Saturday, September 28, 2013
Pilot Review: The Michael J. Fox Show
Much has been made in the media about this past Thursday's Robin Williams vs. Michael J. Fox showdown. It was for one night only, since The Michael J. Fox Show will claim its 9:30 timeslot beginning next Thursday, and Robin Williams came out handily on top with the biggest debut so far this season, but the real question shouldn't be which beloved TV star will draw in more viewers in his network return. The real question is, whose show is better? It's not a simple answer, because both shows are pretty weak.
The Michael J. Fox Show is an overcrowded family/workplace sitcom about New York's once-favorite newscaster, Mike Henry (Fox). Five years ago, Henry retired from live television and journalism when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. In that time, he's become Mr. Mom to his three kids: college dropout Ian (Conor Romero), bratty teenager Eve (Juliette Goglia), and eight-year-old Graham (Jack Gore). Meanwhile, his wife Annie (Betsy Brandt, Breaking Bad) has been bringing home the bacon. But with the kids growing up and no longer needing constant supervision, plus having to deal with the constant problems of his sister Leigh (Katie Finneran, I Hate My Teenage Daughter), Mike is ready to get out of the house and back to work. His former boss Harris (Wendell Pierce, The Wire) is happy for the potential ratings surge Mike's return will provide, so without much thought, New York's favorite news anchor is back in action.
As you could probably tell from just that description and from the myriad of advertisements NBC has run, The Michael J. Fox Show is supposed to be heartwarming and touching, like the family-oriented sitcoms of the 1980s and 1990s that made Fox and so many other beloved TV stars famous. It almost succeeds on that level, because the chemistry and repartee between Fox and Brandt is wonderful. Their scenes together are gently funny and loving. But when the rest of the family is introduced, the show starts to feel bloated. None of the children are all that funny, as characters or as actors, and Finneran is nothing short of obnoxious as Leigh. Whenever she's on screen, it's like a totally different series is being filmed. Despite how whiny and annoying the kids can be, at least I understand their presence: Mike wants to return to the family values of yesteryear that have long been forgotten, like eating meals together and going on weekend trips to pick apples. That's pretty much a summary of what The Michael J. Fox Show should want to accomplish as well, but it fails to do so. Rather than being that updated version of Full House or Family Ties that it could be, it becomes a jumbled mess of genres when the other characters are introduced. Finneran's character is too brash and inappropriate for the family dynamic, and she's honestly unnecessary as well. She's the type of character that would make for a scene-stealing recurring role, but when she's always around... it's not only unfunny but also unwelcome. Then there's the whole second storyline of Mike returning to work, so we get even more characters that don't need to be around all the time and that don't fit with the familial tone of the show. There's a reason we rarely saw Danny Tanner go to work. It just further bloats an already crowded show with more stories and more characters. It's like creators Will Gluck (who directed the pilot) & Sam Laybourne (who wrote it) couldn't decide whether to make a family sitcom or a workplace sitcom, so they came up with a concept that straddles both worlds. But neither is totally successful, so The Michael J. Fox Show is just kind of... there.
All of this could be forgiven, of course, if the show were funny. But it's not really. Gluck & Laybourne miss a lot of opportunities for comedy. The trailers are actually funnier than the show, because they get the comedy the show misses. For example, when one character describes Mike as wearing hats like they just fell off a shelf and he left it askew just the way it fell, we should see a shot of Mike wearing his hat like that. And we do, but it's not for another ten minutes when the joke has already been forgotten. This happens throughout the pilot, at several points. The jokes aren't funny until we see them enacted, but by the time we see them enacted, we've forgotten someone told the joke.
On the whole, The Michael J. Fox Show is more likeable than it is funny, but even the boundaries of likeability are pushed by how many jokes are made in the first episode about Mike's disease. It's great to acknowledge his Parkinson's, because it really does change everyone's dynamic and the audience's view of Fox (he is in such an advanced stage of Parkinson's at this point that his body is almost constantly in tremors), but literally the entirety of the pilot is based around Parkinson's jokes. Some of them are charming, mostly when they involve Mike and Annie, but some are just straight-up awkward (like Eve's video about how her dad is her hero) or preachy (like Eve's second video about how her dad is her hero). And I'm sorry if this makes me a bad person, but it's just uncomfortable sometimes to watch Fox; it's depressing, actually. He's still got great comedic timing, but it's now sometimes accented by a twitch or tremble or stutter, and that's just a really sad thing to watch. We see Fox's deterioration in front of us. And yes, I know, it's very empowering and uplifting to see that he's not letting his disease control him and stop him from doing what he loves, but it's so sad to see that Fox has been reduced to making fun of his disease to mine laughs from an audience. He's typically better than that, but The Michael J. Fox Show isn't.