The premiere of “The Bible” on the History Channel the biggest cable hit of the year so far. It pulled in a surprising 13.1 million viewers. Those are better numbers than even the major networks’ lineup last week. The 10 hour miniseries aired its second episode on Sunday and we’re waiting to see if the ratings will hold.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised at its ratings success. After all, “The Bible” is the brainchild of Mark Burnett whose past successes included “Survivor,” “The Apprentice,” “The Voice” and “Shark Tank.” He appears to knows what people want and apparently they want a relatively lavish recap of some of the narrative highlights of the Bible.
Among the highlights in just the first two hours, we get the stories of Noah’s Ark, Abraham’s directive from God, the destruction of Sodom and Gommorah, Lot’s wife turning into a pillar of salt, Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac. Four hundred years later, we see Moses leading his people out of Egyptian slavery following all those plagues of locusts and the like, and the parting of the Red Sea, and climaxing with the 10 Commandments on the top of Mount Sinai.
Packing that much in proves to be a blessing and a curse.
It’s a blessing in that no story goes on so long that one gets impatient or bored with what’s happening. It’s not exactly a highlight reel but that’s a lot of action to cover in a mere two hours.
Speaking of action, there’s plenty of fighting. Abraham’s people may be following the word of God but that word of God justifies a lot of swordplay and hand to hand combat. These were primitive times, after all.
The downside to all this rushing around is that no story is given enough dramatic weight to register emotionally with the audience. There’s so much ground to cover, no character is given any psychological weight whatsoever. The dialogue is almost strictly designed to move the story along rather than provide insight into the people who are speaking.
Abraham, for instance, uproots his entire life because he hears God tell him to do so. And yet he does so with such unswerving conviction that it doesn’t feel human. Whether he struggled at all with his decision, or whether his followers did, is not addressed because time’s a-wasting. His sacrifice of Isaac allows for a little more emotional resonance but the extremity of Abraham’s decision again seems, at best, under-examined.
In Mark Burnett’s defense, the Bible itself doesn’t dwell on the dramatics of these stories either, but then the Bible has a higher goal.
Burnett may want to convert the world (he and his wife Roma Downey are avid Christians) but I think his first order of business is to entertain us with dramatically powerful or moving stories.
Whatever dramatics the series has to offer come more in the shape of special effects than character development.
The parting of the Red Sea is a smart use of CGI, as is the bloody-ing of the river the Pharoah swims in. The plagues were a bit underwhelming, to be frank, and the series doesn’t even try to give us a Garden of Eden or Moses’ burning bush.
Overall, I appreciated “The Bible” as a kind of refresher course. If you always had trouble remembering the proper Biblical timeline – when exactly did Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, and was it before or after Samson met Delilah, and we all know David slew Goliath but when and why?
Watch all 10 hours of “The Bible” and you’ll be able to answer all those questions and many more. Whether it will make you a better Christian if you already are one, or better understand Christians if you’re not, is a harder question to answer. But my guess is only a little.