It’s arguably the most anticipated new series of the television mid-season: on March 4, ABC will premiere G.C.B., in the coveted Sunday-night time slot following Desperate Housewives. Based on the 2008 novel Good Christian Bitches, by Dallas resident Kim Gatlin (the show’s title got changed after protests from faith-based groups), the series, which follows a recently widowed Los Angeles woman forced to move back in with her socialite mother in Dallas, certainly has a solid pedigree. It was created by Steel Magnolias scribe Robert Harling, and the villainess is played by Emmy- and Tony-winning actress Kristin Chenoweth (Pushing Daisies), who has never quite found the successful TV role she deserves.
Let your enthusiasm stop right there. Cartoonish, shiny, and self-consciously overheated, G.C.B. could theoretically become a hit among Desperate Housewives fans who don’t mind sitting through a chicken-fried retread. But the show turns out to be a romp through a field of clichés, from the Neiman Marcus–shopping socialites to the closeted cowboys to the Bible-thumping, Botoxed hypocrites. It begins with a creaky plot device—a woman discovers that all of her assets have been frozen because her late husband was involved in a Bernie Madoff–like scheme—and then just keeps getting creakier. Amanda Vaughn (Leslie Bibb) packs up her two children and moves them into the sprawling mansion of her boozy, tart-tongued mother, Gigi (Annie Potts). Across the street, Amanda’s high school rival, queen bee Carlene Cockburn (Chenoweth), stands poised at the window, spying on her new neighbor, eager to spread gossip around the high-toned neighborhood. Incidental pleasures aside (Jennifer Aspen is very funny as a once svelte, now candy-bar-munching former classmate of Amanda’s), inanity carries the day. The characters convene each Sunday at church, where they lob thinly veiled barbs at one another in the form of prayer, and the dialogue never quite rises above the level of “Big hair is a sign of confidence, and confidence never goes out of style.”
Shrug it off as just another network misfire, right? In light of a number of other Texas-set shows that have gone bust, though, it’s hard not to wonder if the stiltedness of G.C.B. speaks to a larger dilemma, a kind of crisis of identity that seems to be paralyzing our state. Consider the casualties: My Generation, a fictional drama about a group of teenagers in Austin being followed for a documentary, was canceled by ABC before anyone could even grasp the confounding premise. The Good Guys, on Fox, and Chase, on NBC, both tried to use assorted Dallas–Fort Worth landmarks to juice up hackneyed procedural stories; they lasted only twenty and eighteen episodes, respectively. Lone Star, a dark, appealingly glamorous story of a con man set in Houston and Midland, was bungled by Fox, which marketed the idiosyncratic thriller as a generically titled, modern-day twist on Dallas. Adding insult to the widespread injury, after five critically acclaimed but ratings-starved seasons, NBC finally pulled the plug on Friday Night Lights, a well-intentioned series that, if we’re being perfectly honest, always seemed to appeal more to the cultural tastemakers on the coasts than to the small-town people whose lives it was supposed to reflect.
It’s a problem we also see played out regularly on reality television (see Bravo’s dismal Most Eligible: Dallas) and on the nightly news (see the epic reality show that is Governor Rick Perry’s misfired presidential campaign). As much as we tell ourselves that we’re living at the center of the zeitgeist, the Texas story being put forth these days isn’t resonating with the rest of America. And the reason for that may be because all of us—both consumers of popular culture and creators of it—have become too comfortable using the crutch of stereotype. Quite plainly, we seem to like the idea of non-Texans viewing us as a little bit backward.
Where do these Lone Star stories go wrong? Why do they keep letting us down and denying us the Texas television show that we might be proud to call our own? In this regard, the banality of G.C.B. is instructive: it reminds us that, given the choice between the broad and the specific, these shows always seem to opt for the broad. At one point in the first episode, for instance, Amanda secures a job as a waitress at a fictional, Hooters-like establishment called Booby-Licious. But why not locate the scene in a real-life Metroplex “breastaurant”—say, Twin Peaks or Bikinis, to cite but two of the myriad possibilities? (The G.C.B. pilot was filmed in Dallas, though subsequent episodes were mostly shot on soundstages in Los Angeles.) Why opt for the make-believe when the truth is so much more compelling and ridiculous? We saw the same misguided impulse on The Good Guys, which rendered Dallas’s eclectic Deep Ellum into a no-man’s-land of pawnshops and gangbangers, and even more so on Chase, which gave the impression that cattle are still regularly roaming the streets of the Metroplex. It’s as if the creators are afraid that a genuine portrait of Texas won’t match up to the rest of the country’s hackneyed perceptions, so they don’t bother trying.
You might think that the networks would have learned their lesson by now, since turning the Texas experience into a caricature clearly hasn’t translated into ratings. Yet Hollywood isn’t going to change its ways when that lesson hasn’t even been absorbed within our own borders. The default position on these shows among the statewide media has mostly been exhorting and boosterish; no one seems to want to call them out for being lousy, likely out of fear that we’ll end up steering other, potentially lucrative productions to neighboring states. And when you look at the “real” Texans on television, the ones who presumably have some degree of control over their image, you see the same perverse typecasting. On A&E’s American Hoggers, for instance, a Texas family of wild boar hunters behaves in a manner that makes the Beverly Hillbillies look like the Magnificent Ambersons. Perhaps most jarring was Rick Perry’s now- notorious “Strong” campaign ad, in which the candidate wore a shiny belt buckle and barn jacket and walked through a field of undulant green, railing against gays in the military and the lack of prayer in schools. It was little wonder that the video went viral and then turned into a national goof, with one Photoshopped version featuring Tinky Winky the Teletubby bouncing in the background. When your identity is rooted entirely in prepackaged cliché—when you give people what you think they want instead of something organic and sincere—you’re already well on the road to self-parody.
Does Texas have any hope of reversing this dispiriting trend? Fingers remain crossed for the June premiere of TNT’s reboot of Dallas, which has been filming throughout North Texas since last fall and which producers promise will capture the flavor of present-day Big D. For now, though, we need to demand more of those who portray us to the world and resist the parade of stereotypes so regularly propagated (such as on this season’s Texas-set edition of the normally excellent Top Chef, where the challenges have mostly revolved around chops, chili, and rodeos and where co-host Tom Colicchio keeps turning up in awkward-fitting cowboy gear). More pressingly, we need to demand more of ourselves. When we look in the mirror, few of us see good ol’ boys or mean girls, shiny cars or sprawling ranches, so why are we complacent with these reflections remaining the culturally dominant ones? The stakes might seem small—it’s just TV, after all—but don’t be mistaken. If we stay the current course, we’re in danger of becoming defined by a decades-old iconography that now represents only a tiny portion of the population. Worse than not having a network series that we can proudly call our own, we’re going to end up stuck with a set of images that makes us shrink away in embarrassment.