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Family dysfunction of biblical proportions

So famously secular, Hollywood learned a few lessons from the box office success of Mel Gibson's ''The Passion of the Christ." Turns out there's a market for Jesus in American entertainment, and not just in politics. People waiting for tickets to heaven will actually buy tickets to movies in the meantime, to the tune of $370 million. And, just maybe, those same consumers will tune into a TV series that doesn't involve Pat Robertson.

But NBC's ''The Book of Daniel" can't be the fruit of that knowledge. This nighttime soap, which premieres tonight at 9 on Channel 7, appears to be more influenced by ''Desperate Housewives" and ''Six Feet Under" than by the Second Coming. Yes, Jesus (Garret Dillahunt) is on board, as an imaginary friend to Aidan Quinn's Episcopal priest, but he doesn't have much to say. He's not the Dark Brooding Jesus of ''Rescue Me." He's Mellow Hippie Dude Jesus, who gazes at clouds and playfully chides his pal: ''Oh Daniel, we've been over this," he sighs. ''I'm not a fortuneteller." He and Quinn's Rev. Daniel Webster hang out like a pair of ''Big Chill"-ers rehashing baby boomer lore.

''The Book of Daniel" couldn't be more different from TV's earlier stabs at blending Christianity into drama. Those shows, from the short-lived conflicts of ''Nothing Sacred" to the touchy-feely vagaries of ''Joan of Arcadia," were sincere, even to a fault. They were all about moral compasses, personal growth, and charity. ''The Book of Daniel" is more like ''Desperate Housewives" with crosses and collars. It's a glut of suburban family dysfunction set in the world of churchgoing WASPs, and played as much for satire as for drama. ''Hey -- priest at the table!" Daniel yells at a family dinner when it reels out of control.

Just the extreme number of crises facing Daniel and his wife, Judith (Susanna Thompson), is played for laughs. Here are a few of their crosses to bear in tonight's two-hour premiere: Their daughter, Grace (Alison Pill), is busted for selling pot; Daniel's mother has Alzheimer's, and his bishop dad is having an affair -- with another bishop; their adopted son, Adam (Ivan Shaw), is sexually promiscuous; and they have a gay son, Peter (Christian Campbell), whose twin brother died of leukemia.

Not enough? A member of their extended family may have stolen $3.2 million from the church; another is having a lesbian affair; and Daniel has to deal with the mob to try to get the money back. Oh yes, and when Daniel is not advising premarital couples about their sex lives and honoring a woman who has been taken off life support, he is struggling with a possible Vicodin addiction.

Ultimately, there are too many subplots here for any of them to get more than a flip going-over. The bishops' affair, for instance, is just plain silly. Like Daniel's drug problem, it appears to have been included to provoke and not to engage or entertain. And naturally, the show has already met with objections from Christian watchdog groups -- which is probably just what NBC wants. Not only does condemnation call attention to ''Daniel," which may struggle in its regular slot (Friday at 10), it makes the show more inviting to viewers in a forbidden fruit kind of way.

''Six Feet Under" rears its head in ''Daniel," particularly in the character of 16-year-old Grace. With her mordant humor and her alternative artsiness (she draws Japanese-style comics), Grace is clearly modeled after Claire Fisher. And like Claire, she's a bemused witness to the adventures of her brothers, one gay and the other romantically reckless. Unfortunately, Pill, who vaguely resembles Lauren Ambrose of ''SFU," doesn't quite manage to distinguish Grace. She's a Claire knock-off.

Others in the cast have better luck. Quinn has a great galvanizing presence, and his Daniel is believable as both an honorable man of the cloth and as a flawed human being who yells at his kids. Thompson, so sympathetic on ''Once and Again," is appealing, too, as is Campbell (Neve's brother) as Peter, who may not be as relaxed about his sexual orientation as he seems. And Dillahunt, from ''Deadwood" and ''The 4400," is comic but not self-parodic as Jesus. These actors help save the show from pure whimsy and excess, while they also remind us that lives steeped in religion don't have to be pious and dry.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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