Monty Brinton/CBS
Sandra P. Angulo
May 12, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The Jesus of the two-part CBS miniseries ”Jesus” (Sun. & Wed., 9 p.m.) may shock viewers who are used to the silent, somber Christ of ”King of Kings” and ”The Greatest Story Every Told.” Jeremy Sisto — a 25-year-old veteran of such teen fare as ”Clueless” and ”White Squall” — portrays a bolder, friendlier Son of God, one who has water fights with his apostles and dances at wedding receptions. ”There’s a lot of interpretations where Jesus is presented as this ghostlike figure who floats through life haunted and detached,” Sisto tells EW Online. ”But we wanted to show him with his family and friends, as a man who must struggle with this incredible calling he has to answer.”

”Jesus” also struggles to be politically correct. Instead of depicting a passive, conflicted Pontius Pilate (Gary Oldman), the film stresses Pilate’s active, conspiratorial role in Jesus’ crucifixion. This way, the story doesn’t blame only the Jewish mob for Jesus’ death: ”We were very aware that Jews have for centuries been accused of killing Christ,” says coexecutive producer Judd Parkin. ”But people don’t realize what a bloodthirsty, corrupt leader Pilate was.” And then there’s Debra Messing’s feminist rendition of Mary Magdalene, who tells a prospective trick, ”I decide when, not you.”

But despite these changes, ”Jesus” is far from radical: Parkin and coexecutive producer Lorenzo Minoli had the script preapproved by a 12-member panel of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim scholars. ”We weren’t trying to be another ‘Last Temptation of Christ,”’ Parkin says, ”We just wanted a more realistic, accessible account of the Gospels.” Especially realistic are the flogging and crucifixion scenes. ”He was flesh and blood,” Sisto says. ”By showing how hard the pain was to bear, I think it shows just how much the man sacrificed.” Parkin, for his part, doesn’t think the bloody scenes will offend anyone. ”We don’t want to rub people’s faces in it,” he says. ”But the suffering was unimaginable, and he couldn’t just be silent.” Besides, Parkin adds, the anguish of Good Friday is offset by the joy of the Resurrection: ”The violence turns into glory.”

Already highly acclaimed in Europe, where the Moroccan-based production has received rave reviews, ”Jesus”’s producers are hoping for their own miracle: winning enough U.S. viewers to convince CBS to replay the special each spring. ”In an ideal circumstance, ‘Jesus’ would play like ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ did for years on NBC,” Parkin says. And if ”Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” clobbers ”Jesus”? There’s always more Christian overseas markets, like Latin America. In Italy, where ”Jesus” debuted last December and finished the second highest rated program of the year (after a soccer match, natch), the Pope even blessed the international cast and crew, which includes Jacqueline Bissett (Mary), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Joseph), and Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbe (Satan). ”We gave him his own copy,” Parkin says of the holy encounter. What better stamp of approval could ”Jesus” ask for?

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