The Chosen season 4 review: Big screens for TV Jesus?

Though the entire season went theatrical, its relatable Jesus take still feels episodic

The Chosen season 4 review: Big screens for TV Jesus?
Photo: The Chosen/Mike Kubeisy

The Chosen’s plot may be mostly familiar, with the story of Jesus Christ being, if not the greatest story ever told, certainly one of the best known. The model, however, is new. Following in the footsteps of sci-fi and fantasy shows like Doctor Who and Game of Thrones showing certain episodes in theaters via Fathom events, The Chosen started with a Christmas special that included a concert, continued with the premiere and finale for season three, another Christmas special, and for season four, released every episode in theaters, in groups of two and three, staggered across several weeks. Thus far, this has been the only way to see them, though one or more streaming homes seem sure to be announced eventually, once all the episodes finish their runs in theaters, churches, and even prisons.

All of these theatrical releases, save one of the Christmas specials, are among Fathom Events’ top ten releases since 1995; of the remaining four, three are Christian faith-based films, while the last one is Kevin Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob Reboot. We might semi-facetiously compare devoted Kevin Smith fans to a cult, but the overall message is clear: for Fathom Events, faith sells. The season four grosses taper off after the premiere, with episodes one through three as a single showing grossing $14.6 million, and the finale cluster of episodes seven and eight together down to less than half that, at $6.3 million. That’s still impressive, though, for a production with no big-name stars, shot entirely (this season) at the Salvation Army’s Camp Hoblitzelle in Texas, with extensive crowdfunding support. In theory, this is a story viewers should be able to jump in on at any point; in practice, the numbers suggest many paying customers are one-and-done. The producers want the show to be available for free, and position the theatrical tickets as ways fans can donate for a more premium experience.

Are these groups of episodes particularly cinematic, or do they merit the largest screens possible? Director Dallas Jenkins initially cited the feeding of the 5,000 scene, for which the production apparently assembled 12,000 extras, as the kind of spectacle that would benefit from a wide canvas. There’s nothing quite like that in season four, though Jenkins frequently makes use of wide landscape shots while the Apostles hike from one town to the next. In fact, the first episode of season four feels stagey if anything, relying heavily on two-character scenes which, for drama’s sake, could have worked almost as well on an empty stage, but for budget’s sake, often have extras aplenty in the background. The fact that episode two opens with a recasting announcement only adds to the effect.

As for the groupings of episodes, they do in fact feel like groupings of episodes rather than sub-movies. Episode one deals with the execution of John the Baptist; episode two involves Simon taking on the new name of Peter; and episode three builds up to a confrontation between Jesus and religious officials that ends badly. Each episode has a different focus and arc. Later in the season, episode seven, bookended by flash-forward sequences, feels very much standalone, though it’s screened with the similarly contained episode eight, which also includes some bloopers after its lengthy end credits. Footage of actors messing up is hardly blasphemy, but it’s unusual to see “Jesus” messing up and improvising jokes. Some of the target audience might take offense, but The Chosen’s Christ, played by Catholic ministry leader Jonathan Roumie is, after all, an extremely chill Jesus.

The Chosen’s plan is to run for seven full seasons, which may incorporate the Acts of the Apostles as well as the Gospel story. To maintain a runtime like that for a story that often takes a single movie to tell, The Chosen adds a lot of material, with the thought process of a producer. Storywise, for instance, the Gospels frequently introduce characters only when they’re needed to make a point. In The Chosen, rather than have Thomas only figure into the plot when it’s time for doubt, for instance, he and his newly invented wife Ramah are the bartenders at the wedding in Cana where water becomes wine. Judas (Luke Dimyan), too, has a much longer narrative as a good guy before losing faith, expanding on the Gospel of John’s role for him as purse-carrier; Lazarus (Demetrios Troy) gets to demonstrate his friendship before his eventual death and resurrection. The general rule seems to be as long as it doesn’t actively contradict any scripture, it’s fair game to augment for story purposes.

The focus of the show is on the perspectives of the twelve Apostles, as well as others in Jesus’ orbit who become convinced of his divinity, but the primary narrative problem is obvious: Jesus remains the most compelling character, and episodes without him feel his absence. Roumie, like the other actors, speaks mostly in contemporary dialogue—“I’m out of time, Laz. This was the last,” he confides in his re-animated friend—and thus feels relatable. Still, some parts of scripture, like John 3:16, are mandatory word-for-word lines, and he’s not as adept at making them sound like natural speech.

As much as the series theoretically preaches to the choir, though, it and Roumie give us a Jesus who’s more of a best friend than a stern judge. Complete with his trusty backpack, he’s like your hippie hiking buddy, the type of dude who would totally carry you across the beach leaving only his footsteps. In another area that The Chosen has in common with Kevin Smith, this buddy Christ literally gives a double thumbs-up at one point—to Matthew, for not dead-naming Peter as “Simon.” (Make of that what you will.) He gets frustrated, he gets panic attacks, and he delights in seeing just how much divine power he’s allowed to use for each miracle. While some movie Jesuses are more ethereal, this is a guy you’d want to drink wine with, and will not want to see get beaten and nailed to boards. He is portrayed as distinct from the Father, which isn’t necessarily the evangelical take.

He also doesn’t seem like he’d toss anybody into eternal fire; it’s Judas, in fact, who constantly advocates for Jesus to essentially become Book of Revelation Jesus, a Christian nationalist on a high throne who’ll snap his fingers to decimate all opposed. Considering Jenkins’ father, Jerry B. Jenkins, cowrote the Revelation-based Left Behind books, one has to wonder if a generation-gap conflict is playing out here.

If this inspires notions of “woke Jesus,” here’s more fuel for that fire: the cast is predominantly nonwhite—Romans excepted—and speak with a generic sort of Middle-Eastern accent that seems a peculiar affectation given the use of anachronistic English words and phrase like “oxymoron” or “I had ONE job.” Matthew is coded as autistic, James disabled, and Jesus is more openly Jewish than usual, observing rituals and being addressed as Rabbi. The emphasis of the show is on Christ’s loving, human, spiritual side; those who prefer him more judgy may go for God’s Not Dead instead, but this is safer to share with secular friends.

Dallas Jenkins has come a long way as a director since The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, an uninspired evangelical conversion movie that doubled as anti-Hollywood screed. With more structural experimentation inspired by shows like Lost, and a wider variety of shot and lighting choices that make the sets look more lavish than in similar productions, he has made a Jesus story that cares as much about medium as message. The score, by Jars of Clay’s Dan Haseltine, eschews the cloying qualities of most evangelical films, with influences and echoes that seem to vary from the original Franco Zeffirelli Jesus of Nazareth miniseries to Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

The actors aren’t necessarily the most polished: aside from Roumie, the standout is regular anime voice actor Brandon Potter as the evil Quintus Dominus, dressed like a Roman version of One-Punch Man and enunciating like an angry Bill Hader. But all the cast members are clearly trying, saddled with that affected accent that they don’t need, and generally achieving likability at a bare minimum. Even if it doesn’t inspire newcomers to buy a movie ticket, when season five shows up on streaming somewhere, you may not have to be a Christian to want to check in on the bros and see what Biblical hijinks they’re up to next.

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