TV critics seemed a lot more dubious about NatGeo’s adaptation of Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard’s Killing Jesus than they were about the network’s adaptations of  the duo’s Killing Kennedy or Killing Lincoln. They did not ask producers of the Kennedy and Lincoln projects to defend theirs against the glut of other projects about these two men; this afternoon, however, producers of Killing Jesus were asked to distinguish it from The Passion Of The Christ and The Greatest Story Ever Told.

“This is different in a major respect,” said Law & Order veteran Walon Green, who was tapped to write the script and seemed to have expected the question. “Other movies are about Jesus from the point of view of Jesus. This is a film that’s really playing a man in his times, and the story has to involve the time around him, to the degree that you realize a critical stage is coming in this person’s life. He cannot do what he is doing without political and other religious forces coalescing against him, and this will inevitably result in his death. This is the behind-the-scenes story of the life and death of Jesus.”

killing jesusAnother reporter wondered if the miniseries will more closely resemble “something Mark Burnett and Roma Downey would do” or something Ridley Scott would make. The implication is that a Burnett depiction of the killing of Jesus would be — a Ridley Scott telling of the story, maybe not so much, which was likely an Exodus dig. Still, an unusual question, given that Scott is EP on Killing Jesus. Burnett, so far as we know hasn’t come within spitting distance of it —  though he and wife Downey are the new It Couple of religious programming since their blockbuster The Bible, and are at work on its sequel, AD, as well as The Women Of The Bible, a series on divine intervention, etc.

“I hope since we’re working with Ridley it would be more in line with what he would do” than a Burnett production, EP David Zucker responded diplomatically.

Kelsey Grammer, who plays King Herod in the project, jumped in and said he thought this scripted program that “humanized” Jesus would “win praise from every part of the Christian world,” adding, “I think they find increased modern relevance is desirable.”

2015 Winter TCA Tour - Day 1“The goal in writing Jesus was to write somebody who, while we now accept or don’t accept as a messianic figure, he himself was a person who was a human being, confronted by what that meant when people began seeing him” as such a figure, and what the “destiny of that was and yet didn’t feel he could turn away from that.” Green chimed in. “He was a devout Jew. He thought, ‘I have no choice here’…it wasn’t a welcome choice necessarily; it was often a choice that frightened and disturbed him. There wasn’t another path he could take.”

Green also got asked the ultimate Hollywood question: “Give me a pitch to a non-Christian viewer.”

“A non-Christian viewer will really like this film because they can immerse themselves in the human story of this phenomenal guy Jesus and what he is, and what he comes from — his roots,” Green responded patiently. The “dynamics of the period” also are interesting, he suggested: “The Romans are occupying [the land]. They are a threat. They will not tolerate disorder. The Jews have had other messianic figures, and as a result the Romans have slaughtered people and decimated villages. They don’t want this to happen again,” and so on.

Natgeo channelAfter two successful movies, National Geographic pumped up this third installment of its Killing franchise to a four-hour miniseries, tapping Green to write and EP the project. Despite the reaction at the press tour Q&A — critics also asked why O’Reilly wasn’t there to take questions, like they meant it to sting — this miniseries has all the earmarks of another NatGeo hit.

In November 2013, the second installment in the series, Killing Kennedy, pulled 3.354 million viewers and 1.1 rating in adults 25-54. Killing Kennedy edged the first movie, Killing Lincoln (3.351 million), in total viewers to record NGC’s largest audience in history and tied Killing Lincoln‘s 1.1 25-45 rating, also an all-time record for the channel. In households, Killing Kennedy posted a 2.8 rating, second-highest ever behind the documentary Inside 9/11. Additionally, NatGeo said at the time, #killingkennedy was the No. 1 trending topic in the U.S. during the telecast, with the network’s website experiencing record traffic.