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..."

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  • "It would have to be pretty bland not to offend anyone," says Ellen Burstyn, who plays Bishop Beatrice Congreve. "The whole idea of doing a series where the context allowed for the exploration of some moral issues and a look at our values in 2005 in America seemed like a worthy playground to play in."

    Burstyn says she was attracted to the idea of playing a character who is "both political and spiritual."

    "She's someone who is not only a spiritual leader, but she's somebody who has risen through the crystal ceiling of the hierarchy of the church," she says. "I liked the idea of playing a bishop, because I think other churches need to be encouraged to think of women as part of the hierarchy, and the more we can put that out there in the consciousness, I think it's a good thing."

    That "Daniel" is set in an Episcopal church, rather than in some unnamed Protestant community, was a deliberate choice by Kenny, the series' creator, Quinn says.

    "His being impressed with the Episcopalian church and their inclusiveness and the conflict that's going on within it as far as social issues, I think, is what attracted him to set this family in the midst of that church," Quinn says.

    To get the details right--especially for scenes that take place during worship--Kenny consulted with an Episcopal priest. But, the actors say, viewers shouldn't get too caught up in the Episcoplian setting.

    "I think the details of the Episcopal church are imperative, but I think the rest of it is very universal in terms of religion, spirituality, and faith being a back-drop," says Susanna Thompson, who plays Judith, Daniel's wife.

    Her character remains haunted by the death of their son Jim, often turning to alcohol for solace. As a pastor's wife, she has a public role in the church, and also takes steps to start working outside of their home for the first time in many years.

    "In terms of the spirituality and faith, I don't think it's any different than most of us living our lives, aside from the very public side of her, through her husband," Thompson says of playing a pastor's wife. "She's been through a lot of loss, and I think that certainly, through that journey, most humans go through a testing of faith and spirituality, so I think it's constantly challenged in her, but I think it's always a place to come back to."

    And in addition to the show's church politics, sexual intrigue, and family crises, "The Book of Daniel" leaves room for the characters to develop their own spiritual lives. It depicts the complicated, often testy, relationship between the bishop and the priest, the leaders who set the tone for their faith community.

    "Very often, because she's Daniel's boss, she's correcting him and is in a kind of authoritative position over him," Burstyn says. "But we have had moments in the series, in certain episodes, where we do connect on a spiritual level, where Daniel actually turns to me for solace and comfort."

    Consulting with members of the clergy in preparation for her role, Burstyn says she learned much more than the technicalities of Episcopalian worship--the experience taught her what it means to "go into religion as a profession."

    "Not only throughout life, but throughout each day and each moment, they're always trying to stay true to their inner voice," she says. "They're always trying to connect to what is morally right, with each momentary choice, no matter how small it is."

    But at the same time, Burstyn continues, she learned that pastors cannot just focus on their internal lives and personal spirituality.

    "The other impulse is always to be going out and thinking of others, to be sharing whatever grace can be found and to be thinking in terms of helping others. So it's like a two-way direction all the time, checking each moment for inner guidance and reaching out in each moment and forgetting self and helping others," Burstyn says.

    It's a combination that these actors hope will imbue their characters with depth and meaning--and give them high enough ratings to ensure that "The Book of Daniel" is inscribed in NBC's Book of TV Life for a long time.

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