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The Chosen, the Christian megahit about Jesus, explained

The Chosen’s Christian nepo baby roots — and other ways the hit drama might surprise you.

Jesus’s disciples sit around a table and on the sides of a room looking at Jesus, whose back is pictured.
Jesus and his disciples, depicted in the hit Christian series The Chosen.
Angel / Vertical Films
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

In this age of endless streaming cancellations, it’s a rare thing for a show — even one with a cult following — to last multiple seasons, let alone thrive while doing so. Yet The Chosen, the popular Christian TV series about the life and times of Jesus and his disciples, has carved out an exception for itself on multiple fronts.

The show, funded with the help of Utah-based Angel Studios, lately of Sound of Freedom fame, has gained some grudging praise from reviewers and enormous loyalty from legions of fans who stream the show on the Angel website and other platforms. In November 2022, when the first two episodes of The Chosen’s third season were shown by Fathom Events, which distributes special releases to movie theaters, it became Fathom’s highest-grossing event of all time. Its massive success led the CW to pick it up, elevating the show from a word-of-mouth streaming hit to a proper network television gamble.

When the show debuted on linear TV on July 16, it did so to 500,000 viewers — a shave off the reported 100 million global viewers who’ve streamed the series, but not a bad start for the CW. Later in July, as the dual WGA/SAG strike got underway, The Chosen made headlines when SAG granted it an exemption as an independent production to wrap up filming its fourth season in Midlothian, Texas. The CW plans to air the entire series over the next six months, with the season three finale scheduled to air on Christmas Eve. After that, the network will be primed to premiere season four to an even bigger audience. With the SAG exemption, it may in fact be one of the few scripted shows to air in 2024.

The crowdfunded show is interesting from a business standpoint, and also a cultural one. Is it possible to faithfully represent the story of Christ — a figure whose personal politics would probably alienate most modern-day Christians — in a way that’s honest enough to feel truthful, yet anodyne enough to avoid driving away the show’s enormous, right-leaning fan base? The Chosen is trying. Thanks to an emphasis on humanizing its many characters and directly engaging its fans, it has flourished — and with the show’s producers planning on seven seasons, its cultural imprint has only begun to be felt.

What, exactly, is The Chosen? And is it any good?

The Chosen is a show about Jesus Christ, adapted from the four books of the Bible known as the Gospels, which each tell the story of his birth, life, and death through the varying viewpoints of their writers. All three seasons are available to stream on Angel’s website, as well as Peacock and The Chosen app; the first season can be found on Netflix, too.

Creator Dallas Jenkins has steadfastly reiterated in interviews that his primary goal with the show is to “accurately represent the character and intentions of Jesus and the Gospels” without “think[ing] too much about who it appeals to.” Jenkins brought his project to Angel Studios, where he was able to raise over $10 million for season one and a combined $30 million for seasons two and three. After facilitating the crowdfunding, Angel had exclusive rights to distribute The Chosen through November 2022, but now acts as a licensor for the show. During this time, Angel Studios has seen annual revenue of over $120 million; crowdfunding contributors received a stake in The Chosen LLC and are supposed to earn back their investment plus 20 percent, though it’s unclear whether anyone has actually received profits.

The show itself makes clear, via a disclaimer in the first episode, that “all Biblical and historical context and any artistic imagination are designed to support the truth and intention of the Scriptures.” If this all sounds like a very serious undertaking, then consider that to much of its audience, fictionalizing the Bible is one of the most serious tasks there is.

The Chosen devotes a fair amount of screen time to world-building, helping its audience understand the sociopolitical context in which Christ was born. The Roman Empire, straining under its own weight, faced increased resistance and rebellion from an overtaxed population in the Middle East. Persecution of Jews grew more intense during this period, while competing Jewish factions created dissent and division among the group.

