It's Hard to Be Good

Ashley Thorne

  • Article
  • May 27, 2009

Tonight ABC will premiere a new TV series, The Goode Family. The animated Simpson-esque sitcom from the creator of “King of the Hill” is about a family “obsessed with doing the ‘right’ thing environmentally, politically and socially.” Gerald and Helen Goode are über-conscientious, hybrid-driving, veggie-eating activists whose sole aim is to match their lifestyle to politically correct trends. Their current rule to live by: “What would Al Gore do?”  

The video introducing the pilot episode begins, “In a world of overpopulation, melting icebergs, and rainforest destruction, can one family really make a difference? They can if they’re the Goode family.” But despite Gerald and Helen’s sincere intentions, their efforts often backfire. They stumble trying to come up with the correct way to address their neighbor who is African American...or is he a person of color? The bumper sticker on their hybrid reads, “Support our troops...and their opponents.” They adopt their son Ubuntu from Africa, but he turns out to be a white South African. In the first episode, Helen tries to talk about sex to her daughter Bliss; she is mortified when Bliss joins an abstinence group and takes a pledge of purity until marriage. Gerald attempts to mollify his wife. “Don't we try to celebrate people's differences and learn from them?” he suggests. “Sure,” she answers, “if they're, like, Native Americans or backward rainforest people. But not these people!”

The Goode family serves well as a metaphor for American higher education with its obsession with advocacy for extreme forms of multiculturalism, sustainability, gender neutrality, and feminism. Not only do the Goodes religiously practice their ascetic green lifestyle, but they also seek to impose it on others. They proudly evangelize to their beef-jerky-snacking neighbor, offering him a homegrown organic squash and noting that even their dog Che (apparently named after the Marxist revolutionary) is a vegan. But the emaciated Che, in fact, is not a vegan, and his hunger for meat leads to the mysterious disappearance of neighborhood pets.

The Goodes’ readiness to press their enthusiasm on others exemplifies the reigning attitude in the university today. It’s not a coincidence that Gerald is cast as a college administrator enmeshed in identity group politics. According to an article in the Miami Herald, when he “tells his boss his department needs more funding to improve the percentage of minority employees, the boss replies: ‘Or we could just fire three white guys. Everybody wins!’”

Mike Judge, the creator of The Goode Family (and also the voice of Gerald), says in a promo video that the family members are the heroes of the show. Like their imminent TV audience, they are regular, middle class, suburban folks who just want to do the right thing. Their efforts to reduce their carbon footprint and save the narwhales reflect the familiar angst-ridden strivings of our nation today. Is the show ultimately sympathetic to the well-meaning do-gooders or do they look like fools in the end? We’ll have to watch and see. The Miami Herald predicts that The Goode Family “will do for PC what 30 Rock does for corporate capitalism or Lost for commercial air travel: Leave it in ruins.”

The cartoon series is not likely to obliterate political correctness. But what it effectively achieves is to make PC paranoia laughable at a time when so much humor is frowned upon and a hypochondriac fear of offending stifles open speech. When people feel free to laugh at a particular behavior instead of feeling obligated to lecture, “That’s not funny,” that behavior can be seen for its comicality.

Perhaps The Goode Family’s most important contribution to the conversation is how it defines good. Telling a child, for instance, to “be good,” used to mean that he should obey his parents, use polite manners, treat his siblings kindly, and refrain from telling lies. Now children are educated to understand moral goodness from a different angle. In this scheme of morality we make an ethical decision when we put solar panels on our roof, not when we decide not to plagiarize. As with well-behaved/kind/obedient goodness, well-recycled/green/diversity goodness is hard. It is its own works-based religion. And although it’s impossible to do everything perfectly and standards of “goodness” are always changing, people feel they have to try anyway. When they make mistakes, all they have to do to atone is feel really, really guilty.

This show assumes the new definition of good, pokes fun at the inconsistencies of politically correct America, but also recognizes that most of its audience has been raised under the green-is-good rule. It portrays the Goode family as well-intentioned but misguided into extremes, and hypercritical of others.

In another promo video, the two executive producers, John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, weigh in: “There does seem to be this interesting thing where somebody is always willing to tell you, ‘Oh, you’re doing this wrong.’ And then somebody next to them is telling them they’re doing something wrong,” says Altshuler. “We all want to do the right thing, but you can drive yourself nuts because the ‘right thing’ is constantly changing,” Krinsky adds.

A New York Times article begins to praise the show for its good humor but then, just as assuming as the TV characters, doubts it will find an amenable audience:

But the show feels aggressively off-kilter with the current mood, as if it had been incubated in the early to mid-’90s, when it was possible to find global-warming skeptics among even the reasonable and informed. Who really thinks of wind power — an allusion to which is a running visual gag in the show — as mindless, left-wing nonsense anymore?

Maybe the NYT author should get out more.

Usually I don’t watch animated adult TV shows, but I do hope that The Goode Family succeeds in making the unmentionable mentionable again. And I highly recommend another show premiering tonight; this one’s free of politics...and all seriousness.

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