Friday’s, NBC, 9/8pm
Aidan Quinn plays Father Daniel Webster, an Episcopalian priest, pastor of a New England parish who is partial to Vicodin, husband to Judith (Susannah Thompson) who is rather unhinged, father to Peter (Christian Campbell) who is gay and out of the closet but who does not want to lead the parade, Adam (Ivan Owen), of Chinese ancestry that the Webster’s adopted and who is very horny, and Grace (Alison Pill; wonderful in Pieces of April) who was just busted and bailed out of jail for selling marijuana. Daniel’s own father is a bishop; his wife has Alzheimer’s so he’s having an affair with the female bishop played by Ellen Burstyn. Then, Daniel’s sister-in-law’s husband Charlie (we don’t get to see him) has run off with three million dollars from the school building fund so Daniel goes to see Father Frank, a Catholic priest with ties to the mob, to find Charlie and get the money back. OK, not the mob, just construction companies. At first, Charlie’s wife thought he had run off with the secretary; but no, he’s dead. So the young lady secretary moves in with Charlie’s wife for a while (yes, moves in), but that doesn’t last long. And let’s not forget Jesus, who is no longer “the good old plastic Jesus” (title of a book by Earnest Larsen, 1968) sitting on the bookshelf and looking down on the kids at night, but the real thing, who gently persists in nagging Daniel about his Vicodin dependency, those little headache pills he gets from Canada and is now sharing with the lady bishop.
A friend of mine said that maybe the title of the show should be “Desperate Clergy”. To me, it seemed like all of Wisteria Lane had moved into Webster’s rectory. Maybe the writers (all four of them) took their inspiration for the show from Stephen Vincent Benet’s (1898-1943) “The Devil and Daniel Webster” ( you can read that story here: http://www.gckschools.com/vhs/eng3/fall/romantic/danwebread.htm); if so, the writers had better hurry and make “The Book of Daniel” as clever.
There is a problem with this show, and it’s not what the American Family Association has been decrying ever since they saw the commercials for it (they started their “anti” campaign before ever seeing it; how to lose credibility in one easy step is to start a knee-jerk reaction before you even see the thing. Anyway.) The show isn’t even a little bit funny and the drama was not believable.
The only character I liked was Daniel himself (sorry Jesus) but that’s because I like Aidan Quinn. There was no dramatic arc in the episode: it was like a linear shopping list of dysfunctions (all of which are possible) escalating in the poor rectory to the boiling point. But there was no boiling point. Everything’s ok, except the missing money, so what is the point?
Theologically, it is one thing “to accept” (the name of this episode was “Acceptance”) but quite another “to surrender”. The former denotes passivity; the latter, action. This show, to be authentic, needs some love-in-action, not just acquiescence. Ho-hum.
Christianity exists for the sake of people with dysfunctions; dysfunctional people make life worth living because they are interesting (I think the producer Barbara Hall said that once). Jesus and dysfunctional people, well, all sinners and flawed human beings, are friends. But Jesus always invites us to do better, to go beyond ourselves; here, Jesus was like toast. (Oh, for Joan of Arcadia’s God to return… but we let that show slip away through apathy; shame on us.)
My bet is that the writers know about religion (or they have good consultants) so they get the terminology right, the imagery (the stained glass window effect is very creative) and maybe the vestments; they certainly nailed the sins and smorgasbord morality of that part of our culture that is Christian-flavored. But there’s no deeply felt life here, it doesn’t have a point of view, and for this the two-hour premiere didn’t quite work for me.
Now, the new show In Justice (Friday’s ABC, 9/8pm) this one has my attention. By the second episode I think it found its legs. The Book of Daniel has some distance to go before it finds a permanent place in my TiVo lineup (well, the satellite version.)