GCB: Good Campy Bitches

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GCB S01E01: "Pilot"

The road to national television has not run smooth for GCB, ABC's latest female-friendly goofball drama which premiered last night. The original title Good Christian Bitches once alienated a chunk of their audience and the new acronym GCB puzzles everyone. Christian groups, already leery of the show, probably aren't won over by the irreverent promos. I'm sure many viewers sat down last night poised to turn the the channel if things got either too preachy or too sacrilegious.

For all the theological fervor, the show itself is very light hearted and firmly tongue-in-cheek, soapy comedy, and the practiced hand of the producer (Sex in the City tastemaker Darren Star) and writer/producer Robert Harling (of unimpeachable Steel Magnolias fame) is told in both the tight script and very directed actors. Not a word or hair or high heel is out of place, and from its high-energy opening of Amanda Vaughn's husband sailing off a cliff while getting some Southern comfort to fist-pumping dance music, GCB moved cheerfully along, hitting its marks with the practiced poise and pasted-on smile of a pageant contestant.

The slightly macabre beginning was a good way to set the tone: don't take anything too seriously. Protagonist Amanda, dragged unwillingly back to her hometown with her now-fatherless children, could barely tell them they were about to rebuild their lives without a doberman pinscher providing the first hard laugh of the evening. Amanda, played by Leslie Bibb, did the beautiful, open minded and humbled California girl bit perfectly, and yet had enough edge to make the audience believe she could have been a mean girl in high school. Annie Potts, playing Gigi, the mother Amanda returns home to, simply lights up the screen. Not only does she look incredible, she was the only actor last night who made her punchy dialogue sound natural and off the top of her head, more commendable because they gave her a series of zingers.

Kristin Chenowith's acting is much more stylized. The actress knows comedy, and her physicality and her deadpans are hysterical, but overall her Carlene was, ironically, a bit too large. It would make sense that an actress who started on Broadway would play to the balcony, but she and her coven of rich, bitchy Dallas friends are weirdly cartoonish against the more subdued Amanda and Gigi. I'm sure that's in no small part because the two groups are kept pretty insulated from each other in the pilot, but I wish when we had first met them the ladies had seemed confident, forgiving, and more human. Their buzz of insecurity at Amanda's arrival, and upon first meeting her at church, had about as much subtlety as the Tex Avery wolf. Between that and the fact all their husbands surrounded Amanda her first Sunday back at church, its kind of like she's already "won." Though they spent the episode blocking her efforts to get a job and literally spying on her (with a giant telescope) They could have progressed to the heightened level by the final confrontation at the Longhorn Ball, and we would have gotten a sense that Amanda's return had shaken up their world. Instead, these are unstable, cartoonish shrews who are looking for anything to freak out about. That doesn't make them very worthwhile opponents for a protagonist I like as much as Amanda.

After returning home, Amanda gets a series of lavish gifts from a secret admirer, devastating the already insecure frenemies who scramble to figure out who the admirer is (and if he is in fact one of their husbands.) Meanwhile, Amanda looks fruitlessly for a job so she can leave her mother's palatial estate and raise her kids without her mom's interference. The flamboyant Gigi is Auntie Maming those kids up, teaching one how to do cocktails and one how to cocktease. (JK, couldn't resist the word play, don't really believe in cockteasing as a concept.)

Of course, the once-bullied Carlene & Co. have used their influence to ensure Amanda will not be able to find a job or a decent place to move. Amanda, desperate, decides to take waitressing work down at a Hooters-type bar. I'm sorry, Leslie Bibb is supposed to be a mother of two with those hips? More power to her. At the Longhorn ball later that evening, Carlene and company confront her about her racy new job, telling her it runs counter to the moral fiber of their community.

Amanda, in a stunning speech, reeled off some facts about Dallas having the most churches per capita AND the most strip clubs! A good comment both on the appeal of something when its forbidden and the dichotomy of the setting. She then scored even more points when she got up in church and revealed that the boob-centric bar she works at is owned by Carlene. CARTOON FACE OF DISPLEASURE BY CARLENE!

This conclusion neatly skewered Carlene's hypocrisy, but does the combination of Church-to-strip club factoids and Carlene's character kind of infer that Christians are inevitably hypocrites? The Bible-quoting Carlene is by far the most devious character and the most outwardly devout. Are we supposed to chuckle at her hypocrisy or take her as a stand-in for every cross-wearing Bible Belter? While American Christians can hardly demand the same protections as minority religions, if there is no positive example of a devotee, the show risks shifting tone from bubbly and naughty to targeted aggression.

Don't get me wrong, there are definitely right-wing Christian-themed groups that need targeting, badly, and who viciously target others with no apologies (hello people protesting military funerals! Still evil? Just checking!). But there's also a majority who not only live and let live but honestly try to be a force for good in the world. I'd be really sad if this show made a point of putting Christian in its title and then excised all the positive aspects of faith, like believers that feel passionately about contributing to the well-being of others and social progression. Of course, it would also be a turn off if they got up there and preached. This is why houses of worship in general are so rarely seen on TV, they're an intrusion into the secular contract we make with television. Good entertainment makes us think without telling us how to think, and the business of religion is to structure our thoughts and convince us to believe.

Okay, I'll quit preaching and get back to the show itself. Amanda finds out Gigi was the secret admirer all along, and they love each other, and they're going to make it through this together. So Annie Potts is not only the comic heart of the show, she's the emotional heart as well. If the long term arc is an estranged mother and daughter coming back together, I'm on board, but if it weren't for Potts' natural warmth the connection would have felt seriously underdeveloped, given Amanda's apparent hatred and distrust of her mother. The more soapy elements–the philandering husbands (straight and gay), the business drama that never seems to take place in an office, the two women struggling for social domination–these are tropes right out of Dynasty, and if the show can keep them fresh, they're tried and true foundations on which to build an escapist world of scandal.

Altogether, the show was frothy and had funny moments and amazing clothes, and has plenty of potential, but I can't give it a full-hearted endorsement yet. The four-episode test will definitely be required for GCB. Hopefully the actors will get on the same page about tone, maybe tamp down the clownish female stereotypes a bit, and ramp up the Texan charm. It's entirely possible this glossy and fun show will inherit the Desperate Housewives audience it so clearly seeks, but a lot will depend on keeping a beating heart under all that campy spangled Western wear.

GCQUESTIONS

…Do you think mean girls in high school ever really change?

…Did you think Carlene and her circle were fun and saucy, or shrewish and stereotypical?

Leslie Bibb: seriously hot stuff, yes?

…Is television and religion always a weird mix or did Touched By An Angel change your life?

…What did you think of the GCB pilot?

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