In this week’s episode, Mike Henry has trouble making air quotes because of his Parkinson’s disease. Later, his awkward movements make him look especially crazy when he directs a sarcastic dance at a woman’s chest, refusing to believe there’s a tiny camera inside one of her blouse buttons.
That’s all you need to know about “Interns,” since The Michael J. Fox Show still hasn’t figured out what it’s about other than its star’s medical condition. And it seems less and less sure about how it wants to handle that. The jokes about other people being ignorant or insensitive—as in strangers confusing Parkinson’s with Alzheimer’s, or WNBC exploiting Mike’s “heroic” comeback to TV news—have pretty much vanished since the pilot. The daring but delicate humor about Mike’s physical difficulties has also been reduced. (The pilot’s closing gag, when his wife cuts short his attempt to serve scrambled eggs with “Can you not have a personal victory right now? We are starving,” is still the most memorable thing about the show.)
There’s nothing wrong with downplaying the Parkinson’s jokes, and I can see that Fox would get tired of them, but there’s not much else to define his character. Mike Henry is a TV journalist, so he’s a bit more hammy and vain and self-absorbed than most of us, in the manner of all sitcom stars playing thinly disguised versions of themselves (at least until Seinfeld upped the jerkiness factor). In “Interns,” he takes forever to record a simple bit of voice-over narration, fussing over how to pronounce “library,” and he doesn’t bother to learn the name of someone on the tech crew. Mike is also a bit overprotective of his teenage daughter, like all sitcom fathers. Nice guy, boring character.
Still, “Interns” is part of a slow, methodical effort to build an ensemble around Fox and give him more to play against. (The unhurried development may have something to do with NBC’s commitment to a full season of Fox, and its not-abysmal ratings compared with the network’s other Thursday shows give it some breathing room.) Fox probably has less screentime than in any episode so far, playing no significant role in the B and C stories, and the supporting cast gets to inch forward as distinct characters.
The main plot has Mike hiring daughter Eve as an intern at WNBC. He has to battle for her attention with rival Susan (Anne Heche), the news anchor who’s less psychotic than in her introductory episode last week. Now her role is to trade insults (Mike to Eve: “If she gives you any trouble, just throw water on her and she’ll melt.” Susan’s response: “Oh, do you really want to go down the yellow brick road that leads to Munchkins, Mike?”) and provide the plot device of enlisting Eve in an undercover “expose” on minors getting served in bars. To its credit, the show suggests that Susan is in the right for giving Eve something substantial to do, instead of just following around and admiring her father, even if there’s some malice behind her actions.
The B plot has lay-about son Ian interviewing possible interns for his non-existent web search company, assisted by younger sibling Graham. Conor Romero and Jack Gore have a nice chemistry as the siblings with a wide age difference, even if they seem like blander versions of Axl and Brick on The Middle.
The slightest, and engagingly weirdest, story finds Mike’s sister Leigh (Katie Finneran, who hopefully has a better idea than we do about just how stupid her character is supposed to be) writing a teen romance novel about a boy who turns into a horse at night, called Mane Attraction. Leigh pesters Annie into reading it, which leads to Betsy Brandt struggling to do classic sitcom shtick in which she tries to avoid saying anything negative: “What I liked about it? Well, the beginning, it started the whole thing off. And then the middle took us right from the beginning to the end. Which stayed true to its name because there was nothing after that. So, I think we should go get a drink now.”
One good thing about shooting a sitcom in front of a studio audience is that the cast and crew know if a scene like that gets laughs and can change (or cut) lines accordingly—which, ideally, would have happened here. But despite a lot of multi-cam trappings (such as the establishment shots before every scene, as if we won’t otherwise know the difference between Mike’s apartment and the WNBC studios), The Michael J. Fox Show tries to be an up-to-date, 30 Rock-ish single-camera comedy, with annoying calypso jazz instead of a laugh track.
“Interns” is more intriguing than most of the MJF episodes so far, if only for trying new character combinations and letting them play out without Fox overshadowing everyone. Still, the show is burning through its first, and very possibly only, season with surprising nonchalance.
- Doug, the idiot who’s been an intern at WNBC for nine years, is played by Jason Kravits, who was an assistant DA on The Practice in the ’90s before guest-starring on a million series.
- Wendell Pierce’s line of the week is to teenaged Eve: “Anything you need, my door is wide open. And if it isn’t, do not come in. No matter what you hear.” Only slightly more dignified than playing a fortysomething guy who gets his clothes caught in the photocopier and walks around the newsroom shirtless.
- Susan channels Veronica (Portia de Rossi) from Better Off Ted when Mike asks her for the price of her new office couch: “Oh, I don’t know. The station paid for it. Which reminds me, we’re not having a Christmas party this year.”
- Annie observes that Leigh’s gums are bleeding from eating a boxful of raw taco shells. A single-camera sitcom, as opposed to a theatrical-style multicam, really should go to the trouble of making it look as if her gums are bleeding.