When things get tough, many Christians ask themselves, What would Jesus do? The Rev. Daniel Webster goes straight to the source: the dude with the beard, flowing hair and robe who rides shotgun in his car. "Let it play out," comes the answer from the Son of God. Then he adds, "You're tailgating."
Daniel (Aidan Quinn), an Episcopal priest in an affluent New York City suburb, has a lot to talk about. His son Jimmy has died of leukemia; son Peter (Christian Campbell) is gay; adopted son Adam (Ivan Shaw) is bedding the teenage daughter of an influential parishioner. Daniel's daughter Grace (Alison Pill) was busted for dealing pot. His mother has Alzheimer's. His boss the bishop (Ellen Burstyn) has been riding him. His brother-in-law has disappeared with $3 million of church money. To take the edge off, Daniel has been turning not only to Jesus (Garret Dillahunt) but also to a stash of Vicodin pills. Father knows best? More like Father has a little helper.
After President Bush was re-elected with the support of traditionalist Christians, there was much talk about how Hollywood could attract them. Suffice it to say The Book of Daniel (NBC, Fridays, 10 p.m. E.T.; debuts 9 p.m. E.T., Jan. 6) does not exactly lay out the welcome mat. Its content--did I forget to mention his sister-in-law's lesbian affair? his wife's martini habit? the adulterous bishops?--has already drawn the ire of the American Family Association (AFA), a conservative cultural watchdog group, which charged that the show "mocks Christianity." (Or that at least the promos do; the group had not yet seen, or requested, a screener from NBC.) NBC entertainment president Kevin Reilly says it's a funny but ultimately sincere family drama, though he notes that he expects "there will be a mixed reaction to it."
Past TV executives would have had an unmixed reaction to Daniel: Are you nuts? Outside 700 Club territory, religion on TV has usually been soft-pedaled or protested. In 1997-98, ABC's button-pushing Nothing Sacred, about a rebellious young priest, was quickly canceled. Touched by an Angel was only vaguely spiritual. The God who spoke to Joan of Arcadia was carefully nondenominational. The WB's genial 7th Heaven, about a minister and his family, has been the network's highest-rated show for most of its 10-season run but has never got the hype of edgier shows like Everwood. Asks creator Brenda Hampton: "How do you promote, 'This week, Ruthie respects her parents'?"
Today, however, polarizing is not always bad. The Passion of the Christ was $370 million domestic gross' worth of polarizing. And religion--specific, fraught, inflaming religion--can make for involving stories. In March HBO debuts Big Love, about fundamentalist polygamists in Utah. Devout Christian characters have shown up in ensembles from TNT's Wanted to CBS's Threshold. On FX's Rescue Me, Denis Leary's self-destructive firefighter has recurrent talks with--Zeitgeist alert!--Jesus. "I don't know who his agent is," says Rescue Me co-creator Peter Tolan, "but he's cleaning up this year."