Originally published in The Washington Times
Finding a new way to tell a familiar story, crowdfunded TV series “The Chosen” wraps its second viewing season on Sunday having exceeded its creator’s expectations on several fronts. The episode that will air reportedly centers on what led up to the famed Sermon on the Mount and what happened afterward.
An estimated 750 000 people streamed the season opener on their smartphones, tablets, computers and TV-connected streaming devices. More than 1 million people have subscribed to the series’ YouTube channel, which features interviews with actors and behind-the-scenes stories from series creator Dallas Jenkins.
While the first season is available on the Comcast-owned Peacock streaming service, the overwhelming majority of viewers watch via a smartphone/tablet app for “The Chosen,” making its viewership unusual in a world still largely dependant on broadcast and cable networks, or pay-to-view services such as HBO.
Some $22 million (R317 million) in donations keep the independent production going. Producers say they’ve had a total of 200 million online views of the series. They’re aiming for 1 billion viewers before it’s all finished in about five years’ time for a total of seven seasons.
If there’s a “secret sauce” to this modern telling of Jesus’ story, it may lie in the very human Christ that is shown to viewers. There’s none of the stiffness that other movie and television portrayals may have shown. The Christ of “The Chosen” smiles, laughs and even dances at a wedding feast.
This Jesus displays a sense of humor: He’s the kind of person most people would want to have a conversation or share a meal with, as opposed to the sometimes holier-than-us portrayals previously seen in films and television productions.
The disciples, religious leaders of the day, and even the Roman soldiers are also humanized. Matthew Levi, the tax collector, displays touches of obsessive-compulsive disorder and Asperger’s syndrome. Simon Peter’s family struggles, including a wife who suddenly learns about their hyper-precarious finances, are on full display. Nicodemus, the Jewish leader who approaches Jesus by night, is shown navigating the political atmosphere of his spiritual office and his conflict having seen Jesus’ miracles.
And Mary Magdalene? After being healed by Jesus, she follows the disciples — but is triggered by what today would be called post-traumatic stress disorder. That leads to an episode in the show’s second season that drew criticism from some viewers who imagined her life as trouble-free once she’d encountered Christ.
Jenkins, the writer, filmmaker, and director behind the project, said such displays of humanity are intentional.
“Over the last 10 years I have really studied psychology and communication in the brain a lot,” he said during a recent interview in Grapevine, Texas, where he premiered an episode of the series for the National Religious Broadcasters 2021 convention.
“I feel like that’s kind of an underrated role in this because I believe that my study of human behavior and the brain because of my family’s experience with autism … has allowed me to find things in the gospels that are good clues for what these [biblical] people might have been like,” Jenkins, 45, added.
Finding things in the gospels that others might miss is sort of the Jenkins family business. Dallas Jenkins is the son of prolific Christian author Jerry B Jenkins, co-author of the mega-bestselling “Left Behind” series. The elder Jenkins also wrote several books turning biblical narratives including John’s gospel and Paul’s epistles into page-turning epics, and wrote a “novelization” of the show’s first season.
“I think that’s what people are responding to is that a lot of the show isn’t from the Bible, but it feels like it’s done by someone who loves the Bible,” he said. “Because we love God’s word, we never want to stray outside of the character or intentions of Jesus in the Gospels.”
The concept behind The Chosen was first exposed in a 2017 short film called The Shepherd, which Jenkins produced and filmed for his local church congregation in Elgin, Illinois, some 35 miles northwest of Chicago. It caught the attention of Utah-based VidAngel, a video streaming service, and was posted on Facebook as a trial balloon to gauge potential interest.
The subsequent crowdfunding campaign raised enough money to produce the first season, and like the biblical loaves and fish, things multiplied from there. It’s an analogy Jenkins used in describing his role in the project and why it succeeded.
“I don’t know why God multiplies things sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes He doesn’t. That’s not up to me to figure out. My job isn’t to feed the 5 000. My job is to provide them with some fish. God chose to do something with my loaves and fish in this case.”
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