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He’s OK now, but show is ailing

Times Staff Writer

Reports of Bernie Mac’s death have been greatly exaggerated. But his Fox show appears to be in critical condition.

The former Original King of Comedy, who was so sick with double pneumonia last year that some media outlets reported he was terminally ill, is alive and well and back at work on the set of “The Bernie Mac Show.” With a seasoned air of mischief, Mac proclaims he is ready and able to tackle the demands of a weekly network series.

“How’s my crew doin’?” asked Mac as he walked on the Studio City set of the series last week for a morning of short scenes. Wearing a purple athletic suit, Mac was characteristically calm and cool as he greeted colleagues and made faces at the younger cast members, causing them to crack up and blow their lines. The atmosphere around the set reflected his relaxed demeanor.

But despite his physical rebound, the outlook on the show that bears his name is not as rosy. Once one of the reliable bright spots on Fox’s lineup, “The Bernie Mac Show” entered its fifth season Friday with the dubious distinction of being the lowest-ranked live-action series from last season to be renewed. The poor showing of the season premiere, which attracted less than 4 million viewers, has prompted speculation in the industry that the end may be near.

While the advance buzz on returning shows this fall has mostly revolved around cliffhangers (“Lost,” “Desperate Housewives”), new spins and cast members (the Martha Stewart edition of “The Apprentice,” John Leguizamo on “ER”), little fanfare greeted the kickoff of “The Bernie Mac Show,” even with a healthy star and a new recurring cast member (Anthony Anderson of “The Shield” and “Hustle & Flow”). The comedy finished the 2004-05 season as No. 105 out of 202 shows in the Nielsen ratings.

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There are other red flags: The series, which has been clouded for most of its four-year run by behind-the-scenes turmoil, is being overseen by its fourth show runner in five years, and Fox has moved the show 12 times, losing even loyal fans who can’t find it (now it faces off against CBS’ new “Ghost Whisperer,” which drew 11 million viewers in its launch).

History doesn’t bode well

If its initial ratings performance is any indication, the show is facing a rough road. Fading hit shows rarely bounce back.

“It doesn’t look promising at this point,” said Tim Brooks, co-author of “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows. “It’s very unusual for an audience who had left a show to give it a second chance.”

And while one-hour TV dramas are the current rave of critics and viewers, “The Bernie Mac Show” is one of the remainders of a disappearing genre -- the family situation comedy with a comedian at its center.

The series features Mac as a fictionalized version of himself who unexpectedly becomes the guardian of his troubled sister’s three kids.

Joining him are Kellita Smith as Bernie’s wife, Wanda, and Camille Winbush, Jeremy Suarez and Dee Dee Davis. (“Everybody Hates Chris,” UPN’s new comedy, which looks to be a breakout hit of the fall, is built around comedian Chris Rock, but only Rock’s voice is heard in voice-over.)

If Mac is feeling the heat, there’s no evidence on his face, no worry lines. Instead of an end, he sees this season as a new beginning, with plenty of comedic ground to plow. He adds that he is surrounded by a company that shares his vision and passion, and envisions at least one of two more seasons beyond this year.

“I feel great, and the show is as good as it’s ever been,” he said. Although much of his attention in the last year was directed at his health and his film career (“Ocean’s Twelve,” “Mr. 3000" and “Guess Who” all opened within months of each other), his focus is now squarely on “The Bernie Mac Show.”

Said Mac: “This is my baby. This show is a survivor. The kids are getting mature, and that’s really going to enhance the show. I love the creativeness and the storytelling and the camaraderie. I have a whole encyclopedia of stories up in my head about where we can go, some fantastic stories centering on the kids.”

Overwork prompts illness

Much of his enthusiasm is related to his recovery. After a relentless schedule of promoting “Ocean’s Twelve” and shooting two movies back to back, he came down with double pneumonia, which aggravated his long-standing condition of sarcoidosis, a disease characterized by the presence of small areas of inflamed cells that can attack any organ of the body but most frequently the lungs.

When he returned to work on the show, he felt so sick that production shut down temporarily.

“Mentally, I was in denial of what was happening to me physically,” he said. “Then one day, I was going from my dressing room to the set and I stopped. I bent over and could barely breathe and said, ‘I just can’t make it.’ ” Mac returned home to Chicago to recuperate.

“I had to rest, and medication helped me,” he said. He now closely monitors his schedule and allows plenty of time for rest.

Meanwhile, Fox and producers of the show maintain confidence that there is still plenty of life left in “The Bernie Mac Show,” which will be more valuable in the syndication market with five years of episodes. There are no immediate plans to pull the plug or expose the comedy to an extreme makeover.

“Yes, the future of ‘The Bernie Mac Show’ is unclear,” said Dana Walden, president of 20th Century Fox Television, which produces the series in association with Regency Television. “But everyone at the studio and the network is extremely happy with the creative direction of the show. Bernie is a solid performer and has a loyal following, and the show has done a remarkable job of retaining its core viewership.”

Added Craig Erwich, Fox’s executive vice president of programming: “Bernie is a very important and significant piece of talent for our network. We’ve always specialized in strong point-of-view comedy and also family comedy. This show is a perfect blending of the two. It has been moved around a lot, true, and that’s because it’s a victim of its own success. It can work in a variety of places.”

The first episodes this season reflect the look and feel of the show’s beginnings. Mac still addresses the audience in living-room confessionals (“What’s up, America?”). His marriage is on solid ground, but his frustration with the kids still provokes him to make mock threats, which are never acted upon

When it first premiered in 2001, “The Bernie Mac Show” was one of Fox’s hot prospects. The comedian, who had been a longtime favorite with urban audiences, won crossover appeal with “The Original Kings of Comedy,” Spike Lee’s 2000 documentary of the hugely successful tour featuring Mac, Cedric the Entertainer, D.L. Hughley and Steve Harvey, and a sitcom mixing his racy edge with a family sitcom premise seemed like a natural.

His popularity also earned him a role in “Ocean’s Eleven,” the remake of the Rat Pack Las Vegas heist film, starring George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts.

The TV show started out promisingly. Though never a major hit, the series still clicked with critics and viewers, particularly African Americans. Mac received Emmy nominations for outstanding lead actor in a comedy in the first two seasons, and creator Larry Wilmore scored an upset victory for the outstanding comedy writing Emmy for the show’s pilot.

But by the second season, the comedy was in trouble. Viewership dropped when the series faced off against ABC’s “My Wife & Kids,” another African American family comedy starring Damon Wayans (it was canceled last season). Clashes erupted between Wilmore and network and studio executives about the show’s direction. He leaned toward a more dramatic structure for the series; the executives wanted it to be funnier. When the disagreements continued, Fox TV declined to renew Wilmore’s contract.

His replacement, former “Malcolm in the Middle” executive producer Michael Bordow, failed to connect with Mac. Peter Aronson, who helped develop the series in 2001 when he was head of Regency Television, helmed the series for two years before leaving this year to pursue other interests.

Executive producer Warren Hutcherson, who has been with the TV series since the first episode, is now in charge of the series, along with fellow executive producer Steve Tompkins and Mac.

Hutcherson said, “We’ve had some growing pains, but this show has always been a fighter, a survivor. It’s like a family here.”

Mac sees the series as more than a vehicle for his comedy: “This is my life story. It’s true. It’s about survival. So the pressure doesn’t bother me. That’s when I’m at my best.”


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