The most watched crowd-funded show in internet history is about the life of Jesus. That’s pretty cool. Even better news is that the show is compelling and well-made.
The show is called The Chosen. Show creator Dallas Jenkins and his team are planning seven seasons in all. Seasons One and Two are completed and can be viewed for free by anyone online. Season Three is nearly funded.
I’ve watched Season One, which runs eight episodes, and covers the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Episodes vary in length from about 35 to 55 minutes. Hoping that all seven seasons get made, The Chosen would run about 42 hours in total length, which is obviously a much more extensive retelling of Jesus’ life than has been attempted on film thus far.
This gives The Chosen a different dynamic that the typical book-to-movie adaptation. We’re used to seeing 300-page novels pared down to two-hour movies, which almost invariably leads to fans of the book complaining that the movie is not as good. In this case, the creators of The Chosen are filling in some of the details hinted at by the gospels.
I’ve described The Chosen as telling the life of Jesus, but it would be more accurate to describe it as the story of people – Peter, Matthew, Mary Magdalene, Nicodemus – whose lives are turned upside down by Jesus. The Chosen is most successful in portraying the messiness of its characters very different lives, and then showing how they are transformed by their encounters with Jesus.
The characters’ back stories are speculative in nature. We know from his gospel that Matthew was a tax collector, and we can presume he was publicly ostracized. His relationship with Peter and Andrew before they followed Jesus, and his interactions with the Roman authorities, are the filmmaker’s inventions, but are reasonable based on what we know from the Bible and more broadly from the history of those times. Likewise, Saint Luke’s gospel tells us that Peter said to Jesus, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man,” after the miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5:8). The Chosen gives us the context for Peter’s remark, and it makes for a more compelling movie to see the events that build up to Peter’s conversion.
The first two episodes of Season One largely introduce the main characters aside from Jesus, who appears on screen briefly but powerfully. The third episode introduces Jesus more fully, as he teaches a group of children. The remaining episodes build up to familiar scenes from the Bible – the calling of Peter, the wedding at Cana, the healing of the paralytic (the man whose friends lower him through the roof), the meeting with Nicodemus at night, and finally, the encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.
One the challenges of historical drama (or science fiction, for that matter) is making it believable. Set design is critical – we’ve all seen Biblical dramas that are obviously a handful of props and actors in funny costumes on a sound stage. The Chosen looks real. You believe you’re watching people in first century Israel, and that’s no small feat. The camera work is often handheld, giving the movie the feel of a documentary.
The dialogue is likewise hard to pull off. There’s a tendency for the dialogue in Biblical dramas to sound like written speeches rather than actual, improvised human speech. The Chosen avoids this problem too. In scenes like Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus or the Samaritan woman, this results in additional dialogue above and beyond what’s in the gospel accounts. Some might object, but there’s nothing that impacts the substance of the scenes, and the scenes feel like real conversations between real people, rather than actors reciting lines from a text.
The performances are strong. Shahar Isaac is a good Peter – you can see his leadership qualities as well as his brashness. He begins as a man who can talk his way out of any situation (or at least he thinks he can). Paras Patel’s Matthew is very perceptive and always seems to feel like a fish out of water. He never seems to know what to with his hands at any given moment. Erick Avari is great as Nicodemus, a successful man whose certainties begin to unravel. (What a contrast though, between the questioning Nicodemus and the other Pharisees). Lara Silva is also very good as a character only alluded to in the gospels – Peter’s wife.
Then there is Jonathan Roumie as Jesus. True god and true man, Jesus is a difficult character to play. Emphasize His divinity, and you run the risk of making Jesus aloof or unknowable. Emphasize His humanity, and you run the risk of making Him ordinary, just a good guy. The Chosen puts its emphasis on Jesus’ humanity, which I think is the better choice. Here’s why: Jesus’ divinity will naturally be revealed through His healings, His miracles, even His wise, unearthly teachings. Showing His humanity is a reminder that He is also true man, that He knows what we’re feeling because He has felt it too, that He is someone we can relate to and talk to and have a personal relationship with.
G.K. Chesterton, I believe at the end of Orthodoxy, comments that the one side of Jesus the gospels don’t reveal, but that we will see in Heaven, is his sense of humor. A good example of how The Chosen shows Jesus’ human side is in His sense of humor. Two examples:
- In the second episode, Jesus joins Mary Magdalene and some friends for a Sabbath dinner. Someone asks where He’s from, and He says “Nazareth.” Another man promptly says, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” and everyone but Jesus goes silent, with mortified looks on their faces. Jesus smiles and winks at the man who just insulted Him.
- At the wedding at Cana, before the miracle, Simon is giving his brother Andrew a hard time because of his utter lack of dancing skills. After the miracle, everyone is out on the dance floor, even Andrew. Simon says to Jesus, “You turned water into wine, could you make my brother a good dancer?” Jesus replies, “There are some miracles even I can’t do.”
Above all, Roumie shows the love and compassion Jesus has for each and every person He meets. Here we see the divine love of Jesus elevating human nature to its loftiest heights.
You can watch The Chosen for free at https://watch.angelstudios.com/thechosen.