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A TV pilot with Jesus as co-pilot

NBC's controversial new series puts an Episcopal priest at the head of a hard-living family - and the Savior himself in a supporting role.

By Clayton CollinsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 6, 2006



WHITE PLAINS, N.Y.

"Sex. Drugs. Stolen money and martinis." The marketing for an NBC drama that premières Friday at 9 p.m. EST suggests standard prime-time fare. Not quite. This show also comes with a religious motif, though its creators maintain that it's not the latest shot in a culture war.

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"The Book of Daniel" - already generating buzz beyond what you might find around a network's typical mid-season pickup - is something more than an edgier "Joan of Arcadia." "Daniel" drives at the increasingly complex and personal nature of spirituality, even within the structure of an established church. And it takes an approach that's more "The Sopranos" than "7th Heaven."

Aidan Quinn plays Daniel Webster, an Episcopal priest at the head of a family whose dinner-table conversation is seldom light. A daughter has sold marijuana, Daniel abuses Vicodin, and his hard-drinking wife, played by Susanna Thompson, exudes an emotional frigidity attributed to the loss of a child.

Webster uses his faith to navigate issues ranging from one son's homosexuality to his own clashes with Church hierarchy. Oh, and he has a mentor: a personal Jesus, the incarnation of an internal dialogue. Played by Garret Dillahunt, the character appears - in a car's passenger seat, for example - as a bearded man with period clothing but very contemporary speech patterns and a wry irreverence. "Hey," he tells a defensive Daniel in one late-episode scene that takes place outside a bishop's house, "I'm not the one out here casing the joint."

The conservative American Family Association has already launched a campaign to persuade NBC affiliates not to pick up the program, which it calls anti-Christian. A pair of stations in Arkansas and Indiana announced this week that they would not air the show.

And the show's creator fully expects more scrutiny.

"Any time you do anything that has to do with religion you're going to have some controversy," says Jack Kenny, who explains that he wrote the script on spec with the aim of using a church backdrop to explore a contemporary family's interactions - its faith and values - amid all the inherent pressure and politics.

For Quinn, an early pick to play Jesus in the controversial 1988 film "The Last Temptation of Christ" (Willem Dafoe won the role), depicting the Savior as a genial, free-thinking pragmatist makes sense.

"Jesus was continually getting in trouble with the high priests because he was breaking the rules," says Quinn, sitting inside a stately white Colonial here in New York's Westchester County during a shoot on a gusty November day. "I think real spiritual teachers [within all religions] transcend all of this hideous dogma, which is about holding onto power."

Outside, low-flying commuter planes have production workers pulling off headsets in bemused exasperation. A rain shower has scattered the child extras again.

Mr. Kenny, a veteran TV writer, would like to see the show held up against the likes of HBO's acclaimed "Six Feet Under."

"My goal is to do a solid show about people who love and care about each other and aren't perfect," he says. "There are a lot of doctor shows and lawyer shows. There aren't a lot that show a family dealing with real problems that don't get solved in 40 minutes."

NBC, a network hungry for hits, positions "Daniel" - which one critic called the network's "Hail Mary pass" - as a potential ratings-lifter.

"This one will appeal to those who are interested in quality drama, period," says Vivi Zigler, the network's executive vice president of current programming. Acting, writing, production quality, and the universality of the issues it presents will hold viewers, she says. " 'The West Wing' happens to be about the White House and politics," says Ms. Zigler. "But I don't know that it's only people who care about politics who come to that show."

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