Ellen Burstyn as the bishop, Garret Dillahunt as Jesus, Aidan Quinn as the priest, and Susanna Thompson as his wife.

Just in time for "Seventh Heaven" to depart for TV heaven, here comes a new hour-long weekly drama about a minister and his family. But don't expect NBC's "The Book of Daniel" to be a clone of the WB's saccharine-sweet "Heaven." The new series focuses on the Rev. Daniel Webster, an Episcopal priest (played by Aidan Quinn) who is coping with the difficulties of dealing with his church's needs, demanding parishioners, and ecclesiastical superiors--while also navigating the challenges of a close-knit but troubled family.

"I think what's delightful about the character is partly his struggles and his flaws," Quinn says in an interview with reporters. "Daniel is, I think, openly neurotic, but has a good sense of humor and is a decent man that has a desire to do the right thing and to evolve spiritually, but he's got miles to go before he sleeps.

You can call it "Seventh Heaven" meets "Desperate Housewives."

In just the first episode, we're introduced to Daniel--priest, husband, father, and Vicodin addict, who has regular conversations with Jesus; his wife, who likes her martinis a bit too much; his 16-year-old daughter, who was arrested for dealing pot; his stern father, who is himself a bishop; and his mother, who's suffering from Alzheimer's. And then there are his sons: the adopted-from-China teen-aged ladies' man and the 23-year-old gay cancer-researcher in training. The family lost another child to leukemia. And $3.5 million is missing from the parish's bank account. And there's plenty of sleeping around. And... you get the point.

Despite the soap-opera elements, Quinn calls "The Book of Daniel" "wholesome," saying it addressing its edgy subject matter responsibly. Whatever their misdoings, he says, these characters will always be striving to transcend their weaknesses.

"We're all such flawed humans, it gives us a long way to go," Quinn says of the characters. "I wouldn't want to begin this journey without thinking we would succeed in our desires to become better, more Christ-like, better Christians, more loving. That is what each and every one of these characters really desires for themselves and their loved ones."

Speaking of Christ, the son of God himself makes frequent appearances on "The Book of Daniel." Jesus, played by Garret Dillahunt and seen only by Daniel, acts as a confidante who dispenses wisdom and wisecracks. But Christ's appearances are not intended to be some kind of prophetic experience for the priest; they're not intended to be taken literally at all.

"Talking to Jesus is really kind of Daniel's imagination of what an internal dialogue with Jesus would be like, and it's fraught with all of Daniel's limitations," Quinn says.

Sill, perhaps inevitably, at least one Christian organizations is already protesting "Daniel." The show's depiction of Christ is just one detail that's got the American Family Association (AFA), headed by the Rev. Donald Wildmon, urging followers to email NBC to voice their objections. On its website, the AFA says the show "mocks" and "demeans" Christianity.

"NBC and the mainstream media call it 'edgy,' 'challenging,' and 'courageous,'" a statement on the website says. "The series is written by Jack Kenny, a practicing homosexual who describes himself as being 'in Catholic recovery,' and is interested in Buddhist teachings about reincarnation and isn't sure exactly how he defines God and/or Jesus.... NBC considers "The Book of Daniel" a positive portrayal of Christ and Christians."

Kenny acknowledges that "there are going to be people who have an issue with a gay man writing about Jesus," according to Religion News Service.

"I'm not making fun of Jesus. I never want to poke fun at religion or at Jesus," he reportedly said. "These characters are very spiritual people. They believe in God, they believe in Christ as their savior, and I think that's wonderful."

The show's stars say they expect controversy, but they hope the series sparks discussion about difficult and divisive issues. (They spoke with reporters before the AFA campaign was launched.)

"It would have to be pretty bland not to offend anyone..."

_Related Features
  • An Episcopal Priest Reviews "The Book of Daniel"
  • Audio: Ellen Burstyn on Pastors
  • Small-Screen Spirituality