AMAC Exclusive – By Eleanor Vaughn
Here’s the pitch: a biblically-accurate, binge-worthy, seven-season series telling the story of the Gospels entirely funded by donations from the public. It may sound like a lot, but that’s an exact description of The Chosen, the latest film adaptation of the life of Jesus. Two seasons, each consisting of eight one-hour-long episodes, have so far been produced, with the other five still planned for production.
The show takes a new approach to biblical storytelling, encouraging viewers to “binge Jesus” the same way they would watch the latest HBO or Netflix show. It’s unquestionably a modern production, with atmospheric lighting and other high-end production values, multiple character-driven storylines, and a dramatic over-arching plot slowly tying everything together over the course of a season.
The Chosen is more than just family-friendly, it’s also free. Both seasons are available online, no subscription or account needed, through The Chosen app (on iPhone or Google Play). It’s all part of making the show accessible—to families with children, to those who don’t want or can’t pay for a streaming service, to anyone who is curious. The creators want to reach a billion people, so the fewer barriers to entry, the better.
Keeping the show free and independent isn’t just a way to reach more people. Arguably, a Netflix deal could expose a lot more people to the show. However, The Chosen is built on being free creatively as well as financially. Each season is paid for in advance by crowdfunding, and there is absolutely no Hollywood or streaming service involvement with its creation. As a result, the creators can tell the story of the Gospels authentically. There are creative liberties, and the disclaimer at the beginning of the first episode says the show isn’t a replacement for the Gospels. Crucially, however, there are no liberties taken with deepest truth of the Gospel – from the first episode, Jesus is clearly the Son of God, sent to save humanity from sin.
The first episode primarily follows Mary Magdalene, who is calling herself Lilith, living in squalor, and possessed by demons that not even Nicodemus, a great rabbi from Jerusalem, can exorcise. Then, Jesus calls her by her real name. He heals and comforts her, saving someone beyond human reach with a simple prayer.
Though Jesus appears rarely in the first two episodes, flitting in and out of the stories of the other characters, the third episode shows us the other side of Jesus: His humanity. This task may be even harder than showing His divinity, but The Chosen insists that Jesus is both God and man. We see Him eat, work, sleep, stretch, bleed, and even laugh. The Chosen shows a playful, joking Jesus, grounded in reality yet still a mystery.
It’s a difficult effect to achieve. Depicting Jesus in film requires not just showing Him, but having an actor embody Him. It’s much easier to make Jesus a briefly-seen figure, as in Ben-Hur, or an allegorical character, as in The Chronicles of Narnia, than to show Him as a full-fledged character. Actor Jonathan Roumie acknowledges the weight and challenge of portraying Jesus, saying, “It’s so important for me to get this right.”
The Chosen undoubtedly works hard to get it right. The show’s consultants include a Catholic priest, an Evangelical scholar, and a Jewish rabbi to ensure that it will be biblically and historically accurate. The cast and crew approach the project with an attitude director Dallas Jenkins describes as “bringing the loaves and fishes.” In the feeding of the five thousand, the disciples did what they could, and Jesus did the rest. In The Chosen, the creators bring their talents and professionalism, and leave the rest to God.
Despite its current success, the story of The Chosen began with a box-office flop. Jenkins had just made The Resurrection of Gavin Stone, a 2017 film which looked like another promising entry by a young director, but proved to be “one of the biggest professional disappointments” of his life, with box office numbers that were much lower than expected. Discouraged by this failure but buoyed by prayer, Jenkins’ next project was much smaller in scope: a Christmas film for the Harvest Bible Chapel. He had made films there before, and planned to tell the Christmas story from the perspective of the shepherds. Pleased with his work, he sent it along to a friend, who passed it along to two of his friends who were starting a service called VidAngel, now rebranded as Angel Studios.
From there, it exploded.
The first season made history as the largest media crowdfunding project ever, with 75,346 donors raising $10 million by November 2019. The second season, released this past Easter, reached the same goal with 125,346 donors in November 2020. As of October 2021, season three is 70% funded, and still open for donations. Since its release, the show has been viewed over 160 million times. On YouTube, its season two trailer has over 3 million views, and its Facebook page has over 2 million followers. Season one and two have scores of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. This experiment in Christian media seems to be paying off.
Yet The Chosen is relatively unknown, at least in terms of mainstream coverage. Its 100% on Rotten Tomatoes comes from 4,689 viewers but only 8 critics, and none from any major publications. For comparison, season one for Bridgerton, recently listed #1 on Netflix’s top TV shows list with 82 million views in the first month, has reviews from 96 critics and 1,584 viewers. We’ve had years of weekly updates on hot new streaming shows. Why not The Chosen?
Part of the problem is probably that major media reviewers haven’t heard of it. The independence of The Chosen, which gives it such creative and financial freedom, isolates it from major markets like Netflix and HBO Max. The average consumer can’t find it by flipping through their streaming services, so it has to spread by word of mouth, mostly through Christian circles. It’s also possible that mainstream publications see reviewing Christian media as a risk. Despite major successes like The Passion of Christ, Christian works remain niche media that might be harder to discuss with a broad audience. Still, with something this successful, the lack of mainstream coverage is disappointing, since there’s clearly a market for this kind of show.
However, as The Chosen reminds us, the Gospels weren’t exactly critically acclaimed either. And even without mainstream recognition, The Chosen is a big-time success. It’s a great production, period. So, if you’re in the mood for a character-driven drama about the greatest story ever told, consider giving it a try.
Eleanor Vaughn is a writer living in Virginia.