In fact, one of the most interesting themes explored in Messiah — from Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (who brought us The Bible miniseries) and Michael Petroni (who co-created 2003’s Miracles) — is the idea put forth by Michelle Monaghan’s CIA agent Eva Geller, which is that al-Massih (Mehdi Dehbi) is an agent of chaos being funded and handled by a foreign enemy looking to hack away at America’s already-fragile citizenry. In this era of “Fake News,” this is the first series to make this kind of horrifying extrapolation, looking ahead at what could happen if — you know — someone actually wanted to fake the return of Christ in order to throw the world into upheaval. “State-sponsored social disruption,” is the term used.
Naturally though — and you kind of know this going in — Messiah is not the type of show to ever land on that particular dystopian premise as the answer. No, al-Masih, which is what his followers call him, seems to be everything he claims to be. The show gives him enough skeletons so that Geller has shadows to chase and theories to form, but in the end he always winds up doing something inexplicably miraculous in order to shut down the deep state conspiracy.Al-Masih is also, as a character, baffling and exhausting. Yes, the series leans into that, but it doesn’t mean it’s better for it. The way he, like, just doesn’t ever do what his worshipers want him to do is kind of a running joke, but also a chore to behold. He bounces between big moments of divine intervention like a pinball, often choosing to walk off and leave people in the lurch after leading them long distances (sometimes to their presumed death). Within this, there’s apparently some type of message about managing our own expectations of God, and needing to seek answers within rather than from outside, but the series can be quite dry while stretching six or seven episodes worth of story over 10 (a Netflix hallmark). At one point, al-Massih literally says “If you’ve come here to understand, you will leave lost” and that seems to be the overall crux and credo of the show.
Taking a few cues from Homeland, Messiah is also filled to the absolute brim with fundamentally broken characters. Just angry, spiteful, closed-off, and desperate players who now must contend with someone who’s utterly non-reactive, to the point of quasi-stasis. Obviously, as a narrative device, it makes sense for those who bury themselves in “spycraft” to be damaged and dysfunctional, but here they’re all meant to rub up against al-Masih so he, with his words can show them their reflection and they can recoil and/or conform.Whether he’s the most elaborately produced con man in human history or the actual Second Coming, al-Masih is a tricky character to center a show around. Yes, Monaghan, for the most part, drives the series forward, but since we know her theories and claims will all get dismissed at each and every miracle, we’re stuck just watching her bury herself. And al-Massih himself, played quite genially by Dehbi, is a character the series itself can’t even seem to crack yet. So despite the series containing a handful of interesting ideas, it all plays out pretty parched.
Rounding out the cast, as the other shattered souls on the trail of al-Masih as he pings from Syria to Israel to the States, are Tomer Sisley’s Aviram (a rage-filled Israeli intelligence officer), Sayyid El Alami’s Jabril (one of al-Masih’s first followers, left behind and used as pawn), and the Iguero family – played by John Ortiz, Melinda Page Hamilton, and Stefania LaVie Owen.
The Igueros add an interesting layer, as a small-town Texas family who run a church, and whose lives are irrevocably changed by al-Masih in a way that’s meant to point out the sins of envy, pride, and greed. As Felix, the reverend, hitches his wagon to al-Masih, his stock goes up and his life seemingly “improves.” But because al-Masih never offers true council other than variations of “Well what do you think you should do?,” the show tends to feel just as adrift as its characters.
Messiah’s strengths lie in its exploration of how modern society might react to the Second Coming, or how easily we all could be duped by an elaborate hoax on a global scale. Unfortunately, it’s an ultimately flat affair with numerous narrative cliches involving textbook TV dysfunction – and that makes for a dull watch most of the time.