Uncle Buck: The ’90s sitcom failure

It’s got to be quite the demoralizing experience to be a director of a hit film who doesn’t have the ability to stop Hollywood from taking his or her product and turning it into a cheap television show. This happened a few times for John Hughes — most notably with Weird Science and Ferris Bueller — but there’s another, lesser-known offense that I want to talk about today. That’s Uncle Buck, the 1990 sitcom.

Created at the end of an incredible run of teen dramedies that fueled the zeitgeist of Gen X, Uncle Buck was a great way for classic Hughes to go out. You had the late John Candy as the titular Buck, a crude but lovable uncle who ended up babysitting his nieces and nephew with his unorthodox style. There was the teen angst of the older daughter. And then there was some little kid who’d go on to star in Home Alone shortly thereafter. It’s not my favorite of Hughes’ comedies, but I’d be fine placing it somewhere in the middle. It’s certainly entertaining with some outlandish scenes and funny quotes.

Then there’s the sitcom, which was obviously rushed into production and spat out onto the tubes a year later. CBS authorized a full 22-episode season, perhaps hoping that box office gold would turn into television ratings. It… did not.

Absolutely nobody involved with the movie itself came over to the sitcom — and that includes even the basic plot. Instead, Uncle Buck was now played by stand-up comic Kevin Meaney, and different child actors were hired to play Tia, Miles, and Maizy. The only notable name to appear in this was Lacey Chabert, who played Nancy before she became one of Hallmark Channel’s go-to romcom specialists.

What had be gawping right at the start was the basic premise. I guess the idea of Buck temporarily babysitting wasn’t conducive to a full sitcom, so the writers decided that the most hilarious premise would be to kill off the mom and dad in a car crash and have Buck become the kids’ legal guardian. HA. HA.

So knowing all of that, I decided that a great way to spend my lunch break one day would be to sit down and watch the pilot of a failed 1990 sitcom. This is my so-called life, friends.

The series starts with the kids already living with Buck — because who needs THAT depressing backstory? — and all of the kids are just as precocious and happy as you’d expect from newly orphaned tykes. It came at me, the viewer, like a house guest that’s absolutely desperate for validation. Tons of jokes (none funny), characterization bits, Uncle Buck smoking a cigar while making breakfast (har), and the laugh track of the damned.

It’s just all a little too frantic in the way that sitcom pilots often were (are?). Trying to win you over before you change the channel, I guess. But nothing works here. The setup isn’t believable — Meaney doesn’t have that home-baked crudeness that John Candy had, none of the kids have that much of a problem with their new guardian, and since everyone gets to live in a huge house and eat fat off of insurance payments, there’s no underlying conflict.

You can see how the showrunners were trying to make as many connections to the movie — the car backfires! the principal is overweight and not particularly attractive! the little kid says naughty things! — but even that’s not enough to save this. Honestly, I’m surprised it went as far as the 16 episodes that actually made it to air.

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