In Damascus, an ISIL siege is stymied by a 43-day sandstorm of biblical proportions that was foreseen by a single man. For accurately predicting—and preaching throughout—the cataclysm, this figure comes to be known and revered as al-Masih (Mehdi Dehbi), aka “The Messiah.” Having commanded the ear of the poor and downtrodden, al-Masih leads his new Palestinian followers across the desert to the Israeli border, thereby instigating an international incident about which he seems blissfully unconcerned. “Throw away your assumptions about God. Stop clinging to what you think you know. In this hour, mankind is a rudderless boat. Cling to me,” he intones with the calmness and conviction of a prophet and the long hair, chiseled cheekbones and well-trimmed beard of a male model.
And cling to him they most certainly—and crazily—do.
Messiah, a new 10-part Netflix series premiering on Jan. 1, is the story of al-Masih’s effect on the world, both abroad and here at home. That’s because, after a stint in an Israeli jail where intelligence officer Aviram (Tomer Sisley) is shaken by his captive’s insight into his own life, al-Masih suddenly materializes in the tiny enclave of Dilly, Texas, and, in particular, at the church of Felix (John Ortiz). Thanks to crushing debts, Felix is on the brink of burning his house of worship to the ground. Before that can happen, however, a tornado rolls into town, and so does al-Masih, who’s seen standing before it as if protecting the church from destruction. When it turns out that the stranger has also saved the life of Felix and boozy wife Anna’s (Melinda Page Hamilton) runaway daughter Rebecca (Stefania LaVie Owen), the global narrative is set: al-Masih is God’s chosen vessel.
Created by Michael Petroni, executive produced by The Apprentice’s Mark Burnett, and often directed, boringly, by V for Vendetta helmer James McTeigue, Messiah generates suspense from ambiguity: namely, the question of whether or not al-Masih is, in fact, the second coming of Christ. That’s certainly the issue which consumes CIA agent Eva Geller (Michelle Monaghan), who, when not enjoying mysterious trips to the hospital—and giving herself equally puzzling shots that appear to cause her hair to fall out—zealously looks into this enigmatic individual. Those in search of answers and salvation—such as mother Staci (Emily Kinney), who brings her cancer-stricken daughter to see al-Masih against the wishes of her husband—flock to him in Texas. No one, however, believes in him as strongly as Felix, who embraces al-Masih like a drowning man clutching a piece of driftwood.
Al-Masih is greeted by both celebration and hostility, and Messiah makes a point of structuring itself so that everyone, and everything that takes place, is mirrored elsewhere. Eva, tormented by medical problems, her past, and her dementia-addled father Zelman (Philip Baker Hall), is echoed by Aviram, who spars with his ex while trying to maintain a relationship with his daughter, and who’s tortured by a dark secret. In the U.S., epilepsy-afflicted Rebecca becomes a fervent disciple, just as young Jibril (Sayyid El Alami) did in the Syrian desert. Natural disasters swirl about al-Masih on separate continents, and he leads respective congregations—Pied Piper-style—through two different deserts. Felix has an Arab counterpart who preaches al-Masih’s divinity, and the man’s movement faces pushback from various establishments, be they U.S. and Israeli governments (which are depicted as venomous, if not outright murderous) or orthodox Muslims who view al-Masih as a false prophet.
Such parallels lend Messiah cohesiveness, but they don’t speak to the show’s larger themes because, well, there really aren’t any. Humanity’s desire to believe in something bigger than itself, and the competing impulse to view miracles with skepticism, are certainly catalysts for the narrative. Yet despite what he claims, al-Masih—embodied by Dehbi as an alternately cheery and intense cipher whose motives are impossible to read—isn’t so much a vehicle designed to reflect people’s hopes, fears and dreams, as much as an agent of chaos. Discord invariably follows in his wake, especially in the cases of Eva and Aviram, whose personal and professional troubles are magnified by al-Masih’s conduct: magically escaping jail cells; talking about things he shouldn’t know about; and performing other feats previously only pulled off by Jesus.
If there’s a realistic element to Messiah, it’s the notion that the arrival of a convincing prophet would send many people—of all religions and nationalities—into a tailspin of excitement, doubt, panic and insanity. A sequence in which a student walks through a college campus that’s become a carnival of hippies, preachers, doomsayers and beer-bonging slackers is perhaps its most accurate speculative moment. Unfortunately, its character-based dramas, rife with guilt, shame, and moral confusion, barely speak to the potentially world-transforming al-Masih, or people’s attraction to faith; rather, they’re just standard predicaments mainly designed to eat up time when the show isn’t fixating its gaze on its would-be messiah’s placid countenance and cryptic, oblique pronouncements.
In the end, Messiah hinges on whether al-Masih is the real deal, and yet Petroni’s plotting makes clear early on that it’s not going to provide a definitive answer. As when Al-Masih resurrects a shot boy, but we never actually see a gun fire, the action always leaves open the possibility that both interpretations—he is God’s man; he’s a charlatan—are true. A bevy of revelations about al-Masih’s background eventually come to light, but they’re similarly hard to trust; worse, they’re not particularly exciting, which also goes for the bombshells dropped about Eva, Aviram and Rebecca, all of them brought to life with earnestness but not much idiosyncratic liveliness by Monaghan, Sisley and Owen. At least they’re fully developed, though—from an Islamic terrorist who recruits Jibril’s friend Samir (Fares Landoulsi), to a political scientist major (and waiter) whom Eva looks out for, many threads are simply left to dangle, which consequently renders them corny plot devices.
By the time the president of the United States (Dermot Mulroney) starts falling under al-Masih’s spell, Messiah has long since overstayed its welcome, dragging out its central question about the would-be savior’s true nature past the breaking point. It’s one thing to stoke audiences’ imagination and anxiety with uncertainty, but do it for too long, and to no conclusive end, and what you’re left with is characters, situations and conundrums that are increasingly impossible to care about—especially when the show has nothing enlightening to say about them.