Netflix’s humorless new original series is stretched much too thin, but it’s undeniably binge-able if you take its minor miracles on faith.
This review of Messiah (Netflix) Season 1 is spoiler-free.
Having seen all ten episodes of Netflix’s Messiah Season 1, which debuts globally on New Year’s Day, I’m one of the few people in a position to address its apparently anti-Islamic sentiment, for which the Royal Film Commission of Jordan has already petitioned the show’s banning. To that, I have to say that people have, as ever, jumped the gun; the show isn’t anti-Islam or even anti-religion. It is entirely a show about faith — faith in the divine and in the absence of divinity, both convictions held sincerely by very different people in an overlong and humorless exploration of belief, and our apparent desire for someone — or something — in which to believe.
The titular prophet is dubbed by his followers Al-Masih and is played by the impressive and handsome Belgian actor Mehdi Dehbi, a performer to believe in even if his character, an enigmatic supposed miracle worker whose most believable feat is pulling off double-denim and an inexplicably diverse range of sportswear, is somewhat less credible. Al-Masih’s true nature and intentions — heretic or prophet; preacher or conman — indeed form the essential dramatic question of the series, and it’s a matter on which Messiah is unsure throughout. But what’s consistent is the overwhelming seriousness with which this is all depicted. Despite some blatant evocations of another story of God’s son visiting the mortal realm and dying for our sins, this one looks to deter metaphorical or symbolic examination by remaining as true-to-life as a show about this sort of thing could possibly be.
To that end, Messiah Season 1 shares its religious tale with a procedural one; that of Michelle Monaghan’s CIA agent Eva Geller and her unlikely allies in both the FBI (Wil Traval) and Shin Bet (Tomer Sisley) attempting to track Al-Masih as he moves from Damascus to Jerusalem to rural Texas, and to determine exactly who he is and what his ultimate goal is. Each character is a baleful careerist with a genre-mandated backstory of tragedy and trauma, and these ten episodes spend far too much time on each of them. More interesting are the devotees Al-Masih converts on his travels, including a young Syrian war orphan, Jibril (Sayyid El Alami), a Texan holy man (John Ortiz) and his wife (Melinda Page Hamilton) and daughter (Stefania LaVie Owen), and a mother (Emily Kinney) whose daughter (Nicole Scimeca) is dying of cancer.
Sometimes these characters and interwoven narrative threads come together in interesting ways; often they don’t. But for all its flaws, Messiah Season 1 has an essential element that all high-profile releases in the Streaming Wars must possess if they’re to succeed — it’s eminently binge-able. Almost every episode ends on a cliffhanger, all run under an hour, and ten of them will pass by like a young man skating across water’s surface. The show’s future — and many other things about it — remains ambiguous, but perhaps that’s just as well.