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The cast of Testify (Photo: TVNZ / Design: Gabi Lardies)
The cast of Testify (Photo: TVNZ / Design: Gabi Lardies)

Pop CultureApril 7, 2024

Can we keep the faith with TVNZ’s new local drama Testify?

The cast of Testify (Photo: TVNZ / Design: Gabi Lardies)
The cast of Testify (Photo: TVNZ / Design: Gabi Lardies)

Sins and sinners abound in the big budget series about the secrets and lies behind an evangelical megachurch – but does the show deliver?

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David Jacobson is standing in the toilet of a queer nightclub, looking very much out of place. He’s been called there by three strangers, who found his name in a phone belonging to a young man named Leon, who is having a bad drug trip. As David (Vinnie Bennett) helps Leon without a word of judgment or blame, the three strangers are shocked to discover that he isn’t Leon’s boyfriend, but in fact his pastor. God moves in mysterious ways, it seems.

So begins Testify, TVNZ’s dark new drama about a rich and powerful family which run an evangelical megachurch in Auckland. It’s written by Gavin Strawhan (Black Hands, Nothing Trivial) and Paula Whetu Jones (Spinal Destination, Whina) and received $6 million in funding from NZ on Air. Starring Vinnie Bennett, Craig Hall and Ari Boyland, the series follows the battle between good and evil as that “hot pastor” David teams up with determined podcaster Dana (Stacey Hayes) to expose the church’s secrets and lies.

Community saviour David works for the church run by his father Scott (a suitably creepy Craig Hall), who rules both church and family with an iron fist. David is too busy looking after the local “waifs and strays” to obey his father, while prodigal son Paul (Ari Boyland) has returned after being missing for 15 years, determined to seek revenge for events from his past. When David turns against Avow Church and gets involved with a podcast run by the strangers he met in that nightclub toilet, all hell breaks loose.

Sounds like more than enough drama to sustain a big budget series – but wait, there’s more. Leon is also being pressured by the church to deny his sexuality, while flatmate-of-the-podcasters Isla (Molly Curnow) has an on-again, off-again romance with a guy called Hunter (they have loud sex while her flatmates record a podcast episode). There are traumatic flashbacks of abuse, harassment and dodgy dealings, and surely more to discover about Scott’s wife Jen (Kat Browne) and obedient daughter Emmeline (Jessica Grace Smith), who is happily married with two kids… or is she?

Vinnie Bennet stars as charismatic youth pastor David in Testify (Photo: TVNZ)

There’s a lot going on in Testify – too much, in fact. While all these storylines give us a variety of perspectives about what organised religion does to people, ultimately it means the show spreads itself a little too thin. Some scenes plod along at a pace that feels at odds with the story’s high stakes, and while the Jacobsons might be the show’s villains, I was left wanting more of them, given how much they have to lose and all their simmering secrets.

But the performances are solid, with Bennett, Hall and Boyland particularly strong, and the series raises timely questions about the role of organised religion in our society (when did worship become entertainment, podcasters Eden and Dana wonder, and is being a queer Christian an oxymoron?). Testify is a dark, brooding big-budget series with plenty of promise, but it’s strongest when it delves into the more sinister, secretive side of organised religion.

Having recently enjoyed slick, well received New Zealand dramas like After the Party and Dark City: The Cleaner, it’s clear we can make compelling television that can compete with big overseas budgets, while still reflecting who we are in challenging and authentic ways. Will Testify do that, too? Much like the Jacobsons themselves, you’ll need to keep the faith.

Testify premieres on TVNZ2 on Monday April 8 at 8.30pm (and continues on Tuesday April 9) and streams on TVNZ+. 

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