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The world could use more Jesus. But can it use more of Him on television?
Depictions of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection have been a mainstay on both big and small screens since we’ve had screens to watch. His story’s been told and told and told some more, and a cynic might doubt whether another such retelling can possibly bring anything new to the party.
VidAngel has two words for that cynic: Wanna bet?
The Chosen is the product of two up-to-the-minute trends: Streaming networks and crowdfunding.
VidAngel, the entertainment content-filtering service that’s endured a litany of lawsuits to shut its business down, is now trying to become a very family-friendly version of Netflix—filled with its own stable of original programming. But to create The Chosen, VidAngel’s first scripted show (it also has televised a series of stand-up acts called Dry Bar Comedy), the fledgling streaming network has turned to its would-be fans for funding.
But rather than offer the usual perks of crowdfunded entertainment—everything from keychains to dinner with the cast—VidAngel offered them a share of the show itself. Officials from VidAngel say they won’t take a dime until the investors make their money back plus 20%. Now, more than $10 million in investments later (the largest amount ever raised by a would-be crowdfunded TV program), VidAngel has its show.
Because (presumably) the show is dependent on fans and investors financially supporting the thing, The Chosen’s distribution model is a bit different, too. After releasing the episodes in 2019, it opened up the entire first season to viewing the following year, during the coronavirus epidemic, via its app. And while the shows are technically, at this point, “free,” that’s not completely true. Director Dallas Jenkins reminds viewers that each stream of an episode actually costs money, and so they’re relying on donations from viewers to pay the whole thing forward. All while raising cash for subsequent seasons, as well.
But if the show’s inception and distribution have been a little bit divergent, the show itself offers some new wrinkles, as well.
VidAngel hopes The Chosen will be a “multi-season series about the life of Christ,” which might strike some as a challenge: Movies that follow a given Gospel word-for-word run long, but there’s not enough in the text to stretch the story out for a Game of Thrones-like run.
So the show’s producers have shifted away from strict fidelity to the text and into a more imaginative, extrapolated, extra-biblical narrative. It’s fiction, in other words¬—fiction that was inspired by and embraces Scripture, but fiction that nonetheless feels free to remove and (mostly) add elements as the story—not theology—demands.
The show’s makers, led by The Resurrection of Gavin Stone director Dallas Jenkins, clearly wanted this story to be a cut above your typical Christian passion play. They seem to be gunning for The Chosen almost to be a biblical Breaking Bad.
I mean that in the best of ways, incidentally. For viewers who approach Christian entertainment with a jaundiced eye, The Chosen gives us something different: a gritty, grimy, problematic Palestine filled with the unwashed and impure, giving the production a flavor of authenticity.
The episodes thus far hone tightly in on its ancillary characters—infusing them with dimension the Gospels just didn’t have time to give. Their lives don’t begin with the coming of Jesus: Fishers Peter and Matthew struggle with the Sabbath and fight to keep their boat out of hock. Pharisee Nicodemus tries to shove away his own spiritual doubts to more effectively lead his people. Prim tax-collector Matthew dabs his wrists with perfume to hide the stench of the streets. Jenkins and Co. have made the brave and, I think, smart move to dole out Jesus over time—to let these very real subplots begin to emerge before these characters’ realities are completely upended.
The result? A show that’s more show than sermon, one that feels strangely taut and engrossing—even for those of us who know its ultimate end.
But naturally, The Chosen comes with caveats.
Again, the world given to us here isn’t the sanctified version we see in stained glass or many a movie about Jesus. While the content isn’t gratuitous, exactly, people step in dung, long to get drunk and engage in fistfights. Characters get hurt and sometimes die. The streets of Palestine can practically reek of sin. It all feels germane: Jesus came to save such a world as this, after all. But it can be a bit graphic.
The ambitions of The Chosen require a great deal of poetic license, shall we say—again, a work of fiction in service of this age-old tale.
But for TV fans spoiled by today’s rich, complex television landscape but tired of its salaciousness; for viewers who love Jesus (or who just want to know more about Him) but are turned off by what they might see as shallow, saccharine piety; The Chosen might just scratch an itch they never even knew they had.
As Jesus begins His ministry in earnest, He and His disciples leave Capernaum and head (much to His students’ shock) to Samaria, where Jesus meets with a woman at a well.
