German billboard for The Chosen. “You´ll see him when you´re dead. Or now. The Chosen. The series that changes everything, now on Bible TV.” Photograph taken right here in little ol´ Biburg, near Augsburg.
The Christian streaming series The Chosen has now completed its third season on streaming services, available now on The Chosen App, the Angel Studios website, on YouTube and now on Netflix as well. The series premiered its first two episodes for this season in national theatres back on Thanksgiving Weekend 2022, to great box office numbers. The numbers were so great in fact that the production company released the final two episodes theatrically as well. The series is reaching more people than ever in more languages than ever. As an article in The Economist recently stated:
The show’s success is revealing. It attests to the popularity and profitability of Christian entertainment. It also highlights how film-makers of faith can circumvent Hollywood’s godless gatekeepers.
You can read the whole article here. And it is worth your time and deals with some elements of the series I don´t have space to touch on here. What I am going to touch on will be as spoiler-free as I can keep it while still making my intended points.
Real People, Real Problems, Incarnate God
As The Chosen continues, the familiar New Testament story further unfolds and is integrated with the historical fiction elements that deal with the lives of the disciples and their families. Part of the development of characters and plot that go beyond the biblical narrative is a necessary outgrowth of the form. Series television, even streaming series that produce only eight episodes per season, needs to draw viewers back to the screen every week in order to keep going financially. Though The Chosen does not depend on advertising and subscription revenue the way that broadcast, then cable, now streaming services do, being financed instead by crowdfunding and charitable donations, it still needs to keep those donors interested and invested in the story. Otherwise, they don´t come back and they don´t keep funding the series. Consequently, we have plots involving the family lives and personal struggles of the disciples, the incidental characters and the antagonists of the narrative. All of these are needed to keep the overarching story of The Chosen going. There´s also the fact that most viewers, even in an increasingly biblically-illiterate West, know the general contours of the Jesus story. The drama must come from elsewhere. Will Thomas and Ramah finally get married or are they headed for heartbreak? Will Matthew reconcile with his alienated parents? And what happened with Eden while Simon was away from home on a first-century mission trip? All of these and more sub-plots are developed and addressed in this season. Some viewers have taken umbrage at the non-biblical material being inserted into the story, but frankly, that sort of complaint seems unmerited. Have the people raising this issue read any Jeff Shaara? Larry McMurty? Brock and Boedie Thoene, perhaps? Historical fiction, even Bible-based historical fiction will necessarily have characters and plot elements that deviate in some measure from documented historical events. That´s the nature of the genre. And a part of that deviation from sources that succeeds brilliantly in The Chosen, to my mind, is the way it treats its villains.
Good Villains are Human Villains
The series´ popularity stems not only from an unprecedentedly human treatment of Jesus and his disciples, but from the humanity of its antagonists. The Roman Praetor of Capernaum, Quintus, played by Brandon Potter, has attracted a lot of positive fan attention for his wit, his charm, and the pop culture coincidence that Potter´s voice mannerisms playing the character are reminiscent of a young John De Lancie in the role of “Q” on Star Trek: The Next Generation. The writers, though, are careful not to let us forget that Quintus is a bad guy. He subtly threatens Jesus in Episode 7 of Season 2 (“Reckoning”) by mentioning the imprisonment of his cousin, John the Baptist. In Season 3, Episode 6, when his subordinate, Gaius (played superbly by Kirk B.R. Wollner) asks for clarification of possible orders to deal with civil unrest, Quintus makes the off-hand suggestion “kill Jesus of Nazareth”. True, he quickly rejects his own idea, not out of any love for Jesus or any higher moral sensibility, but because he does not want to spark a revolt. That would make his life as administrator even more difficult. Quintus will not turn Jesus into a martyr. But he does order Gaius to make life difficult if not impossible for the inhabitants of the tent city that has sprung up following Jesus.
And Gaius? He does not do it. He instead helps some of the squatters in Capernaum, warning them what they need to do in order to avoid being prosecuted by other soldiers (under his command, no less) for violations of public order. And he strikes up something approaching a friendship with Simon (not yet Peter). The character development of Gaius this season has been extraordinary. He has moved from being an authority figure, potential threat, who merely has something like an avuncular affection for Matthew to a potential ally, and certainly someone who is moved by and open to Jesus´s message.
Then there is Shmuel the Pharisee (played with remarkable depth by Shaan Sharma). He, like Quintus and Gaius, has been with the series from the beginning. Shmuel was introduced as a student of Nicodemus, but by the end of Season 1, he had turned on his mentor, believing Jesus to be a false prophet. Season 2 saw him continue to seek to prosecute Jesus as a false prophet, but the writers, director and actors did something extraordinarily smart with this character: They showed that his opposition to Jesus was motivated by a concern for the truth. As he learns more about Jesus, and about the politics behind the scenes among the leading rabbis, his concern for the truth …seems to be taking him in another direction. That is perhaps the best cliff-hanger at the end of this season.
Walking on the Water
The season also saw The Chosen bring its first major special effects scene to the screen successfully. This was the event when, after the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus approaches the disciples at night walking on the storm-lashed waters of the inland sea as they were rowing toward Bethsaida. The series brought that moment to life to a degree that was unexpectedly deep and emotionally realistic. The focus on most preaching I´ve heard, most exposition I´ve read is always on the miracle and if anything is said about the disciples, it is that they were cowards or weak in faith because they did not get out of the boat with Simon. In this dramatic treatment, we get a better rationale presented: They are too stunned to move, literally unable to mentally deal with what they are seeing. The subsequent exchange between Jesus and Simon, paralleled with Eden´s conversation with Jairus, is the emotional and dramatic peak of this season, perhaps of the series to date.
This final episode of Season 3 also used a frame narrative that depicted King David and his consort Bathsheba listening to Asaph lead the singers in Psalm 77. This was a stroke of genius. And tying in verses 16-19 with that particular miracle event from Matthew 14 and Mark 6 was more brilliant still, a real “like Father, like Son” moment for Trinitarian theology on screen. Season 4 is scheduled to start filming this spring. Pray for continued good work from Dallas Jenkins´s writing team, the actors and the whole crew, as well as for the Holy Spirit to inform and bless the series as it has been blessed thus far.
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