TV Review: ‘Uncle Buck’ Is a Reboot With All the Appeal of Leftovers

Uncle Buck ABC
Courtesy of ABC

In this era of demand for built-in audiences and brand recognition, “Uncle Buck” is a stellar example of how a winning marketing formula isn’t enough to make a great television show. The new ABC sitcom is a reboot of the 1989 John Hughes film, which starred John Candy as the titular Buck, a layabout uncle who comes to the aid of his brother’s family when someone has to take care of the kids. The movie already spawned a wildly unpopular television attempt, back in 1990. Tonight, ABC premieres the 2016 “Uncle Buck” in the same vein, but with a significant twist: The family is black.

The choice is a smart one. A story about an immature or unsuccessful relative redeeming himself with his more established relatives gains complexity, with black characters, by exploring the myriad ways to inhabit and perform blackness, as defined by class, education, and neighborhood. That’s a lot of fertile ground for storytelling, and more specifically, an immediate introduction of contrasts for a comedy to play with. And, of course, as networks across the board have discovered, serving audiences that don’t always see themselves or their concerns reflected on television creates loyal, dedicated fans.

But, unfortunately, “Uncle Buck” fails to gel. It’s a fine enough sitcom, led by the ever-charming Mike Epps in the title role. But the material of the show struggles to connect to the audience. The show is neither funny enough to propel the stories forward nor relatable or human enough to encourage the viewer to invest. Nia Long, as Buck’s skeptical sister-in-law Cindy, is probably the most recognizable character—an overworked mom who moved her family for her job and struggles to get everything done. With Buck, her new caution-averse “manny,” Long and Epps make for the show’s most interesting character dynamic.

But transitioning from movie to TV show requires creating some kind of ongoing operating principle to drive the sitcom’s plot engine; where a grudging mutual respect might make for an interesting arc in a closed-ended narrative (like, oh yeah, a film), in “Uncle Buck” it’s barely interesting enough for the pilot. By the end of the first 22-minute episode, Cindy has already welcomed Buck into the fold, which resolves the most interesting dynamic of the premise; in the two episodes released to critics, there are few other character beats or plot stakes to latch onto.

Plus, in between lightweight kid-related humor about how Buck’s new charges are prone to set the house on fire are some unsettling attempts at darker comedy, particularly about the pressure teen Tia (Iman Benson) feels to both sext with and sex up her “studying partner.” In the pilot, Buck walks in on her taking a selfie with her blouse unbuttoned, and naturally, both parties scream. But the situational humor masks the horror of the situation; it may be common enough, but Tia isn’t even 15 yet. “Uncle Buck” wants to demonstrate Buck’s worthiness as a parental figure, but the show has to skate over a yawing chasm of implication to get there.

In a stronger show, gags like this one — or like a later one, where a “Sunny Scout” cookie sale turns into an operation that suspiciously resembles narcotics distribution — could bring the proverbial house down. But in “Uncle Buck,” which feels both too-thin and warmed-over, the heavier material sinks to the bottom.

On the same network that broadcasts “Black-ish,” one of the few other sitcoms about a black family, “Uncle Buck” mostly serves to demonstrate just how deft the older show is with juggling race-related comedy, family dynamics, and class confusion. What “Black-ish” makes look effortless, “Uncle Buck” struggles with right from the get-go. The new sitcom isn’t bad, it’s just bland; low-impact, lightweight, and nothing to write (or tweet) home about. It’s too bad for Epps, who does his best with a limited role. Maybe there’s a guest spot opening up on “Black-ish”?

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  1. Fern says:

    This show is hilarious! so it’s in the vein of Blackish. So what? the jokes are so damn funny. And i’m sick and tired of people not knowing there are educated, successful black people all over the country. Just because i’m white does that mean I’m Granny Clampet??

  2. Jules says:

    Love this show! Not sure what show you’ve been watching but it’s a super funny family show, just as good as blackish…

  3. Nikki says:

    Loved it! My kids and I laughed hysterically! Guess you need a sense of humor to enjoy. Tues is my new family night!

  4. Trent says:

    I consider myself very open- minded and will give things a chance; but the show “Uncle Buck” is a TOTAL BORE…The writing is AWFUL; Mike Epps is AWFUL; and the show lacks REALIZATION….Mike Epps is NOT a stand-alone comedian. He serves best as a supporting-comedian. His comedic humor is a bore and humorless…..He is NOT a one-man show. Maybe next time he should go for”SUPPORTING ACTOR” and “NOT” LEAD ACTOR…… I think he TRIES to hard at being funny that funny doesn’t become him…..

  5. Sad for Mike Epps who has always been one of my favorite comics. I understand the producers only have 22 minutes to deliver, but the story had no flow. Very rushed. Punch lines were bland. The kids were cute, but I can only wait to see if they truly have the talent to help carry the full season.

  6. Juanita says:

    I just watched the first two episodes and loved it! I can admit, the opening introducing us to the family was VERY lame, the bad kids and teenage daughter with an attitude…typical but when Uncle Buck is confronted by his fiancé it got funny. Mike Epps always has the funniest comeback lines. The way he reacted to Tia by calling her the B-word, but spelling it out is exactly what you want him to do. I truly hope these bad reviews don’t ruin Mike Epps’ chance to advance his comedy career. The man is hilarious!

  7. Kelly P says:

    I thought it was fresh and hilarious. I laughed at both episodes. Who wrote this bogus review??? SMH Give it a chance!

  8. Jaime says:

    I thought there were some good laughs within the show. I don’t like to judge new shows from pilot episodes because in time shows usually get a better footing. Give it a chance. Also, why compare it to only Blackish, there are other comedies besides Blackish. That shows your shortsightedness.

  9. jon spaxnolli says:

    another bologne review. i watched the first two episodes and laughed out loud most of the episodes. im not black either. truly a riotous good time. fresh family comedy where instantly you believe this is a real family. dont listen to the pretentiously elitist reviewer who clearly judges THE SHOW against unrealistic bars set by a cynic.

  10. holowe says:

    Why do you to base your review of Uncle Buck against Blackish?

  11. White writers on black shows just don’t understand Black life. Even upper class Black people lead different kind of lives than their white next door neighbor. You just can’t have white aesthetics and white humor on a black show and be authentic. It just does not work.

  12. EricJ says:

    Thought I was the only one that remembered that short-lived ’90 “Uncle Buck” series that killed off Kevin Meaney’s career…That’s not RIIIIIGHT! They’re like CRAZY peo-pllllle!

  13. Moose says:

    Good family entertainment. I enjoyed the pilot.

  14. Stanley says:

    I like the show. It is funny, Epps is hysterical, and they didn’t throw in a token gay man for “laughs.” Good family fun.

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