July 17, 2020

Looking for a spiritual lift? ‘Choose’ this TV series

Pictured is a scene from “The Chosen,” the first-ever multi-season show on the life of Christ. (Photo courtesy of VidAngel Studios)

Pictured is a scene from “The Chosen,” the first-ever multi-season show on the life of Christ. (Photo courtesy of VidAngel Studios)

By Ann Margaret Lewis

During the primary months of the COVID-19 shutdown, many of us suddenly had time to catch up on our favorite shows. I personally binge-watched as many Jane Austin/Dickens-type costume dramas as I could. But as Easter grew closer, I wanted to view something more spiritually edifying.

By chance, my Facebook timeline served up an ad for the first-ever multi-season show on the life of Christ called “The Chosen.” First launched in December of 2019 and independently produced by evangelical filmmaker and director Dallas Jenkins, it is hosted on the VidAngel streaming service and offered free through a downloadable phone application (app) that can be cast onto a smart television.

Initially, I was dubious, as most Christian productions I’ve encountered lacked depth and production value. But after seeing some clips, I decided to give it 10 minutes of my time.

I downloaded the app to watch, and that 10 minutes turned into an hour, which then turned into binge-watching the entire eight episodes non-stop. I was hooked and excited for a second season, which is now gearing up to go back into production.

As of this writing, I find that the series has been viewed 41 million times and climbing. Likely this is due to viewers watching it more than once. Before the end of Easter week, I personally had watched through the series three times to find all the details I’d missed the first time.

So, what makes this series so watchable?

Writing: This series is expertly written with punchy, sometimes even humorous, dialogue that flows easily, and a complex storytelling structure and pacing that keep viewers engaged. Interweaving storylines all lead to a strong season conclusion.

Jenkins also assembled a team of faith-centered consultants, including a Catholic priest, to give feedback. The content is therefore respectful of most, if not all, Christian faith traditions.

It is not a literal rendering of Scripture, though, but a work of biblical fiction that extrapolates plausible situations from what we know from Scripture. It does not deviate from the Bible, but creates a “universe” in which biblical events occur and change the lives of the people involved.

Characterization: Unlike most Christ-centric films, including the acclaimed Zeffirelli mini-series “Jesus of Nazareth,” each character in “The Chosen” is unique.

These first eight episodes highlight select characters, namely Mary Magdalene, Simon Peter, Matthew and Nicodemus.

But other characters, even minor ones—some mentioned in the Bible, some not—stand out in their own way, including Andrew, James the Greater, James the Lesser, Thaddeus, Thomas and John; the Romans Quintus and Gaius; Zebedee and his wife and the denizens of what is called “the Red Quarter” of Capernaum.

Jesus himself is featured in the third episode interacting with local children, where we see his humanity along with flickers of his divinity, not so much in what he says, but in how he reacts. The Blessed Mother is also wonderfully portrayed, especially when we reach the wedding feast at Cana. (I will not spoil it for you).

Acting: The most recognizable actor in the show is Erick Avari (Stargate, Independence Day, The Mummy), who plays Nicodemus. While the name might not be familiar, his face is well-known as a solid Hollywood character actor, and his performance here is outstanding. He literally made me weep for his character multiple times.

Jonathan Roumie, who plays Jesus, is also a standout. His warmth and gentle manliness combined with subtle hints of divinity make you want to follow him—as he should. Roumie has also appeared as Jesus in the one-woman touring show of St. Faustina, so he might appear familiar to some. He is also an on-fire Catholic who leads the rosary and Divine Mercy chaplet both on Facebook Live and Instagram for his many virtual followers.

Other outstanding performances are those of Paras Patel as a quirky (possibly on the autism spectrum) Matthew, Shahar Isaac as a passionate, strong-willed Simon Peter, and Elizabeth Tabish as a particularly sensitive Mary Magdalene.

Production value: This show is the number one crowd-funded project of all time at $10 million. Therefore, the budget for each of the eight episodes is a bit more than $1 million each. It shows. The costumes, locations, set design and special effects are all top-notch.

Of special note is the “miracle of the fish,” a digital effect that looks spectacular, and the soundtrack which has a modern bluesy feel. (Believe it or not, it works.)

The only production element I’ve heard criticized is the opening credit sequence, which I found compelling, being reminiscent of the credit sequences designed by Hollywood legend Saul Bass (North by Northwest, Vertigo).

Funding: It’s odd to mention funding in a review, but as I noted before, this was the world’s most successful crowdfunding project, and the first four episodes of its second season have already been funded this same way.

While the series is provided free on its phone app, viewers have the option of “paying it forward” as a gift to others, something that appeals to a Christian ethos. In other words, if you like the series, they encourage you to contribute to its further production by sharing it with a friend.

By doing this, Jenkins and his crew have made a complete end-run around the Hollywood system, ensuring his production remains free of tinsel-town marketing constraints. Brilliant.

This is a great series to watch if you can. It is available in 50 languages—so far. The first eight episodes were shared on YouTube during Holy Week and Easter and, as of this printing, at least the first episode is still on its YouTube channel.

Meanwhile, “The Chosen” app is available through the Apple Store or Google Play, and is consistently ranked in the top 50 entertainment apps on IOS and Android. You can also watch it online at VidAngel.com or TheChosen.tv.

If you don’t have a computer or smart phone or access to the VidAngel streaming service, you can purchase the DVD through the TheChosen.tv website. It’s well worth the cost, and you’ll be contributing to future episodes by doing so.

Binge away!

(Ann Margaret Lewis is executive assistant in the archdiocesan Office of Communications and the author of several books. E-mail her at alewis@archindy.org.)​

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