Prepackaged messages on living eco-friendly
As a culture, we’ve reached a point where environmentalism isn’t an ideal so much as a commodity. To get sustenance for writing this piece, I went to my standby vending machine and bought something called “Flat Earth Baked Veggie Crisps.’’ At the supermarket, I’m bombarded with reusable bags. In the mail, I get glossy catalogs for expensive Earth-friendly furniture.
I share this by way of saying that we’re well overdue for a backlash, and possibly a backlash to the backlash, and this summer, television has delivered. Roughly speaking, ABC’s animated “The Goode Family’’ is the former, while the Sundance Channel’s “The Lazy Environmentalist’’ is the latter. Both have a similar purpose: to excise our guilt over whatever we might be doing to ruin the planet. But it’s the broadly mocked Goodes, ironically enough, who might have the stronger message about an eco-friendly life.
Earnest environmentalism is what you’d expect from Sundance, the television arm of Robert Redford’s media empire. The network has a weekly block of Earth-conscious programming known as “The Green,’’ which features such series as “Eco Trip: The Real Cost of Living,’’ about how everyday products affect the planet. Amid such calls to action, “The Lazy Environmentalist’’ seeks to give viewers a break, suggesting that what’s good for the Earth doesn’t have to be such a bummer.
Josh Dorfman, the host of the series and author of an eponymous book, has intellectual nerd cred, with his glasses and his not-so-made-for-television nose and his delivery, which sounds like a junior-high student reciting a book report. He cheerily guides people through some baby steps of environmentalism: showing a suburban family how to produce less waste at their barbecue (recycle! compost!), giving a dog groomer a line on environmentally friendly cleaners (soap made from blueberries!), teaching a hip-hop stylist how to pick Earth-friendly clothes for his client (buy vintage!).
There are some decent ideas here, and some gadgets that are visually cool; a “worm farm’’ composter is a giant hit at a junior high school. But the show preaches so eagerly to the choir that it feels a little pointless; the notion that the Sundance crowd isn’t yet hip to recyclying strains credulity.
Besides, everything still has a hyper-indie air that smacks of cultural superiority: Here are the smarties, handing down helpful tips to the bourgeoisie. In one episode, a “sustainable fashion designer’’ extols the virtues of vegetable-tanned leather, but I couldn’t stop looking at her hair, which was dyed a number of shades that don’t occur in nature. The question of whether the dyes were environmentally friendly went unexplored.
The snide comments you want to make while watching “The Lazy Environmentalist’’ are part of the script on “The Goode Family,’’ an animated sitcom from “Beavis and Butt-Head’’ and “King of the Hill’’ impresario Mike Judge. The ABC series is designed to mock everything about the stereotypical Sundance viewer: piety, pretentiousness, knee-jerk devotion to an oversimplified ideal.
The Goodes are as bourgeois as any of Dorfman’s target polluters, yet they’re trying hard to rise above it. They live in a town called Greenville in a house festooned with solar panels. They’re not just environmentalists, but all-around believers in a multicultural utopia. Their house is decorated with Third-World artifacts. They shop at a Whole Foodsy store called “One Earth’’ and feed their dog “breakfast cabbage.’’
Just as it’s easy to push recycling to intellectuals, it’s also a little too simple to stereotype the lefties; Gerald, the father voiced by Judge, is as effete as a public radio host on a “Saturday Night Live’’ sketch. And the show has quickly evolved into all-purpose satire that skewers every stereotype in the book - not just “Freegans’’ who avoid consumerism by eating trash, but also snooty aficionados of art made out of garbage, and a pair of overweight lesbians who celebrate Lucy Lawless’s birthday as a holiday.
On the other hand, for all of its mocking, “The Goode Family’’ still treats its main characters kindly; they overreach, but in the end, they always do the balanced thing, whether it’s kicking an especially-evil Freegan out of their house or dismissing their immigrant laborer with the gift of a motor scooter. And their life, stripped of its broad excesses, is surprisingly close to the liberal ideal. The Goodes have friends of all races and sexual orientations, a close-knit community that pitches in to help, a composter in the backyard. The show isn’t very funny - sometimes it’s not even marginally funny - but it’s a backhanded vision of what utopia ought to be. And it doesn’t cost a thing.