'Book of Daniel': A Twisted Family Affair

Television critic Andrew Wallenstein previews NBC's new drama Book of Daniel, centering on the travails of a pill-popping Episcopal priest and his family. The show features a revolving cast of quirky characters and highly irreverent humor that's already sparked protests from religious groups.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

There's a new NBC television series starting tonight. It's called "The Book of Daniel." It's already controversial. Two stations are refusing to air the show after conservative Christian groups condemned the program's depiction of Jesus as blasphemous. As TV critic Andrew Wallenstein tells us, the show features an Episcopal minister by the name of Daniel Webster.

ANDREW WALLENSTEIN reporting:

There's probably no one in the Reverend Daniel Webster's church who has more problems than he does. As we learn in the first episode of "The Book of Daniel," his daughter gets busted selling marijuana, his brother-in-law appears to have embezzled millions in church funds, and the minister himself, played by Aidan Quinn, has developed a nasty Vicodin habit. His addiction may have something to do with the fact that he regularly hallucinates having conversations with Jesus, played by Garret Dillahunt. In this scene, Jesus tries to talk the minister out of popping another pill.

(Soundbite of "Book of Daniel")

Mr. GARRET DILLAHUNT (Actor): (As Jesus) I thought you were cutting back on those.

Mr. AIDAN QUINN (Actor): (As Reverend Daniel Webster) I have to play golf later. My back is killing me.

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Jesus) Oh, come on.

Mr. QUINN: (As Rev. Webster) OK. OK. Fine. You know, I only take them occasionally.

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Jesus) Right.

Mr. QUINN: (As Rev. Webster) Could you fit more judgment into that `right'?

Mr. DILLAHUNT: (As Jesus) Actually, yes, I could.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WALLENSTEIN: If you were expecting a tidy little drama about a minister like the WB's "7th Heaven," "Book of Daniel" ain't it. In fact, the show that it will probably be most compared to, oddly enough, is "Desperate Housewives." Just like that ABC megahit, "The Book of Daniel" is really a campy soap opera, and it does that well. But I require a Vicodin just to get through shows like this.

To its credit, "Book of Daniel" has a strong supporting cast around Quinn, including Susanna Thompson as his put-upon wife and Dylan Baker as his closest adviser. But it's veteran actress Ellen Burstyn who steals her scenes as the tough-talking bishop. Here she gives the minister heck for a provocative sermon he made.

(Soundbite of "The Book of Daniel")

Ms. ELLEN BURSTYN (Actress): (As Bishop Beatrice Congreve) Canterbury has publicly spanked the US Episcopal for its liberal policies. We're a church in crisis.

Mr. QUINN: (As Rev. Webster) We're a country in crisis.

Ms. BURSTYN: (As Bishop Congreve) And in such a climate, do you really think it's wise to validate the inevitability of sin?

Mr. QUINN: (As Rev. Webster) I'm not exactly flying blind here, Bea. Corinthians 10:13, `No temptation hath seized...'

Ms. BURSTYN: (As Bishop Congreve) Please, don't quote the Bible to me. I've got a master's in philosophy, a doctorate in theology and a faculty chair at Yale Divinity, so, please, spare me the quotes, huh?

Mr. QUINN: (As Rev. Webster) I'm just saying that it's unrealistic to expect people not to give in to temptation.

Ms. BURSTYN: (As Bishop Congreve) And, yet, that, Daniel, is the business we're in.

Mr. QUINN: (As Rev. Webster) I wasn't aware we were in a business.

Ms. BURSTYN: (As Bishop Congreve) No? Well, then you'd better take a closer look at your expense account.

WALLENSTEIN: Burstyn is great, but it's the character of Jesus that's going to get the attention. Garret Dillahunt looks like the classic Son of God with long brown hair and flowing robes, but he's something of a cutup. At one point he asks to replace the minister's Vicodin with Life Savers. Given Reverend Webster's mounting problems, it probably won't be long before the minister asks Jesus to turn water into wine.

CHADWICK: Andrew Wallenstein writes about television for the Hollywood Reporter.

I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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