The Michael J. Fox Show: "Secret"
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The Michael J. Fox Show: "Secret"

That was quick. I was hoping for the opportunity to write about the secret love affair as a durable plot device on NBC “must-see TV” Thursdays, beginning with Frank and Joyce on Hill Street Blues, reaching peak popularity with Monica and Chandler on Friends, and hitting a sweet spot with Leslie and Ben on Parks And Recreation. And it was intriguing that The Michael J. Fox Show, a very episode-centric sitcom by today’s standards, looked ready to add a bit of serialization in the relationship between Mike’s sister Leigh and his boss/best friend Harris.

But the storyline, introduced in the tag of last week’s “Party,” apparently ended tonight, as Leigh and Harris lost interest in each other as soon as Mike figured out they were sleeping together and gave his blessing with “You’re both sort of adults.” Too bad, since this episode was kind of fun, and maybe a bit of suspense can boost the show’s unspinnably bad ratings. And it’s not a bad idea to give Katie Finneran (Leigh) and Wendell Pierce (Harris) more to do. They get the most out of slight gags like Leigh going undercover in a cheap black wig and Harris getting so flustered he forgets how to open a door.

Leigh’s main traits have been neediness and obliviousness, so on first thought it seems out of character to hide details of her love life from her brother Mike and sister-in-law Annie. But Finneran has been able to convey an unease with her dependence on her charming brother, who’s obviously the favorite in the family, and her character clearly has fun in this episode maintaining an air of mystery for once. The pilot of The Michael J. Fox Show emphasized Mike Henry’s celebrity status, as a beloved TV journalist coping with Parkinson’s disease, and how it could be a royal pain to his family and colleagues. Leigh’s barely contained jealousy and pleas for attention are among the more cartoonish aspects of the show, but her sibling rivalry with Mike has been the strongest thread to the original premise.

The secret affair was also believable because The Michael J. Fox Show has established Mike and Annie are meddlers of the worst kind — that is, the kind that don’t think anything through. Last week, Mike got people to attend a party for Harris by saddling his boss with an imaginary fiancée; not only was it obvious that Harris would be humiliated, but also, Mike’s primary motivation seemed to be proving something to his ever-competitive wife. It’s no wonder nobody wants to tell them anything.

As with the twin festivities in last week’s “Party,” we get two examples of a “Secret” tonight. There’s Leigh and Harris (no good way to combine those names). There’s also a nebbishy mobster who’s been living across the hall from the Henrys, and playing poker with Mike, for 11 years. Don’t worry, he’s a sitcom wiseguy played by Richard Kind (who co-starred with Fox on Spin City), so there’s no bloodshed. And his friendship with young Graham does not prompt a Very Special Episode about dangerous neighbors, though Graham’s growly warning to big brother Ian not to speak against “the family” creeps Annie out.

Fox and Kind have an agreeably goofy jailhouse scene together (Kind’s character would get along great with Arrested Development’s George Bluth), and Anne Heche returns to the show to rag on Mike for not catching on that a mobster was living 10 feet away from him. The episode ends with Mike regaining his investigatory skills, figuring out both the Leigh-and-Harris affair and a way that his neighbor had laundered a lot of money. If not the funniest, “Secret” is The Michael J. Fox Show’s most successful episode so far in terms of integrating his home and professional life (though that means Betsy Brandt has less screen time than usual).

Stray observations:

  • Annie grilling her sister in a walk-and-talk on the sidewalks of New York: “You always talk about the guys you date. You even told me about the undercover CIA agent you were seeing, and that was technically treason. Leigh: “He wasn’t a CIA agent, he played a CIA agent… in a confidence game… that I fell for.”
  • Squicky sex joke of the week: Mike tells Annie that the doorman is interested in him because “whenever he has a delivery, he always puts a little spin on the word ‘package.’” Annie: “Nice.” Mike: “That’s what he says.”
  • Parkinson’s joke of the week: Mike explains his success at bluffing in poker games by saying, “When you move as much as I do, everything is a tell.”
  • The garbage chute that Annie sat next to on Thanksgiving to get away from her mother-in-law makes a return appearance, as Ian and Eve look for a probably worthless statue. Now people are throwing clumps of bandages and a disgusting yellow liquid down it.
  • Leigh’s email password is PENIS. At least mine has a number after it.

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