3 strikes, and it’s out.
So after subjecting myself (and my poor girlfriend) to watching all 5 episodes of the History Channel’s Bible and livetweeting it, I took a few days away from thinking about it. And now that I’ve had time to reflect on it, what stands out is not the bad acting, poor sets, or even randomness of the stories they chose to give attention to. No, it was how it failed in all three goals it had as a program (though not in ratings, the only real goal the network had).
The first goal was doomed to failure: converting anyone who wasn’t Christian or on the fence. Because in all honesty, that came pre-failed. Almost everyone in America knows the story of Jesus, and anyone who comes to sell you on it has no new facts to offer if they’re a mainstream sect of Christianity. There was no hidden segment of the population that only the History Channel could reach who were somehow ignorant of “The Word.”
The second goal was, in theory, attainable: doing a new historical look at the Bible. I don’t think you could reasonably expect to see a deep historical analysis of the Bible on the History Channel, but you could still have seen some shallow context to the whole book, without explicitly challenging Christian beliefs. They could have touched on the culture Abraham came from, for example, or whether Egypt was a mighty empire or just another African nation when Moses came along. I’ll admit that would have made some of the drama a little harder to manage, but not impossible. Of course, we are talking about the History Channel, which desperately wants to stop being that, but needs to bank more random “people working in weird fields” reality shows first. They’d have changed the name already, but I think they’ve learned the lesson from Syfy.
Still, what sticks with me is how badly they failed in the final goal, being a dramatic series. Yes, they were dealing with material that is the very opposite of new, and their Christian backing meant there was only so far they could push with any part of the material. I knew there wouldn’t be any “Last Temptation of Christ” reinterpretation here. But the first episode was a good example of how badly they dropped the ball, with scenes where the actor playing Abraham basically made the material work despite the sets, costumes, and dialogue he had to fight with. Once he left the series, most of the other actors couldn’t match his skills, and it made all the problems stand out even more.
At times there were flashes of skill, such as the young Moses trying to grapple with the revelation that he was a Jew, not Egyptian, or Saul realizing his pride had killed his son and split his kingdom. But there was no thematic connection that kept things moving in a coherent way. The easiest theme in the world was sitting right there-the Chosen People as a community, finding and losing their way over and over again-and it wasn’t really touched. Instead we just got the parts that had to explain Jesus’ coming. King Solomon? Completely absent. The Golden Calf? Never mentioned. Both perfect examples of times when the Jewish people turned away from God in some fashion, and neither one came up at all. Because we had to give Jesus two and a half episodes out of five.
Look, I get that for Christians, Jesus is literally the biggest deal in the Bible. That’s not news, and guess what? I don’t blame them. But to me, if you’re advertising the Bible, then you should do the Bible. Not the parts you like the best, or the bare minimum for the New Testament. All of the important things that make up the whole book. Jesus gets his own episode? That’s fine, he’s not a small part. But what is the point in him creating a new covenant if you never explain the old one and how it was broken? I’m not even talking about the historical context, it failed to set up the religious context. Jesus having some new message meant nothing when the old message was never really conveyed in the series.
If you really want to convert people with a TV series like this, you need to make it interesting to watch. That doesn’t meant changing the story just to please the audience, since in that case you might as well give Pilate and Jesus lightsabers and have them duel in the Temple for the fate of the world. But you can’t present your story, even if you believe in it whole-heartedly, as self-evident truth. You were, in theory, reaching out to people who don’t know the Bible that well, and you managed to focus on the part almost all of them already knew. Even if there were portions of the Jesus story that were well done, it still ended up feeling like a waste of time, compared to going into why Noah built the ark, or what exactly Sodom and Gomorrah were guilty of (which, by the way, you could do without blaming it on any specific sex act, since you could say their community had completely broken down and THAT is why they were full of sin).
Were you worried that they’d find out about the parts in the Bible that feel silly to the modern day? You have to take that risk, because it’s still there in the book. Unless you’re willing to issue The Bible, Now In A Less Silly Form along with the series, they will find it. You have to own up to it and move on, especially since a lot of people already know about that anyway. Burying most of it, but keeping the parts where Lot’s wife turned to salt and Samson lost his strength when he got a haircut did you no favors.
I’m not angry about the Bible failing like this, or even disappointed. It’s just me looking back on it, shaking my head, and hoping others will draw lessons about how to do better from it, at least in terms of creating a dramatic series.