A Long Way to Go, by Bob Connally

9 Feb

The first episode of VidAngel’s biblical television series The Chosen is a mostly dull approximation of a cable prestige drama. To the show’s credit, there is an attempt at production value but it doesn’t do much to draw us in over its first hour.

Set thirty years after the birth of Christ, the pilot episode focuses primarily on three characters; Nicodemus (Erick Avari, The Mummy), Simon Peter (Shahar Isaac), and Mary Magdalene (Elizabeth Tabish). Matthew (Paras Patel) is introduced, but he’s a more minor character, at least for now. Nicodemus is struggling with questions while his wife scolds him for not having answers. Meanwhile, he has to deal with pressure from Roman soldiers, who are treated as almost cartoonishly menacing. Simon Peter has his own struggles both as an unsuccessful fisherman and in dealing with his brothers-in-law. Mary Magdalene for her part is afflicted and can’t get help from seemingly anyone, even Nicodemus. None of them know it yet, but their lives are soon to be changed forever by one man.

Created by Dallas Jenkins (The Resurrection of Gavin Stone), The Chosen has the distinction of evidently being the top crowdfunded film or television project ever, with more than $10 million raised before one episode had been seen. “The vast audience for high-quality, faith-based entertainment — all too often overlooked and underserved by Hollywood — made a loud and unmistakable statement that they’re so eager for content that resonates, they are willing to fund it into existence,” stated executive producer Matthew Faraci. While it’s not terribly fair to judge how good a series is based purely on a first episode, the pilot at least is not of remarkably “high-quality.” The writing is notable for its anachronistic dialogue, sounding more modern than the typical biblical production. This approach feels odd and takes you out of the show a bit, but in its way it is also refreshing and I would imagine that one would get used to it as the series progresses. I suspect this choice was made with the idea that this would help modern audiences to connect with the characters more and it’s not a bad instinct. Unfortunately, the writing – while not George Lucas prequel level embarrassing – is still not particularly engaging and is flat more often than not.

The cast for its part is pretty solid. Avari is an old pro with decades of experience, and he elevates the writing as best he can. Isaac gets saddled with probably the most awkwardly written scenes but he has an inherent likability that keeps them at least a little bit afloat, while Tabish’s Mary Magdalene sets up to be the most interesting and complex character moving forward, at least from a purely television storytelling perspective. Patel’s Matthew is not developed much here, his future not even really hinted at.

Jenkins’ hope is that The Chosen will be able to run for 7 seasons, with its first 8-episode season in the books and available to watch online. It is certainly ambitious and it’s going to require a fervent fan following if the show is to remain a crowdfunded enterprise. Based on its opening hour, The Chosen has decent if not spectacular production values and a good cast, but will need to sharpen its writing if it is to become the high-quality series Faraci proclaims it to be. So far it has not established itself as anything truly special worthy of a seven season run. While it might seem unfair to compare it to great drama series of recent years, such as Mad Men or The Americans, this is the field The Chosen wants to play on. In those terms, it has a long, long way to go.

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