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History Channel’s Bible Is a Hit. Does That Mean TV Will Get Religion?

We may see more TV for religious believers as a result of The Bible. What I'd love to see--but am not so sure we will--is more TV about religious believers.

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Joe Alblas / © Lightworkers Media / Hearst Productions Inc.

Abraham (Gary Oliver) and Sarah (Josephine Butler) in History's The Bible.

Up until now, the year’s big cable-ratings story has been the ever-growing success of zombie drama The Walking Dead on AMC. Sunday night, though, History channel had the highest-rated scripted drama on cable for the year, for the beginning of a story in which only one main character rises from the dead, and that not until nearly the end.

The first two hours of History’s Mark Burnett miniseries adaptation of The Bible scored 13.1 million viewers, more than any fiction cable show of the year–and, as the New York Times notes, dwarfing anything on NBC for the past month. (The biblical epic numbers did not quite match The Walking Dead in viewers aged 18 to 49, the demographic that determines advertising rates, but it did get a healthy 5.6 million.)

Those are the kinds of numbers that get TV executives’ attention, and “attention” in the TV business means copying. Last year, History pulled meganumbers with Hatfields and McCoys; now NBC is developing a Hatfields and McCoys series. So I wouldn’t be surprised to see more religious epics coming to TV–stories aimed, like The Bible miniseries, at the comfort zone of believers. (I haven’t watched the entire History miniseries, but the first two hours were sort of a Picture Bible come to life, with the Old Testament violence dialed up and the Old Testament sex dialed down, and the kind of stiff dialogue that avoids seeming to “disrespect” Biblical figures by making them sound like people rather than animatronic figures.)

So we may see more TV for religious believers as a result of The Bible. What I’d love to see–but am not so sure we will–is more TV about religious believers.

Religious faith (or the passionate lack thereof) plays a huge role in billions of people’s lives. Primetime TV, however, has a habit of dealing with faithful characters badly or–more often–not at all. On the one hand, you have religious characters framed as villains or hypocrites: ABC’s GCB (Good Christian Bitches), wicked-priest figures like Brother Justin on Carnivale, Caleb on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or the pope and cardinals of The Borgias. On the other, you have characters defined broadly in terms of their religion and virtue (say, the Flanders family on The Simpsons). And more widely, TV characters are simply–nothing. They’re not unreligious, necessarily, but their faith, if any, is somewhere offscreen.

What we could use is more TV that treats characters of faith like good TV shows treat any characters: as complicated people, sometimes good, sometimes bad, whose faith is part of them but doesn’t make them exemplary or terrible.

One of the best recent examples–naturally, since it’s one of the best examples of so many things–was Friday Night Lights. Faith mattered to people in Dillon, Texas: they went to church, prayed on problems, played Christian rock in their garages. It didn’t magically fix anything, nor did it make the people of Dillon better or worse than people anywhere else, but the show took it seriously, and matter-of-factly, as a major part of its characters’ worldviews.

Cable may have a little more leeway in treating religion with nuance, even if it doesn’t always. Big Love may have taken criticism from Mormons for its depiction of polygamy, but it was also a rich, multifaceted look at the many ways in which religion affected its characters’ lives, for good and ill. Yes, Juniper Creek was afflicted with false prophets, but in the show’s central family, each spouse–even Bill, even when he was behaving contemptibly–was driven at root by the desire to come closer to God and to meaning. In a very different way, Game of Thrones has dealt with how religion affects war, politics and its characters’ outlooks–though so far, the series has lost some of the detail of the source books. Enlightened is not about organized religion per se, but treats spirituality with respect without pandering to it.

On network TV, some of the more interesting recent storylines about faith have been happening at the margins of The Good Wife–one of the more “cable-like” broadcast shows to begin with. The protagonist, Alicia Florrick, is an open atheist–even more of a rarity than an avowed believer on TV–and this became an issue recently when she refused to hide her disbelief to help Peter’s gubernatorial campaign. At the same time, her teenage daughter has been drawn to Christianity, and the way the show has handled Alicia’s reaction–not preachily, but as a story about a parent working to accept her daughter’s separate identity–has been exemplary without being showy.

