TV in a Lone Star state of mind
The stilettos are high, the barbs are sharp and the hair is massive. Women weighed down in jewels call each other “honey” and “sweetheart” before diving in for the verbal kill, and men at cowboy-themed barbecues sport belt buckles that cost more than single-family houses.
ABC’s upcoming dramedy, “GCB,” takes a soapy snapshot of some affluent Texans who are sugary on the outside and steely on the inside. It also draws heavily on its setting, a God-fearing red state environment that breeds larger-than-life personalities and charter members of the George Bush fan club. And if any doubt remains about whether the series is set in Dallas, consider this: A central characters’ pet Dobermans are named Tony and Romo.
“GCB,” formerly known as “Good Christian Belles” and based on a bestselling novel, may be fiction but its creators say the inspiration for its stories and people spring directly from its singular hometown. “There’s this legend of Texas, especially Dallas, and not just here but around the world,” said Robert Harling, executive producer of “GCB.” “People have this image of excess and the bigger-is-better attitude. It’s fairly on the mark.”
Fans of melodrama with a Southern drawl won’t have to wait until midseason, when “GCB” premieres, to turn a gimlet eye to the Lone Star State and its outsized residents. While some viewers still mourn the loss of the beloved “Friday Night Lights” and the short-lived “Lone Star,” they’ll have a Jed Clampett-sized gusher of Texas-based shows, from the glamorous to the gritty, to pick from soon.
Within the next week Bravo launches “Most Eligible Dallas,” about serial daters, and HGTV adds “Donna Decorates Dallas” to “bling out” already lavish homes. Later this year A&E debuts “American Hoggers,” which stars a family of wild boar hunters in rural Texas. They join the recently launched “Real Housewives”-esque “Big Rich Texas” on Style and “Texas Women” on CMT (Country Music Television), the latter instantly hitting with audiences and bumping ratings by more than 300% in its time period.
And next summer the granddaddy of Texas dramas, “Dallas,” returns to TV with some of the original cast, including Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray. The TNT remake, promising all the “money, power, rivalry” of the flagship, will include a new generation of the scandalous Ewing clan.
With the current surge, Texas may have just shoved New Jersey off its perch as one of TV’s most popular backdrops for scripted and reality shows.
Rather than attribute the interest to the emergence of the “tea party” or other vocal conservative movements, industry watchers said it’s likely that the generous tax breaks for filming and the state’s romantic history, à la “Giant,” John Wayne flicks and sweeping James Michener epics, have Hollywood roped and tied. In 2009, the state tripled its annual budget from roughly $20 million to $60 million for filming incentives – a move that ultimately saved production companies between 5% and 15%.
“The vastness, the opulence, the wealth and the grandiloquent way it’s often expressed are kind of hard to resist,” said Joshua Gunn, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “The regional mythology has been rooted deep into popular culture for generations.”
Chances are good that dim-bulb Southerner stereotypes will abound and well-worn phrases like “Don’t mess with Texas” and “The higher the hair, the closer to God” will get a workout in these series. In a recent scene from “Texas Women,” two of the stars couldn’t figure out how to split a $38 lunch tab, and a beauty pageant advisor on “Big Rich Texas” counseled some slim teenagers to drop at least 5 pounds before a contest.
Gunn said he’s less concerned with those tropes — reality show participants always get mocked — than with the class-conscious “whitewashing” of Texas in most modern media portrayals. “It’s a multicultural society, with all the flavor and challenges that brings,” Gunn said. “You’d never know that from watching a lot of the TV or movies that are supposedly authentic.”
TV honchos, who defend dramas as heightened reality and unscripted shows as warts-and-all slices of life, think the over-the-top locals make for good entertainment.
“There are certain places and their subcultures that have resonated with TV audiences,” said Jayson Dinsmore, executive vice president of development at CMT, which planted a flag in Texas six seasons ago with its hit, “Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders: Making the Team” and continues to add Texas-based series. “Alaska did, then Jersey did. It’s Texas’ time now.”
For some networks, it’s the heartland appeal and what Dinsmore called “the moral compass” that’s attracting them to Texas. For others, it’s the independent, wildcatter spirit.
