They say you can't go home again -- and that's partly because you're just going to keep running into the people who never left in the first place.
That's the comic premise behind "GCB," the hilarious new sitcom premiering Sunday, March 4, on ABC. Created and largely written by Robert Harling, a native Southerner who drew from his own family's life for the smash hit "Steel Magnolias," the show opens as recently widowed Amanda Vaughn (Leslie Bibb) is forced by a devastating scandal to move with her two teenage kids from Southern California back to the conservative and affluent enclave of Hillside Park, Texas, a Dallas suburb, where they'll share the posh home of her controlling mom, Gigi (the reliably awesome Annie Potts, "Designing Women").
If Amanda thought her biggest issue would be with her mother, however, she's in for a rude awakening when her homecoming ruffles the feathers of neighbor Carlene Cockburn (Emmy winner Kristin Chenoweth), whom Amanda tortured during their high-school years. Since then, Carlene has shed a ton of weight, become besties with her cosmetic surgeon and reinvented herself as the community's queen bee -- or perhaps that should be "Queen B."
Which brings us to the show's title. Harling adapted the series from "Good Christian Bitches," a comic novel by Dallas native Kim Gatlin. Bibb says she loved that provocative first working title -- "I told my manager, 'Send it over, stat!' " the actress recalls, laughing -- but Chenoweth, a self-avowed Christian herself, was pretty sure it never would see the light of day.
"I laughed, but I thought, 'Yeah, that's not gonna happen,' " she says. "And the show just doesn't represent that to me. It's so much more than that title."
Predictably, that original title ignited a firestorm among people of faith, an obvious problem on a network owned by the family-friendly Walt Disney Corporation. After a brief flirtation with the softer but irrelevant "Good Christian Belles," Harling ultimately decided to go with the three-letter production logo for the show.
"I just got attached to that notion of certain letters informing who we are, in this day of 'LOL' and 'ROFL' and 'BTW,' " he explains. "It seemed kind of cool and hip. And I think the (original) title is a mislead because of what it ultimately is. Like in 'Steel Magnolias,' you're dealing with very vibrant, acerbic, witty women, and I could easily understand why there would be a reluctance to use that word in broadcast television. As long as I have breath and am writing it, these women never are going to be reflected as simply bitchy or evil, or their Christianity be used in some derogatory or demeaning way. It's more a celebration of a bunch of women who are bound together in a faith-based society."
And, indeed, the local church is a prominent recurring setting for the series, which uses each week's sermon topic for the title of that episode.
"The great benefit of our setting is that it's unique, using the church as we do," Harling says. "The church is the common denominator in this world. It's where everyone can come together, and it's where everybody has to get along, or try to get along. One of the episodes I really love is called 'Adam and Eve's Rib,' about the Interfaith Barbecue, where Amanda is really incensed that the church barbecue team is all men, so she corrals the women for a team. So you have these women who really have a lot of trouble working together suddenly pulling together toward a common goal that's ultimately feminist."
Still best known to many viewers for her starring role as cheerleader Brooke McQueen in the 1999-2001 WB dramedy "Popular," Bibb says she loved Harling's script but was a little intimidated by Amanda's multifaceted character.
"I was a little scared at first, because I am used to playing characters that I can throw on a wig or fake nails and hide behind something, but there is something revealing about Amanda," the actress says. "I knew I would have to lay it on the line. Once I met with the producers, though, I felt totally safe. The writing is just amazing. Nobody can turn a phrase like Bobby Harling."
As for Chenoweth, she was working on a music album in Nashville, Tenn., when her manager sent her the script, although she was waiting to find out whether a Fox series that was in development was going to happen. When it didn't, she talked with Harling and another "GCB" executive producer, Darren Star ("Sex and the City"), and quickly became downright proprietary about Carlene.
"We talked about where Carlene would go, and it just became very clear to me that I was not willing to let anyone else play her," Chenoweth says. "To be honest, I became obsessed with it. When you have that kind of ownership on a part, it's great."
Bibb and Chenoweth have become very close friends already while filming the initial batch of episodes, and the large cast -- which also includes former "JAG" star David James Elliott in a comic turn as Chenoweth's wheeling and dealing hubby -- seems to sense they may well be a part of a Very Big Hit that ABC is sliding into the hallowed Sunday time slot once reserved for the departing "Desperate Housewives."
"ABC has been so terrific," Harling says. "They've said, 'We know this is different, and it's a provocative experiment, and we want you to absolutely go for it.' That's a wonderful environment to work in. Playing in this sandbox is a lot of fun."