These are still exceptions, though. (There are a few more depictions of the faithful in reality TV, especially on cable–Sister Wives, the Duggars–though All-American Muslim showed that even for cable reality that is not without risk.) The reason TV series should have religious characters and take them seriously is the same reason they should have racial and cultural diversity: not as an act of charity, not to pander to demographics, but because it makes for better stories. People who believe things are interesting. People wrestling with the big questions are interesting. And TV shows that depict actual lived life–with characters who are specific rather than generic–are interesting.

Of course, programmers often read “interesting” as “dangerous,” especially when it comes to religion. (And for that matter, when it comes to race, as Alyssa Rosenberg has lately pointed out when critiquing the “color-blind” approach to writing.) If The Bible keeps its ratings up, I’d expect more religious spectacles in the future. I wouldn’t be surprised, either, to see more religious-flavored genre entertainments too, even though ABC failed with the Da Vinci Code-like Zero Hour. The Walking Dead’s Robert Kirkman, for instance, is now working on a series about exorcism.

History’s Bible, in other words, is probably going to result in more religious drama that’s larger-than-life. What TV could really use, though, is more religious drama that’s life-sized.

160 comments
GeorgeBeauregard
GeorgeBeauregard

IT IS A SIN THAT WHITE AMERICA WANT ALL HISTORICAL ACHIVEMENTS IN AFRICA WAS EITHER WHITE OR LIGHT SKINNED, EGYPTIANS WERE BLACK , BEFORE EUROPEIANS WERE MIXED IN AND NO BLACK AND NO BLACK INVENTIONS SHOWS, THIS CHANNEL ACTS LIKE BLACK PEOPLE HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH HUMAN ACHIEVMENT.VERY RACIST. I GUESS BLACK PEOPLE HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH ANYTHING THE WERE JUST JUNGLE FOOLS AND AMERICAN SLAVES.  

congocat
congocat

The only thing I liked about the History Channel showing this religious propaganda show is that the name of it was "Bible" so I knew not to waste my time watching it. Religious ppl force so much of their crap into schools, courts, etc that we atheists have no real choice of hearing so  I am glad to see one with an off button .....

