I'm guessing that it's rare for a television series to in its first episode. But I'm pretty sure that NBC's The Book of Daniel, which chronicles the (mis)adventures of an Episcopal priest (Aidan Quinn), did just that. The moment came toward the end of the two-hour premiere on January 6th. Here are my notes: "Fornicating bishops." (Okay, so I didn't use "fornicating.") "Senior fornicating bishops. Adulterous senior fornicating bishops."
The two bishops are Episcopalian, which means one of them can be a woman, so the show didn't take things as far over the top as it might have (gay senior fornicating bishops). And only one of our bishops—the male—is actually married, and his wife has Alzheimer's and doesn't even recognize him most of the time, so you see, it's all very complicated and human.
Oh, but the female bishop? Early on, she scolded the eponymous Daniel for giving a sermon which noted "the inevitability of sin." But here, when her lover, (who just happens to be Daniel's dad) wonders why he feels guilty, she promptly assures him he'll have to give that up—the feeling guilty, that is. As bishop, she's a bit of a hardliner. But as a person, well ... she's a little more understanding. One face for the pulpit, another for the bedroom.
I really was ready to give this show more of a shot than the angry Christians out there wanted it to get.
Let's see, what's the word I'm looking for? Ah, yes: hypocrite. But what do you expect? That's religion for you. Pie-in-the-sky piety masking lives that are essentially just like everyone else's—except maybe for the occasional appearance of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ the Hippie Dude (more on him later).
"Adulterous senior fornicating bishops"—for me, it marked the moment when the show threw up its hands and admitted the joke. "Okay, you got us. We're not the least bit interested in religion and the way it informs a person, much less a family. We're not even interested in serious human drama. There's nothing at the center of this show—it's a soap bubble.
"So to keep things hopping, we're throwing in everything we can think of—ratcheting up the buzz until you can't hear yourself think about what else you could be doing at 10 o'clock on a Friday night. Vicodin—addicted priest? Check. Drunken wife? Check. Drunken wife's lesbian-leaning sister? Check. Gay son? Check. Gay son's dead twin? Check. Adopted Asian son who mocks his family and scores like Casanova? Check. Pot-dealing daughter who portrays her mother as a leather-clad dominatrix in her Manga? Check. Catholic priest with mafia connections? Check. While we're at it, let's toss in a racist WASP married to an uptight jerk (racism and rigid parenting—now there are some faults the show is willing to skewer), a hottie secretary who gets brought in for some three-way action, and..."
Exhausted yet? When a man embezzles three million in church funds and turns up dead in Daytona, you almost don't have to be told that he was found naked, with an arse full of implements. Well of course he was. The teaser for the next week's episode said it all: "More scandal! More drama!"
But if the show is a soap bubble, it's a curiously heavy one. (Where are the writers of Arrested Development when you need them?) Daniel's mother, you will recall, has Alzheimer's. This makes for some genuinely funny moments at Sunday dinner—funny in an uncomfortable way, of course, since you're not really supposed to laugh at people when they're suffering. When she complains that her husband "is always showing me his penis," it's funny. An easy joke—the penis reference at the dinner table, the treatment of her husband as some pervert stranger—but by God, it's something. Then gravity takes over. In a private, lucid moment, she assures Daniel of her great love for him. Touched, he embraces her. "Thanks, Mom." Wait for it, wait for it: she regards him strangely, asks, "Are you my son?" and walks away. Plop. Splat.
‘Adulterous senior fornicating bishops’—the moment when the show threw up its hands and admitted the joke.
Having thus stripped its Comedy gear, the show slams into Religious. Suddenly, Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ the Hippie Dude is standing with Daniel. "Can't you do something for her?" Daniel asks. "You know it doesn't work like that," answers Jesus, apparently forgetting all the miraculous cures he worked during his earthly ministry. "Yeah, I know," replies Daniel. "I just don't know why." Pause for moment of serious gazing into space, acknowledging the genuine difficulty posed by suffering. Then it's on with the show!
It's one thing to name the problem; it would have been another to really deal with it, even make it a theme. Alzheimer's brings suffering to Mom and to those who love her. But having Dad take comfort in the arms of another woman isn't dealing with suffering, and certainly doesn't address its role in the spiritual life. The closest we get to that is Jesus saying, "Life is hard—for everyone. That's why there's such a nice reward at the end." What about "take up your cross and follow me"—the Christian conforming his life to Christ, losing his life and yet somehow finding himself in the process? What about "we make up in our own bodies what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ?" What about, "Count it all joy?" Now there's a mystery more interesting than "What happened to our three million in school funds?" or even "How am I going to tell my Dad the bishop that my son is gay?"
