On 'GCB,' Mean Girls Never Grow Up
The new ABC show has sparked controversy for portraying Christians negatively, but the real problem is how it wastes a talented cast.
GCB arrives on television this weekend on a wave of controversy. The ABC soap about a former high-school mean girl who returns home after her Ponzi-schemer husband dies was initially called Good Christian Bitches, after the self-published novel from which it is adapted. Then the network retreated to Good Christian Belles, and finally to the nigh-incomprehensible GCB. Some conservatives have peremptorily slammed the show as a slander on Christian womanhood. Ultimately, however, GCB is neither an act of piety nor heresy. Mostly a waste of its stars, Leslie Bibb and Kristin Chenoweth, the series turns the clever concept of setting a show in a church into an utterly routine round of mean-girl slagging.
Both the novel and the show follow the misadventures of Amanda Vaughn when she retreats to Dallas after her marriage ends. In the book, Amanda is a blameless caricature rather than an actual person: rich, gorgeous, nice, and back home after divorcing her cheating husband. Her tormenters are portrayed as bitter, husbandless sluts. ABC's improved on that dynamic and slapped on a gloss of relevance by making Amanda's husband a swindler, and dead, and more importantly, making it clear that Amanda was, once upon a time, a vicious bully. When she arrives in Dallas, her assets are frozen and she's forced to work in an off-brand Hooters owned by one of her former tormentees, Carlene Cockburn (Chenoweth). Before Amanda has time to make amends, Carlene and her friends go to war. The rest is nastiness and designer clothing.
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The commentators at the conservative website Big Hollywood have slammed GCB as an attack on evangelical Christians. And while they might still be dismayed by the show's portrait of ostensibly Christian women as conniving backstabbers who rely on Google rather than their pastors for spiritual counsel, the show takes Christianity and conservative ideas more seriously than perhaps any other show currently airing on network television. When Amanda tells her mother that she and her late husband wanted their children to find their own spiritual paths, her mother dismisses the sentiment as "Commie crap," a blast from the '50s that's played as straight as anything else we see on-screen—the family ends up regular churchgoers.
Similarly, Amanda's saved from some of Carlene's machinations in the second episode when Carlene's husband reminds her that the Bible counsels women to submit to their husbands. That may not be the way I want to live my life, but it's notable that the show takes it in stride. GCB's characters have their own decision-making criteria, and the show tries to be consistent to them. And watching Amanda fortify herself for battle with scripture, or Carlene look for a Bible verse that would justify her desire to spread a piece of juicy gossip are among the more entertaining parts of the show. It's always interesting to see people struggle with the rules that govern their lives, especially when those rules are in tension with the temptations of modern life.
Unfortunately, the temptations Amanda and her adversaries face aren't necessarily ones that will tantalize us, even in a guilty-pleasure sort of way. ABC's done very well with Revenge, its show about a woman who returns to the Hamptons to wreak havoc on the neighbors who did her wrong as a child, in part because all the drama makes sense. If the lady next door had a long-standing affair with your father, framed him for laundering money for a terrorist group, and helped send him to prison where he eventually died, it seems emotionally reasonable that you would want to humiliate her.
There's something decidedly more sour about a group of women who were enemies in high school trying to inflict awful damage on each other all those years later. Amanda sounds like she was an absolutely dreadful teenager—spreading rumors that someone has herpes is heinous bullying, though boyfriend-stealing is a decidedly lesser sin. But it's difficult to root for women who spend their days spying on each other through giant telescopes, playing childish pranks, and saying hurtful things to the people who are supposed to be their friends. More than anything else, GCB makes me wish these spoiled, rich women had jobs so they'd have less time to spend savaging each other. It's no mistake that the only tolerable character is Heather Cruz, a successful realtor who tries to make peace between Amanda and Carlene.
There's a glimmer of an interesting, more nuanced show every time Heather appears on screen, or in the moments when Amanda has to reckon with what the high school traditions she helped establish mean for her daughter. But instead, GCB seems to take most pleasure in a war of attrition that for most of us ends when we head off to college and the rest of our lives. Even the most vicious mean girls eventually grow up, and seeing who they become is a lot more interesting than watching them torture each other.