The Chosen (Seson 1, Ep 1): I Have Called You by Name

HI! The Chosen is a television drama based on the life of Jesus of Nazareth, created, directed and co-written by American filmmaker Dallas Jenkins. It is the first multi-season series about the life of Jesus, and season one was the top crowd-funded TV series or film project of all time.

Not only is this a TV series about Jesus, it is apparently also good. The universal critical praise drew me in. I will watch and give my thoughts, too. I’m not sure it’s possible to have “spoilers” about the life of Jesus but just in case, I will limit discussion to everything through the end of the current episode.

THE QUICK AND CLEAN SUMMARY:

We are introduced to demon-possessed Lilith, questioning Nicodemus – a Phrisee in Capernaum from Jerusalem, tax debt riddled Simon and Andrew, and eccentric tax collector Matthew.

Nicodemus is troubled after an encounter with Lilith, deciding that no human could exorcise her demons. Simon and Andrew hatch a plan to work with Romans to overcome their tax debt. Lilith considers suicide but is healed as the episode ends by a stranger – who we know to be Jesus.

THE EXTRA DUSTY RECAP:

(screen grabbed poorly by me)

The episode opens with a coughing man who is approached by his young daughter. She tells him that she cannot sleep, and when he asks if the reason is the big new star in the sky, or if it is because her head hurts again, she says no. She tells him that she is scared but does not know why. The girl’s father leads her in a recitation of scripture, specifically from Isaiah.

Father: “Thus says the Lord who created you, oh Jacob, and He who formed you, oh Israel, fear not,” Come I want to hear you to say it. I want you to use your voice. Come.
Girl: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.”
Father: [to his daughter] You are mine.

A woman, presumably the girl from the previous scene, wakes abruptly in Capernaum 28 years later. She looks rough. Outside, we hear a man yell for help. The woman looks down at her hands, finds blood on them, and weeps. Outside the man finds a Roman soldier and tells him vaguely that she tried to kill him and that demons live inside of her.

In the next scene, a Rabbi and his wife and travelling when stopped by Roman soldiers. A Roman approaches the Rabi and identifies himself as Quintus, the praetor of Capernaum. The Rabbi is Nicodemus. Quintus is a magistrate, and not military, and he wants help from Nicodemus concerning tax collection.

A young and very affluent Jew leaves his lavish home, where he is met by someone whose job it is to hide the wealthy man on his way to work. We learn that the rich young man is named Matthew, and that he is a tax collector. Matthew does not want to be seen with the man escorting him any more than the man who is escorting him wants to be seen with Matthew.

Later, Nicodemus – who is not from Capernaum, gives a religious lecture to a small gathered crowd where he lavishes praise upon the Sea of Galilee before condemning the growing local practice of fishing on Shabbat. After the talk, a local religious leader named Shmuel nervously makes preparations for hosting a dinner to honor Nicodemus, who is a member of the Sanhedrin who has traveled to Capernaum from Jerusalem. In a smaller group, Nicodemus renews his admonition to Shmuel to crack down on the practice of fishing during Shabbat.

While they are talking, a Centurion arrives. He informs Nicodemus that a Hebrew woman in the Red Quarter has been causing a disturbance. Shmuel asks him why he is seeking them out, given that he has a legion at his disposal, and the Roman sarcastically thanks him for the reminder but tells them all that the woman needs a holy man. Nicodemus is hesitant to visit the Red Quarter but agrees when he is told that if he does not, the district will be burned down.

Matthew arrives at the far side market and his driver, who is hiding him under a tarp, forces him to get out of his cart and cross the rest of the way to his tax collection booth on foot. He arrives just before his Roman guard, Gaius, who jokes with Matthew about how on edge the market is today.

The Roman guard leads Nicodemus and Shmuel through the ominous Red Quarter. When they arrive, Nicodemus hears a man screaming in the distance, and sends Shmuel to gather supplies for performing an exorcism. He is unhappy with the Roman guards for asking him to do this at all and says as much.

Elsewhere in Capernaum, we see a man named Simon lying on the ground, having just been punched in the face, as a gathered crowd cheers them on. We see money being exchanged by people in the crowd as Simon rolls over and sees a man in the crowd giving him a signal. Simon jumps to his feet and begins hitting the other man. We learn he is fighting his brother-in-law. Finally the brother-in-law tells Simon that he gives up, but he then tells Simon *his* brother will not stop fighting. Just then another of SImon’s brothers-in-law punches him in the face, knocking him out.

