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TV Weekend: GCB

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ABC/KAREN NEAL

Since I posted earlier about my column on HBO’s movie Game Change, about Sarah Palin, we might as well make this Things People in Red States Might Be Offended By Day. Sunday night, ABC premieres GCB, a tongue-in-cheek soap set in Dallas, whose title stands not for Grand Central Boulevard or Grisly Crime Bureau–nor a limited-release McDonald’s sandwich for Ramadan–but Good Christian Bitches (a novel the series is loosely based on). ABC was apparently cognizant enough of the possible controversy to abbreviate the title after the show was announced, though not enough not to promote it with publicity stills involving a cross in someone’s cleavage.

After two episodes of GCB, however, it’s hard to take the show seriously as an attack on Christianity. (Nor does it really much want to be taken seriously as anything.) Its real theme–beyond the usual backstabbing, sex and scandal–is not beating up on Christians but beating up on hypocrites, an all-time favorite topic of soaps, not to mention Jesus: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and self-indulgence.”

GCB’s cup and dish runneth over with extortion and, especially, self-indulgence; it showcases brazen high-society opulence and a brighter color scheme since anything in pop culture since the movie Rio. The premise is a simple reversal: Amanda Vaughn (Leslie Bibb) was the popular mean girl at her wealthy Dallas high school, until she got pregnant and moved off to marry her sweetheart. He got even richer, but the source of his fortune turned out to be a Ponzi scheme; then a car crash (with another woman, ahem, sharing the front seat with him) took him before the law could.

Amanda is left a penniless single mom in California, but–alienated from her materialistic mother, Gigi (Annie Potts)–she swears that she’ll never go back to Dallas. One quick-cut later, there she is, reliving old family wounds and surrounded by the vengeance-minded women she was awful to in high school, led by Kristin Chenoweth as Carlene Cockburn (pronounced with a hard “ck” because of course), who makes it her mission to give back everything she got a generation ago. Amanda is a better person now–we’re led to assume because she says so and the show is about her–but Carlene and her gaggle of rich, church-going friends will have their vengeance.

From there, the signifiers of tacky Texas wealth pile up like Neiman-Marcus was having a sale on them: the citified good-old-boys in expensive ten-gallon hats, the high school girls getting “starter boobs” as Christmas presents and rich, the grown-up mean girls delivering the air-kiss of death.

It all goes to show why caricature is usually a bad device for drama: not because it’s mean, but because it’s predictable, and therefore so are the revelations and plot twists. You can pretty much bet that the more a character mentions “Jesus” or “Christian”–which is a lot–the more uncharitable that character is. And the whole narrative is frog-marched along by an aggressive soundtrack full of ironically deployed country music and the kind of ABC-dramedy score that never lets you mistake if a scene is wacky, whimsical or sincere.

That’s not to say the show is never fun, because it is. A fine cast, including Potts and Miriam Shor (Swingtown) have a grand old time with roles that give them an unrestricted credit line of camp. (Potts, especially, delivers her every line like a mean birthday present, as when she scolds Amanda, trying to be self-sufficient, for shopping at a discount store: “I don’t want you buying clothes for my grandchildren in a store that sells lettuce.”) And it shows signs of improving in the second episode, in which some of the characters, especially Shor’s, begin to act against type–because the show will be pretty much unsustainable if it clings so tightly to its southern-fried stereotypes.

But the problem for GCB is that it hasn’t yet figured out a way to be a soap that spoofs superficiality without being superficial itself. The good lord knows no one wants a show like this to have serious aspirations, but little glimpses like Shor’s character work suggest that it would actually be a more fun, and surprising, show if its characters were a more real.

In the end, I have a hard time believing that anyone will see themselves insulted by GCB: its target is not Christians but phonies, not the 1% but TV-soap oafs, and not people but cartoons. I do not want or expect GCB to answer any profound questions like WWJD? I just want it to be a little more G.

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