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If depth is a sin, this is a 'Book' of virtues

Jesus as imaginary friend is but one of the disconnects in this 'Six Feet Under' knockoff.

January 06, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

"The Book of Daniel," which premieres tonight on NBC, concerns a pill-popping Episcopal priest (Aidan Quinn), his somewhat mildly unconventional family and the priest's personal relationship with Jesus (Garret Dillahunt), who pops in every so often for conversation. It has been news of a minor sort for some weeks, as the subject of a preemptive campaign and threatened boycott by Donald Wildmon's American Family Assn., who view it as an affront to "Christians who believe in the Bible." (Presumably NBC was expecting them -- the AFA shows up to all these parties -- and has done that math, and is not worried.)

Wildmon and company have every right to their campaign. And I don't happen to like the show much myself, for other reasons -- it's weak and unconvincing and plays like a knockoff of bits of "Six Feet Under" (dysfunctional family meets the supernatural) and "Desperate Housewives" (crazy, racy doings in leafy suburbia). But it is by no means anti-Christian, or even anti-clerical, or anti-family. Quite the opposite.

Still, I can see how this Jesus might be a little laid-back and California-tolerant for Wildmon, one of whose missions is fighting "the Homosexual Agenda." (Series creator Jack Kenny is gay.) Dillahunt's is an it's-all-good, joking Jesus ("I'm a one-liner kind of guy -- do unto others, turn the other cheek, stuff like that"), with the blissed-out affect of a practiced acidhead. (Though He is high only on life -- "Oh would you look at those clouds?" he sighs.) But all representations of God are works of the imagination, whether Mel Gibson's or Martin Scorsese's, and if we're going to get picky about these things there's a lot of art to take down from the museum and church walls, and a lot of film we'll need to burn.

In any case, it's clear that this Jesus -- a white, American picture-postcard Jesus, in flowing white robes with the standard hippie hair and beard -- is just Daniel's personal Jesus, his imaginary friend and guidance counselor. There is not, however, much depth to his advice or philosophy. "You should laugh more," he tells Daniel. Or, "Life is hard, Daniel, for everyone. That's why there's such a nice reward at the end of it." Or, "I'm not a fortune teller, let it play out." It's never easy writing lines for God.

But "The Book of Daniel" is less a show about faith or Christianity -- in the three hours I've seen, the subject is barely discussed, and never in such a way as to throw any new or interesting light on the subject -- than it is a kind of Episcopalian Peyton Place, full of sex and secrets. Its tone shifts continually, and despite a fine cast that includes Ellen Burstyn, Dylan Baker and Dan Hedaya, in the end it works neither as comedy, satire, drama nor soap opera.

Very little of it rings true. Divine manifestations aside, it is only tenuously connected to ordinary reality -- often in small ways, but the missteps add up. As when the housekeeper, looking for privacy, smokes a joint in the frontyard. Or a boy and girl manage to shower together in a school gym. Characters are underimagined -- past one or two Identifying Characteristics, they seem to have no life or interests at all.

Indeed, they seem to have met one another just before the filming began, rather than having spent their whole lives together. Oversexed adopted Adam (Ivan Shaw) keeps making jokes about his being Chinese, as if this were news, and about his older brother's homosexuality, as if that were news. Daniel's bishop father (James Rebhorn), speaking to his daughter-in-law, refers to his own grandson as "Peter, your eldest." (Only on "The Adventures of Pete & Pete" would such a reference make sense.)

Daughter Grace (Alison Pill) is busted for selling pot, and while you would expect that to bloom into a scandal, it goes away with a little community service. In any case, her actual Identifying Characteristic is that she draws cartoons. (She occupies the same position -- sullen, sarcastic, arty teen -- as Lauren Ambrose did on "Six Feet Under.") Wife Judith (Susanna Thompson) drinks a little -- she'll drop the odd plate or loudly announce, "I'm having a martini, it's the weekend, it's after noon and I'm having a martini" -- but apart from these passing moments, nothing comes of it. In the same way, Daniel's addiction to painkillers seems no more troublesome than, say, an over-fondness for jellybeans.

Indeed, Daniel's character is critically undeveloped, past the fact that (as church warden Baker tells him), he's "a good man." (This formulation is used again and again: "She's a good girl," Jesus says of Grace. "He's a good boy," Judith says of Adam. "He was a good man," Daniel says in a eulogy for his brother-in-law. This may be some sort of subtle joke about Episcopalians, but I am not sure.) He does not even wonder whether that's really Jesus sitting next to him in the station wagon. Wouldn't you?


'Book of Daniel'

Where: NBC

When: 9 tonight

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language and suggestive dialogue)

Creator Jack Kenny. Executive producers Jack Kenny, Flody Suarez and John Tinker.

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