Television Review: The Book of Daniel
by R.J. Carter
Published: January 6, 2006
The Book of Daniel was already being reviled by those supposedly "in the know" before it even premiered, just from what was contained in the press releases. Now, any time the entertainment industry creates anything with a Christian element to it, it gets one of two receptions: it's either a Joan of Arcadia or Touched by an Angel -- beloved by the devout and sneered at by the nonbelievers as being heavy-handed; or it's a "Last Temptation of Christ", spurned by the so-called vocal moral majority and heralded by the socially-aware as an avant garde cinematic triumph.
There are Christians in Hollywood, working to create entertainment that is both Christian in element without being preachy in delivery. So I thought before casting my own judgment on this particular show, to see if it was one of them. In short, I'd watch it first and then offer my opinion.
Here, therefore, is my write-up on The Book of Daniel.
Whoso readeth, let him understandeth.
Daniel (Aiden Quinn, "Empire Falls") is an Episcopalian minister addicted to Vicodin. When we first see him, he and his wife Judith (Susanna Thompson, "The Ballad of Jack and Rose") are at the jail, picking up his daughter Grace (Alison Pill) who has been arrested for possession of 5 oz of marijuana. Her new fundraiser seems to be selling dope. His bishop (Ellen Burstyn, The Five People You Meet in Heaven) reprimands him for his sermon that says we shouldn't beat ourselves up for giving into temptation when we do. And the church account has insufficient funds when it ought to have millions of dollars in it. That's a decent amount of insurmountable problems to start off a show.
In the home life, we learn that one of the Webster children died of leukemia -- so Peter (Christian Campbell, All My Children), Daniel's gay son, is going to major in cancer research. Adam, their adopted Asian son, is a wise-guy who trades gay and Oriental quips with Peter; and we learn that Grace is only selling drugs to raise money for computer equipment to publish her manga comics that feature all her family members.
So let's keep score of what we have in the first twenty minutes: gay son -- not kicked out; drug selling daughter -- punished by grounding; so far I can understand why the Pat Robertson crowd aren't exactly singing the praises of The Book of Daniel.
On the way to a golf game, who pops up in the passenger seat of his car but Jesus Christ (Garret Dillahunt, One Life to Live). He tells Daniel that Grace will be fine -- she's a good girl, and almost an adult, so Daniel should treat her like one. He won't explain the missing money, though -- he's "not a fortune teller; let it play out." It seems fairly obvious that what Jesus really is here is a drug-induced hallucination who reminds Daniel of when he's tailgating. One clue is that Daniel's voice echoes.
Daniel plays golf with Roger Northrum (Dylan Baker, "Spider-Man 2") and finds out that Adam is dating Roger's almost-fifteen-year-old daughter, Caroline. But Roger isn't concerned about that; he's more concerned about the missing three million dollars, and accuses Daniel's brother-in-law, Charlie, of absconding with the church money; Charlie has disappeared -- and so has his twenty-something secretary, Jesse.
And it turns out that Roger should be a little more concerned about his daughter's dating habits, as Grace finds Adam and Caroline making out in the car, hidden in the garage. But simultaneously, Adam busts Grace with more marijuana ready for delivery -- he's just too cool to do anything about it.
To find Charlie, Daniel approaches a friend -- a Catholic priest, whose mafia connections will help hunt down the missing man and, one hopes, the money.
So that was an eventful ten minutes: Not quite statutory rape; a not-quite-hit put out on a missing person who's left his wife; a seemingly unrepentant drug seller; oh yeah, and a hip and with it Jesus. This show is just endearing itself more and more to the Christian audience.
Coming back, we see Daniel administering last rites at a euthanasia. Fortunately after such a heartrending ordeal (that takes all of forty seconds) Jesus is waiting outside in the car to comfort him. He then learns that his brother-in-law is dead of a heart attack. But not with the money -- in fact, he's found naked, with "several diverse objects in his rectum."
After explaining Charlie's death to the bishop, Daniel needs more Vicodin, but Jesus takes the bottle away, telling him to try a lime LifeSaver instead. "Life is hard, Daniel. For everyone. That's why there's such a nice reward at the end of it." "Aren't you supposed to comfort me?" asks Daniel. To which Jesus responds, "Where did you read that, some Episcopalian self-help book?"
When Daniel officiates Charlie's funeral, his wife Victoria spots Jesse, the young secretary Charlie supposedly ran off with done up like Jackie O, and causes a scene as Jesse speeds away.
Back at the house, we see more acceptance of Peter's lifestyle, which apparently is more than just loving his son. It's full-blown acceptance, as Daniel and Judith tell Peter he's well-away from his old fling, and maybe he'll meet a nice male nurse or a surgeon.
Daniel sees Grace's manga artwork, and decides that maybe her talent is worth getting her the equipment so that she doesn't have to sell drugs anymore. Grace admits -- finally, it seems, really admits -- that the selling was stupid.
In the bedroom, Daniel and Judith talk more about Peter, and the genetics of homosexuality (whether they're fully serious or not is indeterminate.) But "it's Friday" so they have better things to talk about.
The next morning, the bishop shows up -- the bishop being Daniel's father. He rides with Daniel to deliver leftovers to Victoria's house... and finds Jesse there with Victoria, being very friendly. How intriguing. What would Jesus say? "Boy. You never know, do you?"
That's one hour down. We've certainly got our share of flawed characters. Which is fine. We've got tolerance that goes beyond tolerance, with more gay characters than the entire last season of Roseanne. And we've got the most happy-go-lucky Messiah ever envisioned since Kevin Smith's "Buddy Christ" figurine. I can't wait to see where the next hour takes us.
