Disclaimer: The following post may be considered offensive and sacrilegious to fans of TV specials in which a sexy Jesus scream-sings a Katy Perry song on top of a skyscraper.
Like all ancient religions, Christianity’s had its ups and downs through the millennia, but if we’re being honest with ourselves it’s a very beloved and popular religion all things considered. At least in America, I’m pretty sure nothing’s even come close to knocking it out of the top spot except, I don’t know, The Secret? I’m not a theologian. But facts are facts: In 2016, about 70% of Americans identify as Christian, and this suggests that there is a healthy and sincere interest in Christian mainstream entertainment. So why isn’t there more of it? Theory: A lot of it is bad. Hear me out! …A lot of it is bad. Because come on, even the most devout Christians will admit that they deserve better than God’s Not Dead 2. I can only think of one truly great piece of Christian-themed entertainment and that’s the Twilight saga jk jk, relax. It’s not actually that great.
This brings us to The Passion, which was Fox’s bizarre attempt to disabuse us of the notion that they are good at staging live musicals. Because this was NO Grease Live! What it was was a baffling two-hour ceremony/concert that blended pre-taped covers of modern(ish) pop songs with Tyler Perry narration and man-on-the-street interviews and Trisha Yearwood for some reason. I think both Christians and non-Christians alike can agree that the sight of a modern day Jesus singing an Imagine Dragons song alongside Judas Iscariot is a somewhat less powerful version of how it went down in the New Testament. And by the end, it was completely unclear whom this special was even for: devout Christians — in which case weren’t these creative liberties kind of offensive? — or rather non-believers to whom the producers were hoping to proselytize — in which case I feel that I can speak for the latter group when I say, “Ineffective!”
But credit where credit’s due, The Passion was certainly one of the weirdest and most memorable TV specials I’ve ever seen in my life, which is precious, and God, and the Bible. Yeah let’s talk about everything you need to know about it!
The Production. Filmed in New Orleans, the main stage was a sort of Roman temple-Jumbotron hybrid that was littered with gospel singers and had what appeared to be a large, glowing phallus flopping out into the audience. This stage was also flanked on both sides by riverboats, because few things say “praise Him” like floating dens of iniquity. As for Tyler Perry as emcee — and I say this as a true and sincere fan of Madea Goes to Jail — he was very boring! Bringing neither the charisma nor wig collection of his signature character, we were left with a sort of cherubic youth group leader who may as well have flipped a chair backward so that he could sit down and get real with the kids. Thanks, Tyler Perry, but I miss the days when Madea would break up a house party by firing a machine gun.
Throughout the night we were treated to drone footage of a procession of marchers carrying a glowing cross down Bourbon Street. This honestly felt right, just from a historical sense. But I truly hope the marchers didn’t get too much vomit and sewage on their shoes, as they most certainly would have during ancient times.
Another weird feature was the woman conducting man-on-the-street interviews with various passersby, including one woman who discussed the unsolved murder of her teenage son while a woman in a glowing top hat twirled glowsticks behind her. What exactly was going on here? Spirituality, that’s what.
Sexy Modern Jesus. All right, so first of all, THIS Jesus of Nazareth looked like a very handsome Latino Jimmy Fallon. Which, no complaints here! Actor Jencarlos Canela is obviously very talented and gave it his all, but I honestly felt bad for him the whole time. The thing about legends — and I specifically mean Biblical legends now — is they’re easier to take to heart when they’re placed in the context of their times. Like who even knows what the circa 33 A.D. Middle East was like? Anything was possible back then. But outfit Jesus in a stylish 2016-era coat and have him scream-sing at strangers on public transportation, and suddenly now I think he is just a male model who went off his meds and should maybe be placed in 51/50 for observation. Riding public transportation is hard enough, you know? Someone handle that guy.
That being said, I definitely appreciated the modern twist that Jesus and Peter now had to deal with constant and palpable sexual tension. This scene of Jesus walking up to Peter standing on an empty corner in the French Quarter was a definite “where you stayin?” moment that I would’ve liked to have seen unfold further, but I suppose there are special websites for that.
I found it bold but arguably accurate that the apostles were portrayed as actual street hobos. In one scene they even slept on cardboard boxes under a bridge, which made me very concerned about their microphones and earpieces getting dirty. Because yes, despite these segments being obviously pre-taped and lip-synced, all the actors wore microphones and earpieces as though they were in a stage show. Also, because these segments kept cutting back to Tyler Perry (who WAS live), it became immediately obvious that the producers had perhaps forgotten about Daylight Savings and didn’t realize that the live segments would still be daylight while the pre-taped ones were at night. Oh well! B for effort.
