We know the story by now: Michael J. Fox was given a devastating diagnosis of Parkinson’s in 1991. He left his show “Spin City” in 2000 once the effects of the disease became too much. In his semi-retirement, he wrote books, raised a family and worked on advocacy for the disease. After about a decade, he cautiously dipped his toe back in TV, with roles on “The Good Wife” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” among others. And now, 13 years later, he is finally diving back into the sitcom world with the new NBC show “The Michael J. Fox Show.”
Is it a triumphant return for the actor? Most signs point to yes. But maybe not for very long.
On “The Michael J. Fox Show,” Fox portrays Mike Henry, a well-known TV news anchor with Parkinson’s who returns to work after a five-year hiatus. The show, which presents itself as a mix between the feel good family dramedy of “Parenthood” with a heavy dash of the sharp wit of “Parks and Recreation” but baked up in a “Big Bang Theory” mainstream sitcom sugar cake, touches on the hero worship that has attached itself to Fox since he revealed his diagnosis —Mike Henry can hardly go out in public without receiving a standing ovation or someone telling him how brave he is. Parkinson’s is a huge theme of the show; the disease is mentioned in some variation in every scene of the pilot, but Fox’s visable afflictions from it don’t loom as large. The actor can sometime seem like an engine without the right oil; his motions are halting and sometimes unpredictable, but not wild or distracting. Yet the disease is definitelythe show’s naughty co-star, for better or worse. You can practically envision one of Fox’s co-stars throwing their hand on their hip, cocking their head and going “Oh, Parkinson’s!” when Henry drops the remote yet again.
The basic premise of the sitcom is watching Henry navigate his family life (he decided to be a stay-at-home dad after the diagnosis, much to the chagrin of his wife — “Breaking Bad”’s Betsy Brandt — and their three children) as well as his return to the newsroom while battling Parkinson’s. The grim, little tragedies of the disease — Henry can’t dial the phone without accidentally calling the cops, he can’t navigate a serving spoon without spilling — are handled in the “awww-shucks” manner familiar to sitcoms. “Can you not have a personal victory right now, we are starving,” his wife “jokes” as he tries, and fails, to dish out his family’s supper. It would make you cry if you couldn’t almost hear the laugh-track in the background.
The writing is witty, the acting is good (anything that features Wendell Pierce of “Wire” fame is OK with me) and it looks good on the screen. But it is not high art. It’s not must-see TV (you won’t be sitting around the water cooler, chatting about what happened on last night’s episode). It is a prettily produced family sitcom featuring one of our most beloved actors of the 20th Century. They call it “The Michael J. Fox Show” for a reason. And, in the end, NBC and Michael J. Fox should be commended for this heroic shot. After all, spending an hour with Fox is like spending an hour with an old friend.
But I just don’t know how long will people tune in after the homecoming ends.