A vehicle for Reba McEntire, Reba happily infuses the character “Reba Hart” with the star’s own perkiness and sweet spirit. This grants her legions of fans the pleasure of watching a version of the real Reba deal with the comedy and drama of domestic situations.
As demonstrated in the first season, now available on DVD from Fox, the family circumstance occasionally borders on sensationalistic, but the series finds a balance between a satire of Southern stereotypes and an exploration of fully drawn characters and relationships. Living in Houston, 40-something Reba Hart’s husband of 20 years, dentist Brock (Christopher Rich), divorces her to marry his young, ditzy dental hygienist, Barbra Jean (Melissa Peterman), who is pregnant with their child. Reba’s 17-year-old daughter Cheyenne (JoAnna Garcia) is also pregnant; she marries her high school boyfriend Van (Steve Howey) and both move in with Reba, joining her younger children, Kyra (Scarlett Pomers) and Jake (Mitch Holleman).
As the series tackles subjects including teen pregnancy, infidelity, female friendship, and parenting, the banter never condescends to the characters and we believe their emotional bonds. Cheyenne and Van struggle with being young parents, and everyone struggles with the change in dynamics brought on by the arrival of Brock and Barbra Jean’s baby. Reba often serves as a steadying force, reassuring her daughter that marriages can succeed even while she grapples with the dissolution of her own (as she tells Brock during Cheyenne’s wedding, “We were supposed to grow old together”). And when Cheyenne’s high school threatens to expel her because of her pregnancy, yet avoids punishing football star Van, Reba points out the double standard, convincing Van to threaten not to play football unless Cheyenne can return to school with him. The series lends insights into a blended family’s ambivalences, particularly when Barbra Jean leans on Reba for emotional support or when Brock realizes he doesn’t really know his kids.
Reba works for several reasons. Emphasizing a strong ensemble of actors, it moves beyond stereotypes that might have been at home in a Blue Collar TV sketch. If Barbra Jean’s big blonde Texas hair and goofiness are stock, Peterman’s slapstick appeal is genuine. And if Reba offers potentially stock feuds (generational, domestic rivals), its sense of place is detailed and innovative. For the DVD’s commentary track, producers (including Patti Carr and Lara Runnels) assert they wanted to make a sitcom that wasn’t focused on New York or Los Angeles like so many others, and might reveal different sorts of Southern culture, from the characters’ accents to their daily concerns.
The producers also discuss their initial conception of Reba, as a more timid woman concerned about, for example, being kicked out of the Junior League because of her pregnant daughter. But as they developed the character over time, they added more of McEntire’s personality to make their Reba feistier and more assertive. Steve Howey jokes about Reba’s persona, the no-nonsense rodeo barrel-racer from Oklahoma. Other extras include deleted scenes, bloopers, and outtakes, an interview with McEntire and Peterman, and two featurettes about how their characters were developed, “Creating Reba” and “On the Scene with Barbra Jean.” Here Peterman talks about what it was like to perform with McEntire in front of a live studio audience largely comprised of rabid Reba fans. Peterman, whose character is often in conflict with McEntire’s on the series, says she wanted Reba to hug her after the show to make sure Reba’s fans wouldn’t hate her. McEntire observes, “Yes, I have very loyal fans.”
When the show makes knowing jokes about singers, it references Reba’s “other” career, and country musicians are known for being accessible to fans. That’s an understatement. Reba‘s pilot was taped in April 2001, when McEntire was starring on Broadway in Annie Get Your Gun; she notes that many fans actually followed her from Broadway to Los Angeles to watch the TV pilot being made. The TV series gives fans a new kind of access to Reba, even as it provides new sorts of sitcom expectations.