Sunday, May 31, 2009

TV: The Goode Family's Bad Misfortune

"Being good is so hard," whines Helen Goode. The problem for this woman wearing a "Met is Murder" t-shirt? Her son has brought her elephant dung for her organic garden but it's from a circus and they exploit animals .

You're in the mind of Mike Judge as he offers up his latest animated program, The Goode Family, kicking off the second hour of prime time each Wednesday night on ABC.

The worst decision Fox made for its schedule this spring was cancelling Judge's King of the Hill. The Hill family weren't running out of juice and each season brought new developments. This fall, Fox Sunday nights will be Seth MacFarlane plus The Simpsons. American Dad, Family Guy and his new Family Guy spin-off revolving around Cleveland. Cleveland is an African-American character . . . voiced by a White man. Created by a White man. Fox and MacFarlane may find themselves facing some stinging critiques even if the tone doesn't go wrong, even if they maintain what Cleveland's done (what little he's done) on Family Guy. When he gets his show, a lot of people will be judging Cleveland, and what the character's pop cultural meaning is, differently than when he was just one of many second bananas. If that happens and Fox has to yank the show immediately, they really have nothing to fill the half-hour.

That's only one problem. Another problem, a likely one, is burnout. Either on the part of MacFarlane or the audience. MacFarlane's shows can be very ugly. ("You've got AIDs, oh, yes, you've got AIDs, Not HIV but full blown AIDS . . ." sung by a barbershop quartet to a man in a hospital.) They also struggle with telling a story or, rather, with concluding one. In one episode of Family Guy, they spoof NBC's PSAs and while it's a little funny, it's actually more obvious that having had Lois turn into a gambling addict, Peter and Chris go on a Vision Quest, Stewie doing stand up, etc., they had no where left to go but several minutes of time still to kill.

They kill a lot of time. Largely with fantasy scenes and cut-aways. Story telling is not MacFarlane's strong suit. When it works -- and often his shows do, it's a pop culture sponge that's soaked up everything and, as its being squeezed dry, several funny moments fall out. It's absurdist and some can never get past the talking baby. So much so that you honestly don't get why they're shocked that a baby (Stewie) can talk but never that the American baby speaks with a British accent. Yeah, that's the normal part, the accent.

American Dad started off as a weak copy of Family Guy (which is largely a rip-off of The Simpsons -- though the idiots who do SouthPark keep insisting they're the ones being ripped off) and it wasn't worth watching. Then, in the first season, the alien Roger did a favor for Steve and played his sister. That required dress up. Roger's dress up added a fantasy element that has taken the show to heights it never dreamed of (such as when Roger goes to work for the CIA or when Roger and Hayley compete to see who guys find cuter). Roger and Hayley share a fondness for dress up and a bantering and antagonistic relationship that's similar to Brian and Stewie. (By contrast, Steve seems even weaker when he's paired with Roger.)

A lot of the greatest bits of inspiration come out of no where and it's to Seth MacFarlane's credit that he's always open to those bits. If the spin-off gets off to a shaky start, he can probably fix it by the end of the first season. But will audiences wait that long and do they really want three shows from him in one night? Three shows with the exact same view points? Three shows with the exact same comedic references?

ABC though they had gold in the seventies. Monday, Tuesday, Happy Days . . . went the theme song to their highly popular sitcom. And those two dates for Fonzie and Richie, Laverne and Shirley, they might make a good spinoff. Laverne & Shirley made a great spin off. And in it's weird way, so did Mork & Mindy even if it was set two decades after Mork's face off with Fonzie. But there were other shows. Blansky's Beauties, anyone? Nancy Walker as Mr. C's cousin Nancy Blanksy. What's not to love? Actually, a lot. Even with Roz Kelly playing Pinky Tuscadero. Joanie Loves Chachi couldn't even make it to twenty episodes.

And that was with different actors to flesh out the roles. The animation of MacFarlane's shows all look the same. Will people sit through three shows by the same person on one night?

It's doubtful.

But what was known was that the Hill family could be placed anywhere. With promotion, they could be hits. Without it, even just dropped blindly into the Fox schedule, they could still pull in an audience. While MacFarlane's show focuses on the absurd and doesn't fret over story logic, Judge attempts to tell a compelling story each episode. The characters are also more recognizably human.

That's true of The Goode Family as well. But before we get to that, we heard from ABC about the show Wednesday morning. We weren't, they wondered, going to say that the family didn't use recycled bags were we?

Why in the world would we say that?

We watched the episode. Helen Goode takes her daughter, Bliss, to One Foods in an attempt to impress her and bond with her only to spend everything in her wallet on the overpriced food. She forgot her canvas bag and sees the store sells them for $10, then she looks in her empty wallet. The checker asks her -- to the horror of everyone watching -- whether she wants paper or plastic? Seeing the judgemental stares, Helen asks for neither and lies, "I know a lot of people are comfortable shopping with reusable bags but I'm not -- they're made in sweat shops."

