Reba's back, and ABC's got her.
It's hard, if not downright impossible, to challenge country music icon McEntire's sense of what her loyal and large fan base wants: She had a six-season run with her WB/CW comedy "Reba" (still seen in repeats on both ABC Family and Country Music Television), and as she returns to weekly television, she's adopting a familiar-feeling character and premise.
Premiering Nov. 2, "Malibu Country" casts her as a once-major singing star who decides to relocate from Nashville to Southern California and salvage her career after her marriage falls apart. As on "Reba," the central figure has teen children (Justin Prentice, Juliette Angelo) ... with added concerns posed by her own sassy mother, appropriately played by perennially saucy comedy legend Lily Tomlin.
Melissa Peterman was an ever-upbeat presence McEntire played off on "Reba"; now that slot is filled by Sara Rue ("Less Than Perfect") as an enthusiastic neighbor who constantly shares too much information. And the unfaithful ex-husband of the fictional Reba again stays in the picture, played now by Jeffrey Nordling ("Once and Again").
That the Reba of "Malibu Country" has fallen on hard career times is something McEntire can relate to, though she certainly isn't inviting such a situation for herself.
"It sure will keep you humble real quick," she says. "by somebody saying, 'Nope, you're not young. You're not sexy. Go do something else.' I'm sure that would be very humiliating and hurtful, but the character has to embrace that and work harder. Hopefully, I never see that."
McEntire believes "Malibu Country" makes a good companion to ABC's (and Tim Allen's) relocated-from-Tuesdays "Last Man Standing," whose second season starts Friday. She's also a "Malibu Country" executive producer, as is her husband and longtime manager, Narvel Blackstock.
"I didn't want to leave television when ('Reba') got canceled," she says. "I was having so much fun, and we still had so many stories to tell, I was looking for a new show all this time. Then, the funniest thing happened.
"Dave Stewart, of [the music act] Eurythmics, was on an airplane to L.A. from Nashville with my oldest son Brandon. They were asking each other what they do, and Dave told Brandon that he had a sitcom idea. He told it to him, and Brandon said, 'Why don't you get Reba McEntire to do it?' Dave said, 'Oh, she's already got a TV show.' Brandon said, 'No, that got canceled in 2006.' And Dave said, 'Well, email this idea to her!' And I fell in love with it."
Lily Tomlin's a Reba fan
Just as Tomlin fell in love with playing the fictional Reba's mom. "I was very taken with Reba anyway, for a long time," says the actress-comedian whose star rose rapidly during her TV tenure as a "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" regular. "My brother lives in Nashville, so I'd run into Reba every now and then, and she was always so upbeat and expansive.
"Then I saw her do 'Annie Get Your Gun' on Broadway, and that was just a mindblower, because she was beyond brilliant. I went backstage and slobbered all over her and everything, then these many years later, I got offered this part. And I'm sure that slobbering and gushing didn't go to waste. I'm from Detroit, but my family is all Southern. I know that culture very well."
Having co-starred in director Robert Altman's celebrated 1975 movie "Nashville," and having also acted with another country-music staple -- Dolly Parton, in the 1980 comedy hit "Nine to Five" -- Tomlin has a solid sense of the territory. Surely, so does McEntire, who allows "Malibu Country" has the sensibility of "Reba" but claims it isn't just a revision of her earlier show.
"I guess you could say the differences are the location and having my mother with me now, instead of so much of the ex-husband. Jeffrey Nordling will be in the show with us an awful lot, but he's playing a career man who wants to get back in the family fold. There are a lot of parallels, though, in trying to overcome certain situations like the divorce and moving the kids and dealing with the culture shock."
Her fans are glad she's back
Clearly, McEntire's television focus now is on making "Malibu Country" a success. She already has passed on hosting next year's Academy of Country Music Awards on CBS, an annual tradition for her since 1999, to stay concentrated on her series. She's sure that's the way to go, since she says, "All my fans are totally excited about this show. They're very glad we're back on television."
"Malibu Country" enters the ABC lineup when the network has just introduced the series "Nashville," but McEntire claims she much prefers doing the show she's doing.
"I'm in that business for true life," she reasons of the drama. "I want to play an imaginary character having fun in Malibu."
But if "Nashville" were to summon her for a guest shot?
"Now that would be a hoot. I'd like to do that."