NBC Gambles with Epic Miniseries

While the epic miniseries of the past (Roots, The Thorn Birds, Shogun, Lonesome Dove, North and South, The Winds of War, etc.) have given way to shorter two-parters (what I call mini-mini-series), NBC is hoping to revive the genre with a number of multi-part series that might recapture the ratings gold of those broadcast glory days.  In the works, the rainbow network is developing Hillary, starring Diane Lane as Mrs. Clinton, the former First Lady, U.S. Senator, Secretary of State, and Presidential candidate; Stephen King's Tommyknockers, a remake of the adaptation of the bestselling author's bestselling novel; and Rosemary's Baby, a remake of the Roman Polanski-directed horror classic movie. The one I'm most interested in seeing is producer Mark Burnett's sequel to The Bible, which originally aired on The History Channel.

The Bible was an ambitious venture that attracted millions of viewers with its high production values. It told the story from Adam and Eve through the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus.  Now, the sequel will cover the Acts of the Apostles and possibly Revelation.

This isn't the first time the material has been brought to television. In 1985, A.D., a "sort-of" sequel to the excellent Jesus of Nazareth, brought together Ava Gardner, John Houseman, Richard Roundtree, Ben Vereen, and Jack Warden. It didn't have the same success as its award-winning predecessor, basically because the director Stuart Cooper just didn't have the same visual style and dramatic pacing as Franco Zeferelli. Another big mistake was not reaching out to the cast of Jesus of Nazareth to reprise their roles -- I would rather have seen James Farentino again as Peter instead of Denis Quilley and Anne Bancroft as Mary Magdalene instead of Millie Perkins. The most distracting casting was the always terrific Ian McShane as Sejanus, even though he had played Judas Iscariot. While A.D. was technically a separate production, the marketing efforts tried desperately to sell it as a direct sequel to Jesus of Nazareth, so those casting choices made it disjarring for fans who had tuned in expecting a continuation in style and substance to what they had seen a few short years prior.

A.D. also crammed too much into its storyline, covering both the events of the rise of the early Church as well as the complex drama of the Roman Empire during that period.  While there is certainly overlap between the two, A.D. failed to deliver the plot in a coherent and compelling fashion.

Two other epic mini-series, however, did a far better job, because they chose to focus on one or the other.  I, Claudius, back in 1976, did a fine job of retelling the gripping history of the Roman emperors, with Derek Jacobi, James Faulkner, John Hurt, Patrick Stewart, and others.  (A remake is planned, and it will be surprising if they can recapture its greatness.)

The dramatization of the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles worked extremely well in the 1981 mini-series Peter and Paul. This was my first exposure to the brilliant actor Anthony Hopkins who depicts how Saul of Tarsus began as a persecutor of the early Christians only to be converted and become the faith's most important evangelist, reaching out to the Gentile world. Hopkins is the star of the series, and Robert Foxworth who plays Peter unfortunately doesn't have much to do. While it's fascinating to see Paul's character arc, a lot of the dramatic tension of the conflict among the founders of the early church is lost as we only see the clash of ideologies from Paul's point of view.

Hopefully, the sequel to The Bible will avoid the mistakes of the earlier attempts to retell the story, which is full of incredible characters and tense moments. I do fear that it might rely more on special effects and literal interpretations of the biblical narrative instead of focusing on the human stories that I wish would be told.  I commend NBC, though, for taking the risk to bring these miniseries to the screen.