After the fight, we learn that the man who gave Simon a hand signal is his brother Andrew. Simon complains that a double knockout is considered a push and calls it a made up rule. The two brothers discuss taxes which are due, son, and that they could lose their boat. Simon gets on a boat to fish, even though Shabbat is only an hour away, arguing that lives are at stake. He asks Andrew if he is going to tell his bug-eating friend about this.

In the Red Quarter, a woman named Rivka wants Nicodemus to leave Lilith alone and tells him that she has spells like this but that when they are over she is as sweet as an angel again. Her argument is undercut by the sound of Lilith screaming in the distance. Nicodemus enters the room with Lilith and attempts an exorcism. His effort fails and he flees.

Simon returns home to his wife, Eden, who pretends to be upset with him about his fight with her brothers, before revealing that she is joking about it. He tells her that he and Andrew lost a lot of money and she jokes that it is not fair that her brothers cheated him when he was trying to cheat them, too. Simon starts to say something about her family as a whole but she advises him not to say that they are troubled in the mind. She says instead that they are colorful and fun. She asks how fishing went and he lies that it went well. She tells him to change for synagogue because he smells.

Lilith thinks about the moment she shared with her father, when she was a little girl. She wakes up and returns to her room and seeks where her things are strewn about. She flashes back again to a scene with her father, as a little girl, when he was coughing. As Lilith sobs in the present, we see her father dying in the past. Distraught, Lilith in the present tries to read the words of Isaiah 43 from a scrap of parchment. She looks up and sees a Roman soldier and then grabs at her head, in pain, and begins sobbing vigorously, unable to finish after starting. She flashes back to a scene from earlier in her life of a Roman soldier grabbing her roughly. We can intimate that he forced himself on her as she sobs and tries, in the present, to finish reading the verse. She finally gives up and tears the parchment into pieces.

When she pulls herself together, she visits a drinking and gambling establishment. The kindly older bartender hugs her and is pleased that she is still alive. After sitting down, she tells the bartender that her problem is getting increasingly worse and that a Pharisee was brought in from Jerusalem to see her, though she cannot remember it in more than bits and pieces. After a few moments, she gives the bartender a doll. He says that it looks as though it was loved for a long time. She answers that it used to hold something valuable – the parchment, though she does not say that – and that she does not need it anymore. She tells him he can give it to one of his nephews. When he says she is beginning to scare him, she just smile and says she scares him and everyone else. He tells her to stay until she feels better and he says that even if hell comes, that they will face it together. She smiles and tells him she would not do that even if he was her worst enemy.

Nicodemus is comforted by his wife after his failed exorcism attempt. She encourages him to put it out of his mind and focus on the task at hand in front of him tonight – which is to be an honored guest nd teacher of the law. Nicodemus is struggling with his faith, though, and confesses to his wife that sometimes he wonders what humanity can know about God and the law is incomplete.

His wife tells him that this thought is ridiculous and that it might even be blasphemy.

She admonishes Nicodemus that he should not have been in the Red Quarter in the first place and he answers that only God Himself could have drawn them out. Later, in his capacity as a teacher, Nicodemus explains his trip to the Red Quarter and after admitting that perhaps he should not have gone at all, he says that a possession such as the one he attempted to help with is beyond all human aid.

Lilith stand son the edge of a cliff and appears to contemplate suicide. She tosses her scrap of parchment, from Isaiah, over the edge and stares down at it. Before she can jump, she is distracted by a bird. It draws her attention away from the cliff’s edge and she follows it.

Simon and Andrew approach Matthew to discuss their taxes. Simon asks Andrew to let him do the talking and Andrew declines. Simon tells Andrew that he can get their taxes worked out because he met a guy. Andrew does not take Simon seriously. However, as Matthew tells him how much he owes at the booth, Andrew whispers to Simon in despair that they are ruined. Simon merely smiles at him and then tells Matthew that they have an arrangement with Quintus. Simon tells Matthew that the arrangement covers his brother’s debt and a year of gratis for them both. Matthew is skeptical and tells them that he will verify this claim. As they go, Andrew whispers to his brother, asking what happened, and Simon tells him not to speak and just to walk. Later, Simon explains that after his failed fishing trip the other night, he saw that the reason he was not catching anything was because a merchant ship on the water was netting everything. After he docked, he says a Roman soldier was waiting on shore and approached him. Simon then told the Roman soldier that if he took him to Quintus, he (Simon) would let Quintus know who catches more in one night – without reporting the catch to be taxed – then everyone else catches in a week. Andrew is shocked that his brother would offer to turn in Jewish fishermen. Simon says that what he told Matthew was real and when Andrew says that this is dangerous, Simon replies that sleeping outside is also dangerous. Andrew tells his brother that he will not inform on their people and Simon tells him that is fine, but adds that he better get going if he wants to report to the taxman.

