Aside from a few of the racier jokes, the first two episodes of The Michael J. Fox Show feels like a “brilliant but cancelled” show from the late 1980s. Maybe something that ABC would have briefly tried against Cheers, getting critical raves for busting out of the three-camera soundstage but losing most of the viewers from its lead-in (maybe Who’s The Boss?).
The Michael J. Fox Show is a single-camera sitcom that depicts New York City as fun rather than dangerous. It offers a gently irreverent, behind-the-scenes look at everyone’s favorite news source, local TV. In the pilot, real NBC personalities like Today’s Matt Lauer make dignified cameos reminiscent of long-ago Murphy Brown—perhaps relieved that they don’t have to play psycho versions of themselves, as was the norm on 30 Rock. There are sight gags based on the novelty of shooting a sitcom like a movie, as in a second-episode scene of Fox and his boss playing darts in a glass-walled office. It ends with a wide shot of the busy newsroom and Fox, now in the background, peering out and asking, “Do you think they can tell we're not working?”
It’s a nice, well-produced anachronism, premiering a night after perpetual Emmy winner Modern Family opened its season with a joke about a 60-ish man and his teenage stepson being mistaken for a pedophile and a prostitute by a bunch of gay men in line to get their marriage licenses. Then again, when Fox’s character tells his wife in bed that it’s been hours since he took his medication to stop involuntary movements, and she responds, “Good, I won’t have to do all the work,” it’s a funnier and less contrived moment. So maybe there's some grace in not striving to be as outrageous as possible.
In The Michael J. Fox Show, the longtime sitcom star plays New York television journalist Michael Henry. Like Fox, he has Parkinson’s disease, and in the pilot, he returns to the air after a short retirement occasioned by his inability to stop rolling his chair on and off camera (another gentle sight gag). Fox is essentially playing himself as a beloved personality who doesn’t get the same kind of adoration from his family and friends as he does from the fans who stop him on the street. This is a premise that dates back to the earliest days of TV (The Danny Thomas Show), but it’s now more often used for reality shows than for sitcoms. Fox is taking the more difficult, albeit less embarrassing, option here.
All sitcoms are difficult to judge on the basis of the first two episodes, but this one demands even more caution. NBC is highly invested in the show and will probably demand tweaks (new characters, less emphasis on home or office) if ratings are below expectations. And so far there’s a tentativeness in the portrayal of Fox’s character that spreads to the rest of the show.
Fox still has his comic chops. Despite his age-lined face, his character here is more boyish than his role of 30 years ago, the straight-laced Alex Keaton on Family Ties. In his post-Parkinson’s roles, Fox has perfected an innocent, “Who me?” expression that unnerves antagonists who are already unnerved by the shaky movements of his Parkinson’s. On Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Good Wife, he’s been hilarious in exploiting his medical condition to manipulate people and to always appear as the injured party. But that routine would probably get old quickly for a sitcom lead, so Fox wisely limits it here (apart from a convenient fumbling of a bread tray in the second episode).
Instead, the first two episodes let Fox try out different little flaws as the fictional Mike. In the pilot, he’s a control freak, which gives his wife and three kids a reason to push him back out of the house and back into the workplace. In “Neighbor,” his fame has left him too accustomed to being the center of attention: He’s miffed when his attractive new upstairs neighbor (Fox’s real-life wife, Tracy Pollan) doesn’t recognize him from TV, and he’s not happy when she shows more interest in his boss. At other points, there are hints he’s sarcastic (informed that a poem he laughed at was by Maya Angelou, he responds as Chandler might on Friends: “Oh, now that I hear her voice, it’s breathtaking”) or reckless (running up some dangerous-looking stairs in pursuit of a story).
Until Fox and his producers delineate his character, the rest of the cast is in limbo. If they behave too crazily, Mike could come off as the saintly voice of reason, which makes Fox seem narcissistic. But if Mike is more neurotic than everyone else, he could get so annoying that we wonder why the others put up with him. Most successful sitcoms have a tone for the entire ensemble to play. For example, on Modern Family, every major character is a bit more selfish and manipulative than we’d tolerate from family members in real life, but because they’re all playing in the same tonal range, our sympathies can shift depending on the situation. The Michael J. Fox Show is still searching for that tone.
- Breaking Bad’s Betsy Brandt is likeable but fuzzy as Mike’s schoolteacher wife, Annie. Her big line in the pilot is at the very end, grabbing a plate of scrambled eggs from Mike as he struggles to serve the table and quietly saying to him, “Can you not have a personal victory right now? We are starving.” Her funniest delivery is when Mike complains that he’ll get a standing ovation just for showing up at the office, and she mocks him with “Standing ovations? Uch, those sons of bitches.”
- In the second episode, Brandt’s comic set piece involves her trying to make a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich for the youngest of the family’s three children, only to have a parade of other characters snatch it away and force her to start all over again. In the end, she plops the entire jars of peanut butter and jelly in the kid’s lunch box, explaining, “We’re out of bread.” It’s a funny pay-off to the scene, but it made me wonder whether The Michael J. Fox Show happens in a universe where a mother would actually send a kid to school with jars of food (it might happen on The Middle), or in a universe where everyone just likes to clown around with props.
- Another familiar face in the supporting cast is The Wire’s Wendell Pierce as Harris, Mike’s boss at the TV station and apparent best friend. In the pilot, he’s slotted into the role of a cool, middle-aged black guy who’s still on the prowl. (Talking about his lack of children: “30 years of lovemaking, not one slip. Not even a scare.”) In the second episode, more of a farce (Mike tries to set up his neighbor with Harris, then gets jealous and tries to keep them apart), Pierce is better integrated into the plot, but there’s still some work to do in getting the best use of his wonderfully dry line readings.
- Mike, on why the family needs to have sit-down meals: “First we stop connecting, next thing you know we’re under a bridge tying each other off.” Fox’s mime of a jittery addict shooting up heroin is one of his slyer bits of physical comedy.