Godchild is a Difficult Comedy
The network doesn’t know what to make of the pilot. Child abuse, trauma--it’s not funny, one gray-haired executive says, an upward lilt to the end of the sentence, as if it were a question. More specifically, it’s the type that both seems too obvious and too potentially offensive for anyone to feel comfortable voicing directly.
And obesity is funny? Or working hard to make ends meet? A nagging wife who threatens to leave you at the commercial break? A pratfall that would probably break your neck?
They see her point, this lone executive who champions Godchild, who champions the new concept of difficult comedy on the network. Not just dark comedy, but very purposefully pulling on the strands of the material least mined for comedy at any point in the past to create something new. It’s the kind of comedy that could make people laugh while not feeling sure if they should laugh, then argue and criticize and laugh some more. All that added up to a lot of conversation, a lot of controversy. Social media buzz. Viewers who tune in out of curiosity. Teenagers who buy Godchild bumper stickers for their laptops to force a confrontation with their reticent parents.
We’ll order twelve episodes. Everett Van Buren sips vodka and grenadine from a Diet Coke can.
Maybe we start with six?
Twelve. When Everett speaks, the decision is made. We’ll order twelve.
In the cold open to the pilot episode, the unnamed mother’s phone won’t stop vibrating in her purse. She’s driving on a highway and it’s raining, but she finally succumbs to reaching over, splitting her attention between the road and the purse in the passenger seat before she can fish out the phone and see a series of text messages from Danielle, reminding her that she needs a five-subject, college-ruled notebook for school tomorrow
Mr. Quinton said anyone without that EXACT notebook gets five points off every class if they’re not prepared, the text reads.
Then, He’s NOT bluffing
Then, He’s an asshole. Everyone at school says it. And I need every point I can get.
When the mother looks up from this last text, she’s facing the back of a stopped eighteen- wheeler. We’re facing it, for the shot is from her point of view, shot in uncomfortably high definition so we see the impact. Our hands rise, as if to block it, to protect us from the thousand shards of glass that explode forward and threaten to escape our televisions.
Cut to the mother. She’s dead now, so she has no point of view. Her face is a cobweb of blood, her nose smashed crooked, into one cheek, eyes vacant. The camera zooms to her soiled seat—she defecated herself as she died. A comedic tuba sound effect interjects, inspiring us to think of flatulence. Flatulence is funny.
Another text: Mom! Jesus Christ. Text me back or I’m going to think UR dead.
The title sequence is—unsettling. The music upbeat, downright jocular. The visuals of the cast in various stages of crazed or crying, spliced with a young actress—Danielle’s character, we’ll learn soon—at her mother’s gravesite, in the process of leaving a single white rose. The song wraps on Danielle walking away and a mangy, one-eyed stray dog running by, snatching the stem of the rose in his chops, and prancing off.
As the show resumes, Danielle is moving in with her godfather Otis. Otis is rotund, balding, sweaty, clad in a t-shirt too small for him, gym shorts both too short and too tight. We meet his wife, a frail-looking thin woman with dark rings under her eyes named Janice, who insists that Danielle call her Mom, and when Danielle doesn’t she slaps her hard across the face. The force knocks Danielle to her knees, and then Janice clumsily kicks at her upper arm and says she demands respect. (We learn in the second episode that she’s a meth addict.) There’s a dog, too—not the one from the title sequence, but a hearty Doberman Pinscher named Bone who snarls at Danielle at intervals throughout the show, most of all when she tries to talk to her crush on the phone, only to turn around to find the dog inches from her face. The dog lunges and takes a bite out of her cheek.
In the final segment, Otis talks to Danielle on the back porch and admits that he and his home aren’t equipped for a teenager. Danielle tells him she knows he’s doing his best. An acoustic guitar plays beneath her tearful speech in which she says she knows this will be hard, but they’ll get through. They’ll be a family.
A record scratch sound. Otis says that he didn’t want Danielle. That he’s taken her under pure sense of obligation to her mother, though he shrugs and says Danielle was kind of responsible for killing herby texting her when she was driving he shrugs and says Danielle was kind of responsible for killing her by texting her when she was driving.
He leaves Danielle to cry alone outdoors.
A child is like a toilet. You keep putting all you’ve got
into it. And what do you get out? Nothing. It stinks.
Godchild is a sensation. The premiere is a ratings smash when it originally airs and does even better on Hulu where viewers flock to watch it again or to see what they missed.
In addition to the meth reveal, episode two features Danielle reporting her godparents’ abuse to her guidance counselor. A police officer shows up at home, asks some perfunctory questions, then pepper sprays Danielle.
A total swerve. He’s Otis’s best buddy and he’s already squashed the report. He says if Danielle ever reports his friend again, she’ll face far worse. Danielle spends the final scene of the episode playing waitress to Otis, Janice, and the cop as they play gin rummy at the kitchen table.
