'Book of Daniel': A Mean-Spirited, Unholy Mess

Aidan Quinn plays an Episcopal priest who's a loser both at home and before his flock in
Aidan Quinn plays an Episcopal priest who's a loser both at home and before his flock in "The Book of Daniel." (By Mitch Haaseth -- Nbc Universal Via Associated Press)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 6, 2006

It's hardly surprising that "The Book of Daniel," a new NBC drama series, would borrow elements from hits such as "Desperate Housewives" and "The Sopranos," but its major inspiration appears to be a flop: Fox's quirky-jerky absurdist romp "Arrested Development."

What used to be called "irreverent" is now called "edgy" -- and called it, and called it, and called it -- and "Arrested Development" finally pushed edginess over the edge, becoming arduously absurd as it grasped for attention (and interviews with star and co-producer Zach Braff suggest the NBC sitcom "Scrubs" is heading in that direction, too). "The Book of Daniel" emulates "Development's" collection of zany, wacky family members, and the unintentional moral is that they ought to be arrested.

I cannot recall a series in which a greater number of characters seemed so desperately detestable -- a series with a larger population of loathsome dolts. There ought to be a worse punishment than cancellation for a show that tries this hard to be offensive and, even at that crass task, manages to fail.

At least two NBC affiliates have decided not to air "Book of Daniel" (premiering at 9 tonight on Channel 4 here) on the grounds that it's objectionable, and whenever local stations do that, the banned show becomes automatically sympathetic and inviting. That would seem truer than ever in this age of the Patriot Act and a Federal Communications Commission running amok with fines and other penalties for using naughty words and showing naughty pictures.

But "Book of Daniel" just barely merits First Amendment protection, flaunting its edginess with such wince-inducing contrivances as a teenage daughter who stuffs her teddy bears with pot, a grandma with Alzheimer's who interrupts Sunday dinner to complain that her husband is "always showing me his penis," a wife whose lesbian affair with her husband's secretary started when the husband insisted both women join him in a threesome, and an Episcopal priest who pops Vicodins like Tic-Tacs and regularly converses with the living image of Jesus Christ.

Actually, they don't so much converse as swap jokes, with Jesus being a pushover for a bad gag and much too cool a guy to be judgmental about the deplorable pack of crackpots who make up the priest's family and friends. The priest is Daniel -- Daniel Webster, by pointless coincidence -- a man who seems to be failing spectacularly as "father" at home and at the church where he presides. Incompetence is supposed to make him lovable and vulnerable; in fact, if it weren't for the fact that he's played by the sly and admirable Aidan Quinn, he would be simply insufferable.

Quinn's voice is still reminiscent of Montgomery Clift's, and he does manage to keep some dignity even when the script stoops to the painfully inane.

"Your brother-in-law is dead," says a voice on the other end of the phone, adding that the man's body was found naked in Dayton, Ohio, with "several diverse objects" inserted in its "rectum." It's easy to provoke titters and giggles with this kind of cheap shock, but two hours of it (for premiere night, NBC is airing two episodes back to back) is far more wearying than liberating.

To have an actor playing Jesus (Garret Dillahunt) pop up at irregular intervals adds to the overall appalling pall. Dillahunt is likable and approachable enough -- the hippie image of Jesus as a smiley-faced dude loath to condemn or even deplore -- but it defies logic that he would hang around with a loser like Webster.

The Webster household is a shambles almost any way you look at it. An adopted 16-year-old son named Adam (Ivan Shaw) makes snide, cruel jokes at the expense of his stepbrother Peter (Christian Campbell), 23 and gay, even though the attitude is inconsistent with the character's nature. Pot-smoking and pot-selling sister Grace (Alison Pill) inexplicably sides with Adam and joins in ridiculing Peter, repeatedly threatening to "out" him in front of oblivious relatives.

With the exception of Quinn and the inescapably likable Campbell (star of innumerable worthy independent films of which the best-known is "Trick," the movie in which Tori Spelling proved she actually can act), all the actors appear to be flailing aimlessly, even old pro Ellen Burstyn as a hip bishop. As Judith, Webster's empty-headed wife, Susanna Thompson gives one of the worst performances of the young year, at times giving the impression she's trying to imitate Patricia Heaton of "Everybody Loves Raymond" but falling flat on her face in the process.

It figures the actors are wandering about in their own separate fogs because the tone of the piece is feckless and uncertain. You don't know whether the producers and writers are going for dark farce or portentous potboiler. Early in the premiere, when Burstyn says, "We're a church in crisis," Quinn responds with "We're a country in crisis" -- but if there's an allegory in the convoluted jumble that follows, you'll have to be doggedly determined to find it, or to imagine it exists.

Perhaps realizing they've created a crop of characters who are irredeemably mean, venal and idiotic, the writers try to tell us these people are really sweethearts -- not by depicting good qualities through action but simply by having them primitively vouch for one another. "He's a good boy," mom says of the cautious and confused Peter. "You're a good man," the priest is told by a golf crony. "She's a good girl," Jesus says of Grace even after she's arrested for selling marijuana, and later, of the priest's bigoted, oafish father: "He's a good man, Daniel. Everybody's different."

Even the sadistically malicious Adam is called "a good boy" before the first two hours are over.

This is not sophisticated storytelling. It's more like running through the meadow with a butterfly net and swooping up whatever happens to be fluttering around. "Life is hard," Jesus philosophizes. "That's why there's such a nice reward at the end of it." If only that were the case with "The Book of Daniel."

The Book of Daniel airs at 9 tonight on Channel 4.

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