• CO-PILOT JESUS: With Quinn.

Thanks are in order to Little Rock’s KARK, Channel 4, specifically from the producers and stars of “The Book of Daniel.”

In case you didn’t know, “The Book of Daniel” is the new NBC dramedy series featuring an Episcopal priest named Daniel Webster (Aidan Quinn, the funny-looking brother from “Legends of the Fall”) who pops pills and has face-to-face chats with Jesus, a gay son, a pot-dealing daughter and a family with various emotional, financial and pharmaceutical troubles. In recent weeks, the God Squad has piled on “Daniel,” labeling it blasphemous and urging sponsor boycotts long before the first episode hit the air. It came to a head when a handful of stations across the country — including local NBC affiliate KARK — decided to pull the show from their airwaves.

So, what’s all the hubbub, bub? We took a peek at the premiere episode last Friday night — a last-minute deal with NBC had “Daniel” screened on local station KWBF, WB 42 (opposite, for a few minutes at least, a holier-than-thou message by KARK general manager Rick Rogala, on why it was yanked). The truth is, it’s not all that bad.

Quinn is pretty good in the title role, though a bit wooden. Jesus does appear at times of crisis in his life, mostly as a voice of conscience. He does have a gay son. He has a problem with munching Vicodin whenever trouble arises. When his brother-in-law absconds with $3 million of church funds and his much younger secretary, Webster goes to the Mob (via a Catholic priest he’s friendly with) to help track down the money and get it back. His wife enjoys her midday martini, his daughter gets busted selling pot, and his other adopted Chinese son likes having sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend in the garage.

You know: your family (or the family of somebody close to you) with commercials.

While I thought “The Book of Daniel” was a bit top heavy on plot twists (something to be expected from the first, getting-to-know-you episode) and the good reverend’s family was a little too universally screwed up, I had a hard time figuring what all the fuss was about. Jesus drops in from time to time and dispenses pearls of wisdom, but blasphemous? Please. Mostly he’s just there to steer Rev. Webster back to the straight and narrow in those moments when he wants to throttle somebody and/or run off to Pago-Pago and leave his troubles behind — which is, when you think about it, the way Jesus is supposed to work for believers when he’s not smiting Israeli prime ministers for Pat Robertson.

When you lay that against the fact that several shows on television (“South Park” and “Rescue Me” on FX to name two) have ol’ J.C. as a recurring character — not to mention characters who pop pills, drink, smoke, steal and have sex in garages and everywhere else — it leads you to one conclusion: It’s the gay thing. Specifically: a) That the sperm of a priest could make a wrong turn at Homo Fork; b) That said priest could be loving and accepting of his gay son instead of casting him out into the snow; and, c) That the creator of the show, Jack Kenny, is openly gay, and therefore unfit to comment on religion and how it affects American life (won’t somebody just admit this, so we can move on? Paging Ann Coulter ...).

But to bring us back to the Arkansas angle, by caving to pressure from what is undoubtedly a handful of zealots, KARK has not only helped the very cause the critics hoped to stifle, landing “Daniel” in every newspaper, webpage, ’blog and water cooler conversation in the country, they’ve also succeeded in making Arkansans look like a bunch of backwater Bible thumpers.

In short, though “Daniel” is well played, it’s a bit too much of a Think Piece for network television. Left to its own devices, “Daniel” probably would have sunk quickly. With the inevitable ratings boost caused by the controversy, however, it might arise and walk. If “Daniel” does eventually spark with viewers (initial ratings by Nielsen found it pulled in more than 9 million viewers — so-so business for the slowest night in primetime) potentially providing a solid lead-in to KARK’s dead-last 10 p.m. newscast, will Rogala and Co. turn the other cheek? Stay tuned.






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