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Mark Burnett's 'The Bible' could test our faith in reality TV

When I was a young lad in Ireland, we knew nothing about the Bible.

Oh, to be sure, we were drenched in religion. When we weren't on our knees half the night saying the rosary we were getting up at an unholy hour to go to mass and listen to some old fella work himself into a lather describing hell to us. Those were the days, my friends.

The Bible, though, that was for Protestants. As priest-ridden peasants we were more inclined to read the Penny Catechism. The Catechism had answers. The Bible would only confuse you. Or so the nuns and Christian Brothers gave us to understand, anyway. Suppose you had a question, like, "What must you do to save your soul?" The answer was in the Catechism: "To save my soul I must worship God by Faith, Hope and Charity; that is, I must believe in him, I must hope in him, and I must love him with my whole heart." There you go.

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Thus it is with pleasure than I anticipate The Bible as it will be brought to television by Mark Burnett, the man who has brought the world such shows as Survivor, The Apprentice, Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? and Sarah Palin's Alaska. The master of reality TV is doing a docudrama, pithily titled The Bible, for the History Channel, the broadcaster announced Tuesday. (Here in Canada we don't get the channel, but I'd bet my bottom dollar that our version, History Television, will deliver it to us.)

According to the History Channel, the five-part, 10-hour series will dramatize key events in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation "using CGI to recreate famous stories including Noah's Ark and the Resurrection of Jesus."

It's possible that Burnett has spotted the key element in new trends for TV escapism. After all, the most talked-about new shows of the coming season are taking viewers back into the past - The Playboy Club and Pan Am are both set in the 1960s, and the Steven Spielberg-produced Terra Nova has a group of colonists going back 85 million years, where they'll tangle with dinosaurs and rebuild civilization, or something.

Burnett is probably thinking it would be shrewd to go into a past that so many American viewers are familiar with but rarely see dramatized in the style of today's TV.

Also there is Charlie's Angels, which will deliver some kind of nostalgia for the 1970s, a period that is so distant to many young people today that they probably think Noah built his ark around 1972. And then there's the salacious, gossipy Good Christian Bellescoming in mid-season, whose name at least suggests a widespread interest in things Christian.

Seriously, though, given Burnett's track record, the mind must boggle at the prospect of his Bible series. Burnett is partly responsible for a new genre of television with his competition shows featuring ordinary people with outsize personalities. These shows are also notorious for being edited to create narrative arcs, tensions and climaxes that conform to the tropes of fiction.

What sort of biblical stories will emerge under Burnett's influence? Will the people and critters on Noah's Ark be engaged in ludicrous competition in order to avoid being thrown overboard? Is this Adam and Eve couple a mere alliance to save the Tribe? See what I mean about a boggled mind?

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Not that I know a vast amount about the Bible, as I've explained. But I do know this - Burnett is an immensely clever huckster, usually correct in his judgment of viewers' tastes and needs. If he's doing the Bible, then maybe the Bible is the future of TV storytelling. Take that, Playboy Bunnies and Pan Am flight attendants in tight skirts. Me, I'll be glued to it, not being brought up a Prod and all.


The Oprah Winfrey Show (CTV, 4 p.m.) comes to an end. While details of Monday's and Tuesday's episodes were widely known, the content of the final episode is secret. But you can be certain it will have impact. The end of the show is a major cultural event. Among Oprah Winfrey's achievements was to remind us of the enormous power of television to unite, educate and, indeed, infuriate. And to act as an instrument to kick open the shutters of closed minds. Most of the show's power rested on Oprah herself, on her personality and her passions and curiosities. The main reason why her network, OWN, has been disappointing so far is that the Oprah Winfrey Network lacked an essential ingredient - Oprah herself. If she inserts herself emphatically into her own channel, it succeeds.

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About the Author
Television critic

John Doyle is The Globe and Mail's television critic. His column appears in the Review section Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. He has been the paper's critic since 2000. More

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