Moses, Like You've Never Seen Him Before
Do we really need another Ten Commandments?
The Israelites wandered the wilderness for 40 years. ABC's new version of The Ten Commandments (Monday and Tuesday at 9 p.m. ET) makes it feel like at least 60. By the time Egypt's Jews escape their bondage, you'll know that this is an oddly tedious affair. The parting of the Red Sea occurs at the end of tonight's half of the miniseries. Though that's an exceptionally lousy cliffhanger, the CGI work—two vertiginous walls of water—is impressive. But the plagues are outright slapdash: The locust footage seems to be spliced in from an episode of NOVA, and when Aaron strikes the river Nile with his staff, all its water turns to Hawaiian Punch.
How is this Ten Commandments different from all other versions? (Or, at least, different from Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 spectacular with costumes by Edith Head and heroics by Charlton Heston.) For starters, it's working an identity-crisis angle as if it were a daytime talk show. This Moses has known since childhood that he was adopted, and this knowledge has left him alienated and angry: "I don't belong there. I don't belong anywhere!" Also, half the town seems to know that Princess Bithia found her baby in the bulrushes. If that circumstance causes you bewilderment—why wouldn't the pharoah have young Moses whacked?—then you have put more thought into the matter than director Robert Dornhelm (USA's Rudy: The Rudy Giuliani Story) and writer Ron Hutchinson (The Island of Dr. Moreau).
Dougray Scott, currently the star of NBC's Heist and most famous as the villain of Mission: Impossible 2, trots out much scowling anger and sulking angst in the lead role. This is Method Moses. Tonight, back from his conference with the burning bush and heading toward Egypt, he stumbles over a rock and mutters, "You'd think if this is what He wanted He'd make the going a little easier." Tomorrow, he furrows his brow and frets, " 'I am who I am.' What does that mean? Why give me a riddle to solve?" And while he struggles with his faith, he's got to cope with logistics. When Aaron says, "The well's run dry. We need you to tell us where to go next," Moses sighs and manages a shrug. Is this the prince of Egypt or a shift manager at Starbucks?
After Willem Dafoe in The Last Temptation of Christ and Jim Caviezel in what a colleague once called The P. of the C., it is inevitable that Scott should go in for psychological veracity. But Jesus is Jesus, Jesus is Everyman. Viewers expect some complications, some Brandoisms, some daddy issues. When it comes to an Old Testament prophet, Heston's dreamboat righteousness and hambone solidity seem entirely in order. Further, Scott, who is Scottish, occasionally slips out of his historical pageant voice to sound like a Glaswegian tax attorney.
The rest of the ensemble goes at it haphazardly, offering a mixed salad of accents and acting styles. Omar Sharif, who plays Moses' father-in-law, has presumed this production to be an actual epic and starts chewing things up accordingly. Naveen Andrews (Lost) is Moses' stepbrother, a role not found in either DeMille or the Pentateuch; his performance suggests that he instead took some inspiration from the Royal Shakespeare Company and then a little more from Gladiator. Then there is the spacey flatness of the leonine Padma Lakshmi. Lakshmi's husband, Salman Rushdie, has already limned her charms in the novel Fury, wherein she serves as the model for the hero's love interest: "Compared to the intoxicating effect of her presence, the bottle of Dos Equis in his left hand was wholly alcohol free." Here, as Princess Bithia, she is indeed lovely, but I still must recommend beer.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.