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10 episodes of The Bernie Mac Show that capture the struggle of building anything from the ground up

With so many new series popping up on streaming services and DVD, it gets harder and harder to keep up with recent shows, much less the all-time classics. With TV Club 10, we point you toward the 10 episodes that best represent a TV series or genre, classic or modern. They might not be the 10 best episodes, but they’re the 10 episodes that’ll help you understand what the show’s all about—without having to watch the whole thing.

In Spike Lee’s 2000 film, The Original Kings Of Comedy, Bernie Mac (credited in the introduction to his stand-up for his recurring role in Moesha, as well as his regular status on Def Comedy Jam and his part in the Eddie Murphy/Martin Lawrence film Life) candidly goes on about how—unlike his Kings brothers—he doesn’t have his television show. In this moment, the comedian known for telling it “like it T-I-is,” does exactly that:

“But do I have a television show? Nah. I ain’t got no television show. Why? ‘Cause you scared of me. Scared I’ma say something. Heh, you motherfuckin’ right. Think I won’t say something? Let me tell you something. Y’all been fucking with me for a long time.”

It’s an anecdote that comes along in nearly every think piece on The Bernie Mac Show, but it’s still relevant. Bernie then pleads with the “white folks” behind the Hollywood curtain:

“I’ll take WB. I’ll take UPN. I’ll take USA. Gimme a chance to show you.”

The humor in the plea comes from the fact that, back in 2000, the place one would expect a show from any of the Kings Of Comedy would be one of those three, “lesser” networks (USA would begin its “Characters Welcome” rebrand with the introduction of Monk in 2002). Even though DL Hughley’s sitcom, The Hughleys, started off on ABC, it spent its third and fourth seasons on UPN.

Bernie Mac finally got his own television show by the fall of the following year. He even got it on Fox, one of the major networks. Still, Mac was right about the other part of his comment, referring to the television landscape being scared of him. After all, no one expected a family sitcom about an upper-middle class black family to regularly include a line about busting a child’s head “’til the white meat shows” (a line that came from Mac’s Kings Of Comedy set about how he would “fuck a kid up”). The Cosby Show and even The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air made sure of that.

Plus, as far as sitcoms premises go, The Bernie Mac Show had a decisively dark one that wouldn’t typically be found in a network television sitcom: After his sister is sent to court-mandated rehab for her crack addiction, Bernie and his wife Wanda (Kellita Smith) take in her kids (two girls and a boy) to keep them out of the foster-care system. As if that’s not enough of a kick to the heart, the show makes it clear that despite two other siblings (played by Niecy Nash and Glynn Turman), Bernie is the only one willing to step up for parenting duties.

In The Original Kings Of Comedy, Bernie tells a joke that inspired the series’ premise, which was actually a mix of situations. After their daughter had grown up and left the house, Bernie and his wife Rhonda took in their 16-year-old niece and her baby. The concept of the three kids came from a friend of Bernie’s who had to take care of her drug-addicted sister’s children.

Characters Bernie and Wanda Mac literally become parents overnight to three kids who have emotional baggage from their less-than-ideal upbringing: 13-year-old Vanessa (Camille Winbush) thinks she’s old enough to know better than Bernie, Wanda, and their rules; 8-year-old Jordan (Jeremy Suarez) is a crying, asthmatic mess; and “Baby Girl” Bryana (Dee Dee Davis) is too wide-eyed and impressionable for her own good. What follows is a battle between old-school and new-school mentality that constantly goes to the extremes in the case of the former “school.” (Though the new school brings up a lot of questions about whether or not Jordan is a sociopath/the anti-Christ over the course of the series.) Bernie Mac’s hard-edged machismo (despite being a Hollywood actor/comedian living in Encino and no longer being in the ’hood) makes him a no-nonsense type of parent. The problem is, these kids know it’s nonsense more often than not, which puts a wrench in Bernie’s plans of “my way or the highway.” In Bernie’s mind and Bernie’s mind alone, the kids are workers in the “Bernie Mac factory, or Mactory, if you will,” and the only parenting book he ever needs is the Bible.

Then again, for all of Bernie Mac’s posturing, Jordan confirms in the fifth and final season (in the episode “For Whom The Belt Tolls”) that Bernie’s never once used a belt on the kids:

“If Uncle Bernie’s never hit us, I don’t think Aunt Wanda will.”

