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Uncle Buck Isn't Great — But That's a Good Thing

In defense of Uncle Buck's mediocrity

Malcolm Venable

ABC's Uncle Buck didn't garner great reviews when it debuted last week; some of the kindest summations included "barely interesting" and "bland," although everybody agrees that its kids, Maizy (Aalyrah Caldwell), Miles (Sayeed Shahidi) and Tia (Iman Benson), are a delight. Other than that, Buck -- featuring Mike Epps as the titular ne'er-do-well, Nia Long his polished, skeptical sister-in-law and the always great Regina Hall as Buck's girlfriend -- was pretty much just OK. In context though, that's also why it's great.

Television, as we've heard, still has a diversity problem. Executive positions, writers' rooms and directors' seats aren't filled with faces that adequately reflect the real world. That said, TV isn't quite #OscarsSoWhite embarrassing. In fact, things are slowly improving: GLAAD's 2015 report shows actual annual increases in people of color on TV. According to that study, 16 percent of regular characters on TV are black, which is actually a teeny bit higher than the roughly 13 percent blacks make up of the actual U.S. population.

But as film critic Marc Bernadin astutely noted, a flick with a minority cast has to be some sweeping epic like Selma to be Oscar-worthy, while "mainstream" audiences see slice-of-life fare like Silver Linings Playbook vaulted to the top all the time. A similar conundrum plagues TV. Shows with majority-minority casts have to do something, say something or be something remarkable to stay alive while, say,2 Broke get where I'm going here.
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Fresh Off the Boat is fundamentally a (needed) riff on assimilation. Empireis Shakespeare with a hip-hop beat. Jane the Virginis a meta, multi-layered feat of character and genre play. These shows, full of colorful faces, share the burden of clearing a higher bar to just exist. They have to be piercing commentary, or an over-the-top spectacle; just being an overweight UPS driver juggling his feisty wife and pesky father-in-law won't be enough.

Even being good won't guarantee success, as proven by The Carmichael Show, Buck's only real contemporary in depicting black ordinary-ness. Carmichael is a smart, solid, working-class sitcom with bankable stars (David Alan Grier, Loretta Devine) lauded as "in the tradition of Norman Lear." It's as funny and relatable as The Middle, yet Carmichael was one of the very last shows to be renewed ("last hired, first fired" anyone?), didn't receive the full-season order typically afforded third-year shows, and it still doesn't have a timeslot. It's obviously not much of a priority for NBC.

But what aboutBlack-ish, you say? OK, yeah. Let's talk about Black-ish. Let's talk about how a conversation about Uncle Buck is somehow required to include Black-ish. That's how limited the options are, and the unspoken imperative to compare and contrast two shows with two entirely different premises underscores how, still, one successful minority-led show is forced to become a yardstick others have to match or beat. Black-ish faced the same problem when it launched, you know: sheepishly tasked to explain how it was different from The Cosby Show, which by the way had gone off the air 22 years prior. And not for nothing, Black-ish includes Emmy winner Laurence Fishburne, beloved Broadway/film veteran Jenifer Lewis, the talented spawn of the legendary Diana Ross in Tracee Ellis Ross, and makes fresh, provocative social commentary on a weekly basis. Michelle Obama once called it her favorite show. Talk about a high bar.

No, Uncle Buck isn't great. But it marks an occasion: a black family has been invited to join the ranks of the many unremarkable white TV families before them. That feels like progress, right?

Uncle Buck airs Tuesdays at 9/8c on ABC.