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'A.D. the Bible Continues' a Sunday school lesson in your den

NBC's 'A.D.' picks up where the History Channel's 'The Bible' left off

Maybe the only thing more daunting than living up to the expectations of a miniseries called "The Bible" is making the sequel. After you've chronicled the birth, life and crucifixion of the only son of God, how do you top that? Add a talking cat?

That was the challenge facing husband-and-wife producing team Mark Burnett and Roma Downey with the new 12-part NBC miniseries "A.D. The Bible Continues," premiering Sunday.

The sequel expands and goes beyond the events of the final episode of the couple's hit 2013 History miniseries. The good news, besides the, uh, Good News, is that there's a lot to like about this production that depicts the birth of Christianity not as yet another dogmatic swords-and-sandals religious epic, but more like a political thriller. It's frustrating, then, that the action stumbles only when it turns its focus toward heaven.

Though Christ's trial and crucifixion are the opener, "A.D." quickly moves on to parts of the New Testament that aren't nearly as familiar on-screen. The disciples are the stars here, led by a guilt-ridden Peter (Adam Levy), who must figure out how to continue to build the church and avoid Jesus' fate while being sought by Caiaphas, the high priest (Russell Crowe-lookalike Richard Coyle) of the temple, and the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate (Vincent Regan).

Despite his resurrection by the end of the first hour, Jesus (Juan Pablo Di Pace) takes a supporting role here (at least in the first two episodes available for review). It's a risky move, but it turns out to be a refreshing one. Freed from telling the tale of the Messiah, "A.D." is free to be a little more thrilling with its storytelling. And that's definitely a plus during this Easter season with three major biblical projects on TV, including National Geographic Channel's "Killing Jesus" and CBS' "The Dovekeepers."

With its darker story line of heroes on the run and their spiritual mentor appearing sporadically with an even more enlightened perspective on the universe, you could say that "A.D." is the "Empire Strikes Back" to "The Bible's" "Star Wars." My poor Sunday school teacher would probably weep to read it described that way. But the reality is that "A.D." is airing on a major broadcast network and that it's working to broaden its appeal beyond those who attend church every Sunday.

For the faithful, "A.D." can be viewed with relief. Though it's airing on the same network that gave us the ultra-laid-back "dude" Jesus in "The Book of Daniel" a few years ago, the material this time is handled with dutiful respect. Though that's not to say it's a dry slog. With its political maneuvering and gritty feel, there's more influence of "Game of Thrones" than Cecil B. DeMille here.

But it's not flawless. When "A.D." moves beyond the human drama on Earth and gives us a peek at the powers of heaven at work, verisimilitude is thrown out the window in favor of attempted spectacle. One of God's angels arrives to escort Jesus from his tomb at the end of the first episode, but he looks as if he'd flown in from Syfy's angels-versus-humans series "Dominion." And the effects bear all the subtlety and poetry of a fresco as painted by Thomas Kinkade.

With so much working on the ground in "A.D.," it's a shame when the weakest link happens to come from on high.

Twitter: @patrickkevinday


'A.D. The Bible Continues'

Where: NBC

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG-V (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for violence)

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