editorial (2006-02)

‘Daniel’ Down in the Dumps

A third-rate TV soap opera explodes, then bombs, except here!

‘Daniel’ Down in the Dumps

The furor that can arise over a mere television show is astounding.

Last week, reaction across the country to the hype over the introduction and previewing of the NBC series, The Book of Daniel , was ridiculous—almost as ludicrous as the TV show itself.

The Book of Daniel , NBC’s Friday-night soap opera featuring an Episcopal priest’s wildly dysfunctional family and the minister’s pain-killer addiction and his private discussions with Jesus, was not aired at all in a number of smaller markets, giving “smaller” the double entendre it deserves in those instances.

Knoxville’s WBIR-TV agonized over the question of airing the show, according to its general manager, Jeff Lee, but decided to go ahead with the premiere as a matter of bowing to individual viewers’ choices. Good for them, but what were they worried about? That the controversy arose and was fueled by protests from some Christian groups to the point where its airing in Knoxville was even in question is discouraging to advocates of freedom of expression.

Goodness knows cable television has hours and hours of evangelical Christian programming, day and night, and local TV stations air Sunday church services. There is no dearth of televised religious messages featuring preachers of a host of Christian faiths. Surely, the Christian orthodoxy, let alone the pocketbook-thumping proselytizing organizations, already command more than equal time.

A campaign against the show, launched by the American Family Association of Tupelo, Miss., claims that it presents a disrespectful and outright offensive portrayal of Christianity. Presumably, it would be OK with the association if the religion depicted was some other, un-American one.

The very premise for the program is viewed as heresy by some of those who protest its presence on TV. Well, there is a constitutionally protected place for heresy in the American scheme of things. The Episcopal denomination must have been chosen by the show’s script-writers because Episcopalians are among a Christian minority that displays any sense of humor about its religion and may see it as a sitcom. The Episcopal Diocese of Washington has taken it to heart sufficiently to create the on-line “Blog of Daniel,” where comments about the program can be registered, for, against, or what for?

Be that as it may, what we’re talking about is a soap opera.

A summary of its plotline and characters: The reverend’s wife is a drinker; his teenage daughter sells pot; his teenage son seems to think of nothing but humping his girlfriend; his older son is a gay Republican with an identity problem; and the reverend himself is addicted to the pain-killer, Vicodin. Sound familiar? Well, cut out the priesthood and the talks with Jesus and it would be regular homely fare on the daytime soaps.

Watch it if you will; preach against it if you will; tell your children not to watch it, whatever. It does not rise to the level of importance that calls for protest marches or boycotts of the network or its advertisers.

Reviews, mostly from people who take television seriously, were mixed, but it did get some raves as a drama. When it premiered in a two-hour segment last Friday evening, however, it was a ratings disappointment to the network. Third in its time slot, with only nine million viewers, it certainly dispelled the notion that Christianity in any form plays well anywhere. And it snuffs the idea that the controversy itself will attract a huge viewing audience.

If those agitated sectarians who didn’t watch the show, even out of morbid curiosity, account for its low ratings, good for them. That’s the most effective way to register disapproval of any TV show, or of TV itself. Don’t watch. Read the biblical Book of Daniel, the 27th book of the Old Testament, instead. Read it in the King James Version. It not only has substance, it has style.

Viewers in Knoxville did watch the soap, though, bucking the national trend. Katie Granju, a WBIR news producer and former Metro Pulse contributor, posted the following notice on her weblog Tuesday.

“Interestingly, the latest Nielsen ratings reveal that of the 52 metered markets in the United States, WBIR posted the highest ratings of any station in the country airing the premier episode of the hot-potato show, The Book of Daniel .”

Still, if nationwide viewership doesn’t improve and advertisers flinch, look for a summer replacement on NBC Friday nights at 9 p.m.. Just don’t look for it to be a religious spoof. The Book of Job project will have been canceled. WBIR will have to resort to reruns.