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Katharine McPhee Does the Heartland Thing in Netflix's Country Comfort

The former American Idol and Smash star is a country-singing nanny in her new sitcom.
  • Katharine McPhee in Country Comfort. (Netflix)
    Katharine McPhee in Country Comfort. (Netflix)

    It feels like we've been getting introduced to Katharine McPhee for 15 years now. The very first time we saw her on our TV screens was in January of 2006 when she first auditioned for American Idol's fifth season. That show's stated purpose is to discover a new star, and discover her we did, all the way to the final two, where her Boston Conservatory-trained pop-contemporary stylings ran into the freight train that was Taylor Hicks's Soul Patrol. And while her music career didn't exactly take off after that, she was able to parlay her newfound fame into roles in movies like The House Bunny. Then, in 2012, NBC cast her in its Broadway-set musical-theater fantasia Smash, putting her at the end of the show's trailer with an "and introducing Katharine McPhee" tag. Smash was… what it was — a show as confounding and infuriating as it was unique and deeply watchable — but stacked up against as much legit musical-theater talent as existed on that show, McPhee's Karen was (rightly) turned into an avatar for untalented grabs at success.

    Since Smash, McPhee has occupied an odd pop-cultural space. She starred for an inexplicable four (!) seasons on the CBS tech procedural Scorpion. She had a couple different stints, on Broadway and the West End, in the lead role of the Waitress stage musical. She married 71-year-old record producer David Foster in 2019. She attained a notably sassy Twitter presence. And in 2020 it was reported that a professional singer named Katharine McPhee of Los Angeles had donated money to Senate Republicans despite vocal claims of support for the LGBTQ community. In other words, she's an incredibly peculiar celebrity in that she is very famous despite it being not entirely clear how many people actually like her.

    All of which is to lay the groundwork for the fact that the next introduction of Katharine McPhee happens this week on Netflix with the premiere of Country Comfort, a multi-cam, broadest of broad comedies that repackages McPhee the actress and McPhee the musician as a country star. It sounds so strange on its face that the Boston-trained girl from Sherman Oaks, CA, would fit into the country mold, but the fact is that pop artists from Lady Gaga to Kylie Minogue to Miley Cyrus to Jewel have all attempted, for lack of a better term, to "go country," with some being more successful than others. For McPhee, the pivot plays like an ill-fitting American Idol theme week where she never quite makes a credible claim for authenticity.

    What might be the saving grace for Katharine McPhee is that nothing about Country Comfort feels particularly authentic. In an age where TV comedy has been moving toward single-camera, indie-film aesthetics (especially on streaming), Netflix has maintained a lane for multi-cam traditional sitcoms, and Country Comfort might be the multi-cammiest of its shows yet. McPhee stars as Bailey Hart, an aspiring country singer/songwriter who finds herself dumped by her boyfriend and bandmate for a younger blonde, and stranded in the rain (without a phone, it seems) when her pickup truck breaks down. Which is how she ends up on the doorstep of a family that is, quite coincidentally, looking for a nanny.

    If you're already thinking that this sounds a lot like a countrified take on The Nanny, it most definitely is. Eddie Cibrian plays Beau, a semi-recent widower and father of five kids, ranging from teen to toddler, who have burned through nine previous nannies. Bailey has style, flair, and is there, which as we have been taught by film and TV history, are all the qualifications one needs to become the nanny. Bailey is comically inept and unsure of herself in her new position, a thorn in the side of Summer (Janet Varney), Beau's new girlfriend and our resident C.C. Babcock analogue, and a target of resentment for Cassidy (Shiloh Verrico), the second-youngest kid and the one most angrily reeling from her mother's death.

    The strong Nanny vibes don't seem to be an accident. Creator Caryn Lucas was a writer on the Fran Drescher sitcom (as well as Drescher's 2011 TVLand series Happily Divorced). The aggressive sitcomminess at play here definitely feels corny, and it really hangs a lantern on the fact that McPhee is a particularly odd fit for a country girl. But it's also reminiscent of a kind of lost breed of sitcoms that we used to get on networks like the WB. There's some definite Reba DNA in here, as well as something like What I Like About You (another show Lucas wrote for).

    Dropping as a full season on streaming still feels strange for a multi-cam series, mostly because it gives the show a slightly more serialized vibe than we're used to seeing in the genre. Certainly classic sitcoms like Who's the Boss? (another show about an unlikely domestic employee) drew out looooong will-they-or-won't-they arcs for its central characters, but it's still weird to see episodes conclude with their plots open-ended.

    Whether Country Comfort will be a boost for McPhee's career remains to be seen. She does solid work covering popular country songs like "When Will I Be Loved?" and the requisite "Stand by Your Man." But the show also has designs on creating a kind of family band vibe. Both Ricardo Hurtado and Jamie Martin Mann, as teen sons Tuck and Brody, have guitars in their hands before the first episode is out, and before long they're performing for various crowds of squealing girls (and pink-shirted men, which: yay diversity?). Cassidy's also a burgeoning little guitar girl herself, and with middle child Dylan (Griffin McIntyre) as an Alex Keaton-esque pipsqueak talent manager, the Partridge Family vibes are strong. Add to that the fact that Cibrian's real-life wife LeAnn Rimes shows up as herself at one point, and McPhee has a lot competition for her star to shine.

    It's hard to say who Country Comfort is for, exactly, and whether Katharine McPhee will appeal to anyone looking for a very basic, corny family sitcom. But Netflix seems perfectly content to throw anything at the wall to see what sticks, and that's perfect for a performer who seems to be looking to do that as well.

    Country Comfort's complete first season drops on Netflix March 19th.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Country Comfort, Netflix, Eddie Cibrian, Katharine McPhee