Can y’all tell me the difference between a stereotype and a caricature?
And does it matter anymore, seeing as how we conduct most of our pop-cultural transactions with constant doses of both?
For the record — and, yes, I once knew — a caricature exaggerates someone’s mannerisms for satirical effect, while a stereotype is an intractable image of a person or cultural group (Texans, let’s say) that allows no room for individuality or exceptions to the most trite perceptions. Whether we’re dishing TV shows, politics or Asian American basketball players, we’ve somehow got it fixed in our purdy li’l heads that a stereotype is a whole lot worse than a caricature. Truth is, they can both be simultaneously spot-on and also harmfully unimaginative.
The above paragraph might indicate that I’m giving extra-thinky thoughts to the first episode of “G.C.B.,” a sparklingly stupid new ABC dramedy/soap about the manicured cruelties and high-hair hypocrisies of a certain sort of conservative, Christian woman who lives in the toniest part of Dallas.
But “G.C.B.,” a late-season candidate to replace the network’s drain-circling “Desperate Housewives” on Sunday nights, doesn’t give a viewer much to smart-off about. Even as a work of harmless vapidity, “G.C.B.” has a difficult time enlivening its oversimplified premise.
It is executive-produced by Darren Starr, who brought “Sex and the City” to HBO and sustained it through a very long, very pink moment in which its women fans were humiliatingly encouraged to define themselves by the broadly stroked traits of the show’s four characters. (Are you a Carrie? Or are you a Miranda?) The “Sex and the City” moment overstayed its welcome, and with any luck it accidentally offed itself with a dreadful 2010 movie sequel, which critic Lindy West, writing in Seattle’s Stranger newspaper, compared to watching “a home video of gay men playing with giant Barbie dolls.”
Similarly, “G.C.B.” feels like a freshly unboxed set of life-size Rodeo Barbies arranged around a notion of what living in Dallas must be like. Based on a successful self-published 2008 novel with a network (and newspaper) unfriendly title (“Good Christian B------”), the show is aimed at women, but you can tell it’s been cooked up mainly by men whose intent is transparent. Just one woman shares a producer credit; the rest are men whose credits include “Ugly Betty” and “Steel Magnolias,” and who, like Starr, prefer women who interact best in cartoon dust-up clouds of claws and hissy fits.
Leslie Bibb stars as Amanda, the wife of a Ponzi-scheme criminal and adulterer who meets his demise the way all such imaginary cads do — while receiving a sexual favor from a girlfriend in a speeding Porsche that plummets off a seaside cliff. Widowed, raising two teenagers and in the midst of a federal seizure of her California manse, Amanda makes one thing clear to her attorney: “I don’t care how bad things are, I will never go back to Dallas!”
Which, of course, means she goes back to Dallas, to live temporarily in the ostentatious estate belonging to her over-the-top mother, Gigi, played by Annie Potts, who digs her heels into the best role she’s had in years. Possessing a pair of Doberman pinscher guard dogs named Tony and Romo and brimming with a hateful Neiman Marcus-flavored sugar, Gigi is equipped with the drawled daggers that people equate with the Big D’s doyennes: “God often speaks to me through Christian Dior,” she says. When Amanda resists taking her teens to her mother’s fancy Baptist church on Sunday, Gigi gets ugly: “Cut the commie crap. My grandchildren are going to church so they can go to heaven. End of story. Amen.”
The neighborhood is called Hillside Park, which is just a few letters and a slight exaggeration off from the actual Highland Park part of Dallas. (The peer pressures and social mores of Highland Park run hot and expensive enough to give rich people anywhere occasion to pause.) Filmed in Dallas, “G.C.B.” strives only for the barest measure of accuracy — to try any harder would be wasted effort, because all anyone wants from a show like this are gross cliches.
It has been this way with Dallas and television ever since “Dallas” first aired in 1978 (and will again, this summer, in a relaunched version on TNT). But Dallas is never as interesting on the TV screen as it is in person — something about it becomes flatter, duller. That goes for fictional and reality shows; producers arrive from L.A. and just can’t resist the ample visual shorthand: big hair, cleavage, Stetsons. The lazy mythos is woven with interstitial shots of steers and busy freeway stacks looming over the pastures.
Like the good people of New Jersey, Texans have no justifiable grounds to protest whenever TV decides to typify and mock them. That’s because no one perpetuates Texan stereotypes more than Texans themselves. It’s a sustainable brand value: That’s just how we are here. That’s Texas for ya, etc.
Soon enough, Amanda must reckon with her past as the vicious popular girl of Hillside High’s class of 1991. Although she moved on and became a nicer person, a clique of her frenemies never forgot. Led by Kristin Chenoweth — who gives a hammy, halfhearted portrayal as Amanda’s bitterest rival — they now scheme to make her life miserable, and so Amanda must rediscover her bite. From that point on, “G.C.B.” is just another sorry exercise in watching allegedly adult women behave horribly toward one another. That’s just how it is here.
(one hour) premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on ABC.