A flawed but goodhearted priest, the Daniel of “The Book of Daniel” travels in heavily medicated circles for network TV. He pops pills, his wife swigs martinis, and his teenage daughter gets caught peddling pot. In between, the title character finds time to commiserate with Jesus, who shrugs and says things like, “I didn’t see that coming.” Whimsical and busy, “Daniel” is overly ambitious but highly watchable, with an interlocking web of smart-ass, squabbling but ultimately loving characters. As for the prospect of viewers flocking to its Friday slot, well, let us pray.
Indeed, given the night and NBC’s recent history there, the net is doubtless hoping “Daniel’s” subject matter irks enough loudmouths to generate controversy, a dubious strategy at best. Barring such blessings, getting an audience committed to a serialized dramedy presents a thorny challenge, which is perhaps why “Daniel” is receiving a trial run now, with an inevitable interruption once the Olympics skate to NBC’s rescue.
Setting such worldly considerations aside, series creator Jack Kenny has laid the soapy elements on thick and still managed to create an appealing little world, beginning with Aidan Quinn as the very, very set-upon reverend, Daniel Webster, who definitely finds that the devil is in the details.
In short order, Daniel’s daughter Grace (Alison Pill) is arrested selling marijuana, and he learns his brother-in-law might have absconded with millions raised to build a new church school.
Ah, but that’s just for starters. The Websters’ adopted Chinese son Adam (Ivan Shaw) is bedding the teenage daughter of one of the church’s most well-heeled (and bigoted) benefactors (Dylan Baker). And their 23-year-old son Peter (Christian Campbell) is saintly but gay as only TV gays can be, a fact Daniel hasn’t yet explained to his father (James Rebhorn), who wants to find Peter a nice girl.
The snarky banter among the kids, in particular, at times feels too precious, but there’s plenty of life, surprisingly, in Daniel’s regular exchanges with Jesus (“Deadwood’s” Garret Dillahunt), who offers cryptic advice but stops short of proffering solutions. When Daniel asks if he’s privy to these sessions because he’s “chosen,” Jesus brightly assures him, “I talk to everybody.”
Perhaps foremost, the producers have assembled a top-notch cast, including Susanna Thompson as Daniel’s wife, Dan Hedaya as a Catholic priest with somewhat shady connections and Ellen Burstyn as the bishop, who isn’t above sampling from Daniel’s pill chest. In that respect, the series’ casual drug use — an area that, more than sex and violence, represents a point of departure for cable — extends beyond where most network series dare to tread.
Still, there’s an underlying message in all of this — namely, that everyone, the reverend included, is human and struggling to do right, however crazy and mixed up they might be.
NBC, meanwhile, continues to dabble in theology, following last spring’s “Revelations” with the faith-based reality show “Three Wishes” and now this somewhat sharper foray around the fringes of the New Testament. Frankly, I thought God was CBS’ go-to guy, but given the uphill battle NBC is facing, it’s hard to blame the Peacock net for seeking salvation through a higher power.