Apocalypse, Now: Dig's Surprisingly Relevant Doomsday Drama

USA's new outlandish murder-mystery miniseries offers a smart portrayal of religious fanaticism that has real-world resonance.

There’s not much of a gray area when it comes to depictions of organized apocalyptic groups on American television. Sometimes they're laughable fundamentalists who give non-believers an excuse to party, like the Zorp-worshipping Reasonablists on Parks and Recreation. On other occasions, they're ominous ascetics like the Guilty Remnant (The Leftovers), or villainous terrorist organizations, like the demons marshaled by Glorificus (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and the End of the Dayers (Fringe). In almost all cases they're inspired by real-life groups, but rendered as carnivalesque, implausible freaks.

While the elements of comedy, sadism, and wacky religious ceremonies remain, in Dig, an ambitious 10-part miniseries airing Thursday on USA Network, the doomsdayers belong to a single, organized effort to end the world. From the initial placard—which juxtaposes the Bible verse Numbers 19 with R.E.M.—the show insists that the world’s major religious texts foretell the apocalypse. Dig is in some ways a stereotypical conspiracy-thriller—it extrapolates too much, draws convenient connections, and cherry-picks from history. But in this case, the extra attention to ancient apocalyptic prophecies turns out to be timely, making the show a neat work that turns the analysis of fanaticism into high-octane entertainment.

Dig is split into three separate narratives, each taking place in a different country, though it appears likely from the first three episodes that they’re all headed for Jerusalem for a massive, world-threatening showdown at the Temple Mount. The show kicks off when a pure red heifer without a black hair on it is born in Norway in full view of a group of extremely devout Hasidic Jews, thus convincing them they must literally realize the prophecy in Numbers 19. Halfway across the world in Texas, a Christian fundamentalist group is raising a Jewish boy in an equally sterile scenario—a compound that shields him from touching the ground—in contact with the Jews in Norway. In Jerusalem proper, a grizzled FBI legal attaché named Peter Connelly (Jason Isaacs) and Israeli National Police detective Golan Cohen (Ori Pfeffer) are chasing a Palestinian-American murderer who's killing anyone who threatens his mission of restoring 12 jewels to a high priest’s breastplate, which is purported to let the wearer communicate with God.

The big idea is that all major religions predict the apocalypse—what happens, the show queries, if they set aside their differences to make it happen? Perhaps because the premise is so unlikely, the characters that get the most screen-time are the secular skeptics. The emotional core of the show focuses on Connelly’s trauma following the suicide of his daughter: After he meets a girl in Jerusalem who looks just like her, and who believes that the city emanates mystical “vibrations,” he begins to notice recurring signifiers etched in stone and printed on coffee napkins. Naturally, this only leads to further investigation into the city's most ancient stories, which draws him into the larger End of Days plot. Fortunately, Detective Golan remains the reliable, wisecracking audience proxy to help ground the bizarre plot.

The real-world parallels that dog the portrayals of the show's resident doomsdayers, however, are more sobering. American television most often views Israel through the lens of newsreel footage of the country's conflict with the Palestinian territories, which casts a shadow over the on-location shots of street and marketplace chase sequences here. The American identity of the show’s initial villain, Yussef Khalid (Omar Metwally)—who is an assistant professor of structural engineering and a deacon in his church—speaks to current concern over homegrown terrorists. The compound in New Mexico also looks quite a bit like the Waco home of the Branch Davidians.

The show’s creator, the Israeli Homeland creator Gideon Raff, has said he wants to open a dialogue about religious fanaticism, but there’s also an element of The Da Vinci Code-style cultural tourism at play here. With the strategic framing of the Temple Mount and other relevant sites whenever convenient, and an Essene villain who recalls the magical self-flagellating Albino monk Silas of Dan Brown’s novel, Dig doesn’t suppress its flashy production values, enabled by a grant from the Israeli government. Ultimately the show boils down to a strange mix of pure escapism and troublingly familiar fanaticism, and seems to be inviting interrogation of both. USA has even unrolled a free app to “decode images” in the marketing campaign.

The question remains whether a conspiracy-theory show airing on a network best-known for its “blue skies” comedies can actually prompt viewers to both enjoy and do their research. I found Dig equally addictive before and after knowing that the Essenes were an apocalyptic, survivalist cult whose numbers have dwindled considerably, or that the Urim and Tummim is an actual, sacred object. And though it engages with the relevant larger themes of fanaticism, the End of Times, and land ownership that are spurring international turmoil at the moment, Dig is cautious when it comes to political commentary. It makes no mention of the Palestinian territories aside from its thinly-sketched villain—nor does it touch on Iran or ISIS.

It’s at least a step up from the renaissance in ’70s paranoid style that characterized the action-conspiracy movies in the Iraq War years. It has some of the same hallmarks: the rooftop chases and hand-drum soundtracking right out of Jason Bourne, the corruption within the highest ranks of the U.S. military, the shifty-looking foreign sniper with superhuman athleticism. The idea here, though, is less to cast a glum look at the American government specifically, or even its enemies. That’s smart for such a fantastical take on hot-button topics: Homeland has previously come under fire for portrayals of Pakistan and Afghanistan that are Islamaphobic, and a take on the CIA’s recruitment policies that is insanely unprofessional. Whether or not viewers choose to engage, Dig is an interesting development in televised entertainment that represents a departure from its Iraq-era predecessors.

In his recent Atlantic cover story “What ISIS Really Wants,” Graeme Wood describes how Western pundits have often downplayed the group’s fanatic commitment to the texts of early Islam, especially to its belief in and devotion to the imminent apocalypse. ISIS is just one example of the doomsdaying sects at play in the world right now, and Dig isn't even close to addressing these much broader confusions there or elsewhere. It is, however, an able driver of watercooler talk and Google searching that may lead viewers to seek out those answers, too.