America, you know Bernie Mac. You might remember him from Spike Lee's The Original Kings of Comedy. He was the guy who made you squirm with his talk about America being too scared to give an angry black man a TV show. He riffed on the nieces and nephew he took in after his sister ran afoul of a drug problem, and he yelled about going upside the kids' heads. Remember him?
Well, Bernie got his show -- The Bernie Mac Show on Fox -- which dramatizes the family story he introduced in The Kings. The bristling anger is still there, the pop-eyed indignation, the fade-away jump shot of his comic delivery -- all push sliding into a conspiratorial grumble. But this time, his TV family helps round out the show. The kids in particular, with their loud and bratty tantrums, their power to undermine his authority, give his dyspepsia a context. Now you know why he wants to go upside their heads.
Bernie Mac is not aiming to be Bill Cosby, that sweatered, tootling role model of a black dad and doctor, whose The Cosby Show enjoyed a weeklong retrospective on "Nick at Nite" recently. Bernie's not interested in soothing the conscience of white America with a picture-perfect nuclear black family. There's his sister's drug habit, for instance. And her bright eldest daughter has grown up too soon, trying to take care of a brother and little sister. Bernie's wife, Wanda, a feisty corporate vice president, is too busy to be the primary caregiver, so Bernie's left to his own incompetent devices. This is no Bill Cosby, his daddy wisdom as comforting as Jell-O Pudding.
Some of this is familiar ground, well-trodden since the advent of The Simpsons and its celebration of loving and messed-up families. But Bernie does much more than simply reiterate the sitcom stereotype of idiot fathers paired with saintly wives. And the kids seem like real kids. They have none of the saccharine evil of the Olsen twins. Nor are they wily masterminds of mischief like some of the other kids in the Fox pantheon: Bart Simpson, Malcolm of Malcolm in the Middle. They're just kids: Vanessa is a smart, moody teen; Jordan wheezes hysterically; and Bryanna, a k a Baby Girl, is cute but can be incredibly boring, as Bernie learns when he's home sick with the flu and she forces him to play with her dolls. "America," he says, addressing the screen directly in the show's signature armchair rants, "she's boring. She's dull. Dull as a rock."
That comment, delivered with characteristic bile, demonstrates another of the show's surprising strengths: revealing the awful thoughts parents can have about their children. In one episode, Bernie and a bunch of white mothers bond over margaritas as they all shriek about their infuriating children. Then Bernie bellows, "Yeah, sometimes I want to bust their heads until the white meat shows." After a shocked silence, the white ladies scream with laughter.
Bernie Mac would never hit those kids -- he loves them too goddamn much. But it's bracingly honest of him to admit he wants to sometimes. It's hard being a model TV dad, and Bernie obviously is indebted to Bill Cosby's legacy. But he's also pushing past it to reveal something more complicated and real -- the evolution of an unconventional family, and of an angry black man, swearing, muttering, and grousing all the way into fatherhood.
The Osbournes: Freaks Like Us?
If Dysfunctional Homes & Gardens is looking for a centerfold, it should stop right now. Ozzy Osbourne and his family fit the bill perfectly.
MTV just launched a new reality TV/sitcom starring gross-out musician Ozzy and his chere famille. TV crews follow them around their new Beverly Hills residence, their 24th home. One shot alights on their moving boxes, which read "Pots & Pans. Linens. Devil Heads." It's like the Beverly Hills Hillbillies all over again, but with tacky Satan art.
Despite the potentially rich material, though, the show is like a song with a two-chord chorus. The first one being -- as the devil heads illustrate -- "Isn't Ozzy kinda crazy?" The second one is, "Even though he's kooky, he still deals with age and family issues like the rest of us."
Ozzy looks bloated these days -- the metal musician lifestyle is not kind. So it's no wonder that he wants to potter around like an old fart. We see how far he's come when, in sharp contrast to his bat-head-chomping days, he cooingly tells his spoiled cat that he wants to eat it.
Then Ozzy gets confused by the remote control in the ultimate middle-aged moment. "I can't get this fokkin' piece of shite tellyvision to work!" he yells. "It's fokkin' space-age." At least I think that's what he's saying. There are so many bleeps it's hard to tell.
Ozzy isn't the only one swearing. The kids are incredible, hellacious creatures -- and potentially the show's salvation. His teenage daughter howls like a pink-haired, Burberry-scarfed Tasmanian devil. And in one genuinely funny scene, Sharon Osbourne -- wife, mother, manager -- admits to worrying over son Jack. "He's kind of the oddball at school," she sighs while, unbeknownst to her, Jack vigorously bayonets something off-camera.
We need more of those moments -- the glimpses into a family member's odd inner world. When the producers stop straining for the opposing extremes of bizarre and mundane, we see past the show's freaks-like-us facade. And what's there has the potential to be truly, spectacularly weird.