Pick Better Fights

Every so often, B&C gets letters from readers who somehow believe we are a network ourselves. We got one last week from a woman, who identified herself only as Eileen, upset about NBC’s new limited series, The Book of Daniel.

She wrote: “No doubt you are in an extremely busy position, but I am, nonetheless, sending this e-mail to 'anybody’ at NBC about how outraged I am about this show you are airing Friday night. It is a slap in God’s face. Total blasphemy, if you will. What a sick person to write about an addicted priest, alcoholic wife, homosexual son, a teen drug-dealing daughter, an adopted teen who is having sex with a bishop’s daughter, and, lastly, a lesbian secretary who is sleeping with the bishop’s sister-in-law. How low do I think all this is? The underside of the dung pile.”

Well. She forgot to mention that the addicted Episcopalian priest’s father, a bishop with a wife who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, is having an affair with a female bishop. Or that there was a very cheap joke made at the expense of the wife suffering from that horrible disease. Or that a Catholic priest is depicted as being connected to the Mafia. Or that the sister-in-law’s husband, we eventually learn, was found dead, naked in a hotel room, with objects stuck up his rectum.

As B&C readers know, we have no objection to edgy and provocative programming and wish there was more of it. And we encourage television’s fair depiction of men and women of all sexual orientations. The gay son is, in fact, the most likable character in the series.

But The Book of Daniel, rather than presenting a drama with a bold, contemporary storyline, created a bunch of characters and situations that probably offended viewers of many faiths, and seemingly did it just for the sport of it. Any surprise from producers at the reaction from the Bible Belt would have to be feigned. The Book of Daniel boasts more red flags than a bullfighter’s convention.

It should have offended other intelligent viewers just because of the series’ juvenile “aren’t-we-naughty?” sensibility. It dared its audience to take offense, and some did. But this was not The Shield or Nip/Tuck or even Desperate Housewives, all of which challenge viewers with situations television usually avoids.

It would be comforting if Daniel were NBC’s way of pushing back against the efforts in Washington to micro­manage content. If that is so, the network had the right intention but took the wrong way to go about it.

The handful of stations that decided not to air the show may have done so in part because of the inevitable campaign ginned up against Daniel by the American Family Association, but stations may have just decided that airing it would be needlessly offensive to their audience.

The show’s premiere languished in the Nielsens, and for the first week, at least, there seemed to be lots of unsold commercial time. NBC nonetheless defended the show as a “quality drama.”

Not so far. We abhor censorship and attempts to regulate content, but Daniel is fuel for zealots in attack mode. What is particularly irksome is that the sanctimonious leaders of AFA get to crow and those who would choose which programming we should watch get a pat on the back that they don’t deserve.