Pressure performance

Times Staff Writer

Bernie Mac was on the move, walking briskly from his dressing room to the living room set of "The Bernie Mac Show" to finish up a Christmas Eve scene. But the comedian-turned-actor halted suddenly when he spotted several crew members lingering nearby.

"Come here everybody, we need a huddle," he ordered. As surprised technicians and others formed a circle, Mac said in a low raspy tone, "OK, listen. Now that certain [people] are no longer with us, would you say things have gotten better?"

Most of the crew responded with silent uncertainty, but one piped up: "Definitely. It's like when a fat girl loses weight." The answer pleased Mac, who marched off in triumph. "That's what I'm talking about!" he bellowed, followed by his impromptu wordless version of how a superhero theme song would sound if that superhero happened to be Bernie Mac.

Though the surprise huddle was clearly staged to impress and tickle visitors to the set, Mac's upbeat demeanor signifies his renewed energy and enthusiasm for the series that bears his name. Like him, "The Bernie Mac Show" is on the move -- physically and creatively -- rebounding from a year clouded by creative differences, on-set tension, the dismissal of the show's creator and a short-lived stint by his replacement, who failed to connect with Mac.

The Fox comedy returns to the prime-time lineup Sunday for its third season with a new night and time slot, accompanied by heightened expectations and intense scrutiny from Fox, which needs the series to regain and expand on momentum established during the first season.

The pressure on "The Bernie Mac Show" is even greater because Fox's fall season has been plagued by misses (the canceled "Skin" and "The Next Joe Millionaire") and near misses (the critically praised but low-rated "Arrested Development," "Tru Calling"), and is having to lean more heavily on its veteran shows.

Though Fox is showing confidence in "The Bernie Mac Show" by moving it from Wednesdays to Sundays behind the proven "Simpsons," it will still have to overcome perceptions that it's a weakened show. The comedy was regularly trounced when it was put up against the similarly themed "My Wife and Kids," which has emerged as a bona-fide hit for ABC. Both series revolve around affluent, two-parent black families.

Although ratings for "The Bernie Mac Show" improved after the show was positioned behind the blockbuster "American Idol," viewership still waned, and its freshman-season average of 9.5 million people per week dropped by more than a million. "The Bernie Mac Show" now faces much the same challenges that producers of Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle" have battled -- whether a series hailed for its originality can bounce back after a year that fell short creatively from previous seasons.

Not making anyone's job easier is the knowledge that the show's performance this season will be critical in determining its future value in syndication.

"Like other shows going into their third season, this is our make-or-break year," said former Regency Television President Peter Aronson, who signed on as executive producer in September. Aronson, a longtime friend and associate of Mac's, helped develop the series, which is produced by Regency and Fox Television.

Mac said the series is working as well as ever.

"There are ups and downs for everyone, but my confidence is the same as always. The template is there. The cast knows how to play; they've got their rhythm down. The writers know what to do. And no one else but me can play me, tell my life, tell my stories. The challenge has always been there, but now we're ready to raise the bar."

The show's second season was marked by clashes between creator Larry Wilmore and studio and network executives over his evolving vision for the series. They said Wilmore -- who won an Emmy for outstanding comedy writing for the series pilot -- increasingly leaned toward a more unconventional style of storytelling that at times emphasized dramatics over comedy. When the disagreements continued, Fox Television declined to renew his contract.

Wilmore, who is now an executive producer for NBC's "Whoopi," could not be reached for comment.

The look and the feel of the series remain much the same as it was under Wilmore's supervision. Mac stars as a fictionalized version of himself, living in the suburbs with his wife (Kellita Smith) and his sister's three kids, who are staying with him while she is in rehab for drug use. Mac, who has been nominated twice for an Emmy for outstanding actor in a comedy, still addresses the audience in confessionals, and guest stars drop by to give him advice or a hard time (Shaquille O'Neal does the honors in Sunday's episode).

But the tone of the show appears lighter than last season, with more emphasis on showcasing Mac's slow burn with the kids.

"I had no problem with Larry," said Mac, who pointed out that Wilmore recently visited the set. "Larry had a problem with the studio. I miss him. What happened wasn't personal."

The key to getting the series back on track, Aronson said, was to let Mac be Mac.

"The most electric moments are when Bernie takes a script and makes it his own," said Aronson. "He said, 'Let me do my thing, and we'll be OK.' And that's turning out to be true."

Wilmore was initially replaced by former "Malcolm in the Middle" executive producer Michael Borkow. But he and Mac failed to bond, and Borkow soon left.

"I need to be with people who understand me," said Mac. "The stories tell themselves. The only difference is me, and there isn't anyone who is going to tell me what to do. This is my life, this is my family. I know this story."

Fox Television President Dana Walden suggested that Aronson, who had been pursuing Mac for a television project for years, take over the show, and Mac was immediately inspired. "We didn't need a new point of view or a new vision," said Walden. "We wanted to draw on the strengths we already had. Pete was there from the beginning with Bernie and Larry, and he has the utmost respect for Bernie."

Mac said, "This is as good as it gets. Now we're ready to play."


'The Bernie Mac Show'

Where: Fox

When: 8:30-9 p.m. Sundays

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