The episode also introduces Uncle Sal. An odd beacon of hope who pulls Bone off of Danielle in the front yard when the dog seeks to maul her again. He looks at her wounded cheek with concern and gives her a twenty-dollar bill to buy herself some make up, in the same moment conceding that won’t fix everything, but it’s the best he can do for now. He says to call him whenever she needs anything.
It’s not until episode four that we learn Uncle Sal is the pimp behind an underage prostitution ring. He doesn’t want to recruit Danielle for business, though, but rather has a personal interest—call it attraction, call it infatuation, call it fetish—for her young body.
What’s so bad about paying for sex? You pay for dinner,
you pay for a movie. You pay for flowers and presents.
Paying for the sex—it’s not just more straightforward;
it’s more honest.
There’s a turn. Critics decry that Godchild isn’t just difficult. It isn’t funny, and it’s offensive that the network thinks it is. The ratings hold steady for another week, then start to decline.
Finally, revenge. Danielle defecates into the family coffee grinder, and runs it. She wipes out the feces into the toilet, but doesn’t wash the grinder after.
When he visits, Sal says the coffee tastes different. Otis takes a sip himself, and nods. He says, This is a good roast.
Godchild has an identity crisis. Episode eight gets political. There’s a Student Council election at the school and Danielle’s crush is running against a horrible sociopath of a bully who looks forty and charms the female principal and the teachers, while abusing the nerds and copping a feel from Danielle and her friends. This storyline might be innocuous enough, but the sociopath’s hair bears an unmistakable resemblance to Donald Trump’s, and in a debate in front of the student body he actually says he’ll make the school great again.
Danielle actively campaigns for her crush. Her friends tell her not to bother. The crush will win for sure.
The day of the election comes and Danielle constantly gets distracted when she’s about to go to the principal’s office to cast her vote. Ultimately, she doesn’t get to cast a ballot
It turns out a lot of people didn’t cast ballots. In an assembly, the principal announces the lowest voter turnout of the student body ever, but then makes an about face and says she thinks, nonetheless, they’ll still be pleased with the results. Danielle smiles widely and leans forward in her chair, only for the Trump look-alike to be revealed as not only the winner, but the winner by unanimous vote.
His first motion is to mandate Swimsuit Fridays. He wants all of the girls in two-pieces. The principal chuckles and says that what the president wants, the president gets.
That’s the thing about high school girls, says
the football coach. I get older—
They stay the same age? The shifty language arts
teacher finishes the Dazed & Confused homage.
The coach shakes his head. I stay just as horny
as when I was their age.
The show loses sponsors that outwardly supported the Trump presidential campaign and feel butt-hurt. There’s a small spike in ratings, on the promise of Danielle, and more so her buxom friend Roxy, spending most of the episode in bikinis, but after that initial episode, the ratings continue to decline.
Episode twelve—the season finale—is a cliffhanger. Janice is pregnant. She confides in Danielle that it isn’t Otis’s, because he infertile. No, it has to be Danielle’s crush, who Janice slept with surreptitiously in the back seat of his car when he actually came to the house looking for Danielle. The irony.
What will Danielle say to her crush? Or to Otis? Will Janice carry the child to term?
We’ll never know.
The network cancels the show. The showrunner admits to throwing too much at the audience too soon. The show was not only difficult to watch, but difficult to follow after a certain point.
Godchild has its cult following. Those fans who write fan fiction and demand panels at comic conventions. There’s a brief push for a movie, but noone involved in the project seems to think it’s a good idea.
The actress who played Danielle gets film work. She’s the breakout star, no surprise. Fans say she was robbed for not getting an Emmy nomination. For the next two Halloweens, girls wear red face paint over their cheeks to simulate dog-bite wounds, keeping Danielle alive.
The executive who championed Godchild—one of those once-influential people no one can remember the name of afterwards—does an interview with a blogger, under the impression the blogger has far more readers than he actually does. The exec explains that she doesn’t think America was ready for the show, but that she thinks history will be kind to it. Just as shows like Arrested Development and Family Guy weren’t hits when they originally aired, but cultivated followings in retrospect, she says she expects we’ll look back at Godchild as the vanguard of difficult comedy to follow. A pioneer, she says, and, frankly, a great show.
The blogger—unpolished, untactful, and ungrateful for the most important interview he has ever or will ever score—concludes the write-up of their conversation by suggesting, Maybe the joke’s on her.
Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and his hybrid chapbook, The Leo Burke Finish, is available now from Gimmick Press. He won Bayou Magazine’s Jim Knudsen Editor’s Prize for fiction and has work published or forthcoming in journals including The Normal School, Passages North, and Hobart. He works as a contributing editor for Moss. Find him online at miketchin.com or follow him on Twitter @miketchin.
Illustration by Bob Blaisdell