Matthew and his guard, Gaius, approach Quintus to verify Simon’s story.

Lilith, staring up at the bird in the sky, wanders back into the village. Her concentration is broken outside of the bar, she loses sight of the bird, and she re-enters. As she talks to the friendly bar man, she rocks nervously as she tells him she is not well. A man approaches her, to sleep with her, but both she and the bar man tell her tonight is not the night. After the man goes, the bar man tells Lilith that he does not know what he can do to help her. She asks for a drink. When he does not want to give it to her, she insists, and he relents. As she moves to put her hand on the cup to lift it to her lips, a stranger places his hand on hers and tells her that it is not for her.

Her headaches begin immediately and she gets up and goes outside. The stranger follows her out. As she is some distance from the door, he calls out to her.

Stranger: Mary! Mary of Magdala.
Lilith: Who are you? How do you know my name?
Stranger: Thus says the Lord who created you, and He who formed you, fear not, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine.
[He places his hands on her head and she gasps and then begins weeping]

REACTION:

This is a really good pilot episode not just for a “Jesus show” but for any show. While it does not look “big budget,” the set and costuming certainly looks good by television standards. The acting makes this show work and it is superb – especially Elizabeth Tabish (Lilith / Mary Magdalene) and Erick Avari (Nicodemus.)

We get drawn into the lives of a few people here, namely Mary (who we spent most of the episode calling Lilith), Simon and Andrew, Matthew, and Nicodemus. This show is dramatic – with a lot of heavy themes – but it also includes just enough humor and fun to avoid being heavy-handed. We only meet Jesus at the very end of the episode. While he will no doubt be more heavily featured later, his lack of inclusion in the pilot is probably indicative of the fact that this show is just as much about the people who will eventually be his disciples as it is about Jesus.

The Bible sketches out the characters of some of these people, but the show creates fictional backstories that flesh these sketches out, make them real people, and fit within the textual framework provided by the Gospels. I read some reviews of this show which described this effort as blasphemous, but in my opinion, that description is completely unfair – at least in this episode. We’ll see as we go forward.

There are a couple of quirky things about The Chosen that jumped out at me in this episode. The theme song – while good – feels like a weird fit with a period piece historical drama. I also found it jarring that the Roman characters have American accents (with maybe one Australian mixed in.) However, I did adjust to the “Roman” voices fairly quickly. I don’t think it’s something that will bother me long term.

Episode Highlights:

Elizabeth Tabish as Mary Magdalene is so, so good. She covered a big range of emotions, including a demon possession scene, and was completely compelling throughout. I don’t think it’s overstating things to say she carried the episode. On the topic of the demon possession, the writers and directors went with a smart “less is more” approach and it was effectively chilling.

I really enjoyed the interaction between Simon and his wife Eden. Lara Silva, as Eden, was particularly charming and I hope to see more of her going forward. Shahar Isaac does not exactly look how I have always pictured Simon in my head, however, he effectively embodies the impulsive wildness that the Gospels hint at with the real man.

I also liked the interaction between Nicodemus and his wife, Zohara (Janis Dardaris) but for different reasons. In contrast to Eden, Zohara’s support of her husband seems to be less fun and supportive, and is instead more maternal. When he is questioning, rather than assisting him down that path, she tells him (more or less) to stop. I anticipate that these two married couples will be a place of contrast again. Erick Avari’s performance is outstanding throughout. His Nicodemus is both authoritative, but also kind and questioning.

Matthew was also good and I am looking forward to seeing more from Paras Patel. One of the best moments of levity in this episode was the scene of him covering his nose and wretching at the smell around him when leaving his rich home for work.

We only got a moment of Jonathan Roumie’s Jesus in this episode. Despite only a moment on screen… he has a *powerful* presence on screen. His exorcism was both simply done and moving.

All in all, this was a very good start that lives up to the hype around the show.

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