It’s not always fun to be proved right.
Last year, when ABC announced it had greenlit a serial reboot of the John Candy cult-bomb “Uncle Buck,” the general reaction was a groan of irritated bewilderment. With all the things that need doing in this crazy world, ABC is choosing to remake “Uncle Buck” ?
That the “twist” was a black cast raised more eyebrows than it did spirits — how, exactly, was that going to help? The “Uncle Buck” concept — ne’er do well bachelor forced to care for children learns, and teaches, life lessons — is as worn out and dated as the idea of “Mr. Mom” or the template of “Baby Boom.” Never mind that “Uncle Buck” already failed once as a television series or that whatever popularity the film enjoys is due entirely to Candy’s particular (and still much missed) skill set.
Couldn’t we just, I don’t know, bring “Love, American Style” back again?
Maybe, but first we have to deal with “Uncle Buck,” which debuts on Tuesday and is plagued with precisely the sort of problems everyone anticipated. Mike Epps plays the title character, and he does what he can, which is only so much.
Comedy pilots are almost always a mess, bogged down in exposition and erring on the side of broad humor, and “Uncle Buck” is messier and broader than most. Creators Steven Cragg and Brian Bradley offer certain updates — a subplot involves mild sexting — but the basic premise has all the nuance of a folding chair.
We meet Buck Russell (Epps) and his inner man-child immediately, as he is wearing a beer-can hat and playing silly bar games even though he has assured his girlfriend that he’s looking for a job. As in the film, Buck has a certain infuriating charm, no money and a car that could exist only on a soundstage.
By contrast, Buck’s brother Will (James Lesure) and Will’s wife, Alexis (Nia Long), are models of modern adult responsibility, in that they are continually overwhelmed in their attempt to balance work and family (though not so overwhelmed that their beautifully appointed home looks anything other than, you know, beautifully appointed).
Strangely, the younger members of the family, Miles (Sayeed Shahidi) and Maizy (Aalyrah Caldwell), are far less modern, creations of a statelier time in which it was the primary duty of all fictional children to make the nanny quit (see also “Nanny McPhee” and “The Sound of Music”). As for the older daughter, Tia (Iman Benson), well, she wears glasses and yells a lot about doing homework, so you do the math (which she will then correct).
Into this familiar scenario careens Buck, enlisted at the last minute so Alexis and Will can take separate business trips. The introduction of the selfishly free-spirited uncle into the pattern of post-millennial child-rearing produces some funny moments — watching the younger children sit in expectation of a hot breakfast while Buck guzzles the OJ out of the carton is unexpectedly heart-lifting – but soon the story falls into patterns overly familiar to anyone who has seen either the film or a family sitcom of pretty much any era.
The second episode made available, in which Buck takes over Maizy’s club cookie sales, is a bit looser but still formulaic. The cast is solid and more comically effective than the material they are given, but the Russells seem more like what they are – a cast – than what they should be – a family.
Like its main character “Uncle Buck” seems happy enough with its own definition of success. Of course, the whole point of these stories is mutual transformation, and that may happen here.
But only if the creators let go of the “Uncle Buck” concept in favor of an actual show.
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language)