It describes fantastical events, yet appears on the History Channel. The characters are household names, yet the cast is full of unknown actors. Critics have queued up to slam it, yet US viewers have flocked to it in their millions.
At least everyone agrees on one thing: a 10-hour mini-series based on the Bible is the most surprising television success of the year in the United States. Defying expectations that a simple retelling of the Bible stories, including depictions of Adam and Eve and Samson and Delilah, would not appeal to a modern television audience, the series has been creating headlines and major ratings figures.
More than 13-million viewers watched the first episode, featuring a cast of actors who are often so good-looking that scenes from the Old Testament can resemble a fashion advertisement. It has consistently come in as the top-rated cable TV programme on Sunday nights, and some reports estimate that a remarkable 50 million people have watched at least part of one of the episodes broadcast so far.
Experts say The Bible is revealing once more that much of mainstream US entertainment – on TV or cinema screens – ignores the vast religious audience. The reviewers and channel executives who have been stunned at the show's popularity were probably the same people who never expected the success of the 2004 Mel Gibson movie The Passion of the Christ, which earned more than $600-million at the box office.
"It is a mainstream subculture that often gets ignored," said Jason Mittell, a media professor at Vermont's Middlebury College. But not by the folks at the History Channel. Indeed, recent statistics show that the channel is making deep inroads into these untapped audiences on the back of The Bible's success. Data from BrandIndex revealed that the channel's positive perception had risen 12 points among both Christians and political conservatives to hit 47 and 43 points respectively.
Just as Gibson did with his film, the producers of The Bible used a vast but frequently ignored network of Christian leaders and churches to spread word about the project. "There is a whole alternative media sphere of Christian blogs and media and broadcasting that can be utilised to generate buzz for something like this," said Mittell. The people behind The Bible even recruited Pastor Rick Warren – head of one of America's most popular mega-churches – to act as an adviser. Just before the show began, Warren sent a message to almost a million followers on Twitter to "watch the world premiere of The Bible … Tell everyone."
The strategy worked, though it has not guaranteed good reviews. Critics panned some graphic scenes – such as Mary's labour giving birth to Jesus – while slamming its apparent squeamishness about sex in others, such as the destruction of the city of Sodom, where little is given away about the sexual behaviour of its citizens. A writer for the Miami Herald said it had "… the pace of a music video, the characterisations of a comicbook and the political correctness quotient of a Berkeley vegetarian commune".
The show has also dragged up several controversies. The actor who plays Satan in some shots seems to bear a strong resemblance to Barack Obama – a phenomenon pointed out on the internet. In response, the producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey – both of them Christians – denied any deliberate message. "False statements such as these are just designed as a foolish distraction to, and discredit, the beauty of the story of The Bible," Downey said. The Hollywood Reporter also revealed that Burnett has been a political donor to Obama.
Other spats have arisen over the lack of prominent non-white characters, aside from Samson. Others have attacked it as a too-literal interpretation of a religious work that many theologians believe was allegory as much as a telling of factual narratives. The Bible has certainly played it straight, recounting Adam and Eve's fall from grace, Noah's flood and the work of angels as straight factual narratives. But there is one problem. Given the nature of the show's source material and the decision to film both Old and New Testaments in one season, it is going to be impossible to do a sequel. – © Guardian News and Media 2013
Video from The History Channel.com