In which it turns out that a queer agnostic CAN enjoy a straightforwardly biblical tale.
I have to admit to some degree of skepticism when I saw that NBC had greenlit A.D.: The Bible Continues. Biblical films and television series can be quite a chore to watch, even for those, like me, with a sensibility that allows me to take them straight rather than ironically. All too often, their seriousness slips into the ridiculous.
While A.D. Does suffer from this malady in some places, the first episode actually does a passable job conveying a sense of what it might have been like to have lived in Judaea during the early days of Christianity. Indeed, to my surprise, the High Priest Caiaphas emerges from this tale as a man caught in an impossible position, struggling to make sure that the people over whom he watches are not stamped out by the brutal boot of Roman imperialism. Seen in that context, his decision to execute Jesus emerges not just as some mindless malice motivated by his Jewish identity (I’m looking at you, The Passion of the Christ), but instead by a pragmatic desire to avoid an armed conflict that he knows his people cannot win. His wife underscores this point, reminding both Caiaphas and Joseph of Arimathea that the Jews have survived as long as they have, often the rule of various empires, by being able to adapt, by being pragmatic enough to realize that armed resistance and revolution will only lead to oblivion.
While I’m not entirely sure that the series wants us to take it this way, her words do bring home to contemporary audiences what life must have been like for all sorts of people living in the early ages of the Common Era, when Roman military might had made much of Europe and a portion of Africa and Asia part of a vast imperial possession. In such a context, it should come as no surprise that the Jews of the time, long used to oppression and often destruction by foreign powers, should do everything in their power to survive, even if it meant putting one of their own to death when he posed a challenge to the might of Rome.
If there’s one weak spot, it’s unfortunately the very thing that should, ostensibly, be the strongest, namely the “protagonists.” The series’ most compelling and interesting characters are the villains: Pilate and Caiaphas not have more depth as characters; they are more interesting. As it is, watching Peter and the other Disciples agonize over whether Jesus will return or not feels a bit slow, and the actors just don’t bring enough zeal to the scenes to allow for a powerful engagement with their obvious crisis of faith. Hopefully, the writers have given these main characters more to do in subsequent episodes, at least within the rather narrow confines of the story (which, as we know, has some rather foregone conclusions).
Likewise, it would have been nice to get a little more understanding of Jesus as a man driven not just by his sense of his own divinity, but also by the political and social ramifications of his message. The only sense we as the audience get of these is through characters talking about him, particularly Pilate (who sees his kingly status as a threat to Roman supremacy), and Caiaphas (who sees him as a threat to Jewish security and well-being). Both characters give us some really punch dialogue that reveals their political investments, such as when Pilate says he wants Jesus to be remembered as a pile of rotting meat on the floor, but Jesus, and his Disciples, don’t really give us that much.
But then, perhaps that would serve to undercut the entire point of the series, which is to suggest that the challenge he poses is precisely to the established ways of thinking about the world and even, perhaps, to the concept of history itself. Jesus becomes Christ and thus is timeless; one need not worry about the past nor the future, but simply live in the eternal present that is the essence of this burgeoning worldview.
Overall, A.D. is a competent drama, not nearly as bad and chintzy as it could certainly have been in less capable hands. While it may not have quite the gritty realism of Game of Thrones (it was touted as a cross between that HBO powerhouse and Netflix’s hit House of Cards), it does nevertheless have enough politics to sate the desires of those who want like to watch that sort of thing (and I certainly do!) The stage is certainly set for the kinds of conflict, between Jews and Christians, between Jews and Romans, between Christians and Romans, that could make for some genuinely rich and resonant drama, if the writers will give themselves the change to stretch their talents and allow us to get a more complex picture of Early Christianity and its struggles to survive in a very hostile, and volatile, Roman world.