Created by Jack Kenny
Produced by NBC Universal Television, Sony Pictures Television
Aired on NBC for 1 season (8 episodes, 4 unaired) from January 6, 2006 – January 20, 2006
Aidan Quinn as Reverend Daniel Webster
Susanna Thompson as Judith Webster
Christian Campbell as Peter Webster
Alison Pill as Grace
Ivan Shaw as Adam
Ellen Burstyn as Bishop Beatrice Congreve
Episcopalian Christian minister Daniel Webster has a special relationship with Jesus Christ, in that he can literally see and talk to him. Daniel’s life is difficult and not even visitations from the son of God are enough to assuage his pain, which has him addicted to narcotic painkillers. The series begins a year after one of his twin sons has departed from suffering from leukemia. This event may’ve been the cause of Daniel’s drug intake and also why his wife is a functioning alcoholic. They have three children: one daughter who was caught selling marijuana, which has the entire small fictional town of Newbury gossiping, an adopted son who is unequivocally a male slut, and lastly their surviving twin son who is hiding his homosexuality from his grandfather.
The series is reigned in and focused with all of its characters interconnected, making the show heavily serialized and soap operatic. Although the storytelling twists seem soapy, the performances and the staging are handled honestly making for a show that is light and comedic as well as dark and tragic. Overall there is a sense of hope and whimsy that makes this series entertaining and compelling.
The series was created by sitcom writer Jack Kenny, who wrote Book of Daniel as a writing sample to open him up to more dramatic work. The series was then bought by NBC in 2004 and put into production in 2005 for a fall premiere, only to be pushed back to midseason. When it debuted in January of 2006, the series was met with protests from Christian groups about its portrayal of religion. The controversy caused many advertisers to back away from the show and some stations refused to even air the series in their local affiliate stations, giving the series copious amounts of bad press and overshadowing its two hour premiere. The series drew low ratings on its Friday night timeslot and was then canceled after only three weeks. There were eight episodes produced that were made available online, via web streaming, once a week until the episodes were depleted.
Although the series had low ratings, the critics that actually watched it appreciated its clever writing and strong cast as well as its handling of religious material. The controversy that sunk the series was misguided; The Book of Daniel was never entirely about religion, it was more about family. For whatever reason, Christian religious groups thought it would characterize Christians unfairly and glorify homosexual conduct. Anyone who actually watched the show would see that it does nothing of the sort, but it was torpedoed anyway.
From the pilot, it is very clear that the show’s main theme is family. This is strongly felt in the scene where Daniel and his wife drive their daughter home after picking her up from jail for selling marijuana. The mother, played by Susanna Thompson, begins her spiel to their guilt-ridden daughter (Alison Pill), causing her to lash back which builds to a boiling point that brings Daniel, Aiden Quinn in a great shining performance of restraint anger, to shout them both down and exclaim to their daughter how rare it is to have a “normal” family. The show’s premise is right there, that even in what can be considered the most functional of families, there are still complexities that cause them problems. The Websters are the ideal American family on the surface but underneath they have problems that cause them to make mistakes and have complicated moral values.
One of the possibly controversial aspects of the series is the relationship that Daniel has with Jesus. Daniel consults with the savior, played by Garrett Dillahunt, who is very cryptic yet understanding and forgiving. If this is not the kind of Jesus portrayal that Christians want to see, then who knows what they would consider an accurate depiction. This aspect of the show, although at times interesting, could have been easily removed as it is the weakest part of the show. Dillahunt’s character is simply a narrative device for Daniel to explore his morality and understand what he knows is right, either denying or accepting it. The idea that Daniel can actually see Jesus has its cache drained fairly quickly into the series, as the stories of the individual characters become more interesting.
The theme of family is, as stated earlier, a very important idea explored on this series as the family deals with tragedy, death, betrayal and injustice. One of the strongest aspects of the show is the strong cast and their familial dynamics. The parents have a great relationship that isn’t mired by their individual vices; they support each other at every turn and teach their values to their kids. The show understands the significance of the family bond and why it’s important to maintain it, even when that means dealing with a flighty, prone-to-crying sister and her thieving husband. There are times when Daniel gives the benefit of the doubt to family even when evidence proves otherwise.
Along with its well-written scripts, the series had a great main and supporting cast. It’s no wonder Aiden Quinn took on this role: there are many layers to the character and he does an excellent job showing them. Susanna Thompson is great as Judith, turning in a delightful mother character and delivering a lot of fun interplay whether it is with Daniel, her wacky sister, her controlling mother, or her disobedient daughter. Christian Campbell is given a bit of an unusual arc to play but a lot of variety, as he portrays both Peter and Jimmy Webster. Much of Peter’s arc is about hiding his homosexuality from his grandfather, who is a former Bishop of their church who has set him up to date the daughter of the current Bishop, when he would rather date her brother. Campbell plays the role as grounded and the comedy of his situation is all the better for it, but he is at his best during his dramatic turns. Also featured is a young Alison Pill, who is incredibly enjoyable on this series; she is given an arc which ends up shining a light on the “medical marijuana” issue. Rounding out the family is Ivan Shaw as the adopted son, who brings a lot of charm along with his, at times, mischievous character.
With only eight episodes, the series only started to scratch the surface of this family and their community, a variety of secondary or cameo appearances from such talent as Dylan Baker, James Rebhorn, Gillian Jacobs, Kelly Hu, D.W. Moffat, Dan Hedeya, and Enver Gjokaj. The world building was very well done on this series and if it had continued, the show would’ve only had that much more of a wonderful cast and characters to populate it.
Although this show did get a DVD release, it is still frequently overlooked and there is no real reason why it should be. It found itself in obscurity due to the controversy that led to its demise, but that doesn’t diminish the quality of work by the creative team. It is a show that was intelligently written and filled with compelling characters that were fully dimensional and unified within its narrative. I would recommend checking into The Book of Daniel if you haven’t seen it before and even if you have, it’s worth revisiting, as there is much to appreciate about this show.
After the series concluded, Jack Kenny went on to become the show runner of SyFy series Warehouse 13.
Aidan Quinn followed up this show with short-lived roles on Canterbury’s Law (2008) and Prime Suspect (2011) and is currently a series regular on CBS’s Elementary (2012).
Christian Campbell would go on to have small guest spots on shows like CSI: NY (2007), Ghost Whisperer (2008), and NCIS (2008), a reoccurring role in Big Love (2011), and can next be seen on the second season of HBO’s True Detective (2014).
Alison Pill went on to be a featured patient on the second season of HBO’s In Treatment (2008), a main character on HBO’s The Newsroom (2012), and will be in the upcoming TV movie Original Sin.
The complete series is available on a 2 disc DVD set with interactive menus and an enlightening amount of deleted scenes for certain episodes.
The DVD is available for purchase.
There are full episodes available to stream.