Chicken-Fried Steak for the Soul

Why do viewers love Reba McEntire’s sitcom Malibu Country?

Justin Prentice and Reba McEntire.
Justin Prentice and  Reba McEntire in Malibu Country

Photo by Nicole Wilder.

Have you seen the new ABC show about an aging country singer with a sneaky husband? No, not Nashville, with fading superstar Rayna Jaymes and her duplicitous politician husband. I’m talking about Malibu Country (ABC, Fridays at 8:30 p.m.), the sitcom that follows once-promising singer-songwriter Reba Gallagher (Reba McEntire) as she relocates her family from Tennessee to California after learning that the man she gave up her career for was a cheating dog.  While Nashville contains classic soap opera elements—rivalries, love triangles, husbands with secrets, young people with more ambition than scruples—and songs with a traditional folk/country feel, it doesn’t feel dated. Malibu Country, on the other hand, is like a rerun from another century. Fifty years ago, another show sent sensible Southerners out to decadent California, the land of swimming pools and movie stars. Like The Beverly Hillbillies, there’s nothing fresh or original about Malibu Country, and that might be the secret of its success.

Yes, success. Malibu Country has consistently drawn more same-day viewers than Nashville—around 6.5 million, as compared to only 6 million for the glitzier drama. (To be fair to Connie Britton, lots of people eventually get around to watching the episodes of Nashville saved on their DVRs. In the seven days after last Wednesday’s episode, the audience jumped 43 percent.)

The familiarity of Malibu Country is surely a big part of its appeal. Critics pointed out that the new show is mighty similar to McEntire’s last sitcom, Reba. It’s chicken-fried steak for the soul, or as New York’s Matt Zoller Seitz called it, “comfort-food TV.” Malibu Country is full of likable characters and charming actors, especially Reba; her mom, Lillie-Mae (Lily Tomlin); and neighbor Kim (Sara Rue). The problem is that they’re given nothing to do. Nothing interesting, anyway. Reba spends her days fretting about starting over in middle age. Lillie-Mae gets high on medical marijuana, flirts with buff beach bums, and acts like the oldest teenager on television. Meanwhile, Kim gets to embody everything that’s wacky about stereotypically spoiled Californians—she’s rich, meddling, and given to sharing way too much information, but she has a good heart.

It certainly helps that the show airs on Friday night, the perfect time for programs that don’t require a lot of brain cells. Malibu Country follows Last Man Standing as the only comedy series on the evening’s schedule. Contrast that with Tuesdays, when the networks offer eight sitcoms in prime time. As Macleans’ Jaime Weinman recently observed, on Tuesday “the pile-up of comedies is preventing any of them from standing out.” Friday is also a night when the audience skews older—18-to-49-year-old viewers are out clubbing or whatever they get up to while I’m watching CSI:NY and New Tricks.

I’m guessing that a good chunk of that older audience can relate to the overarching theme of Malibu Country, which is, in essence, change sucks. The breakup of Reba’s marriage disrupts everyone’s lives. Son Cash, popular back home in Tennessee, is a yokel with an accent in Southern California. Reba keeps hearing she’s too old and unsexy to revive her singing career. (That last idea would be a total bummer if McEntire didn’t look so fabulous. In the second episode, she wore a dress also seen on The Mindy Project and Gossip Girl—and 57-year-old McEntire put 33-year-old Mindy Kaling and 26-year-old Kaylee DeFer in the shade.)

There aren’t a lot of jokes in Malibu Country. Instead, the laughs, such as they are, come from pointing out the absurdity of a world in which neighbors communicate by texting emoticons to one another, rappers make music videos surrounded by babes in bikinis, and the teenage boy next door, who claims to be gay, always seems to be making out with Reba’s daughter, “for practice.” Reba is anxious and lonely, because life in Malibu seems so foreign. That’s a drag for her, but it seems to make viewers feel right at home.