Should you want further evidence that we live in a time of antagonistic debate and polarized opinion, look at the critical reaction to Netflix’s Messiah series.
The 10-part series arrived on Jan. 1, promoted as a mystery-thriller about an enigmatic figure, a leader of a cult-like following, who emerges from the Middle East and has a disturbing impact. To some, he’s literally messianic, and to others he’s a dangerous disruptor and probably a terrorist. And to some others, he’s a charlatan.
Reviews have varied from underwhelming to scathing. The trade papers Variety and The Hollywood Reporter damned it with faint praise, calling it “cumbersome” and “bland.” The Guardian reviewer loved it, noting the series is “a sign that we are hardwired for hope.” And a British website declared, “As one of the largest U.S. media corporations, it’s no surprise that Netflix functions as a propaganda arm for radical leftists and the military-industrial complex.”
Thing is, Messiah is first-rate middlebrow entertainment. It’s a thinking person’s thriller, with a touch of Homeland and a dash of astringent scrutiny of faith. At times bombastic and at times infused with a moral imagination, it is nothing like what some reviews have painted it.
The problem with critical approaches to Messiah is that the path there is littered with small bombs that might explode. It’s about religion and belief, and takes the unusual step of linking religions and beliefs and cultures into one collective strand of storytelling.
What happens is that a figure named Al-Masih (Mehdi Dehbi) appears in Damascus making speeches about the population being too fearful of an imminent invasion by the Islamic State. There is hope, he says. A sandstorm stops the invasion, and he’s considered a miracle-worker. Followers troop after him into the desert, and he talks about bringing the word of God to people. But, whose God?
The next steps in the story are what make reviewers, especially in the United States, very uneasy. Al-Masih leads several thousand Palestinian Syrians to the border with Israel. Then there’s an incident at the sacred Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Next, the enigmatic figure turns up in Texas, having just walked across the border from Mexico, and a Baptist minister (John Ortiz) starts to believe that the stranger represents the second coming of Christ.
Wading into religion and asking questions about flawed people and their faith is highly dangerous storytelling, these days. While a portion of the audience for mainstream movies and TV, and critics too, will rail against the stereotyping of Muslim characters and evangelical Christians, when the plot actually veers away from stereotyping and gets genuinely provocative, the knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss it. Messiah is both exploratory and sometimes playful in a way that can be a grievous insult to some. The CIA figure (Michelle Monaghan) tracking Al-Masih says at one point, “What was Jesus, after all? Just a populist politician with an axe to grind against the Roman Empire.”
At the core of the story – created by Michael Petroni, who co-created the ABC series Miracles, and produced by, among others, Mark Burnett and Roma Downey – is the possibility that the messiah figure is simply a con artist. It’s suggested that as a kid, he learned magic tricks and survived by conning people. This, too, is dangerous territory. Not because it suggests that miracles might be mere illusions, but because it invites skepticism about all leaders, from U.S. presidents to religious leaders.
Messiah is one of those instances in which Netflix can attempt to satisfy its vast global audience by offering a story that is near-global in scope, but that scope means it will step on many toes. In its central figure, for starters, it presents a universally compelling man who is just a guy in jeans and a hoodie. Plus, it leaves no powerful figure or institution unquestioned.
The series is no masterpiece. It sags a bit around episode six before going full-throttle again by the end. But it is far from the failure that some coverage would have you believe. Thematically, it is suffused with the kind of hope that emerges from healthy distrust of formulaic piety. And if it manages to make you uneasy, you might feel the better for it.
Live your best. We have a daily Life & Arts newsletter, providing you with our latest stories on health, travel, food and culture. Sign up today.