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

Workplace rivalries are funny on TV but almost never so in real life. When two colleagues can’t stand each other, it usually results in arguments, lots of sick days, and a lowered morale for the whole office. Fortunately, the feuds rarely last long before one of the parties leaves, voluntarily or not.

But comedy needs conflict, so workplace wars remain a sitcom staple. Sometimes they work because they’re so much bigger than life (Jim vs. Dwight on The Office), or because they involve “work spouses” who have a deep affection for each other below the bickering (Liz and Jack on 30 Rock), or because everyone concerned is so competitive that it’s believable for them to spend years trying to best each other (the staff on Veep). Though it’s less fashionable now, classic sitcoms used insult one-upmanship, in which characters said things aloud that we only think about in real life (Buddy and Mel on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Diane and Carla on Cheers). You can still see this style on a few multi-camera sitcoms (the restaurant scenes on the new Chuck Lorre series Mom), but it can feel like a throwback to the ’70s if not expertly done.

Yet that seems to be what The Michael J. Fox Show is striving for in “Hobbies,” when Anne Heche joins the cast as Susan Rodriguez-Jones, a new anchorwoman at the NBC New York station where Mike used to be an anchor. MJF clearly needs some kind of conflict for Mike there; his boss is his best friend, he seems to do whatever he wants as a reporter, and everyone outside of Susan adores him. So far, giving him a nemesis who’s a meaner version of the pushy sister he deals with at home isn’t enough.

It would be understandable for Mike to be resentful, even catty, toward Susan. Her star has been rising while he took a leave of absence to deal with his Parkinson’s disease, and now she’s in his old chair while WNBC exploits him as a handicapped hero and mascot. (At least it did in the pilot episode. The mild digs at the parent network have disappeared since then.) But because The Michael J. Fox show really, really wants us to love its star, it stacks the deck by making Heche’s character both spiteful and crazy. (I know, it’s such against-the-grain casting.) The porcelain-skin blonde clings to the name “Rodriguez” from a six-week marriage to feign a more ethnic background, she makes up a story about losing all feeling in her hand and backs it up by injuring herself with a stapler, and she threatens Mike when no one else can hear her. There’s a back-story involving her marooning him in the Everglades when they were both working on a story in Florida, but no one seems to believe Mike’s version of events. I’m surprised she doesn’t have telekinetic powers that only Mike witnesses.

Heche’s character mellows out a bit (but still gets snappy one-liners) in a future episode that was sent out to critics, when she’s involved in a storyline with Mike’s daughter. I hope that’s the direction the show is headed toward, and soon.

On the home front, Mike and Annie argue about whether son Graham should take up hockey or pottery. There are hints that Mike is worried about Graham’s masculinity (he’s disappointed in older son Ian’s inability to catch… anything). It’s as dated and by-the-numbers as last week’s kerfuffle about daughter Eve in a photography class that has nude male models. Meanwhile, Eve is in a Twitter war with a classmate, and Aunt Leigh butts in to make matters worse. Also, Eve runs in a ridiculously girlish way (more like something you’d expect from Sue Heck on The Middle than from the usually poised, reasonably confident Eve).

So much of The Michael J. Fox Show is weightless, but I can see it as a pleasant way to kill 30 minutes. The cast really seems to like working with each other. This week we get to see Fox on the hockey rink, which is as inspiring (and nostalgic) as seeing him play guitar in a previous episode. (“I move much better on the ice. If only I lived on an ice planet, I’d be emperor.”) Betsy Brandt and Wendell Pierce are having fun not being on a dark drama, with Brandt losing herself at the pottery wheel in a Ghost reverie and Pierce savoring each sarcastic line. Any plans to have them all play charades on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon? That would be worth watching.

Stray observations:

  • One running gag this week has all the adults losing track of who’s responsible for dinner, leading each one to bring home a family-size take-out meal. I want to live in the Michael J. Fox Show universe where people buy burritos without using their cellphones to get approval for each ingredient from their spouses.
  • Susan brags about the mahogany desk given to her by Walter Cronkite, tousling Mike’s hair and telling him, “you could probably curl up in one of the drawers and take a li’l nap.” OK, Fox’s short-man indignation is funny.
  • “If the helmet fits, I must acquit.” That joke’s older than Spin City.
  • It’s no surprise when Heche pronounces “Rodriguez” in an exaggerated Spanish accent, but doing the same to “East L.A.” is a more subtle achievement.

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