The new show GCB (formerly known as Good Christian Bitches) is a lot of fun. But it's also a missed opportunity. Set in a wealthy Dallas neighborhood where the wives of the 1% worship the twin deities of Jesus and Neiman Marcus, the show presents us with a familiar set of Southern mean girls. It's The Real Housewives of Atlanta or The Help, only whiter and with more punch lines and Bible verses.
The show satisfies our familiar recession-era desires for cartoonish rich women we can envy and enjoy and feel smugly superior to. Kristin Chenoweth is delightful as Carlene, the Bible-quoting Queen B, and Annie Potts is great as Gigi, the matriarch who testifies that "God often speaks to me through Christian Dior." But despite its guilty pleasures, the show still isn't what I was hoping for: a knowing, affectionate-yet-satirical look at the absorbing and sometimes bitchy subculture of churches and church ladies. The religious aspects of the show feel almost incidental. Honestly it's not clear what we'd be missing if the Christian part of GCB were taken out.
Part of the problem is that in GCB there's no real difference between the world of the church and the mansions and malls around it. In GCB, church isn't a distinct subculture: it's a seamless part of the surrounding culture, and it follows exactly the same rules.
This may be true for upper-crust Dallas-dwellers, but for many church-going Americans it's not. I've been a member of or worked in five different congregations, and what I've found most fascinating and satisfying about Christian culture is that it's an odd, intense microcosm that brings together people who would never ordinarily hang out. Sometimes churchgoers have nothing in common except church.
And the very best sitcoms about Christianity (which are also incidentally some of the best sitcoms ever) have exploited the comic potential of church's strange social heterogeneity. The addictive British shows The Vicar of Dibley (1994-2007) and Father Ted (1995-1998) bring together a motley assortment of characters who have profoundly different backgrounds, ages, styles, desires, beliefs, and aspirations. Because they all happen to be Anglican parishioners or Irish priests, these absurdly mismatched people have to figure out how to relate to each other. It's hysterical, and (for the theologically inclined) it's also kind of beautiful.
In GCB, women strive for exactly the same kinds of success and meaning in their Christian lives that they do everywhere else. But in real life, and in the best church fiction and comedy, the Church Lady or "GCB" is striving for completely different prizes and completely different kinds of spiritual and social fulfillment.
The beauty of being a Christian B is that you don't just exist in the same world that everyone else does. You also exist in a parallel world of Sunday School, small groups, church council, choir, Bible studies, rummage sales, soup kitchens, and picnics. And the stakes in Christian world are both far lower and far higher than anything the mall or country club might have to offer. What matters is not Louboutins and boob jobs, but coffee-hour cookies and the power of prayer; your opinion of the new organist and your relationship with Jesus; whether you approve of the new stained-glass window and what you think about eternal salvation. The battles are so fierce because the stakes are both tiny and total. It's transcendent and absurd.
America is due for a great Christian-themed sitcom or dramedy, and GCB is not it. It doesn't do much with its Christian premise beyond the John 3:16 references and Amazing-Grace ringtones. But it's still pretty satisfying as a show about badly-behaved Southern belles. Even though GCB is not as Christian as it could be, it's good enough and bitchy enough to keep me watching.