All episodes of “The Dovekeepers” were provided for review purposes prior to broadcast.
Throwing its shawl into the Biblical recreation ring, CBS’s two-night miniseries The Dovekeepers looks to take the dry bedrock of history and chisel it into well-sculpted TV drama. It’s not the only recent attempt, either. With the help of reality show guru Mark Burnett and executive producer Roma Downey, History Channel’s good book adaptation The Bible received great ratings back in 2013. When the network tried to recapture that magic earlier this year with Sons of Liberty, a hunked up “interpretation” of the revolutionary war, the payoff was nowhere near as divine.
CBS is looking to court Bible fans and ratings with The Dovekeepers, an antiquity story shepherded to the network by Burnett and Downey. Based on Alice Hoffman’s historical fiction of the same name, The Dovekeepers has everything you’ve come to expect from the hormonal sword ‘n sandal epics doing well on cable these days: burning torches and flaming passions, rent garments and ripped abs, with as much action on the battlefield as there is in the bedroom. Just, you know, from a religious perspective now (call it Devoutlander).
What The Dovekeepers lacks is any sort of idea of how to turn Hoffman’s book into something resembling a compelling, well-produced or even faintly stimulating four-hour TV miniseries. As a melodrama, it earns none of the investment required to make the genre work. As a production, it’s acted and shot with minimal grace and maximal schmaltz. The Dovekeepers can’t even titillate on a basic level, let alone with the purpose of some great cable alternatives, as network standards keep the action as spicy and fulfilling as ungarnished matzo.
Surface comparisons suggest a point-of-view character has been totally excised in translation, but The Dovekeepers otherwise sticks to Hoffman’s fictionalized take on the Siege of Masada, a stronghold of Judea beset by Roman conquerors around 72 AD. A framing device has Sam Neil playing Roman inquisitor Flavius Josephus (who despite the name, is a real historical figure, not a Key & Peele East/West Bowl player). His mission: find out the facts of the siege from two of its only survivors, mystical matriarch Shirah (Cote de Pablo), and her surrogate daughter, Yael (Rachel Brosnahan).
The story Flavius and the viewer are after is one of daring rebellion in the face of overwhelming odds. What we get is a stiff sand opera about non-characters doing dumb things. Why? Love and faith, baby. It’s not absurd for The Dovekeepers to focus on the character stories of the three main women trying to survive the siege (Shirah’s feisty daughter Aziza [Kathryn Prescott], rounding things out). What is absurd is assuming that broad backstories and dopey platitudes for dialogue will make them characters at all.
Thanks to a lack of time and probably resources, The Dovekeepers is forced to mostly tell instead of show, and telling is in no way the series’ strong suit. Describing her flight from Jerusalem to Masada, Yael tells Flavius, “We were people going backward: barbarians. We broke every law it was possible to break. One broken law led to another.” Such passion, this speech! But presented on screen, it amounts to four people walking around in the desert for ten minutes, while various desires smolder in the background. “I didn’t eat or drink for seven days,” she says later of a lost love, a sentiment that’s just badly overwritten at first blush. When the purpose of the interrogation is revealed by series’ end, the flowery hyperbole the script is riddled with becomes downright infuriating in retrospect.
Whenever The Dovekeepers does attempt to put on a show, the results range from passable to laughable. The set design and costuming struggle to make reused locations and apparel engrossing, but they pop with enough colour to make you wish the whole thing would break out in a musical number now and then. There are baffling dips into mysticism, including dream sequences inspired by bad van art tributes to Rush, and a flaming ghost demon that doesn’t look half bad, once your eyes adjust to the fact that a flaming ghost demon is in your Bible story.