This spring, a complicated new protagonist is coming to television. A mysterious but charismatic figure from modest origins, he inspires fierce loyalty in his scrappy band of followers but is dismissed as a dangerous impostor.
No, he’s not the latest AMC or HBO antihero: He’s Jesus.
As Easter approaches, a flood of religious-themed programming is due to hit the airwaves. It begins Sunday with the National Geographic Channel’s three-hour movie “Killing Jesus,” based on Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s bestselling book, and continues on Easter with the premiere of NBC’s 12-episode event series, “A.D. The Bible Continues,” a look at the early days of the Christian church from faith-based media giants Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.
“We think it’s a game-changer,” said Chris Stone, founder of Faith Driven Consumer, a Christian advocacy group. “It’s a very pivotal point when one of the legacy networks, broadcast to the whole country, recognizes that the audience is there.”
Eager to tap into the vast and often overlooked faith-based audience that turned “The Bible,” also from Downey and Burnett, into a ratings blockbuster for History in 2013, networks that have traditionally shied from overtly religious programming are now embracing spiritually oriented shows. The religious gold rush is part of the industry-wide hunger for DVR-proof programming.
For people of faith, events don’t get much bigger than the life of Jesus and his followers or the Roman siege of the Jewish settlement at Masada, the latter of which is subject of “The Dovekeepers,” a miniseries from Downey and Burnett’s LightWorkers Media that debuts Tuesday on CBS.
Even cable news networks have caught on to the trend: CNN has “Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery,” a six-part examination of relics tied to Jesus, and the Weather Channel has “Top 10: Bible Weather,” a look at Old Testament-style catastrophic storms and floods. Production of biblically themed television projects has been so brisk that at one point last fall there were three Jesuses staying at the same hotel in Ouarzazate, the Moroccan filmmaking center that often stands in for the Holy Land.
Other networks are creating shows that, while not necessarily aimed at faith-based viewers, take inspiration from religion. USA’s miniseries “Dig,” a “Da Vinci Code"-like adventure partially filmed in Jerusalem, includes plot twists drawn from the Hebrew Bible. The CW, a network better known for shows about sexy teen vampires, has the whimsical comedy “Jane the Virgin,” about a chaste and devoutly Catholic young woman who, like Mary, becomes pregnant through extraordinary circumstances. In April, the CW will launch “The Messengers,” a drama about a band of (highly attractive) apocalyptic angels.
Though much was made of last year’s trio of biblically inspired films — “Noah,” “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “Son of God” — religious epics have been a mainstay of cinema since the silent era. On the small screen, however, it has been a different story.
Outside of quasi-Christian dramas like “Touched by an Angel,” “Joan of Arcadia” and “Highway to Heaven” and a series of Old Testament-inspired movies on TNT in the mid-'90s, programming aimed squarely at viewers of faith or taken directly from Bible stories has been scarce on broadcast networks and mainstream cable channels.
Then along came “The Bible,” which served as a wake-up call for the industry. Airing on Sundays — television’s marquee night — and targeting the underserved faith-based audience, the miniseries attracted a flock of 13 million viewers to its premiere and easily beat its rivals on broadcast over its five-week run. “Son of God,” a theatrical release drawn from outtakes from “The Bible” and produced for a relative pittance of $22 million, was a box office hit last year.
According to the most recent information from the U.S. Census Bureau, about three-quarters of the adult population — some 175,000,000 people over the age of 18 — describe themselves as Christian. A Gallup survey in 2010 found that about 43% of Americans regularly attend church services. That’s a ratings share that networks can only dream about.
So why have television networks, particularly the Big Four broadcasters, been so wary of religious programming?
“It’s not conscious reluctance in any way,” said NBC Entertainment President Jennifer Salke, “but I think there was a misconception of looking at those things as being niche and not realizing they actually represent an enormous part of our country that is not finding programming that speaks specifically to them. We’re looking to change that.”
“A.D. The Bible Continues” picks up after the resurrection and follows Peter (Adam Levy) and the other disciples as they form a new church and attempt to spread Christ’s message throughout the Roman Empire. NBC is playing up the event-like quality of “A.D The Bible Continues” with a web-based companion talk show, “Beyond A.D.”
The idea for the series came about during a conversation between NBC Entertainment Chairman Bob Greenblatt and Burnett, who produces the network’s highly rated competition show “The Voice.”
“We were all over it,” Salke said. “You know how it is in the quest at networks for event programming, to go where others aren’t, to make the bold choice.”
While Hollywood’s secular bent has been a factor in the dearth of religious projects on the small screen, so has the sheer scope of many of these stories. But series like “Game of Thrones” have shown that ambitious, sweeping costume tales are not the sole domain of the cinema.
“The television marketplace as a whole is in a golden age in the breadth of stories that can now be told,” said David W. Zucker, president of television at Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions, which produced “Killing Jesus” with NatGeo. “From a content-provider standpoint, we have an opportunity to tell any kind of story.”
Stacy Mandelberg, who heads up CBS’ newly formed limited series and event programming division, acknowledges that tackling an epic tale of religious history like “The Dovekeepers” was a huge logistical challenge for the network. “In terms of costumes, in terms of locations, in terms of the scope of it — I don’t think any of us realized how big it was,” she said.
“Killing Jesus” is NatGeo’s most expensive project to date, with 4,500 extras and more than 90 speaking parts. Every shot in the movie, produced in Morocco, had to be announced in three languages and the call to prayer occasionally disrupted filming.
Creating biblically inspired pop culture that attracts religious and non-religious audiences alike can also be a delicate — if not impossible — balancing act. Evangelical groups slammed “Noah” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings” for straying from their source material, while secular viewers may have been put off by their religious themes. Neither film recouped its budget at the domestic box office.
“Both would have done exponentially better if they wouldn’t have changed the Bible stories,” said Burnett, who is Catholic. “Even if it looks epic and it’s about a Bible subject, if you change that subject, 150 million people in America will get mad. It’s a little lesson: There’s no free pass.”
“Killing Jesus,” executive produced by “Exodus” director Scott, aims to tell the story of Jesus based on historical fact. The film sidesteps the question of his divinity — we see only an empty tomb, not Jesus rising from the dead — and focuses on the political and social forces that led to his crucifixion. It is meant merely as a “backbone” allowing for multiple interpretations, said Heather Moran, executive vice president of programming and strategy for NatGeo.
In another effort to distinguish “Killing Jesus” from other pop-culture portrayals of Christ, producers cast the Lebanese, Muslim-raised actor Haaz Sleiman in the role. “We felt like he was the most authentic version,” said executive producer Teri Weinberg.
“A.D. The Bible Continues” has a different challenge: How to retain its Christian viewpoint while also appealing to secular viewers. Downey likens the series, with its cast of Shakespearean actors and a story rich with political maneuvering, to “Game of Thrones” and “House of Cards.”
“This is not Sunday school,” she said.
The group least likely to be pleased with these series is biblical scholars, said Timothy Beal, a professor of religion at Case Western Reserve University. Biblical scholarship has been thriving for well more than a century, he said, yet little or nothing of its findings makes it into such popular cultural depictions.
More influential are the enduring figures of film and television — hence Moseses who all tend to look like Charlton Heston and Jesuses who resemble Max Von Sydow.
“What matters really is coming up with another Bible story that seems to resonate with the vast majority of the market and what they already have a sense of as a story,” said Beal. “They’re all just trying to get a little bit of twist, but not too much.”