Saturday, April 30, 2005

Funny Women

I've stated before that I don't watch that many sitcoms. It's hard to explain why, but in part the sitcom has become formulaic, and for whatever reason I just can't get interested in shows like Arrested Development or Scrubs which apparently try to break the formula. Maybe I'm just unwilling to find the time for them. That's part of what makes Reba so unusual - I am willing to find the time to watch it.

Reba is the WB series starring Reba McEntire. While the average sitcom usually features a stand-up comedian with little or no acting experience (see Kevin James or Ray Romano) and surrounds them with talented actors with the hope that something will rub off, Reba McEntire is a country singer with more than a little acting experience - the movie Tremors and Annie Get Your Gun on Broadway - who is surrounded by reasonably talented actors in hopes that something will rub off. The result is in truth not as bad as some people seem to think.

Reba plays Reba Hart, a single mom who works too hard, loves her kids and never stops: who she is is who she wants to be - that's from the theme song if you couldn't guess. Actually Reba is divorced and got the typical TV divorce settlement - a big house and enough money that she doesn't actually have to work as hard as the theme song indicates that she does - at least not outside of the house. Not that life is all sweetness and light at home. Her eldest daughter Cheyenne got pregnant and married in her senior year of high school. As she put it "the three months between getting my drivers license and getting pregnant were the freest I've ever felt." Cheyenne married Van the high school football star who did a year of college before turning pro and having a career ending injury. They (and the baby) live with Reba. Middle daughter Kyra is a typical sitcom teenage girl - a smart-ass in other words. In an act of teenaged rebellion she went to live with her father and his new wife. Youngest child Jake is typically sitcom pre-teen cute both in looks and acts. Rounding out the cast is Reba's ex, Brock and his new wife Barbara-Jean who got pregnant with Brock's baby while Brock was still married to Reba.

If most of that sounds like a typical sitcom play book, well throw it out. For one thing the absolute best thing about this show is Melissa Peterman as Barbara Jean. Barbara Jean isn't stupid, but she is more than a bit dense. Somehow she doesn't grasp the notion that Reba might not want to be friends with the woman who broke up her marriage by getting pregnant with Brock's child. She is always showing up at Reba's house behaving as though she is not just a friend but Reba's best friend - which in a bizarre sort of way she is! What makes the character is not just the writing but Peterman's delivery and her rubber-like face. She is a hoot and her scenes with McEntire are some of the best in the show in part because Peterman seems to bring out the goofy side of McEntire. It happens somewhat with the other characters but Peterman and McEntire together just cut loose. McEntire proves that she can mug for the camera almost as well as Peterman and that's saying a lot. For once Christopher Rich as Brock isn't the dumbest person in the cast. He's frequently a little thick but not stupid. The dumb character is Van, played by Steve Howey, and in the grand tradition of comedy he makes dumb funny. Just as one example there's a scene where Barbara Jean says "And what is dog spelled backwards?" It takes Van 15 seconds to figure out that dog spelled backwards is God. It's obviously a scene that plays better than it sounds. Van's interaction with his wife Cheyenne, played by Joanna Garcia, is done to perfection, even though Cheyenne's IQ seems to go down in her scenes with Van. Even Scarlett Pomers (who first appeared as Naomi Wildmon on Star Trek: Voyager) as Kyra manages to make her smart-assed teen character funny even though she's usually given precious little to work with.

Apparently Reba is either a show that people really love, or a show that people really love to hate. For me, while the writing isn't special and most of the characters aren't particularly original, the relationship between Barbara Jean and Reba and (more importantly) the way that Reba McEntire and Melissa Peterman play that relationship makes it a show that I try very hard not to miss.

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