Eco-Friendly Case File #33: The Goode Family
My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s twice-monthly survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were a financial flops, critical failures, and lack a substantial cult following.
For a man whose oeuvre is famous for being ignored, misunderstood, moved around, sabotaged, and generally done in by the malevolent forces of commerce, Mike Judge has experienced an extraordinary level of success and influence over the past 20 years. He’s the mind behind two incredibly resilient hit animated series: King Of The Hill ran an impressive 233 episodes over the course of a decade-plus run that saw it changing air times and getting pulled from schedules repeatedly. Beavis And Butt-head was an even more iconic and zeitgeist-friendly smash, a savage, generation-defining satire that was adapted into a hit movie in 1996 (Beavis And Butt-head Do America) and resurrected by MTV not too long ago for a whole new generation tragically unacquainted with Cornholio and his urgent needs.
Yet Judge has had famously terrible luck when it comes to films. 1999’s Office Space was released to mixed-to-indifferent reviews before becoming one of the defining satires of the past 25 years on home video. And Fox famously treated Judge’s 2006 science-fiction satire, Idiocracy, the way cats treat their droppings: as something shameful and wrong that must be covered up and hid away as quickly as possible for the sake of decent society. Posterity was much kinder to the film than Fox could have ever anticipated, and it has gone on to become, like Beavis And Butt-head before it, a defining spoof of our culture of de-evolution and a surprising moneymaker for the studio that relentlessly mistreated it. It’s even spawned spin-off merchandise like a “Brawndo” energy drink named after the ubiquitous beverage of the film.
Judge’s initial failures loom much larger than other filmmakers’ greatest successes. Despite what their box-office grosses might seem to suggest, it’s safe to say that people will still be talking about Idiocracy and Office Space long after blockbusters like The Proposal and Valentine’s Day are forgotten. Judge is the comeback kid. Time and again, his projects have died a public death only to be resurrected by a passionate and appreciative cult. His films are like pop-culture zombies that roar back to life long after everyone has counted them out.
This is partially attributable to the satirical nature of Judge’s oeuvre. He’s an inveterate satirist, and it is the satirist’s lot to be misunderstood for whatever they’re satirizing. Folks all over the spectrum derided Beavis And Butt-head as lowbrow entertainment for brain-dead idiots at the time of its release, when it’s really a scathing, pitiless spoof of our lowest-common-denominator society. It’s also peerless lowbrow entertainment for brain-dead idiots, so it’s easy to see where some of the confusion lies.
History tends to be far kinder to satire than the present. That’s particularly true of Judge’s films and television shows. For all of the comic genius’ bad fortune, his oeuvre is largely devoid of indisputable failures. True, Extract didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but films that aggressively minor aren’t supposed to, and I suspect cinephiles of the future will be kinder to Extract. Besides, the film was fucking called Extract. I’m not sure that Titanic or The Expendables or Toy Story would do well financially with a title like Extract.
That leaves the promising yet muddled 2009 animated satire The Goode Family—which has just been released by the good folks over at Shout! Factory—as one of the few out-and-out failures of Judge’s largely distinguished body of work. Reduced to its broad outline—Mike Judge takes on liberals!—the show radiates boundless potential, especially when you factor in a handful of King Of The Hill veterans on the staff and a voice cast that pairs Judge with Nancy Carell, Brian Doyle-Murray, David Herman, and Linda Cardellini.
The world was slow to give up on The Goode Family, even after it was released to underwhelmed reviews and sluggish ratings. Comedy Central began airing reruns of the show in 2010 (following its ABC cancellation after a single season) to gauge whether there was enough interest in the show to prompt new episodes, but the show was yanked after only four weeks. Comedy Central thought the show had been mishandled by ABC, which had aired the show during the summer and paired it with a game show called Wipeout, which is less an ideal partner for The Goode Family than the kind of brain-dead nonsense the characters of Idiocracy and Beavis And Butt-head might watch while drooling into their nachos and sucking down a double Big Gulp.
