A.D.: A Show That Wants to Be Game of Thrones, but Starring Jesus

Mark Burnett, the creator of reality-television shows such as Survivor and The Apprentice, has launched a new series based on the Bible—a move of savvy evangelism.

The Bible says Jesus was a fisher of men, but NBC is hoping he can reel in major advertising dollars. Following the runaway success of a 2013 History Channel series, The Bible, which producers say reached more than 100 million viewers, the network launched a follow-up on Easter Sunday. A.D.: The Bible Continues follows Jesus and his disciples after his death and resurrection.

"What is the job of NBC? It’s to get the most number of viewers, and make the viewers come back week after week, and have the advertisers pay for the privilege of connecting with potential customers," said Mark Burnett, who co-produced the series alongside his wife, Roma Downey. "They didn’t think it was going to work, necessarily, but people see numbers and they’re like, whoa."

These are strange times for the Bible and pop culture. Many declared 2014 the year of the God movie: New films ranged from blockbuster epics like Noah to Son of God, a movie adapted from Burnett and Downey's first Bible-based mini-series. This spring, CNN launched a multi-part look at the historical Jesus, accompanied by online features like "Quiz: How well do you know Jesus?" (Hint: "He's my homeboy" doesn't appear to be one of the available answers.) Clearly, there's an audience for Christian themes in mass culture; now, NBC is trying to capture its share.

Roughly 80 percent of Americans identify as some kind of Christian, and all this Bible-related media is at least partly targeted at that group. But Burnett says A.D. was created to appeal to an even broader audience.

"This like the Bible meets Game of Thrones meets House of Cards. If you’ve never heard this story, you’ll just be enthralled and swept up in the storytelling," he said.

If intrigue is what the producers were going for, they probably could have used a little more Kevin Spacey-style narration. The first episode is hard to follow without a copy of the good book close at hand; few characters get an introduction, and it feels like walking into a movie that's already halfway over. That's because it starts with Jesus's trial and crucifixion—the climax of the story, arguably. Jesus (Juan Pablo di Pace) doesn't get much screen time, at least to start; most of the scenes in the first episode feature an appropriately dastardly Pontius Pilate (Vincent Regan) and the cowardly leader of the Jews. The main plot points are highlighted by gaudy effects: When Jesus dies, general chaos in Jerusalem is set to the tune of hardcore guitar riffs; when he comes back to life, there's an earthquake and a giant ball of fire that shoots down from an ominous sky.

This isn't totally made up, of course; lots of weird stuff happens in the Bible. But Burnett said the fantastical scenes of A.D. are to non-Christians what The Walking Dead is to people who don't believe in zombies. "I think, for example, many people don’t really think hobbits exist, or Harry Potter exists, but they enjoy the movies," he said. "Billions believe this story to be the truth, and will enjoy it as such. And millions more will find it to be the truth, and millions more will just enjoy it."

Burnett has a long history of tapping directly into the American psyche to predict exactly what people will enjoy. His production resume includes popular shows like Survivor, The Apprentice, The Voice, and Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?, all of which are part of his "family-friendly" brand, he said. But he's not just a savvy businessman who saw a market opportunity in Christian entertainment; he describes his work on The Bible, Son of God, and A.D. as a calling. While NBC may be making a pure profit play with its new Bible-based series, Burnett is up to something else: guerrilla evangelism, selling the story of Jesus on Sunday night television like it's as normal as any other drama.

Burnett is selling the story of Jesus on Sunday night television like it's any other drama.

This is a counterintuitive move in a country where Christians are the dominant religious group, but still sometimes see themselves as a culture in retreat. The 2014 movie God's Not Dead grossed roughly $60.7 million at the box office, which seems more in keeping with the ethos among some of today's observant Christians: fierce defiance against secular culture. Even in politics, Christians have started framing their beliefs more and more in terms of liberties that need protection from encroaching cultural norms—examples of this include employers not wanting to cover birth control in accordance with the Affordable Care Act, or photographers and cake bakers not wanting to serve at same-sex wedding ceremonies.

But instead of fighting back against secular culture, Burnett and Downey are trying to blend in with it—they deliberately crafted their epic to mimic other popular TV shows, hoping to appeal to believers and nonbelievers alike.

"The underlying story is so powerful—it went from 12 [followers] in the beginning, after the resurrection, to 2.5 billion, so without our TV shows, it does pretty well," Burnett said. "But clearly mass media can only enhance. The biggest spreader of the gospels was probably Paul. If he had had the opportunity, he would have been a TV producer."