A fresh take on a sa­cred story

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Pa­trick Kevin Day

Maybe the only thing more daunt­ing than living up to the ex­pec­ta­tions of a minis­eries called “The Bi­ble” is mak­ing the se­quel. Af­ter you’ve chron­i­cled the birth, life and cru­ci­fix­ion of the only son of God, how do you top that? Add a talk­ing cat?

That was the chal­lenge fac­ing hus­band-and-wife pro­duc­ing team Mark Bur­nett and Roma Downey with the new 12-part NBC minis­eries “A.D. The Bi­ble Con­tin­ues,” pre­mier­ing Sun­day.

The se­quel ex­pands and goes be­yond the events of the fi­nal episode of the cou-

ple’s hit 2013 His­tory minis­eries. The good news, be­sides the, uh, Good News, is that there’s a lot to like about this pro­duc­tion that de­picts the birth of Chris­tian­ity not as yet an­other dog­matic swords-and-san­dals re­li­gious epic, but more like a po­lit­i­cal thriller. It’s frus­trat­ing, then, that the ac­tion stum­bles only when it turns its fo­cus to­ward heaven.

Though Christ’s trial and cru­ci­fix­ion are the opener, “A.D.” quickly moves on to parts of the New Tes­ta­ment that aren’t nearly as familiar on-screen.

The dis­ci­ples are the stars here, led by a guilt-rid­den Peter (Adam Levy), who must fig­ure out how to con­tinue to build the church and avoid Je­sus’ fate while be­ing sought by Ca­iaphas, the high priest (Rus­sell Crowe-looka­like Richard Coyle) of the tem­ple, and the Ro­man gover­nor, Pon­tius Pi­late (Vin­cent Re­gan).

De­spite his res­ur­rec­tion by the end of the first hour, Je­sus (Juan Pablo Di Pace) takes a sup­port­ing role here (at least in the first two episodes avail­able for re­view). It’s a risky move, but it turns out to be a re­fresh­ing one.

Freed from telling the tale of the Mes­siah, “A.D.” is free to be a lit­tle more thrilling with its sto­ry­telling. And that’s def­i­nitely a plus dur­ing this Easter sea­son with three ma­jor bi­b­li­cal projects on TV, in­clud­ing Na­tional Geo­graphic Chan­nel’s “Killing Je­sus” and CBS’ “The Dove­keep­ers.”

With its darker story line of he­roes on the run and their spir­i­tual men­tor ap­pear­ing spo­rad­i­cally with an even more en­light­ened per­spec­tive on the uni­verse, you could say that “A.D.” is the “Em­pire Strikes Back” to “The Bi­ble’s” “Star Wars.” My poor Sun­day school teacher would prob­a­bly weep to read it de­scribed that way. But the re­al­ity is that “A.D.” is air­ing on a ma­jor broad­cast net­work and that it’s work­ing to broaden its ap­peal be­yond those who at­tend church ev­ery Sun­day.

For the faith­ful, “A.D.” can be viewed with re­lief. Though it’s air­ing on the same net­work that gave us the ul­tra-laid-back “dude” Je­sus in “The Book of Daniel” a few years ago, the ma­te­rial this time is han­dled with du­ti­ful re­spect.

Though that’s not to say it’s a dry slog. With its po­lit­i­cal ma­neu­ver­ing and gritty feel, there’s more in­flu­ence of “Game of Thrones” than Ce­cil B. DeMille here.

But it’s not flaw­less. When “A.D.” moves be­yond the hu­man drama on Earth and gives us a peek at the pow­ers of heaven at work, verisimil­i­tude is thrown out the win­dow in fa­vor of at­tempted spec­ta­cle.

One of God’s an­gels ar­rives to es­cort Je­sus from his tomb at the end of the first episode, but he looks as if he’d flown in from Syfy’s an­gels-ver­sus-hu­mans se­ries “Do­min­ion.”

And the ef­fects bear all the sub­tlety and po­etry of a fresco as painted by Thomas Kinkade.

With so much work­ing on the ground in “A.D.,” it’s a shame when the weak­est link hap­pens to come from on high.

Joe Alblas NBC

“A.D.,” with Juan Pablo Di Pace as Je­sus, has a po­lit­i­cal thriller feel.

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