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TELEVISION & RADIO

'Daniel' can't duck the culture wars

NBC airs its first show about a troubled priest tonight. The complaints have been aired already.

January 06, 2006|Matea Gold | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The latest skirmish in the culture wars revolves around a mild-mannered Episcopal priest who nurses a secret Vicodin habit and regularly sees and converses with Jesus.

The Rev. Daniel Webster, played by Aidan Quinn, is the main character in NBC's drama "The Book of Daniel," a series premiering tonight at 9 about an earnest but often harried New England minister and his efforts to cope with the challenges of modern-day parenthood -- including a moody teenage daughter who is caught selling marijuana to finance her manga animation -- and the politics of leading a church congregation. Along the way, he consults with a very real-looking Jesus, a character who looks as if he stepped straight off the canvas of "The Last Supper."

Even before it has aired, the show has added fuel to a building debate about the portrayal of faith and religion in popular culture. The American Family Assn., a conservative Christian organization based in Tupelo, Miss., launched a campaign to get local NBC affiliates not to air the program, arguing that it is disrespectful of Christians. By Thursday afternoon, stations in Terre Haute, Ind., and Little Rock, Ark., had decided not to show it.

Meanwhile, some Episcopal priests are urging their congregants to watch the program, saying that it offers a refreshingly candid portrayal of religious leaders and showcases the Episcopal Church as a tolerant denomination. The Episcopal Diocese of Washington has even launched the Blog of Daniel -- found at blog.edow.org/weblog -- a website designed to spur discussion about the issues raised on the program.

All the fuss has come as somewhat of a surprise to creator Jack Kenny, who originally wrote the pilot as a writing sample a year ago. Kenny -- who most recently produced "Wanda at Large" and "Titus" -- said he intended to make Webster's vocation merely the background, not the focus of the show.

"It's never been about religion," said Kenny, who was raised Roman Catholic and describes himself now as an unaffiliated Christian. "It's about a family that loves each other unconditionally and is ready to catch each other when they fall.

"I was always very clear with the writers and actors that this was never to make fun of or mock Christianity," he added. "It was always a show about people of faith who believe in Jesus Christ as their savior. But it's not about that -- that's just there."

Kenny said he got the inspiration for the show from his partner's family, a tight-knit but often taciturn clan.

"I always wanted to examine that world of the WASP, that uptight, Northeastern, 'Let's not talk about the world, let's have a martini instead,' " he said. "I remember Michael [Goodell] telling me that once when he was a kid, he said, 'God bless you, Mommy.' And his mother said, 'We don't say that.' I love that world; I love the unspoken, because really good actors can do so much with that."

NBC executives were drawn to Kenny's script because it was unlike anything on the air, said Vivi Zigler, NBC's executive vice president of current programs.

"You've got at its core a character that you don't usually see on television," Zigler said. "His family and surrounding extended family have so much drama, and he himself is a flawed character. And you have it set in a backdrop of a church, where his job is dealing with issues of faith and morality. There's this great juxtaposition, and the dramatic conflict and the humor come from that."

Critics, however, take issue with the depiction of Webster and his family, including his wife, who frequently partakes of a midday martini; his 23-year-old son, Peter, a gay Republican; his 16-year-old adopted son, Adam, who tries to have sex with his girlfriend just about everywhere he can; and his sister-in-law, who has an affair with another woman.

"We certainly understand that Christians have difficulties in life, even ministers," said Ed Vitagliano, a spokesman for the American Family Assn., who watched the pilot Tuesday night, along with other clergy, at the NBC affiliate in Memphis. "But this was not a realistic portrayal of a minister's life. This was so far beyond the pale, it was almost a comic strip version."

Vitagliano said that the group was also offended that Kenny is gay, as are two of the show's characters.

"We look at that and say, 'If they wanted to try to alienate conservative Christians, they're making every effort to do so,' " he said.

Responded Kenny: "That strikes me as both non-Christian and un-American. It seems to me I should be able to write about anything I want to write about. They have a perfect right not to watch it."

However, Vitagliano said more than 500,000 people had used the group's website to send e-mails to NBC and its affiliates demanding that the show be pulled.

"This has really struck a nerve with people," he said. "I don't know that I've personally been this busy doing interviews since Ellen DeGeneres came out on her sitcom."

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