“The Chosen,” the crowdfunded TV series that found a new way to tell a familiar story, wrapped its second viewing season Sunday after exceeding its creator’s expectations on several fronts. The episode centered on what led up to the Sermon on the Mount and what happened afterward.
An estimated 750,000 people streamed the season opener on their smartphones, tablets, computers and TV-connected streaming devices. More than 1 million people subscribed to the series’ YouTube channel, which features interviews with actors and behind-the-scenes stories from series creator Dallas Jenkins.
The viewership for “The Chosen” is unusual in a world still largely dependent on broadcast and cable networks or pay-to-view services such as HBO. The first season is available on the Comcast-owned Peacock streaming service, but the overwhelming majority of fans watch the show on a smartphone or tablet app.
Some $22 million from fans who want to “pay it forward” keep the independent production going. Producers say the series has had a total of 200 million online views. They are aiming for 1 billion viewers before the series is complete in about five years, for a total of seven seasons.
If there’s a “secret sauce” to this modern telling of Jesus’ story, it may lie in the human Christ rather than the stiffness that other movie and television portrayals have shown. The Christ of “The Chosen” smiles, laughs and even dances at a wedding feast.
This Jesus displays a sense of humor. Many people would enjoy having a conversation or sharing a meal with him. It is a contrast from the holier-than-us portrayals often seen in films and television productions.
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The disciples, religious leaders of the day, and the Roman soldiers are also humanized. Matthew Levi, the tax collector, displays touches of obsessive-compulsive disorder and Asperger’s syndrome. Simon Peter’s family struggles, including a wife who suddenly learns about their hyper-precarious finances, are on full display. Nicodemus, the Jewish leader who approaches Jesus by night, is shown navigating the political atmosphere of his spiritual office and his conflict having seen Jesus’ miracles.
And Mary Magdalene? After being healed by Jesus, she follows the disciples, but she is triggered by what today would be called post-traumatic stress disorder. That leads to an episode in the show’s second season that drew criticism from some viewers who imagined her life as trouble-free once she encountered Christ.
Mr. Jenkins, the writer, filmmaker and director behind the project, said such displays of humanity are intentional.
“Over the last 10 years, I have really studied psychology and communication in the brain a lot,” he said during a recent interview in Grapevine, Texas, where he premiered an episode of the series for the National Religious Broadcasters 2021 convention.
“I feel like that’s kind of an underrated role in this because I believe that my study of human behavior and the brain because of my family’s experience with autism … has allowed me to find things in the Gospels that are good clues for what these [biblical] people might have been like,” Mr. Jenkins said.
He didn’t name the family members with autism but said, “I know that I have some spectrum qualities myself, some Asperger’s myself,” which motivated his brain research.
Finding details in the Gospels that others might miss is sort of the Jenkins family business. Dallas Jenkins is the son of prolific Christian author Jerry B. Jenkins, co-author of the bestselling “Left Behind” series. The elder Mr. Jenkins also wrote several books turning biblical narratives, including John’s Gospel and Paul’s Epistles, into page-turning epics, and wrote a “novelization” of the show’s first season.
Dallas Jenkins said he inherited the narrative formula from his father. He said the “more context, more backstory” found in “The Chosen” resonates with viewers.
“I think that’s what people are responding to is that a lot of the show isn’t from the Bible, but it feels like it’s done by someone who loves the Bible,” he said. “Because we love God’s word, we never want to stray outside of the character or intentions of Jesus in the Gospels.”
The concept behind “The Chosen” was first exposed in a 2017 short film titled “The Shepherd.” Mr. Jenkins produced and taped the film for his local church congregation in Elgin, Illinois, some 35 miles northwest of Chicago. “The Shepherd” caught the attention of Utah-based VidAngel, a video streaming service, and was posted on Facebook as a trial balloon to gauge interest.
The subsequent crowdfunding campaign raised enough money to produce the first season, and like the biblical loaves and fish, things multiplied from there. It’s an analogy Mr. Jenkins used in describing his role in the project and why it succeeded.
“I don’t know why God multiplies things sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes he doesn’t. That’s not up to me to figure out. My job isn’t to feed the 5,000. My job is to provide them with some fish. God chose to do something with my loaves and fish in this case.”