The episode begins nearly 2,000 years earlier, with a guy named Jacob digging that very well (even though a passer-by says there’s no way that they’ll ever get any water from this rough, dry land). Jacob talks to the stranger about his mysterious God, whom he calls El Shaddai, and admits that God broke his hip. The passer-by doesn’t know why anyone would choose to follow invisible gods that break hips.
“We didn’t choose Him,” Jacob says. “He chose us.”
We hear Jesus (obviously) talk about a number of spiritual matters, too. But we also see a sliver of a backstory from the woman before she heads to the well: She tries to exact a divorce from her husband, a document he throws in the fire. “You are my property, Fatima,” he says. “I don’t part lightly from my possessions.” He says this even though, when she first arrives at his house, he wished she was “a thief or a murderer to put me out of my misery.” He calls her latest conquest the “latest shade of drooling tomcat.” And at the market, vendors won’t even turn to face her.
Passing Pharisees are equally shocked by Jesus when they see Him dining with Matthew (a tax collector) and “sinners” from Capernaum’s notorious red quarter. “I have come to call not the righteous, but the sinners,” Jesus tells them, but they seem unimpressed. Another Pharisee introduces an effort to ferret out false prophets—inspired by the eerie way Jesus read his mind in an earlier episode.
“It’s about politics and promotion,” Nicodemus sniffs.
“On the contrary, teacher, it’s about the law,” the Pharisee says. “And the law is God.”
Simon says goodbye to his wife with a sweet kiss. We hear about acts of violent perpetrated by both Jews and Samaritans against one another. Jesus tells the woman at the well something of her checkered past, including that her second husband’s skin “smelled of oranges” on their wedding night. The disciples fret about possible violence as they head through Samaria. A Roman praetor suggests to his Capernaum adjunct that they step up official brutality to teach the Jewish citizens a lesson. “What use are mounted officers if the people have never seen anyone trampled?” he asks.
Jesus meets with the Pharisee Nicodemus on a rooftop, where Jesus makes some startling revelations. And Matthew, the tax collector, makes a startling decision.
The episode begins with a thousand-year flashback, with Moses crafting a bronze snake that the Israelites can look upon and be saved. Joshua takes issue with the act: “That is a pagan symbol,” he says. “Maybe you misunderstood [God].” Moses responds that he’s learned, painfully, to do what God tells him to do without questioning Him. “It’s an act of faith!” he says. “Not reason. Faith.”
Jesus calls Nicodemus’ attention to that story: Just like that snake, “So the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever believes in Him may have eternal life.” We hear references to a case of demon possession that Nicodemus and Jesus both encountered (the latter more successfully than the former). We hear that Nicodemus wants to stay in Capernaum to continue his “research” at the expense of missing his newest grandson’s bris (circumcision) ceremony.
Word is beginning to leak out that Jesus is not just an ordinary craftsman. As He and his disciples travel back to Capernaum, they find—and Jesus cures—a leper on the way. When they arrive back in the city, a crowd quickly gathers around the house where He’s preaching, forcing the friends of a paralytic man in need of a miracle to lower the man through the roof.
The Pharisee Nicodemus is among those who see the miracle, along with his less-accepting pupil, now a powerful Pharisee in his own right. Beforehand, Nicodemus tried to encourage his one-time student to keep his eyes and mind open for what God might be doing in the here and now, not just in the time when the Torah was being written. “I don’t want to live in some bleak past where God cannot to anything new,” Nicodemus says. “Do you?”
We hear a few parables from Jesus and see, of course, a couple of miracles. We witness the leper’s disfiguring wounds disappear. He forgives the paralytic his sins and tells His audience that people need not use big words while in prayer: “A lot of it is for show, anyway,” He says. Peter cares for a sick woman staying with his family, softly singing to her as he wipes her brow. (In an earlier episode, we learned the woman was coughing up blood.) Someone jokes with Jesus, telling the teacher that he heard about His trick with the wine at the wedding. “Can you do that do the well by my house?”
Jesus and His small band of followers go to Cana to celebrate the wedding of a family friend. But things go awry when the wine runs out. Meanwhile, the rabbi Nicodemus questions the newly imprisoned John the Baptist to see what he might know about the strange exorcism that took place some time ago—an exorcism that would appear to be a miracle.
