Daniel debuts tonight

The Book of Daniel has its debut tonight at 9 EST on NBC. I have to say I have mixed feelings as I await the first two episodes.

On the one hand, I would really like the show to succeed. As the Rev. Susan Russell says “How cool is it that a progressive Episcopal priest has a shot at being a prime-time drama protagonist. How surprising might it be to many who tune in to find out there actually is a church where women can be bishops – clergy can be human – and there’s enough good news around to extend to everybody?”

If that is what the show is going to accomplish, I am all for it. But, I’m not certain the show can pull this off. I haven’t seen a single episode, but I’ve read eight scripts (Disclaimer: At one point a publisher had shown some interest in a study guide, and I was recruited as a possible writer. It didn’t work out, but I did get to see the scripts.) and I have my doubts.

The characters are more a collection of foibles in the early episodes than they are fully fleshed out human beings. And the bad habits are of the sort already overrepresented on television. This changes some as the season progresses and we begin to learn more about the Websters, but there are so many pathologies packed into this family’s life that there just isn’t time to unpack them all with any sensitivity. This over-the-top approach to plotting could work if it is played with a kind of cockeyed brio, but it could end up seeming simply calculated to shock. And if that is the case, I think it will offend people (other than those who make thier living by taking offense. And we’ve already had an earful from them.)

My larger concern is that Daniel will damage the cause of progressive Christianity by perpetuating the myth that people become “progressives” because they do not take matters of faith and morality seriously enough: They can’t live up to God’s standards, and so they set about softening them. This is a pernicious myth. Most of the people whom I know on the religious left have come by their convictions through hard experience, serious study and deep prayer. They manifest this in lives of service and compassion. That doesn’t necessarily mean their lives aren’t a mess, or that they don’t fail more often than they succeed, but these characteristics are not something on which liberals hold an exclusive franchise.

Reading “Daniel” as opposed to watching it, I couldn’t be certain whether the characters’ faith would seem essential to their existance, or simply idiosyncratic. And I couldn’t tell if the notion that faith informs–indeed, impels–action was developed with sufficient depth.

With all that said, I am eager to see the first two episodes tonight, and eager to hear what people have to say about them here on the blog. I think I will simply post an open thread along abut 8:45 and people can chime in with their reactions.

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