'Book of Daniel' already taking some heat

Aidan Quinn stars as Episcopal minister Daniel Webster in the new series "The Book of Daniel."

Published: Friday, January 6, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 9:47 p.m.
Episcopal minister Daniel Webster has no shortage of nagging problems. His boss, the bishop, pops pills. His brother-in-law has gone missing, along with millions in church funds. At home Webster has a teenage daughter who's selling marijuana, a 16-year-old adopted Chinese son who's sleeping with a church member, and a 23-year-old gay son who is mourning the loss of his twin brother. Webster's wife has turned to martinis as an escape.
The reverend prefers prescription painkillers - and visits from Jesus - for comfort.
Once again, a network is looking to mine drama from the life of a religious leader. NBC's "The Book of Daniel," starring Aidan Quinn and Ellen Burstyn, premieres tonight at 9.
And once again a network has gotten into hot water for its portrayal.
"You'd be hard pressed in America to find that type of dysfunctional family, and yet NBC is going to portray it as normal," says Randy Sharp, director of special projects for the American Family Association, an advocacy group in Tupelo, Miss.
"They take our savior Jesus Christ and reflect him as an everyday Joe. How disrespectful," Sharp adds. "Our savior is to be worshipped and adored and not treated as your buddy riding down the street with you in the passenger seat of the car."
Sharp says the association's supporters have already sent thousands of protest e-mails to NBC. "We will be recording this show, reviewing it, and contacting the advertisers who put their dollars behind this kind of disrespect to the Christian community," he promises.
One Indiana station already has refused to air the show. WTWO-TV in Terre Haute, Ind., will pre-empt "Daniel."
Duane Lammers, WTWO-TV's general manager, said he was exercising the station's right to reject network programming.
"If my action causes people in our community to pay more attention to what they watch on television, I have accomplished my mission," he said in a statement posted on the station's Web site.
The show has drawn fire from conservative Christians, including the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association.
"We expect other NBC affiliates will join WTWO in their decision," said the AFA's chairman, Donald E. Wildmon. It was not immediately clear whether any other stations planned to do so.
In a statement, NBC says, "We're confident that once audiences view this quality drama themselves, they'll appreciate this thought-provoking examination of one American family."
It was ABC that took the heat last time, in 1998, when Kevin Anderson starred as a renegade inner-city Catholic priest in "Nothing Sacred." The reviews were excellent, but protests helped contribute to a quick cancellation.
The creators of "Book of Daniel" defend their approach, which is more comic drama than religious sermon.
Creator and executive producer Jack Kenny maintains the series is not intended to suggest hypocrisy in the church or any kind of notions about how God works.
"None of us are perfect. We all have secrets, things we don't want our spouses or lovers to know we did, whether it's that extra martini or reliance on prescription painkillers," he said. "This is set in the WASP world, and WASPs drink. . . . They don't get loud and ugly. They just want to take the edge off."
Kenny added that the children in the series are like "every teenager I grew up with. Honestly, I've had more people tell me, 'This is so my family.' "
Raised in the Catholic Church, Kenny describes his current spirituality as a private matter.
"I have no faith-based agenda," he said, adding, "I do think Jesus is always talking to us. I think God is all around us. . . . I was always raised to have a personal relationship with Jesus, but I never knew what that meant. . . . I figure this is what it could be like."
In the show, no one else in the cast will see Jesus, whose look and style is designed to be as Daniel Webster, played by Quinn, envisions him. "Jesus is Daniel's friend, someone he can talk to," Kenny said.
"The Book of Daniel" is scheduled for an eight-week run before the Olympics start on NBC. Its regular time slot is less than desirable - Fridays at 10 p.m. Robert Thompson, the director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, said the program has a good shot at success, even though other religious dramas have failed. The glaring exception: the WB's "Seventh Heaven," which is about to go off the air after 10 seasons.
"I think those who are worried about TV's portrayal of religion and priests ought to think more complexly," Thompson says. "It didn't take a TV series to do a number on the reputation of priests in this country. The news did a sound job of that.
"A show that humanizes the priesthood might in fact be good for it," he added. "Whether you're a doubting Thomas or part of the religious right, we all wonder what's the meaning of life and where we go when it's all over. The potential is there for this to be really interesting to people."
Kenny, a former comedy writer who produced "Wanda at Large" and "Titus," has been kicking around the idea of examining the life of a priest for two years.
"Comedy was dead and I was a comedy writer," he said. "I like writing character-based humor. What's happening in sitcoms lately is that it's less about the characters and more about the jokes."
Kenny pitched the series to HBO, which said it wasn't dark enough. Showtime wasn't interested, he adds, and ABC and CBS were already overloaded. "I think everybody was a little scared of the religious aspect of it," he says.
Contacting a friend in the comedy department at NBC, Kenny offered to make the drama funnier. "They said, 'Don't touch it.' I said, 'So Jesus is OK?' They said, 'We love that,' " Kenny recalls.
Garret Dillahunt, who has had recurring roles on HBO's "Deadwood" and as a shady lobbyist on USA Network's "The 4400," portrays Jesus. He is approaching it lightheartedly.
"I actually played Jesus once before in a pilot about a guy who travels through time. I was a carpenter. There were donkeys. I guess there's something about me," he jokes, adding that the series never got picked up.
Dillahunt, who was raised a Lutheran, said he's been given books to research what Jesus was like as a person. The character description for the series is a hip and modern version, he added. "I don't feel particularly hip or modern as Garret . . . but this is what I love about my career."
Quinn describes Dillahunt as a scene stealer. "He brings a levity and sense of humor to the crew that is often just what is needed at the moment."
Is Quinn a bit jealous?
Never, he insists. "It's a no-no to have resentment against Christ."

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