THE MICHAEL J. FOX SHOW: Thursday 9:30PM on NBC (airing tonight at 9PM) – If Nothing Else Is On…
Behind its feel-good star and tone, THE MICHAEL J. FOX SHOW is–even more than most TV shows–as much a business proposition as it is a piece of entertainment, so let’s start with that. In a normal network development deal, if a network likes the idea for a pilot script, it pays the writer’s fee–and perhaps, for a high-profile writer or if another big-name piece of talent is attached, also agrees to pay a penalty (sometimes as much as $1M or so) if the pilot isn’t produced. If the pilot is made and the network likes it, typically it orders 12 additional episodes (sometimes as few as 6), with the option of ordering more. When Michael J. Fox, writer Sam Laybourne (a mid-level writer/producer on Cougar Town) and writer/director Will Gluck (of Easy A) came in to NBC, they walked out with an on-the-air commitment for a full season of 22 episodes. The costs of single-camera comedies being what they are, especially when people like Fox and Gluck are involved, that has to mean an almost unprecedented up-front investment of at least $22M by NBC, and probably more–and even that doesn’t count the major marketing spend on outside media (meaning media that NBC actually has to pay for out of its pocket).
All of which is a long way of saying that for all that, you’d expect to get something more substantial than The Michael J. Fox Show. It’s not awful; in fact, it’s a thoroughly professional, smoothly-produced piece of work. But there’s almost nothing memorable about it, except of course for the obvious: Michael J. Fox has Parkinson’s Disease, and so does Mike Henry, the character he plays on the show. That subject is front and center in the pilot, enough so that you wonder what the series is going to do once gags about Mike accidentally dialing 911 when he means to dial the area code 917, and spilling scrambled eggs when he’s trying to serve his family, and sliding off-camera (he plays a TV reporter) on his chair, and autograph-hunters confusing Parkinson’s with Alzheimer’s, are exhausted. The show keeps insisting that Mike be treated like any other guy and not defined as a hero by his disease–but then a few seconds go by, and it reminds us again about his Parkinson’s.
Beyond Fox’s physical condition, this is situation comedy as standard as its title. When we meet Mike, he’s been retired from TV news for enough time to drive his family crazy, that family being loving, supportive wife Annie (Betsy Brandt, in a much lighter tone than Breaking Bad); older son Ian (Conor Romero), who dropped out of college and is living back at home and developing an internet search engine; daughter Eve (Juliette Goglia), who to her horror attends the high school where Annie teaches English; younger son Graham (Jack Gore), who’s just plain cute; and Mike’s sister Leigh (Broadway’s Katie Finneran), who serves the necessary functions of a TV aunt by being generally blowsy and living in the same apartment building as the rest of the family. With nothing else to do, Mike is becoming a control freak at home, and before the pilot is over, news director/best friend Harris (the wonderful Wendell Pierce) has talked him into coming back to work, where he’s instantly given the kind of gee-whiz assistant who gets car sick and throws up on their first assignment together. The big climax of the episode is an extensive plug for The Today Show (which admittedly needs the help these days), complete with cameos by Matt Lauer and company.
The pilot has such familiar tropes as Mike despairing that the family never sits down to eat meals at the same time (see if you can guess how the pilot ends), and Leigh explaining that she lets passers-by see her unclothed through the window of her basement apartment because “one of them might be a doctor,” all of which makes it hard to have a lot of hope that anything special is going to happen here. (I’m already dreading the episode where Mike starts obsessing over whatever guy Eve starts dating.) Fox, of course, is one of the most likable guys on TV, but he’s been far more interesting in recent years playing against that in his arcs on Rescue Me and The Good Wife. Pierce, Finneran and Brandt are all tremendously talented actors who are playing cardboard people here.
The most surprising move on NBC’s fall schedule may have been its decision to put The Michael J. Fox Show in the relatively hidden Thursday 9:30PM position, behind the Sean Hayes comedy Sean Saves the World. Maybe the Hayes show is phenomenal, and NBC thinks this combination can make for a powerhouse hour. But on its face, this is a very odd slot for a show that the network presumably believes in enthusiastically and a star it’s paid through the nose to get (and suggests that, just maybe, they have their own doubts). The Fox show may certainly improve with time, and perhaps it’s gotten the bulk of its Parkinson’s jokes out of its system and has great ideas for what’s to follow. If that’s the case, though, it’s not evident yet.