Malibu Country provides yet another tailor-made vehicle for Reba McEntire. As in Reba, she plays a sassy-brassy single mom named “Reba” who has to pick up the pieces after her husband cheats on her. And here again, she spars with wacky family members and overcomes domestic challenges, with an impressive strength of will and warmth too.
The similarity to McEntire’s old series makes for an uncanny vibe in the new one, not to mention an obvious retreading. In Malibu Country, Reba’s neighbor, Kim (Sara Rue), is too like Reba‘s Barbara Jean, zany and congenial, the perfect BFF and foil for the star’s good sense and generosity. Also recalling the previous series, Reba appears repeatedly in her kitchen or living room, parenting rascally kids, situations that showcase her domestic skills and crotchety wisdom. But even if we’re heartened by her familiarity, it’s not long before we’re wondering, why are we doing this again?
The premiere of Malibu Country does offer a sliver of a new idea, even if it’s borrowed from McEntire’s own life. This time, Reba is a country singer trying to get back into the business, and feeling out of place at the same time. Her dislocation is uncomfortably layered: following her breakup, she moves her two kids and her mother Lily Mae (Lily Tomlin) from Nashville to Malibu, where they move into the beach house that her country music superstar hubby, Bobby (Jeffrey Nordling), secretly kept for his mistresses.
And so: grounded Reba has to negotiate the West Coast glitz, first glimpsed when she tries to schedule a meeting with an LA producer. A snarky producer’s assistant, Geoffrey (Jai Rodriguez), tries to set Reba straight, proposing that since she’s been out of the music scene for a dozen years, she’s unaware of what’s important now. Executives want “a hook, not a voice,” Geoffrey tells her, and the producer will only give her a “rinse and repeat,” that is, he’ll keep putting her off and in the end, never meet with her.
Reba-the-character’s combination of bemusement and savvy might allude generally to McEntire’s own experience, in the sense that she’s a 50-something singer trying to stay relevant in a country music industry dominated by pop singers like Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. While we might hope this critique of the newfangled industry may draw detail from the experiences of creator Dave Stewart, of the Eurythmics, the first episode uses broad strokes. Reba-the-character tells her mother that she wants people to appreciate her kind of music, that is, country music that is heartfelt and true to the genre’s roots, rather than manufactured and over-produced.
This familiar tension parallels another one, having to do with entrenched gender dynamics in the music industry. Geoffrey tells her the producer will never help her because Bobby still sells records. Reba’s resistance to Geoffrey’s prescription (that she come up with a hook) suggests her determination to fight industry edicts. But that won’t be easy, and the episode goes on to demonstrate how celebrity trumps art despite her determination, how public and private lives are blurred. The episode opens on an entertainment TV show’s coverage of Reba and Bobby’s press conference, where he’s supposed to admit his affair and she’s supposed to “stand by her man.” But she changes her mind during the event, and dumps him on air. “He’s a moron,” she declares, “And I’m leaving his lying, cheating butt.”
While Reba’s “authenticity” here might look impressive, it’s also another show. Though she performs a moving song about her mixed emotions, the implication being that Bobby’s songs are lies and hers tell truth, the episode’s ongoing comedy bits don’t support this distinction.
Case in point: the mixed messages embodied by Grandma Lily Mae. As written, she’s a caricature, lurking in corners and cracking cheesy jokes. This even if Tomlin delivers the lines with a sardonic wit that elevates the material and often undercuts stereotypes, as when she instructs Kim that “Shut your trap” is preferable to “Hush your mouth.” But Lily Mae also lapses into her own too-folksy phrasing, confronting Reba’s teenage son Cash (Justin Prentice) on his plan to date a girl in California and keep his old Nashville girlfriend too: “You’re a horn-dog, just like your daddy.”