According to many critics, "The Bible," the History Channel's epic miniseries dramatizing the Old and New Testaments, was a flop waiting to happen. Entertainment Weekly labeled it a "cheesefest," the Los Angeles Times called it "flat and often tedious," and the Philadelphia Inquirer dismissed it as "cardboard characters surrounded by CGI frippery." Metacritic.com, a review aggregation website, gave it an underwhelming collective score of 44 out of 100.
The consensus was clear: "The Bible" was a show that wasn't worth your time.
Yet like the sacred tome upon which the TV version is based, "The Bible" has proven to be more popular with the people at-large than with the elite opinion makers. The show's debut episode attracted 13.1 million viewers, which was twice as many people as watched any show on NBC in the month of February. The New York Times breathlessly reported that the ratings numbers "exceeded all expectations," which, while impressive, is far less remarkable when one recognizes just how low the bar was set.
Media outlets continue to refer to "The Bible" as a "surprise hit," which demonstrates that those who ignore the hunger for respectful religious entertainment can be surprised rather easily. Faith-based programming is entirely absent from network television, and movies that don't treat religious people as hypocrites or human punch lines seem to rarely make their way into the local cinema. Every now and then, though, something with respect for religion sneaks past the Hollywood gatekeepers, who then feign surprise when people respond to an obvious demand for which they refuse to provide the supply.
Consider that in the wake of the Newtown tragedy, many defended Hollywood's violent excesses on the basis that the entertainment industry just gives the public what it wants. Would that this were true. Time and again, the public has shown it prefers wholesome entertainment to Tinseltown's typical fare. Studies have demonstrated that G-rated movies typically make 11 times the profit of their R-rated counterparts, yet the majority of major studio releases still carry an R rating. By the same token, quality programming that reflects a religious world view has repeatedly proven to make good money. If box office returns were truly the only thing Hollywood executives cared about, we should expect to see savvy producers doing everything they could to replicate "The Bible's" predictable success.
If that were to happen, it would be our turn to say Hollywood exceeded all expectations.