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Backstories: “The Chosen”

I’m late to this celebration.

A few years ago, I began receiving email invitations to watch a crowdfunded TV series about Jesus. I ignored them. Then, more recently, friends began to ask me what I thought of the series, and I ignored them too. Finally, I decided to watch an episode or two, although mostly out of a perverse hunger to review it with the gimlet eye I bring to anything overhyped and under-produced.

Now, two full seasons into watching The Chosen (five more are planned), I happily admit I was wrong not to have begun watching when it was first released. Without a doubt, it’s the best-ever presentation of the life of Our Lord on film.

I’ve always been especially fond of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 miniseries, Jesus of Nazareth, which is both very painterly and very Catholic, features a truly all-star cast [1], and includes marvelous music by Maurice Jarre.

The Chosen, on the other hand – which is the brainchild of Dallas Jenkins – features an all-character-actor cast [2]: the kind of actors whose faces you may recognize without knowing their names or remembering what you saw them in. Mr. Jenkins, who directs every episode and participated in writing all of them, threw a wide – you might say Galilean fisherman’s – net in casting his series: a very bold move indeed, given the schedules of working actors. It’s one thing to keep a cast together for one or two seasons. . .but seven?

My guess is he’ll succeed because one senses a remarkable work ethic in The Chosen’s production. I don’t want to dwell on production though – more important is to describe what makes the series both moving and riveting. But I will mention (in what sounds like one of those “go-into-a-bar” jokes), that a rabbi, a priest, and a minister have acted as consultants on every script, that the filming was done – for season one – in a re-created Capernaum in Texas and – for season two – at a re-creation of Jerusalem in Utah, and that the actors come from a number of different nationalities and faiths.

And it all comes together beautifully, in fact astonishingly so.

Without question, the key to any film about the life of Christ is the actor who plays the Lord. When you first see Jonathan Roumie as Jesus, you may be skeptical, but he’ll quickly win you over. The writing and directing help Mr. Roumie seem as he should: human and divine.

However, the humanity of this Jesus is not austere, as it has been in performances by most other actors who’ve portrayed Christ. It’s not that Mr. Roumie isn’t dignified but that he smiles and laughs and sings and dances – in the way a religious Jew of His time would have. As seen through the eyes of those who follow him, he slowly transitions from a remarkable teacher to the Messiah – in scenes subtle and clever, profound and funny. I am not suggesting The Chosen makes the Son of God a jokester. His humor is uplifting; it causes people to see themselves in a new, profound light.

Simon (or Peter, as we know he’ll become – played by Shahar Isaac) tells Jesus that the calling of the tax collector Matthew (Paras Patel) is bad idea. Jesus replies: “You thought it was wrong when I called you!” Simon says: “This is different.” Jesus says: “Get used to different,” which is a good guide for watching the series.

As the poster for season one (above) indicates, the title of the series refers not to the Messiah but to those whom He has called. Accordingly, the actor on the poster is Mr. Isaac. No doubt the script and Mr. Jenkins have instructed and directed each actor to find his or her character’s unique personality, quirks and all. And the quirkiest is Mr. Patel’s Matthew, who (at least so far) clearly suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder.

There are the historical characters (those whose words and stories are known to us from Scripture), and there are characters created just for The Chosen. All of them have backstories. That’s exposition, a sometimes-necessary technique in drama that often becomes leaden. Not here though. The interactions between the fictional Roman praetor Quintus (Brandon Potter), who “runs” Matthew in both his tax-gathering and intelligence operations; or Thomas (Joey Vahedi) and his fictional girlfriend/business partner Ramah (Yasmine Al-Bustami), who first meet Jesus when they cater a certain wedding in Cana. Marvelous backstories for one and all.

From the Catholic perspective, there can be no backstory more compelling than the Blessed Virgin’s, played here by Vanessa Benavente. She is very much a Jewish mother, the ima of Jesus, who is always ready to help: famously at Cana, of course, but also in soothing the frazzled nerves of Mary Magdalene (Elizabeth Tabish).

Miss Tabish has some remarkable scenes involving Nicodemus (Erick Avari), who attempts to exorcise her demons, followed by a meeting between him and the man who succeeded in freeing Mary, in which Jesus explains the paradox of being born again.

Ms. Tabish has, so far, the most interesting character arc, going from distraught over the stir Jesus is causing, to joyful, to despairing, to more deeply joyful as she comes to realize who Jesus is.

Accessing the series can be a bit complicated. I was easily able to stream Season 1 from Amazon [3] ($22.99), but the only way I found to watch Season 2 was on computer, probably because both my “smart” TVs are actually stupid.  But the Angel Studios website [4] has both seasons – for free. So, if you don’t mind watching on a small screen (or if you’re better at getting website content to your television than I am), that’s the way to go.

Season 3 is in the works, and Mr. Jenkins and Angel Studios [5] could use your help in crowdfunding it – and the projected four to follow.

So, now you know not to do what I did. Watch it. Now.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.