Miniseries turns Exodus saga into soulless melodrama

The opening narration of ABC’s dreadful miniseries “The Ten Commandments” informs us that Moses’ name is revered by Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Translation: In order to appeal to the widest possible audience of semi-literate Americans, all references to Hebrews or Israelites have been removed. The chosen people? Forget it. ABC’s study guide is the Nielsen ratings, not the book of Exodus.

In other words, rabbis and scholars, get your pencils and laptops ready. You might fill five books with the literal, religious, spiritual and thematic licenses that ABC’s “The Ten Commandments” takes with the Bible.

The miniseries airs 9 p.m. Monday, April 10 and Tuesday, April 11.

This ill-conceived miniseries won’t hold much interest, either, for viewers whose knowledge of the Israelites in Egypt is limited to the colorful highlight reel found in the Haggadah. The two-part series veers dangerously close to Pythonesque self-parody before finding its groove in tepid melodrama.

All in all, it offers little in the way of gripping storytelling or soulful inspiration, but ample fodder for armchair wiseacres. It lacks the power and iconic resonance of Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 classic with Charlton Heston.

The first night takes us from Moses’ birth and discovery by Pharoah’s daughter to the banks of the Red Sea with the Egyptians in thundering pursuit of the freed Hebrews. In between, we get a perfunctory and superficial depiction of slavery that’s devoid of emotional impact.

The problem? “The Ten Commandments” is all about Moses’ journey. The suffering and misery of generation after generation of Hebrews is important only insomuch as it fuels Moses’ sense of injustice and destiny, and gives him the spunk to accept God’s directive.

As for Moses’ showdown with Pharoah — it’s played as a standoff between stubborn egomaniacs rather than as a just and overdue cause forestalled by a shortsighted despot. One gathers that if only Moses had taken one of those negotiations seminars given nowadays to every middle manager, everything would have turned out so much better for all concerned.

Incidentally, and incomprehensibly, Moses never utters the words, “Let my people go.” The fact that this timeless mantra resonates with African Americans as well as Jews only adds to the mystery of its omission.

The second half (which airs the night before the first seder) consists of the desert wanderings of Moses and his people, tricked out with an adultery subplot and a series of jarring battle scenes. Here, Moses has grown from a reluctant prophet into, well, a reluctant and petulant prophet. As portrayed by Dougray Scott, Moses is a brooding loner who isn’t enamored of God’s instructions but really doesn’t like being second-guessed by his charges.

The key sequence in the miniseries occurs after Moses turns his ragtag people into an army. The transition from slaves to an autonomous tribe that can defend itself is a necessary step, of course, but a disturbing link is made between God and war.

“How many other battles will we have to fight to show we are worthy of you?” Moses asks the Lord after the latest in a string of bloody frays.

One shudders to think that some uninformed viewers will extrapolate that contemporary Israel uses unblinking service to God as the motivation and justification for its military actions.

It’s more likely that viewers will take this passage as the filmmakers intended, as a caution in an era of escalating tensions between the Christian West and the Islamic world.

Nonetheless, the series doesn’t exactly provide a nuanced, sophisticated take on the Exodus story. So let’s focus on the silver lining:

Passover comes at a particularly sobering time this year, with Jews under attack in France and Hamas heading the Palestinian government. So take comfort from “The Ten Commandments” that it wasn’t the Jews, but just some group of illegal immigrants who were actually enslaved in Egypt.

“The Ten Commandments” airs 9 p.m. Monday, April 10 and Tuesday, April 11 on ABC.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.