Opportunistically picking up where “The Bible” left off on History channel, NBC’s “A.D. The Bible Continues” is strictly more of the same, a thuddingly earnest interpretation of the scriptures from producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, who have virtually copyrighted the book. Preaching to the choir, this continuation of Jesus’ story is populated by fine British actors, but feels less stirring than calculated. That said, the story’s resonance among the faithful — and the perceived dearth of mainstream programming aimed at them — should virtually ensure a more bountiful ratings harvest than anything NBC has scheduled Sundays, except for America’s other religion, football.
“A.D.” opens with what amounts to an extended recap of what happened in “The Bible,” as if the audience needs a refresher course on the crucifixion, Peter (Adam Levy) denying Jesus and whatnot.
The story then dives ahead to the Resurrection, with the Hebrew High Priest Caiaphas (Richard Coyle) trying to hide the bad news from Roman governor Pontius Pilate (Vincent Regan, currently doubling as the King of England Sunday nights on E!’s “The Royals”).
“Why couldn’t this Jesus just stay dead?” Caiaphas wonders, posing a question more than a few nonbelievers have asked over the past couple of millennia.
After that, the pace helpfully quickens over the first two episodes, charting the resistance to the Roman occupiers and appearances by Jesus (Juan Pablo Di Pace) to his understandably shocked disciples. Downey also ceded her role as Mary, Jesus’ mother, to Greta Scacchi, who has little to do but look understandably anguished.
Handsomely mounted and soaringly scored by Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe, what “A.D.” lacks is anything that would distinguish it from earlier screen depictions of this tale, beyond extending the narrative past Jesus’ death to the establishment of Christianity in the face of Roman oppression. In that regard, Burnett and Downey’s personal commitment the text — while designed to be embraced by the faithful — proves somewhat confining dramatically speaking, possessing a paint-by-numbers quality (with frequent use of the color red, for bloody violence).
For all that, in crass commercial terms and even more nebulous ones, “A.D.” feels like a coup for NBC. Not only did the network acquire a proven commodity, given the heavenly ratings “The Bible” generated for History, but being associated with such a project addresses the perception among many Christians — self-servingly stoked, to an extent, by conservative media — that popular culture is hostile toward their faith.
Burnett and Downey have clearly dedicated themselves to bridging that gap, and with “A.D.” premiering mere days after CBS’ “The Dovekeepers,” business is currently very good. As for whether the networks are greenlighting these projects for admirable reasons or in consideration of a more cynical numbers game — recognizing that the U.S. is a majority-Christian nation — the bottom line is that this adjunct to “The Bible” delivers a Sunday fix of old-time religion without even attending church.