By Stephanie Zacharek
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Ever since our president clinched the last election, media liberals on both coasts have been bracing for a full-fledged coup de culture staged by the God squad. The box office success of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ also suggested that the entertainment industry, sensing the prospect of gold in them thar values, would start churning out righteous fare by the burning bushel. Turns out that Hollywood's ideas about religion don't quite match the moral majority's, though, and when TV producers attempt to court the churchgoing demographic, they whip out something either wimpishly wholesome like Joan of Arcadia or slick and racy like Revelations.
While easily the most intriguing attempt at religion-themed TV yet, The Book of Daniel is even less likely to appease Bible-thumpers. A series about a troubled Episcopal minister created by a gay sitcom writer, Daniel aims to do to the church what Six Feet Under did to the funeral business, The Sopranos did to the mob, and Rescue Me did to firefightingblast it wide open, exposing the messy innards.
In fact, Daniel has stolen a lot of licks from these very shows. WASPy Reverend Daniel Webster (Aidan Quinn) doesn't swear like the louts on Rescue Me, but he grapples with problems similar to those that burden Denis Leary's fireman pals: Vicodin addiction, a mother with Alzheimer's, a gay son, and an unusually intimate camaraderie with Jesus. As in Rescue Me, Jesus (Garret Dillahunt, fresh from his creepy role in Deadwood) is our hero's co-pilot, usually riding shotgun in Daniel's car like the supportive sidekick in a buddy flick. The two hash out moral issues but also bounce jokes off each other; at one point they entertain each other with fake self-help book titles like My Tuesdays With Jesus.
In The Book of Daniel, religious folk get the best riffs. Daniel's boss, Bishop Beatrice Congreve (Ellen Burstyn), comes off as a brilliant, bitchy figure who doesn't shy away from power or pleasure. She meets her superior in the city to see Hairspray, has an affair with a married man, and even scrounges pills from Daniel. ("I lived through the '60s," she says witheringly.) But Beatrice also sees it as her job to teach Daniel how to keep his personal demons from interfering with his job. He makes waves in his suburban New York community with his deeply personal sermons about temptation, and complains to Beatrice that he doesn't want to guilt-trip his flock with lectures about sin. "But that's the business we're in!" she snipes.
"Edgy" is this show's buzzword. Along with drugs, extramarital affairs, and homosexuality, there are prim, hypocritical neighbors, each with a Desperate Housewivesstyle secret awaiting exposure. And don't forget Daniel's brother-in-law, who runs off with church funds earmarked for a new school, forcing Daniel to seek the help of a slimy, mob-connected priest straight out of The Sopranos. The taut scripts are crammed with outrageous incidents and amusing dialogue. In the midst of a family dinner, Daniel's addled mother says of her clergyman husband, "He's always showing me his penis." And when one of the characters is revealed to be having a lesbian tryst, Daniel's wife quips, "She did go to Vassar."
Daniel tanks up on glossy melodrama, immersing the series (at least the first two episodes I previewed) in a portentous soundtrack and allowing sunlight to seep through every crack of the Webster housea trick that gave Six Feet Under a luminous glow but here seems more like a crass religious signifier. Ditto for Jesus, possibly the most annoying television neighbor since Bewitchedbusybody Gladys Kravitz. He's a lazy shortcut to Daniel's internal battles with doubt and fallibility.
For a series presumably counting on controversy for buzz, there's been little advance protestprobably because Daniel doesn't go far enough in any direction. It yearns to be an HBO-worthy drama that reckons with heady moral issues, but it can't resist the temptation of prime-time gloss and melodrama. Aidan Quinn exudes such gentle gravitas and brokenness that you can't help rooting for him. He's the quiet center around which all kinds of artificial, exaggerated plot twists unfurl, a man torn between heaven and earth, God and Nielsen.
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