John and Nicodemus clearly don’t like each other much. John calls the Pharisee out on the extravagance of his “frock,” while Nicodemus accuses John of blasphemy—misquoting Scripture (Nicodemus believes) to suggest that God would have a son. “God does not have a son except for Israel!” Nicodemus says. John holds his ground, though. “Some will not want to waken,” the discomforting prophet says. “They’re in love with the dark. I wonder which one you’ll be?”
Alcohol is obviously a big part of the wedding celebration—and indeed central to the miracle that takes place at the end of the episode. We see people drink wine, discuss its quality and talk about how the beverage can dull the mind (since it’s common practice to serve the bad stuff later on in the celebration). The actual miracle feels pretty low-key—and one that Jesus performs in private, ordering everyone (including a young, doubting catering expert named Thomas) out of the room.
Before leaving to follow Jesus, Simon helps his own wife stomp grapes, and they get a little flirty. Later, at the wedding, Simon talks with some of Jesus’ other new followers and learns that Thaddeus was called by Jesus when the two were helping to build a latrine. “Our Master building a privy,” Simon marvels.
Jesus performs magic tricks for children, too (which look like carnival-type shell games when we briefly see them); and when Simon jokingly asks Jesus if He can do something about the clumsiness of his brother, Andrew, Jesus watches him dance a bit and jokes, “Some things even I cannot do.” Christ also talks about having been a clumsy teenager. Another disciple, James, jokingly chucks dates from a tree at his fellow travelers.
Simon goes out into the water with Roman soldiers, who are intent upon catching the Jewish fishermen breaking the sabbath (and thus cheating the Romans out of their taxable share). Instead, he steers the boat to a sandbar and runs around. Capernaum’s Roman leader suspects Simon of duplicity, so he sends the tax collector Matthew to follow the man. Elsewhere, Simon comes clean to his wife, Eden, about the dire financial straits they’re in and tries to work every possible angle to keep from going to prison. Andrew suggests another possibility: trusting the man whom the crazy baptizer John called the “Lamb of God.”
Simon misleads the Romans, tries to keep a sick relative from living with them and has a serious fight with his wife, Eden. When fellow fisherman Zebedee and his sons, John and James, ask how bad things are with Eden, he laments that he could be enjoying his last night of freedom—his last night, in other words, to enjoy Eden’s company—and he’s out fishing.
Simon throws a bit of a fit on his boat in the middle of the night, too. He cries out in anger to God, narrating the blessings and miseries of the Jewish people. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say You enjoy yanking us around like goats and can’t decide whether we’re chosen or not,” he said. When his friends come upon him and ask who Simon was talking to, Simon says, “apparently no one.”
But things change in the morning, when Simon and the other fishers come across Jesus preaching to a small group of people by the water. After the sermon, He performs a miracle—telling Simon to cast his nets one more time, after which the fisherman and his friends pull in enough, apparently, to pay off Simon’s debt. (The boat, in fact, nearly sinks from the weight of all the fish.)
“Fish are nothing,” Jesus tells Simon, now willing to do anything for the man he now believes is the Lamb of God. “For now on, I will make you fishers of men.”
We hear references to Simon’s past gambling issues and a reference to the “fiery furnace” of hell. Simon threatens to beat a couple of men “with my bare hands.” Someone is so sick that they’re spitting up blood.
The story moves away from many of its central players and focuses on Abigail, a little girl who runs across a strange carpenter camping in the wilderness. She hides from him the first day, but the next she brings along Joshua, a friend of hers.
“I didn’t see a sword or anything like that, so I don’t think he’d kill us,” Abigail reassures Joshua. “And he seemed nice. Do you have a sword, just in case?”
We hear similar sentiments from other kids in Abigail’s posse (which grows as the episode wears on). Some are concerned that Jesus (because, of course, it is Jesus) might be a criminal or a murderer. And Jesus himself tells them that it’s good to be careful, because, “There are bad men around.”
