Billy Ray Cyrus’s music career (or the 1992 release of Achy Breaky Heart) might be a foggy memory for most millennials, but his acting career is ready to reach new heights in the comedy “Still the King.”
In it, he plays Vernon Brownmule — a far cry from the silly, Southern father figure from “Hannah Montana.” Brownmule was a highly successful and cocky country star who lived a rockstar’s lifestyle, full of partying with eager groupies. Though his characterization is fairly aggressive — nearly to the point of being two-dimensional — it still manages to get the point across. His career goes up in flames after he’s found to have had relations with the wives of prominent politicians and a 17-year old girl, and he faces backlash illustrated by his loyal fans burning his records in protest. This hodgepodge of flaws that have been famously shared by disgraced celebrities in real life add gravity to his current struggle to start over. The controversy ends his career and leads him to make a living as an Elvis impersonator, which is not directly conducive to the plot but notable nonetheless.
But his wild ways get the better of him a second time, which puts into question how much the plot will develop in the future. He damages a church while drunk, he is not only penalized but forced to pay late child support payments for a daughter he barely remembers, and a court orders him to serve 1,000 hours of community service. Will he ever learn? Or is this a thorough set up to give the difficult protagonist an opportunity for redemption? It’s unclear when Brownmule, true to form, pulls a fast one when he tries to begin his community service at the house of worship he wrecked. He ends up introducing himself to the church’s blind music director Curtis (Leslie David Baker, “The Office”) as the newly-hired preacher after hearing it is a lucrative position. Now, Brownmule must take on a new career as he tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter Charlotte (Madison Iseman, “Those Who Can’t”).
The entire cast is filled with talented actors who make the ridiculous predicaments Brownmule finds himself in believable. Cyrus’s acting is remarkable, never wavering from his irresponsible character. He portrays the Elvis impersonator’s bad decisions with such sincerity that it’s surprising Cyrus hasn’t lived through the self-destruction of his own career, a common occurrence in show business. One would think he dedicated his career to acting and not music when he can rise to the challenge of working with such respected actors as Joey Lauren Adams (“Chasing Amy”) of Kevin Smith’s Askewniverse fame. And Baker is, not surprisingly, refreshingly authentic as he deals with the fake preacher’s shenanigans. The sensitivity with which Baker portrays Curtis’s blindness while not letting it define his character is commendable.
The production value of the show is notably high. “Still the King” shares the realist feel and clean look of Comedy Central’s current host of critical successes, tailored for CMT’s target audience. The jokes, while specific to Southern culture on the surface, are universal in nature, making the unheroic Brownmule entertaining.
The only thing keeping this show from being great is the washed-up country star himself. One too many cutaway scenes of Brownmule’s wild fantasies, while stylized as cheesy on purpose to be funny, take away from his originality. He skirts too close to being a caricature of what the excesses of fame can do to the weak-minded, and not a broken human. But his quest to reconnect with his daughter holds promise, and there’s potential that he will improve his trashy ways. And the fact that Cyrus produced his comeback means he may still have big things to offer the pop culture landscape yet.