Monday, January 09, 2006

The Book of Daniel

I was just listening to some local talk radio on the way home. The show was sort of like the Drudge Report; in fact, the host and Matt Drudge sound so similar to me, I think I've mistaken their two shows on several occasions, now that I reflect.

The host spent a few minutes talking about the religious drama that recently premiered, "The Book of Daniel," about an Episcopalian priest with a Vicodin problem, a promiscuous son, a drug peddling daughter, and a distant, apparently alcoholic wife. I probably have some of the details wrong. One aspect I found interesting-it could make for some outstanding television, but is full of trapdoors-was the propensity for Daniel, the priest, to have imaginary (so I gather) conversations with Jesus, who in the show actually appears and talks to Daniel...or Daniel imagines it and we get to watch like it's real. Whichever.

The host commented that four network affiliates elected not to air the program, citing concern about anti-Christian bigotry, and said he personally didn't see anything offensive. Sure enough, the first caller was irate, and tried in vain to explain how a profoundly flawed (in terms of character, not necessarily accuracy) portrayal of Christians doesn't do anybody any good.

Of course, the caller had lost his cool, and tried to beat the show's host at his own brash game, and that's a game callers will lose even if they win, so he wasn't going to get much beyond reinforcing the stereotype that Christians in America have a persecution complex and demand especially kind treatment in the public eye. Nevertheless, the caller made a good point, which got drowned out particularly because, I think, it was a valid comparison.

He started out by asking the host if he would have been so blasé if the show had been about an all-black family, where the parents weren't married, one child was a drug peddler, maybe the other a streetwalker or something. The host said "Why don't you stick to the question at hand?" Seems to me "Would or should you feel differently about the content of the show if its concept were slightly different?" is an entirely fair and pertinent question to ask, regardless of whether the caller would like the answer or not. It seems less than respectable to me to dismiss rhetorical questions half-asked, if he's going to bother allowing callers on the air at all, but my point is not about how the guy should run his show.

I'd rather consider the caller's question. Generally, I'd agree with the answer he gave for himself: such a show should only qualify as entertainment in the basest sense. Sure, most of us have faced at least one of the problems manifest in Daniel's family, and many of us have faced more. The host had a good point here, as well. A show doesn't have to be bad just for addressing these issues. I don't think it's honest, though, to write off Daniel as "Desperate Housewives" caliber fare and then say it wouldn't be the same as if HBO were doing a poignant remake of "Good Times."

Maybe it shouldn't be counted as satire at all. I've only seen snippets of the show, and I've only read other people's opinions, so I will refrain from judging, although by now I trust you know me well enough not to take it personally if I speculate and hypothesize a bit.

Maybe the show's not supposed to be satire. I wouldn't be surprised; satire requires a certain degree of openmindedness and intellectual participation on the part of the audience, and while some other things put out by the MSM (mainstream media, in case anyone forgot the TLA) call for the former, just about none calls for the latter anymore.

I think the root of the problem lies in what I call the ER Effect. A nurse with whom I am acquainted once said that the show "ER" is realistic in that all the things that happen there happen in a real emergency room; however, what transpires over the course of the show's one hour, that makes for good and dramatically intense television, usually is spread over the course of maybe a week in the real world. It'd depend somewhat on the size of the city and the dangerousness of the neighborhood, of course.

Thus, in an attempt to build in some plot thickeners, NBC gave every major character in "Book of Daniel" a serious problem. Bingo: instant story fodder for several seasons. Unfortunately, it seems like NBC tried to streamline or condense things a bit too much.

I don't have a problem with densifying society's problems, as the show tried to do. It's good television. However, was it necessary to give each member of Daniel's family a major problem? Would it not have sufficed to have Daniel actually trying to help parishoners who had drug or marital problems, instead of getting out of his dysfunctional home to play golf with the jerks in his congregation now and then? I'm sure the show does deal with Daniel trying to shepherd his flock, but sometimes it seems even to me that there was someone up the pipe who deliberately decided to make this "representative" Christian family a lot crazier than average. It's not apparent to me--and to be fair, I will remind you that most of what I think I know does not come firsthand--that any of Daniel's family is even struggling to overcome their problems. Daniel seems to worry about them, but I wouldn't be surprised if he relied on his Vicodin more than his Jesus. It doesn't even sound like these characters are terribly sympathetic, let alone interesting. I can watch "Friends" and see them struggle with and get laughs out of Ross' dumbassery, or Monica's compulsive neatness, but here? We're merely told that drug dealers and statutory rapists are flat-out good folks. Well, okay, guess I don't have to seriously consider any conflict between behavior and these pronouncements over the course of the show, since I'm told otherwise by the show itself. Seems about as realistic and plot-driven (and vapid, if I had to make a qualitative evaluation) as any reality show you could name.

In short, sure, Daniel's family and life are sort of a microcosm of the human condition in contemporary America, but they're profoundly dysfunctional. Like it or not, satire or not, deliberate or not, NBC is saying that Daniel's family is in some way representative of Christian families, and Christians are rightly getting tired of being dismissed out of hand for being hypocritical nutcases, or whatever the implied condemnation is.

I can remember when a "religious freak" was someone who would come to your house and then pray in your closet, or who would kill people they disagreed with and/or themselves in order to protest something. Nowadays, it seems like all you have to do is go to church much more often than twice a year. No, personally it's not that bad, but it's rare that I can open a magazine or turn on the TV and see a devout person, outside of an interview or documentary, portrayed as competent, let alone well balanced. The apologists for this kind of thing like to point out that Christians are flawed too, and it's interesting to see these folks with an alleged inside track on grace to deal with things like the rest of us (if only they had some writers who could accurately portray such a situation!), but I can't shake the feeling of familiarity with trolls who instigate flame wars for their own satisfaction and then hide behind a rationale of only trying to bring light to a problem that everyone else is repressing rather than solving.

Which is not to say that Christians shouldn't develop tougher skins. If you dislike "Daniel" for any reason, personal religious offense or insipid programming or something else, you have the right to boycott the show and the network, and to write to NBC and tell them how you feel; and you should; NBC, like every other network, does not owe deference to anyone by default, but they should be making well-informed programming decisions. However, we can't be flying off the handle at every little injustice. Abortion? Sure, get upset there, but remember that some people don't agree, and will have a hard time understanding why you're angry or sad over different aspects of the controversy than they are. A TV show? Eh, maybe pick a different battle to take personally. A defamatory trend in the MSM needs to be treated gravely, but no single instance is going to save or damn us by itself, so acting like it will would be more harmful than helpful. That way lies splitting a congregation over the recarpeting plan for the sanctuary and demanding that cartoon pigs not be depicted in pop art.

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