TV's New Religious Saga

'The Book of Daniel' depicts an Episcopal priest hooked on Vicodin who talks to Jesus--with a gay son and pot-dealing daughter.

BY: Alan Sepinwall
Religion News Service


Back when Jack Kenny was a good Catholic boy, he was taught to develop a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. So when he wrote a TV show about a troubled Episcopal priest, he made Jesus his main character's best friend.

In Kenny's "The Book of Daniel," which NBC just picked up for midseason, Aidan Quinn plays Connecticut-bred Daniel Webster. Daniel is a good minister and a good man, but that's not always enough to deal with his life. He's addicted to Vicodin. His wife, Judith, has frozen inside since one of their sons died of leukemia. His son, Peter, is gay. His daughter, Grace, is dealing marijuana to raise extra cash.

And in moments of great stress, Jesus (played by "Deadwood" alum Garret Dillahunt) turns up--in the passenger seat of Daniel's station wagon, in the bedroom hallway, outside the church--to offer his counsel.

So, yeah, "Book of Daniel" is going to be controversial, and that's even before you consider that Kenny is gay, and that homosexuality and religion have mixed lately like hair spray and a blow torch.

"I recognize there are going to be people who have an issue with a gay man writing about Jesus," Kenny says at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour. He adds, "I'm not making fun of Jesus. I never want to poke fun at religion or at Jesus. These characters are very spiritual people. They believe in God, they believe in Christ as their savior, and I think that's wonderful."

While his characters are devout, Kenny's own feelings toward Christ and organized religion are more complicated. He is, as he puts it, "in Catholic recovery," is interested in Buddhist teachings about reincarnation, and isn't sure exactly how he defines God and/or Jesus.

"I'm a spiritual person," he says. "I don't know specifically what's going on up there. I think there must be something going on, whether it's an energy we're all connected to or an old white man with a beard and a robe.

"I do believe in Jesus. I don't necessarily know that all the myth surrounding him is true, but I read his teachings, and I think he was a great teacher and a wonderful philosopher. I think he had a great idea: `Love thy neighbor.' There's nothing wrong with that."

Kenny's mother was Cuban and his father Irish Catholic, and they had different commitments to the church. Kenny remembers watching his mother receive Communion while his father, weary from a childhood of daily Mass, would stand outside smoking a cigarette. In his teens, Kenny found himself drifting from the church, a process accelerated by the growing realization he was gay.

"Once I got into college, I didn't go anymore," he recalls. "The Catholic Church is very obviously not accepting of homosexuals, so if they're not going to want me in their doors, I don't want to bother them with it."

Twenty-three years ago, he began a relationship with Michael Goodell, who remains his partner to this day. Kenny was fascinated by Goodell's contradictory family: emotionally closed-off Republicans who were also socially liberal and welcoming to him. He became just as fascinated by their participation in the Episcopal Church, which he found more liberal and tolerant than Catholicism.

Daniel's family was very loosely inspired by Goodell's--"None of them are addicted to Vicodin, but there is a lot of behavior that is exciting to me in that world"--and he has studied them closely to get the Websters' interactions just right.

"This is a real good definition of Episcopalian: Michael once said to his mother, `God bless you, Mommy,' and she said, `We don't say that. We don't proselytize. Just keep that to yourself. Order another martini and keep it quiet. Don't run around blessing everybody."'

(For details on Daniel's work life, Kenny consults with two ministers at All Saints Church in Pasadena, an Episcopal parish.)

"He's not really talking to a living Jesus."

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