This is the second of Jolly’s two part review of “The Bible,” a series on The History Channel. You can read the first part here.
I’m on the coast, so for me, the “Mad Men” premiere began at nine. At 9:01, the thread on my favorite forum began to fill with breathless exclamations: “ITS STARTING,” “here we go…” By 11 the posts had metastasized into position papers. Predictions for the next episode, and the arc of the season as a whole, began to multiply. By 11:15, the first torrents were already up. From here until the end of the season, and probably for a month or two past that, there will be no discourse on television that is not also, necessarily, discourse on “Mad Men.” The show, now in its sixth season, has an effortless mystique. Sunday’s episode, for instance, opens on a heart attack – as shot from the first person. Cut. We hear the sound of waves. A woman’s stomach, tanned and oiled, fades in. Then, our hero’s voice. “Midway in our life’s journey,” he says, “I went astray from the straight road, and woke to find myself alone – in a dark wood.” Don Draper reads Dante.
One week earlier, on Easter, the final episode of History Channel’s “The Bible” depicted Pontius Pilate receiving a massage, similarly oiled, albeit with less titillating effect. In a lit doorway behind him stood his stricken wife. She asked how Pilate could allow Christ to be murdered so cruelly. “He’ll be forgotten in a week,” sneered the Roman. His wife, a character built out of a single sentence in Matthew, shook with emotion – but the nature of it has faded, for me, with the intervening time. Was she hurt? Frightened? Scandalized? My notes assure me she conveyed something – I even put a star beside “Pilate’s wife,” the universal symbol of quality when it is spotted in the wild. But it has been more than a week since “The Bible” ended, and my memory is silent.
I have an editorial suggestion for Mr. Burnett, the show’s producer, if he should ever revisit this miniseries. Pilate’s line here should be: “We’ll be forgotten in a week,” not “he’ll be forgotten.” The original gag is – let’s face it – low hanging fruit. And, in the end, will anyone remember the slow motion sequence of Pilate engaged in gladiatorial combat during the penultimate episode of “The Bible”? Who will recall that the ministry of Jesus was “improved” in this adaptation by the addition of a twitchy, tefillin-sporting Pharisee? What Mark Burnett and company have done in this series is extraordinary, and it deserves a monument. “The Bible” transforms some of most enduring and memorable stories in human history into ten hours of perfectly disposable television.
“The Bible,” as I have said before, has built its style out of pop-culture’s sweating refuse. It has, of course, other flaws: flat performances, uninspired direction, laughable special effects and costumes. These flaws, however, are only illuminated by its occasional flashes of promise. Diogo Morgado, the Portugese actor playing “The Bible’s” adult Jesus, is present for nearly all of them.
Morgado is an odd duck. His preaching sounds like an earnest block of some undergraduate speech class and his howls of pain like Nicholas Cage in “The Wicker Man” remake. In the penultimate episode, as he tearfully redeemed Matthew the tax collector, I announced to my watching party that I wished the Romans would hurry up and crucify him. Nevertheless, when Morgado shuts up and the camera provides him with a proven composition, his bone structure discloses a spark of the divine. Morgado was obviously cast for his looks, which are as innocent and symmetrical as the Christ on a gas station candle. Occasionally, “The Bible” will exploit this image, as it does just following the crucifixion. Christ is lowered, bloody, to the dust of Golgotha. Time slows to a crawl. The music rises. We see Mary, with tears in her eyes, cradling the broken body of her son. The composition is a barely animated, exquisitely posed pieta, painted with human bodies. Jesus’ walk across the water is similarly effective, although for opposite reasons. In this scene, Morgado is made into a ghost, obscured by fog and rain. His image tantalizes: perfect but obscured. There is power in the image, of course, both when it is given freely and when it is withheld. The construction of “The Bible” is such that these flashes – which seem like accidents – stand as the only powerful moments in the piece.
