Making a TV show whose plot hinges on miracles is a challenging thing. Perceived miracles are startling in our world because of their divergence from universally accepted reality; events diverging, instead, from a reality a writer is creating are less mind-blowing. It takes a carefully balanced, well-constructed world in order to make viewers take the extraordinary on faith.
“Messiah” lacks that. This new Netflix drama, produced by, among others, “Survivor’s” Mark Burnett and “Touched by an Angel” star Roma Downey, depicts a world apparently badly hungry for something in which to believe, as a mysterious young man (Mehdi Dehbi) rises to near-instant repute and cult-leader status for various pieces of performance art-slash-protest-slash… miracles, maybe.
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That’s at least what his many acolytes insist, and one of the many incredulous aspects of “Messiah” is just how quickly “Al-Massih” brings into the fold both individuals (including, notably, a man of faith played by John Ortiz) and all of society. After beginning his adventures in Damascus and showing up in Jerusalem, Al-Massih’s peregrinations land him in rural Texas, where he’s granted amnesty by the government and begins an encampment-like village for his faithful.
All of this is told so blandly and straightfacedly as to deny any metaphorical reading or symbolic resonance; it’s as if by presenting Al-Massih’s story with as little vibrancy or mystery as possible, “Messiah” can make it more believable. Unfortunately, the end result is instead jarring — mashing up miraculous events with no power or weight with an uninteresting CIA procedural in which Michelle Monaghan plays an agent with a requisitely sad backstory on the Al-Massih case, whatever it even is. Monaghan previously played a role on Hulu’s “The Path,” a show about faith and ambiguously real cults that took a bit longer to lose its way; here, she’s doing a Carrie Mathison interpretation, keeping the zealous determination but haunted by balefulness instead of mental illness.
There’s an interesting show, perhaps, in the notion that Monaghan’s Eva Geller is as animated by faith as are Al-Massih’s disciples: faith, indeed, that their faith is wrong, bringing the two characters on a collision course. But because Eva is such a bland character and Al-Massih is by the show’s design unknowable — yielding nothing over the show’s first half other than miracles we don’t know whether to take at face value — there’s vastly less here. Over the show’s first season, no viewer could be blamed for eventually giving up the faith.