It was a funny moment.

Actually several.

Provided you had a sense of humor.

And a brain.

Guess who didn't?

The Idiot Bellafante. Yeah, we've warned you about Gina -- or "Ginia" to be both accurate and pretentious -- before. She truly is an idiot and this is what she offered last week:

[. . .] the Goodes, a family of zealot, vegan, recycling nut cases who don't fight over paper versus plastic because they believe in neither.
"I know a lot of people are comfortable shopping with reusable bags," Helen Goode (the voice of Nancy Carell) explains as she piles her groceries into her arms in the checkout line of a pseudo Whole Foods. "But I'm not. They're made in sweatshops." The Goodes have a dog named Che [. . .]

You did read that correctly. The Idiot Bellafante was apparently speed watching or out of the room when the lengthy set up for the joke took place. She indicates something took place which did not, in fact, take place. Helen uses reusable bags. She forgot her own. Her sweat shop line was a face saving lie.

As if to prove what a moron she is, The New York Times features that exact clip as a 'bonus' to her article online. We'd call it a 'corrective' if there had been a correction.

Of course the only real corrective would be firing The Idiot Bellfante. What does it say about our society that the careless Idiot Bellafante keeps her job while so many hard workers are fired from their own?

The woman's so stupid she mistakes a joke, a character bluffing, for reality. The paper's so stupid they let her get away so much garbage.

Second example, " . . . King of the Hill forged a brilliant neutrality, affectionately portraying the common-sense, ranch-house life of a Christian family in Texas while mocking provincial mediocrity enough to appease the yen for regional condescension on the coasts. You could love it in Cambridge; you could love it in Little Rock." We're not sure they loved it in Cambridge or Little Rock but we'd be willing to bet that anyone who ever saw the show is scratching their heads right now.

Por que?

The Hill's lived in a suburb. It's thought to be loosely based on Garland, a suburb of Dallas (where Mike Judge grew up). Garland is a suburb. The Hills live in the suburbs, in a tract house, and The Idiot Bellafante has them living in a "ranch-house." In her opening paragraph. Yes, she's that stupid. Yes, she's that uninformed. Yes, The New York Times cares so damn little about accuracy they let her get away with her crap -- over and over.

"My dad is insane and ignorant," exclaims Helen at the start of the show of the Brian Doyle Murray voiced character. Helen's mother's not seen but if she is also "insane and ignorant," we'd suggest The Idiot Bellafante set up an audition pronto.

The current line up of characters is Helen, her husband Gerald (voiced by Mike Judge), their adopted son Ubuntu (David Herman) and Bliss (Linda Cardellini). Julia Sweeney provides the voice for one of Helen's rivals and more characters will be introduced in additional episodes. But the focus, as the title indicates, is the Goode Family.

Visually, it's already got a strong look. Whether it's the backgrounds or the characters and their movements, this isn't a cheaply drawn show. Project Love Adoption Agency is on and off the screen in a quick flashback but, if you paid attention to the visuals, you were provided with several laughs in those thirty or so seconds. Ubuntu, you should quickly notice, is drawn like Richard Nixon. The first episode revolves around Helen feeling Bliss is not close to her. Gerald counsels, "Don't worry, if you weren't close, she wouldn't feel comfortable ignoring you like that." Bliss, rebellling against her parents, joins a chastity group and gets her father to escort her to a "purity ball."

There are non-stop jokes and threads and about the time a Seth MacFarlane show would have Peter turn to the camera and say, "That's all we got this week, folks," everything comes together for a satisfying and, yes, funny conclusion as Che, starving for meat, goes after a neighborhood cat continuing the running joke that all the missing animals on the block have actually been eaten by Che.

Will ABC eat The Goode Family? ABC's not known for doing a great job with primetime animation. In the early nineties, Jane Wagner and Lily Tomlin poured their hearts into some amazing Edith Ann specials (A Few Pieces of the Puzzle, Homeless Go Home and Just Say Noel) which they hoped would result in ABC green lighting an animated series. Despite critical praise, ABC passed. More craziness ensued four years after the last Edith Ann special when ABC then gave Kevin Smith a green light to make an animated program out of his first film. That would be the funny and raunchy Clerks. To no one's surprise, ABC was unhappy and burned the episodes off (two of them, four they never aired) after the spring finales of all their regular shows. Which, yes, is what they're now doing with The Goode Family.

ABC's not floating in the tank the way NBC is. But it's not CBS either. If it could go back in time, it would probably love to steal The Simpsons from Fox, probably love to have a cheaply made program that's been a hit for twenty years this December. They'll never get that by starting and stopping with animated programs. At some point, ABC's going to have to wipe the sweat off its palms and go all the way. Until that happens, the animated corpses will pile up. Translation, catch The Goode Family while you still can.
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