"Life is hard..." It's a pathetic answer, and Daniel calls Jesus on it, telling him he doesn't find it very comforting. "Aren't you supposed to comfort me?"
"Oh, where did you read that?" laughs Jesus. "Some Episcopalian self-help book?"
Maybe. Or maybe he read it in Scripture: "Comfort ye, my people ... Come to me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." Most of us may not feel that comfort and relief in times of crisis, but then, most of us don't have visions of Jesus on a regular basis. (It has been suggested that this Jesus is nothing more than Daniel's imaginary creation—but if that's the case, why does he say that he talks to everyone, it's just that most people won't listen?)
But let's not nitpick. Life is hard. Still, I could have stood some mention of sacrificial love—hard and terrible, but ultimately salvific. I'm pretty sure sacrificial love is what led the Word to become flesh, and I'm pretty sure it's the best reason to be Christian. If I were Daniel, talking to this silly wisp of a man in white, I would wonder exactly why I had devoted my life to his service in the priesthood. This is the guy I want to help folks know? Jesus mocks the self-help stuff, but he speaks in the same sort of common-sense platitudes as the worst of it: "Don't worry." "Let it ride." Groovy.
Here’s a show about a Christian priest, and it seems embarrassed to call a sin a sin.
And sweet Jesus, is Jesus ever affirming. "Grace will be fine. She's a good girl." About Dad: "He's a good man." About son Adam: "He's a kid, Daniel. Let him be a kid." It bleeds over into the rest of the characters. "You're a good man," says uptight WASP-guy to Daniel. "Peter's happy. He's a good boy," says Daniel of son Peter. "You're a good kid—just take it slow," he says to son Adam. Everybody's good! Hooray! And yet...
I really was ready to give this show more of a shot than the angry Christians out there wanted it to get. Pill-popping priest? Graham Greene had his whiskey priests. The priestly life treated as being similar to any other career? See the short stories of J.F. Powers. Dysfunctional family? Well, every priest is Father to his flock, and he, along with everyone in the pews, is a sinner in need of redemption.
That's where I stumbled. Who needs redemption in the world of this show? There's plenty of unhappiness and stress and even some crime, but who needs anything more than good advice and a little love and support? And who needs to be Christian for that? There are less demanding places to look for affirmation—viz. the adulterous fornicating senior bishops above. Unless, of course, adultery really is a sin, and sin really does violate the order of love, and such violations really do carry consequences in the here and now (to say nothing of the afterlife). Quaint notions, but Daniel does wear a priest's collar and dress in funny robes on Sunday.
It's the oddest thing—here's a show about a Christian priest, and it seems embarrassed to call a sin a sin. The shows I like best have no such qualms—The Sopranos, Lost, even Arrested Development, God rest its soul. Nobody's portrayed as all bad or all good, but these shows don't have any trouble showing the evil that men do, for whatever reason, as just that: evil. Sometimes it's played for laughs, sometimes it breaks your heart, sometimes it makes you think. But it's acknowledged every time.
The Book of Daniel makes a joke out of the notion. "You're living together in sin?" Daniel asks a cohabitating man preparing for marriage. The young man is stunned. Then Daniel smiles. "Just kidding." Daniel gets closer to the truth in a sermon about temptation (which gets neatly conflated with sin), in which he asks, "If there were no temptation, how could there be redemption?" and notes that, "If we never did anything bad, how could we repent and be stronger for our weaknesses?" This is close to the Happy Fault of Adam's fall, which brought Christ to earth and opened the gates of heaven so that man might share in the life of God. But then Daniel ruins it with, "Doesn't good need evil in order to be good?" Does being need non-being in order to be? Is there a Manichee in the house?
‘Oh, where did you read that?’ laughs Jesus. ‘Some Episcopalian self-help book?’
The funny thing is, it's Daniel's attempt to minister to this unmarried couple—the ones not really living in sin—that provides the episode its only real drama. It turns out their sex life has gone to pieces since they got engaged—the woman can only have sex while high. As Daniel digs into this, he finds that they're both terrified of actually getting married. As they put it, they can't stand "the pressure of marriage—loving each other forever and completely." (The way, say, that Christ loves his church.) But thanks to Daniel's counsel—that they face and discuss their fears—they have decided to remain together without getting married. Their sex life is back to its old wonderfulness. Daniel is brought face to face with the fruit of his labors: the couple will forego the sacrament of marriage.
This isn't quite what he had intended.
"Excellent work," says Jesus.