How the ABC soap went from being a tiresome collection of mean-girl cliches to a sensitive portrait of religious people
At the roll-out for GCB at the Television Critics Association in January, creator Robert Harling explained why he'd been attracted to the show, a story about Dallas women who jockey for positions both in high society and in church on Sundays. When you tell a story about a religious community, Harling said:
There are rules. And you have to be respectful of those rules. Even if it's a temple or a mosque or whatever, you have to be aware and respectful of faith systems. And, you know, the joy of it is watching these people try to function within these rules. And the rules remain the same. The respect for the faith remains the same...the goal is to watch people try to be good.
It was a promising pitch, especially in a landscape saturated with hospital wards and precinct rooms.
So it was disappointing when, a month and a half later, the show that debuted served up barbecue to a warring table full of mean girls who deployed church solos like stilettos and tossed out Bible verses like throwing-stars without much sense that they believed in anything. The things these women had done and continued to do to each other were so unforgivable that I wanted nothing to do with them. Was I supposed to root a former high-school boyfriend-stealer and who spread rumors that less popular girls had sexually transmitted diseases? Was I supposed to embrace as anti-heroes the women who were still exacting their revenge on her 15 years later even though they'd turned out fine, blackballing her from jobs and refusing to help her find a home to rent? It might be queasily amusing when high school students ditch someone far from home without a ride, but when grown-ass women do it to each other, it's just pathetic. These "good Christian bitches" might have been sure they'd be saved from hellfire in the next life, but as far as I could tell, they deserved the suffering they were dishing out to each other in the Dallas heat in this one.
But I stuck by the show out of loyalty to Leslie Bibb, who plays Amanda Vaughn, widowed and returned home after her Ponzi-scheming husband drives his car off a cliff, for Annie Potts' magesterial scarlet bouffant, and for the man-candy. And then one day, I pulled up GCB on Hulu on Monday morning and realized I was watching the show for itself. GCB is no less campy than it was when it premiered—it is an ABC evening soap, after all—but its stereotypes have gained depth and become people, and they've started spending real time at church instead of just talking about it.
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GCB has done some of its richest emotional work with circumstances that other shows might treat as lurid or bizarre. One of them is the marriage of Cricket (Miriam Shor), one of Amanda's high school rivals, and her husband, Blake. Outwardly, they're both professional and intimate partners, co-entrepreneurs in a series of successful businesses and the parents of a teenaged girl. But theirs is a "white marriage"—Blake is gay, and he and Cricket are best friends. Instead of painting Blake as campy and Cricket as deluded, as another primetime show might, GCB has treated them with tenderness. It's explored their mutual jealousy over each other's sexual partners, Cricket's hurt when Blake works with Amanda on a project that is more of a threat to their happy complicity than a mere affair could be, and their desire to have a second child, a more complicated process when the traditional way is distasteful. GCB's portrait of their relationship is attentive to the power of secrets, mutual complicity, and the importance of good company to marriage, issues that often get short shrift.
Cricket and Blake's relationship may seem old-fashioned and weirdly self-denying. But it's just one way the show shows how people with conservative values actually get something positive out of those values, instead of painting them as self-deluding hypocrites. Amanda's mother, Gigi, gets a lot of zingers from her conservative beliefs: She suggests a quick call to former Vice President Dick Cheney for bullet-removal advice; she explains that "I've been through too much to cry. Husband's death, family trauma, democratic administrations. Don't worry. I got this." But she's not just a heartless, Red State stereotype. Her concern for her daughter's well-being is genuine. When Amanda starts working at a local variant of Hooters, Gigi and her Ladies Who Lunch show up at the bar as a show of support. And Gigi's dedication to Dallas institutions is precisely what Amanda needs after her husband dies and the feds seize her home and her furniture out from under her. She might prefer to hibernate and lick her wounds, but holding her chin up and going to church, appearing at Dallas's major social events and fundraisers, and turning out for her daughter's events at school prove to be just what Amanda needs. Sometimes, healing your reputation is a way to heal yourself.
The show also avoids stereotyping with Carlene (Kristin Chenoweth), the girl whom Amanda tortured worst in high school and who is least able to let go of their vendetta. Of all the characters on GCB, Carlene makes the biggest show of submitting to her husband, Ripp (David James Elliott), in accordance with their reading of Scripture. She demurs when he asks her to back down from her feud from Amanda, and takes instruction when she gets overly involved with a church pageant Watching them get hot quoting Bible verses at each other may be a little silly, and I'm not sure that the show makes the case that deferring to my husband would work for women who don't live in the wealthy Bible Belt. But within the GCB universe, it works for Ripp and Carlene, spicing up their sex life and providing a means of dispute resolution. And the show deals honestly with the difficulties of maintaining that power balance, particularly given Carlene's obsession with building a Christian living condo development that Ripp's told her repeatedly can't go up in the U.S. lest it violate equal access laws. It's a wacky dream, but one the show has slowly illuminated as a product of Carlene's former life as an outcast: She wants a refuge.
The characters' antics have been tamped down and channeled in more interesting directions as GCB's paid more attention to the institution that links all these women together: their church. The show's improvement dates from the third episode, when Amanda found herself at an event for Christian singles organized by their pastor, John Tudor (Tyler Jacob Moore). Sure, the exercises, like stuffing pinatas with their relationship secrets, are a little cheesy. But GCB had us realize along with Amanda that that maybe she needed a ceremony, however silly, to mark the end of her marriage and the beginning of her new life. In a later, poignant subplot, Sharon (Jennifer Aspen) gets overinvested in volunteering at the church when she and her husband Zach (Brad Beyer) hit a rough spot, and it's funny to watch this pampered lady tackle Ikea furniture for the first time and henpeck Pastor Tudor on her path to finding purpose. Pastor Tudor himself is blonde and a little blandly sweet, but GCB's provided him with a literally holier-than-thou rival seminary graduate at a neighboring church, and their desire to back their reverend in this earthly struggle gives the main characters something to unify around. The more time they spend pulling together uproariously over-the-top church pageants and scheming to out-smoke and out-sauce the church's male congregants at prestige barbecue competitions, the more fun GCB is.
ABC worried that both Christianity and the word "bitch" in the title would make it harder for GCB to find an audience, and the show, which has its season finale on Sunday, hasn't yet been renewed for a second season. But it turned out that the presence of both of those elements—Christianity and bitchiness—were just fine. In fact, to be successful, GCB just needed to get a little more Jesus into its characters' lives and its plots. And like Texas gals and the guns they occasionally flash, the show just needed to be sure where it was aiming its bitchiness before it pulled the trigger.