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My Friday Night Television Review

Monday, January 9, 2006, 23:21 EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

Just as I planned, I watched the new NBC mid-season replacement series, The Book of Daniel, on Friday night. I was prepared to like it, especially after hearing all the blustering from right-wingers who slammed the show based on the commercials.

To say I was sorely disappointed doesn’t even begin to cover it.

For those of you who didn’t see it, it’s the story of an Episcopal priest, married with children, who deals with his and his family’s problems in part by talking to Jesus, whom he imagines sits besides him and engages in conversation. I found the brief dialog between priest and savior to be very authentic, probably not unlike that which many of us would have if we could receive counsel from Jesus face-to-face. Daniel wants Jesus to spring to the rescue with simple answers, while Jesus stresses the value of struggle and cautions Daniel against relying on the quick fix. It’s essentially the old adage that "God helps those who help themselves", and it is the only good part of the show.

The rest of it is, well, overkill. Not only does every character have some problem or issue—like we all do—but it is dealt with in virtually every scene. The characters are flat, each without personality except as defined by her or his particular issue.

  • Daniel, the priest, is addicted to Vicodin, which he was prescribed for back pain.
  • His wife deals with every wrinkle in her life with a martini.
  • Their daughter is an aspiring cartoonist who is arrested for dealing pot in an effort to raise money to buy software to ply her trade. While fulfilling her community service sentence, she hooks up with another teenager whose offense was software piracy. They decide to swap contraband.
  • One son is a gay but not yet out to his extended family, who won’t stop playing matchmaker with the latest pretty girl.
  • The other son is adopted, of Asian descent, and likes to joke about how he’s the outsider, even though no one in the family treats him that way. He is also boinking the daughter of one of his father’s church’s benefactors.
  • Said church benefactor is doesn’t hesitate to wield his financial resources and fundraising skills like a weapon to keep Daniel in line.
  • The benefactor’s wife, the stereotypical rich bitch, prohibits her daughter from dating Daniel’s adopted son because she doesn’t want any "little oriental grandchildren".
  • Daniel’s brother-in-law, who is in charge of the parish’s finances, embezzles millions from the coffers and ends up dead.
  • In order to find the embezzler brother-in-law, Daniel enlists the help of a friend, an Italian Roman Catholic priest with family in the mafia.
  • The embezzler’s wife, who is Daniel’s wife’s sister, reacts to her husband’s crime and subsequent death by realizing she is a lesbian and beginning a relationship with the church secretary.
  • The church secretary may or may not have been involved with the embezzlement (that point was fuzzy).
  • Daniel’s mother is succumbing to dementia and frequently does not recognize her own family.
  • Daniel’s father, an Episcopal bishop, is distressed by his wife’s deterioration and seeks comfort in the bed of another bishop, the one under whom Daniel serves.

That all happened in the pilot episode, a two-hour special.

Some of the characters are sympathetic. It is heartbreaking to see Daniel’s mother fail to recognize her family, and even more heartbreaking to watch her family try not to be hurt by it. Daniel’s attempt to salvage a deteriorating relationship with his teenage daughter rings true to many parents who fear their kids are headed for disaster. The gay son is probably the most real of all the characters because he doesn’t seem defined by his homosexuality, with which his family is nearly obsessed.

Overall, the program reminds me of another controversial series that hit TV almost 30 years ago: Soap. The two series approach a similar degree of absurdity, but at least Soap didn’t try to pretend it was anything but farce.

Alas, though it may please the windbags at the American Family Association, I must give a big thumbs down to The Book of Daniel, which spends so much time showcasing the foibles of each and every character that it fails at what should be its greatest strength: showing how a man of God tries, with the help of the Divine, to deal with all that life throws at him.

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