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Robert Harling, Darren Star breathe life into ‘GCB’

It was the title that hooked them. Then it nearly sank them.

Playwright and screenwriter Robert Harling (“Steel Magnolias,” “Soapdish”) was on one of his regular visits to Dallas from his hometown in Louisiana. There, he came across a small book, “Good Christian Bitches,” by Kim Gatlin. He loved the title, so he read the story, about a woman who must move back to her elite Dallas neighborhood and deal with the women she left behind. He thought of turning it into a film or Broadway play, but the rights had already been snatched up.

Months later, at dinner with his friend, “Sex and the City” creator Darren Star, Star said, “Hey I bought this book, I’ve never been to Texas, and don’t know anything about it, so do you want to work on it?” Harling recalls. “I thought, Well, if this isn’t the Lord speaking to me about a project.’”

Harling and Star are executive producers of the ABC midseason show, and Harling is also the creator. A master at creating female ensembles, he used the book as a jumping-off point for his divinely demented characters. Amanda Vaughn (Leslie Bibb) was a teenage Homecoming Queen-of-mean. She married her high school sweetheart, stolen from a friend, and moved to Los Angeles. A couple of decades down the road, her sweetheart turns out to be a Madoff-level embezzler, a cheater and a bad driver. When he winds up dead in a car accident, in flagrante delicto no less, Amanda finds her assets frozen and her choice simple: Move in with her mother, and face a veritable cabal of women whose lives she had made miserable long ago.

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The women back home, led by that tiny powerhouse Kristin Chenoweth (“Pushing Daisies,” “Glee”), pray for Amanda’s soul while doing their level best to thwart her every move. The result is, as Bibb puts it, “a recipe for deliciousness.”

This is Harling’s first foray into television, and he’s been pleasantly surprised. "[ABC Entertainment Group President] Paul Lee’s first words for me were, ‘Swing for the fences.’ For someone who tries to be a creative person, that’s the best news you could ever get,” he says.

The only hitch was the title, which got a lot of attention, most of it unwelcome. Word of a show called “Good Christian Bitches” was met with alarm by protesters, many of them Christian groups, which prompted a name change, first to “Good Christian Belles,” and then to the present acronym, “GCB.”

“I can certainly understand why initially, people might assume it’s going to go to an abusive or inappropriate arena,” Harling says. “But hey, I’m Presbyterian. I try to be as Christian as you can get. I make big mistakes all the time.” In fact, that’s the inspiration for much of his work. “These characters want to do the right thing, but it’s virtually impossible nowadays to do the right thing. The humor is watching them attempt it.”

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Bibb, who loves the original title, found great irony in the objections from people who hadn’t even seen the series. “That’s essentially what the show is about,” she points out. “People taking something and running with it, because of the appearance or the name.”

A proud Southern woman, hailing from Virginia, Bibb adds that those very same women aren’t going to be able to resist “GCB” when it premieres on March 4. “They’re going to tune in, and they’re going to get hooked and realize that they got their panties in a ruffle over nothing.”

If anything, the show is a celebration of religion, rather than an indictment, Harling says. “I think it’s a commercial for the need for a belief system and coming together, and just getting through life the best way you can.”

Chenoweth, an openly devout (and devoutly open-minded) Christian born and raised in the Oklahoma Bible Belt, wasn’t bothered by the title. On vocal rest because of illness, she explains by email, “The title only concerned me because I knew the show wasn’t about that. It’s about Southern women. No one writes it better than Mr. Harling.” Pointing out that ‘Steel Magnolias’ is her favorite play, Chenoweth continues, “Even if you didn’t ‘grow up that way,’ you still get the characters. Same with our show I think.”

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As Carlene “Kitten” Cockburn, tottering on the highest heels the Lord ever created, Chenoweth is playing against her usual type, and loving every catty minute of it.

“Every town has a mean girl,” she notes. “And every woman knows what I’m talkin about. My character has been hurt deeply by this person. Everything that she does is because of that. She believes in God, her family, her church, all of it. She just struggles with this one person, which sometimes can completely derail her.”

Bibb was nervous at first about portraying Amanda, Kitten’s nemesis, and the heart of the show. Accustomed to playing the cuckoo role in such films as “Talladega Nights, The Ballad of Ricky Bobby,” Bibb says, “There wasn’t a wig I could put on, or crazy nails. I feel pretty out there with Amanda.” But she’s grown to love Amanda as much as she loves the crazy world they all inhabit.

In a turn that could have been scripted by Harling, whom everyone calls Bobby, Bibb finds that she feels more connected to her faith now, thanks to the show. It doesn’t hurt that they film weekly scenes in a church setting.

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“Bobby shines a light in a nonjudgmental way,” she says.

As for the new “GCB” handle, Harling thinks it neatly conveys the journey the story has taken from its novel roots. He adds that his teenage niece gave the title her hip imprimatur. “She said, ‘Oh that is so cool, because everything now is BTW and LOL,’” he says. “That’s what I want. With ‘GCB,’ I want people LOL-ing. I want them ROFL-ing.”

Lord willing.

calendar@latimes.com


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