The Cancellation of GCB and the Continued Discomfort with Televisual Camp
This post is not only meant to divulge a personal vendetta, as well as profess my fandom, it is also intended to call the U.S. television industry out on its own conservative pandering. While it is a surprise to no one that network television within the United States, when in doubt, leans conservative in order to manage industrial risk, it continually astounds me the type of content that is repeatedly ignored when compared to that which is consistently targeted as inappropriate or unsavory. While I am not arguing that this is a problem per se, the ubiquity of violence in all manifestations and on all regions of broadcast frequently is seen as unproblematic, while the representations that break with normative construction of identities that are seen as either, for lack of a better word, sacred (almost literally in the case of the Christians in ABC’s much touted show GCB) or integral to the larger imagined “American” identity, are attacked on all fronts. This post looks at how GCB, based on the best seller Good Christian Bitches by Kim Gatlin (which was the original title for the show later deemed too controversial) not only became a personal favorite of mine (taking the Sunday night viewing priority away from Mad Men) but a televisual text that was both emblematic of the best of camp entertainment but also queer spectatorship.
To avoid the inevitable regression into a full on rant (which I have already levied at ABC) I would like to explain why, to those who might be unfamiliar with the show, GCB represents a recent attempt to incorporate the aesthetics of camp into a prime-time commodity. Placed in a time slot on Sunday night that has been associated with notions of queer spectatorship (with shows such as Desperate Housewives, Pan Am, and Brothers and Sisters), GCB not only displayed the categorically camp over-the-top theatricality, humor, and tongue-in-cheek innuendo, but it also tackled relationships in complex ways that denied a binary logic of sexuality (hence queer). Included in part of its dynamite ensemble cast are two well-known and accomplished Broadway performers: Kristin Chenoweth and Miriam Shor. Both women have extensive gay followings and were, in my opinion, the main instigators of camp performance in the show. Furthermore, by casting Annie Potts as the Dallas elite Grand Dame, the show was able to capture not just a significant mainstream audience, but the obsession of much of the “gay community”. This attention, which I argue is both queer and due to its camp appeal, is substantiated in the multitude of social media backlashes proffered by GLBT organizations.
But then, with the promise of such popularity, why would a show only given ten episodes be cancelled without a seemingly good explanation? I contend that this was not a ratings concern (although the show was never exactly a ratings “success”) but more the result of the anxieties that this dramedy stirred by being seen as a text that was both camp and open to queer spectatorship in a more overt way than may have been previously seen as appropriate. While there are certainly elements of gay representation (I use “gay” here because those representations were of gay men exclusively and not other members of the GLBT community) that played a role in the narratives, this is no longer inherently problematic for a network prime-time audience that has become more accustomed to seeing representations of gayness, even lesbianism, as more commonplace. However, because the show used more explicitly “queer” themes (I use “queer” here as a reference not merely to associations of homosexuality, but to a re-conceptualizing of essentialist categories that would place people within normative labels) it positioned a mainstream audience, and one can assume advertisers, out of their comfort zone. Specifically, the “bearded” relationship between Miriam Shor’s strong-willed and aggressive character Cricket and her non-straight (I do not make the claim that he is explicitly identified as gay) husband Blake. Not a relationship of mere convenience, this husband and wife shared a real bond (that was arguably different from the stereotypical gay-husband articulation so in fashion as of late), one that might not have included much of a sexual relationship (although their marriage surprisingly was not completely devoid of either sex or sexual intensity at moments) but was nonetheless intimate and central to both of their lives. While not the only queer trope in the show, I would argue, it is certainly the one that had the potential to disrupt those normative and binary labels that allowed mainstream U.S. audiences to be comfortable with representations of homosexuality. So when combined with a clear camp aesthetic, such queer narratives not only made the show a favorite of mine, but a gamble that ultimately was too risky for ABC.