The Michael J. Fox Show: Season 1, Episode 1
I can imagine studio executives tossing around titles for this show about a man with Parkinson’s who returns to television after an extended hiatus, only to settle on the most obvious choice: The Michael J. Fox Show. Like the title suggests, this show rises and falls with its star, the plot line a barely concealed riff on his own life and times. And when you’re watching the show, it’s incredibly hard to forget about the actor behind the character. This show is less about Mike Henry, and all about Michael J. Fox.
If it were any other actor, the show would likely be a thin vanity project. But Fox hasn't lost a step since he retired from television. There are few actors who have his sort of charisma, where every scene can center around him and seem full and vivid. Here he plays a New York City local news anchor who left the airwaves after his disease causes an embarrassing, YouTube-ready accident. However, he manages to remain beloved enough by seemingly everyone in that city that, in a desperate bid to get ratings up, NBC lures him back for a potential bonanza.
Fox plays himself as a full, rich character that comes across even in the 30 minute pilot. He’s vain, demanding, funny, loving, distracted and frustrated, sometimes all in the span of a few minutes. His performance is spry, managing tonal shifts between scenes that look effortless and real. Betsy Brandt plays his wife, with all of the perky, harried energy she brought to her character on Breaking Bad. She has all of Fox’s skill with comic timing as well (As Fox tries to cook, she grabs the hot pan from him: “Can you not have a personal victory right now? We are starving.”) Together they raise three kids and one annoying sister-in-law (a character trope who should be eliminated from this show, and then everywhere else, thanks). Among the three kids are a college-dropout son, a lazy daughter, and some moppet. In the pilot, they’re practically window dressing, despite a large chunk of the plot tracing the daughter’s creation of a manipulative documentary about her father.
These character’s inner lives are voiced almost entirely through talking head segments that are as awkwardly placed as they are unnecessary. It’s as if the creators crumpled under the pressure of providing NBC’s version of Modern Family, cramming in these segments to hit some kind of quota. Even the family archetypes are similar to that leviathan’s dynamic. If we find out Fox has a father played by another sitcom legend, I would not be surprised.
Oh, and there are a lot of Parkinson’s jokes. If you’re the type of person who prefers not to laugh at a devastating disease, this is not for you. There are jokes about how hard it is to do little things when your arms are shaking. There are jokes about other people who don’t understand anything about Parkinson’s. There is one joke about having sex with Parkinson’s, and there are a lot of jokes about how a major network like NBC would grossly take advantage of this situation with borderline offensive ads and segments on talk shows. But they mostly land, and given Fox’s ease with talking about these real-life problems, never feel mocking or manipulative. In many ways, they're designed to make us forget about the Parkinson’s, to mock the subject that brought this whole show into being. It's a condition that annoys his family and motivates him to be twice as good, and that's vastly preferable to a show that treats it like a death sentence and it's sufferer as a saint.
When the show turns it’s attention away from Fox (and to a lesser extent, Brandt) it quickly loses its momentum. The show is weirdly compartmentalized, where we only see Fox and his producer, or Fox and his assistant, or Fox and his family, without coalescing as a whole. There is no hint that this will turn into an ensemble production, or that these side character will do anything but play off of Fox’s tics. In order to have any staying power, the show is going to have to start providing material to actors other than Fox. He’s strong enough to carry the show, but audiences will get bored if there's no one else of interest. His character may not be willing to ask for help, but the actor deserves it.
-Matt Lauer is here playing the part similar to the one Brian Williams did for 30 Rock: The pompous newsman and successful rival to our main character. Lauer doesn't have as much material to work with here, but he nicely plays the former rival role, just slimy enough to make Fox’s disdain seem non-psychopathic.
-Wendell Pierce, playing the news producer, is a perfect foil for Fox’s energy. I’m also choosing to believe that Bunk got his police pension, moved to New York to become a newsman (acquired through McNulty’s contacts at the BBC), and changed his name to escape all his problems. Don't take this away from me!