Mike Epps Almost Makes ‘Uncle Buck’ Worth A Look

It’s seldom a good sign when a network burns off a series during the empty days of summer. It’s especially not a good sign when that series is both an adaptation of a movie (and one that has already had a failed sitcom adaptation) and when it’s been moved to June after getting bumped from the main television season. Sure, there are some exceptions — The Carmichael Show survived a brief debut season in late August — but generally speaking, summer sitcoms on broadcast networks range from the forgettable to the actively terrible — remember Mr. Robinson?

Based on the 1989 John Candy-starring John Hughes film of the same name, ABC’s Uncle Buck is the second try at a television adaptation; in 1990, CBS tried and failed, miserably, with a one-season sitcom starring Kevin Meaney that was universally panned. This newest attempt sparked some attention when it was announced due to its diverse casting, switching from a white family to a black family. But once that died down, Uncle Buck seemed to have disappeared from everyone’s brain — and ABC’s schedule — until now, where it will unceremoniously air back-to-back episodes on Tuesday nights.

Uncle Buck is the latest entry in ABC’s push for more family comedies and, especially, more diverse family comedies. It’s certainly not up there with Black-ish or Fresh Off the Boat, instead taking a lighter comedic approach. The result is a familiar sitcom that has occasional laughs, but won’t send many rushing to set a season pass. The pilot rushes through the plot of the film in order to set up the status quo of the series: Irresponsible Buck (Mike Epps) is an unemployed and single loser floating through life who ends up working as a nanny for his brother’s three children. We quickly meet the working parents Will (James Lesure) and Alexis (Nia Long) who are each embarking on separate work trips and have to use Buck as a last resort after the children — nerdy and precocious Tia (Iman Benson), middle child Miles (Sayeed Shahidi), and adorable baby of the family Maizy (Aalyrah Caldwell) — chase away their current nanny.

Uncle Buck also quickly sets up the title character, introducing us to him shortly before getting scolded by his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend, driving around in a car that requires a screwdriver to start it up, and bailing on a job opportunity. It plays out exactly as you’d expect a pilot like this to play out: Buck shows up, Buck screws up, Buck saves the day, Buck wins over the children, Buck begins to drive away before he’s hired as a nanny at last minute. None of this is a spoiler; it’s what must happen in the first 22 minutes in order to get the series to a place where it can start exploring storylines that exist outside of the source material.

Fortunately, Uncle Buck has two elements working for it: first, the basic premise of the narrative is so sitcom-ready that it feels familiar in a way that promotes comfort television and second, the natural and effortless charisma of Epps is enough for any sitcom to coast on, even one that could end up feeling tired by episode four. Epps is a great actor with a knack for comedic timing and a killer delivery; lines that should make you roll your eyes actually become funny coming from Epps. In fact, Epps is probably a perfect choice for a role like Buck: there’s something a bit scummy about him, but he’s charming enough to make up for it, and it’s easy to imagine that there’s some sweetness hidden below the scams.

This is at play in the third episode, “L’il Scarface” (one of two episodes made available for review) where Buck helps his shy niece sell “Sunny Scouts” cookies by setting up a whole elaborate operation that parallels that of a major drug deal, comically escalating while Buck toes the line between helping his niece and helping himself. (By the way, what also works in Uncle Buck — and what seems to be a lovely trend in ABC sitcoms — are the three children, who are each wonderfully cast and finding their footing as comedic actors, often overtaking the screen from the adults.)

Based on just two episodes, which unfortunately is hardly enough to get the full feel of a sitcom, there are two distinct directions Uncle Buck can go: It could easily be a basic, formulaic sitcom that hits all the expected notes and slowly fizzles away or it can find a more distinct voice through its title character and strengthen the relationships between Buck and the children (and including more of the parents, which does happen in “L’il Scarface”), setting it up for a slicker and less routine family comedy. My hope is obviously for the latter, not just because Epps should routinely be on television, but also because with the right moves, Uncle Buck could fit right in with ABC’s main season comedy block and find a thriving life outside of summer.

Uncle Buck premieres tonight on ABC at 9pm ET.