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Television John Doyle: The kooky way of talking about Killing Jesus

It is a testament to the sheer weirdness of the TV critics press tour that the Killing Jesus session was preceded by Steve Wozniak, the co-founder of Apple, and Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter, talking about the idea of "genius" for an upcoming show called American Genius. And they were followed, a bit later, by the arrival of a passel of barking puppy dogs, here to bark-up a new show called Barkfest.

But let's talk Killing Jesus.

In his spare time, which is apparently copious, the Fox News right-wing ranter Bill O'Reilly writes books about killings.

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There was Killing Lincoln, Killing Kennedy, Killing Patton and Killing Jesus. Co-written with Martin Dugard, the books attempt to humanize historical figures and explain, in a plain-spoken way, what happened at the time of their deaths. And why they were killed. The books are all bestsellers.

The National Geographic channel, which usually airs nature and science programs, made TV movies of Killing Lincoln and Killing Kennedy, the only scripted shows they have ever aired – and the most-watched shows on the channel. Now, this spring, comes the dramatization of Killing Jesus.

The cast and producers, without O'Reilly, came here to promote it. And that was only slightly surreal, in the context of the press tour. Consider this: The real star-power isn't the chap playing Jesus, it's King Herod, played by Kelsey Grammer of Frasier and Cheers fame.

The drama's screenwriter, Walon Green, calls it "the behind-the-scenes story of Jesus," which seems an odd summation. But then, it's all odd. What we were shown was a portion of a sprawling epic that's three hours long, with handsome actors re-enacting a drama of betrayal and machinations. Judas, played by one Joe Doyle, gets a lot of attention.

Grammer pronounced on his (haphazard) approach to playing Herod: "Well, Herod is the guy who killed the kids. That's what I remember from my schooling as a boy in Sunday School. So I never really had a real vision of him. An odd thing occurred when I was in a London hotel just before I started shooting. I opened up a book, one of those decorative books, and it was about history. The first thing I saw was King Herod's palace, a giant edifice. I had no idea that he had such a remarkable career as a monarch. Politically, he was in between the Romans and the Hebrews, representing the Hebrews but basically appointed by the Romans. So he was always worried about being killed, which I thought was fascinating. So that humanized him to me in a lot of ways."

At its core, though, the drama is about Jesus himself. There was a wave of online outrage from conservative Christians when it was announced that a Muslim, Lebanese-American actor Haaz Sleiman, would play Jesus. Sleiman has previously played a terrorist on 24 and a gay nurse on Nurse Jackie.

He came well-prepared. Asked how he reacted when told he'd gotten the part, he said he blurted out, "Jesus!" He also said he'd respond to the haters by asking them, "What would Jesus do?" and would tell them, "He would love his enemies." Sleiman had a "So there!" look of satisfaction on saying that.

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Screenwriter Green was asked what his pitch would be to a non-Christian audience. And his rambling answer began with, "I think non-Christian viewers will really like this film because they can immerse themselves in the human story of this guy, this phenomenal guy, Jesus."

Then things went from kooky to scholarly, quite suddenly. A critic asked about the argument in Christian apologetics called the "C.S. Lewis's trilemma," that Jesus was either a madman, a myth or the messiah, and that, in considering him, you really have to pick one. "So, in writing this," the critic asked, "how do you steer among those three possibilities?" (Note to the TV racket – some critics are scholars, not jeering hacks.)

The answers were intriguing, because they were serious.

Green said: "I know about C.S. Lewis's trilemma, and I also know about the advocacy of historical Jesus. There are also people who believe the entire thing was an assemblage of legend and myth. I believe in going into this, before I even read the book, that Jesus was a real person. Much of what Jesus said and is in the gospels he probably did say – if not directly in that form, in some very similar form. It's really about commitment. It's about a person who comes out of whatever his youth was with a degree of commitment that nothing else in life is important to him except this. You have to die and suffer without cursing those who torture you. You have to do all of those things. And that's really, to me, the wonder of this human being. So I think the Lewis idea is just dismissive and simplistic."

Grammer chimed in with: "I think C.S. Lewis might actually have been playing the devil's advocate because he drew his own conclusion, which most people know about, which is that Jesus was divine. So maybe that was just a setup. Sorry."

That was some barkfest about Jesus. Bring on the show.

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