Move aside Malcolm, “The Bernie Mac Show” makes a strong case for the funniest family sitcom on TV. Finally getting a series of his own — he’s knocked around as a supporting player for years — this foul-mouthed man’s man with a bitter attitude and a brutally honest approach to parenthood brings to mind “Married … With Children’s” Al Bundy but assumes a more convincing persona right out of the gate. The dial is littered with doofus dads and the women who adore them (“According to Jim,” “My Wife and Kids”), but Mac reinvents the wheel here, using his warped sense of humor, buggy eyes and massive frame to intimidate and discipline some very bratty young’uns.
The style is familiar; talking to the camera (a la “Titus”), Mac breaks the fourth wall when he’s explaining his decisions or whining about his lack of privacy, and like “Malcolm in the Middle” the slightly offbeat characters play to a nonaudience (there’s no laugh track). But who cares about “borrowing” when the writing is this good? Unafraid to offer up the honest point of view that some people just don’t like first-graders or preteens, scribes stay away from “Yes, Dear” lessons learned while creating many hysterically candid and dysfunctional moments.
Mac plays a semiversion of himself, a wealthy entertainer who takes custody of his drug-addicted sister’s three tykes (right away — a different starting point). Older sister Vanessa (Camille Winbush) hates just about everything and begrudges her mom’s absence; middle child Jordan (Jeremy Suarez) is a nerdy asthmatic; and Bryana (Dee Dee Davis) always asks “Why?”
Resentful that he and his wife, Wanda (Kellita Smith), have been forced into this unfamiliar role, Mac has become best friends with his acrimony. In the reviewed half-hour (the second of the two-episode bow), he’s planning to go to Las Vegas for the weekend with a group of friends. Only problem is that everyone at home is getting sick, so his goal is to avoid the germs.
In a clever bit explaining domino-effect transmission, director Ken Kwapis annotates via Telestrator how a runny nose’s germs go from place to place to place, ultimately landing on a birthday cake.
Having eaten a giant piece, Mac is forced to stay home with a fever, and he’s left alone with equally sick Bryana, whose inquisitiveness becomes annoying and whose criticisms of Mac’s play-time abilities are insulting but sweet. He just wants to sleep, but she wants to prance around with dolls (she hates how he holds them) and read (she’s slow and makes things up).
None of this is very intellectual, but the execution is edgy and honed. Rather than focus on rim-shot punchlines, Mac handles events as if nobody’s watching: He responds with sarcasm to a 9-year-old, makes fun of his sickly nephew and would rather be somewhere else … all the time.
The last of the “Original Kings of Comedy” to get a show — Cedric the Entertainer, Steve Harvey and D.L. Hughley have all landed somewhere — Mac is pitch-perfect as the tortured guardian; his comic timing is sharp, his physical attributes command attention and his military-like regard for responsibility is fresh. Smith is fine as the ideal woman who seems to do everything right, while the children aren’t overly precocious and contain mounds of flaws; unlike other laffers, they’re not there just to show off pop’s shortcomings and provide plenty of reasons why being their keeper really isn’t that great of a job.
Like “Malcolm,” show is filmed, not videotaped, while Kristina Trirogoff and Paul Anderson’s fine editing makes for a rapid-fire 30 minutes.