Review of “The Book of Daniel”

The Book of Daniel has emerged as one of the TV mid-season’s most buzzed about shows, and NBC has the American Family Association to thank for it.

The notoriously conservative group, led by the Rev. Donald Wildmon, has called for a boycott of the show and its advertisers–without having seen an entire episode, of course. The show premieres with back-to-back episodes Friday (Jan. 6) from 9-11 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.

To be sure, The Book of Daniel delves deep into heady, heavy topics within its fist two episodes. Themes of homosexuality, drug addiction and open marriages should have the AFA spitting fire for many months to come. All that outrage should, in turn, translate into healthy ratings.

At its heart, however, The Book of Daniel is a compelling, unexpectedly comical, portrait of a family’s personal struggles with issues of faith, forgiveness and redemption. Daniel shows us that there are no easy answers in life, just constant questioning that moves us forward at a sometimes painful pace.

Rev. Daniel Webster (portrayed by Aidan Quinn) pops Vicodin several times a day to deal with pains both physical and emotional, and he also has regular conversations with Jesus Christ (Garret Dillahunt), who doesn’t advise as much as nudge Daniel in the right direction. Weary, oh-so-desperate housewife Judith (Susanna Thompson) guzzles martinis at an equal pace and struggles to keep her family at peace.

Daughter Grace (Alison Pill) deals pot to support her interest in Japanese animation, and adopted Asian-American son Adam (Ivan Shaw) is secretly dating Caroline (Leven Ramblin), the golden child of Roger (the always reliable Dylan Baker), one of the parish’s arrogant, bigoted senior members.

The Webster family is also put to the test when Daniel learns that the funds he set aside to build a new church school are missing–along with his shady brother-in-law–during the show’s pilot episode. The stolen money is soon traced back to the not-so-grieving widow Victoria, Judith’s sister, who tearfully admits to a lesbian affair with her vanished husband’s sexy secretary.

Even amid so much outrageous behavior and so many subtly outrageous moments, Daniel‘s lesbian subplot seems to come out of nowhere. After the big revelation is made, it darts in and out of conversations and is often played for sly comic effect. There’s even a joke about the genetic origins of homosexuality in regards to Peter. An emotionally weary Victoria is clearly affected by what’s going on, but The Book of Daniel doesn’t dwell too long on her same-sex affair. It eventually becomes just another quirky facet of the show’s appeal. Time will tell if it becomes an integral part of the story.

Then there’s prodigal son Peter, who is–get ready for it–gay, a Republican and dealing with the death of his twin brother. Talk about issues. Peter has also been accepted to a prestigious cancer research program, a move Daniel believes may be motivated more by the death of Peter’s brother than his own interests.

Actor Christian Campbell gracefully tackles the role of Peter and is well-known within the gay community. He starred as the shy, impossibly cute, Gabriel in the modern gay fable Trick, a 1999 film about a one-night stand that blossoms through the course of one enchanted and unusual evening.

Peter is refreshingly upfront about his sexuality with his family. Its even a point of casual discussion–and brotherly joking–at the dinner table. It’s also nice to see Peter portrayed as the Webster’s most accomplished, and “normal,” offspring.

Things soon change during episode 2, “Forgiveness,” when Bishop Bertrum Webster (James Rebhorn), Daniel’s father, joins the clan for a Sunday dinner. The bishop is ignorant of his grandson’s sexuality, and the family is unsure of how or when to reveal the truth. It’s a touching, troubling issue and is nicely handled in key scenes by openly gay show creator Jack Kenny.

Blissfully unaware, Bishop Webster insists that Peter meet the eligible daughter of a local family. At church choir practice, Peter is more interested in her intelligent, attractive brother, whose own sexuality has yet to be revealed. Sparks, however, do indeed seem
to fly.

Peter does put aside his own happiness in favor of his grandfather’s approval, only to take things too far with his “girlfriend” during episode 4, “Revelations” (airing Jan. 20). It makes for one of the show’s most outrageous plot developments–and that’s quite a feat with so many things already going on. Even acceptance has its limits, especially considering the strong support system Peter already has in place at home.

What gives The Book of Daniel much of its heft is Kenny’s thoughtful–and thought-provoking–writing. The blurred lines of faith and religion have provided meaty TV fodder for several shows–Touched by an Angel, Joan of Arcadia, Highway to Heaven, Picket Fences. The Book of Daniel takes it a step or two further, using the church and its trappings as both direct storyline elements and as springboards into other plot developments and ideas.

Daniel‘s universally appealing cast is also up to the challenge. Quinn’s quiet reserve makes Daniel an endlessly compelling lead and holds the show’s tricky storytelling together. He has a perfect foil in Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn, who offers advice and admonishment as Dr. Beatrice Congreve. Burstyn gives Beatrice, the church bishop, a perfectly prickly edge.
Future episodes look to further explore the issue of Peter’s sexuality and the duality and consequences of his alternately closeted and open life. During “Revelations” (Jan. 20), rebellious son Adam takes a part-time internship alongside his gay brother, only to have it backfire. Adam hits it off with Peter’s advisor and accidentally outs him, causing Peter to lose an important case study.

Like all of The Book of Daniel‘s complex, confusing issues, sexuality is simply presented as a consequence of life and living. The Book of Daniel‘s creators and its sterling cast have commitment to the show’s sincere form of storytelling, and that faith is what ultimately makes Daniel a divine television experience.

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