"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

TV Show of Daniel

I finally finished watching The Book of Daniel, the new NBC-TV program that has raised the ire of conservatives and religious folk. It was rather difficult to achieve—the watching, that is—because of the show's glaring weakness: it is terribly arch and tendentious, and its author's obvious (too-obvious) intentions contradict one another. That is to say, my objections to the show are aesthetic.

Unlike most of the program's detractors, I didn't find it to be antireligious or anti-Christian. It certainly painted an unflattering picture of organized religion, but I didn't see that as being the point of the show, nor did I see it as being what most viewers would take away from the program if viewing it fairly. What the show's creator was apparently trying to do was make a Desperate Housewives knockoff set in Westchester County, and actually to emphasize the moral content by including a religious setting.

The latter decision was a huge mistake, however, because the moral content of Desperate Housewives is perfectly obvious to anyone this side of a psychopath, and hence does not need enhancement; and, perhaps more importantly, because the creator also clearly had another thing in mind which conflicts with the moral analysis. He wishes to transform our notion of morality: to place tolerance, kindness, and other such yummy things atop the moral pyramid and make them dispositive in all cases.

That may in fact be a fair picture of the atmosphere within a liberal Episcopalian church in Westchester County, but it waters down the significance of the characters' choices into nothing. If tolerance is the most important thing, what exactly is the significance of what any of these characters do? When one person causes another to suffer, that's just the price we have to pay in order to have a world in which others won't judge our actions. We cannot judge, lest we be judged. Of course, that leads to a situation in which a sort of Gresham's Law of Morality applies: bad behavior pushes out the good.

The Book of Daniel reflects exactly that process: these characters, who have grown up in a world of tolerance and a nurturing of whatever appears to be genuine in a person, do what they bloody well please as long as they think they can get away with it. This, however, kills any possible drama. Given that nearly all of the people depicted in the program are hypocritical, snide, selfish, morally obtuse, and utterly charmless, there is nothing with which to contrast the bad behavior. After all, every Lovelace needs his Clarissa: moral perfidy committed against other morally corrupt individuals is not so very interesting, especially in the rarefied atmosphere of this fictional Westchester County, where the great majority of the suffering appears to be self-imposed. The characters are dull, flat, and lifeless because their choices do not matter.

And that, of course, makes for bad drama—really, no drama at all.

As a result, The Book of Daniel commits the cardinal sin of failed entertainment: it is a bore.

4 comments:

mdvoutlook.com said...

Sam, Thanks for the review. Your insights, as always, appear right on the mark. In trying to watch the show I couldn't put my finger on why it was so boring. But now I see! No moral tension. It's funny to have read certain critics who claimed that the show was "edgy," which I guess for them means religious people doing bad things. I agree that the show wasn't anti-religious or anti-Christian per se, but it certainly made Christianity appear as something it isn't. The gospel of tolerance is not something the Apostle Paul would have endured kindly. But then he never had to endure TV either.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thanks, Sam. One cannot have a comedy of manners where no manners exist.

S. T. Karnick said...

Thanks, Mike, and thanks, Tom. Your observations are right on the mark.

James Elliott said...

Without getting into the interesting moral discussion you raise a specter of, you're quite right. The real reason people should be up in arms about "The Book of Daniel" is that it is bad television.