Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
The first episode of The Michael J. Fox Show is almost entirely about getting The Michael J. Fox Show on the air. Sure, the character Fox plays—a beloved former New York City news anchor who retired because of a battle with Parkinson’s disease—isn’t actually the actor, but he shares many similarities with Fox’s real-life situation. The entire premise is about Fox being lured back to the air because the station he left behind years earlier could use ratings, and the pilot skewers the numerous “Michael J. Fox is back!” ads NBC has been airing since May.
There are also an ample number of story points taken from Fox’s life as a stay-at-home dad living with Parkinson’s—at least to hear the creators and star tell it. There are jokes about how long it takes him to dish up breakfast and jokes about how his shaking makes him dial 911 instead of New York City area code 917 (both of which happened to Fox, according to interviews). All of this is an attempt to get ahead of the obvious narrative surrounding the show: Fox has returned to save NBC, but he’s returned with his condition obvious to all. This is a warm-hearted family comedy, sure, but it’s got something potentially groundbreaking at its core.
Fox hasn’t left TV since he departed ABC sitcom Spin City in 2000 because of his diagnosis. He’s performed guest stints on shows like Spin City and Rescue Me, and he memorably plays a recurring villain on The Good Wife. (The writers of this show borrow heavily from that character when they want Fox to be kind of an oily bastard. It works better than it probably should, thanks to how much delight Fox gets out of playing a dick.) But the series seems intent on meeting any concerns the audience might have about Fox returning to series TV head-on. It’s not only interested in making him a figure of inspiration, either. He’s irritating and petty and playful, and Fox is fully capable of playing all of those notes—and a few heartwarming, inspirational ones as well.
Truth be told, the pilot is funny in places, but it feels overburdened by all of the masters it needs to serve. The elements of meta-commentary always feel too clever by half, and the series leans perhaps too heavily on jokes derived from Parkinson’s. Some of these are very funny—the closing line of the episode is a killer—but it also doesn’t seem likely the show will be able to draw from an endless font of these sorts of jokes.
Perhaps sensing that the pilot would be unrepresentative, then, NBC sent out another two episodes, including the other episode that will air as part of the series’ debut on Thursday. Both lean slightly too heavily on standard family-sitcom plots to be wholly successful, but both are also far more at ease with what the show is and will become. Parkinson’s recedes into the background, popping up when it naturally would, and the series settles down to the business of becoming just another family sitcom, albeit perhaps the first with a lead who suffers from a debilitating physical condition.
That normalcy could get boring were it not for the show’s solid writing and crackerjack cast. Michael J. Fox arrived on TV as a sure thing—NBC ordered a full season of episodes without even shooting a pilot, based on Fox’s involvement—so it attracted top-flight talent. Betsy Brandt moves from Breaking Bad as Fox’s wife, and her talent for unusual line readings is just as sparkling here as it is on that dark drama. (Viewers watching the first two episodes of this series sandwiched between the last two of her earlier gig will likely experience Brandt-induced whiplash.) As Fox’s sister, Katie Finneran doesn’t really have a character to play just yet, but she’s going to have a hell of a fun time finding one all the same. And as Mike’s best friend and boss, Wendell Pierce makes the workplace subplots feel less obligatory than they are structurally.
The series hails from Sam Laybourne and Will Gluck, both of whom are known to TV fans for their work on more surrealistic single-camera comedies like Cougar Town and The Loop. Neither seems wholly comfortable within the confines of something NBC would obviously love to be the next Modern Family, right down to talking head interviews that Laybourne and Gluck at least give a reason to exist in the pilot, though the series quickly loses interest in this completely unnecessary device. But where the storytelling seems occasionally forced—intent on ending every episode with a moment of heart, no matter how unearned—the dialogue is weird and funny. With time for the stories to settle down and match the performances, the series should find a nice groove.
It seems pointless to say that Fox is a natural-born TV star—he’s been a mainstay of American sitcoms since he was practically a kid—but the fact remains that he has tremendous comic timing and an easygoing charisma that overrides any early concerns that this will be a show about Parkinson’s or about mounting The Michael J. Fox Show. Although Fox is essentially playing himself as a news anchor, he finds the right notes to make his fictional self distinct and intriguing, vain and loving and sarcastic all at once. Not everything in the show around him works, but enough does that everyone involved can breathe a sigh of relief. It’s not a perfect landing, but the degree of difficulty is such that the show should be applauded just for getting so much right already.
The Michael J. Fox Show
Created by: Sam Laybourne, Will Gluck
Starring: Michael J. Fox, Betsy Brandt, Katie Finneran, Wendell Pierce
Debuting: Thursday at 9 p.m. Eastern on NBC and airing an hour. It moves to its regular Thursday 9:30 p.m. Eastern timeslot Oct. 3.
Format: Single-camera half-hour sitcom
Three episodes watched for review
Reviews of The Michael J. Fox Show by Robert David Sullivan will appear weekly.