Chrisley Knows Best Seems Like Progress, Says PEOPLE's TV Critic

Chrisley Knows Best Seems Like Progress, Says PEOPLE's TV Critic
Todd and Julie Chrisley
Heidi Gutman/USA

03/11/2014 12:50PM

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Congratulations are in order for Mr. Todd Chrisley of Atlanta, Ga.

As the star of USA's heavily promoted Chrisley Knows Best (premiering Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET), he's the most original and distinctive reality character to come along since TLC's Honey Boo Boo.

This may not seem like anything much to you, but considering that the bus from Bravo pulls up every few days to drop off a new bunch of heavy-drinking singletons from whatever urban center, it counts.



If you consider further that Chrisley is possibly some sort of breakthrough in how gender roles play out on television – well, that counts for still more.

Chrisley, an entrepreneur, is married to a taffy-blonde woman named Julie and is father to five taffy-blond children. He wants to branch out into fashion with a department store that he dreams will be "the Bergdorf Goodman of the South." (The family, he says, can spend $300,000 a year on clothes.)

What's most striking about him, other than this love of conspicuous consumption, is his – we have to start somewhere, and it might as well be with this word – flamboyance.

Which brings us to the one novelty of Chrisley Knows Best. Chrisley, who's a micromanaging busybody, departs from the stereotype of how masculine an American husband and father figure is supposed or expected to be.

That's the show's selling point, if you've watched the clips, although publicity materials dance around the point. The show's website mentions Chrisley's "remarkable ability to dish insults" and calls him a "patriarch of perfection."

Circumlocute much?

You might also say he looks something like Matthew McConaughey in a reboot of Brüno. Or that he's the spirit of Designing Women reincarnated in a male vessel.

You can see why a programmer might resort to dancing.

This isn't exactly a new source of comedy. Dana Carvey introduced a character on Saturday Night Live named Lyle the Effeminate Heterosexual years ago, and Martin Short played Jiminy Glick, a celebrity reporter and not particularly credible family man (with two sons, Matthew and Modine).

But Chrisley is, to the extent that reality television allows, an actual human being, with an actual family.

In fact, Chrisley Knows Best would be cruel, homophobic, incorrect, a new form of bullying, baiting or pandering – I think I would have found it unbearable – if Chrisley himself didn't know this is how the camera captures him and, more than that, if he didn't blithely accept it as who he is.

He told PEOPLE, "This man Tweeted, 'When are you going to come out of the closet?' and I said, 'I don't live in a closet, but if you'd like me to escort you out of yours, I'm happy to do so.' I am who I am. Love me or walk away."

In other words, whether or not you consider Chrisley masculine doesn't affect how he defines himself as a man, spouse or parent. That seems like progress to me.

His ego doesn't seem to have taken a battering – if anything, his exuberant self-regard is what's most enjoyable about this show. His flamboyance and showmanship are integral to his humor and worldview. He's the Sun King of his own Versailles, and he treats each and every person he meets as a courtier who should be delighted to serve. They are all there to obey and amuse him.

Even his mother plays second fiddle to his regal whimsy. When she tells the family that she's looked at an online Christian dating service, he tells her: "They want you to be a freak in the sheets!"

Snap. I guess.

The show can't resist stupidly pushing Chrisley too far: When he takes his taffy-blond son-in-law to the shooting range – something I suspect he wouldn't ordinarily do – he dresses up in a cute, rather too-young outfit that would make sense only if he were working on the guns-and-ammo floor of Barneys. But he clearly relishes this absurd vogueing.

Chrisley Knows Best doesn't escape the usual canned humor of most reality programming. Everything has an exaggerated twinkle or smile, as if we were staring at cupcakes through the glass of a bakery counter.

But Chrisley himself is a kind of triumph.

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