NBC Pairs Jesus, Pill-Popping Priest in TV Pilot

Burbank, USA - NBC, praying for new hits as it weathers a post-"Friends" ratings slump, may soon be bringing Jesus to prime time -- not as a biblical miracle worker, but as a modern-day private savior for a pill-popping priest.

That's the scenario for "The Book of Daniel," one of several pilot dramas developed at NBC as possible additions to its 2005-2006 schedule and showcased on Thursday at a gathering for advertisers.

Other high-concept dramas on NBC's development slate include the undersea monster thriller "Fathom" and two shows dealing with America's war on terror -- "World of Trouble" and "The E-Ring." Benjamin Bratt (news) and Dennis Hopper star as Pentagon-based guardians of homeland security in "The E-Ring."

"Daniel" is one project that NBC Entertainment President Kevin Reilly said he is particularly excited about, citing it as a prime example of his big new watchword in program development -- "fresh."

"I like that it's slightly provocative," he told Reuters. "We did realize that we're in uncharted waters. ... It certainly stirs people's passions and stirs opinions, and if we do it right, with quality, I think there's millions and millions of people who would say, 'Hey, that's what I've been looking for on television."'


Reilly said NBC was inspired in part by the runaway success of religion-themed novels like the "Left Behind" series and Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ."

"Daniel," however, is a far cry from "Passion" or the conventional Easter-season TV specials that portray Christ in a biblical context.

According to NBC's promotional materials, its pilot drama depicts Jesus as a "contemporary, cool" figure who appears as a personal confidant to an Episcopal minister named Daniel Webster (Aidan Quinn), who in turn is wrestling with family issues and a dependence on prescription pills. The cast co-stars Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn as Daniel's church superior and newcomer Garrett Dillahunt as Jesus.

"Daniel" also is a departure from the more wholesome spirituality offered by such shows as "Touched by an Angel" and "Highway to Heaven."

And therein lies the challenge for NBC -- finding the right balance between breakout hit and blasphemy.

"It's all about execution," said Stacey Lynn Koerner, an executive at the New York-based media buying agency Initiative. "This is a show that plays to the heart of Middle America. ... If it's too provocative, you won't get Middle America. They'll find it sacrilegious."

Such was the case with NBC's animated religious spoof "God, the Devil and Bob," which angered many Christians and flopped several years ago.

"Daniel" is hardly NBC's only recent foray into shows about God, faith and the afterlife.

The network's newest prime-time success is "Medium," which stars Patricia Arquette as a suburban housewife who helps solve crimes by communicating with the dead.

And next month, NBC will debut its six-part apocalyptic thriller "Revelations," starring Bill Pullman as a scientist who teams up with a nun to try to thwart Armageddon.

As NBC struggles to climb out of the ratings doldrums that followed the departure last season of long-running comedy favorites "Friends" and "Frasier," Reilly's credo for developing new shows is "make it fresh," he told advertisers.