How Netflix fans and 'The Voice' are making Reba McEntire's sitcom a hit again

The final episode of Reba McEntire’s sitcom “Reba” was filmed in 2006. But 18 years later, it’s often the first thing fans want to talk about when the country superstar travels through an airport.

“When we were coming back from Africa we stopped in Atlanta and people were coming up saying they’re loving watching it on Netflix,” McEntire said in a recent telephone interview from the set of NBC’s “The Voice,” where she is a coach. “Friends of mine will tell me that their nieces and their kids are watching it now, so we’ve got two or three new generations watching, which just thrills me to pieces.”

“Reba,” which ran for six seasons on the WB and its successor the CW, arrived on Netflix in May and remains available on Walt Disney Co.’s Hulu, where it has streamed since 2018. The combination of platforms pushed the show into Nielsen’s top 10 streaming programs for the week of May 13-19, with 744 million minutes watched. The series showed up on the list again two weeks later, generating 707 million viewing minutes.

The resurgence of “Reba” demonstrates the ability of Netflix and other streamers to drive young viewers to older programs. “Reba” likely benefited from an influx of viewers for the platform’s “Netflix Is A Joke” specials who sought more comedy and discovered the show’s 124 episodes. McEntire, 69, has also found new fans since joining “The Voice” — one of broadcast TV’s most-watched shows — last year.

But “Reba”also highlights how the multicamera family sitcom filmed in front of a live audience (never a favorite of critics or Emmy voters) remains one of TV’s most durable genres.

The premise for “Reba” reads like the lyric of a country song. McEntire’s character Reba Hart sees her world turned upside down when the dentist husband she divorced marries his pregnant girlfriend. At the same time, her 17-year-old daughter is carrying the child of her high school football hero boyfriend.

Veteran TV writer Allison Gibson, who as a child growing up in Houston saw her dentist dad split with her mom, wrote the script for the pilot in 1999.

“My parents divorced and in a lot of ways it felt that was the end of the world and everything I envisioned our life was going to be,” Gibson recalled in an interview. “The show was a little bit of a fantasy about a family that faced all that and got up off the floor.”

The series did not start out as a project for McEntire. While in the process of creating the show, Gibson was nursing her infant daughter, often in the overnight hours while watching sitcom repeats on classic TV cable network Nick at Nite.

After seeing Sally Field do a cameo as a secretary on “Murphy Brown,” Gibson found the voice of the resilient lead character in her script. She titled the series “Sally,” with the hope that the Oscar-winning actor would sign on to star. Field did not want to return to television, but Gibson’s script became a hot property and was bought by 20th Century-Fox Television, now owned by Disney.

McEntire was already a country music legend who was moving more into acting when she read for the role. Married and divorced twice with stepchildren, she connected with it. Her 2001 hit “I’m a Survivor” became the show’s opening theme (and had a viral moment on TikTok in 2021).

“Reba” made the WB schedule in 2001, a time when the network had pop culture sizzle with “Dawson’s Creek” and “Gilmore Girls.” But Jordan Levin, a veteran TV executive who ran the WB at the time, said it was broader-appealing fare such as “Reba” and “7th Heaven” — a drama about a minister’s family — that brought commercial success to the network.

“The press didn’t always align with the ratings,” Levin recalled. “We knew we were playing to the middle of the country in a lot of cases.”

After “Reba” finished its broadcast network run, its repeats became a staple of cable channels, running on Lifetime, CMT, Hallmark and Up. Once social media emerged, Gibson received messages from viewers who discovered the program for the first time, including one from a military veteran who said it helped calm his symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Fans told her they binge-watched on Hulu to help get through the pandemic.

“The series is about how to pick yourself up when nothing’s going right and I think in these incredibly challenging, troubling times we’re in right now, that still resonates with people,” Gibson said.

The cast members, including Melissa Peterman, Christopher Rich and Joanna Garcia Swisher now find themselves in “where are they now” stories. They have remained close over the years, according to McEntire.

Starting in October, McEntire will be reunited with Peterman in a new NBC sitcom, “Happy’s Place.” McEntire plays a woman who inherits a restaurant from her father and then learns she has to share it with a half-sister she never knew existed.

“It’s those kind of twists that make people go, ‘Oh, my gosh, how’s she gonna survive this?” McEntire said.

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