“There’s not much untamed America left, and Texas is one of those places,” said Thom Beers, executive producer of “American Hoggers.” “It’s huge, with all these wide, open spaces and every kind of ecosystem and socioeconomic group. It’s the last great adventure.”
Dallas, in particular, holds a certain allure, especially for a network like Bravo that’s traditionally been Hollywood and East Coast-centric. “It’s an urban metropolis in the South where there’s lots of money and lots of attitude,” said Andy Cohen, Bravo’s senior vice president of programming. “And it’s been a while since J.R. — it’s time to revisit.”
Harling, the “GCB” writer-producer who hails from Louisiana near the Texas border, called Dallas “a bottomless pit of inspiration” that loomed “like Oz” for him as a youngster. Using the novel “Good Christian Bitches” by Kim Gatlin as a jumping-off point, “GCB,” also executive-produced by “Sex and the City’s” Darren Star, deals with “a very exclusive subset” of female characters who revel in their abundant good fortune.
“It’s such a wonderfully presentational society where they take it upon themselves to live up to their outlandish image,” Harling said. “And they get the joke.”
Also intended to be a laughing matter, but not a blasphemous one, is the Christianity at the core of the show. It’s fertile ground, Harling said, because it’s relatively untouched in prime-time series and reflects family values that many viewers may share. “GCB’s” characters go to church together every Sunday, where the sermon ties into the theme of the episode. They take part in church activities and pray for spiritual guidance.
“The church is part of the fabric of life in Dallas — it’s also the great equalizer — and we’ll highlight that,” Harling said. “These characters all want to be good people, but it’s very hard in today’s world.”
To wit: there will be plenty of catfighting and backstabbing between characters played by series stars Kristin Chenoweth, Annie Potts and Leslie Bibb. It’s a soap, after all. “Who doesn’t love to watch rich people with problems?” Harling said. “It’s completely delicious. “
Executives at Bravo have been trying for years to develop a series set in Texas, which would seem to run counter to its urban sophisticate mindset. Cohen said the channel has explored a “Real Housewives” spinoff in Dallas, though it hasn’t come to fruition, and he thinks the area’s ripe for serial drama.
Launching Aug. 15, “Most Eligible Dallas” is an unscripted show about six gorgeous young friends, among them a pro football player, a musician-actress and a daddy’s girl-runaway bride. Cohen described the latter as “a little Lucy Ewing.”
It is not, however, “Dallas” revisited. “Sue Ellen’s not on the show,” Cohen said. “It’s a more modern Texas — aspirational, sexy, exciting — and a world we haven’t seen on Bravo.”
Though most of the new Texas series focus on the state’s moneyed denizens — country club wives tip with Benjamins and bribe their daughters with cosmetic surgery in “Big Rich Texas” — others reveal a rougher-hewn picture.
The hard-working stars of Fort Worth-set “Texas Women” might be lounging in a salon but they’re talking about “busting some caps,” (that would be doing a little target practicing) and “bucking my bulls” (one of the women raises broncos for the rodeo).
They hang out at places like the Cowtown Coliseum, drink brown-bottle beer and play on a Slip ‘n Slide at a summer pig roast. The network wanted to show “the badass side” of Texas women to an audience for whom the “Real Housewives” may be “a bit too envelope-pushing,” Dinsmore said.
The network also has in development a series tentatively called “Save the Date,” about a family outside San Antonio trying to hold on to their 18-acre ranch by turning the place into a rental spot for weddings, proms and other events. Members of the Swan family, headed by a strong-willed single mom and all novices to party planning, handle every preparation themselves.
Even further on the down-home spectrum, “American Hoggers” follows members of the Campbell family as they hunt 400-pound feral boars in rural central Texas.
It’s the latest in a long line of Beers-branded reality series that feature crusty characters in dangerous jobs. He’s also working on a spinoff of his L.A.-based hit “Storage Wars,” called “Storage Wars: Dallas,” where the uncovered treasure has proven to be as big as the landscape. Beers has at least two more Texas-set shows in mind.
“When people in Texas describe it as ‘a great country,’ they mean it,” Beers said. “There’s something about that proud heritage that’s fascinating. We just have to tap into it.”
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