Like many showbiz offerings related to religion, “The Bible” is as interesting for its marketing and commercial prospects as for the production itself. Producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey have reached out to a faith-based community that’s often wary of Hollywood as they promote their five-part, 10-hour epic, and if history is any guide (think “The Passion of the Christ”), that could yield boffo ratings for History. As for this handsome, sober but somewhat unimaginative project, the first half plays like a medley of the Old Testament’s greatest hits, before the true star of the show, Jesus Christ, finally arrives.
Narrated by Keith David (who also lent his “voice of God” baritone to Ken Burns’ “The War”), “The Bible” “endeavors to stay true to the spirit of the book,” viewers are told at the start of each chapter, and that’s certainly the case. Moreover, because of Hollywood’s reputation as a liberal hotbed antagonistic toward “traditional values,” the promise of approaching religion with reverence — and greater scope than that offered by often more narrowly focused Christian films — potentially has a sizable built-in audience.
Still, the first few nights prove a bit disjointed, racing through key figures like Noah (dispatched, along with Adam and Eve, in what amounts to a prologue), Abraham and Moses, whose stories are dutifully told with lots of running, screaming and hacking.
Nothing here will make anyone forget Cecil B. DeMille’s biblical epics — in fact, it’s remarkably how little improved the parting of the Red Sea looks after 57 years of technological breakthroughs — but there’s always room for fresh versions of these classics, especially for the devout portion of the audience that feels abused and under-served by pop culture.
Produced in Morocco, “The Bible” exhibits admirable scale, as well as a fine assortment of mostly British actors. Even so, there’s a sense the producers are killing time before they get to the adult Jesus (Portuguese star Diogo Morgado, who’s quite good) in the sixth hour, with Downey doubling as the elder version of his mother, Mary.
Told with great earnestness and a Hans Zimmer score (think “The Lion King of Kings”), “The Bible” hits only a few conspicuously awkward notes. The portrayal of a bloated, pustule-covered King Herod, for example, is so over the top that he looks less like an inhabitant of Roman times than the Baron in David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of “Dune.”
Although one needn’t be particularly religious to spark to these stories, “The Bible” is clearly designed to move those who will derive a spiritual experience from the material. Moreover, Downey (“Touched by an Angel”) and Burnett have been vocal about their faith, thus establishing credibility in those circles, as Mel Gibson did with “The Passion.”
As for History, after striking gold with “Hatfields & McCoys” the channel has a follow-up that appears virtually foolproof — down to scheduling the chapters so that Jesus’ story wraps up on Easter Sunday. (A DVD release, incidentally, will follow in April.)
As television, “The Bible” is a respectable effort. In commercial terms, however, a phrase not actually found in the original text comes to mind — the one about God helping those who help themselves.