The powerful series has people from all over the world coming together, questioning what they witnessed.
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.
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.