Fox deserved considerable credit for invigorating the live-musical form that NBC has championed with its production of “Grease Live,” but the network hit the skids with “The Passion,” a project that seemed to pander on multiple levels. Beyond catering to Christians who often lament a lack of fare aimed at them on mainstream TV – albeit in the most Sunday-school-lite of ways – the rock songs and contemporary setting sought to package scripture for the “American Idol” crowd. Throw in the procession involving an illuminated 20-foot cross, and cursing the darkness felt preferable to watching for a full two hours.
For starters, “The Passion” was only partly live, with portions of the narrative involving Jesus (Jencarlos Canela) and his disciples taped in advance. What remained thus played more like a live concert – and incidentally, an ode to the resilience of New Orleans – than a coherent telling of Jesus’ story.
The producers sought to address those shortcomings – indeed, clearly anticipated them – through Tyler Perry’s ongoing narration, which beyond filling in gaps gave the impression that he was auditioning to run his own mega-church. But while Perry gave the assignment his all, what emerged was at times oddly sterile, such as the images of people in the live audience staring up at screens, watching Canela and others belt out pop tunes.
Charitably, one could call this a noble experiment. The performances were fine, if seldom especially stirring. With a few exceptions, there was a logic to most of the songs, although it will take a more informed biblical scholar than this one to find the connection between Jesus and the theme from “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome.”
Other flourishes, however, were simply head-scratching, perhaps foremost among them the decision to have entertainment reporter Nischelle Turner conduct man-on-the-street interviews with those accompanying the procession, as if there isn’t enough heft to the Greatest Story Ever Told to flesh out a couple of hours sans commercials. For all the people on hand who were having an emotional experience, there were also some awkward unintended moments, like a woman cheerfully waving as the camera panned the audience while Perry somberly explained the horrors of crucifixion.
The irony is that Jesus’ story has been wedded to contemporary music before, not the least being Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Whatever controversies that rock musical engendered among the faithful – and there were many – its hit-filled score surely would have been an improvement over this “Idol”-ized version of Jesus’ final days, if only to hear Jesus sing “Gethsemane,” or let Judas wail “Blood Money” as opposed to Chris Daughtry’s powerful but somewhat puzzling rendition of “Bring Me to Life.”
Hollywood is often accused of being tone-deaf when it comes to issues of spirituality and religion, and “The Passion” painstakingly sought to be respectful, down to Perry’s disclaimers aimed at non-believers. Admittedly, many of the media types obliged to watch aren’t the target audience for such an endeavor. Divorcing the religion from the content, though, just sitting through this hybrid telecast until the saints went marching out was its own kind of cross to bear.