In October of last year, I wrote a review of a new sitcom starring a feisty, Grammy-winning singer. At the time, critics had high hopes for the series, in which a redheaded songstress played an often-frazzled wife and mother. While I found the show far from perfect, still, I said that it had a future, if the first couple of episodes, which were generally humorous, were any indication (see review at www.popmatters.com/tv/reviews/b/bette.shtml). Alas, the first couple of episodes were not any indication, and the show was gone shortly after.
Now, I sit here, writing a review of a new sitcom starring another feisty, Grammy-winning singer. Again, critics have kind things to say about the series, in which a redheaded songstress plays an often-frazzled wife and mother. Again, I find the show to be generally humorous, although far from perfect, and think its future is bright. Will history repeat itself? I doubt it. So why will Reba succeed where Bette failed? Quite simply, because Reba, unlike Bette, caters to its star’s abilities and image.
Allison M. Gibson, Mindy Schultheis, Michael Hanel
Reba McEntire, Christopher Rich, JoAnna Garcia, Steve Howey, Scarlett Pomers, Mitch Holleman, Melissa Peterman
Regular airtime: Friday, 9 PM EST
Though both are extremely talented women, neither Bette Midler nor Reba McEntire come immediately to mind as a potential sitcom star. Both ladies have experience in films and on Broadway, but the shooting schedule for a TV sitcom can be far more demanding in terms of energy and time, especially if you are the focal point of the series. Positioning a TV novice front and center of a weekly series puts a huge burden on her shoulders. Unfortunately, Bette failed to recognize this and centered all its attention on its star, Bette Midler, and her inept attempts to juggle her life as diva extraordinaire with her life as loving wife and mother. Every episode revolved around Bette’s crazy antics, she had all the best jokes, and other characters merely reacted to her. It was Bette’s show, no doubt about it. The pressure was apparently more than the superstar could handle. Rumors of tension on the set, cast changes, and Midler’s own public criticism of the show eventually took their toll, and Bette grew less funny and more repetitious with each episode.
Although Reba focuses much of its attention on its star, Reba McEntire, it does not make the mistakes that Bette did. Instead of forcing all of its attention on the star, Reba spreads the jokes and storylines equally among all its cast members, letting her react to the other players as they react to her and each other. This approach is bound to create a much happier set, with each cast member having the chance to develop his or her character, instead of playing the same note every week. More importantly, it allows McEntire to develop her comic skills at a reasonable pace, as the pressure is not on her to carry every joke and storyline.
The plot of the premiere episode made it evident that Reba is an ensemble show, with McEntire assigned the role of the voice of reason in a sea of clowns. It began with the Hart family in court-mandated therapy. As we first see Mom, Dad, and their three kids, all of whom look wholesome and healthy, we immediately wonder, “What could possibly be wrong with this family that they would be forced into therapy by a judge?” The answer? A lot. For one thing, Reba and husband Brock (Christopher Rich), a dentist and assistant high school football coach, have recently separated after 20 years of marriage, as a result of his affair with his dental assistant, Barbara Jean (Melissa Peterman).
During the therapy session, we learn that Brock and Barbara Jean plan to marry, because she is pregnant. Reba’s hopes of reconciliation are, of course, dashed, but that’s just the beginning of her family blues. It seems that her 17-year-old cheerleader daughter, Cheyenne (JoAnna Garcia), is also pregnant, thanks to Van (Steve Howey), her father’s star player. Van’s parents immediately kick him out of the house, so his solution is to marry Cheyenne and take up residence in her room at Reba’s house.
Initially, Reba appears bitter about these developments. When her youngest daughter Kyra (Scarlett Pomers) asks her what she should call Barbara Jean, Reba tells her to “...just point at her in Wal-Mart and say, ‘There’s the woman that stole my daddy.’” Later, she breaks down in front of her family, shouting at her ex-husband, “We were supposed to grow old together!” and running out of her daughter’s dysfunctional wedding. By episode’s end, however, Reba has regained her composure and come to the realization that “Barbara Jean is not going to drown in a huge vat of Crisco oil.”
This suggests that Reba will, with time, adjust to her new life, despite a total lack of help from her family. Indeed, much of the show’s comedy comes from the fact that her perspective on recent events differs so much from the others involved. Her daughter’s reaction to pregnancy is, “I am so off the drill team,” and Brock advises dad-to-be Van to “Shake it off. Big game Saturday.” Reba is, naturally, incredulous at her family’s cavalier attitude, but seems to make little headway reasoning with them. Reba deals with Van’s arrival in her house, Cheyenne’s battle with morning sickness and first visit to a gynecologist, and Brock and Van’s obsession with football. In each situation, Reba appears to be sole source of logical thinking. McEntire is hardly an experienced comedienne, so having her remain rational amidst the turmoil leaves the more difficult comic bits to the more accomplished cast members.
Moreover, the show’s creators have created an additional comfort zone for McEntire by allowing her to play a character not far removed from herself. One would imagine that it’s easier to understand your character’s motivation if it is the same as your own would be in a similar situation. McEntire is known as a great country singer and role model, admired for her honesty and level-headedness. She seems to be someone you would want living next door, because she would always be making an extra apple pie that she’d need to unload on you, or insisting that, since her son is mowing the yard, he might as well be neighborly and do yours too. On Reba, McEntire comes across the same way.
An additional benefit of modeling Reba Hart’s personality after Reba McEntire’s is that it will not violate the expectations of long-time McEntire fans, thus driving them away from the series, and, because the persona is so darn likeable, this characterization will most likely create new Reba fans. Honestly, does anybody want to see the queen of country playing a rich society bitch or a man-hungry secretary? And, allowing Reba to be herself has apparently paid off, as the show has done well in the ratings both here and in Canada, and is a huge hit with women between the ages of 12 to 34, a key marketing group. Feedback to the show’s website, from both country and non-country viewers, indicates that viewers like Reba Hart, and enjoy McEntire’s portrayal of her.
This is not to say Reba is destined for the sitcom Hall of Fame. It’s not. The goal of a sitcom is to elicit laughter from its audience, obviously, and there were some long sections of the episodes I watched that just weren’t funny. Other segments were laugh-out-loud funny, but too often attempted jokes fell flat or were predictable. Having created such an ideal environment for their star, the writers now need to focus their attention on punching up and more evenly distributing the show’s jokes.
Despite some problems with writing, Reba should maintain good ratings, if for no other reason than the fact that its star is so genial. But you never know. In another year, Reba and Bette may be sitting backstage together at the Grammys, chanting a newly shared mantra, “TV sucks.” I hope not.