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The Book of Daniel

Cast: Aidan Quinn, Susanna Thompson, Ellen Burstyn, Dylan Baker, Christian Campbell, Alison Pill, Ivan Shaw, Garret Dillahunt
Regular airtime: Fridays 10pm ET

(NBC)

Tempted

It’s not God who is mocked in The Book of Daniel: it’s everybody else.
—Episcopal priest Barbara Cawthorne Crafton, “Primetime Priest,” Beliefnet.com


But you can’t overcome adversity without having it. That’s what I don’t understand about the social critics out there. I don’t understand what kind of show they want to put on the air. It sounds unbelievably boring to me—there’s this great family that loves each other and never has any problems. That show wouldn’t last 30 seconds.
—Creator Jack Kenny, interviewed at thefutoncritic.com


In the case of Episcopalian priest Daniel Webster (Aidan Quinn), Jesus really is his copilot. A bearded, robed incarnation (played by Deadwood‘s Garret Dillahunt) pops up repeatedly in The Book of Daniel, riding shotgun as he cautions Daniel not to tailgate, scolds him for his Vicodin addiction, and offers banal support: “Life is hard, Daniel. For everyone. That’s why there’s such a nice reward at the end of it.”


“I know that’s supposed to be comforting,” the priest responds. “But it’s not. Aren’t you supposed to comfort me?”


“Oh, where did you read that? Some Episcopalian self-help book?”


Daniel cracks up, and Jesus is pleased. “That’s good. You should laugh more. Hey, have you read Jesus’ Guide to a Comfortable Life? Very comforting, that one.”


This Son of God is primarily a buddy, underscoring Daniel’s belief (or hope) that with faith in our lives, we are never alone. He’s clearly the priest’s creation (“fraught with all of Daniel’s limitations,” Quinn tells the Los Angeles Times), but the American Family Association (warriors for “Christmas,” not “holiday,” among other campaigns) was urging a boycott before the series had even premiered.


Petitioning Christians to email NBC Chairman Bob Wright their displeasure, the AFA warned that Daniel mocks Christianity by presenting a “very unconventional” Jesus and populating the Webster clan with homosexuals (at least one a Republican), a drug dealer, a horny teen, and a martini-swilling wife. The group also noted that “the series is written by Jack Kenny, a practicing homosexual who describes himself as being ‘in Catholic recovery,’ and is interested in Buddhist teachings about reincarnation and isn’t sure exactly how he defines God and/or Jesus.”


Personal definitions—as different from an official, sanctioned one—are problematic within the series, too. When visiting Bishop Beatrice Congreve (Ellen Burstyn) objects to Daniel’s unconventional sermon on temptation (“If we never did anything bad, how could we repent and be stronger for our weaknesses?”), he argues that he’s entitled to his own interpretation. The bishop scoffs, reminding him that the U.S. Episcopal has been “publicly spanked” for its liberal policies. “We’re a church in crisis.”


“We’re a country in crisis,” he corrects her.


“And in such a climate,” the bishop asks, “do you really think it’s wise to validate the inevitability of sin?”


Wise or not, Daniel sees it all around him: his daughter Grace (Alison Pill) is caught selling marijuana to make extra cash, his brother-in-law absconded with more than $3 million in church funds, his adopted son Adam (Ivan Shaw) is sleeping with the church warden’s daughter. The effect is more Desperate Housewives than Joan of Arcadia (where the protagonist talked to God) or the lesson-heavy Seventh Heaven. The family is drawn in broad strokes, usually reinforced by resident motormouth Adam. He riffs on his Chinese ethnicity and his adopted status (when Grace laughs that his girlfriend has run off after sleeping with him, he asks if she wants to try him out, as they’re not actually blood relatives), and peppers brother Peter (Christian Campbell) with gay jokes.


There was a third brother (Peter’s twin, according to press materials), who died of leukemia, but this potentially compelling story—a grieving family, a surviving twin—gets just 15 seconds in the premiere. Instead, the emphasis is on the madcap. For this, the series relies heavily on Victoria (Cheryl White), hysterical sister of Daniel’s wife Judith (Susanna Thompson, so good on Once and Again). Before her husband ran off with the church funds, he and Victoria were inviting his secretary into their bed—and now Victoria is in love with her. Judith isn’t shocked, as Victoria dabbled in lesbianism while at Vassar, and Daniel is more concerned with the stolen money.


Despite the recent fire and brimstone headlines, Daniel is a very familiar book. Kenny’s series says nothing new about faith, or the struggle to maintain it, instead aiming for the usual pinball chaos of a harried, goofy family juggling work and home. This is no wolf in sheep’s clothing; it’s just a sheep.

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