Mike Judge, creator and star of the estimable "King of the Hill," recently canceled by Fox after 13 seasons, has a new animated comedy, created with "King" vets John Altschuler and Dave Krinsky, premiering tonight on ABC. A rather narrowly conceived spoof of what might be called, in a liberal way, liberal concerns, "The Goode Family" is about a family that lives by the question "WWAGD? -- What Would Al Gore Do?." That is, the Goodes try to tread lightly upon the Earth. Hilarity fitfully ensues.
With the natural world being rapidly undone by our thirst for convenience, it seems an odd time to mock hybrid cars and reusable shopping bags. Sanctimony and hypocrisy and narcissistic virtuousness, sure, because those are things that always deserve mocking, no matter what agenda they're attached to. ("We're gonna hang out at the mall and make fun of people who hang out at the mall" is a good line.) I have mocked a hippie or two in my time -- they made you, to get into punk clubs. But the Goodes are merely well-meaning and, in the three episodes I've seen, do no harm, except perhaps to their dog, who'd like something to eat besides "organic flaxseed dog food," which he supplements by devouring the local small wildlife.
"Being good is so hard," says wife-mother Helen (Nancy Carell); she wears a "Meat Is Murder" T-shirt, which might also, of course, mark her as a Smiths fan. It's true: Goodness is a job at which most of us fail spectacularly, and to the extent the show explores that striving it's on to something good. Yet it's not quite clear whether we're supposed to regard the Goodes as deluded or as just too hard on themselves. There's something old and obvious about the countercultural shibboleths the show advances: yoga, vegetarianism, ceramics, sexual frankness between parent and child, animal rights, playing the mandolin, spiritual confusion, not shopping at a certain store because "they don't even have a mission statement," hypersensitivity to racial and gender issues masked as indifference to racial and gender issues.
Judge, sounding nothing at all like Hank Hill, plays dad Gerald Goode, vegan-thin and dressed always in bike shorts. (For work, he adds a poncho.) Linda Cardellini is daughter Bliss, who reads the Economist and just wants out. Teenage son Ubuntu (David Herman) is the African baby they adopted, who turned out to be Afrikaans and white. He is dressed in native garb, nonetheless, and is a bit of an ox, though with a talent for driving.
"I'm sorry I used so much gas, Dad," he says, having driven to rescue his father and sister from a Christian purity ball. (Judge and Co. do not save all their barbs for the Goodes.)
"It's OK," says his father. "What's important is you feel guilty about it."
But this is not something Gerald would think or say; it's a joke imposed on him from on high. "King of the Hill," for all its broadness, works so well because its characters are imagined from the inside out; they are not merely caricatures of small-town Texans.
A sitcom premise is a kind of booster rocket, meant to get the show into orbit. It's there to serve the characters rather than the other way around, as is largely the case here. "The Goode Family," which is nicely acted and well animated, works best when the cultural potshots give way to the more basic human needs of its characters: a mother's desire to be close to her daughter, or to her father (Brian Doyle-Murray as the resident voice of political incorrectness), in spite of "a lifetime of crippling negative comments," and a father's willingness to go outside his comfort zone to make his son happy, as when Ubuntu joins the football team. There's a show there.
'The Goode Family'
When: 9:01 tonight
Rating: TV-PG-D (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for suggestive dialogue)