First look Netflix UK TV review: Messiah
James R | On 01, Jan 2020
What would happen if a man declared he was the Messiah and proceeded to perform miracles and act like the Son of God? It’s a fascinating question for a TV show to answer – and, indeed, one did in 2003: Second Coming by Russell T Davies, starring Christopher Eccleston. Fast forward 16 years and Netflix is wading into the same theological waters with Messiah, and while this new second coming carries much of the same intrigue, it perhaps hasn’t learnt the lessons of the ITV-based messenger that came before.
The series follows a man who comes out of nowhere to claim to be the Messiah. Dubbed Al-Masih (Mehdi Dehbi), he begins to build a following by performing miracles. A child who is shot is apparently healed in the streets. A sandstorm arrives just in time to fend off an attack by ISIL. Across the world, someone survives a hurricane. And so on.
All of this captures the attention of Eva Geller, a CIA officer who is concerned about this person’s potential to upset the world’s geopolitical stability. Is he really who is claims? Or is he a con artist with less righteous motives?
It’s a compelling central mystery, and Messiah’s best and worst move is to attempt to preserve it – by refusing to answer it for as long as possible. Rather than follow him closely, creator Michael Petroni charts other people’s reactions to him, assembling a portrait of the world and its cultural, social and religious divides. But in doing so, the series starts to get too stuffed with subplots, diluting the force of its central figure rather than strengthening it.
When the trailer for Messiah first dropped, reports circulated that Al-Masih’s character was actually called “Al-Masih ad-Dajjal”, a quick search of which online reveals a highly controversial figure with a very specific theological significance. That, however, doesn’t appear to be the case over its opening episodes, and, in fact, goes to show why the show’s international scope is so interesting. While Al-Masih attracts believers in Syria, his importance takes on a raft of conflicting possibilities, depending on perspective and context. Israeli intelligence officer Aviram (a gruff Tomer Sisley), for example, is far warier than Texan preacher Felix (an earnest John Ortiz), who finds his faith restored by Al-Masih’s appearance, which appears to both save his daughter (Stefania LaVie Owen) and give her a reason to believe in a brighter personal future. But by the time you throw in a refugee (Sayyid El Alami) and a journalist (Jane Adams), not to mention a televangelist and the US President (Dermot Mulroney), the philosophical stew gets a bit too chunky for you to savour the individual ingredients; Monaghan, fresh from the excellently ambiguous cult drama The Path, deserves a meaty leading role, but is somewhat lost in the ever-expanding sea of faces. Within the series’ first half, there’s a very real risk of some subplots failing to make an impact – or, when the dialogue gets a bit on-the-nose, simply failing to convince at all.
Mehdi Dehbi himself is a charismatic and enjoyably enigmatic presence, with a smile that could plausibly be genuine or a smug smirk at any given moment. It’s easy to believe that his actions would ripple rapidly though social media, just as it’s timely to see Geller try to shut down any viral trends of his apparent miracles until the authorities have a handle on what’s going on.
These elements are where Messiah inspires belief and binge-watching. There’s a lot of binge-watching in store, though, to find any hope of real answers. ITV’s Second Coming, with its more diverse tone (balancing humour and ominous portent), smaller core cast and two-episode runtime, leaves this 10-part epic feeling a tad too bloated for its own good. The result is part Homeland, part The Greatest Story Ever Told, but for all its attention-grabbing moves – tapping into themes of surveillance, security, public perception and private convictions – this second coming may take too long to reward the average viewer’s faith.
Messiah: Season 1 is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.