Television Reviews

The Michael J. Fox Show An Inspiring Struggle

  • Ed Cardinal Contributing Writer
  • Updated Oct 04, 2013
<i>The Michael J. Fox Show</i> An Inspiring Struggle

There’s no overlooking what first makes NBC’s The Michael J. Fox Show so remarkable: the new sitcom’s beloved namesake (Family Ties, Spin City) has made an inspired return to full-time television despite the challenges that come from his real-life struggle with Parkinson’s disease. The media’s affirming desire for this program to succeed coupled with Fox’s unshakable talent and willingness to let the scriptwriters use his condition as a comedic device is a landmark combination that could go beyond commonplace. But like any series in its early days, this one is still finding its natural voice, pace, and purpose.

The pilot episode introduces Fox in the largely autobiographical role of Mike Henry, a popular New York news anchor whose struggles with Parkinson’s (slurred speech, involuntary movement) have led him off the air and toward semi-retirement to spend more time with his wife and three children. However, the daily intensity Mike has transferred from the newsroom to the family room is driving everyone bonkers. Now his dry-witted wife Annie, played by Betsy Brandt (Breaking Bad), must hatch a plot with her husband’s former boss to get Henry back on the beat and in front of the camera where he belongs.

This is where the fresh jokes come in. Mike accurately predicts the exploitative slow-mo promo footage and hero talk that will accompany his return to work and reminds the boss why he left in the first place (cut to clip of Henry unable to stop himself from moving out of the frame). And his family is as irreverent about Parkinson’s as he is. Filming dad for a school project, teenage daughter Eve asks him to “shake it up a little bit” so a sympathetic teacher might give a better grade. At dinner, Annie doesn’t want Mike’s slow, shaky hand filling her plate: “Can you not have a personal victory right now? We are STARVING!”

Things that aren’t quite working yet are the mile-a-minute script and documentary-style breakaways. There’s no reason for The Michael J. Fox Show to mimic Modern Family; Fox is his own solid brand with his own pace and has a unique premise to explore. Further, for both creative and moral reasons, tired sexual punch lines (like the high school lesbian subplot and implied casual sex between Mike’s boss and the hot upstairs neighbor in episode two) are lazy letdowns compared to the Parkinson’s-based dialog.

That isn’t to say The Michael J. Fox Show will be made or broken by what Eve poignantly calls “a stupid disease.” There are plenty of brightly written moments that don’t rely on dark, slightly twisted humor. When Mike accidentally hits the T-Pain feature on a microphone or gets lost in the ball pit at a carnival, it is comedy gold no matter the diagnosis. But that doesn’t stop the self-effacing newsman at one point from playing his hand and asking his wife, “What are you gonna do—leave the beloved newsman with Parkinson’s?” NBC has already ordered 22 episodes, so nobody’s leaving anytime soon.

*This Review First Published 10/4/2013

**Watch The Michael J. Fox Show Thursdays at 8:30 pm on NBC