Her roots were planted in the past. Though her life was changing fast, who she was was who she wanted to be. Twenty years ago, the now defunct WB network introduced a family sitcom starring country music icon and American treasure Reba McEntire. Appropriately titled “Reba,” in the multicamera sitcom, McEntire plays Reba Hart, a recent divorcee who now has to handle being a single mother who worked too hard — but who also loves her kids and never stops.
Of course, outside of just the financial struggles of becoming a single mother (when the father was the breadwinner), this new normal was made even more difficult for Reba with the reveal that her eldest child, popular high school cheerleader Cheyenne (JoAnna Garcia Swisher), was impregnated by her himbo boyfriend, star high school football player Van (Steve Howey). In the pilot, Van is kicked out of his home for this and moves in with the Harts, which includes sardonic middle child Kyra (Scarlett Pomers) and little brother Jake (Mitch Holleman). Reba also has to process and contend with the fact that soon-to-be-officially ex-husband Brock (Christopher Rich) impregnated his new, younger girlfriend — the loud, oblivious Barbra Jean (Melissa Peterman).
From the moment the series opened with the whole Hart family in therapy together, failing miserably to pretend they weren’t a messy family, it was clear what audiences were going to get out of the Reba character: the practical matriarch in a family that was spiraling out of All-American, middle-class family control. Like the series theme song (sung by McEntire in all of its iterations) said, Reba was a survivor.
When “Reba” premiered in October 2001, it was an integral part of the start of The WB’s attempt at making a comedic Friday night family line-up. During the previous TV season, The WB’s Friday nights were home to short-lived, instantly cult single camera comedies “Grosse Pointe” and “Popular,” alongside “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” in its first season post-ABC cancelation. With an established series and a new series with an established star, the 2001-2002 WB season was “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” (for its sixth and penultimate season), “Maybe It’s Me” (a one-season single-camera family sitcom), “Reba” and “Raising Dad” (a one-season multicamera sitcom starring Bob Saget and Kat Dennings). During its 11-year run, The WB’s sitcom offerings (once it shifted its brand from the network of “The Jamie Foxx Show,” “The Steve Harvey Show” and “The Wayans Bros.”) could be hit or miss, especially in terms of connecting with the fledgling network’s target demographic. But both commercially and even critically, “Reba” was an undeniable hit.
Looking back at “Reba,” the first season of the series was actually particularly subversive, playing to a number of clichés and stereotypes — from teen pregnancy to hypocrisy and double standards in the Bible Belt — in a setting that, for all intents and purposes, should’ve been more Norman Rockwell than Jerry Springer. The Harts were a “perfect,” All-American, middle class family, but from the moment the series began, the reality of that type of concept was constantly undercut. Only in a comedic way that, looking back, honestly made the series the “Roseanne” of The WB generation.
And it’s worth noting that (and why) The WB’s “Reba” succeeded where ABC’s later one-season McEntire-led series “Malibu Country” (2012-2013), which had a similar enough premise, did not. The premise of “Reba” came from the seismic status quo shifts made in just the pilot, which were the new normal for the Hart family as a result. It was a comedic approach to real world issues that WB audiences clearly latched onto. “Malibu Country,” on the other hand — a series about McEntire as the recently-divorced wife of a country music star, who uses the divorce settlement to move to Malibu with her kids and start up a country music career of her own — went full fish out of water in a way audiences couldn’t relate to (going from the heartland to lifestyles of the rich and famous). While “Malibu Country” may have also had McEntire play a character with gentle hands and the heart of a fighter, it had absolutely no heart at all. “Reba,” like much of The WB’s offerings at the time (even the short-lived ones), was defined by its heart.
From Reba’s struggles to keeping her and her family’s heads above water to the relationship between simple Van and Cheyenne to Reba’s reluctant friendship with Barbra Jean (a relationship that became the unexpected center of the show), these bits connected because of how real they were, among the broad comedy.
Despite consistently being the highest-rated series on The WB’s Friday night line-up — even beating the competition on UPN and Fox — when The WB and UPN merged to form The CW in 2006, Reba almost didn’t make the cut. Les Moonves was reportedly originally against the decision to renew the show, as “Reba” did not fit the brand or attract the intended demographic of early-era CW (which also lacked heart). Eventually, though, the series was picked up for a 13-episode sixth season on The CW, and “Reba” easily remained the most-watched sitcom — and often program, in general — on The CW in its barely-promoted final season.
Two decades years later, “Reba” is remembered fondly, as it has syndication homes on networks like Lifetime and Hallmark and streams on Hulu. Just this summer, the series theme song led to “I’m a Survivor” Tiktok trend, in which McEntire even participated. On social media, nostalgia reigns supreme, and in this particular case, it’s often The WB generation questioning why they connected so much to a series about a middle-aged, divorced, single mother when they were the complete opposite. It’s quite simple: Reba’s a survivor.
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