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”?