A few years ago, the Discovery Channel aired a fascinating series called "Dirty Jobs" that followed host Mike Rowe across the country as he performed difficult, nerve-wracking and even stomach-churning jobs that someone in America performs each day – for example, sewage collection, road-kill cleanup and rattlesnake catching.
All of the jobs were challenging – and all of them underappreciated.
Which brings me to the new NBC series, "A.D.: The Bible Continues," which airs on 12 consecutive Sundays beginning Easter weekend and is made by the same executive producers (Roma Downey and Mark Burnett) who brought us the 2013 TV hit "The Bible" (which was seen by 13.1 million on the History Channel in the first week). While that latter series included only one episode that followed the work of the apostles after Jesus' resurrection, the "A.D." series spotlights the disciples exclusively, examining their reaction to His death and resurrection, and then their work in spreading the Gospel after His ascension.
Perhaps "making Bible movies" deserves its own episode on "Dirty Jobs." Of course, some criticism of Hollywood is deserved (see: "Noah" the movie), but often we fail to appreciate how difficult it is to make a Bible movie. Movie scripts are full of dialogue and details. The Bible, in many places, is not. So screenwriters are left to fill in the gaps so that studios can fill an hour or two of screen time (an example of this done well: "The Nativity Story"). And often, it's a difficult – and underappreciated – job.
I watched the first episode of "A.D." and a week later, watched it again. The verdict? It's very good, and for the most part, follows the biblical narrative. The acting is stellar, with several standout performances, including Adam Levy as Peter and Juan Pablo Di Pace as Jesus.
The first episode includes the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, but the plot focuses squarely on the disciples and their struggle after seeing Jesus die. Jesus is buried 14 minutes into the first episode and isn't risen until the final three minutes, leaving a lot of "gap-filling" for the screenwriters. (Watch 2003's "The Gospel of John" if you want a well-done verbatim biblical movie.)
For example, we've all wondered: What were the disciples thinking after Jesus died? Were they scared? Distressed? Hopeful? The Bible tells us very little, but "A.D." offers a fascinating and thought-provoking exchange. A handful of the disciples are huddled up in a room, contemplating what happened.
"The last three years of our lives, for nothing!" Peter says.
Peter is then told: "His mother believes He will rise."
Later, another disciples says, referencing Jesus' opponents, "We need to leave before they find us."
Is that the way it happened? I don't know. Di Pace told The Christian Post it's like being a "fly on the wall" as we examine "what those people were dealing with in terms of, 'How do we get out of this, how do we continue?'"
There are other intriguing exchanges, such as between: the high priest Caiaphas and his wife (who agree that Jesus should have been crucified), and Pilate and his wife (who disagree about the crucifixion, with the latter saying He was no threat). When Caiaphas learns that Joseph of Arimathea donated his tomb to house Jesus' body, Caiaphas becomes angry, telling Joseph that Jesus' followers will say the action fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy (Isaiah 53:9).
"People who are not familiar with this story, the book of Acts – and I think a lot of people aren't – will get a really great point of view of what was going on, the politics of the time, the persecution of the apostles, and how they built the church from nothing," Di Pace said.
Like all Bible movies or series, "A.D." draws us back to Scripture, forcing us to discover and research what really happened. But in "A.D.'s" first episode, the variances are more subtle (for example: Judas hangs himself after the crucifixion, contrary to what the Gospel of Matthew implies).
One of the episode's more powerful scenes comes when we see Jesus hanging on the cross, and then a few seconds later watch dozens of lambs slaughtered in the temple – a vivid reminder of the end of the old covenant and of Christ accomplishing what the killing of animals could not.
"A.D." also succeeds in delivering an entertaining civics lesson on the politics of the day. We'll all read about Pilate, the Sanhedrin and Caiaphas, but oftentimes studying the political divisions seems academic, even dull. "A.D." brings the politics to life, helping us better understand the 1st century governing structure.
The first episode of "A.D." does fall flat during a couple of special effects scenes, including the depiction of Christ's resurrection (which ends up looking, well, odd).
But overall, the first episode is a good start, and with it airing on broadcast TV instead of cable, it will have a far wider audience than did "The Bible." So far, I'm thankful for that.