19 August 2006 | liquidcelluloid-1
With real laughs and clever writing, "Reba" is an unlikely front-runner for the best family sitcom on TV today
Network: WB/CW; Genre: Family Sitcom; Content Rating: TV-G/PG (some occasional language & adult content); Available: DVD, Syndicated on Lifetime; Perspective: Contemporary (1 4);
Seasons Reviewed: 5+ seasons
It sounds awful. A family sitcom on the WB pitched around country music star Reba McEntire. It took me a good 3 years of convincing to even give it a try and, low and beyond I was pleasantly surprised. "Reba" is genuinely funny.
McEntire plays Reba Hart, mother of 3 in the TV-neglected city of Houston, whose life is thrown into chaos when her husband Brock (Christopher Rich, "Murphy Brown") has an affair with Barbra Jean (Melissa Peterman) and the resulting divorce coincides with her oldest daughter, Cheyenne (Joanna Garcia, "Freaks and Geeks") becoming pregnant and her baby and new husband Van (Steve Howey) being forced to move in with mom.
When "Reba" begins we are pretty much thrown clear from all the angst and drama that the show's back-story involves. In true impossible sitcom fashion Brock and Barbra Jean have moved in next door to Reba and hilarity ensues. You might call "Reba" "Grace Under Fire Lite". It has shaved the bitterness and edge off of Brett Butler's gutsy spousal abuse sitcom and it is an even funnier and more pleasing show because of it.
Sidebar. TV does a lot to trivialize the impact of divorce, and though it might seem like that on the page, "Reba" doesn't do that. It is certainly "sitcom-ized", but the nuggets of truth behind all the one-liners feel authentic. Like the best family sitcoms, "Reba" uses silly typical sitcom premises only to peel them back and use them to delve into a deeper character issue underneath. Rarely have I seen a family sitcom handle children of divorce, male depression, teen pregnancy and a woman over 40 dating with such intelligence and insight. But the tone is still kept light and upbeat. No Very Special Episodes here.
The writing is surprisingly sharp and the bits are multi-layered and steeped in a respect for the characters. At the center of the series is the back-and-forth between Reba and Barbra Jean, which is basically a classic rivalry of Reba hurling insults and Barbra Jean not picking them up. Peterman, embodying the proverbial bull in a china shop, chews up the scenery big time in a very funny way. Barbra Jean is like no mistress/stepmother you've ever seen obnoxious, ditsy and sweetly endearing. Also in the hamming up department is Howey, who is another graduate from the Jim Carrey/Ryan Reynolds School of Acting and, by God, this guy cracks me up. This is good work by all involved, also including deadpan funny deliveries from Rich and Scarlett Pomers (as Reba's neglected middle-child Kyra who gets all the best one-liners). But who knew that Reba McEntire was such a natural comic actress? Her delivery and comic timing is top-of-the-line for the genre.
"Reba" is a more complex and evolved family sitcom than it first might look. Seasons span entire story arcs: Kyra moves out, Brock's mid-life crisis, Van's football career, Brock and Barbra Jean break-up. I dig the way the show fleshes out the characters, even Brock isn't confined to "deadbeat husband" status, but walks the line that keeps us from completely liking them. The worst thing that could happen to Reba would be to have her and Barbra Jean truly become friends. Aside from the fact that it would ruin the show's dynamic, it would be insulting unrealistic. It comes close, but the show doesn't hold it for long. In the 5th season the show hits a stride, breaking out of its own domestic drama and having a little fun with real world issues like zero tolerance, sodas in school and Hurricane Katrina evacuees in Houston.
Judging it in the genre, if "8 Simple Rules" and "George Lopez" are 3-star shows, than "Reba" is much better. In fact, it is the best family sitcom on TV today. Insightful and genuinely funny without being at all crass. Hey, look at that, it can be done.
* * * ½ / 4