LOS ANGELES (Variety.com) - There's bad, there's fabulously bad, and then there's "Branson Famous." What TruTV is billing as the first "reality musical" - and quietly unleashing, understandably, between Christmas and New Year's - achieves a certain level of hilarity, though how much of that is intended proves difficult to discern. A half-hour soap built around a performing family and their Branson, Mo., stage/variety revue, the characters don't just deliver their direct-to-camera thoughts but sing their feelings, with one silly line rhyming with the next. As for the participants, they're due to receive a measure of fame, all right, although probably not the kind they envisioned.
At the center of the series is the Mabe family, which performs in the longrunning Baldknobbers Jamboree. The act consists of the extended family, minus one sister who desperately wants to escape her lot working in the gift shop but, alas, sings like someone who wouldn't get invited to Los Angeles on "American Idol."
Jumping right in, the show picks up with the son, Brandon, and his parents Tim and Patty auditioning new singers in an effort to help fill empty seats. They quickly settle on the pretty and perky Heather Gentry (who is dramatically introduced in silhouette), much to the chagrin of Brandon's girlfriend and co-star, Megan McCombs, who doesn't get along particularly well with Patty, mostly because she broke up Brandon's marriage.
OK, so all that's equal parts country-and-western song and "Nashville." Where "Branson Famous" wildly goes off the rails is during the between-drama interludes, where Brandon sings, "I'm chasin' Branson fame," and his mom follows that with, "I'm savin' my family's name." Or Brandon's crooned reassurance that "I ain't no cheatin' man," while Megan sings back at him, rolling her eyes. There's even a sort-of split-screen duet at one point involving Megan and Patty, which is every bit as silly as that sounds.
Like a lot of reality shows, enjoying "Branson Famous" - or at least, accepting it as "real" in any way - requires ignoring the existence of the show itself, which, presumably, might help solve some of the family's money troubles, not just through program fees but the attention (good or ill) this exposure will bring to them. Then again, dwelling on such matters would appear to be giving the show more thought than those responsible (and especially those who wrote the lyrics) ever did.
TruTV is undergoing a kind of creative evolution; having relied on heavily staged unscripted shows, and now morphing into a more comedy-driven version of the same. There will be, inevitably, some trial and error during that process.
For sheer kitsch value, "Branson Famous" is so absurdly goofy it might not be a total loss, and if so, it wouldn't be the first time Southern-fried reality has borne dividends.
That said, there's a fine line between being laughed with and laughed at, and if the Mabes wanted to escape this exercise with their dignity, then like many an old-fashioned country song, the producers and TruTV have done them wrong.