The Believers

The Believers
The Believers
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There is an old school of thought that the Roman Empire never really ended, it just became a church. And while an oversimplification, it gets to the point – where did all that money and power go? Under the Vatican is as good a hiding place as any. This is also something The Believers says.

This is a good premise for a show. I have complaints about how it’s done – and I will – but the concept itself is solid. Three young entrepreneurs accrue some bad debts with the wrong people and take over a failing Buddhist temple in order to make some cash. Now that’s cutting out the middleman. It’s not about religious people slowly finding out that under every layer of altruism there’s always just another scam; it’s about business-minded people who understand that religion is – plain and simple – money.

Not long after Testament: The Story of Moses, so I don’t want to sound like a broken record or anything, but religious folks are kind of easy targets. They’re good for tithe-ing you over (sorry). And Win (Teeradon Supapunpinyo), Game (Pachara Chirathivat), and Dear (Achiraya Nitibhon) figure this out when their NFT business goes belly-up. They can take an underperforming temple, modernize it, and market it towards a hipper demo. You can see where this is going.

As genius as this idea might be though, I’m not sure The Believers does itself many favours in its opening act. We get here from cryptocurrency stuff somehow? The NFT game rewards users with cryptocurrency which keeps inexplicably skyrocketing in value until the system is hacked and a code drains its worth by selling off bulk parcels at once; other token-holders see the depreciation and pull out because duh. It’s easy enough to follow that the guys start off raking it in and end up broke overnight, indebted to the people they borrowed startup money from in the first place, but it’s also a bit thin to say everything hangs on that.

But still though. You can’t deny that where the show puts religion and profit in relation with each other is its biggest hook, and it certainly makes for a unique exploration of how our greatest source of comfort as human beings is also always trying to screw us over. The likeable leads – who aren’t bad people but wouldn’t think twice about pulling a fast one for a few quid – quickly become relatable because they never see the temple as anything more than a business. These aren’t televangelists flying around in private jets blaming natural disasters on gay people; they’re sharp entrepreneurs who know the whole thing’s dodgy.

Writer-director Wattanapong Wongwan gives pretty good reasons behind each of them too. Win comes from nothing and wants better for himself; Game has watched his dad and sister put in long hours for peanuts and knows there’s something wrong with that; Dear is just looking for fatherly approval. These are kids at heart.

This is the reason why the religious economy thing is so interesting and why it’s irritating when The Believers includes other subplots that detract from it. Over the course of its nine episodes — at least a couple too many — things get darker and more complicated, and thus less engaging than they were in the beginning. By the time we get to a finale that has bitten off more than it can reasonably chew, all juice has long ceased to be worth squeezing. Second season, anyone? I would be surprised if they’re not angling for one.

Also, just so you know: The dub doesn’t match the subtitles in a way that feels like they tell two different stories entirely. Pick either one (I’d go with subtitles) or prepare yourself for largely disparate readings of what goes on here. In addition to which, there is some very culturally specific Thai patter and characters that may be lost on a non-Thai-facing Western audience — or any Western audience whose knowledge of Thai media begins with Tony Jaa movies and ends with Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

The upshot is that this is not a great show but a good idea for one; still, check it out because of how charming it can be and how often its premise takes you by surprise. And yet also approach with caution because … well, duh?

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