By Alynda Wheat
Updated January 16, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

If a show is lucky enough to still be on the air by its third season, there’s the midlife crisis to contend with: Plots are rehashed, characters become too predictable, and someone (networks? writers?) tries to liven things up. They bring in a tow-headed tyke or a bitchy mother-in-law. They make someone gay.

Bernie Mac, however, is as violent, foulmouthed, mildly homophobic, clueless, and manipulative as ever, which is a feat, given the show’s extensive behind-the-scenes turmoil. (The series is now on its third show runner in a year.) This sameness is comforting, and is also why The Bernie Mac Show still works. Sure there are slight shifts this season — nephew Jordan (Jeremy Suarez) is obsessed with ”boobies”; wife Wanda (Kellita Smith) is more involved with the kids. But Bernie’s still chatting with ”America,” hosting high-powered guest stars in his den (Angela Bassett, Ellen DeGeneres), and struggling to turn 10-year-old Jordan into ”a man.”

Of course, Bernie owes an enormous debt to Bill Cosby. Take the Jan. 11 episode, in which Bernie likes niece Vanessa’s new boyfriend so much he practically steals the poor kid from her. Why, the same thing happened to Cliff Huxtable and his daughter Vanessa! Or rewind to the late-December episode in which Bernie advises Vanessa (Camille Winbush) that she can’t possibly be ”bourgie” ”’cause you ain’t got squat. I’m the one that got everything.” Anybody remember Cliff giving Theo the same line when the kid wanted $1,500 to go to Egypt? No? Take it on faith.

Where ”Bernie” diverges from ”The Cosby Show” — though not from much of UPN — is in its devotion to a more (code-word alert) ”urban” African-American experience. When Wanda quits her executive job because someone else nabs her promotion, Mac is quick with the query ”White guy?” The show is adept at dropping references to black culture in ways that are so natural — a recent holiday episode grooves on Donny Hathaway’s ”This Christmas” — the viewer isn’t jolted by a lack of recognition. Not everyone’s family has a ”Big Mama,” but we all know who Bernie means.

It’s that ”old school” Mac’s always talking about that keeps his show solid. He feels comfortable there. It’s telling that he embraces Vanessa’s boyfriend only after the boy dismisses Justin Timberlake as a Jackson 5 retread. Bernie has never really left 1979. Which is perfectly fine, because we don’t really want him to learn any new moves.