Sunday, March 04, 2012

A Taste of GCB

It’s only makes sense that ABC would try to find a series to fill the void that the end of Desperate Housewives is going create in its Sunday night schedule. That show was a ratings juggernaut for its first couple years, maintained a healthy audience over the next few, but has at this point pretty much fallen out of the Top 20. Given that the series lost a great deal of its initial edge and creative steam, that should come as no surprise, but what if the net could concoct something as juicy and fun to watch as Housewives was back in its heyday?

GCB, which sounds like a chain of health food stores, is an acronym for Good Christian Bitches, the title of the bestselling book by Kim Gatlin, upon which the series is based, and the sooner we all forget the sanitized placeholder title Good Christian Belles, which ABC had some time ago considered using, the better. Is it a terrible move to have reduced the profane into something squeaky clean and network TV safe? Hasn’t ABC simply done what fans gabbing on internet message boards will do within hours of the show’s premiere, anyway?

After her Ponzi-scheming husband is killed in a fiery crash (blowjob interruptus, of course), Amanda Vaughn (Leslie Bibb) must move back to Dallas with her two teenage children, and in with her bible-thumping socialite mother, Gigi (Annie Potts, playing yet another version of the same woman she’s been exploring for years). Gigi still lives in the same community she raised Amanda in, and her neighbors are the same girls her daughter tormented in high school 20 years ago. Though Amanda has changed, ladies like Carlene Cockburn (Kristin Chenoweth) and Cricket Caruth-Reilly (Miriam Shor) hold some serious grudges against her, and the new life she’s attempting to carve for herself and her children will be anything but a hayride.

The overt subtext of the series involves heaping loads of hypocrisy, frequently of the religious kind. While the “bitches” attend church every Sunday, their actions are all too often awfully un-Christian. Do unto others takes a backseat to doo-doo onto others, and Carlene is the clear ringleader. The characters’ antics are so over the top it seems unlikely that anyone could take the goings-on too seriously, but then the writers don’t seem to have taken into account (or perhaps they simply don’t care) how sensitive half of the country might be to the show’s repeated condemnation of the double standards of church-going folk.

Part of the key to the success of Housewives was in its bleached approach; the only thing offensive about that show was that it wasn’t even remotely offensive. It was a series that everyone could like. That isn’t the case with GCB, which potentially satirizes a rather large and influential portion of the country. “Potentially” because you never know where viewers will draw the line between seeing themselves and insisting “that’s nothing like me.” It’s anyone’s guess how the religious right is going to react to the show, but I’ll venture out on a limb and say it’s not something they’re going to embrace.

Yet the series is hell-bent on being liked, and as long as you don’t live in Highland Park, the affluent Dallas suburb GCB is lampooning, maybe it won’t be so offensive after all. Tall, tan, and athletic blonde Bibb is an ideal lead for GCB, looking identical to so many women I’ve known throughout the nearly 25 years I’ve lived in Texas. Though the supporting players often come off cartoonish, Amanda is grounded in a reality, and she’s such a thoroughly affable lead, it’s difficult to even imagine her as the high school bitch everyone else knows her as. When roadblocks are put in the way of her career, she sees no shame in getting a job at a fictionalized version of Hooters, despite the fact the Gigi is well enough off to take care of the entire family. When a mystery donor sends her a truckload full of expensive, designer clothing, she sends it all back.

Chenoweth chews every bit of scenery she can get her teeth on, and even her infamous vocals play a sizable role, as she’s a prominent member of the church choir. Carlene commits some pretty loathsome acts, yet given that she was, essentially, bullied by Amanda in high school, you have to sympathize with her on a certain level. Indeed, this is a series about what happens when the bullied strike back, only we’re supposed to side with the bully, which is quite the daring angle to take in this political climate.

On the flip side there’s Jennifer Aspen’s Sharon Peacham, the former high school beauty, now overweight and insecure, and a true grotesque. She’s severely underwritten, and the butt of one too many of the same kind of jokes over the course of the first two episodes. Shor’s Cricket doesn’t fare much better in the pilot, but the second episode reveals something decidedly more complex about her, and she just may be the character to watch over the long haul (and as an unrecognized treasure, Shor certainly deserves it). Rounding out the main cast is Marisol Nichols as Heather Cruz, a woman caught between Amanda and Carlene. GCB doesn’t yet know exactly what it wants to do with her character, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing at this early stage of the game. However, by the end of this mid-season run, we really need to see where all of these people are coming from and have a vague idea of where they might be going.   

GCB is the kind of TV programming that snobs like me go into wanting to dislike, and yet cannot because the show, by prime time network standards, is taking some major risks, and also because, well, it’s just so damn much fun, much of which is due to sharp dialogue such as “Why would anyone leave Texas for southern California? I mean, we’ve got the same weather without the liberals.” The show is far from perfect, and maybe it never will be, because of what it is, where it is, and when it plays, but it gets far more right than wrong, which quite frankly, isn’t something I’d have expected from an ABC Sunday night series at this stage of the scheduling and producing game.