Twice a year, like clockwork, religion visits the TV. Twice a year, we consume the same stories: the Nativity in December, the Exodus and the Passion of Christ in spring.
The stars are periodically upgraded and the special effects given a little bit more va-va-voom, but little else ever changes.
ABC, for one, isn't even changing the faces. It plans to air Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 version of The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston as astronaut George Taylor, er, I mean Moses ("Get your stinking hands off that Golden Calf, you dirty ape!") at 7 p.m. next Sunday.
Hollywood seems incapable of doing what millions of worshipers achieve on a daily basis - breathing new life into stories they live by, and finding new meanings in the proverbs and parables that have helped define their sense of self.
We don't need a sexier Moses (take a gander at Christian Bale in the 2014 film Exodus: Gods and Kings) or an action hero Moses (Heston upgraded Russell Crowe?).
We need to discover different ways of telling the same myths, the same histories, so that they are relevant to us today.
Despair not. Things are beginning to change. Of the three major miniseries set to premiere over the next week, only one is unpardonably insipid: NBC's A.D.: The Bible Continues (9 p.m. next Sunday on NBC).
The National Geographic Channel's offering, Killing Jesus (8 p.m. Sunday), based on Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard's book, is for the most part a conventional retelling of the gospel narrative. But it displays great regard for the viewer's intelligence.
The one to look forward to this year is CBS' The Dovekeepers, the latest in a growing series of stories that recast traditional tales from heterogeneous, even conflicting, points of view. It's part of minirevolution of sorts, shifting focus from the stories of the big - usually male - heroes that propel the tide of history to the smaller folk who populate its world and who barely make the footnotes in textbooks.
A two-part adaptation of the Alice Hoffman best-seller, which will air at 9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, The Dovekeepers recounts the Siege of Masada, from the point of view of three women.
In a way, it's a companion piece to Lifetime's winter holiday offering The Red Tent, a modest adaptation of Anita Diamant's biblical novel that plucked a minor character, Dinah, from Jewish tradition and made an epic story of her life.
The Dovekeepers is produced by married couple Mark Burnett (Survivor, The Voice) and Touched By an Angel star Roma Downey, who also are responsible for NBC's A.D. and History's surprise ratings smash The Bible. The Dovekeepers stars NCIS' Cote de Pablo, House of Cards' Rachel Brosnahan, The Blacklist's Kathryn Prescott, and Fiona O'Shaughnessy as members of an ad hoc community of 967 Jews. In A.D. 73, they sought refuge from the Roman army - which had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, ransacked the city, and slaughtered its population - at the impregnable mountaintop fortress Masada in Judea, while the Romans amassed at the foot of the mountain.
The Jewish community ended the siege by committing mass suicide. Only seven survived.
The Dovekeepers is about a confrontation between two (fictionalized) survivors - a healer and purported witch named Shirah (de Pablo) and her closest friend, Yael (Brosnahan) - and Flavius Josephus (Sam Neill), the real-life Jewish-Roman historian who wrote the first account of the siege, a text scholars use to this day.
What if, the film posits, the official story, the one taught to all Jewish boys and girls as part of their living tradition, came from the mouths of two women deemed outcasts? Shirah and Yael, whose backstories are told in detail, were transgressive, independent, outspoken, sexually liberated individuals.
The men who led the rebels, the fathers and priests who held the reins of power in the community, also are present, but they no longer have a privileged place in the telling of this portion of history.
While feminist scholars and artists for four decades have reconstructed stories from marginalized perspectives, the approach we see in The Red Tent and The Dovekeepers is relatively new.
The premium cable channel Starz is responsible for two other notable examples, The White Queen, a retelling of the Wars of the Roses from the perspective of the major players' mothers, daughters, and lovers, and Outlander, an adaptation of novelist Diana Gabaldon's best-selling series, which returns from a midseason hiatus Saturday, about WWII nurse who is transported to 18th-century Scotland, where she plays a role in the Highlander rebellion against the English.
But there's more to this development than through specifically women's perspectives. Entries such as the British miniseries The Great Fire and AMC's Turn: Washington's Spies, which returns to television April 13, have made an effort to frame their accounts of history from the point of view of average people who were most directly affected by major events, such as the Great Fire of London and the American Revolution.
Even Killing Jesus, a conventional, male-centered account of the Passion of Christ, incorporates elements of the new storytelling.
The 21/2 drama is an episodic, sometimes fragmented, dramatization of the gospel accounts that takes pains to present a realistic view of first-century Judea. Director Christopher Menaul's otherwise humdrum film strives for naturalism, never portraying the supernatural on-screen. The miracles happen off-camera, and the viewer only hears about them secondhand through the disciples.
The miniseries isn't concerned with the factual accuracy of traditional biblical accounts - Killing Jesus takes seriously the perspective that Christianity derives its power from its tradition, textual and spoken.
A.D., on the other hand, does not follow this trend. As the goofy title suggests, A.D.: The Bible Continues is a sequel to 2013's The Bible. And like its predecessor, the 12-episode series uses every trick in the book to make literal every miraculous and supernatural phenomenon in the scriptural account.
The first episode, "The Tomb Is Open," picks up the story with a quick run-down of the trial and execution of Jesus (Juan Pablo Di Pace). Larger-than-myth (much less life), the episode is a literalist, image-by-image cinematic illustration of the gospel accounts: Jesus' death initiates a chain-reaction that brings black clouds, thunder, and earthquakes to Jerusalem. The complex special effects are counterbalanced by the simplistic portrayal of Jesus' enemies as dastardly gangsters and goons.
Is this the account of one of the most significant events in human history, or just another entry in the Kick-Ass movie franchise? The series pretends to stay true to tradition, yet seems to care very little about presenting Jesus with due dignity, if not reverence.
A.D. makes us all the more grateful that there are producers and writers willing to look at tradition with fresh eyes, however imperfect the results.
Premieres 8 p.m. Sunday on National Geographic Channel.
9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday on CBS3.
A.D.: The Bible Continues
12-episode miniseries premieres 9 p.m. April 5 on NBC10.