Sunday, January 22, 2006

Critique: BOOK IT, DANIEL



(This show is rated AMM-NSFAR: Artistic and Moral Mess – Not Suitable For Anyone, Really)

There’s been some brou-ha-ha, moral and ethical, over television’s BOOK OF DANIEL (created by Jack Kenny). For those who haven’t seen it, it is the story of a drug addicted, liberal Episcopalian priest and his licentious extended family.

For those who have seen it, you already realize that the larger problems of the show are artistic, not moral. The directing is all over the place, the style changes within scenes, the actors each give performances in a manner that indicates they don’t know what show the rest of the cast is in, and tonally the show is tone deaf. It would seem that the creative team has been instructed to take something that doesn’t feel like DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES and force a DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES feel on it. Which makes it just plain desperate.

As to the morality issue, I’m not convinced that the show is trying to be amoral; in fact, they seem to be trying to stick some moral lessons within the stories. Yes, Daniel is addicted to pain killers, but Jesus (a character seen only by Daniel, ala HARVEY) encourages Daniel to cut back. And the other characters are having affairs, doing drugs, and in general acting hypocritically; but the show clearly is trying to imply that they are messed up folk, and thus not endorsing their behavior.

So the show seems to be trying to say something relevant in some moral areas – and fails miserably in doing so.

The problem isn’t where they do or don’t land on some of the big issues (marriage = good; racism = bad.) It’s that they have no moral high ground on which to base their big messages – since their high ground is built on quicksand.

For example, a storyline in the pilot deals with a couple in pre-marital counseling – a pro forma requirement to being married by the church. In the first session, we learn that the couple (living together, naturally) is having some problems in the bedroom – the woman needs to get high before having sex. Reverend Daniel, and the show, is cool with all of that – there is no judgment here, so premarital sex and casual drug use is tossed off as assumed behavior for every normal couple. (To reinforce this, Daniel makes a joke of pretending that the couple co-habitating might be offensive to the clergy – a joke because (or so the show assumes) no open-minded clergyman would think that way.)

So the problem isn’t the drugs or sex, or combination; the dramatic problem as diagnosed by Daniel (and he has a point) is the reason behind the drug use. Turns out that both man and woman are nervous about the upcoming commitment, and Daniel wisely convinces each of them to talk it over with their spouse-to-be. The big pay-off joke comes when the couple returns to counseling, now ecstatic with each other because they have decided to not get married! Daniel gulps at this, and Jesus gives him (and us) a knowing nod. You see the irony? The pastor talked them out of getting married!

So ultimately, and through humor, the message is pro-marriage.

Except that it isn’t. You see, when the show decided not to sweat the small stuff – premarital sex, drug use, communication – they forfeited the right to talk about the larger stuff. If the pastor isn’t concerned about the things that lead up to marriage, how can he claim to be concerned about the institution itself? It seems he doesn’t get that it is the small stuff that leads to the big stuff. Rosa Parks wasn’t a hero for taking on a global issue, she just demanded a seat on a bus. But she was a hero for realizing that the little things are indicative of the big things – there is no equality on the large scope if one isn’t allowed something as small as a seat on the bus.

The show is fraught with such inconsistencies. The family members treat each other with a level of hatred that would make Herod’s family look well adjusted, but cloyingly hug each other at scenes end to show that they really love each other. The daughter is caught dealing drugs, which is not an issue except for being caught; the real issue is that a daughter should tell her parents if she wants money. Grandpa is having an affair with Daniel’s boss (both parties are bishops in the church), which isn’t adultery (because Grandma has Alzheimer’s), but is naughty because they are keeping the affair a secret.

Daniel’s son is banging a fifteen-year-old girl; her parents are blasé about statutory rape (who are we to judge?), but highly offended that it is with an Asian male. You can feel the show creators glowing in how controversial and politically daring they are being; and you can feel the audiences across the nation yawning in boredom. How can I get outraged by the portrayal of conservative Christian parents who are racist, if they have already proven that they are not real, but only one-dimensional puppets in the hands of writers trying to be relevant?

Jesus himself doesn’t care about the small stuff. The daughter is dealing drugs – but that’s cool, she’s a good girl. The Jesus of THE BOOK OF DANIEL would never say, “Go and sin no more.” He would only say, “Go.”

For the thinking Christian, THE BOOK OF DANIEL has already been done, and done right, years ago with NOTHING SACRED (created by David Manson). That was a show about a liberal priest (the protagonist), a conservative priest, a progressive nun and the moderate priest who shepherded them. The stories tackled the big issues – and the small issues – and got messy dirty with them. Bad choices, big and small, had real, grounded consequences. Even good choices cost, but were worth it.

And God wasn’t a character there to give a reassuring back rub to the wayward priest, but rather a tangible presence (albeit never physicalized) wrestling alongside His sheep.
In other words, real people with real faith facing a real world.

We never knew how good we had it. Well, maybe being stuck with THE BOOK OF DANIEL, we now know.

Your servant,

Sean

5 comments:

BethR said...

Best analysis I've seen yet of this show. I've seen every episode, and nothing to suggest that the writers really understand, much less believe, the things they're writing about. They just want everyone to feel good. Somehow.

Alice Bass said...

Excellent thoughts SG. Catherine & I were ranting about it after the pilot -- I'm impressed that you stuck with it longer than that.
Although I think the Jesus of Book of D would say, "Whoa" more often than, "Go." "Go" implies he might want someone to do something. Heaven forefend!
ab

Alice Bass said...

ps, sorry that you have to look at my mug every time I leave a comment! Yeesh.
ab

Gaffney said...

Alice -- Love looking at your mug. Reminds me of how much I miss hanging with you.

I don't think he would say, "Whoa," since someone might confuse that for "stop." How about pleasing us all and saying "Doh!"

-Sean

Gaffney said...

Today's news (1/25/06):

"God has spoken - and he had nothing to say about The Book of Daniel, which has been unceremoniously dropped from its Tuesday 10p time period on NBC. The show drew criticism from the American Family Association, and was not carried by 7 NBC affiliates due to content issues. Wtih that said, ti wasn't the content that caused the network to drop the show, it was the low viewing numbers." (according to Cynopsis newsletter)