'The Chosen' series about Jesus defies Hollywood norms

Hollywood has always had a problem with America's Judaeo-Christian culture, particularly now, putting itself at odds with a large part of its audience.

That's left a gate open for new ideas, and entrepreneurs, using new technologies and approaches to fill the gap.

So, a very successful series about the life of Jesus, called "The Chosen," creatively attempting to tell the story of Jesus from the point of view of the people around him, has taken off from under the radar. The streamed series, which can be viewed on as a multi-season television program, pretty much the first of its kind, has crowdfunded to raise $10 million for its production, the highest crowdfunding for a media project in history. It's now seen 6.5 million viewings. Director Dallas Jenkins started with a small vignette of Jesus's life in 2017, and by 2019, saw the series take off as funding from the little guys wanting more from his project rolled in. It can now be watched, or even binge-watched, for free through an app, or else through paid streaming. That ought to be a wake-up call to Hollywood about what viewers want.

High demand, clever production maneuvers, such as filming the series in Texas rather than high-cost California, and a get-around on the distribution, the highest obstacle of all for indy film makers, has created a whale-under-the-water sized series that seems to be snowballing in popularity. Money talks in Hollywood, so the $10 million raised suggests there's an audience that wants this, something that must be rather confounding to Hollywood.

I drove up to Beverly Hills' Church of the Good Shepherd last night for a viewing of the show and a presentation by producer Dallas Jenkins, his wife (and scriptwriter) Amanda Jenkins, actor Jonathan Roumie, and biblical scholar David Guffey C.S.C. (a Catholic priest), to see what this was about and I came away impressed.

Director Dallas Jenkins, writer Amanda Jenkins, actor Jonathan Roumie, and biblical advisor David Guffey described how they created the television series, in a presentation Good Shepherd Church on Feb. 15.

On merit alone, the show was a gem. It's a fresh take on the Gospel story, attempting to tell the many-times-told narrative in a new way - through the eyes of the people who surrounded Jesus during his life. It takes a group of scenes, not even in the chronological order of the Bible, and microscopes them for the audience to consider and enjoy.

Jesus doesn't come off as some otherworldly guy with his palms out, as he's often depicted in other films - but a far more human person with humor, and vulnerabilities, likely the person people saw who lived at the time.  Roumie brings that persona to life with warmth and well-timed wit, a truly stellar performance that has since won him an award.

As for the people surrounding Jesus, we see the harried housewife with a sick child scolding her husband Peter, a kid with his big dog on the shores watching Jesus preach on the Galilee, Nicodemus holding corporate-style meetings in his imposing Sanhedrin dress, but kicking back in casual duds in the evening, iron-fisted Romans rulers acting like mafia dons in demanding more money. 

It's really a simple formula - the film maker attempts to imaginably, but plausibly imaginably, fill in the backstory of the people who were on the receiving end of Jesus's miracles and act out those backstories - which intensifies their effect when Jesus performs a miracle.

Peter, for example, wasn't just some guy who got a trove of fish where Jesus told him to fish. He was guy who was struggling to pay his taxes and desperately setting out to sea at night to try to catch some fish to satisfy that demand, hauling in and winding up heavy nets in the dark (you can see the backbreaking labor on that) and screaming in frustration when he catches nothing after working all night. Roman goons slapped him around in an earlier scene and his wife was yelling at him from home. When Jesus directs Peter to catch fish in one spot after all his fruitless efforts, the gargantuan trove of fish he hauls in means his huge problems with taxpaying are suddenly over. You can feel his relief and the impact of the miracle much more as you see the miracle from the receiving end.

That's great writing, and the effect is strengthened by professional perfomance. Roumie, as well as the Jenkinses, all have a significant professional-grade experience in film, with Dallas Jenkins a seasoned producer at Universal, Warner Brothers and the Hallmark Channel, and Roumie with a mile-long string of credits in television and film on IMDB - "NCIS," "The Mindy Project," "Law and Order," "The Newsroom," et al. Much of the rest of the cast had comparable experience. The sets, it should be noted, were extremely beautiful, a feast for the eyes helping bring a picture of the Roman occupied Holy Land. All of these factors made the storytelling glow, taking the project further than just getting around the bottlenecks of Hollywood.

Jenkins, who's a Baptist, views the project as a means of spreading the Good News in a way it's not been done before, he told the audience. Through the use of streaming, he's gotten the show views on every country on earth, a form of gentle evangelism that doesn't hit people over the head or annoy them. He said it was a moving thing for him to be getting messages from cooped-up and probably terrified people in Wuhan, China, who said they were watching the film under quarantine. As he was considering the making of the film, some guy from Romania on his Facebook page mysteriously sent him a note telling him that his job was to get the bread and fishes -- the Lord's job was to multiply them -- which he took as a cue to go forward.

He also said that the ecumenicism of the project was an added side effect - working with Catholics went a long way toward changing his previous negative perception of Catholics and seeing a Christian commonality.   

Roumie, who is Catholic, and played Jesus, spoke of the project as having a powerful effect on his own spiritual growth. "I'm not worthy of this," he told the director. Director's reply, "No, you aren't. And neither am I." He was able to do it by reaching inside himself for whatever was true, and letting the spiritual message he was trying to convey use that as a vehicle.

Jenkins, who got the idea for the innovative project after an earlier project he directed didn't do well at the box office, views his new go-arounds as resigning to God's plan and seeing miraculous things occur as a result.

The series has drawn amazing audience reviews - readable on IMDB here -- and has won MovieGuide's Epiphany Prize for Most Inspiring Television Program of 2019.

It's well deserved as a production because it breaks new ground, just as it has to produce the new project - breaking away from the boring Hollywood conformity in order to give viewers something of value.

Images: Monica Showalter

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