The show’s focal ensemble characters in the first several seasons are not entirely who you might expect. Rather, they include a number of figures who rarely get much, if any, significant attention in mainstream biblical adaptations. There’s religious leader Nicodemus (Erick Avari); Matthew (Paras Patel), a tax collector, whom The Chosen presents as being on the autism spectrum; hotheaded Simon, a.k.a. Peter (Shahar Isaac), and his brother, brooding fisherman Andrew (Noah James); and Mary Magdalene (Elizabeth Tabish), a sex worker dealing with alcoholism and addiction even after she meets Christ. The show’s fascination with Mary Magdalene follows innumerable depictions of her as a redeemed “fallen woman” who still continues to possess an erotic mystique, a kind of slutty muse; The Chosen, at least, humanizes her beyond merely traversing the virgin/whore divide and giving her an unrequited crush on Jesus.

Issues that plague the modern Christian church get their fair share of attention in the series. Poverty is a constant reality for the disciples and most people they meet. Multiple episodes focus on the racial tension between the Jews and Samaritans, with Jesus roundly castigating his followers for their own prejudices. Throughout the show, as in the Bible, he embraces people who are sick, disabled, and outcast, despite his disciples’ clear discomfort with his actions. At the same time, the disciples grapple with their own issues: perpetual money problems, relationship concerns, and jealousy and competitiveness — we might even say toxic masculinity — among the group.

This everyman approach to the story feels novel, especially among the pantheon of biblical adaptations that emphasize Christ’s larger-than-life divinity. That’s not to say that such moments aren’t present — there are entire episodes devoted to Jesus’s miracles, which he performs accompanied by a chorus of swooning vocals. But for the most part, The Chosen circles slowly around its ensemble, letting their relationship to each other, to the world, to religion, and finally to Jesus himself unfold little by little.

How much you care about all of this arguably largely hinges on how much you’re already primed to care about these people. As biblical figures, they’re already familiar to much of The Chosen’s audience. As characters, however, the Chosen leads don’t really scream charisma, and the screenwriting from Jenkins and Ryan Swanson can feel plodding and laborious rather than character-driven and narratively inspired.

The cast, while diverse, also produces a slightly discordant effect. Few Jewish actors are in the main cast, though the production pays careful attention to Jewish rituals and culture. Characters are played by actors who are ethnically Arab (including Jonathan Roumie, who plays Jesus), Latin, North African, and South and Southeast Asian; Roman centurions speak with British accents, while other characters have American or Indian accents. The credits are a fusion of rock and gospel set over visuals that recall midcentury (Jewish) designer Saul Bass, lest you forget that the team behind this production are all thoroughly American, with a thoroughly American understanding of what it means to love and follow Jesus.

That’s because The Chosen’s origins — not its biblical origins, but its capitalist ones — lie in nothing less than a good old-fashioned nepo baby backstory.

The Christian nepo baby roots of The Chosen

The Chosen was something of a (pardon us) Hail Mary for Angel Studios. The studio began as the streaming filter company VidAngel, which made a splash by allowing Christian audiences to watch sanitized edits of mainstream movies and TV shows. The problem was that all of this was illegal and resulted in VidAngel having to pay $62 million in a copyright lawsuit. After its subsequent bankruptcy, the company rebranded itself as simply Angel, a studio for crowdfunded Christian projects.

Enter Dallas Jenkins. Jenkins is the son of Jerry B. Jenkins, who with Tim LaHaye wrote the mega-selling Left Behind franchise that galvanized Christian fiction during the ’90s and ’00s. Those books, with their emphasis on revelation and Christian martyrdom, pushed a narrative of Christ as a powerful figure of vengeance and retribution. That image fully aligned with the evolving version of evangelical Christianity as a reflection of patriarchal values, with a strong authoritarian man heading up every family, made in the image of a macho version of God himself.

LaHaye, along with other religious conservatives like Jerry Falwell, was a celebrity Christian leader who helped turn evangelical Christianity toward the political far right. Jerry Jenkins has defended his co-writer LaHaye (who according to Jenkins did none of the writing, but rather served as a “biblical consultant”) against a litany of charges related to fundamentalism and bigotry. But Jenkins, like his Left Behind books, arguably pushes a belief in dispensationalism — the worldview that Christians are currently in the end times, which underlies much of Christian extremism.

