NBC Universal’s ‘Dig’ travels far, but not as deep

Jason Isaacs stars as Peter Connelly in the USA Network show "Dig," which premiered last week. (NBC Universal)

Jason Isaacs stars as Peter Connelly in the USA Network show “Dig,” which premiered last week. (NBC Universal)

LOS ANGELES (JTA) — Last summer, in the midst of the Gaza conflict, the threat of rocket fire forced NBC Universal’s “Dig” to stop production in Jerusalem and move out of the country.

If only the show itself were half that dramatic.

Instead, “Dig,” which premiered Thursday on the USA Network, is a rather flat amalgam of “Indiana Jones” and “The Da Vinci Code” poured into the mold of a standard television conspiracy-thriller.

The show follows FBI agent Peter Connelly (Jason Isaacs) investigating the murder of an American archaeologist, which leads him to uncover a group of apocalyptic religious extremists seeking to bring about end times by reenacting the ceremonies of an ancient biblical cult.

Although the action sprawls across the globe, it is focused primarily on Jerusalem, a piece of territory as charged and dramatically contested as any on earth. Yet in a sign of the show’s weakness, “Dig” feels oddly detached from the actual currents roiling the ancient city.

Making it even more perplexing, “Dig” was co-created by Gideon Raff, the creator of the hit Israeli show “Prisoners of War” and its American spinoff, “Homeland.” If anyone has shown an ability to explore complex characters against the backdrop of the political conflicts of the Middle East, it is Raff.

But despite being partially filmed in Israel, the setting of “Dig” bears only a passing resemblance to the actual country. Not only is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wholly absent (aside from obligatory news clips), but there are no significant Muslim characters. There is one Palestinian character, but he is an apocalyptic Christian and an international art thief — not exactly representative.

Instead, the writers focus on the rites performed in ancient temples and a rather unique coalition of Jewish and Christian fundamentalists intent on reenacting them. Thus we have a group of Orthodox Jews focused on procuring a red heifer, a Christian sect in the New Mexico desert that has been raising a young boy for an as-yet-unspecified role, an international antiquities conspiracy to assemble the breastplate of the high priest, and an archaeological dig underneath the Temple Mount seeking to uncover the original ark of the covenant. There is even an appearance by the Essenes, the ancient religious sect, reborn here as globetrotting, white-clad killer ninjas.

There is also, of course, a conspiracy, and it inevitably goes All the Way to the Top.

Unfortunately, the character development isn’t nearly as carefully worked out as the eschatology. Our hero, the FBI agent Connelly, a tough all-American cop posted to Jerusalem, is sucked into the case after he meets a female archaeology student who happens to look exactly like his dead daughter. They spend the night wandering through Jerusalem, eventually descending into an archaeological tunnel to skinny dip in the mikvah of the ancient temple. The next morning she is found dead.

The Connelly part is thinly written. The extent of his emotional life is both explored and exhausted in periodic calls to his wife to grieve over the loss of their daughter — calls that seem largely designed to reassure the audience that he is still invested in finding the killer of his daughter’s doppelganger. Still, that’s better than his boss (Anne Heche), whose role consists of sleeping with Connelly and repeatedly telling him, unsuccessfully, to back off the case.

By far the most genuine relationship on the show is between a young Hasidic man and the red heifer he is sent to care for and transport to Jerusalem. Here, at least, there is real affection.

Meanwhile, the audience is left with no insight into what motivates any of the religious extremists. Such people do exist, after all, and it isn’t as if religious extremism has ceased to be a relevant topic.

“Dig” could have gone in a different direction by demonstrating a sense of fun; it already teeters at times on the edge of ridiculousness. Connelly can’t seem to turn a Jerusalem corner without running into some sort of religious procession. And the show also demonstrates a level of cooperation among evangelical Christians, Catholics and Orthodox Jews that would seem, apocalypse or no, to deserve some sort of award for interfaith cooperation. Instead, “Dig” insists on taking itself deadly serious.

Ultimately, “Dig” manages to cover some of the richest, most resonant terrain in the world — both physically and thematically — without ever delving beneath the surface. This is a pity given the talent involved.

Raff’s co-creator, Tim Kring, demonstrated in “Heroes” that he could take comic book genre material and still make gripping television. Raff’s sense for the ways that people can be torn apart by larger political and social pressures should resonate beautifully in a country that has often been a magnet for messianic fantasists. And Israel is never less than mesmerizing as a backdrop. (The show also was filmed in part in Canada, New Mexico and Croatia.)

“Dig,” however, seems to approach Jerusalem with all the curiosity of a lazy tourist, making it little more than a venue for some pictures and tired fantasies.

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