Uncle Buck, the 1989 John Hughes film, was a simple vehicle for John Candy, a beloved comedian who could play the sloppy oaf with the best of them.
UNCLE BUCK, the 2016 ABC remake from Will Packer Productions (Ride Along 2, The Wedding Ringer), could be a nice vehicle for some good actors. Unfortunately, the first glance shows a series that – like our original Buck – is pretty sloppy.
The series (by the way, the second TV adaptation of the 1989 film; shoutout to Kevin Meaney) premiered with a double-shot, “Pilot” and “Li’l Scarface.” The former introduces us to the upper-middle-class Alexis (Nia Long) and Will (James Lesure), intelligent teenage daughter Tia (Iman Benson), awkward preteen son Miles (Sayeed Shahidi) and precocious six-year-old daughter Maizy (Aalyrah Caldwell). Busy work schedules force a begrudging Alexis to call up Will’s brother Buck (Mike Epps), a freewheeling man-child with no concept of responsibility.
That is … until he has to watch the kids.
“Pilot” simply unfurls the Uncle Buck story in the most straightforward way possible. Buck plays fast and loose with the kids but has to respond to Tia’s one-note boy crush, who only wants to sext. In the end Buck comes to the rescue and wins over the kids and a little bit of Alexis’ respect.
So it’s a pilot. It’s supposed to set up our series if not creatively, at least harmlessly. In that way it succeeds. But beneath that surface Uncle Buck is an embarrassing sitcom pilot, poorly written, not funny, devoid of character and missing clear tone.
“Li’l Scarface,” in which the adults try their hand at selling Maizy’s scout candy, is certainly sharper and hints at some character. But the double-shot of Uncle Buck shows the series doesn’t yet know itself. Is it a traditional family sitcom? A vulgar network comedy? A series that wants to make societal statements? Goofy as all hell? No clue.
But here’s the good. Epps is charming as Buck, stumbling through mishaps while flashing his teeth and always finding a solution. Long shows depth as Alexis, the exhausted working mother trying to keep her kids happy and smart. And the kids – while initially sketched as simple archetypes – are engaging, especially Caldwell. But usually younger daughter types get the engagingly witty lines in these sitcoms.
More good news: It gets better. Again, “Li’l Scarface” has funny moments, especially as Buck flourishes in turning Maizy’s candy sale into a sophisticated candy ring, complete with “Juice,” the muscle who turned in the best performance of the episode. If Uncle Buck allows Epps’ title character to get wild and turn the typical nuclear household into a Petri dish for his brand of street behavior, the show has a fighting chance.
If not Uncle Buck can still be successful, but it desperately needs to figure out what it wants to be. As a traditional family sitcom it feels too edgy, even dirty: there’s an unfortunate “terrorist” joke right off the top of “Pilot,” “penis” is uttered in the first few minutes, and the final few minutes include Buck breaking into Tia’s crush’s bathroom to photograph his penis – as blackmail – as he comes out of the shower. That’s a real scene inserted into a television show in 2016, and that’s pretty uncomfortable.
But as a dirty show it doesn’t go far enough. No, we don’t need Buck breaking into anyone’s shower, but “Li’l Scarface” ends with Maizy making a speech decrying the selfish adults in her life (Alexis practically assaulted a woman in a wheelchair in a misunderstanding). All we miss is the piano-and-string music scoring a warm resolution. Then, in a very telegraphed finish, Buck falls through the fragile wall opposite where Tia and Miles punched a hole.
Meanwhile both episodes remind us the Russell family is upper-middle-class and black, dropping in references to Malcolm X and President Obama along the way. And in “Li’l Scarface” we find out Alexis was born into wealth, clashing with Will and Buck’s hardscrabble upbringing. Later, while selling candy at a busy shopping center, Buck implores Maizy to “tug on some of that white guilt.”
Some of this sounds like ABC’s other mostly-black sitcom, Blackish, whose premise is “upper-middle-class black family tackles daily life and how it relates culturally.” This could lead to some engaging and welcome television, but after two episodes, it’s uncertain whether Uncle Buck wants to deeply explore cultural waters or simply remain a standard-fare sitcom.
Either way, the first two episodes of Uncle Buck primarily managed to embarrass and confuse. It’s difficult to see what else it wants to do.
Season 1, Episode 1-2 (S01E01-02)
Uncle Buck airs Tuesdays at 9PM on ABC
Timothy Malcolm, who grew up on “The Golden Girls” and “Seinfeld,” writes regularly about entertainment, arts and lifestyles for a number of publications. Talk TV with him on Twitter.
Timothy Malcolm | Contributor