By Stacey Harrison
Beavis and Butt-Head has been off the air for more than a decade, but its influence can still be seen in creator Mike Judge’s work. For King of the Hill, he simply fine-tuned the redneck accent of the slacker duo’s crotchety neighbor, Mr. Anderson, and gave us Hank Hill. For his new project, The Goode Family, it’s hard to listen to the dulcet tones of main character Gerald Goode and not hear hippie New Age teacher Mr. Van Driessen.
There’s also a nice symmetry with King of the Hill, which took a warm jab at small-town life and was happy to let its politically incorrect protagonist be right once in a while. The Goode Family skewers the other end of the spectrum, mining humor from the smugness and inadvertent catastrophes that can arise from always doing the left-wing version of the right thing. It’s very much like watching Stuff White People Like in sitcom form. The very first shot focuses on the myriad of feel-good bumper stickers slapped onto the back of the Goodes’ electric car. “Support Our Troops … And Their Opponents.” “I Don’t Eat Anything With a Face.” “Burn Fat Not Oil.” “Compost Happens.” To name a few. They’re toiling away in their organic garden, wondering about the proper label for people with dark skin. African-American? Black? Something with “Negro” in it, perhaps? It’s hard to tell, since they’re not able to attend the annual conference where all the minorities gather to suss out such things. Their African-American neighbor is patient with them, shrugging off their nuttiness and enjoying his beef jerky in front of their vegan faces.
Heading the family are Gerald (Judge) and Helen (Nancy Carell nee Walls), who believe they’re doing their part to make the world a better place with their strict environmentalism and multicultural sensitivity. They even tried to adopt an African baby in order to combat racism, but ended up with a white child from South Africa. That didn’t stop them from naming him Ubuntu and dressing him in traditional African garb. Ubuntu (David Herman) is now 16 and wants to drive. Helen is against it, but Gerald strikes a compromise. Ubuntu will drive only in an emergency. Their daughter, Bliss (Linda Cardellini), is a typical rebellious teenager who is obviously growing tired of her parents’ extreme ways.
Helen fears she’s losing touch with Bliss, and decides to take her to the local Whole Foods-type grocery store for some mother-daughter bonding. Because nothing brings a family together like shopping for “Fair trade locally grown sustainably harvested certified organic” produce, right? Bliss isn’t having it, bolting from Mom the second they’re in the store. Helen instead runs into some snobby acquaintances who are always surprised to see her shopping there because she doesn’t have a rich husband like they do. Helen overcompensates a bit, running up a $146 bill, which she’s just barely able to cover, until — horror of horrors — she realizes she has neglected to bring a reusable bag. Thinking on her feet, she says she doesn’t use those bags because they’re made in sweatshops, prompting everyone in the store to carry out their loads by hand.
(Digression: This scene brought to mind a recent observation by my dad — a man who would make Hank Hill proud — who remarked that if you had tried to bring your own bag into a store even 10 years ago, they’d have put a security detail on you immediately.)
Still, the snobby friends hit home when they notice some distance between Helen and Bliss, as Bliss is chatting up a young filmmaker who tells her he’s going to be filming a dance that weekend but is planning a Michael Moore-stye ambush in order to espouse his own radical beliefs. The ladies brag about how close they are to their own daughters. Why, once the little darlings told their moms they were sexually active, they marched right down to the Reproductive Health Center and got some contraception. Helen takes Bliss to the college campus where Gerald works and finds an info booth labeled “Safe Sex,” only to find out it’s run by a religious abstinence-only sect. Repulsed, she takes her over to the birth-control booth.
But Bliss shows up at home later, defiantly telling her mother that she has decided to stay abstinent. Not only that, she’s asked Gerald to accompany her to a Purity Ball dance. Gerald is thrilled at the idea, but Helen feels her daughter is about to be indoctrinated into some nutty cult. Gerald reasons with her to not be so judgmental. You know, that whole acceptance-of-other-people’s-ideas and such. But while that’s fine for minorities or “backward rainforest tribes,” Helen just can’t do it for evangelical Christians.
The dance turns out to be a freak show, where daughters give a ring to their fathers that symbolizes their virginity. It will be given back on her wedding night. This is all true, BTW. Gerald and Bliss decide they gotta get out of that place, if it’s the last thing they ever do. Adding pressure is the presence of that goateed filmmaker Bliss was chatting up at the grocery store, who has a video camera and is planning to put his impending Michael Moore moment on YouTube. Being in academia, Gerald knows he could never live this down, while Bliss reasons that she’s already a vegan and can’t afford any more weirdness if she wants to survive high school. They call home, but Helen has dipped into a bottle of wine and is in no condition to drive. This is the perfect opportunity for Ubuntu to respond to an emergency and take the car. After a quick detour drag racing and doing donuts, he finally makes it there and spirits them away in the nick of time. Back at home, Helen apologizes to Bliss for being pushy, and Bliss tells her mom she was right about the purity ball crowd.
All in all, pretty funny. But I’m left wondering how this premise will play long-term. King of the Hill definitely had small-town, red-state behavior as its main target, but the characters lived and breathed beyond all that, developing their own quirks and credible story lines. In short, they were likable and not defined by their politics. It’s hard to tell if the Goodes will be the same. These people aren’t all that likable yet, though Gerald and Bliss seem to be the sanest of the bunch. The black, meat-eating neighbor and Helen’s Hummer-driving dad (Brian Doyle-Murray) might have to do some heavy lifting as time goes on. And the vegan dog is funny, but those cutaways of him lusting after neighborhood cats and birds probably won’t stay fresh for long.
But shows need time to find their way. Even shows that go on to be great often have rocky starts and seemingly paint themselves into corners. King of the HIll is a good example. Hank was pretty one-dimensional at first, but eventually became one of the more nuanced characters on television. And I rarely turn past a Seinfeld rerun, unless it’s one of those early episodes. I’m willing to give Mike Judge as much time as he needs.
Photo: © 2009 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.