CNN is still finding its way with original series, testing the parameters of what feels organic and acceptable on a network that airs news, or something like it, much of the day. While the guidelines are clearly in flux (and chief Jeff Zucker has even expressed an openness to scripted fare), as it currently stands “Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, Forgery” represents an overreach, a six-part series that looks more suitable for Discovery or History. Rooted in history and theology, the program’s liberal use of dramatic re-enactments and musical scoring is simply too jarring an extension of the core brand.
In crass commercial terms, it’s not hard to see why CNN would be attracted to the project, which it will schedule weekly leading up to its conclusion on Easter Sunday. Moreover, this exploration of religious themes not only has the potential to reach a wide audience, but caters to a more conservative crowd that tends to gravitate toward another cable news channel.
Nevertheless, there’s something uncomfortable about seeing an actor playing Jesus being nailed to the cross on CNN, even if there are theologians and scholars providing commentary over the swelling music and the sound of hammering. While that might seem like hair-splitting, there are plenty of other ways to provide the same visual cues, given the availability of art and movie clips (thank you, Mel Gibson) covering the same material.
“Finding Jesus” begins with the Shroud of Turin, the ancient cloth reputed to have been used to wrap Jesus’ body. “The most famous man ever to live left no physical trace. Or did he?” the narrator asks near the outset.
Despite all that’s been reported about the Shroud (including debate over carbon dating conducted in 1988 to determine its age), it’s pretty clear that the program is less concerned with ascertaining whether the artifact is fake than it is with simply keeping an audience that hasn’t read much about it in suspense for as long as possible. Along the way, viewers are treated to what amounts to a Sunday-school recap, courtesy of the various talking heads, regarding what the Bible doesn’t tell us about Jesus and the horrors of crucifixion.
Produced by Nutopia, “Finding Jesus” is slickly produced and might contain a few educational tidbits. But whatever value the program possesses on that level — as well as its potential to help launch a new in-house series, “The Wonder List With Bill Weir” — is offset by how it pulls CNN beyond its existing adventures in series toward something much closer to entertainment than news.
Of course, CNN has been quick to refute news purists, saying it can continue to accommodate its primary mission while broadening its profile to counter the vagaries of being utterly dependent on the news cycle.
There is, admittedly, some logic in that argument, as well as the fact that other channels probably wouldn’t be chided for airing a program like “Finding Jesus.” But as long as CNN still significantly represents what those three letters originally stood for, being true to its original calling is the network’s cross to bear.