I’ve made no secret of my admiration of Mike Judge. His satiric masterpieces Office Space and Idiocracy, all but disowned by their studios, are prime examples of the idiocy of movie executives. Beavis and Butt-Head combined hilarious toilet humor with a gimlet eye for American mall culture and the vapidity of MTV—and did it, in fine meta ’90s style, on MTV itself. And I have said for years that King of the Hill is the most underrated sitcom on the air, if not ever; the best-drawn, richest family comedy of its time, even as it got overshadowed by the likes of Everybody Loves Raymond.
So there is probably not a more receptive audience for his new animated comedy, The Goode Family, which debuts tonight tomorrow on ABC. The premise is essentially King of the Hill in reverse: where that show focused on traditionalist Texan Hank Hill, this one is about Gerald Goode, a community-college administrator, and father to the most politically correct family in the world. Sixteen years ago, he and his wife, Helen, adopted an African baby, but to their chagrin ended up with a white Afrikaaner baby from South Africa (whom they named Ubuntu and now wears an African nationalist T-shirt). Not only are they vegans, they’ve made their dog, Che, one too; in response, the poor starving creature is secretly depopulating the neighborhood of squirrels and koi fish.
Essentially, The Goode Family is KOTH with each part turned 180 and replaced. Which is a big part of the problem.
Like KOTH, The Goode Family is essentially about culture clashes and subverted expectations. Hank Hill’s next door neighbor is a yuppie Laotian immigrant who looks down on Hank and his friends as ignorant hillbillies. The Goodes’ next-door neighbor is Ray, a meat-eating Christian black man whom they fail to bond with despite all their liberal well-meaning. (When they offer him food, he scoffs, “You know I don’t eat vegetables!”; when Gerald offers a nondenominational prayer at a football game to “Dear higher-power guy or gal,” Ray snaps, “His name is Jesus!”)
There are a lot of really funny and incisive bits on The Goode Family. A subplot in the pilot—in which Gerald ends up escorting his daughter Bliss to a Christian purity-ring ceremony—does what some of some of the best KOTH episodes did, which is to cover an aspect of American life that shows up in newspaper features but not so much in sitcoms, and tease out the absurdities and contradictions in it. In another good set piece, Helen shops at a Whole Foods-like supermarket with an electronic sign listing “GOOD” and “BAD” environmental choices (farm-raised fish keeps blinking from one side to the other of the sign) and is mortified to have the more-upscale shoppers see she can barely afford her groceries. As on KOTH, it takes an obvious satiric point (about sanctimonious grocery stores) and takes it a step further (the underlying class issues in eco-conscious shopping).
The ideas in The Goode Family are promising, and the era of green consciousness and Hope and Change would seem to provide a target-rich environment. The problem is that the family seems missing from this family comedy: the satire is so pointed and obvious that it gets in the way of developing the Goodes as people—when it doesn’t sabotage the characters altogether.
On KOTH, Judge would have fun with Hank’s stubborn old-fashionedness, but on a very deep level he respected it. Hank was never the extremist on the show: that role was reserved for paranoid Dale Gribble and Hank’s dad, Cotton, who made Hank look reasonable in comparison. Hank was a conservative in the sense of liking stability and tradition, but not a radical rightist; when Dale sneered at global warming fears—”We’ll grow oranges in Alaska,” he gloated—Hank smacked him down: “Dale, you live in Texas!” He was nearly as freaked out by niece Luanne’s born-again religion as he was by the secular modern world.
Meanwhile, Judge built a believable and wholly imagined family of characters around Hank. His son Bobby, for instance, was a memorable creation: a pudgy, unathletic kid who wanted to be a prop comic and basically embodied every ambition Hank didn’t value. Still, Hank loved and tried to support him—often realizing his mistakes when he tried to change Bobby—because he didn’t want to re-create his childhood with insulting hard-ass Cotton. Hank’s attempt to find some ground between modern everyone-gets-a-trophy relativism and Cotton’s cruelty was the foundation of the show.
The Goodes, on the other hand, are drawn much more sharply satirically, triple-underlining the kind of points KOTH would have made low-key, and in the process the family becomes ridiculous. When we see Gerald showering under an outdoor rainbarrel, singing “Ain’t gonna study war no more,” he’s not a character, like Hank; he’s a caricature, like Beavis and Butt-Head’s supporting player Mr. Van Driessen, the wimpy liberal teacher. (Hank, on the other hand, was a kind of much more developed answer to Beavis’ war-vet neighbor Tom Anderson, who was basically bifurcated into Hank and Cotton.) When Gerald and Helen struggle to figure out what to properly call Ray (African American? Person of color?), they don’t seem P.C. so much as stupid.
And the supporting characters aren’t much better fleshed out. Helen has a bigoted, obnoxious dad (voiced by Brian Doyle Murray), who is basically Cotton Hill with knees. Ubuntu makes sense as an idea: he’s the liberal antithesis of Bobby, with an aptitude for football and power tools, where the likes of the Goodes are used to encouraging reading and nonviolence.
That concept works in theory, but Ubuntu is written so dumb—he mainly grunts simple sentences—that I literally first thought he was supposed to be mentally retarded. The other problem is that the father-son dynamic—so far—does not work the same for Gerald as it did for Hank. When Hank worked to understand Bobby, he was fighting everything his own upbringing told him (namely, to kick Bobby’s ass and make him be a man). This was his struggle; it developed him as a character and shed light on his story with his father.
But when Gerald tries to relate to Ubuntu—yes, it means embracing things outside his academic cocoon, but essentially he’s just doing what good liberals like him are supposed to do: tolerate, not judge, accept diversity. This isn’t a political judgment; it’s just to say that the dynamic doesn’t do anything to deepen Gerald or draw us closer to him, unlike that on KOTH.
Gerald (and Helen’s) relationship with teen daughter Bliss, on the other hand, is more promising; unfortunately, she needs to become something more than a typical sulky teenager. She takes some steps in that direction in the second episode, the best of three ABC previewed, in which she needs to take a college course to bolster her university-application chances, but is mortified at falling into the orbit of her dad’s junior college: “the one school where you, as a student, can achieve tenure.”
KOTH started off weak too, but I remember there being enough distinctive in its early episodes that even then I knew right away it was a show I wanted to watch every week. Right now, there’s enough in The Goode Family that—especially since it’s summer—I’ll show it some patience. But I’ll probably have more patience for it than—especially since it’s a summer show—ABC probably will. Particularly since much of the green-culture satire is so microtargeted that—even when it’s dead-on—only a handful of urban neighborhoods and college towns (say, my own Park Slope and Ann Arbor) will get the nuance of it.
Even at that, if liberal neighbors like mine even watch the show, they’ll probably quickly write it off as a mean-spirited anti-liberal screed, whereas the rest of America will largely see it as a show about sanctimonious ninnies. I suspect that the sight of the first gag—the Goodes’ bumper sticker, “SUPPORT OUR TROOPS… AND THEIR OPPONENTS”—will make red and blue Americans turn the channel in droves, for entirely different reasons.
Which is too bad. In theory, The Goode Family sounded like it could be the right show at the right time, and it has the ingredients to be. In practice, it’s not Goode enough.