:: Saturday, January 07, 2006 ::
Playing Daniel's advocate
Aidan Quinn plays Episcopal priest Daniel Webster in NBC's 'The Book of Daniel'Update: Debi Warford has written a much better review of this TV show than what I've got, below. You might want to read her's first, or instead. - AC

Originally, I wasn't planning to tune in to NBC's new spiritualcentric show "The Book of Daniel," but after a guy in our church stood before the congregation to read some anti-"Daniel" propaganda from the American Family Association, I felt I had to check it out for myself. Usually, Don Wildmon and his AFA (whose server is down at the moment) goes way over the top in its stances against "anti-family" programming and movements. The litany of charges the AFA leveled against NBC's "Daniel" included the following (in bold type, with my commentary following):

NBC is promoting "The Book of Daniel" as a serious drama about Christian people and the Christian faith. Well, I caught a couple of the promos on Thursday night while watching "My Name Is Earl" and "The Office," but from those promos I never gleamed that this was "a serious drama." In fact, the promos struck me as marketing a dramatic comedy.

The characters include:

1) Daniel Webster, a drug-addicted Episcopal priest;
Oh my God! A member of the clergy who struggles with substance abuse. Why couldn't he be cast as a more traditional, heroic figure -- someone like the biblical Noah. (Oops. Strike that. Noah had a bit of a drinking problem, so he would not make a good pro-family role model. How about David? Nah, he won't do, either. He struggled somewhat with the lust of the flesh, as I recall.

2) His alcoholic wife; There is absolutely no excuse for this pathetic portrayal of a minister's wife as an alcoholic. Nowhere in the Bible is there any depiction of alcoholic women -- only men (like the aforementioned Noah). Women are, however, typecast as whores.

3) His son, a 23-year-old homosexual Republican; OMG! He's a Republican! I didn't pick up on that! No wonder the AFA is so upset.

4) His daughter, a 16-year-old drug dealer; Apparently, entrepreneurship is frowned upon by the AFA.

5) A 16-year-old adopted son who is having sex with the bishop's daughter; Wrong. He's having sex with the daughter of two Episcopalian WASPs who don't want their daughter infected by Asian sperm.

6) His lesbian secretary who is sleeping with his sister-in-law; Wrong again. It's the lesbian secretary of his (now-dead) brother-in-law.

7) A very unconventional white-robed, bearded "Jesus" who talks to the priest. When you say "very unconventional," is that because this so-called "Jesus" is white and of Anglo-European descent, much like those very unconventional portrayals of him by the great dead, white, European male artists who have come under fire for being so un-PC? I had no idea that the AFA was so concerned with being politically correct. Hats off to you, Don Wildmon, for advocating a darker, more Palestinianish actor to play the role.

Okay. Enough sarcasm. This is serious stuff we're talking about here. This is television, for cryin' out loud. This is entertainment and pop culture! Serious stuff. But I had to put the comments that follow in some sort of context, because those charges above were the concerns leveled by the AFA, and the reasons that group gave in its campaign to get people to write their NBC affiliates and demand they take the program off the air. (To its credit, KYTV in Springfield, Missouri, the city that headquarters the Assemblies of God, did not cave to the demands. But I'm sure they got an earful from area fundamentalists.)

My take on 'Daniel'

As for me, I enjoyed the program. It's over the top, to be sure -- but no more so than most TV melodrama. It's like "Desperate Housewives" with a spiritual twist. Every problem is a crisis -- and the crises mount with alarming and unbelievable speed in the two-hour debut. But the writers employed all the literary devices at their disposal to try to make "Daniel" edgy and in our faces. The writing is decent -- particularly the exchanges around the Webster dinner table, seemingly the only stable ritual the family has going for it -- and the story, while melodramatic, hooks you.

The show typecasts all the expected stereotypes: guilty white upper-class liberals, their black reefer-toking maid, the brilliant queer son, the uptight bishop, the liberal Episcopalian ministers. I have no clue how Episcopalians perceive all this, but if they respond in the stereotypical fashion, it will be with tolerance. (The Episcopal Diocese of Washington, D.C., has started the Blog of Daniel to discuss reactions to the show. So that might be a good website to watch for a pulse on how Episcopalians receive the program.) If any branch of Christianity should be pissed off about this program, it should be the Catholics. Father Frank, the RC priest in the program, is a stereotypical Italian goomba with mob connections. I would think many Catholics would be upset about that portrayal, and would have something to say about it.

The character that bugs me the most is Jesus. Wildmon calls this character "unconventional," but in fact he's become pretty conventional over the years. He's the Jesus of "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" -- a laid-back, passive, hippie Messiah who doles out pop spirituality advice and shrugs his shoulders a lot, as if to say things are out of his hands. But there are some things I like about the character, and his relationship with the main character -- like Jesus' hectoring, at the beginning of the program, for Webster to rely less on his vicodin, and the fact that as Websters' problems mount and he turns to the pills, Jesus' voice (in the sense of his passivity toward the problem and his acknowledgement of Webster's free will) becomes stiller and smaller. Of course, for two millennia, writers and artists have been trying to capture the essence of Jesus and depict him, but they all fall short. I'd prefer this sort of depiction than the old Max von Sydow version.

All in all, after the two hours, I left the program pondering my relationship with Jesus, and how well I hear -- and respond to -- his "voice" on my own. Now, that can't be a bad thing, can it?

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:: Andrew 10:59 + ::
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