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TV in a Lone Star state of mind

Move over New Jersey, Texas is riding a wave of popularity on TV with upcoming shows that include ABC's 'GCB,' Bravo's 'Most Eligible Dallas,' A&E's American Hoggers' and a 'Dallas' reboot by TNT.

August 07, 2011|By T. L. Stanley, Special to the Los Angeles Times

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.

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