JacobObadiah
JacobObadiah

Praise you Almighty God Jesus, the Christ for thisopportunity to speak truth to the children of men..This is going to be interesting.. Before I begin... I invite any Bible believing Christian in love to challengeanything I write. No offense will be taken.. If Jesuswere a Caucasian - I would love him the same. In fact when I was a younger man and thought he was white - I loved him then....Praise the Lord. Not only was Samson black, but FromAdam to Jesus the Bible is black withexception to the non-indigenous white Greeks and Romans. I can prove thisif you are willing to look at the scriptureswith an open mind and forget what history,tradition, folklore, theologians and the television tells us what the race of the people in the Bible were. The Bible not only substaniates that Cush ( Gen 10:6/ Strong's # 3568 ) the progenitor of Ethiopia, and the grandson of Noah by his youngest son Hamwas black, but all 8 people on the ark. There were no people on the Earth besides the 8 people who got off the ark. Noah was Cush's grand father, therefore, he had to have been black as well. Think about this for a second. Cush was black, thereforeall his brothers who had the same mother andfather ( Ham ) were black as well. Remember, besides Noah's wife, there were 3 other women on the ark who I will prove had to have been black as well.Cush other brother ( Gen 10:6 ) Mizraim was the father of the Egyptians.. Mizraimhad the same mother and father as Cush, so did Phut who became the progenitor of the Lybians. And last but not least was the fourthson, Canaan born of Ham and his mother whowas also on the Ark... Now if you accept how Iam explaining the Bible, you must accept that the Philistines (Gen 10:13-14 ) are black b/c they are descendants of the Mizraimites who I already proved are black according to the Bible..Now explain to me how Ham could be black if Noah, and his wife weren't black? People...think... Noah's son Ham was the father of theAfrican race.. Yeah, I will believe Noah was a white man the day George W. Bush could have a biological son with Laura Bush thatcould be mistaken for Flavor Flav or any ofthe Jackson 5 before plastic surgery.You can't explain how two non-black peopleon the ark can have a biological son who becamethe progenitor of the African race..... Noah and all three of his son's were black.. The white race came about by the curse of Canaan ( Lev 13:3-4, 13, 43 )....It's as simple as that.....Now that you know Noah and his three son's were black you now know that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were alsoblack.. Joseph was mistaken ( Gen 42:7 ) for an Egyptian by his brothers...So what do we have here? We have the black descendants of Shem (Joseph) way beyond Abraham - being mistaken for a descendant of Ham's 2nd son ( Mizraim Egypt / Strong's # H4714 ) Mizraim.Follow me.. 2 of Noah's sons descendantsof Shem ( Joseph / Gen 42:7 ) and Ham are mistaken for the same race. And descendants of Japheth in the Apocrypha ( 1 Maccabees 12:21 ) are called brethrento the Israelites. And I am expected by"society" to think that the entire (95%) of the Bible is not black ? I can't fooledanymore with the man's "his-story"..Moses, Apostle Paul & all the sons of Israel were mistaken for ( Gen 50:11 / Exo 2:19 / Acts 21:38 ) Egyptians as well...The Bible says Jesus had wooly hair,[ Daniel 7:9 KJV ] feet in color to brass burnt in an oven [ Rev 1:13-15 ] , and compared his complexion to a birthstone [ Rev 4:3 ] which comes in many colors including one the tone of Chris Rock..Job said he was black as well as Solomon.. ( Job 30:30 / SOS 1:5-6 )God said Judah was black [ Jeremiah 14:2 KJV.. Lam 4:8 ], and that Jacob would never become white.....Isaiah 29:22..If we are willing to shut the voices of history ( Jeremiah 16:19 ), tradition,and the television out of our minds,we can see that everyone in the Bible except the Greeks and Romans were black... And even the ancient sons of Japheth were the first Europeans, so whites are not evennative to Europe...I almost forgot about the people of Sodom( Gen 10:19 ) being black, as well thePhonecians ( Gen 10:19 / Sidon …..Strongs # H6721 ) who we get most of ourEnglish alphabet from…John 8:32

wang8942
wang8942

First of all, i wanna thx for the history channel give us this chance to review the Bible, but they made a terrible mistake on episode 4. It wasn't Cyrus put Daniel with lions. It was Darius(Daniel 6)!!! This will mislead the people who watched this show!!! I don't care the people who ur guys let them play the characters in this show, but at least u should described the story correctly!

snookie
snookie

I agree with Read the bible, though the movie is powerful it has a lot of questions that need to be answers.

jenabella8
jenabella8

The History Channel story of the Bible is incorrect and misinforming people and especially CHILDREN. The story only shows a bunch of white people and no black/brown people who were actually the true race and color who ruled in this part of the world(the EAST), white skin, blue eyes would not have been the majority and still today is not. This story is insulting and hard to watch, you say that this story nis to stay true to the spirit of the Bible but you make everyone including JESUS white, when it clearly states in the BIBLE THAT JESUS HAIR WAS AS WOOL AND HIS SKIN AS BURNT WHICH INDICATES THAT HE HAD HAIR AND SKIN OF THE NEGRO, BLACK/BROWN  RACE. It just seems no matter what the truth is White people who write these movies and stories will NOT admit the truth, even if it is in the Bible. It is hard to watch and I get sooo angry that racism is alive and well even on the HISTORY CHANNEL, is very sad. I am going to post my comments to as many sites as I can and send letters to Black organizations, Farakhann etc...to stop this lie on T.V it will poison our chicldren no matter what race they are, a lie is a lie.

