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.