Like Black-ish, the latest Larry Wilmore executive-produced sitcom (Wilmore created—not co-created—The Bernie Mac Show) to hit the airwaves, The Bernie Mac Show was instantly favorably compared to The Cosby Show. Clearly, the difference in parenting styles between the the Huxtables and Bernie Mac (Wanda was usually more of an easy-going, “just happy to be here” parent) was like night and day. The Bernie Mac Show was an innovative spin on the newly created nuclear family that didn’t involve marriage (The Brady Bunch, Step By Step) or adding a kid to an existing married-with-children unit (Fresh Prince, also The Brady Bunch). But Bernie and Cosby still had common ground in their depictions of family life, both in the context of black (and upper-middle class) families, and families in general.

The Bernie Mac Show offered not just a new attitude and approach to the family sitcom, but the sitcom overall. Mac braved the treacherous new waters of parenting with the biggest sounding board of all: America. In the first season, Bernie Mac started every episode in his den, talking about parenting to those who chose to tune in. He wasn’t just talking to the camera for the sake of talking to the camera; Bernie Mac was inviting viewers to have a conversation with him (a staple of Larry Wilmore’s particular brand of humor, from his sitcom work to his upcoming late-night program, The Nightly Show). This conversation with America involved parenting, marriage, family, life. It wasn’t the cool-guy-approach-to-life device (Zack Morris, Frank Underwood): Despite how suave the Mac Man always claimed to be, he often employed this technique because he knew he was in over his head. He wanted to know that he was doing parenting right and not going to screw his kids up for good.

The Bernie Mac Show took the premise of the family sitcom—typically a multi-camera, exasperated joke factory with schmaltz on top, even at its best—and made the genre its own. The single-camera comedy stylistically felt more at home on cable (right down to the shaky handheld camera style), even though the subject matter and presentation weren’t necessarily too hot for TV. In its first season (and even later on), the show would often stick with a simple one plot structure, with no B-plots or C-plots to pad the episodes. And throughout the run of the series, the show would have a surprising amount of open-ended episode conclusions, showing just how real the show could be, even at its most sitcom-like: Conflict resolution in a family (or in life) doesn’t always take place in the span of a half-hour, and kids don’t always learn from their mistakes after the first or even fifth time. Back when he wrote for Entertainment Weekly, Ken Tucker would praise The Bernie Mac Show every chance he got. Tucker called the show the “best new comedy” of fall 2001 and also referred to it as “today’s Cosby.”

The show’s bucking of typical sitcom traditions (whether those traditions belonged to family, black, or star-vehicle sitcoms) led to network interference. The Bernie Mac Show won an Emmy for writing in its first season, but by the middle of its second, Larry Wilmore was fired for creative differences with the network. Fox reportedly clashed with Wilmore over the show not being enough like a typical sitcom, for not making the show (which was fearless in its depiction of the realness of its episodic situations) “funny enough,” and for not having more than one plot in most of its episodes. In the case of the latter, the inclusion of unnecessary subplots led to a B-plot in a season-three episode in which Wanda was obsessed with finding five pool chairs together.

Then came the onslaught of guest cameos, capitalizing on Bernie’s celebrity and who was hot at the time. Matt Damon, Lucy Lawless, Ice Cube, Ellen DeGeneres, Snoop Dogg (not as himself), Flavor Flav, Dr. Phil, Ashton Kutcher, Triple H, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin—the list went on an on, whether the cameos made sense in the context of the show or not. The ratings fell constantly after the second season, when the show began its hop, skip, and jump across the Fox schedule. In the span of just a year, the series had had three different showrunners (Larry Wilmore, Michael Borkow, Peter Aronson), which made for a confusing creative direction and question of what the network really wanted from the show and the people it put at the helm.

Bernie Mac also could get repetitive in a way that made it appear as though no one would ever learn anything. The best example comes in the form of the Vanessa character and her constant lying, sneaking around, and spending her aunt and uncle’s money. Still, the show wasn’t completely tone deaf, even if its characters and the network could be.

