MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Take the show “Desperate Housewives”, add an Episcopalian priest who talks to a hippie-like Jesus character, and what do you get?
NBC’s new controversial television program “The Book of Daniel.”
Even before it made its Jan. 6 debut, the program came under a firestorm of criticism for its anticipated portrayal of Christians and clergy. Four of the network’s own affiliates decided not to run the program.
According to NBC’s description of the program, “The Book of Daniel” stars actor Aidan Quinn as the Rev. Daniel Webster, “an unconventional Episcopalian minister who not only believes in Jesus — he actually sees him and discusses life with him.”
The show’s promotional tagline reads: “Sex. Drugs. Stolen Money and Martinis. Family Can Really Test Your Faith.”
Complaints about the series have fallen into two categories: a host of sinful characters that run toward the absurd, and a Christ character that critics have described as blasé. Quinn plays a minister who is addicted to prescription painkillers. His wife favors midday martinis, his daughter uses marijuana, one of their sons is homosexual, and the other is sexually active. The series’ Catholic priest has connections with the Mafia.
It isn’t Quinn’s first project with anti-Christian themes. His 1999 motion picture, This Is My Father, was a tragic love story with the Catholic Church cast as the villain. In the film, a young man is driven to suicide because of the guidance received by a repressive priest.
The Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association launched a campaign to encourage television viewers to contact their local NBC affiliates to ask them not to carry the program.
The program was created by Jack Kenny, a practicing homosexual who describes himself as a “recovering Catholic.”
While Kenny admits that he is Christian, he says he is uncertain whether “all the myths surrounding him [Jesus] are true.” Kenny loosely based the Webster family depicted in the series on the family of his partner Michael Goodell. The Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has encouraged its members to show their support for the series.
In addition to the American Family Association, other organizations, such as Focus on the Family, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, and the Parents Television Council have also strongly criticized the program.
Catholic League President Bill Donohue described the program as “vintage Hollywood.”
“The father dabbles in drugs, the wife is a boozer, the daughter is a dope dealer, one son is a homosexual, the other son is a womanizer, the sister-in-law is a bisexual, the brother-in-law is a thief, and the father’s father is an adulterer,” said Donohue. “The conclusion that Hollywood has an agenda is inescapable.”
Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., asked NBC to reconsider airing the program.
“What makes the show especially objectionable are indications that the show portrays religious leaders as people who ignore Biblical teachings by giving some manner of approval to such vices as an addiction to prescription painkillers, adultery, selling drugs, alcohol abuse, embezzlement and sexual promiscuity,” Jones wrote in a letter to NBC Universal Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Bob Wright. “My constituents, understandably, view this portrayal as an example of bigotry toward those espousing traditional Christian beliefs.”
NBC and the show’s creator have steadfastly defended the program and dismissed the criticism.
“I don’t see how they could have seen the show. They are dealing with inaccuracies based off of press information,” Jon Joebgen, senior press manager for NBC, told the Register prior to the pilot’s airing. “It’s a family show. The basis of the show is that it’s about an Episcopalian priest’s family.”
Kenny disagreed that the program mocks the faith. He said that he has been shocked by the reception it has received.
“I actually thought a lot of Christian people would look at this and say, ‘this is great,’” said Kenny. “Christianity for this family is second nature. They are real people with flaws and with faith. I would love for these Christian leaders to say that they don’t have these problems and that they have congregations that are perfect.”
“My intent was to tell a story about a family that loves each other and is always there to catch each other when someone falls,” added Kenny. “They [clergy critics] need to look at it as entertainment, not a yardstick to measure someone’s faith by. I’m disappointed that they can’t set aside their vocation for the moment and enjoy it.”
Clergy members who have seen the pilot beg to differ.
Reaction From Clergy
After receiving hundreds of e-mails and telephone calls from concerned viewers, many affiliates across the country took the unusual step of previewing the pilot for local clergy members. Among them was Memphis’ NBC affiliate WMC-TV, which invited half a dozen local clergy to screen the program. The group included Lutheran, Methodist and Catholic pastors, as well as a rabbi and representatives from the Southern Baptist Convention and the American Family Association.
“At the point of the preview, 100% of the people who were complaining about the show had not seen it,” said Chris Conroy, director of marketing for WMC-TV. “To be fair, we invited some leaders from the mid-South spiritual community to view the show for themselves and then we listened to their opinions and feedback.”
Similar previews took place at station affiliates in Waterloo, Iowa; New York; Winston-Salem, N.C.; Parkersburg, Ohio; and Knoxville, Tenn., among others. Clergy members almost universally decried the program’s caricatured depiction of a clergy member’s family.
Among those in attendance at the WMC-TV preview was Ed Vitagliano, a Christian pastor and spokesman for the American Family Association.
“I don’t see how this could be a family show,” said Vitagliano. “The subject matter alone, regardless of the religious issues, isn’t anything you would want your family to watch.”
He said that Christians will be outraged by the portrayal of Christ as a “cosmic therapist” who waves off sin. Of the clergy in attendance, Vitagliano said that their reaction was generally negative.
“All of us agreed that it was a completely unrealistic portrayal of a clergy person’s life,” said Vitagliano. “Our lives can be flawed, but the absurdity of what was happening in his [the Daniel Webster character’s] life and the cast of characters around him … we were incredulous that Hollywood would think this is an accurate portrayal of an average clergy member’s family.”
“If this is their view of Christianity, it’s going to be as a joke,” Brian Kearns, a pastor at Lighthouse Christian Church, told WBIR-TV in Knoxville after watching a preview of the pilot. “It’s an assault on the Christian faith.”
“I wasn’t very impressed with it,” said Father Michael Joyce, judicial vicar of the Diocese of Memphis. “From the religious aspect, it was very light. About the only redeeming quality that I saw to it was a challenging theme about drug usage. I doubt I’ll be watching it. I have better things to do with my time.”
In response to the complaints, at least four affiliates — KBTV in Beaumont, Texas; WGBC in Meridian, Miss.; KARK in Little Rock, Ark.; and WTWO in Terre Haute, Ind. — decided not to air the program.
Most NBC affiliates decided to let viewers make a choice. WBIR-TV in Knoxville said it found itself in a no-win situation.
“We don’t like upsetting even one viewer,” said Jeff Lee, general manager of WBIR. “‘The Book of Daniel’ is a TV program — that’s all,” said Lee. “We think you should make up your mind as to whether or not to watch any TV program.”
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.