Pop-culture watchers gazed long and hard at the eco-friendly coffin where The Goode Family’s corpse lay, dudded out in hemp shorts and a tie-dyed peace-sign T-shirt, and waited patiently for the show to spring back to life zombie-style, but this fucker stubbornly remained dead. Revisiting the show from the vantage point of a few years out, it’s easy to see why, though it’s just as easy to see why ABC or Comedy Central could have looked at the show and imagined it had the next Futurama or King Of The Hill on its hands.
Judge generally has a genius for timing. Beavis And Butt-head and Idiocracy indelibly captured the dumbass spirit of the age, but The Goode Family sometimes feels like a period piece from the early days of Bill Clinton’s presidency, when fevered debate over identity politics swept campuses all over the land, white folks’ minds were opened to the reality of racism by a little film called Malcolm X, and the rise of Afrocentric rappers like Brand Nubian and X Clan somehow made white college kids think it was okay to dress up like members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
Of course, liberalism hasn’t gone away. Hell, we’re currently living in a socialist utopia overseen by our foreign-born Muslim president, but the heyday of what was popularly if irritatingly known as “political correctness” seemed to have come and gone by the time PCU was released in 1994.
So while earnest folks continue to listen to NPR and shop at Whole Foods and do corny things like try to save the environment by reducing their carbon footprints, the show nevertheless often seems to be spoofing a very specific variety of tree-hugging, touchy-feely, oppressively sensitive progressive that doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Indeed, some of the show’s stereotypes feel mothballed and anachronistic, like a snooty art critic who delights in mocking the tastes of the hoi polloi and a quiveringly sensitive aggregation of girly men who gather at a drum circle. Honestly, who was making drum-circle jokes in 2009?
The Goode Family’s clunky ironies begin with a title referencing a family that always tries to do good and almost invariably ends up doing bad. Though they themselves would find such heteronormative distinctions offensive, the family is headed up by Gerald Goode (soothingly voiced by Judge), a community-college administrator who functions a little like an alternate-universe Ned Flanders.
Like Flanders, Gerald sees no reason the world can’t be as pleasant, mild, and harmless as a lukewarm cup of chamomile tea and is quietly intent on refashioning the world in his own upbeat image. The crucial difference is that Flanders wants to turn our sinful realm into God’s kingdom, while Gerald’s religion is ecology. In one of a number of jokes seemingly teleported in from the early ’90s, the family asks itself at crucial gestures, “What would Al Gore do?”
Nancy Carell voices the family’s matriarch, Helen, a self-styled activist that is essentially a cold-blooded shark who has deluded herself, if not the world around her, into imagining that she’s a peaceful, pure-hearted dolphin. She is every bit as obsessed with how the world perceives her and her family as the housewives of the 1950s, only in this case that arrogance and competitiveness revolves around having the most fuel-economic car or most diverse set of friends rather than the biggest car or computer. Gerald genuinely seems to want to help society, but Helen is primarily concerned with people thinking she’s leading a moral life. Gerald wants to do good; Helen just wants to be seen as good, and the lack of empathy with which the writers approach the character often renders her shrill and insufferable, a hypocrite whose inner ugliness perpetually rises to the surface. She’s Lady Macbeth reborn as a Moveon.org zealot.
In spite of her ostensibly strong convictions, Helen proves extremely malleable throughout the course of the show. The guise of super-progressive is an identity she can adopt and throw off at will, just another tribe she can pledge allegiance to in order to get her needs met. She’s fragile and high-strung and, in the episode “Graffiti In Greenville,” it takes very little for Helen to morph dramatically from liberal warrior to graffiti tagger. In “Pleatherheads,” she throws herself into being a football mom with the same go-for-broke obsessiveness she previously brought to ensuring she never offended minorities.