Even with the network interference and declining ratings, The Bernie Mac Show never fully lost its heart and soul. It never lost Bernie Mac (both the actor and the spirit of the character). It never lost the built family of Bernie, Wanda, the kids, and America. The show was essentially living a behind-the-scenes struggle to grow while it told the story of a human struggle to grow as well. But even as the show changed over its five-season, 104-episode run, it remained all about that relationship between Bernard “Bernie Mac” McCullough, Wanda, those doggone kids, and the country they lived in.

Here are 10 episodes of The Bernie Mac Show that shone a light on that struggle and journey of building something out of nothing:

“Living The Life” (season one, episode one): One constant of The Bernie Mac Show was the reiteration of the series’ premise: Bernie’s sister Stacy is “on drugs, and that’s okay.” In the pilot, Bernie makes it clear as soon as possible that there are strict, immovable rules to living with him. “First: This is my house,” he states, but that doesn’t stop the kids from raising his pulse or crying and wetting their pants in public. He tells it like it is to America: “Bernie Mac, ‘Why you so strict?’ Tough love is good for them.” He tells the kids he’s “gonna bust [their] head ’til the white meat shows,” even getting the social worker on to his side. It’s hilarious, it’s troubling, it’s sad, it’s loud, it’s quiet—all in the span of 20-plus minutes. It’s the act of building a family.

“Lock Down” (season one, episode 15): For all of his talk of “back in the day,” “manning up,” and the kids being “soft,” the character Bernie Mac still cherished his family and its well-being over all of that trivial stuff. So when a home invader threatens that well-being, Bernie goes more and more overboard (a defining characteristic of both Bernie and Black-ish’s Dre) in his efforts to protect them all: “I’ll tell you what, America. I’m gonna protect my family by any means necessary.” From a baseball bat to an alarm system to making the kids go everywhere and do everything with him, Bernie eventually admits that “this good livin’ is making [him] soft.” The heaping dose of reality comes when the kids point out that back in their Chicago home, they averaged about a break-in a week. It’s all a matter of perspective (“You got to live your life”), and this was often the key to The Bernie Mac Show—America’s perspective versus Bernie’s perspective versus Wanda’s perspective versus the kids’ perspective. There were no winners or losers, even if Bernie liked to act like the winner. The episode ends with an ever-poignant sign off from Bernie Mac: “See, I told you once before, America—we’re family, you and I. We are family. Always. And forever. Y’all take care.”

“If I Were N-Riched Man” (season one, episode 17): Bernie Mac’s approach to parenting throughout the series involved a lot of “do as I say, not as I do.” However, in this instance, Bryana takes that this adage literally by repeating the N-word at her progressive (but not that progressive) school. The episode itself makes sure to warn the audience of the impending taboo, first by the viewer discretion warning for “inappropriate and offensive language,” then with the use of the show’s standard annotation commentary with a 20-second countdown to the “word coming up.” The moment itself is one of the best examples of the show’s true-to-life, fly-on-the-wall approach to comedic storytelling, the result of Bernie tossing a comment to Wanda about how they’re not as rich as the kids think they are: they’re “just nigga rich.” One of life’s inevitabilities is the moment a kid hears a bad word for the first time and decides to repeat it, whether or not they understand the meaning, and Bernie Mac learns that the hard way.

“Carfool” (season two, episode three): One of the ways Bernie Mac adjusts to his new role as the main parent to his nieces and nephew is to make it fit within the context of what he knows about life. So when he is enlisted into the racket known as carpooling, he blames it on the “hustlers in a minivan,” the soccer moms who know how to play it just like someone from the streets. With these new children also comes a new set of people Bernie has to surround himself with—other children and their lame parents. In classic Bernie Mac fashion, he doesn’t want to act like he was fully to blame for all of this, saying to America that “y’all should’ve stopped me.” The Mac Man puts his own spin on the carpooling experience, taking no nonsense from the kids, not even waiting for a late one, making it a well-oiled machine.

“Bernie Mac Dance Party” (season two, episode six): The truest constant in the entirety of The Bernie Mac Show is the antagonistic relationship between Bernie and his niece Vanessa. It’s a give-and-take relationship with a lot of taking from Vanessa, only for her to give Bernie back grief. The actual moments of the two of them being on the same page are few and far between, but when they do happen, the show makes them count. An episode like “Bernie Mac Dance Party” makes it clear that Bernie Mac isn’t just laying down the law because he wants to be the Big Mac In Charge—he comes down hard because he believes that’s what a good father does. And here, Bernie Mac shows the reluctant Vanessa, and America, that the best, real fathers are the ones that stay, even if they’re not the biological parent. Some of the best moments of The Bernie Mac Show simply acknowledge that there doesn’t need to be a war at home, at least not all the time.

