'Daniel' can't duck the culture wars

Times Staff Writer

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."

The two stations that decided not to air the program were receiving letters, e-mails and phone calls complaining about the content.

"There are just so many things that bother me about it," said Duane Lammers, station manager of WTWO in Terre Haute, who noted that in the first episode, Webster says he wants God to damn his brother-in-law. (He later tells Jesus he didn't mean it.) "That just doesn't belong on broadcast television."

KARK in Little Rock has also decided not to air it, although the show will be carried in that market by the local WB affiliate, NBC officials said. Although the network has received a couple of thousand e-mails complaining about the show, 99% of stations in the country will be showing the program, Zigler noted.

"We feel that it is actually a very good, uplifting, hopeful kind of show," said Zigler, adding that the producers consulted with Episcopal priests to ensure an accurate depiction of church hierarchy and liturgy. "Once you see it, you can see that it doesn't take [religion] lightly. I think the respect is there."

Quinn agreed.

"I don't understand all the talk about it, because if you ask me, this show is pretty wholesome, down the middle," he said in a recent conference call with reporters. "It deals with some controversial subject matters, certainly, but in a way that I don't think is that salacious."

And some religious leaders have embraced the program.

"I'm thrilled we have the opportunity to offer to the mainstream media the story of a progressive protagonist in a faith-based story where life is never tidy and neat," said the Rev. Susan Russell, senior associate for parish life at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, where the show's pilot was filmed. "I think it's a realistic portrayal of a faithful man facing 21st century challenges."

Russell, who has watched the pilot and read the scripts for the rest of the episodes, said she has sent a message to her congregants urging them to tune in to the program. She and other Episcopal leaders believe the show could actually draw more people to the Episcopal Church. The Blog of Daniel, in fact, includes links to a film about Episcopalians and information about the Washington diocese, and invites visitors to join others in online prayer and meditation.

"I think a lot of people are looking for a spiritual home that doesn't look like the welcome mat that Jerry Falwell puts out," Russell said.

If the public debate has turned rancorous, however, producers said that internally the topics provoked some fascinating dialogues.

John Tinker, a born-again Christian who is one of the program's three executive producers, said the issues raised by the show's themes spilled into the writing room, where the staff frequently engaged in discussions about "life and death and everything in between."

"I've worked on a lot of shows, and I had never had an experience that came close to it when it came to people just offering up for their fellow writers what they felt their place was in the universe," he said. "What I learned from non-Christians was really a blessing. It was nice to be around people and reminded of our common humanity."

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