If you watch “The Ten Commandments” every year and think, “Why don’t they tell epic Bible stories with huge historical sets anymore?” — They do now.
If you watch cable shows like “Marco Polo” and think, “Couldn’t they make even one of these things without all the nudity and prostitutes?” — They did now.
The first episode of NBC’s sprawling “A.D.: The Bible Continues
” is a little more cramped than what promises to be television on a grand scale. But already, it’s all there: the intricately detailed Roman villa and the accurate Jewish temple; a huge cast of characters made up of groups and families who are rightly suspicious of each other and their schemes; would-be rebels and secret dissidents and future martyrs.
And let’s not forget the Son of God.
The premiere episode of “A.D.” has all the sweep and some of the intrigue. Beautifully filmed, it makes time for gorgeous set shots (the Temple priests emptying bowls of blood during Jesus’ crucifixion; Caiaphas kneeling by Christ’s bloody cross and observing, “He bled like a man”) while managing to telescope the story of Christ’s Passion into a few minutes, introduce the first of what will be dozens of characters, and deliver mini-tutorials on the political situation in ancient Israel.
That the pilot manages to do so effectively while combining a historically convincing milieu with a non-historic, racially diverse cast and a script that doesn’t overtly advance any one version of Christian theology is an impressive feat. That it also manages to be a compelling story that can compete with anything else on commercial television may be something of a miracle.
Given the scale of what the writers and directors had to do in less than an hour, some awkward lines were inevitable. Leah (actress Jodhi May), ambitious wife of the High Priest Caiaphas, delivers most of them, followed by a surprisingly colorless Joseph of Arimathea (Kevin Doyle). At times the arguments about what to do regarding Jesus of Nazareth, why his followers were dangerous, and how the Jews should negotiate Roman occupation hover perilously near the brink of history-class mode, but never go over.
More problematic to some may be the story’s conceit that the Apostles and disciples who remained in Jerusalem with Mary, Mary Magdalene, and John did so because they expected (or at least hoped) that Jesus would rise from the dead in three days. While this idea doesn’t directly contradict anything in the New Testament, nearly all Christians interpret the Gospels as demonstrating that even Jesus’ closest followers didn’t understand his prophecies about rising from the dead, that they were all astounded and confused by his empty tomb and his return in a resurrected body that was somehow different from his pre-resurrected one, and that “doubting” Thomas was hardly the only one of them who needed some convincing.
But if you can take that as an acceptable storyteller’s license, much of the rest of the story is straight from the Gospels, as well as straight from ancient tradition. There are earthquakes (though no bodies rising from their graves) and the sky darkens. Caiaphas rends his garments. The veil of the Temple rips. Longinus — according to tradition, the Roman soldier who stabs Jesus with his spear — is mentioned by name.
The characters are well-drawn and establish their personalities from the first: John (Babou Ceesay) is compassionate and loyal, Peter (Adam Levy) is passionate and guilt-ridden, Mary Magdalene (Chipo Chung) is feisty, Mary (Greta Sacchi) is whiny.
Did I say that? Yes, in my view the Mother of God comes across as annoying. Maybe she improves in future episodes. Jesus and Mary are the hardest people to portray in any Biblical production and unless you find a particular performance unbearable, it’s best not to spend too much energy (or ink) on the actor or actress, and instead let them stand in imperfectly for your own impression of what God Incarnate or the Queen of Heaven must have been like.
The Jesus in this production, Argentine actor Juan Pablo di Pace, makes less of an impression than Pontius Pilate’s worried wife Claudia (Joanne Whalley), who is certain that it’s time to apply for a transfer from a Jerusalem where zealots in disguise plan assassinations, and where the Sanhedrin argue openly about the best way for the Jews to outlast the Romans as they’ve outlasted all other would-be rulers.
And there’s more to come. “A.D.’s” website spotlights no less than 38 characters, including a young Caligula, the Emperor Tiberius, Galilean ruler Antipas and his wife Herodias, Simon Magus, Saul (later the Apostle Paul), and dozens of other real and invented characters whose lives intersect as the Christians, fearing for their lives in Episode One, begin the rise that eventually upsets all other powers and factions.
Filmed in Morocco, the production manages both the look and feel of Jerusalem’s crowded, winding streets and the spacious elegance of Roman and Jewish villas. The costumes are detailed and on the whole accurate (although what is the deal with Peter’s weird, first-century ascot?). The camera work is first rate and so far the script is well-paced, striking a good balance between reverence for the subject and the need to tell exciting story.
In the first episode, the most compelling figures are not the proto-Christians but two opposing leaders, the High Priest Caiaphas and the Roman governor Pilate. As Caiaphas, British actor Richard Coyle comes across as a shorter, kindlier Russell Crowe. Attempting to control and lead a people riven by factions, and to placate the Roman overlords while faithfully serving the Lord, Caiaphas also has to please his demanding wife and his father-in-law. Coyle portrays Caiaphas as a kindly father to his three children, a conscientious servant of God, and a thoughtful leader who can’t fathom the appeal that Jesus has for his followers.
Pilate gets all the best lines. Portrayed, according to Hollywood and theater tradition, as a British aristocrat, Vincent Regan’s Pilate is handsome, urbane, and sophisticated. More than a little disgusted with what he sees as the bloodthirsty and unreasonable demands from the Sanhedrin that he crucify someone who seems to be an innocent man, he’s a pragmatist who goes ahead with the crucifixion as the only practical option. But he can’t get rid of his distaste for the whole affair as easily as the symbolic washing of his hands suggests. His wife won’t let him forget that killing Jesus haunts her dreams, and important Jews keep asking for more concessions: Joseph asks for the body, Caiaphas asks for soldiers to guard it.
Finding himself in what he sees as an absurd drama he can’t escape, Pilate never loses his aplomb. When Caiaphas asks for Roman guards to be placed at the dead man’s tomb, he doesn’t bother to hide his exasperation. Jesus had said he would rise again in three days, the High Priest explains, exasperated himself. Pilate’s reply is priceless: “Roman crucifixion really doesn’t allow for that,” he says, with the barest hint of a raise eyebrow.
It’s these little touches, as well as the big-budget production values, that make “A.D.” rise above typical “Christian” programming. How well the rest of the series will do so remains to be seen, but Episode One is already heads and shoulders above its religious competition, and much of its secular competition as well. If the pilot is any indication, “A.D.” will be well worth 12 evenings.
Do you agree? Did Pilate get the best lines? Did Mary come across as whiny? What about Peter's outfit? Let us know in the comments.
Read more about "A.D.: The Bible Continues" from OSV Newsweekly here