The setup reads like cynical Hollywood screenwriting humor: What if you crossed “Touched by an Angel” with “Survivor”?
But those paths do cross in the husband-and-wife team behind CBS’s 4-hour, 2-night miniseries “The Dovekeepers,” executive produced by the star of the former and the creator of the latter and boasting equal doses of spirituality and hardscrabble living.
“The Dovekeepers,” based on Alice Hoffman’s fictional novel about the siege of Masada, stars actress Cote de Pablo (“NCIS”), Rachel Brosnahan (“House of Cards”) and Kathryn Prescott (“Reign”) as three strong-willed Jewish women carved from hardship, hobbled by their own passions and fighting for survival when Rome’s legendary Tenth Legion descends on ancient Israel.
Despite some muscular sword-and-sandals work when cultures clash, this tale is really about first century girl power — at least, as much as you can get away with while still tossing around lines like, “God won’t punish you; you did as your husband demanded,” as if all a gal’s got to do to avoid perdition is to blame her spouse. Most convenient.
Shirah (de Pablo) and Yael (Brosnahan) unfold their story before Josephus (Sam Neill), a Jewish collaborator with the Roman invaders, who appears to sit in judgement on the women for reasons not immediately divulged. Shirah tells of her hard life in Alexandria as the daughter of a Jewish “witch” (a medicine woman), who had been cast out of Israel for her practices. Upon her mother’s death, she returns to Israel to watch over her uncle’s two young motherless children. The youngest is Yael, whose flame-kissed red hair, sparkling blue eyes and pale skin make her more of an oddball in their community than a beauty. Shirah promptly falls into bed with a married man, becomes pregnant and is banished to the desert.
The remainder of the tale — Shirah’s fate in the unforgiving desert, how she and Yael are reunited and the path of her warrior-daughter Aziza — comprises the dramatic swings of loves lost, found and sometimes lost again and difficult choices made against the backdrop of slavery, war and death. Mysticism in the miniseries is blessedly limited to a handful of moments that could be explained away by coincidence, science or extreme intuition; Shirah’s summoning of a much-needed
“The Dovekeepers'” human cast is a mélange of international flavors with nearly every continent accounted for — from the lead actresses representing the Americas and Europe to New Zealander Neill, Egyptian Mido Hamada as Shirah’s love Eleazar Ben Ya’ir and on. The miniseries scores points for equal(ish) opportunity that way — though the palette of racial diversity swings wild in one direction with Brosnahan’s jarring Scottish coloring and Irish actor Diarmaid Murtagh playing a slave/castaway from the set of “Vikings.”
This is not your grandma’s Bible tale; the ladies here get their hands dirty and sensuality is a biological constant, not some male sex-fantasy plot exclamation point. The dewy leads make you forget that in real life, the oppressive desert heat probably made for some intense body odor, as when Aziza fights a fierce battle clothed as a man, yet somehow manages to look fresh as a buttercup after changing back into her dress. (That’s female fantasists at work.)
In all, the actors deliver even when the dialogue feels a bit starched and the story seems to hew a bit too faithfully to Josephus’ real documentation of the Masada siege’s survivor tales. It’s a problem with history that it sometimes feels outdated.
If Biblical-style fantasy is your bag, then its for you, but audiences who have feminist leanings will find the number of times the women are — as with too many Bible tales — called whores and prostitutes extremely grating, when a woman with an opinion and a sexual appetite is no different from their male partners and deserving of no more (or less) blame for bad behavior.
Without giving too much away, the cult-like ending is in no way romantic and may set off some viewers who will feel their time would have been better spent ensuring their kids don’t grow up to be religious zealots.
“The Dovekeepers” airs Tuesday and Wednesday at 9 p.m. on CBS.