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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

"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.

"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.

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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."

Still, pop-culture offerings have mined religion of late with great economic success. Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" generated more than $370 million, and the screen adaptation of C.S. Lewis's allegorical classic, "The Chronicles of Narnia," had blown past $209 million by New Year's Eve. The bestselling book, "The Da Vinci Code," acquired an unwavering fan base, as have Tim LaHaye's "Left Behind" novels and subsequent movies.

NBC itself got a ratings bump in April from the six-part "Revelations," which also reached for broad appeal.

"Regardless of whether you were a devout Christian or an atheist, you found something in 'Revelations' to react to," says Zigler of the series about the end times.

That "Daniel" appears neither to pile-drive a particular take on Christianity - other than a liberal attitude on such issues as tolerance of gays and artificial life support - nor to gratuitously tweak Christian believers, could quell criticism beyond the inevitable differences over how well it is executed. And having "Jesus" as a recurring character?

"Extremists on either side will probably have a hard time," says Ms. Thompson, Quinn's costar. "But there's a big middle."

Theologians are understandably reluctant to comment on programming they have not yet seen. A Jesus figure as a casual conversationalist could alienate non-Christians and some "nominal" Christians, says James Wall, a senior contributing editor at Christian Century magazine who writes widely on religion and popular culture.

"The only way I'm going to be accepting of religious conversation with God in popular media is if I am led to feel that person is very humble about what he or she thinks he or she heard, and passes it along with a great amount of caution," says Mr. Wall.

Wall has a personal benchmark for appropriate handling of the relationship between man and Deity: Robert Duvall's character in "The Apostle." The humanly flawed Duvall character took an "old friends" approach, speaking to God with familiarity, frankness, and humility.

That could also describe Daniel Webster. "He's trying his best to evolve into a spiritual being," says Quinn of his character, "and having varying degrees of success at that. He wants to be a better man." Talking to Jesus helps.

"To me, this kind of intimate, heartfelt relationship with Jesus is the normal fruit of a serious life of prayer," says Brendan Manning, a writer and former Roman Catholic priest who has generated controversy for advocating syncretism of Christianity with other religions. "I don't think it requires talking to [Jesus] as Daniel does in the car," he says. "But it certainly involves more than the recitation of rote prayers."

For Mr. Manning, the real division in Christian churches today - an Episcopal schism is just one example - is not between liberal and conservative but "between the aware and the unaware," with awareness among "authentic" Christians not only of God's unconditional love but also of the need for mutual acceptance.

On the set here in Westchester, the clouds have blown over. Cast and crew emerge from the video village of equipment pushed under a tarp. Flory Suarez, an executive producer, steps off the set and looks out across the lawn as cast members prepare for another take.

"Faith isn't something that TV covers," he says. "And more than anything, [Quinn's] is a character of faith."

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