Well, Victoria has certainly forgiven Jesse for murdering her husband. Turns out that was all a big mistake, and she's going to let Jesse stay with her for a while. Unfortunately, Jesse has no idea where the money has disappeared to. And, of course, good old Dad thinks that Daniel is still responsible for the missing money even if he isn't the one who stole it.
Grace is on her work release program and makes a friend who's in for internet piracy. She strikes a deal for some animation programs -- not necessarily the legal copies and contingent on whether Grace has any of that pot left?
We get to see Daniel do some marriage counseling. The problem with the couple? The husband doesn't like that his wife has to be stoned to enjoy sex. But apparently, according to Daniel, that's okay. Every couple has something that others consider weird. He starts to tell them about his and Judith's "every Friday night" date, until Jesus tells him that perhaps he's sharing too much information.
Grandpa and Grandma Webster come to dinner, which is more than enough reason for Judith to double her martinis, as Grandma in the early stages of dementia. Grandpa is wondering just when Peter is going to find himself a girl, and communication becomes very tangled as Peter is nearly outed. Grace and Adam hint that Peter is more interested in the stronger type, with "big arms and... things," which Grandpa takes to mean the Katherine Hepburn type. They're saved by the arrival of Victoria and her new friend, Jesse. In the hallway alone, Daniel talks with Jesus about how he's ever going to tell his father about Peter's homosexuality. And Jesus apparently can't do anything for Daniel's mother. "You know it doesn't work like that," he reminds Daniel. "I know," Daniel replies. "I just don't know why."
Returning from commercial, we see that Grandma's dementia is maybe not so little after all, going back and forth from cognizence to non-recognition in the span of heartbeats.
Sitting out on his lawn enjoying a cigar, Daniel sees the husband of the couple he just counseled, jogging. He wants to talk further; he's concerned that his wife won't love him if she's not high. Daniel advises him that all he has to do is get creative. As he sees the man out, he finds Adam off to see Caroline again. Adam used to see a different girl every night apparently, and Daniel advises him to take it slow. Daniel's worried about him, but as Jesus says, "He's a kid, Daniel. Let him be a kid."
Guess what kids do? They get busy in Caroline's bed, with the stuffed animals ("Like having sex on Sesame Street," Adam quips) and end up getting caught in the act by Caroline's daddy. Adam leaps out the window, cracks his rib, and ends up in the hospital. Good advice, Jesus.
The hospital gives Adam painkillers, but he says he doesn't need them. Daniel is more than happy to take them off Adam's hands. And who does Daniel meet in the hospital but Father Frank, who has some information about the missing money. Meanwhile, Caroline's parents think the kids need to take some time away from each other, and Adam can't understand why he can't see Caroline any longer. Even Judith can't understand why they can't -- but it turns out it's not because their fifteen year old is having sex; it's because Caroline's mother doesn't want "Oriental grandchildren running around her Christmas tree." Nice.
At choir practice, Peter meets a new friend: David. Grandfather Webster introduces Adelle Congreve, the bishop's niece -- who just happens to be David's sister, much to Grace's delight.
Bishop Congreve, by the way, is delighted with Daniel's "Canadian headache pills." They're the only things that have ever worked. He gives her one for now, one for later -- and luckily Jesus, practicing his putting in the corner, knows where the bottle is for Daniel to find.
More marriage counseling -- or couple's counseling, as it happens, since they're not married after all. The woman shows up this time, admitting to being afraid of marriage. Daniel advises her to tell her would-be husband that -- and no, she shouldn't be high when she does it. Apparently Daniel is finally starting to realize that maybe he shouldn't be such a pill-popper.
Daniel goes to Victoria's, to learn who Jesse Gilmore really is, as she seems to be involved in everyone's life. He finds that Victoria was having an affair with Jesse ("She did go to Vassar, after all," says Judith) but Jesse has left. Apparently Jesse was Charlie's idea -- he hired her to join them as a threesome. But now Victoria is in love with Jesse, but Daniel just wants to find out where Jesse has gone.
Grace meanwhile, decides to put her father into her comics. Super Priest is now married to the dominatrix mother. Grace's friend downloads all the animation programs she can onto Grace's computer and provides her a connection to an online Geek named Yoda. Grace fulfills her part of the bargain by delivering the last of her pot.
Peter is forced to go on a date with Adelle, which irks Daniel. After all, the Episcopalians have an openly gay priest, so there's no reason to have to hide like this from Grandpa. "I'm not in the closet, I just don't want to march in parades," says Peter. Oh, and Grandpa? The Right Bishop Bertram Webster? He's doing Bishop Congreve. After all, he can't do it with Grandma any longer.
Daniel wants to move ahead with the construction on the church school, regardless of the missing money. He wants to mortgage the house for the funding, an idea he tells Judith after a nice round of lovemaking (and on a Monday! It's been a good day.)
And on to a third generation of sexual activeness, we find Adam reuniting with his underage lover in the backseat of a car, while Caroline's mother watches with irritation from a passing vehicle.
Bears do it, bees do it, and three generations of Websters are doing it, all in the closing minutes of this pilot episode.
Okay, so here's my rant on the religion: Why does Hollywood think it's so risk-taking to put Christianity on its ear? You want to take risks? Put out a sitcom called Mohammed and Me, or Wait Until Vishnu Wakes Up!. That's risk-taking, running far more than the chance that some loudmouth is going to make Christians look even worse by boycotting a detergent manufacturer who sponsors the broadcast. That's just how I see things.
And where does The Book of Daniel fit into all this? It has a Christian setting. It has Christ as a character in it. But it has very few Christians in it. A lot of human beings, put into a microcosm of all of humanity's foibles and problems, which certainly magnifies those problems.
I see a lot of acceptance, and a lot of tolerance.
I see very little, however, in the way of redemption.