The Book of Daniel is not a closed tome yet

By on February 1, 2006

Despite controversy over characters including a pill-popping Episcopal (Anglican) church priest, his martini-imbibing wife, his gay son, his dope-dealer daughter, The Book of Daniel – a mid-season NBC television series – entered the public consciousness in Canada unscathed.

In the United States, where the religious right holds more political sway than its northern neighbour, the conservative American Family Association encouraged religious viewers to contact or boycott local stations carrying the new comedy/drama – before the series even aired. Many were bothered that the show’s title character speaks frequently with Jesus, who appears to him often in the course of a day. A few local television stations in the U.S. blocked the broadcast, sight unseen. There was reportedly no similar campaign in Canada.

Set in California, The Book of Daniel stars film actor Aidan Quinn as Daniel Webster, a laid-back, liberal parish priest who relies a bit heavily on prescription pain pills. The series pilot depicted a number of crises – perhaps too many for two hours – facing the priest: his brother-in-law is missing (along with the church’s building fund); his teenage daughter must be bailed out of jail after she was caught selling pot; his adopted Chinese son is injured falling out of his girlfriend’s bedroom window after her father – who is also the difficult church warden at Daniel’s parish – comes home early; his wife uses martinis to cope with the chaos around her (and, has apparently done so since the death of one of their twin sons from leukemia) and his latest sermon on sin did not go over well with his visiting bishop. Additionally, Daniel and his family are unable to tell his father – an obdurate, retired bishop – that the eldest son is gay.

While the American Family Association protested that The Book of Daniel “mocks Christianity,” the show does not lampoon spirituality. The Episcopal church is recognizable – and its current events are even referenced directly in the show, including mention of “a gay bishop in New Hampshire” and the bishop refers to the U.S. church as being a church in crisis within the Anglican Communion. The Websters are shown gathering for a Sunday meal, singing grace before eating; the family, while indulging in typical, pointed sibling teasing, is capable of showing compassion for one another. The teenage son sees Daniel leaving the house late on a Sunday night as he heads to the hospital to comfort a family that is taking their mother off life support. The son remarks on the long day that his father has had and Daniel replies, “Thanks … for noticing.” Additionally, Daniel’s comfortable relationship with Christ does not lapse into farce. Daniel’s Jesus is a friend who avoids solving Daniel’s problems for him but helps him realize that he already holds the answers. He is not unlike the Jesus who appears to Tommy, the tormented firefighter played by Dennis Leary in FX’s series Rescue Me. (“I don’t know who [Jesus’] agent is,” jokes Rescue Me co-creator Peter Tolan, in a recent issue of Time magazine, “but he’s cleaning up this year.”)

The representation of the Anglican church has been mixed in recent years, from funeral director David Fisher’s conflicted relationship with his Episcopal parish in HBO’s Six Feet Under (his ordination to the vocational deaconate was delayed because the parish vestry suspected he was gay), to 1997’s hopeless Soul Man, which featured Dan Ackroyd as a hipster, motorcycle-riding priest (whose zany bishop seemed to live next door, so frequent were his visits), it can sometimes be difficult to reconcile the church we know with the one we see on television. As the noisy protest dies down a bit around The Book of Daniel, viewers will have the chance to find out if the show is worth keeping around.

(The Book of Daniel appears on NBC Fridays at 10 p.m. EST.)

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