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'The Bible' Is A Smash, On TV


Every so often a television show or a film depicting stories from the Bible comes along. They may vary in look and sound depending on the era, but they are always epic.


MARTIN: Think Charlton Heston as Moses in the 1950s film "The Ten Commandments."



: (as Moses) ...shall die by the law.


MARTIN: The holy scriptures have once again been brought back to life in the form of a mini-series now showing on the History Channel simply called "The Bible." More the 13 million people tuned in to see the first episode, which aired earlier this month.


MARTIN: A few episodes in, "The Bible" is still attracting millions of viewers. So, if Bible stories do so well why doesn't religion find its way into more mainstream TV and film? James Poniewozik covers popular culture for Time magazine. And he's been writing about religion in entertainment. I asked him if religion remains a hard sell in Hollywood.

JAMES PONIEWOZIK: I think that one thing that we still don't see enough of in television is sitcoms and dramas and ongoing characters that deal with religion just as a daily part of life, as it is in the real world. A character's faith or even lack of faith is a significant part of who they are. And this seems to be a tougher and scarier thing for TV networks to do than to do sort of a one-off Bible story around Eastertime.

MARTIN: Can you point to any example in mainstream entertainment of a more multidimensional character who happens to be religious and that is a part of their life on the show?

PONIEWOZIK: One TV show that I think did a fantastic job with dealing with the role of religion in characters' lives was "Friday Night Lights," about a high school football team in a small town in Texas. It wasn't a religious drama per se, but there were a lot of characters for whom simply their faith was an aspect of who they were.


PONIEWOZIK: It didn't pander to faith, it didn't make fun of Christianity. It was just one aspect of life as it would be in a town like this.

MARTIN: So, getting back to this miniseries, "The Bible," do you think that this particular miniseries will have a real effect on Hollywood producers when they think about religious programming?

PONIEWOZIK: I expect that it should have an effect but maybe a limited one. I mean, it does seem that lately whenever somebody does some sort of big religious production and it becomes really successful - you know, this goes back to, say, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" - Hollywood is continually surprised over and over again that these shows do really well. But, of course, there are a lot of people who are very passionate about their religion and there's a limited number of Hollywood productions that deal with that. And naturally people respond to it. I would expect with something like "The Bible" that it may mean more specials and biblical entertainments. But one thing that lends itself well to adaptation that might be tougher for networks to pick up on in regular series TV is that doing a Bible story allows you to avoid some of the things that makes executives nervous about dealing with religion.

MARTIN: Like what?

PONIEWOZIK: It's a document that's set in the past. It's not, you know, reflecting contemporary life. There may be elements of controversy that attach to how you adapt the Bible, but the characters have been created. You're telling stories that already have the endorsement of a particular religion. Whereas once you're dealing with writing characters in our world, dealing with our society and our problems, there are just myriad possibilities for offending somebody. What might attract one person to a contemporary character about religion might turn off somebody else, you know. One person's wholesome show is another person's boring show. It's easier to please a large group of people, I think, when you're dealing with relatively safe material like Bible stories that have been around for thousands of years.

MARTIN: James Poniewozik covers popular culture for Time magazine. James, thanks so much.

PONIEWOZIK: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.