God and Man on Television

For the networks, Friday is the new Sunday.

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Jesus can’t save Daniel 

My freshman dorm included one of those stock college characters: a red-headed girl with a shaky grip on identity—one month she’s a Wiccan, the next she’s recovering some repressed memory, then she’s back to singing in the church choir. Watching television on a Friday night feels a lot like that lately—lots of diffuse spiritual energy going in no particular direction. In TV-land, Friday is the new Sunday, the night for seekers to try out the latest celluloid church. For two seasons, CBS aired Joan of Arcadia, a show about a teenage girl who received messages from God via bit players—the lunch lady, the mailman, a cute guy from school. This season, CBS has replaced it with Ghost Whisperer, a sort of Bewitched from the dark side in which Jennifer Love Hewitt plays a suburban newlywed who cutely swipes the curtain of bangs out of her eyes and sees dead people skulking around her neighbor’s rose bushes. In each episode she resolves their unfinished business and sends them on their way.

Sometimes, the shows take on a Quaker cast, being content merely to fill up your living room with a general sense of good will and righteousness. Last fall, NBC tried out Three Wishes, a reality show marketed heavily to church groups and on Christian radio stations. In it, Christian rocker Amy Grant played the earthly angel, doing good deeds for needy families just because it’s a nice thing to do. This year, ABC is airing In Justice, in which a team of Innocence Project-type lawyers play God, combing through death-penalty appeals to see who deserves a second chance, and then, in an hour of overwrought courtroom drama, freeing the wrongly convicted. “Every one of us could use a little mercy now,” Mary Gauthier—herself a famous addict redeemed—sings over the closing credits.

Hollywood’s latest spiritual awakening dates back a decade to the success of Touched by an Angel (1994-2003), the treacly show about a trio of angels dispatched to Earth to patch up domestic strife. (And this was itself a straight remake of Highway to Heaven.)But the shows have come a long way since then. Now Hollywood has done away with the heavenly intermediaries and the cheesiness; each season brings new characters who actually utter the dreaded G word as part of their normal harried life. In the FX show Rescue Me, the stressed-out firefighters are always experiencing crises of faith, holding their scruffy heads in their hands and praying out loud. For the scriptwriters and the producers, being so openly, conventionally, religious is a mark of their authenticity and great sensitivity. Writing a God-fearing character into a script these days gives you the right to feel brave and worthy, just as writing a gay character did a decade ago.

For the last three Fridays, NBC closed its prime-time lineup with The Book of Daniel. This was supposed to be the show that stepped off the ledge. Daniel Webster is an Episcopal priest who takes frequent breaks to check in with Jesus. Not an angel or a spirit in the sky or a voice in his head or even God, but Jesus from those 1950s headshots—a tall guy with wavy sandy-brown hair and a slightly furrowed brow, played by Garret Dillahunt. Jesus pops up any time Daniel needs to talk to him—in the bathroom, in the garden when he’s settling in with his nightly cigar, as a convenient HOV buddy when Daniel’s driving home from work. Together they hash out Daniel’s moral dilemmas—whether to tell his father the truth about his gay son, how to counsel an engaged couple with sexual problems, whether to take favors from the mob to build a church school.

On Wednesday, NBC announced that it will cancel the show, which comes as no surprise to me and the 20 other people who watched it. Never was there a better example of Hollywood’s schizophrenic outreach program to red America. A psychiatrist would know the name for this, lightly repressed hostility or something—the show took great pains to insult anyone who might want to watch it. The premise was Six Feet Under for Christians—a dark comedy about a highly dysfunctional family of misfits that centers around a church instead of a funeral home. Perfectly interesting, except that it wasn’t. In the first week we were introduced to Daniel’s gay son, and his lesbian sister-in-law, and his daughter who got busted for selling pot, and his hostile, randy adopted Asian son, and his wife who drank martinis long before sundown. We were even subjected to several scenes of Daniel and his wife getting it on.

NBC sold the show as “provocative and edgy,” and from the beginning it drew the predictable backlash—a few affiliates refused to air it, and Christian groups complained it was the “work of an embittered ex-Catholic homosexual,” as the Catholic League put it. (Jack Kenny, the show’s gay creator, based the show on his lover’s repressed family—and made sure to say so in every interview he gave.) NBC will probably claim the show was just too controversial, but usually controversy makes for good buzz. Daniel was just boring, and for an obvious reason: Hollywood executives seem convinced that dinnertime at any religious home sounds like the 1992 Republican convention, with everyone screaming about gays and sex and other culture war issues. Kenny did to Daniel what other Hollywood executives do to TV presidents—made him a wuss who’s soft on everyone and loves the environment. Jesus, meanwhile, was straight off the inspirational best-seller list: a friend who might seem flaky but always comes through with the hard truths like “Life is hard,” or “Boy, you never know, do you,” his response when they figured out Daniel’s sister-in-law is gay.

If we are lucky, The Book of Daniel will put an end to Hollywood’s strained efforts to reach the silent majority, or at least it will make those efforts a little more interesting. Christians don’t necessarily like to watch shows about other Christians, any more than I want to watch programs about thirtysomething Jewish journalists. For the last six months, I’ve been spending a lot of time with young, conservative evangelical college students; what they like and don’t like often surprises me. They like Pixar movies for their clean irony. They liked Cinderella Man, because the hero fought for his family. They liked Mr. and Mrs. Smith because the marriage was saved. They love violence if it serves a patriotic function, so 24 is a big hit. After winter break, I checked in with the crowd in the TV lounge to see what they were watching. None of them had even heard of TheBook of Daniel.