In a voice-over preceding the second episode of “GCB,’’ the sporadically entertaining new ABC dramedy premiering Sunday night at 10, the series’ most cartoonish character tallies the “sins’’ of another character and tells viewers, “You do the math.’’
And “GCB,’’ based on the novel “Good Christian Bitches,’’ by Kim Gatlin, with a title tamed for television, is indeed something of a diffy q.
The series, about a widowed mother of two who returns to her affluent Dallas roots after the scandalous death of her thieving, philandering husband, is like “Desperate Housewives’’ - minus the murderous intrigue, plus plot elements of the Sandra Bullock film “Hope Floats,’’ divided by the acidic quippage of “Steel Magnolias,’’ and featuring multiplying Bible verses. Alas, it doesn’t quite add up to the most entertaining possible result, given the promise of the splendid cast and creative minds involved.
The pilot is well sketched out, but low on laughs. We meet Amanda (Leslie Bibb), former head cheerleader and chief mean girl in high school. In her 18 years away, she has changed into a nicer person; but when she slinks back to the overbearing embrace of her imperious mom, Gigi (the great Annie Potts of “Designing Women’’), the women she wronged in high school still see her as who she was - the girl who spread vicious rumors and “stole’’ boyfriends. And they’re determined to make Amanda feel their wrath.
Every actor on the screen has done good work in the past and brings a positive - if not necessarily likable - quality to their character.
Potts is strongest as a fierce “praise the Lord and pass the ammunition’’ socialite.
(“I don’t get furious, I’m too well bred,’’ she daintily snarks.) Bibb, the straight woman, is best when we actually see her crinkle her eyes and unleash a bit of the girl she used to be, this time as a force of good. Miriam Shor (“Swingtown’’) adds emotional depth to Cricket - she who had her boyfriend stolen, and thus settled on a husband with a roaming eye. Jennifer Aspen (“Glee’’) goes broad as former beauty queen Sharon, who now stuffs her face along with her feelings. Marisol Nichols (“The Gates’’) nimbly plays the conflict of being in the nasty Nancy gang while having sympathy for Amanda. But poor Kristin Chenoweth (“Pushing Daisies’’) is saddled with being the duplicitous Bible-thumping ringleader Carlene, the one most aggrieved by Amanda’s high school bullying. (Chenoweth fans will be pleased to hear her unleash her powerful Broadway pipes as a member of the church choir.) When the women discuss the breast enhancements of their teen daughters, the pious and cosmetically made-over Carlene chirps, “Cleavage helps your cross hang straight.’’
Tonally, however, it’s as though they’re all in a different show - moving from drama to camp to soap to sitcom. And as good as the actresses are, it simply doesn’t jell in the first two episodes available for review.
Which is too bad, since Robert Harling - who balanced all of those story elements into a tale of gossipy-but-good Southern women in writing “Steel Magnolias,’’ and gave us other memorable women in films like “Soapdish’’ and “The First Wives Club’’ - created the show, and the executive producers’ credits include quirky shows like “Sex and the City’’ and “Pushing Daisies.’’
If there is a way to deepen these character sketches, add some warmth, and perfect the balance of comic inanity, humanity, and Christianity, then there’s some hope for “GCB.’’ Right now these women just seem mean. And while that may hew to “reality’’ for churchgoers who recognize these types from a few pews back, it’s not much fun - good, Christian or otherwise.
Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.