This is evident in “The Bible’s” biggest controversy: the perceived resemblance, pointed out by Glenn Beck and others, between Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni’s Satan and president Barrack Obama. While I don’t see the comparison personally, the idea of this Satan as a locus for discussion and association makes perfect sense to me. “The Bible’s” Satan, aside from a regrettably required bit of dialogue during his temptation, is a silent figure. He exists only in patterns of light and shadow, expression and costume, and like Morgado’s Christ in his best moments, “The Bible’s” Satan transcends the central flaw of the production.
To pick at performances or lazy shots is to treat “The Bible’s” symptoms but not its disease. The most glaring problem here, the problem which trivializes the series as a whole, is the narrator. In “The Bible,” every scene, every story and every sequence exists beneath the authoritative twang of a voice which is eager to remind us that “Passover is the biggest Jewish festival of the year,” or that John his hard at work on “the last book of the Bible – Revelation.” When an episode begins, it is this voice which says “Last time – on the Bible.” When an episode ends, it is this voice, more often than not, which helpfully informs us what we have just watched and what we will watch next. This relentless exposition is toxic. It throttles interpretation, freezes thought, decapitates mystique – and its work is not limited to one mouth alone. After a few episodes, the viewer realizes there are no characters in “The Bible,” really, just new voices for the narrator to direct us with. Satan, at least, was spared the worst of it. Viewers were free to interpret him as they wished because he was one of the few elements of this disaster which was consistent enough to invite interpretation.
“The Bible” takes a fearful approach to its source material. That fear makes it stupid. That fear makes it patronizing. Erich Auerbach, in his Mimesis, observes that where Homer treats every element of “The Odyssey” as worthy of exhaustive, ambiguity-killing detail, the stories of the biblical text thrive on obfuscation. When Euriclea sees her master’s scar, Homer gives a description of its shape, the circumstances of its creation and provides full accounting of Odysseus’ motivations. When God demands a son of Abraham, we do not hear his thoughts on the matter. When “Abraham rose up early in the morning, and saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and Isaac his son,” traveling for Moriah, the heartbreak we perceive is our own. The words do not lead us to it. For Auerbach, this was the central achievement of biblical storytelling: meaningful omissions and lacunae, “story” as the seed of excited, growing interpretations. The fear at the center of “The Bible,” and I believe it to be a political one, is that any opaqueness or ambiguity may be read as inflammatory. This is, after all, a controversial text, and the series has been designed for wide appeal. Thus, the steady drip, from every on-screen throat, of even, unquestionable narration. At all times the viewer is made plainly aware of where the story began, where it is now and where it’s going. Everything is justified. When the show claims to do justice “to the spirt of the book,” it is lying. It’s goal, apparent in every frame, is to produce a work which makes no claims, provokes no controversy and distracts from its own vacuity with borrowed spectacle. Even “The Bible’s” interpretive choices fail to engage because they are products of an undisguised and vulgar method. Everything about this production exists in order to make the unsettled and controversial into something safe and settled. It succeeds. That’s all that needs be said.
What we are left with, as viewers, is something of an empty sign. “The Bible,” pulled down 11.7 million viewers on Easter Sunday, as many as AMC’s “The Walking Dead” (another show about bodily resurrection in a competing time slot.) These ratings mean something: they’re large enough to warrant imitation. There will be future biblical projects. Maybe some of them will be good. Nevertheless, “The Bible” will be forgotten. It is too craven to warrant record.
In the end, this series was a stone tossed into clear water. There was a splash, a gulp and then it fell away – out of sight – lost to depth and darkness. Its ripples will be with us for a while, I think, but the stone itself is just another piece of the sediment, haunting the river bottom alongside Psalty’s Songs for Lil’ Praisers, The Donut Repair Club and whoever played Bibleman after Willy Ames.
I am finishing this review at two o’clock in the morning, and the night is clear and cold. Since I sat down to write, 50 new posts have been made about “Mad Men’s” season premiere on the Something Awful forums. There is no thread to discuss “The Bible.”
Why would there be?
Don Jolly is an artist and academic living in New York City. His work is meticulously catalogued at www.donjolly.com.