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TV Tonight: Michael J. Fox Is Better Than ‘The Michael J. Fox Show’

An extraordinary star returns in a very ordinary sitcom.

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Eric Liebowitz/NBC

The best thing about Michael J. Fox’s return to a starring role on network TV is Michael J. Fox’s return to a starring role on network TV.

I mean that two ways: First, The Michael J. Fox Show proves that Parkinson’s disease has not taken away the precision delivery Fox had for years on Family Ties and Spin City (if you needed it proven after his remarkable guest turn on Rescue Me and his delectably manipulative lawyering on The Good Wife). And second, the ways in which the comedy uses his experience, irreverently but not snarkily, is by far the most remarkable part of the show. The problem with The Michael J. Fox Show is how unremarkable everything else in it is.

The pilot establishes quickly that Parkinson’s will be part of the show and fair game for comedy: Mike Henry (Fox) was a news anchor in New York City until he left his job because of his condition. He’s been a stay-at-home-dad for years, but the family is eager for him to get out of the house, and when his old producer Harris (Wendell Pierce) asks him to get back behind the desk, he accepts. But, he says, “I don’t want a pity job.”

The show has fun with the idea of the network milking Mike’s return–to his chagrin, his affiliate cuts a promo reel to Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero” and contrives to get him spotlighted by Matt Lauer. (“That guy’s aces!” says Harris, a bit of intranetwork logrolling that’s perhaps the funniest line in the pilot.) But to his family Mike is no pity case or human-interest story, just a regular, sometimes exasperating dad and husband. As they sit down to a celebratory breakfast after Mike’s return to the air, he shakily, slowly serves out a spoonful of scrambled eggs. There’s a tense pause, until wife Annie (Betsy Brandt) interrupts: “Can you not have a personal victory right now? We are starving!”

(PHOTOS: The Multitalented Michael J. Fox)

This first episode isn’t hilarious, but it’s very promising. It has an idea and a take. This doesn’t need to be a sitcom all about living with Parkinson’s per se: it’s a sitcom about a man re-changing his life. Is he the same guy after years home with his kids? Does he want to be? Does he still have what it takes at work? Will it be weird? That’s a fertile conflict; those are stakes. It’s something that can fuel story and character and, let’s hope, laughs.

Then, in the next two episodes sent to critics, that idea just–disappears. (Not the Parkinson’s; the episodes involve a lot of prescription-side-effects humor.) Mike’s transition back to TV takes all of two minutes at the end of the pilot. He’s just back at work now. And what’s left is what worked least well in the pilot, a mundane, dated-feeling family comedy that feels like it’s missing its laugh track. (And it’s supplemented by a quickly aging modern device: the talk-to-the-camera confessional.) The remaining show has no focus. Why is it telling this story, about this family, at this point in their lives? It doesn’t know itself or its purpose beyond, “Michael J. Fox, in a family sitcom, on TV.”

Even that might be fine, given the strong cast assembled here, if the writing were up to the on-screen talent. Breaking Bad’s Brandt makes the switch from drama easily (though in a generic understanding-wife role), Pierce is dandy as a comedy version of his Bunk Moreland from The Wire, and Fox is Fox: as he’s shown in his recent career, he has range and dexterity enough to make Mike simultaneously likeable and kind of a self-centered pain. (The latter he’s done for a few years on The Good Wife, which in a bit part managed to define his character more specifically than this show does with him as the star.)

The three episodes NBC screened, especially the two past the pilot, aren’t bad, really; they’re studiously un-bad to the point of blandness. The supporting characters are thin types–a college-dropout older son, eye-rolling daughter, cute younger kid. And Katie Finneran’s irritating-sister is awful, essentially a 2013 version of the Wacky Neighbor, whose character definition amounts to: 1) aging, 2) needy, 3) insecure, and 4) boobs! The show as currently conceived is a situation comedy in the most disappointing sense: situations occur not so much to advance any character but because hijinx will ensue. (Daughter Eve brings a lesbian friend home; Leigh tries to write a young-adult novel; Mike gets a crush on a sexy neighbor, played by real-life wife Tracy Pollan.) Even as generic comedy, they don’t pay off.

The reason to hope here is Fox himself, and the fact that, having given The Michael J. Fox Show a full-season order, NBC should be patient enough to give the comedy time to find itself. If the pilot is making the meta-case that Michael J. Fox the actor is a professional whom no one should patronize, it’s right on. The first step is to say that Michael J. Fox the show needs to get better.

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