“Bernie Mac Rope-A-Dope” (season two, episode 11): Bernie Mac is a man’s man, but it’s not until this episode that he truly realizes just how much he’s become a real parent. Day in and day out, he spends his time with these kids, he knows their routines and schedules, he knows their likes and dislikes. Early in the episode, he complains that “those doggone kids are turning [his] brain into mush” like the rest of those “typical parents.” However, as much as he says he wants to hang around “real” adults, all of that kid stuff has become deeply ingrained in his brain. At a dinner party, Wanda’s boss, his wife, and their friends give Bernie hard time for essentially being a stay-at-home father. But his saving grace is that maybe he’s rubbing off on the kids too: When a babysitting Vanessa spanks Jordan, Bernie replies, “There’s hope for the girl yet.”

“Pink Gold” (season two, episode 15): In another example of the made family, the brotherhood of comedians is hard to enter but very easy to ruin. Joke-stealing is the comedians’ cardinal sin, and in “Pink Gold,” Bernie has to deal with someone he believes to have sinned repeatedly: Chris Rock. This episode was really more of a way to promote Chris Rock and Bernie Mac’s 2003 film Head Of State, but within the context of the show, the episode offers the very real ideas of jealousy, broken friendship, and how two parties can see a relationship in a different light (Rock says he always saw Bernie as his mentor). Despite its more over-the-top approach, “Pink Gold” resembles the Dane Cook episode of Louie, a show that also knows a thing or two about this struggle.

“Make Room For Caddy” (season three, episode 11): Despite his stubbornness as a man and a parent, Bernie Mac comes across as reasonably rough around the edges when it comes to his father-in-law. The second episode of the series to feature Wanda’s parents, Lloyd and Leora (played by Steven Williams and Janet Hubert), shows the origins of Bernie and Wanda’s relationship and why Bernie and Lloyd don’t get along at all. Even though Bernie Mac made something of himself and has become a great parent, Lloyd still treats him like he’s some kid doing comedy shows on the subway and bombing in front of small audiences. The battle of the in-laws isn’t new to television, but The Bernie Mac Show makes it clear that some wars are worth fighting and some just aren’t, especially when it comes to making the people you love happy.

“Saving Sergeant Tompkins” (season three, episode 12): Part of the frustration Bernie Mac encounters as he raises his nieces and nephew is the knowledge that he can’t change the fact that they came from the ’hood, with a drug-addict mom and an imprisoned father, and they had to grow up too fast. But even with his hard-edged ways, he still realizes that they are kids who sometimes need to be told a tale of a better world, even if it’s not true. Here, Bernie makes up a story of Jordan’s father being a sergeant in the military (instead of the convict that he is). It frustrates Vanessa, who can’t understand why her little brother gets the happy lies when she has to live with the sad memories, but Wanda explains to her how that’s sometimes just part of growing up. For a show with a main character all about tough love, a gentle lie is one of Bernie’s best moments as a father.

“Stiff Upper Lip” (season four, episode two): “America, when I was growing up, I didn’t have a helmet. And you didn’t either. And look at us—we’re fine! I’m telling you when they need a helmet: when they get on your doggone nerves. ‘Uncle Bernie, can I get? Uncle Bernie, can I have?’” An episode that features this monologue to America early on strangely becomes an episode all about bravery and inner strength, with Bernie Mac even motivating special needs peers of Bryana’s with his own brand of inspirational speeches. Bernie gets called out for “teasing,” but even though America doesn’t always understand him and his methods may be unorthodox, that doesn’t necessarily make them wrong. Bryana gets over her fear of riding a bike without training wheels because of this, and maybe—just maybe—there’s hope for the future of old-school parenting. If parents won’t raise their children right, Bernie Mac is going to show them how it’s done.

Next time: In honor of Parks And Recreation’s final season, Erik Adams looks at ten bucolic slices of Pawnee, Indiana life.