The new five-part miniseries The Bible, the first episode of which premiered on The History Channel Sunday night and will repeat tonight at 9:00 EST, is clearly a budget-conscious production but well worth watching. It drew an impressive audience for its Sunday night premiere: 13.1 million people for its first showing, and 14.8 million total for the night.

Produced by reality-TV purveyor Mark Burnett (Survivor) and his wife, the actress Roma Downey (Touche by an Angel), the series tells stories from the Bible, as the title suggests. The first episode, Beginnings, sets the narrative style by moving elegantly through three main story lines: Noah’s ark; the efforts of Abram (called Abraham prematurely in this narrative) and Sarah to have a child and the intertwined story of Sodom and Gomorrah; and Moses and the Jewish exodus from Egypt.

Each of the stories emphasizes the human drama and the characters’ place in history, and the performances are in the contemporary naturalistic style as opposed to the grandeur of the series’ original inspiration, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and other such classic-era Hollywood films. This obviously fits in both with the History Channel’s mission and with a desire to keep to a reasonable budget, but the Beginnings seldom looks under-budgeted.

Employing significant amounts of CGI, the visuals are excellent overall, and some are quite striking, such as the images of the process of creation of the world, the landing of Noah’s ark, and God’s appearance to Moses in a burning bush. The latter is really quite wondrous and really uses the capacities of HDTV well.

The only place where the visual impact is less impressive than one might reasonably hope, in fact, is in the scene depicting the parting of the Red Sea. It works just fine, but it doesn’t have anything like the scope and impact of DeMille’s depiction. But where The Bible: Beginnings really shines is in the naturalness of most of its performances. The actors in Beginnings are relative unknowns from Britain, but Gary Oliver stands out for his nuanced portrayal of Abraham. The scene in which Abram takes Isaac up to the mountain intending to give him as a sacrifice to God is intensely powerful and moving, an effect made possible by the persuasiveness of the performances.

Similarly, William Housten gives a standout performance as Moses: his characterization of Moses as rather cheerful, pleasant, and frankly puzzled by his divine calling is both Biblically justifiable and light-years away from Charlton Heston’s stupendous embodiment of the character in The Ten Commandments, and hence avoids invidious comparisons with that great performance. But it also does something more: it allows the viewer to identify with the character far more intimately than one could ever do with Heston’s grand characterization, fitting well with the overall narrative style of the production and bringing new light to the character.

This is far from the only obeisance to contemporary values in The Bible: Beginnings. In the scenes set in Sodom and Gomorrah, the two angels are played by a black man and an Asian male, and the latter uses martial arts moves to slaughter evildoers in the biblical Sin City. The homosexual element of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah is largely invisible in the film’s depiction of that story line, although those with sharp eyes will spot what appears to be a weird, large bald woman who seems an allusion to that side of things. A viewer with little knowledge of the story, however, might well wonder just why God is so angry at Sodom.

In general, however, the filmmakers tend to get the basics right. The writers (and the producers, for their oversight of the script) deserve much credit for this and for bringing out the real drama in the stories. The characters have to make hard moral choices, which is, after all, the essence of drama. They also manage to keep to a strong theme: each story shows the need for humans to trust in God, and Moses explicitly states this a couple of times to his more skeptical Jewish compatriots in the third story line.

If some of the details may get a bit foggy at times, and some of the visuals leave a bit to be desired, the drama and thematic power of the stories more than compensate. You don’t have to be religious to enjoy The Bible: Beginnings, and if you watch it, you just might develop a better understand of those who are.