The Michael J. Fox Show can’t really afford to coast right now, but taking an easy slide down a hill are what Thanksgiving episodes are for. Occasionally there’s a “Turkeys Away,” the episode that may have saved WKRP In Cincinnati from getting cancelled in its first year, but most shows use the holiday to get away with some very old comic setups. The most cherished tradition is to invite a couple of older actors to guest as never-seen-before relatives, and “Thanksgiving” has Charles Grodin and Candice Bergen as Mike’s parents, Steve and Beth.
Bergen is a likeable actress, always a good sport, but her delivery is distractingly similar no matter whom she’s playing. The world seems to freeze for each of her very carefully enunciated lines, and her performance as Mike’s nosy, hypercritical mother is essentially Murphy Brown in a Betty White hairdo. Her snarking at Marie’s housekeeping and cooking skills is a nonstarter of a plot.
Grodin fares better as Mike’s dad, even though he has to play another wheezy stereotype, the tough old man who doesn’t want anyone to know he’s got health problems. Grodin isn’t the most versatile comic actor either, but he’s so good at playing exasperation that we’re riveted by everything he does, waiting to find out if he merely does a slow burn or blows a gasket. There’s a twist in “Thanksgiving” in that his nonstop ragging on Mike and annoyance at grandson Ian’s lack of athletic skill doesn’t end in a temper tantrum but in a quiet drop to one knee as he overdoes it playing football.
The “Mike bonds with his dad” story—and good for The Michael J. Fox Show for making the dad good-intentioned and just a bit overbearing, instead of a complete asshole—ends with what has become the best part of each episode: Fox getting a subdued, light dramatic moment amid the forced merriment of a wacky family who live (can you believe it?) in New York City. This time, his character gently scolds his dad for keeping his heart condition a secret, and Mike reminds him of his own highly visible health problem. “It was not nothing,” Mike says of his father’s surgery, “any more than this was from drinking too much coffee,” as he exaggerates the shaky hands from his Parkinson’s disease.
This is the kind of scene that Modern Family often fails to pull off because it just won’t slow down long enough; it’s unfortunate that MJF feels the need to emulate Modern Family in other ways, putting an unnecessary cap on the episode with talking-head segments and Fox doing a voice-over on what we’ve learned.
In one subplot, Mike’s sister Leigh has been telling her parents that she lives in Portland, Oregon, to avoid their visits. This is a ditzy idea, but it’s not oversold, and Katie Finneran’s character is more grounded than usual as she eventually tries to rescue Marie from her mother’s awfulnesss.
Mike’s daughter Eve and best friend/colleague Harris (no workplace scenes again this week) get the throwaway story of searching the city for canned cranberry sauce so they won’t have to eat Marie’s homemade version. Their preference for the metallic taste of the canned stuff, with Eve gleefully making the sound of a rubbery cylinder being discharged from its container, seems like a gag long past its sell-by date. But you know you’re going to get traditional jokes on a Thanksgiving episode, and The Michael J. Fox Show is not about to start surprising you now.
- Mike’s better understanding of his college dropout son Ian didn’t carry over from last week’s episode: “Why can’t we talk him into moving to Portland?”
- Eve: “I’m a teenager. I complain about stuff. That doesn’t mean I don’t love it.” That about covers her function on the show.
- Beth’s best moment: “Don’t worry, sweetie. Your mother’s making a new, weird kind of cranberry sauce, instead of the normal American kind everyone loves.”
- Betsy Brandt is quite fetching in this episode in her cranberry-colored blouse, even when she’s sitting next to a dumpster under a garbage chute in an attempt to hide from Beth.
- Steve runs out of ways to belittle Mike’s masculinity that make any sense: “Something wrong with your hearing, Linda?”
- Why Harris doesn’t like fresh cranberries: “That stuff grows in a bog.”
- Ian is as bad at trash-talking as he is at just about everything. To a stranger who’s joined the Henrys’ touch football game in Central Park: “Mind if I call you stepson? Because I’m about to marry your mother. That’s right, we’ve fallen in love. It started out physical, now it’s so much more.” In unrelated news, Central Park looks so nice in this episode that I want to take it behind a middle school and get it pregnant.