It’s unclear how much of his father’s beliefs Dallas Jenkins has carried forward, but Jerry Jenkins is directly responsible for his son’s breakthrough success. After graduating from a small Christian college in Minnesota, dad set son up with “our own little production company and staff.” In his early years as a filmmaker, Jenkins made several short film projects for the Chicago-based Harvest Bible Chapel megachurch. When one of them, The Shepherd, became popular with parishioners in 2017, Jenkins’s mission to turn the film into a series ignited interest from Angel.

The Chosen, Jenkins’s pet project — and an idea he says he received from God, who he claims told him, “my people deserve good stuff” — was the first crowdfunding initiative that Angel launched following its rebirth. With its first season raising about $11 million from around 16,000 donors, the series has been widely touted as the most successful creative crowdfunding project of all time.

Angel’s business model is simple, and a bit novel: The focus is on cultivating loyalty and grassroots financial contributions from fans. The company considers those who contribute to a crowdfund as having “paid it forward” for other viewers to watch; when you stream a show on its platform, you’re encouraged to write a public thank-you note on every episode in response. Viewers can also post commentary in episode sidebars. According to the Wall Street Journal, Chosen extras paid (not were paid) $1,000 just to be present for the filming of the Sermon on the Mount. You can’t buy that sort of mystique, not when it comes hand-wrapped in a divine package.

Even with The Chosen striking lucrative deals with Netflix, Peacock, Lionsgate, and the CW, the show remains crowdfunded. When the crowdfunding goal between seasons three and four jumped dramatically from $18 million to $40 million, the show’s fans helped pay to bring the show to every language on earth.

The show certainly has the gloss of an expensive historical drama. It’s just that, unlike most productions, this one has Bible verses inscribed onto the sets.

So what’s the theology behind all of this? Good question!

It’s worth asking what exactly audiences are getting when they consume The Chosen. Among the most novel aspects of the series is its careful lack of sermonizing. As Catholic World’s Paul Senz put it, “One of the notable achievements of The Chosen is that Jenkins’ theological positions are nearly impossible to discern from the show.” The show’s lack of sermonizing has won praise from audiences for being diverse but not “woke” — for, essentially, not shoving the impact of identity down viewers’ throats.

That doesn’t mean theologies haven’t been duly imposed upon it. In May, the show received backlash because some fans spotted a crew member sporting a Pride flag in behind-the-scenes footage. Jenkins was at pains to downplay both the flag itself and political factions on set, explaining in a YouTube video, “Our cast and crew have wildly different beliefs. They run the spectrum. Sometimes they wear T-shirts or hats that go across the spectrum from a Pride flag or a MAGA hat or a ‘Jesus Saves’ shirt. No one on our set has been triggered, and no one on our set minds.”

The response from conservative media like the Daily Wire, which had fueled the backlash, was to reluctantly detach from blaming The Chosen itself for the degeneracy of a single crew member in order to support the work of the show overall. Others weren’t so forgiving; one critic castigated the show for suggesting that being gay is acceptable, including by making Jesus (entirely accurately) “a long haired, hippy, effeminate who goes to bars.” The question of how Christ himself might have responded to a Pride flag in his midst rarely came up.

Therein lies the true power of The Chosen: Its depiction of Christ is pleasing enough to summon this kind of loyalty from fans. But despite the themes it engages with, its avoidance of politics is so deft that it never does the Christlike work of challenging its audience’s concepts of unconditional love, government oppression, and what it means to truly embrace the marginalized.

As The Chosen reminds us, Jesus once said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” The show’s larger message — and Christ’s larger message — seems to be getting lost in all the noise.

Clarification, August 2, 1 pm ET: A previous version of this story was unclear about the current relationship between Angel Studios and The Chosen. The Chosen raised funds for its first two seasons through Angel Studios’ services and Angel had exclusive distribution rights through November 2022. It is now simply a licensor of the show.

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