'Uncle Buck': TV Review
If you go in with perilously low expectations, Mike Epps' take on the John Hughes classic may exceed them slightly.
[To be read while listening to Nina Simone's "Buck" on repeat.]
I've had my claws out for ABC's Uncle Buck since the show was announced and I tried pointing out that transposing the John Hughes favorite's title onto a show about an unreliable, lazy, fast-talking African-American character underlined and reinforced the dated racial slur in the title — a title that almost certainly has no brand equity worth exploiting in 2016. A few people agreed with me, but nobody in power cared. So you know I'd be ready to eviscerate Uncle Buck if given the opportunity.
Through that prism, you can decide how to interpret my evaluation that based on the two episodes sent to critics, Uncle Buck isn't nearly as reprehensible as I worried it might be, even if the pilot opens with Mike Epps' character stacking cans of Olde English as a crowd chants "Buck! Buck! Buck!"
This has actually become ABC's second current comedy niche. On one hand, you have great, diverse family comedies like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat. But then you also have comedies that build absurdly low expectations through terrible promotion and then are free to coast to "Well, that wasn't as awful as I feared" reactions. The new Uncle Buck would, indeed, make a great pairing with Dr. Ken in a one-hour Not Terrible But Still Far From Good block that could surely become the new TGIF, appropriate since that's really all Uncle Buck wants to be — to the point of absurd and bland devotion.
The plot, so far as pilot scribes Steven Cragg and Brian Bradley care about plot, is simple: Will (James Lesure) and Alexis (Nia Long) have just moved to Chicago from Atlanta and are having trouble finding a long-term babysitter for their rambunctious kids (Iman Benson, Sayeed Shahidi and Aalyrah Caldwell). Coincidentally, permanently-in-arrested-development, Buck is being told by his fiancee (a shamefully wasted Regina Hall) that it's time to grow up. Even though his most complimentary evaluators call him a "degenerate grifter," Buck gets the call from his brother to come and babysit. Will he win over the authority-hating children with his youthful spirit and will everybody else come to realize that his youthful spirit is a positive and not a something to be sneered at, even if his idea of discipline involves hookers and taking naked pictures of teenage boys? Sure! This is a latter pair of plot points that Uncle Buck doesn't find even vaguely creepy, because everything in this series is shot in such bright light that shadows and menace are entirely gone. You might recall that in the movie, John Candy's character wielded a power drill and a cigar and occasionally had a vibe of being fundamentally dangerous. Here, Epps is persistently punctuating scenes with the same "But you still love me anyway" toothy grin meant to reassure and placate. A big part of the problem with this new Uncle Buck is failing to find any medium ground between those interpretations.
The thing that must be said upfront is that Epps is an occasionally brilliant comedic talent whose best material often does rely on a Buck-esque combination of rascally inappropriateness followed by an offense-diffusing smile. Mainstream Hollywood has struggled with what to do with Epps' talent, and Mike O'Malley and Starz came dangerously close to nailing his unruly spirit on Survivor's Remorse, which naturally meant that it was time for Epps to move back to network TV, where the degree of sanitizing turns a devil into a mere imp. Critics were sent the first and third episodes and the difference in Buck's behavior even between the two half-hours is marked, a transition from "Yeah, that guy probably shouldn't be put in charge of children" to "Oh, that guy's a child himself, but his heart is in the right place and he's essentially harmless." Uncle Buck is fundamentally an ABC show, and even if Epps gets fleeting smiles from Buck's behavior, he's holding back and the show's holding back and audiences will hold back the laughter commensurately.
The second episode sent to critics, the third episode in production order, seemed designed to reassure us of the show's low aspirations. The A-story involves the selling of off-brand Girl Scout cookies, which turns Buck into a kingpin and brings out the childish side in Will and Alexis. You might recall Ross did the same thing on Friends, as did Ray on Everybody Loves Raymond and Daryl and Toby on The Office and that's before we get to Troop Beverly Hills and The Boss in the burgeoning cookie-selling-as-combat genre. The B-story finds several of the kids quaintly trying to figure out how to cover up a hole they accidentally left in one of their bedroom walls, a Full House plotline so beloved it got an extended shout-out in Fuller House earlier this year. Make no mistake, Uncle Buck delivers a bigger hole in its wall, but when a new show reaches the sitcom mix-and-match phase this quickly, it's settling for a low bar.
Within the context of that low bar, it's hard to find much fault in the execution, other than its inability to be actively funny. Lesure and Long are sitcom pros, and although she's too often the inevitably guilty nag and he's got a career borrowed wholesale from Black-ish, they're fine. The diminished-impact Black-ish borrowing also extends to the child casting with Black-ish co-star Yara Shahidi's brother Sayeed anchoring a core trio of kids who can't yet compete with the network's best juvenile ensembles, but certainly has promise. After her pilot appearance, Hall wasn't in the third episode and I'm not sure if she's gone for good, but somebody out there really ought to be writing a worthy vehicle for her, rather than only casting her as temporary recurring girlfriends.
So there you have it. Uncle Buck offers a relative minimum of offensiveness, very few laughs, only hints at Epps' actual capabilities and runs a decent cast through stories you've seen done better on countless sitcoms. And that's almost a relief.
Cast: Mike Epps, James Lesure, Nia Long, Iman Benson, Sayeed Shahidi, Aalyrah Caldwell
Developed for TV by: Steven Cragg and Brian Bradley
Airs: Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET/PT (ABC)