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DVD Review: The Book of Daniel

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Last January, NBC put on a show about an Episcopalian priest.  He had two sons, a daughter, a wife, and several other relatives. He also talked on a regular basis to Jesus.  I don’t mean that he prayed and asked Jesus for help, although he certainly did that as well. I mean that show had a character playing Jesus Christ and that the priest would have regular conversations with the character. 

Needless to say, it was a tough sell.  After airing just four one-hour episodes or three episodes, one of which was two hours long (it depends on how you count), the show was taken off the air. The show was well-written, had a good cast, including Aidan Quinn, Ellen Burstyn, and James Rebhorn, among others. But, for any number of reasons, from NBC’s having a bad season in general, to the list of problems of the priest’s family being too long, to simply getting a bad rap for having a priest talk to Jesus, it didn’t work out. 

The Book of Daniel will not go down in the history of television as a success. Tom Shales actually said of the show, “There ought to be a worse punishment than cancellation for a show that tries this hard to be offensive and, even at that crass task, manages to fail,” and that the show “just barely merits First Amendment protection.”

It is amazing that a simple television show can spark such a huge amount of vitriol and hatred. Two NBC affiliates refused to even air it, stating that their viewers were concerned about it being on the station — and this was before the first episode even premiered. How the viewers of the station could decide that the show was inappropriate before they ever saw it is completely a different issue, as is the fact that the affiliates backed off of the show in favor of listening to individuals that didn’t have first-hand knowledge of what they were complaining about. 

To be clear, The Book of Daniel is not bad television. Does Aidan Quinn’s character, Reverend Daniel Webster, have an addiction to painkillers? Yes. Is his father, a bishop (James Rebhorn’s character), having an affair with another bishop (played wonderfully by Ellen Burstyn)? Yes. Is one of the sons gay? Yes. Is the daughter a small-time pot dealer? Yes. Is the wife an alcoholic? Yes. Are these the reasons, and the fact that an actor was playing Jesus Christ, the reasons that there were huge protests? Probably. 

The question is: do these things make for bad television?  And to that, the answer is no.  If the characters didn’t have problems there would be nothing to watch on a weekly basis.  It is possible that there are a few too many issues here to truly deal with each in an effective way, but the show did a great job of handling them all, and was compelling to watch. 

Daniel Webster is unquestionably a troubled man, but that’s actually akin to the point of the show.  We are all troubled, and though we might aspire to the divine, we are humans and have frailty and flaws.  Rev. Webster may not have had troubles that we would want for a member of the clergy, but he aspired to be a better person and to help those around him however he could.  He preached love and understanding.  When tested he sometimes came up wanting, but who among us does not?  Daniel believed in a power greater than himself and tried to lead himself and those around him as best he could, in the way that he thought was right.  It’s actually a quite a positive message if people would take the time to look at it rather than just yelling at the top of their lungs.

I, for one, am thrilled that NBC and Universal Studios Home Entertainment released it to DVD.  I just wish that there were more episodes of it.

The DVD contains the four aired episodes (or three, one of which was two hours long, depending on how you count) and four unaired episodes and some deleted scenes.  Outside of the unaired episodes and the deleted scenes, there are no special features, an odd occurrence in this day and age of umpteen commentary tracks and production videos, etc.  The unaired episodes are listed on the DVD case as “Bonus Features,” but with under four hours of television that actually made network air, there isn’t much of a DVD without including the unaired episodes.

The digital transfers look great, and the menus are clean and easy to navigate.  It’s actually quite a Spartan release considering the at times over the top nature of the show.  Who knows — maybe after getting cancelled, Daniel reformed.  

The Book of Daniel is available on DVD as of September 26, 2006.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.