beginning” that deserves special mention. As Lot and his family are fleeing from Sodom in the company of a pair of guardian angels, they’re cornered in a blind alley. Not to worry though- the Asian (of course) angel slowly unsheathes the two crisscrossed swords on his back- and then it’s time for several onscreen minutes of ninja angel martial arts action! (I would totally have paid more attention in Sunday school if the phrase “ninja angel martial arts action” came up more often.)
  • Our shady, brief glimpse of the gaudy sins of Sodom consists of a little back alley smooching, although there’s one leering guy who looks like Divine.
  • Pharaoh’s armor in the Red Sea scene is especially low-rent: It looks like he’s trying out for his elementary school play.
  • The sight of Egyptian soldiers whipping what purport to be swaddled infants over a cliff shouldn’t provoke giggles, right?