The Story of God with Morgan Freeman

| January 10, 2017

Both books of the Bible are basically a few exciting stories scattered amongst a bunch of repetitive filler and overstated pronouncements. If the producers of The Story of God set out to emulate the Bible in that way, then they were incredibly successful. That’s not to say that the series is unwatchable or not worth the time. The problem is that a good ninety minute documentary has been padded out to six hour-long(ish) episodes.

From the first frame, the show is way over-produced, with flashy cinematography and video effects that contribute nothing to the theme but only serve to slow down the pace. It’s a shame because when the content is good it’s great. There’s just a lot of fluff to wade through to get to it.

What you’ll get out of it probably depends as well on your religious history or your familiarity with comparative religion. If you’re a student of the latter, then there’s not much new here because we’re essentially traipsing through World Religions 101 territory — although if you’re deficient in knowledge of New World religions, then do tune in.

If you are very religious, then you may either know most of this already as well or you may find yourself scoffing at all of the material that isn’t promoting your home team, so your personal entertainment value may vary. (Spoiler Alert: The Home Team’s coach is named Abe…)

Still, National Geographic strives to be educational and if you’re the barely religious sort or don’t know much about religions not your own, you could do worse than dip your toes in this primer on the subject — with the caveat to look into any topics here that interest you but which aren’t covered in terrible depth.

This lack of depth is exactly why the flashiness of the documentary really started to bother me. Contrast this with something like Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of Cosmos, which was flashy as all hell — but each episode was overstuffed with content for which the flash was a supporting argument, not a distraction. In Cosmos, there was a reason our narrator was flying around in a CGI spaceship. In The Story of God, it doesn’t really matter how Morgan Freeman gets from place to place, although he certainly doesn’t do it with abundant rack focus and variable-speed shutter…

Speaking of Morgan Freeman, any time that a show gives you a fully-formed drinking game in the middle of the second episode, it’s only a good sign if you’re writing a sitcom. In this case… not so much. While Mr. Freeman is an amazing actor, he’s not the greatest interviewer, and in those moments when things are set up to make it look like he’s actually asking the questions, he falls back on a tactic that becomes almost instantly ludicrous, called “Turn it around.” For example, when he’s told that “This was Akhenaton’s sarcophagus,” he responds, “This was Akhenaton’s sarcophagus?” What? Did you think that your hired expert was lying to you? (Although it could also be a product of Freeman’s inherent Southern politeness akin to “Well, bless your heart” — in other words, just a nice way to say, “Oh, bullshit.”)

Also, although they try to bring science into the show, they do a half-assed job of it — and it’s often more woo than science… q.v. an fMRI study which is interpreted to imply that god actually does something to people’s brains, rather than believing in god is only possible for people with certain kinds of brains. Subtle difference… There’s also a surprisingly Jesus-free explanation of “Who is god?” from televangelist Joel Osteen… although this episode ends with an ambiguous statement over god basically being the god in all of us, which is the best us within us… or, in other words, so meaningless that you’ll agree with it no matter whether you’re religious or an atheist.

The first season of The Story of God covers all the “greatest hits” questions — how do various religions explain creation (and destruction) of the universe, how do they account for the existence of evil, what do they think happens after death? — and so on. They seem to have covered all the bases, which only brings up the question of what they’re going to do for an encore. Season 2 premieres on Monday, January 16, 2017.

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