At one point it was taboo to say you were a person of religious background. Mark and Roma are saying, 'You know what? It's OK to be a Christian. It's OK to be a Jewish American, a Muslim American and work in Hollywood. God intended these stories to inspire, to give hope, and also to be heartbreaking at times, and that's wrapped into 'A.D.' —Joshua Dubois
It was during a live episode of “The Voice” that executive producer Mark Burnett and Robert Greenblatt, chairman of NBC Entertainment, found themselves in a production truck, talking about the success of History Channel's 2013 series “The Bible.” Greenblatt was impressed.
“He was selling DVDs hand over fist. It was just an incredible kind of breakthrough show,” Greenblatt said in a recent interview with KSL-TV. “I said, 'Are you finished with 'The Bible?'”
Burnett told him that "there is more of the story to tell."
“Well, we should do that the continuation of it,” Greenblatt said.
That’s how “A.D. The Bible Continues,” which follows previous projects "The Bible" and the theatrical film "Son of God" by Burnett, co-producer Roma Downey and LightWorkers Media, came to be on broadcast network television. NBC's 12-part television series premieres Easter Sunday at 8 p.m. A special about the series, "Finding Faith in Primetime," will air on KSL-TV, the local NBC affiliate, at 4 p.m.
Bible-based programming could be seen as a risky move, but NBC is confident the series will resonate with audiences.
"In the grand scheme of things, what we do all day is gamble. ... I think there is a big audience for these kinds of things, and where else do you get it?" Greenblatt said in the KSL interview. "It's the greatest story. It keeps being retold, and I don't know why we haven't explored it more recently."
Part of Greenblatt's confidence stems from having the married couple Burnett and Downey on the job. The 10-part series "The Bible" drew more than 100 million viewers, according to the History Channel. Burnett has a long track record of hit reality shows such as "Survivor," "The Voice" and "Shark Tank."
Greenblatt has a high level of trust in the duo.
"We love working with them. We've known them for years," Greenblatt told KSL-TV. "They are incredible people and ... are there to ensure that it's going to be done right."
Burnett and Downey said the idea for "The Bible" stemmed from a European study they saw some years ago that revealed children didn't know the details of basic Bible stories. They found the trend troubling and wanted to educate children in an "exciting, dramatic and compelling" way. They even consulted their own teenage family members for feedback on its entertainment value, Burnett said in a KSL interview.
"Kids were asked who Daniel and the lions' den was, and they thought it was a story from 'The Lion King,' or that Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife, or that David and Goliath was the name of a ship," Burnett said. "At first we laughed at this report. But when you take that to heart and consider it, it’s rather upsetting — that many of the youth today don’t even know the most fundamental stories from scripture. So part of what we hope to do here is educate, but in a way that you don’t know you’re being educated. ... This is the ultimate reality television."
In doing so, the series stays true to biblical accounts, including the violent aspects. "A.D. The Bible Continues" is given a TV-14 rating. The first two episodes depict the crucifixion, images of ritual animal sacrifice, and murders and executions that take place in the heated political landscape.
"It was a pretty violent time," Greenblatt said. "Christ is crucified in the first episode and it's pretty hard to watch, and that's not going to be the end of the violence. There is violence in the world everywhere, and much of it is based off religious belief. It's not just an old-fashion, soft kind of Bible story. There is life, death and stakes. It's fundamentally about religious beliefs, faith and spirituality, and those themes are not that present in a lot of our programming. That's what I think touches the chord in the audience. ... Hopefully, that will translate to our audience."
The success of "The Bible" paved the way for "A.D.," Downey said.
“That enormous success is what gave us the opportunity to continue on and not allow the story to end with the crucifixion, but allow the story to begin with the crucifixion and Resurrection. It was a story of what happens next," Downey said. "NBC's commitment to stepping up boldly for taking on 'A.D.' was fantastic. They love my husband, we have 'The Voice' there and it’s a big hit for them, but I think they saw the potential for this. We expect a big audience."
The series begins with the crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. It continues with the spread of Christianity by Peter and the apostles, and includes the conversion of Paul in the Book of Acts, among other stories.
"I think the way it’s been done is pretty epic but allows the viewer to have their experience. It’s not telling the viewer how to feel," Downey said. "What we wanted to do was present it in a very human, relatable way so that the viewer at home can identify with the struggles and hurts, but most importantly with the hopes."
Juan Pablo Di Pace, who plays Jesus, was thrilled to be part of the project. The actor said the scripts were so beautifully written that he actually wept while reading the first two episodes.
“For me it was a definitely, 'Where do I sign?'” Di Pace said in an interview with NBC. “I come from a religious background. It was important for me to play this role. Never in a million years did I imagine that I would, but when the chance came up, I jumped at it. To play him in 'A.D.' is very, very special.”
KSL captured reactions to the series from prominent names in faith communities. Joshua Dubois, former director of faith-based initiatives for President Barack Obama, described "The Bible" and "A.D." as "groundbreaking" for a couple of reasons.
"At one point, it was taboo to say you were a person of religious background. Mark and Roma are saying, 'You know what? It's OK to be a Christian. It's OK to be a Jewish American, a Muslim American and work in Hollywood,'" DuBois said. "God intended these stories to inspire, to give hope and also to be heartbreaking at times, and that's wrapped into 'A.D.'"
Pastor Gregory Johnson, president and director of Standing Together and a board member of the National Association of Evangelicals, said NBC may have a hit in "A.D." because the plot stays true to the Bible version, unlike 2014 films such as "Noah" and "Exodus: Gods and Kings," where the directors used vast interpretation and artistic license.
"I'm not just saying that to be nice to NBC," Pastor Johnson said. "When you stay true to the script, then Christians and people who are interested in faith-based films are drawn to that. ... It's going to be something all of us can appreciate, learn from and be entertained by."
Tim Gray, president and founder of Gray Media, sees the interest in and success of faith-based entertainment as a reflection of society.
"Film is a reflection of society, and society is a reflection of film," Gray said. "I think everything that is happening in the world right now is causing a resurgence of faith, and everybody to look at what's real and what our purpose is."
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