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Fall '01: "The Bernie Mac Show"

One on One is a new fall series about an African-American man who enjoys living the good life, but unexpectedly finds himself taking care of his daughter when she moves into his swinging Baltimore bachelor pad -- a development that puts a decided crimp in our hero's style. The show is every bit as tedious as it is forgettable.

The Bernie Mac Show is a new fall series about an African-American man who enjoys living the good life, but unexpectedly finds himself and his wife taking care of his nephew and two nieces when they move into his spacious pad in the Hollywood hills -- a development that puts a decided crimp in our hero's style. Bernie Mac also happens to be funny, engaging and one of the better shows to debut this year.

Two similar set-ups, two very different results. So what is it that makes The Bernie Mac Show entertaining and One on One excruciating? How does Bernie Mac freshen up a premise that One on One makes as interesting as last night's dishwater? What makes one show a laugh-fest and the other one laughable?

Here's a hint -- it's not because The Bernie Mac Show is about a married guy instead of a single guy.

No, what sets apart The Bernie Mac Show from One on One -- or Bob Patterson or Inside Schwartz or any of the other lame sitcoms that spring up on the networks' prime time lineups like fuzz on weeks-old meatloaf -- is a distinctive perspective, a unique point of view. Good comedies have one. Bad ones don't. Spotting a bad sitcom is easy enough, and not just because it appears on NBC on Thursday nights at 8:30 or stars Tony Danza. Rather, a show sinks into the mire when it trots out the same stories, caricatures and punchlines that have been the hallmark of bad sitcoms since Jed Clampett's kinfolk told him to move away from thar'.

In other words, bad shows distinguish themselves by failing to distinguish themselves. I'm willing to wager a significant sum of cash that you could take an episode of some tepid, half-hearted effort like, say, Yes Dear, switch around the character names, add a wacky neighbor or two and, without missing a beat, have a perfectly usable script for Raising Dad or Reba or any one of the other dozen bland family sitcoms currently menacing the country.

(And the chilling thing is, some network executive might stumble across this paragraph, exclaim, "My God, think of the money we could save!" and haul ass back to the office to start blue-penciling old Mama's Family scripts.)

That's not to say that good sitcoms necessarily reinvent the wheel when it comes to plotlines -- they don't -- but they at least do a good job of giving the wheel nice tires. A sitcom stands out from the crowd not necessarily by concocting stories you've never seen before but by taking the conceits you've watched a dozen different times and putting its own unique imprint on the procedings. In even the most predictable of situations, a Ray Barone is going to react differently than a Frasier Crane or a Malcolm... well, whatever his last name is.

Or a Bernie Mac, for that matter. A recent episode of the show centered on how kids are -- in Bernie Mac's words -- "nasty, disease-carrying midgets" and the efforts of our hero to avoid getting infected with the death flu. Now, that's a plotline that's probably been on at least one network show each fall dating back to the Coolidge administration. But it's a safe bet that no other show every gave that well-worn idea the Bernie Mac Show treatment -- a montage showing how the virus leapt from child to child, complete with freeze frames and captions and musical accompanyment from The Ohio Players' "Rollercoaster."

That's clever. That's original. That's something Bernie Mac -- both the show and the performer -- do very well.

Which is not to say that The Bernie Mac Show isn't without its flaws. After all, this _is_ a program that features children -- three of them as a matter of fact, which is about three more than allowed under my comprehensive "Children should be seen and not heard and not much of either when it comes to network TV" policy. But if, like me, your only use for the young'uns is to flavor your mixed drinks with their salty tears, you can at least take comfort in the fact that Bernie Mac apparently feels much the same way.

"I'm going to beat your head until the white meat shows!" he says to one of the moppets in the premiere episode -- another sign that The Bernie Mac Show isn't afraid to speak with its own, distinctive voice. I mean, can you imagine Bob Saget saying something like that to one of the Olsen twins?

Not that it wouldn't be cool...

It's funny -- three of the four best new half-hour comedies to debut this fall are on Fox (The fourth, Scrubs, in on NBC, and I can only assume it landed on the schedule there on a day when the guys who normally call the shots at the Peacock Network were out sick.), and they're about as different as night and day. The Tick is about a thick-headed superhero. Undeclared is about a motley assortment of undergraduates. The Bernie Mac Show is about a guy -- conveniently named Bernie Mac -- raising three kids. Nothing in common, really, save for a willingness to tell a story with their own individual flair.

One on One, on the other hand, matches Bernie Mac plot point by plot point. And yet the differences between the two shows couldn't be more stark.


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