And the sun will turn to darkness and the moon will turn to blood. For in one hour is Thy judgment come.
—“The Book of Revelation”
Though NBC calls it “religious drama,” the six-episode series Revelations, is more aptly described as a supernatural thriller. It’s The X-Files if Mulder and Scully looked for God rather than for aliens. Sister Josepha Montifiore (Natascha McElhone) and physicist Richard Massey (Bill Pullman) are racing against time, hoping to forestall the apocalypse, to give humankind another chance.
Sister Josepha is the Mulder character. She believes that the prophecies laid out in “The Book of Revelation” have begun. Also like Mulder, she is willing to shake things up. Though it is blasphemy, she believes that she can stop Armageddon by finding Christ and protecting Him from the final showdown. Massey, the Scully-ish skeptic, believes that everything can be explained by science. He agrees with the doctors that Olivia (Chelsey and Brittney Coyle), a comatose lightning strike victim, is only quoting scripture because fillings in her teeth shot into her medulla, the “fuse box for involuntary motor control.” Still, Massey is drawn into Sister Josepha’s quest when the girl pens a symbol known only to him and his 12-year-old daughter, ritually murdered by satanist Isaiah Haden (Michael Massee).
In The X-Files, “the truth” remained out there. But Revelations leaves no doubt about who’s “right.” The doctors’ accounts (“some kind of seizure activity”) are flimsy, their desire to harvest Olivia’s organs born of their inability to explain her body’s ongoing activity, despite its “persistent vegetative state.” Here Revelations enters into currently controversial areas. Since the Catholic viewpoint is depicted as correct, the show could be interpreted as supporting “the right to life” side of the Terri Schiavo debate. “If you don’t help me stop them, they’ll cut out her heart all over again!” Sister Josepha shouts at Massey, comparing donating Olivia’s organs to Massey’s daughter’s murder. The stodgy doctors dismiss her argument: “Right-to-lifers would claim consciousness and brain waves in a night crawler.”
While it judges scientists harshly, Revelations gets around the question of other “nonbelievers” (people of other faiths) by not even mentioning them. In this vacuum, the Church looms large, tolerant and ideal compared to the dangerous secular world. “‘To love thy neighbor as thyself’ has become ‘To hate thy neighbor and thyself,’” Sister Josepha laments.
It appears that only Americans have thus drifted from Christ’s message. When miracles occur in other (Christian) nations, people believe. In Mexico, crowds rejoice and genuflect when a shadow of Christ on the cross appears on a mountain. In Greece, they hold services for a “child from the sea,” an infant (whose parentage, holy or demonic, remains to be seen) who appears to have survived when a passenger vessel is lost at sea. By contrast, Massey requires evidence and a personal connection. Plagued by memories of his laughing young daughter, he is desperate for any chance to reconnect with her. Grief is famously universal, and here, perhaps the only common ground for Massey and Sister Josepha, who lost her sister to a religious mass suicide. Massey is a vehicle, drawing viewers into fraught territory: the notion that the “Book of Revelation” is a literal blueprint for the end of days.
The apocalypse is not news (especially not to writer David Seltzer, who authored The Omen, novel and screenplay). Neither is religion cutting edge territory for television. (Reportedly, four networks wanted the show.) But Revelations taps into something more primal and satisfying than the maudlin Touched by an Angel. It caters to the public’s fascination with death, cataclysmic events, and mass destruction, the same stuff we pay to in see horror and action films. Like 24, it offers characters facing high stakes every week: here, it really is the “end of the world” if Sister Josepha and Massey don’t succeed.
“We felt what needed to be done is a television show that expressed itself as Christian,” executive producer Gavin Polone says in the New York Times
. Even if you don’t share this perspective, Revelations is a compelling end-of-the-world thriller. It doesn’t require religious faith any more than The X-Files requires belief in extraterrestrials. Like any Ben Affleck-ish asteroid-headed-for-Earth saga, this one suggests how it’s going to end. Even so, whether you believe it to be literal or metaphorical, the apocalypse story as outlined in “The Book of Revelation” is a majestic backdrop: reverential, vicious, and stunning.