I've always been precariously on the fence about Mike Judge. I thought Office Space was half of a brilliantly subversive satire that degenerated, in in its second half, into a predictable caper movie with a strangely reactionary message; Idiocracy, likewise, had some killer comic observations but couldn't seem to present them with much coherence in the end. I'm a big fan of King of the Hill despite what I've always thought was an essentially conservative message (though I know there's tons of people who think just the opposite); it had good enough writers and show runners, and a wide-ranging enough cast of characters, that after its first season, the good jokes managed to overcome the fairly traditional structure. But it wasn't as go-for-the-throat non-stop funny as its sister show, The Simpsons; so even as I found myself generally enjoying it, I felt Judge never quite recouped the explosively irreverent comic greatness he hit in Beavis and Butthead, his very first TV project.
So here we are with The Goode Family, Judge's new animated sitcom, and its promise to take a poke at political correctness. This all would have seemed very timely in, say, 1994, or even when King of the Hill debuted in '97. In fact, that show did a fine job of skewering the overly P.C. mentality just fine on its own, at a time when it was, well, a bit more relevant to do so. So it's hard to understand what possessed the network to greenlight a show like this is -- or, maybe, it would be hard to understand if that network wasn't FOX, which has greeted Barack Obama's election like it would the election of Ulrike Meinhof. (Edit: It has been brought to my dumb-ass lack of attention that The Goode Family is actually on ABC, not FOX. Nevertheless, to quote a great man, I am still outraged.) Hoping to finally get my head together about Mike Judge's work, I plunged into the pilot episode trying to put political considerations aside and just see how it succeeded or failed as a comedy. I won't say I had incredibly high hopes, since the promos left me cold, but at least there were some folks in the cast who are generally solid, including David Herman and the criminally underused Linda Cardellini.
Herman, as it happens, has a few of the pilot's best scenes as the hyper-liberal Goode family's adopted (South) African child. But the jokes are few and far between, and it's not generally the fault of the politics. While the animation is generally pretty fine, a lot of the comedy comes from reaction and discomfort, which is slowed way down by the frantic pace that animation tends to demand; a lot of scenes that would benefit from a slow burn -- like an early bit where the Goodes nervously inquire of their black neighbor what he'd like to be called -- just seem to lie down and die. Brian Doyle Murray is wasted as mom Helen Goode's father, a clueless racist Joe Lunchpail; his role may expand in the future (he was one element that wasn't predictable), but in the pilot, he got a tiny cameo that only left you wondering why the show spent so much time on his dull daughter. And jokes about YouTube, Octo-Mom, and "the virgin from American Idol" seemed about as hip and hilarious as they would appearing in a "Bickersons" strip.
Of course, I would be remiss if I didn't also mention that the political bits are also pretty dreary. Even if you don't find them offensive, gags about people of color/colored people and the "What Would Al Gore Do?" joke are well past their sell-by date; hell, at this point, Al Gore has been making fun of himself on TV sitcoms for a decade. While mild fun is poked at purity balls, bogus information about abstinence is presented as fact (by the liberal characters, no less!), and a joke about not shopping at a store without a mission statement not only doesn't make sense (nobody loves mission statements like huge corporate chain stores), but was used to better effect by The Simpsons over a decade ago. The big "African-American" joke about son Ubuntu arrives via Western Union to little payoff, and there's simply far too many scenes that depend either on reaction shots that just don't work or gags that have been told and retold innumerable times since the Contract For America days.
There were a couple of pretty good laughs -- the big board at the supermarket that toted up what was good and what was bad for the enlightened consumer (with some items rapidly switching from one column to the other) was a nice touch, and the running joke that had me in stitches was Che, the Goode's vegan dog, who was murderously ravenous for meat, any meat at all. (I once worked for a compay owned by a couple who fed their dog a vegan diet, and it was the most miserable fucking animal I ever saw.) But there were just too few of them, the pacing was a disaster, and unlike King of the Hill, which established its characters right off the bat, there wasn't really anyone to care about within the family, and no quirky breakout figures outside of it. The network is pushing The Goode Family pretty heavily, giving it tons of advertising and as primo a spot as you can get on a summer schedule. And at least one other critic who's seen more than one episode says it gets better from here. But just based on the pilot, it seems like it might be a terrible slog; there was almost nothing here that made me want to tune in again.
- Was Bliss Goode reading a copy of The Economist meant as poking fun at her, or showing her to be sensible and bright? If it's the former, I don't get it, and if it's the latter, it's not funny.
- Which reminds me, as much as they wasted Brian Doyle Murray, at least they can expand his role in the future. Linda Cardellini was the main focus of this episode, and they gave her next to nothing to work with.
- I know it's unfair to compare the two on general principles, but even though I thought the earlier episodes of King of the Hill were much weaker than the fine stuff that would follow, at least they established Boomhauer and Dale as strong supporting characters right from the start. The Goodes didn't do that at all, with anyone.
- "Come on, tornado that doesn't hurt any people or animals! Vroom vroom!"
- "My daughter and I cried with happiness as the doctor measured her cervix."
- "Once, when Bliss was at the age of self-discovery...well, we have a Jacuzzi."
- Well, A.V. Clubbers? What did you think? Was I too harsh on The Goodes? Was I too lenient? Let's hear it.