As the star of CMT’s second scripted comedy — arriving five years after the blue-collar-mom-themed “Working Class”— Billy Ray Cyrus displays a willingness to poke fun at his wholesome image. Unfortunately, being game for self-parody doesn’t mean he does it particularly well, and the hit-and-miss “Still the King” script, partly credited to Cyrus himself, doesn’t help.
Self-satire can be a terrific way to inject a spark into a stalled career. Just ask Neil Patrick Harris, whose dance card was more or less wide open prior to his scene-stealing turn in 2004’s “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.” But successful self-parody requires a performer to create moments of daring farce that are outrageous and yet convincing enough to win over the audience. Let’s give Cyrus some credit for trying: By attempting to have fun with his image as a fading star, he’s at least displaying a fraction of self-awareness. What’s not on display is any indication that he’s been hiding a talent for comedy all these years.
Without a doubt, the singer who gave us such hits as “Achy Breaky Heart” and lesser-known songs such as “I Want My Mullet Back,” is likable. And while his role as Hannah Montana’s dad is all but forgotten since his real-life daughter Miley Cyrus took a wrecking ball to her own wholesome image, the ensuing controversy ultimately worked in Miley’s favor. So why couldn’t dear old dad similarly pivot by taking on the role of a womanizing, no-good intoxicant sponge in a mildly bawdy comedy?
“Still the King” plays with well-worn sitcom formulas to tell its redemption story. The lead character, Vernon Brownmule, once a country music superstar (here, with a talent for pummeling his liver with alcohol and narcotics), has seen better days. His fall from grace is explained in the premiere via a voiceover that precedes a glimpse of a cutesy prison stay that resulted from Vernon drunkenly plowing a stolen bread truck into signage for a church.
During a post-prison meeting with his gushing parole officer, Mitch Doily (Kevin Farley), Vernon discovers he has a 15-year-old daughter, Charlotte (Madison Iseman), and that he’s woefully behind in child support. He wants to get to know his daughter, but unsurprisingly, her mother, Debbie (Joey Lauren Adams), isn’t thrilled to see him.
Soon Vernon transforms his community-service debt into a cash-making opportunity by faking his way into a job as the minister at the church he damaged. This is all thanks to a vaguely credible turn of events involving the church’s blind caretaker, Curtis (Leslie David Baker). Much also hinges on the audience’s presumed willingness to just go with the flow.
Cyrus is surrounded by a talented cast, many of whom could have compensated for his lack of ability if the script were better than middling. But it’s tough to ignore how thin the writing is for the female characters, particularly Debbie. She’s a shrill woman who, for inexplicable reasons, allows Ronnie (Jon Sewell), her unemployed loser of a boyfriend, to live with her. There may be comedy to be mined from that situation, but nobody involved in this series has brought the right tools. Lacey Chabert pops in as a church lady only slightly more gullible than the various country girls Vernon is somehow able to charm out of their clothes.
All in all, any enjoyment of “Still the King” will depend heavily on how much affection viewers have for Cyrus himself. The “Dancing With the Stars” alum commands enough of a loyal fanbase to keep him working; after all, his 2001 medical drama “Doc” stayed alive for five seasons on Pax TV. (And this is your reminder that “Doc” existed.)
But “Still the King” hints at why Cyrus hasn’t been in high demand in front of the camera since his Disney days. The man may yet have a career-revitalizing album in him, but the only clear takeaway from watching “Still the King” is that being a pop-culture punchline does not qualify one to rule over a sitcom.