‘The Michael J. Fox Show,’ easy to like
In this NBC sitcom, a beloved actor essentially plays himself
September 17, 2013
Sitcoms starring name actors — especially those starring name actors whose careers aren’t currently peaking — often contain inside jokes that refer to the actor’s biography: Think of all the substance-abuse jokes aimed at Charlie Sheen’s character on “Two and a Half Men.” But it’s rare when an entire comedy is built around biography.
NBC’s new fall sitcom “The Michael J. Fox Show” not only bases its premise closely on the star’s real life but even predicts our critical response. Its main character, Michael Henry (Fox), like Fox himself, put his career on hold for some years because of Parkinson’s disease but says that as a bonus he has been able to spend more time with his family.
The character says that he can get a standing ovation just by showing up. Since Fox has earned so much goodwill from his convincing portrayals of nice guys on TV and in movies and from his apparent strength and bravery in the face of Parkinson’s, the same goes for him. It’s impossible not to root for him to succeed in this new project.
Viewed objectively, the show is an effective vehicle that finds the humor in Fox’s current situation without appealing too hard to our sympathy. Fox hasn’t lost his gifts as a sitcom actor, and the other players step up to his level. Though the show doesn’t warrant a standing ovation, it deserves warm applause.
The premiere episode, airing on Thursday, Sept. 26, at 9 p.m., uses a familiar device: The main characters talk to the camera between scenes. It turns out that Michael’s teenage daughter, Eve (Juliette Goglia), is making a video about her family for a school project about “The Grapes of Wrath.”
“My dad’s condition is the dust bowl of my family,” she says. “And we are the grapes. Wait. Are we the grapes or the wrath?”
In subsequent episodes, the characters keep talking to a camera, but we don’t know who is holding it or why.
Michael, a beloved former New York City news anchor, is now an over-involved stay-at-home dad. Since his wife, Annie (Betsy Brandt), is working as a teacher and his kids are getting older, he is increasingly frustrated at the family’s lack of togetherness. He tries to get them to go to the park for a leaf fight or at least sit down at the same table for dinner.
The older son, Ian (Conor Romero), has moved back home after leaving college; he says he’s developing a new search engine. The younger son, Graham (Jack Gore), is sometimes left in the care of Michael’s sister, Leigh (Katie Finneran), an unfocused thirtysomething who lives in the same apartment building.
Michael runs into his old boss, Harris (Wendell Pierce), who tries to persuade him to come back to work. Michael reminds him of the “rolling-chair thing,” and we see video of him at the news desk gliding uncontrollably out of the camera frame.
Michael’s condition is addressed squarely. On the plus side, he does get a standing ovation from his colleagues when he visits the studio. On the negative side, he has a hard time passing the eggs at breakfast but soldiers on.
“Could you not have a personal victory right now?” says Annie, grabbing the platter. “We are starving.”
The second episode, airing right after the premiere, puts Parkinson’s in the background. Michael is excited when an attractive neighbor, Kelly (played by Fox’s real-life wife, Tracy Pollan), seems to be flirting with him, but then he becomes jealous when Annie sets Kelly up with Harris.
Meanwhile, Eve tries to make sure the family can deal with her new lesbian friend; Ian decides he needs to hire an intern; and Leigh enjoys the attention she gets when she pretends that she’s the single mother of Graham.
A third episode provided for review, which has not yet been scheduled, introduces an office foil, Susan (Anne Heche, who will reportedly appear in a series of episodes).
The scattershot nature of these plotlines suggests that the show is still a work in progress and that the creators aren’t sure what it’s going to be about. But Fox shines whether or not he is the focus of the story. He’s the kind of actor who makes other actors better.
Although “The Michael J. Fox Show” isn’t about the character’s personal victories, we can still appreciate that it is a victory for Fox. But even if the shine wears off, the show should still be worth watching.
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