Linda Cardellini voices the family’s teenaged daughter, Bliss, an aggressive pragmatist even more deeply embarrassed by her parents than most smart, confident teenagers. The show seems to have wanted a little of that Lindsey Weir feeling for the role, and since Cardellini was Lindsey Weir, she’d seem to have it in spades; but Cardellini’s fine performance can’t cover up the underwritten nature of the role. Bliss is in the same ballpark as clear inspirations like Lindsey Weir or Daria Morgendorffer—wry, sardonic, perpetually irritated by the idiocy of everyone and everything around her—but she remains blurry throughout, a first draft of a strong, compelling character in need of extensive refining and perfecting. Herman and Doyle-Murray round out the primary voice cast as, respectively, a white South African orphan named Ubuntu—who was adopted as an infant by the Goodes, under the assumption he was black, and is outfitted in traditional African garb despite his intense whiteness—and Helen’s father, a proud Neanderthal who is a cross between Toby Huss’ cantankerous grandpa in King Of The Hill and the worst-ever surrogate father figure Doyle-Murray played on Get A Life.
A typical episode of The Goode Family finds the family attempting to live their values in ways that prove counterproductive and self-defeating at best and criminal and immoral at worst. In “Helen’s Back,” for example, the family desperately wants to avoid being seen as the kind of condescending Caucasians who hire minorities to do their dirty work. Yet their best efforts and good intentions keep pushing them into progressively more difficult corners until they’re essentially running a mini-plantation, while in “Gerald’s Way Or The Highway,” Gerald ends up tussling with a heroin-dealing neo-Nazi prison gang after his plan to sponsor a highway to clean up goes wildly astray.
The Goode Family is unrelentingly nasty in its depiction of the self-delusion and misplaced priorities of the progressive mindset. In a singularly cynical episode named “Freeganomics,” the family works itself into a tizzy preparing for a visit by a legendary German freegan named Heinrich whose reputation as a tireless environmental martyr provides cover to be as vicious, mean-spirited, and petty as humanly possible. In one of the show’s sharpest gags, Heinrich is said to have nobly abandoned a wife, six to eight children, and a mountain of debt in order to travel overseas to harshly criticize America and point out its myriad failings.
In episodes like “Freeganomics,” the show seems powered less by the righteous rage at the free-flowing, cultural, institutional stupidity that fueled Beavis And Butt-head and Idiocracy than by a curdled cynicism that too often verges on flat-out nihilism. There’s no real heart to The Goode Family, no point of entry or relatable character to identify with. That wouldn’t be a problem if the show were funnier, but The Goode Family is consistently clever, even inspired, without ever being particularly funny.
The closest the show comes to genuine inspiration and heart is in the character of Gerald, a soul so meek and eager to be inoffensive that when he’s mugged by minorities he refers to them only as “tall and confident” (no need to bring race into the equation!), and beatifically rhapsodizes of coupons, “Coupons. They’re like lottery tickets that always win!” Gerald’s mellowness and peaceful, easy feeling is played for mean-spirited laughs, but it nevertheless provides a refreshing break from the show’s inclination toward shrill misanthropy.
Judge seemed to have a real affection for Hank Hill in King Of The Hill. The same cannot be said of the über-liberal terrain spoofed here. I suspect part of the reason the show failed to find an audience on network and basic cable is because liberals who are open to a little good-natured razzing could sense that there was no affection behind the jabs at NPR and Whole Foods, just a lot of clumsy, dated vitriol.
The one place where The Goode Family’s sledgehammer approach and eviscerating bluntness succeeds is in its treatment of animals. In the show’s sharpest gag, the Goode family forces its dog, Che, to be a vegan despite the animal’s very clear predilection toward devouring the succulent flesh of any animal that crosses his path. In their bid to transform their carnivorous dog into a pacifist vegan, the Goode family create an interspecies serial killer who leaves a trail of carnage in his wake, as evidenced by the preponderance of lost-animal posters papering the neighborhood, desperately seeking animals Che has already chewed up and shat out. This running, gorgeously animated joke is a stinging attack on the futility of trying to overcome the irrevocable dictates of nature through nurture, of the myopic foolishness of trying to transform killers into puppy dogs through socialization alone. It’s a brilliant joke when applied to the animal kingdom, but it loses much of its power and potency when applied to the ridiculous human beings The Goode Family chronicles with palpable and off-putting disdain.
Failure, fiasco, or secret success: Fiasco