JamesVinson
JamesVinson

Does anyone remember KINGS! That was an amazing show! It needs to come back on Cable where real TV is made now.

Yuris Coursey
Yuris Coursey

I love it! I have been studying the Book of Genesis for the last 7 moths, I wasn't as accurate as the Bible but its a good beginning. That kind of TV was the one I watched when I was a kid!

Andy Pratt
Andy Pratt

I'm sure there will be stories...

Kim Fishbourne
Kim Fishbourne

Oh, the history channel does fiction, that's nice.

Jose Moya
Jose Moya

I do remember a time growing up with religion as a great famliy foundation. It was like story telling the principles of life and bringing family and friends together. The Bible if interpret right can help to a degree, depending on your life circumstances...

Adam Yahel Martyr
Adam Yahel Martyr

I bet all you people defaming History channel, saying it lacks history, have never even opened a history book (history text books dont count either sorry), so save your cheap, cheesy, remarks. I personally relieved to finaly see a show that isn't pleasing the publics most primitive of instincts with disrespect and blasphemy for sacred things. Good job History, alot better than all the shows most people watch.

Jason Sallas
Jason Sallas

I missed this tho. Maybe I'll catch I rerun sometime.

Jason Sallas
Jason Sallas

I'm just sorry for delusional people who believe in a bearded man in the sky who watches everything we do, always needs more money, and destroys his creations he claims to love and be the father of. But I do enjoy a good, entertaining story! :)

Megan Henderson
Megan Henderson

Whether you believe in god or not the bible is apart of history and it's always good to have a basic understanding of all religions.

Britney Lawman
Britney Lawman

Folklore? Mythical? You'll get it eventually, I just sorry for nonbelievers. And I think it was accurate but it left a lot out but then if they televised every second of the bible it would go on for days and weeks.

Megan Henderson
Megan Henderson

maybe they should include ALL of it... the gnostic texts too. Not just the "traditional" bible.

Moises Zanatta
Moises Zanatta

The story really doesnt stick to the original Bible version.

Eric Still
Eric Still

Yeah, mythical things are usually fun to watch.

Elaine Jimenez Prejean
Elaine Jimenez Prejean

I hope so, there is so much trash on TV, and its a reflection of the sick society we live in.. bring back good family TV programs.

Will Dean
Will Dean

Michael - did you watch long enough to see the aliens?

Michael Boyd
Michael Boyd

I watched but I was not impressed with the liberty they took in changing the scripture so I eventually turned it off because of frustration. I understand they have a captive audience and I was looking forward to the series but it needs to be accurate to the Holy Book and not some theatrical performance based off of what they think will gain an audience. This pales in comparison to the Ten Commandments.

Deb Price
Deb Price

...I am not sure about seeing more TV about religion in the future as 'THE BIBLE', the 10-part miniseries is good enough for me to watch as I have my bible to read anyway :)

Zadidoll
Zadidoll

Since the Bible is based on the Jewish Torah and oral histories why not just DO a series on that? The Bible is so edited and changed that it would be nice to see it from a Jewish point of view instead of Christian.

Pang Pang Sern Yong
Pang Pang Sern Yong

Yes of course, maybe a series about Islam but it will either be linked to Terrorism or be banned from broadcast.

Eric Lin
Eric Lin

More like 'the might of obvious fiction'.

Judi Middleton
Judi Middleton

Nobody forced 13.1 million viewers to tune in. Hardly manipulation.

Marion Marion
Marion Marion

Weather we like it or not all 3 major religions are a part of history. Good and bad.

Luis Fernando Linares
Luis Fernando Linares

I thought it was the HISTORY Channel. I thought they hit bottom with their lineup of reality shows. Now they have this fairy tale of a very angry, jealous, spiteful god doing terrible things to his people, and apparently he really hates the ancient people of Egypt.

Victor De La Torre
Victor De La Torre

there's no history in the "history" channel, the bible ain't a history book!