Jesus actually opens the door to communicating with the kids through a bit of bathroom humor—making retching noises and flatulence noises as a way to break the ice. But Jesus also begins to teach them a bit about His work, too—both that of a craftsman and as someone bringing a startling new message to the world. He leads the children in prayers and encourages them to honor both their teachers and their parents, while reminding them that “many times, smart men lack wisdom.” He gives some sage lessons on justice and encourages them to hold to their faith. And as He does so, Jesus begins to unveil His real purpose.
“I have some work to do here,” he says. “And some people to meet.”
The humanity of Jesus is emphasized here. We see Him struggle to start a fire, cook His own supper and engaged in tearful, anguished prayer—all elements that could’ve been a part of Jesus’ life. The only miracle He performs is through prosaic hard work—gifting Abigail a fabulous handmade toy set.
Lilith is now demon-free and calling herself by her birth name of Mary. She’s nervously preparing to host Shabbat for the first time ever, and she receives a very special guest. Meanwhile, Simon continues to spy on his fellow Jewish fishermen (who are fishing on the Sabbath), while the suspicious tax collector, Matthew, dutifully reports his own suspicions of Simon to the Roman praetor.
As a Jewish tax collector, Matthew is reviled by both Romans and Jews. When he’s preparing to report to the praetor, Matthew’s repeatedly jostled by Roman soldiers, and he’s threatened with death. Later, in his tax collection booth, another Roman soldier sees Matthew with a cut on his face and excrement on his clothes, which the Roman figures were “gifts” from some Jewish citizens who took issue with their taxes.
Simon (the future disciple Peter) buys a number of merchants drinks at the local tavern and jokes heartily with them. “We’re not afraid of you stealing our fish,” Peter tells one with long, flowing locks of hair. “We’re afraid you’ll steal our women!” Meanwhile, Matthew mentions to the Roman praetor that Simon seems to gamble a lot.
Nicodemus, the “rabbi of rabbis” visiting Capernaum from Jerusalem, reads a book on demons and exorcism after his apparently failed cleansing of Lilith/Mary. When he learns that she miraculously was cured after all, he goes to investigate, and he hears from Mary of the mysterious stranger who cured her. “I was one way,” she explains to Nicodemus. “And now I am completely different. And the thing that happened in between, was Him.” We hear the Shabbat ceremony from a variety of points of view.
Peter and Andrew unsuccessfully try to earn some tax money to save their fishing boat. Eventually their livelihoods are saved, at least temporarily, when Peter strikes a deal with a powerful Roman legionnaire. But Andrew believes the deal—which involves Peter ratting out fellow Jews for fishing on the Sabbath—to be immoral. Meanwhile, a woman named Lilith struggles with demons that the Pharisee leader Nicodemus can’t cast out. It leads Nicodemus to a crisis of faith, and it pushes Lilith to the verge of suicide.
In flashback, we see Lilith as a child in Magdala reciting Scripture with her father, who later dies. She stores that Scripture in an old doll, but later tears the paper up in despair. It’s insinuated that she’s a prostitute: She wakes one day to find her hands covered in blood and a man—his neck also bloody—screaming in the streets. When Nicodemus comes to cast the demons out, Lilith hisses, “We are not afraid of you. You have no power here, teacher.” Later, a despondent Nicodemus says, “Only God Himself could’ve drawn them out.” (And God, in the form of Jesus, eventually does just that—calling the woman by her given name of Mary.)
We see women of apparent ill-repute hang about Capernaum’s seedy quarter. In flashback, we see a Roman centurion fill Lilith/Mary’s sight, a suggestion that the woman may have been raped. She visits a tavern and gambling center, asking the barkeep (whom someone refer to as a eunuch) for alcohol. Nicodemus complains of the sinfulness of the city’s fishermen: “Foul-mouthed, given to gambling and secret dens and even fishing on Shabbat,” he says. “Surely the Messiah will not come until this wickedness is purged from our midst.”
Peter indeed goes out fishing on the Sabbath to feed his family: He gets into a brawl with his brother-in-law (a common occurrence, it’s suggested). Both deal out plenty of damage, and Matthew walks away with a bloody nose. He says that he has “hands of wine” because of the damage they do to one’s liver. (“It sounded more clever in my head,” he later admits.)
Matthew serves as a “publicanus” (tax collector) for the Romans, though his driver refers to him instead as a “public anus,” thinking it funny. Matthew steps in a pile of dung and retches after doing so. We hear references to hell.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.
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