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Seitz: Malibu Country Has a Great One-Two Punch in Reba McEntire and Lily Tomlin

The new Reba McEntire sitcom Malibu Country (ABC, Fridays, 8:30 p.m.) is comfort-food TV — a three-camera sitcom created by the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, in the same vein as McEntire’s last sitcom, Reba, and featuring some of the same plot points. The star plays Reba Gallagher, a once-promising singer who gave up her career to raise kids while her country icon husband, Bobby (Jeffrey Nordling), conquered Nashville. When news breaks that hubby is having a secret affair with a backup singer during a tour to support his new album, These Vows Are Sacred, Reba appears at a press conference to “support” him (shades of The Good Wife and countless real-life sex scandals), snaps after he accuses her of “embarrassing” him, blasts him as a “moron,” divorces him, and moves into his Malibu, California, love nest with her daughter June (Julette Angelo), son Cash (Justin Prentice), and mom Lillie Mae (Lily Tomlin). Whereupon Malibu Country becomes your standard domestic sitcom with a drawl.

It’s satisfying, though, because the supporting cast is likable, McEntire is beguilingly natural as always, and Tomlin — one of the finest character actresses who ever drew breath — clicks with her. I laughed just looking at Reba and Lillie Mae riding in the front seat of a minivan with the heroine’s two cute kids in back — the daughter attempting a brave face, and her mother sitting beside her, wearing that, “I have lived a long time and know everything, so don’t you worry about anything, honey” expression that makes adult children seesaw between adoration and thoughts of matricide. Lillie Mae keeps making “supportive” comments that hit Reba like razor flicks. “It’s downright humiliating,” she says. “People can’t stop staring! ‘Oh, he’s so good-looking, I don’t know what he even saw in her! Must be something she’s doin’ wrong in the bedroom … ’” “Thank you, momma,” Reba cuts her off. “Thank you.”

The supporting cast is filled with performers who make the most of substandard material: Jai Rodriquez (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) as the assistant to a music industry boss that Reba tries to meet after deciding to revive her singing career; Sara Rue as Kim, a next-door neighbor whose every sentence contains Too Much Information; Hudson Thames as Kim’s son, a handsome young gay teen who befriends June. Every character is to some extent a familiar sitcom type, but the performers turn them into people, or try to. Reba is the calm, if slightly kooky, center of the series, always trying to measure her words to make the best possible impression, then lapsing into rambling confessional monologues that reveal her insecurities. But when she sings — as she does at the end of tonight’s pilot — the character’s resilience and dignity become more than abstractions. The dialogue and situations (written by Kevin Abbott) are nothing special, but when you’ve got a deftly cast central duo, starring in a sitcom scheduled next to another comfort-food comedy, Tim Allen’s Last Man Standing, they don’t have to be. Malibu Country could be one of those series that runs ten years without anyone in the mainstream media writing a think piece about it, or any of its fans caring.

Photo: Nicole Wilder/ABC