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.)
Similarly, when asked whether Jesus really needs to be in this show, he points to Dr. Melfi, noting she's not essential to the plot of "The Sopranos" but provides insight into Tony Soprano's thoughts that just isn't available elsewhere.
"He's not really talking to a living Jesus," says Kenny. "I think he's in Daniel's mind. We see him because Daniel would like to see him. This is Daniel's personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This is how it manifests itself. He talks to him, this is his way of praying: He's talking to his best friend, his brother, his pal, his partner."
Kenny knows he has to step very carefully in writing Jesus. He wants some of those scenes to have a sense of humor, but "without a sense of satire." In one moment in the pilot, Jesus tries to cheer up Daniel by inventing self-help book titles like "Jesus' Guide to a Comfortable Life" and "My Tuesdays With Jesus."
Kenny isn't shy about his own political beliefs, but insists that with this show, "I don't have a platform, I don't have a political idea. If the notion of abortion or gay rights or civil rights or anything was to come up, I would never have Jesus give an opinion about it. But I would have Jesus encourage Daniel to search his own soul for his opinion."
Amid all the recent talk of a culture war and red states vs. blue states, Kenny is acutely aware of the scrutiny he's going to face, both as the creator of a show about religion and as the out and proud creator of same.
"I pull from my own life, but I don't have a gay agenda. Peter is not me, to use an example. He's a conservative, middle-of-the-road Republican gay man, and that's not me."
Since the script first leaked out to the press a few months ago, Kenny has been reading the phrase "pill-popping priest" too often for his liking. "You can't take one aspect of a character and just hammer on it. We all have things in our personal lives where if people took that one thing and defined you by it, you would not be happy. That's not all you are. Daniel doesn't sit in a crack den pouring pills down his mouth. He just has a little problem with prescription painkillers. But we'll play that out, and he'll ultimately overcome it."
Though Kenny won't discuss it, NBC desperately needs a show like "The Book of Daniel"--well-written, impeccably cast and destined to push a whole lot of buttons--to make some noise after the network's fourth-place finish in the ratings this past season. Throughout the development process, the notes from NBC entertainment president Kevin Reilly focused almost entirely on minor details.
"And I said, `But Jesus, the Vicodin, the marijuana, that's all OK?' And he said, `Oh, yeah, yeah, that's fine."'
With months to go before the general public gets a look at his show, Kenny knows the temptation will be great to pass judgment just based on a plot synopsis. "Nothing Sacred," an ABC drama about an unconventional Catholic priest, was protested from the minute it was announced, and that one didn't have its main character having regular chats with the son of God.
"I want to write the Jesus that I think he'd be proud of," says Kenny. "I want to write him as the man who is the best part of Daniel, who's reminding Daniel how to live his life, who embodies Daniel's faith and his trust and love in people. That's who Jesus is to Daniel and who Jesus is to this show."