One of the problems with Netflix’s near-infinite shelf space is ideas that might have made an interesting movie get stretched beyond their weight as series. So it is with “Messiah,” a provocative 10-episode drama that posits what would happen if Jesus, or someone like him, appeared today, but which spends far too much time wandering in the storytelling desert.
Produced by “Survivor” mastermind Mark Burnett and Roma Downey, a couple committed to producing shows (see “The Bible”) in the spirit of their Christian faith, the program is notably even-handed. Despite concerns that it would be anti-Muslim based on the trailer, the series leaves the audience guessing throughout about whether the mysterious figure referred to by some as Al-Masih (Belgian actor Mehdi Dehbi), or Arabic for “the messiah,” is really who people believe him to be, or some sort of false prophet and con artist.
His arrival is approached from a variety of angles, foremost among them the concerned and skeptical US. Specifically, he commands the early attention of a CIA officer, Eva Geller (Michelle Monaghan), on a mission to expose him as a fraud – some kind of elaborate magic act – before he potentially creates further instability in the Middle East and around the world.
The stranger also has a run-in with an Israeli intelligence officer (Tomer Sisley), whose life is a bit of a mess, and inspires an eclectic group of followers.
The religious leader comes to the US, eventually, where his influence grows, prompting interest from a fictional CNN reporter (Jane Adams) and even the president of the United States (Dermot Mulroney). But as the series (created by Michael Petroni) crisscrosses the globe, it tracks an assortment of characters whose lives are touched, directly or glancingly, by this spiritual presence, diluting the drama as opposed to stoking it.
“Messiah” is thus both binge-worthy and frustrating, taking a few tentative steps toward greater clarity in each episode but keeping the audience guessing and in the dark throughout the season.
The notion of governments being suspicious of a messianic personality – and the effects of modern mass media – add intriguing wrinkles to the series. While many embrace Al-Masih as a savior, those ensconced in power view him as a grave threat.
Give “Messiah” credit for even braving this terrain at all, in a thoughtful manner, when dealing with religion is invariably an invitation to controversy – especially among those who tend not to trust the entertainment industry. (It doesn’t help that Netflix has been criticized for carrying a comedy special from the Brazilian YouTube channel Porta dos Fundos, which triggered a backlash for depicting a gay Jesus.)
How would Jesus be received in the age of social media doesn’t lack for intrigue, but the writing deviates too frequently from the central plot; rather, “Messiah” introduces a character who might be divine, then keeps elbowing him off screen to focus on meandering subplots.
The series has a lot going on, and it’s certainly food for thought. Yet given what a third-rail topic the subject tends to be, the rewards don’t seem to justify the risk, in the same way the merits of “Messiah” season one, once completed, don’t wholly justify the time investment.
“Messiah” premieres Jan. 1 on Netflix.