NBC Series “The Book Of Daniel” Premieres Friday

A television series about an Episcopal priest that premieres this Friday is generating a lot of interest – and a lot of controversy.

On the interesting side, “The Book of Daniel” features a man of God who struggles with personal demons, family conflict, parish problems, and a more conservative (but female) bishop. Also, his best best friend Jesus often drops by for a chat.

On the controversial side, at least one prominent conservative religious group has organized a letter-writing and emailing campaign to protest the series, claiming that the series “mocks Christianity.” Which is ironic, when you consider the gulf that divides conservative and progressive Christians over most issues – this particular group is more interested in objecting to the portrayal of a (secondary) gay character in a positive way than defending Episcopal priests from being portrayed as human, fallible, or conflicted.

They are very quick to condemn Daniel’s addiction to painkillers and his wife’s fondness for her afternoon martinis. They disapprove of the They also have a problem with the way the “very unconventional white-robed, bearded Jesus” is portrayed. However, from all reviews I’ve read, Jesus is shown to be a kind, supportive figure who refuses to be Daniel’s fortuneteller, but who offers him insights and friendship.

It’s up to each of us to decide for ourselves whether this series is worth watching. It may turn out that it’s just not that good – in that case, it will end its short run of 8 episodes and no one will care. On the other hand, it might turn out to be compelling, thought-provoking, and even entertaining, as it’s billed as a comedy-drama.

The cast includes Aidan Quinn as Daniel, Ellyn Burstyn as Bishop Congreve, and occasionally Phyllis Diller appears as one of Daniel’s parishioners (I bet she’s a lot of fun at potluck suppers).

Here’s a description of the show from the NBC website:

Emmy nominee Aidan Quinn (?An Early Frost,? ?Plainsong,? ?Legends of the Fall?) stars as Reverend Daniel Webster, an unconventional Episcopalian minister who not only believes in Jesus – he actually sees him and discusses life with him. Webster is challenged on many levels as he struggles to be a good husband, father and minister, while trying to control a nagging addiction to prescription painkillers, and an often rocky relationship with the church hierarchy, led by Bishop Beatrice Congreve (Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn, ?Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,? ?Requiem of a Dream?), Roger Paxton, a senior warden of the parish and stalwart churchgoer (Dylan Baker, ?Kinsey,? ?Happiness?).

The reverend also has loving, but challenging relationships with his three children: Peter (Christian Campbell, ?Trick?), his 23-year-old gay son, who struggles with the loss of his twin brother; Grace (Alison Pill, ?Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen?), his 16-year-old daughter who doesn’t try to push her father’s buttons but succeeds at it nonetheless; and Adam (Ivan Shaw, ?All My Children?), his 16-year-old adopted Chinese son, a handsome and cocky high school jock with a wicked sense of humor. Keeping Webster grounded is his strong and loving wife Judith (Susanna Thompson, ?Now and Again?), who is fighting her own fondness for mid-day martinis, as well as Jesus (Garret Dillahunt, ?Deadwood?), whose frequent chats with Daniel serve to remind him of his strengths and weaknesses.

“The reverend?” Well, it’s rare that the entertainment industry gets the details right on the proper way to refer to an Episcopal priest. For unintentional comedy alone, this may be an interesting series to watch. It’s generating a lot of heat, but what is more interesting is the issues that it raises.

Some of us may be troubled by the rather excessive number of challenges Daniel faces, but no one has ever said that the life of a man or woman of God is easy, or that perfection is a requirement for the clergy.

The pilot for the new series was shot in Pasadena, Calif., at All Saints Episcopal Church to the great delight of the congregation.

?How cool is it that a progressive Episcopal priest has a shot at being a prime-time drama protagonist,? says the Rev. Susan Russell, associate rector. ?How surprising might it be to many who tune in to find out there actually is a church where women can be bishops ? clergy can be human ? and there?s enough good news around to extend to everybody?? NBC has ordered 13 episodes.

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