GCB debuts tonight on ABC at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Brandon: After all that controversy over the scandalous title, Good Christian Bitches, which is now offensive in spirit only, and all those ads promising an over-the-top parody of southern housewives, a rich target given life by a whole pew of accented actresses, I’m shocked—shocked!—to discover a soap opera that doesn't go overboard so much as it falls asleep in the sun. It’s not that GCB is bad but rather that it makes no impression whatsoever. Sure, the show talks a good game about big hair and exorbitant price-tags and a grand old meat market called the Longhorn Ball, but next to any episode of any franchise of The Real Housewives, GCB is positively restrained. Meanwhile Wanderlust nails the comedy and tragedy of that empty life in the 10 minutes or so it spends with Michaela Watkins. Why can’t GCB get there in 44?
I suspect the problem lies in trying to please too many masters, so the premiere winds up a bland mixture of everything. It’s not deliciously soapy, it’s not delightfully campy, it’s not bitingly satirical, it’s not jaw-droppingly extravagant, and it’s not even plain ole funny. Yet. The premiere lays some groundwork for all of the above, with its garish but underemphasized production design, characterization from the Cliff’s Notes Guide To Southern Gothic, and surprise revelations that you predicted way back when you first heard the premise. In time, GCB could become the sudsy smackdown the marketing suggests.
The other speed trap the premiere runs into is exposition. Maybe without all this set-up, GCB could find a voice sooner. Instead, we open like a procedural, in medias res with two guest stars, which is probably not the strongest way to introduce a new series. The cameos belong to our protagonist’s husband and her best friend, trying to run away together and succeeding except insofar as they die almost immediately. Since Hubby’s misdeeds extend to finance as well, the state seizes all of the assets he shares with his wife, our hero, Amanda Vaughn (played by Leslie Bibb), a mother of two with nothing but a car and a hometown. As you can see, she has no choice but to move back in with her mother in Dallas despite not being so fond of either. Even the slapstick is contrived, as Amanda plays the world’s least funny game of musical chairs in a house currently being emptied.
Enter Dallas. With a gorgeous time-lapse shot of the skyline and a quick barrage of Friday-Night-Lights-style fly-bys, we arrive on the vast doorstep of Grandma Gigi. Playing a cross between Jessica Walter in 90210 and Jessica Walter in Arrested Development, but with an accent, Annie Potts is having a blast pulling us through the obvious plot nonsense. Like everything else in the premiere, she’s a little muted, but she has a “call it like I see it” attitude that could help enliven GCB. The only other characters are a cadre of mean girls whom Amanda harassed in high school, and when I say “mean girls,” I mean they are cartoons straight out of Queen Bees And Wannabees. Amanda’s the target, and there’s a queen bee (Kristin Chenoweth’s Carlene), a pleaser (Jennifer Aspen’s Sharon), and a banker (for the uninitiated, a gossip) turned torn bystander (Marisol Nichols’ Heather). The only one whose role isn’t so defined (probably the sidekick) is Cricket, and that’s because Miriam Shor is the only actor to find some nuance. Right now the characters are written paint-by-numbers dull or Sex-and-the-City-broad. Caricature should be right at home on GCB, and Chenoweth is particularly fun, but it feels like the leash is still on.
Even the usual soap subplots are turned down. One husband is trying to cheat with Amanda, but it’s just a misunderstanding that results in almost no palpable conflict or comedy. Another husband is successfully philandering, but all we see is some light petting. And the big climactic passive-aggressive attack is the lamest revenge since “I’m rubber and you’re glue.” But even with the volume low, it’s easy to see the narrative skeleton being assembled in the premiere. GCB isn’t just the story of Amanda’s resurrection but her penance. If the title Suburgatory wasn’t already taken it’d be the perfect solution to the title problem. See, Amanda has changed, but she was a terror in high school, and she accepts that she needs to reap what she’s sown. You can tell because that’s the Bible quote on the church marquee. Don’t get me wrong: GCB is mercifully light, and we’re not meant to do anything but smile and chuckle. But the premiere also contains the faintest outlines of some basic Biblical themes, one of which has our hero accepting a certain amount of punishment. Don’t ask why Amanda spends all her time with people who hate her. Just watch the Rube Goldberg screenwriting set up all the little pieces of the scenario. It’s almost breathtaking how far GCB walks just to tell a story, but at last, after an unforgiving climb through origin story hell, you can see the lay of the land and maybe start to have some fun.
Which brings me to Carlene. The juicy villain role is naturally coruscating, and Kristin Chenoweth knows just how to milk it, but she isn’t just playing a real housewife with an axe to grind. She’s playing a low-grade demagogue. Maybe that’s just the grown-up, politically flavored version of the high school queen bee, but the way she controls everyone with her righteous posturing is resonant, and when she rationalizes her own behavior, even that’s a show for her audience. It isn’t new for someone to use the Bible as both weapon and shield, but it sure remains relevant. It’s just a shame GCB is premiering this far into primary season. The show hasn’t done much exploration yet, but if there’s any oil in them thar hills, it’s in Carlene’s self-appointed moral authority.
How anyone could find GCB scandalous so far is beyond me, but I hope it gets there, not so it can conform to my values but so it can conform to its own. As it is, the show is surprisingly standard-issue: written with pieces of Terms of Endearment, The Blind Side, and everything else that’s ever been set below the Mason-Dixon line; shot in the dramedy vernacular with flashes of wasted imagination; performed one moment as a cartoon and the next as amateur verite. Only the country-pop soundtrack sets it apart. I won’t deny the charms of a culture relatively untapped on television, but GCB is going to have to do more to distinguish these desperate housewives from the Desperate Housewives.
Todd: There’s fertile ground for a great show about the American church and the consumer culture of modern Christianity (at least of the white, suburban variety), so even though it’s a soap, there’s reason to have hope for GCB. Sadly, the first two episodes don’t give much weight to that hope, instead turning the show into the bland, broad, vaguely satirical show you might fear it would be. Aside from a few intriguing stabs at an exploration of the broad gulf between perfection and humanity, the show is pretty much exactly the dumbest version of this material you’d imagine, complete with nearly every country hit of, conservatively, the last five years making sure you know exactly how to feel at any given moment on the soundtrack. For lack of a better word, an intriguing premise has been ABC’ed.
I agree with you, Brandon, that there’s some fun to be had here, particularly when Chenoweth is on screen, but the whole show seems simultaneously enamored of its own cleverness and network noted to death, a fatal combination. It’s never fun to watch a show that thinks it’s smart, even as you’re constantly aware of just where it pulled every twist from. ABC clearly wants this to be its follow-up to Desperate Housewives, and while I’ve never been a huge fan of that show, even I’ll admit that in its first season, at least, it had a real voice and passion for its genre. GCB feels like a more interesting show—a dramedy about second chances and salvation—that’s been grafted onto a dull soap because that’s what you do.