Chris Daughtry as Judas. Judas, the original Lex Luthor, was played by former American Idol rocker
Chris Daughtry. He was fine. Who even knows. At one point he shouted his big song in what appeared to be the same set from Janet Jackson’s “Pleasure Principal.” But instead of dancing around with tight moves and sassy declarations of independence, Judas just sort of scream-sung angrily to nobody in particular, which, again, mental problems? The whole talking-to-yourself thing made more sense for people who were trapped in an ancient desert, but in 2016, it’s not quite as cute.
Trisha Yearwood as Mary. When most people think Virgin Mary they think Trisha Yearwood, but man did she do so much of the heavy lifting in this special. She and Seal were the only two singers who seemed to be actually performing live, and I guess she was so good at it that she was forced to perform about 14 different times throughout the night. But I wonder how far into production Trisha Yearwood got before anyone told her that she wasn’t going to be singing any of her own songs? That must’ve been a hurtful day. Anyway, things started surprisingly well when Trisha Yearwood was allowed to sing an underrated Whitney Houston jam (”My Love Is Your Love”) but then things got dark when she had to cover Jewel. Honestly, this whole situation must have been even more humiliating for her than when she had to share a song with LeAnn Rimes on the Con Air soundtrack. Let Trisha Yearwood [how do I] LIIIIIIIVE!
Seal as Pontius Pilate. I mean, I have a lot to say about this. Number one, it was nothing less than infuriating when Seal sang “We Don’t Need Another Hero” but the lyric was changed from “beyond the thunderdome” to “beyond the life we know.” YOU CANNOT CHANGE THAT LYRIC, JERKS. Seal could at least have had the decency to wear Tina Turner’s Auntie Entity wig! And then it felt like this special was just continuing to troll us when Seal broke into a rendition of “Mad World,” a song beloved by every moody teen who ever skipped Sunday School to rewatch Donnie Darko. If Christianity has one bad habit it deserves to be called out for, it’s the way it always tries to co-opt secular joy for its own purposes. Christmas was cooler when it was called Saturnalia, you thieves! Jesus was a springtime baby and you know it! Anyway, great job, Seal.
OK a few more things about the songs. If there was a major takeaway from The Passion, it was that a lot of terrible pop songs became popular over the years. Included in this special’s hit list… Imagine Dragons, Jason Mraz, Creed (!), Phillip Phillips, Evanescence, and Lifehouse. Oh, and HOOBASTANK. Because obviously Hoobastank. Hoobastank 3:16.
A cameo by Carla from Top Chef. Sure, why not? SOMEONE had to give Jesus those loaves of bread and fish, it may as well have been a former reality show contestant working out of a food truck.
The Targeted Ads. I think we can all agree that God’s Not Dead 2 will be an important and riveting defense of underdogs who currently enjoy a 70% majority in America. But at least Melissa Joan Hart and Jesse Metcalfe will get to qualify for SAG healthcare this year! Anyway, it made sense that this particular movie and some various Christian musicians were advertised during The Passion, but Fox advertising Empire as a spiritual show was some straight-up shenanigans. Simply splicing together all available footage of Andre wearing a choir robe does not make Empire a spiritual drama, guys. Chris Rock’s character ate a man this season. Which, come to think of it, worse things happen in the Old Testament. So, fine.
The Grand Finale. I think we all had a feeling Jesus would ascend from his tomb while singing a Katy Perry song, and that feeling came very true. But the entire audience looked confused as they were directed via spotlight to a far away skyscraper atop which Jesus was standing and screaming “Unconditionally” at them. Confused because at this moment he looked less like the son of God returning to His kingdom, and more like an escaped mental patient threatening to jump to his death. Be careful, Jesus! I wish you would step back from that ledge, my Lord!
The End. Major credit where credit is majorly due, The Passion had one more trick up its sleeve. Just when we were all about to rightly conclude that it was impossible for modern Christian entertainment to be legitimately good, gospel superstar Yolanda Adams came out and sang “When The Saints Go Marching In.“ It’s obviously a well-tread song (particularly if you’ve set even a single foot in New Orleans), but that doesn’t take away the fact that it is legitimately great and wonderful always & forever. You’re telling me a song can be joyful AND moving AND exultant all at once? And it WASN’T written by Hoobastank? Unbelievable. No but seriously, this brief two minutes had a more spiritual effect on me than anything that came before. Sorry, sexy Jesus. Sorry, Trisha Yearwood. Sorry, Tyler Perry. Sometimes the classics really are better.
What did YOU think of The Passion?