Welcome `Bernie' to sitcom family

Preview: But don't expect sentimentality from the network that also delivers `Simpsons' and `Malcolm.'

November 14, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

He's a middle-aged African-American standup comedian who plays the head of an upper-middle-class household in a family sitcom. But, believe me, no one is ever going to confuse Bernie Mac, star of the new Fox sitcom The Bernie Mac Show, with Bill Cosby or Cosby's Cliff Huxtable character. Not when they hear Bernie Mac talk about the three kids living under his roof the way he does.

"It's those doggone kids. They're nasty, dirty, disease-carrying midgets," he says at the opening of one episode. "They're like rats. The only difference: no tails, and their teeth aren't as sharp."

Don't expect to see Hallmark cards of any of the merchandisers of sentimentality and the American family advertising on this series. But, in the tradition of The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle, the network's refreshingly tart takes on the family sitcom, I think Fox could have a real winner here with American viewers.

Mac, whose decidedly adult brand of humor is known to million of Americans from the Kings of Comedy Tour, plays himself in the series as a man who reluctantly winds up with raising three children. As Mac tells viewers at the start of tonight's pilot, he and his wife (Kellita Smith), an executive with AT&T, never wanted to raise kids. But when his drug addict sister finally checks into a rehab center, he agrees to take in her children: 13-year-old Vanessa (Camille Winbrush), 8-year-old Jordan (Jeremy Suarez) and Bryanna (Dee Dee Davis), age 5.

The kids arrive on a plane tonight as a bundle of needs. Jordan has a cough, wet pants and no asthma medication. Vanessa has too much attitude, while Bryanna just seems lost. It's almost enough to break your heart, until they start coughing on Bernie, messing up his new SUV and, horror of horrors, touching his cassettes and CDs - many of which give new meaning to the term "old school."

That's when Mac says things to them like, "I'm gonna bust your head 'till the white meat shows."

It wasn't like he didn't warn them.

"In order for us to live like a family, we need to set down a few house rules," he says once he gets the kids home from the airport. "First rule: It's my house. Don't get me wrong. This is our home. But it's my house. Mi casa es mi casa. Second rule: In my house, it's all my stuff, and you are not to touch my stuff without my permission.

But, of course, they do touch his stuff, and his heart.

Some viewers are going to have a hard time getting past the "bust your head" language and attitude in the pilot. I know I did. The first time I saw it, I gave the series only a passing grade, and that was mainly because it dared to challenge the saccharine view of family life that dominates prime-time network television.

But, during the second episode that deals with Mac missing a trip to Las Vegas because he catches a cold at the birthday party he and his wife throw for Bryanna, I found myself laughing out loud. It's the common cold that results in Mac denouncing the kids as "nasty, dirty, disease-carrying midgets." Wisely, Fox is playing this episode right after the pilot tonight.

Bernie Mac is the anti-Cosby. And, while I admire Cosby and the landmark accomplishments of The Cosby Show, I think television is often at its best when it teases and questions those institutions like parenthood that we hold most dear.

Move over, Homer Simpson and Malcolm's mom. Bernie Mac is here.

Bernie Mac Show

When: 8:30 tonight

Where: WBFF (Channel 45)

In brief: A welcome addition to the family.

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