This past Wednesday evening, I could hardly believe my eyes when I watched the season premier of The Goode Family, a new animated sitcom on ABC by Mike Judge (along with John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky). The show, which chronicles the trials and tribulations of an environmentally-responsible, culturally-sensitive middle class American family, was absolutely hilarious. But it wasn’t Judge’s usual sense of wry cultural commentary that got me (see his other creations like Beavis & Butthead, Office Space, and Idiocracy for that). My amazement had more to do with the culture that he was commenting on. Let me explain.
Comedy shows, from SNL to The Daily Show to Judge’s own King of the Hill, have made a habit of satirizing the views and values of conservative America. But this new show has targeted a whole new demographic: the vegan, eco-conscious, politically-correct, ever-concerned-about-the-global-impacts-of-their-every-choice crowd that has made Whole Foods one of the most successful companies in the world and played a significant role in electing America’s first African American president. And while I found the show to be genius (I’m a green, Barack Obama idolizing kind of guy), it has received some pretty scathing critiques from reviewers of the more liberal persuasion who may not be able to handle it when the joke’s on them.
The premise is fantastic. Helen Goode, a middle-aged activist who sports a “Meat Is Murder” t-shirt for most of the episode, and her husband Gerald, an administrator at a local community college who rides his bike to work (of course!), are trying to navigate the contradictions inherent in raising their family according to the less-than-a-decade-old moral philosophy, WWAGD? or “What Would Al Gore Do?”
They adopted their 16-year-old “African” American son, for example, in an effort “to fight racism and inequality in the world.” But much to their bleeding heart’s dismay, during the adoption process they forgot to check a box on a form and received a child from South Africa—a blond-haired caucasian Afrikaner baby whom they named Ubuntu.
Their daughter, Bliss, is a classic case of Gen-Y cynicism, tech-savviness, and sarcasm (not to mention her perfectly slumped text-messaging posture) and is constantly poking holes in her parents’ worldview. Last but not least is the family dog, named Che after the South American revolutionary and countercultural icon. Che has been put on a strict vegan diet, and much to the dismay of the neighborhood pets, is constantly looking to supplement his protein-deficient organic golden flaxseed chow with a parakeet, cat, or goldfish (check out the video below to see Che in action).
While the premiere episode was chock full of penetrating one-liners and awkwardly insightful scenarios, one scene in particular stood out above the rest. Helen decides that it’s important for she and her teenage daughter to be more open with each other about sexuality. But her plan backfires when Bliss, who is creeped out by the idea of talking sex with her mother, rebelliously joins a Christian-sponsored chastity group. Infuriated by the idea of a Goode family member fraternizing with “those abstinence people who wear Amercian flag pins,” Helen voices her concerns to her husband, hoping for sympathy. But Gerald’s response presents her with one of the hilarious contradictions faced on the path to perfect political correctness: “Maybe we shouldn’t be so judgmental,” he says. “Don’t we always try to celebrate people’s differences and learn from them?” To which Helen responds, “Sure, if they’re like Native Americans or backwards rainforest tribes. But not these people!”
Ouch! With scenes like this, which are so implicating for a dyed-in-the-wool liberal that one can’t quite decide whether to laugh or squirm, it’s no wonder that many reviewers have claimed that the show is a conservative attack on progressive values—another battle in the culture war, where liberals are finally getting a dose of the ridicule that they’ve been dishing out for years. But in actuality the show’s creators are anything but anti-green. In fact, their own ability to perfectly convey the mood and subtle contradictions of this worldview stem from the fact they themselves grapple with and embody everything that appears on the screen. Watching interviews with the writers, animators, and actors reveals a familiar and sophisticated sort of insight into the postmodern condition that could only come from having been tortured by it oneself (see Ross Robertson’s recent post, “Pomoboarding“) and who are searching for some way to gain objectivity on it all. As Altschuler said on a recent CNN interview, “The whole show is about the knots we’ve found ourselves put in.” (Che, for example, is based on his friend’s vegan dog.)
The show’s creators believe that The Goode Family is a perfect response to the cultural zeitgeist, in which moral dilemmas like those faced by the Goodes (Paper or Plastic? Organic or Local? What should we call minorities?) have become common. But a flurry of reviewers begged to differ, most notably those from NPR, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The New York Times. The Times’ Ginia Bellafonte called the show “aggressively off-kilter with the current mood” in her review, suggesting that poking fun at wind power and organic food is oh so mid-nineties, and wondering why anyone would want to criticize ideals that have become broadly accepted. Others have said that the premise is too easy a target and that the jokes will soon get old.
But I think that the reviewers miss a pretty significant point when they write the show off as merely outdated and tired (their critiques may be due to the fact that the show makes fun of a world that, for them, has become a little too close to home). What is most interesting to me about The Goode Family is that it shows how the once countercultural values of the 60s have become so popular that an entire network TV show is dedicated to poking fun at them (much like Judge’s other hit, King of the Hill, poked fun at the older and much more established BBQ and Jesus culture of middle America). In other words, it seems that what we consider “mainstream” has evolved. And now those who are pushing the mainstream edge may no longer be progressives dissing conservatives, but those who are starting to see through the progressive worldview itself–from the inside out. As Variety magazine’s Brian Lowry points out, “assuming liberals can laugh at their own foibles, ABC might just have TV’s first true Obama-era sitcom on its hands.”
The premiere episode’s final scene perfectly sums up The Goode Family‘s fundamental mood. When Ubuntu takes the family Prius out for a ride and apologizes to his father for wasting gas, Gerald offers some fatherly advice: “That’s okay Ubuntu. The important thing is that you feel guilty about it.”
The show may not offer any grand solutions and it will no doubt ridicule some pretty noble causes. But the fact that it dares make fun of a worldview that, as Mike Judge says in the trailer, often leaves its adherents feeling “forever guilty about being a human being on the planet,” gives it a five-star rating in my book.
To check out the first episode (23 minutes) yourself, go to ABC.com and find The Goode Family in the Free Episodes menu.