Malibu Country debuts tonight on ABC at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.
Phil Dyess-Nugent: From deep inside the bowels of the prison at Reading, Oscar Wilde sniffed that if his experience was typical of the way the Queen treated her prisoners, “she doesn’t deserve to have any.” If Malibu Country is typical of the use ABC now makes of talented people, it doesn’t deserve to have any. This fish-out-of-water sitcom aims to combine the country-music-loving audience with the audience that loves to cheer on plucky, middle-aged heroines trying to rebuild their lives with the odds stacked against them, along with some of the audience that never gets tired of watching salt-of-the-earth types from the heartland reel in dismay at the antics of those crazy people on the West Coast. But its best target demographic might be people who suffer a debilitating stroke while reaching for the remote and aren’t discovered for another half-hour.
Reba McEntire stars as Reba, a country singer-songwriter who put her career on the shelf 15 years ago, to tend to her nest and raise her two kids while her husband (Jeffrey Nordling) was out becoming a superstar. Now Nordling has been embroiled in a sex scandal, and Reba is the Alicia Florrick who sings. The première episode opens at the press conference where Nordling—who manages to suggest a character with some comic potential but doesn’t get to do much with it here—announces the suspension of his “These Vows Are Sacred” tour so he can spend more time with his family. Unfortunately, the swaggering oaf makes the mistake of riling his wife by urging that she step up to the microphone and make a statement of support—and that’s all she wrote.
“He’s a moron,” Reba tells the assembled throng, “and I’m leaving his lying, cheating butt.” It’s meant to be a rousing, liberating moment, but viewers may be too distracted by their own thoughts to remember to jump up and start cheering. Thoughts such as, given what TV writers are paid, and given what comes out of the actors’ mouths at any given moment on The Thick Of It, if you hire someone to compose a speech for a woman publicly dumping the horndog, scumbag husband for whom she gave up her career, and the best the writer can come up with is “He’s a moron,” do you demand the advance back, or smile and shake his hand and then quietly arrange to have him killed, as a warning to others?
Reba packs up her lonely, sulky teenage daughter (Juliette Angelo), her ebulliently horny teenage son (Justin Prentice) and her mother, Lillie Mae, played by Lily Tomlin—in aging-hippie ensembles and a thick, shoulder-length gray wig that bring out a latent, previously undetected resemblance to Chief Dan George—and splits for the Coast. She moves them all into the big Malibu beach house that she didn’t know she co-owned—“Turns out your daddy had a lot of pretty things I didn’t know about.”—and sets about trying to kick-start her career. But first she has to adjust to this strange new world where her son is suddenly surrounded by surreally beautiful girls (but also has a lot of surreally beautiful guys to compete with). Then there’s her daughter, who strikes up a friendship with a neighbor boy who claims to be gay (not that there’s anything wrong with that) but also proposes that he and his new gal pal engage in long kissing sessions for practice (folks in the heartland practice on the backs of their hands and are damn proud of it). And on top of all that, there’s the proffered friendship of the boy’s mother, a gushy, Malibu-Absolutely Fabulous type (the talented Sara Rue, working hard—maybe a little too hard—to rejuvenate an exhausted stereotype).
But back to that singing career: Reba has to steel herself for combat with a music industry that’s changed a lot since she was in the game. Jai Rodriguez, the former “culture” expert on Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, plays Geoffrey, the record-company assistant who lays it on the line for her. “Nobody cares about the voice now,” he tells her, his hands threatening to take off and fly out the window. “We got computers for that now.” People want young, and they want sexy. In the absence of those precious qualities, “Get a hook, or write a great song. That’s it.”
Rodriguez is great. He really throws himself into his reluctant-mentor role, and every gesture and spoken syllable of his energetic, stylized performance is carefully worked out. But by giving his scenes the kiss of life, he just makes it that more obvious that the rest of the show is hanging on the clothesline on a day when the wind doesn’t blow. Anyone who doesn’t like Reba McEntire is probably a damn replicant, but her natural acting style is a bad fit for a hack sitcom script full of connect-the-dots one-liners and dopey reaction shots to the other characters; her role isn’t meant to be played truthfully by an actress trying to create a character, it’s meant to be slammed home by a pro who doesn’t care about whether the lines and responses all add up to a believable person—McEntire is so stranded that, at times, she’s almost painful to watch. Tomlin just coasts through, which is all anyone can really ask of a sane, talented woman whose big laugh line in the pilot involves stoned giggling at the sight of a pelican taking a dump. (Grandma loves her some of that medical mara-jee-wana.) But even if she’s enjoying getting paid to spend a few weeks hanging out with Reba McEntire and collecting autographs to hand out to her friends, it’s still a depressing waste of one of the greatest comic actresses alive. The late-inning debut of Malibu Country is an appropriate conclusion to the rollout of one of the most listless fall TV seasons in memory.
Carrie Raisler: Malibu Country feels like the result of some ABC development executive watching the Nashville pilot and deciding to create a comedy based on all the Southern stereotypes that show so carefully avoids. Where the Nashville of Nashville feels like a modern, cosmopolitan city, the Nashville of Malibu Country is all Hee Haw and gay panic. (As someone who lives in the city, I can attest that the truth, as it always does, lies somewhere in the middle.) Malibu doesn’t fare much better in the pilot, solely represented by poor Sara Rue in a desperate attempt to make anything interesting out of a character cobbled together from tiny scraps of footage from the archives of The Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills.
Fish-out-of-water comedies are basically predicated on using stereotypes to mine humor, but there has to be a more artful way to do it than this, or at least less eye-rolling stereotypes to feature. Between McEntire, Tomlin, and Rue there’s definitely enough female talent to carry an interesting show about unexpectedly restarting your life in middle age. As it stands now, though, the writing here isn’t even up to the very low bar set by its timeslot-mate, Last Man Standing.
Unless you’re looking for horrifically uncomfortable jokes where “gay” is the punchline: then Malibu Country’s got you covered.