Jesus was wise and loving, a teacher, philosopher, and religious leader who (to around two billion people, anyway) also happened to be the son of God. Yeah, but was he funny? Scholars argue that, yes, Jesus actually had a great sense of humor and a droll sense of irony that’s often overlooked. Still, you’ve likely never seen a Jesus as sitcom-witty as the one portrayed in The Chosen, the hit streaming series filmed right here in Texas. This Messiah and his disciples have a quippy, lightly teasing banter that suggests their true holy scriptures include old DVDs of Friends.
Take this exchange from the show’s second season: Jesus’s followers John (George H. Xanthis) and Big James (Abe Martell) call on him to smite some unruly Samaritans, so Jesus (Jonathan Roumie) cocks an eyebrow and deadpans, “You wanted to use the power of God to bring down fire to burn these people up?” John takes a beat. “Well . . . it sounds a lot worse when you say it that way,” he says. All that’s missing is a choir of angels to supply the heavenly laugh track.
Although The Chosen draws directly from the New Testament, it’s become a global phenomenon largely because it doesn’t treat the Gospels as, uh, gospel. Its creator, Dallas Jenkins, a recent Texas transplant, developed the series in 2018 with the hope of turning Bible stories into something truly binge-worthy. As he recently told the Wall Street Journal, Jenkins, himself an evangelical, was inspired by secular if similarly impassioned shows such as Friday Night Lights, The West Wing, and The Wire, and wanted to make a show with a similar naturalistic bent that delved into the people and the politics of Jesus’s time. That meant less emphasis on the divine and more focus on the human—Jesus included.
Judging by the response so far, Jenkins has succeeded. Plenty of filmmakers have tried jazzing up the Bible for modern audiences, using everything from R-rated gore to cartoon vegetables in an attempt to broaden its appeal beyond the devout. (Jenkins’s father, the novelist Jerry B. Jenkins, even scored his own Christian crossover sensation with the Left Behind franchise.) But few have achieved the kind of widespread attention or intense devotion afforded to The Chosen, which last year surpassed Mystery Science Theater 3000 to become the most successful crowdfunded project ever. When the show’s first season, which debuted in 2019, became available to watch for free in early 2020, it was backed by 16,000 donors who’d chipped in just north of $10 million. To date, The Chosen has raised more than $40 million, enough to cover production costs through at least the third of its seven planned seasons.
Thanks to a “pay it forward” model, The Chosen remains free to stream via VidAngel or on the show’s dedicated mobile app. Its current batch of sixteen episodes has been translated into fifty languages, from Albanian to Zulu. It even hit the big screen in December: a new special, Christmas With the Chosen: The Messengers, was shown in some 1,700 movie theaters nationwide. After it shattered presales records for its distributor, Fathom Events, it went on to earn $4.2 million on opening day, bringing in $13.7 million by mid-month. That’s a considerable return for the franchise, which typically spends $1 million to $2 million on each episode.
Some of those tithes have also gone toward giving The Chosen a more permanent home. The show filmed much of its debut season about forty miles west of Fort Worth, in Poolville’s Capernaum Studios, a re-creation of a first-century village that has long been popular with church tour groups and as a setting for live biblical productions.
By the end of season two, The Chosen relocated from Utah, where most of the season had been shot, to Midlothian, about half an hour southwest of downtown Dallas, and the 1,200-acre, Salvation Army–owned Camp Hoblitzelle, where crews are currently building sprawling production facilities. This new outpost will host the filming of the next five seasons of The Chosen, as well as other faith-based projects Jenkins hopes to shepherd. The camp also promises to become a tourist attraction, with an immersive biblical experience that features attractions such as a “ritual bath” and a working olive press.
But what about the agnostics? Converting the doubters is a lot to ask of any Christian entertainment. Even some evangelicals may find that a lot of the films and TV series about Jesus are a tad preachy, their portrayals too saintly or stiff for an emotional connection to take hold.
But in this respect, at least, The Chosen has the most potential to cross over to a wide audience since Touched by an Angel, or maybe Amy Grant. The show is more of a character-based drama than anything. It presents Jesus and his disciples as real, vaguely neurotic people, busting free of the stained-glass images that have long enshrined them. They bicker and fall in love. They struggle with insecurities and jealousies. A lot of them are just plain rude to one another. In many ways, The Chosen feels like a pious Entourage, following a bunch of hothead doofuses as they jockey for power around their famous friend.
This approach isn’t without controversy. As Jenkins acknowledged in one of his regular video commentaries, some viewers were offended that the show seemed to treat Jesus like a “rock star” in its season two finale, which saw Jesus about to deliver his Sermon on the Mount from a makeshift stage in front of thousands of fans (most of them played by Chosen backers who paid for the privilege). Jenkins has shrugged off those criticisms. “That’s a really, really silly perspective,” he said, insisting that the scene was both a “practical” way to convey Jesus’s growing popularity and, to be blunt, just good television. Maybe that’s blasphemy to some; Jesus Christ Superstar received its fair share of condemnation too. But it speaks to Jenkins’s abiding belief that entertaining audiences isn’t a sin.
That approach is also much more likely to resonate with younger audiences. The Chosen’s liberal sprinkling of anachronisms—ancient Romans and Pharisees alike casually drop phrases like “freaked out,” “that’s not a good look,” and “don’t be salty”—might irritate some purists. Still, those moments go a long way toward loosening things up on the show. In one episode, Jesus even dances! At a party! Whether or not you believe he was actually our Lord and Savior, The Chosen does a pretty good job of suggesting why so many people wanted to follow this guy around.
Granted, even with its prestige TV–like allure, it’s the power of faith that compels most of its viewers, and there’s no avoiding The Chosen’s commitment to ministry. Every episode inevitably boils down to some teachable moment—if not an out-and-out sermon—about the importance of forgiveness or humility, of “doing unto others” and so on, in a way that secular audiences are likely to find sanctimonious or dull, no matter how many one-liners precede it. That the story stretches out over seven seasons also means The Chosen feels slow and repetitive at times, wandering the desert at its own unhurried pace. Given that the second season climaxed with Jesus about to deliver his Sermon on the Mount, there’s still quite a long road to Jerusalem ahead. But for those who might wonder why “the greatest story ever told” couldn’t also have a little more humor or humanity, then The Chosen is something of a miracle.
This story appeared in the February 2022 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Greatest Story Ever Streamed.” It originally published online on December 8, 2021. Subscribe today.