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Book of Daniel harmlessly bad

What is it exactly about NBC's new dramatic comedy The Book of Daniel that conservative Christians find so offensive? Before the show ever aired, a small but shrill group of Bible-thumping haters began howling for its demise, encouraging advertisers to pull support and viewers to tune out. Since the program's debut in the 9 p.m. time slot on Fri., Jan. 6, six affiliates have chosen to stop airing it because of viewer and advertiser complaints. Last Friday, Nashville affiliate WSMV became the most recent, yanking the cord on the program for what it described as "thousands" of complaints, including 137 angry voicemails in its general mailbox.

What's all the brouhaha about? Until the day of the show's premiere, I had no idea and frankly couldn't have cared less. I spend about as much time trying to understand what right-wing religious types are freaking out about on a given week as I do wondering why dirt is brown. Then I got a call from Susan Rogers, a reporter at Channel 2, on the Friday the show was set to debut, asking me if I'd be part of an on-air panel discussing the program and the associated controversy that evening. The station, she said, was anticipating on-site protesters and a deluge of angry phone calls.

So at 8:45 p.m. I arrived at the station and met my fellow guinea pigs: a young professional named Tara Denton; the Rev. Kendall Harmon, pastor of St. Luke's Episcopal Church; Robert Westerfelhaus, a pop culture expert in the CofC Communications Department; and a college student named Jisiri Whipper. In a glass-walled conference room, we watched the heralded premiere of The Book of Daniel.

In it, Aidan Quinn plays Daniel Webster, a good-hearted Episcopal minister with a surfeit of real-world problems: a minor back problem and a weakness for Vicodin, a pot-peddling daughter, a closeted gay son (the twin of another who has died), an adopted Chinese son with a taste for computers and American girls, and a hot, martini-swizzling wife. The two-hour pilot also managed to work in embezzlement, lesbianism, the Catholic mafia, and a handful of conversations with Jesus Christ, who periodically appears to Webster in sandals and a white robe, poking gentle fun at humanity and mouthing platitudes that sound like they came from The Purpose-Driven Life.

The Book of Daniel is clearly aiming for a mash-up of Seventh Heaven, Desperate Housewives, and Six Feet Under, yet after an hour of watching NBC writers trot out every conceivable plot device and lame network TV cliché known to mankind, we passed unanimous judgement for the cameras: The Book of Daniel was too poorly written to be offensive, even to the most thin-skinned Christian. It was like hearing there was a pit bull next door, then discovering it was an ancient, toothless, decrepit bag of bones with horrible breath. Not something you'd want to spend a lot of time with, but hardly a danger to the neighborhood.

I later learned that the chief rusty wheel in all of this is the right-wing American Family Association (AFA), who has singled out The Book of Daniel for portraying Christianity in a light it's decided is "unflattering." The AFA has gone all-out to goad viewers, particularly in Bible Belt markets, into protesting against the show. Yet here in Charleston there were none of the protests Channel 2 had anticipated, and the station's phone banks, manned by a special late-night emergency squad for the premiere, were all but silent.

Taken together with word that The Terrace's premiere of Brokeback Mountain last weekend went off without a word of objection from the conservative community, it's almost enough to give a person hope — not that network television is getting any better, of course, but that Charleston is lightening up. If a sitcom about a kind, decent Episcopal minister who deals with real-world problems and has a personal relationship with Jesus sends people in Nashville or Little Rock into a teeth-gnashing fury, I'm okay with that. I'm just waiting for the shit to really hit the fan when someone eventually announces a prime-time network show featuring a gay Confederate submarine captain.


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