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It’s a bit of a mental rollercoaster watching Michael J. Fox return to television with a new NBC series named after him. He’s done a bunch of impressive cameo work in recent years, but this is his first full-time return to the medium — with mixed results.
The premise of The Michael J. Fox show is to tackle head-on his battle with Parkinson’s disease. Although Fox has downplayed any talk of this being risky or heroic (as you would expect him to), it’s still pretty bold for both him and for NBC.
That’s because the pilot is asking you to, in a sense, laugh at Parkinson’s jokes and the man suffering from its effects. The unspoken agreement is that if it’s fine with Fox then it should be fine with you. But that doesn’t make it any less uncomfortable.
What helps in the pilot is that enough of the jokes are funny and there’s mostly a clear trajectory to the plot: Fox, as beloved but retired New York news anchorman Mike Henry, is driving his family crazy by being home all the time. He’s home, of course, because the Parkinson’s got so bad he retired (and yes, there’s a pretty funny visual joke about his goodbye speech/sign-off).
He’s been home for five years, and now that he is, he’s meddling in the lives of his sweet, sassy and tolerant wife Annie (Breaking Bad‘s Betsy Brandt), college-dropout son Ian (Conor Romero), teenage daughter Eve (Juliette Goglia) and 8-year-old son Graham (Jack Gore — who seems a lot younger than that). They love him but also know that he loved his job (and the fact all of New York loves him back) and he’s been missing it since retirement. So they rig it so that Mike runs into his old boss, Harris (Wendell Pierce), setting the stage for Harris to lure him back to work.
The wonderful Katie Finneran also stars as Mike’s self-centered sister, Leigh.
The pilot uses what has now become completely tired on television — the faux documentary conceit where the characters talk into the camera. This is ostensibly because Eve is making a school project but, like Modern Family and The Office before it, the “don’t you have enough material already” moment will never come or the original idea will be forgotten, as it seems to be in the next episodes where the characters talk to the camera but it no longer seems like Eve’s homework.
Even with that bit of hackneyed structure weaved into it, the pilot works because it’s great to see Fox back on television with his trademark spot-on delivery. And secondarily, even without saying it outright, the show is both suggesting that Fox is fine and that it’s OK to feel both happy about that and to embrace his return. I certainly think people will. Fox isn’t looking for or asking for anyone’s pity, he’s just trying to get back to what he loves (and does extremely well).
The pilot is clever in a number of places and the banter is quick. Once Mike decides to go back to work, everybody’s relieved. Like Modern Family, which it seems to be aping, The Michael J. Fox show is big on hugs and syrup in the end notes, but that can be overlooked if what precedes it has enough right angles.
Unfortunately, the second episode — which airs directly after the pilot tonight — is a complete and utter mess. The tone is different from the pilot and it jumps around in random, unbelievable ways. The hook is that the new neighbor upstairs is super noisy and Mike goes to have a word — only to find out that instead of a cranky man it’s a sexy, newly divorced woman (played by Fox’s real life wife, Tracy Pollan).
Mike spends the entire episode pining after her and being annoyed that he set her up with Harris on a double-date and it’s going too well. Um, OK. So, we’re supposed to believe that his wife is going to put up with this blatant crush — or even that Mike would have the crush, much less talk about it all the time? It’s manipulative and unbelievable.
The third episode — or at least the one sent to critics — improves and gives a bit of hope, but it also changes with the addition of Anne Heche (and an oddly more mature version of Eve, who starts as an unpaid intern at Mike’s work and is showing cleavage by the end).
There’s also the worry that, by this third episode, where the number of Parkinson’s jokes have been dialed back, the decision to stop joking about it makes it somehow harder to watch, as Fox’s constantly moving tics from the disease create sympathy rather than humor. It’s only human nature to feel for him (which is why the constant jokes about Parkinson’s in the pilot were a double-edged sword).
It’s clear that tone and direction on The Michael J. Fox show haven’t been completely worked out yet. What isn’t clear is what the audience reaction will be — especially when patience needs to be the primary one.
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