Inside the Resurrection of Religious TV
Kurtwood Smith, Landon Gimenez and Frances Fisher
It looks as if The Bible has been a godsend. Last year’s History miniseries averaged 11.4 million viewers overall, kicking off a new surge of religious-themed programming. ABC’s new back-from-the-dead drama Resurrection, with its faith-based undercurrents, is averaging 10.2 million viewers, and the box-office success of such movies as Noah, God’s Not Dead and Son of God (a condensed version of The Bible) has Hollywood executives developing a slew of limited-run event series to launch over the next few years.
Bible producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey are working on two: CBS’s The Dovekeepers, about the siege of Masada, and NBC’s A.D.: Beyond the Bible, chronicling Christianity’s development, which Burnett describes as “The Bible meets House of Cards meets Game of Thrones.” WGN America is developing a 10-part series of contemporary stories based on the Ten Commandments. And Lifetime has a project about Jesus’s lost early years, tentatively titled The One, as well as The Red Tent, a feminist take on the life of Dinah, daughter of Genesis’s Jacob.
Next year, OWN will launch the seven-part documentary Belief, following seekers of different faiths around the world. “[This] is what I care about most on the planet Earth,” says the network’s Oprah Winfrey, “and the reason I put my name on a channel.” CNN recently announced a new show, The Jesus Code, which will employ both archaeology and forensics as it explores the historical events laid out in the New Testament. Even reality programming is getting in on the trend: Oxygen is spinning off Preachers of L.A. to other cities, and Lifetime’s Preachers’ Daughters is a hit.
Resurrection executive producer Aaron Zelman, who describes his show as “spiritual” rather than religious, says the trend touches on the big questions: “Every human has wondered, ‘How did I get here? What came before? Is there a design? And what happens after I die?’ That’s completely a universal, human thing.”
While friends had advised him against making The Bible, Burnett says he was sure it had a market. “People want hope,” he says. “According to the media, biblical entertainment wouldn’t work. To use Survivor linguistics, with The Bible‘s tremendous success, God has spoken.” (When asked about a rumored revival of Touched by an Angel, the long-running inspirational drama that starred his wife, Downey, Burnett coyly says, “No comment.”)
“The Bible hit the zeitgeist,” agrees Brad Adgate, research director at Horizon Media. “It’s difficult to capture lightning in a bottle a second time, but the biblical genre is in perfect step with limited series, and the Christian audience is pretty good-sized. You can be criticized if you deviate too much from the text, but there’s far more upside to it than downside.”
“There’s a new openness in the mainstream to exploring faith,” says Rebecca Cusey, managing editor of the religion website Patheos. “It’s not only Bible stories that could hook the faith-based community. You have to find people who write shows that hit the emotion that people are loved by God.” Says Burnett, “In the end, people believe in the hope that there’s something greater than us.” —With additional reporting by Rob Moynihan