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irst, full disclosure: I like Jesus. I think about Jesus almost every day. I write sermons about things Jesus said. I say prayers in Jesus's name. I represent Jesus when I do the mass. I even believe in some sense of his divinity. But boy, did he sure ruin NBC's new series The Book of Daniel.
And what a shame, because there's actually an interesting show here. Daniel Webster (Aidan Quinn) is an Episcopal priest who pops Vicodin to cope with his personal and professional worries. His wife, Judith (Susannah Thompson), is liberal with the martinis. His oldest son is openly gay. His sixteen-year-old adopted son is the horniest teenager in the diocese. His younger daughter deals drugs. His mother has Alzheimer's. And his sister-in-law's husband has just disappeared — along with $3 million from the church coffers.
Apparently, when it comes to Friday-night television, the first commandment is that it never hurts to appeal to the Desperate Housewives set, since they may be the only ones around to watch. For example, Daniel's sister-in-law turns out to be the lesbian lover of her husband's super-hot church secretary, the mastermind of the embezzlement scandal. Then we find the bishop (Ellen Burstyn) clandestinely dipping into Daniel's Vicodin supply shortly before we cut to her and the other elderly bishop sipping brandy after a little extramarital rough-and-tumble in the study. The live-in housekeeper takes up pot, and, of course, there's the ultra WASP-y doyenne of Newbury gossip who spies on people from her black Range Rover.
Yet despite such stunty plotting, Daniel succeeds in portraying a fairly convincing upper-class family with struggles we can recognize and even connect with (well, mostly). And best of all — at least from the perspective of this Episcopal priest — Daniel Webster is thoughtful and open-minded. It's not every day we get to see a priest on television who laughs at the term "living together in sin," doesn't scoff at a woman who gets high to make the sex with her fiancé better, and counsels a struggling parishioner that it's not a sin to be gay. And unlike, say, Dawn French in the BBC's Vicar of Dibley, whose main vice consists of ice-cream binges after morning mass, Daniel actually has a problem that's
Never mind that Jesus is absurdly dressed in a 400-count Frette bed sheet.
commensurate with some of the real day-to-day struggles of being a priest and father.
Problem is, Daniel also sees and talks to Jesus (Garret Dillahunt). That's right. To round out this ensemble, creator Jack Kenny felt the need to add a living, breathing, flesh-and-blood incarnation of Jesus. And wow, is he bad.
Never mind that he's absurdly dressed in a 400-count Frette bed sheet, or that he props up his socked foot on the antique Chippendale coffee table while Daniel tries to offer some serious counsel to a parishioner. Never mind, also, his on-cue appearances almost every time poor Daniel reaches for his Vicodin. It's when he opens his mouth that things really go wrong. Let's just sample a few lines.
Advice for everyday living: "You're tailgating," and "Oh, would you look at those clouds? Ho ho!"
Responses to complex issues: "Kids, huh?" "Boy, you never know, do ya?" And, worst of all, "Life is hard, Daniel. That's why there's such a nice reward at the end of it."
And finally, sermon feedback: "I'm not a speech writer. I'm just a one-liner kinda guy."
Compare such schlock with, say, some lines from the Sermon on the Mount — "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and
How do you write Jesus out of a series?
yet I say to you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these" — and you wonder why Kenny didn't stick to the pre-existing script. Or better yet, just leave Jesus out.
Which sets up an interesting problem: How do you write Jesus out of a series? Well, let me offer a suggestion: give him something better to do than mope around the posh suburbs of New York clucking over people's painkiller intake and eavesdropping on marriage-counseling sessions. Ship him off to the starving children in Niger. Send him to Iraq or New Orleans. Or, if that's too tricky, why not just drop him right out of that script without any explanation? Why not leave him in the realm of belief, instead of rendering him so unbelievable?
Yes, I know it seems strange for a priest to say this, but — to paraphrase one of Judith's lines — unless Jesus goes, there just won't be enough vodka to get us through this series. So Mr. Kenny, please: Lose Jesus, and the show you save may be your own. n°
The Book of Daniel premieres January 6th.
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|The Reverend Astrid Joy Storm is the Curate at Grace Church in New York