If CBS had been smart, they would have sent a copy of the pilot of "Uncle Buck" to Terry Rakolta and Donald Wildmon in plain brown envelopes.
Then maybe those guardians of decency would have started ranting and raving about the first line of the show -- an 8-year-old girl saying to her brother, "Miles, you suck! -- and the critics would have jumped all over them for being so prudish and trying to censor what America can see, and CBS would have gotten reams of free favorable publicity for what would then be seen as its attempt to push the envelope of acceptable television.
Instead, it was the critics who saw this pilot first, and they started jumping all over CBS for the "Miles, you suck!" line, and thus CBS, instead of being depicted as trying to be daring and different -- the way Fox and Steven Bochco are every time they do something off-color -- is accused of scraping the bottom of the taste barrel in its attempt to get out of its significant ratings trouble.
Whatever you think of the opening line -- and it is probably not unheard of for an 8-year-old to say such words, though that does not mean they should be elevated to the lead-off joke in a prime-time series -- such matters of taste are not the main problems with "Uncle Buck," which premieres tonight at 8 o'clock on Channel 11 (WBAL).
The problem is that way too much of the humor in this half-hour is just like that opening line, which is to say that it's not very funny.
Based on the John Candy movie, this sitcom has Kevin Meany taking over the title role as the never-grew-up uncle who takes over caring for three children. In the movie, the parents were going away; in the series, they're dead so the situation can be permanent.
"Uncle Buck" is formula. Buck may have his own way of doing things, but he means well, like about a million other television characters over the years dating back at least to "The Life of Riley." The kids are all from the precocious section of the Hollywood child casting supermarket and Audrey Meadow's grandmother, who disapproves of Buck, resonates with hundreds of in-laws that have haunted their childrens' prime-time lives over the decades.
Trying to hide the fatigue of these old chestnuts are not only those off-color lines, but a rather frenetic, over-the-top style that divorces the show from any feeling of reality. For instance, out of nowhere an attractive female insurance agent comes to the house and decides Buck is the hottest thing since Mel Gibson and virtually chases him around the room after delivering up a bushel of suggestive lines. There's no reason for the scene to be there, it just shows up.
Meany is competent in the Uncle Buck role, but he doesn't have the appeal that is at the core of Candy's success, the ability to remain vulnerable and likable even while acting like a total jerk. Meany has to shift gears to hit those two poles of Buck's personality.
The critics' squawks about "Uncle Buck" did result in a few trims, including the elimination of the little girl explaining her big sister's crankiness by saying, "She's ovulating" and the toning down of the insurance agent scene.
* A reprise of the John Candy movie about the wild and crazy uncle who takes over the care of his brother's three children.
CAST: Kevin Meany, Audrey Meadows
TIME: Monday at 8 o'clock
CHANNEL: CBS Channel 11 (WBAL)