September 27, 2013

TV: The Michael J. Fox Show (Thu 9:30, NBC)

Michael J. Fox plays a character much like himself in his return to a starring TV role. Mike Henry used to be the popular news anchor in New York, until he retired because of his Parkinson's disease. The good thing, he told himself, was that he'd get to spend more time with his wife (Betsy Brandt) and kids. But now that even the youngest kid is old enough now to have things of his own to do, everyone's getting a little sick of having him underfoot. So his wife and former boss (Wendell Pierce) maneuver him into returning to work.

The pilot episode spends a lot of time getting the audience comfortable with Fox/Henry's medical condition, and with the idea that it's OK to laugh about it; the second episode backs off on that, and returns to more traditional sitcom territory (Mike lies about having a crush on the pretty upstairs neighbor).

The problem is that Parkinson's is the only thing that's remotely distinctive or unusual about the show, which leaves Fox in a difficult bind. Emphasize his illness too much, and you risk being perceived as exploiting it; de-emphasize it, and there's nothing else interesting going on.

Fox is just as likable as ever, and his comic timing remains sharp. He and Brandt do a fine job of showing how their marriage has been impacted by Mike's Parkinson's without obsessing about it. And Wendell Pierce gives the show's best performance, stealing every scene he's in with droll understatement.

But the writing's flat; the kids are standard-issue TV bland; and Katie Finneran is wasted as Mike's bitter "how can I still be single at my age" sister. Replace Fox with any other leading man, and this show barely gets noticed, if it even makes it to air at all.

It is a gift to us all that Fox's illness is manageable enough that he is able to work, because he's a fine actor, and in various roles over the last few years, he's used his talent to great effect to demystify Parkinson's and its effects. But it would be patronizing to praise this show for those reasons, when it really isn't very good. It's not horrifically bad, to be sure; it's just relentlessly mediocre, and Fox is capable of better than this.

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