It’s hard to tell from the first episode of a show — or the first two episodes, in the case of The Michael J. Fox Show, which debuts with back-to-back half-hours tonight — if the rest of the series that follow will be any good. Like most new sitcoms, The Michael J. Fox Show will take a handful of episodes to try to find its groove, but the first two episodes hold a lot of promise and feature enough funny moments to drown out the heavy exposition.
This is Michael J. Fox’s first regular TV role since he left Spin City to spend time with his family following a Parkinson’s diagnosis in 2000, and this is only his third-ever sitcom, following that show and Family Ties, both critically-acclaimed ratings hits. The charm and likability that propelled Fox to success with those other shows is still on display here, and he’s been maintaining his acting chops since leaving Spin City, with recurring roles on The Good Wife, Rescue Me, Scrubs, and more. He slips easily into his new character here — partly because he has years of sitcom experience under his belt and partly because said character is based on him.
NBC certainly believes in The Michael J. Fox Show. The network beat out ABC and CBS in a bidding war for the series last fall, making a commitment to air 22 episodes before a pilot was even produced. This is something that very rarely happens in TV these days. It’s Fox’s stellar sitcom track record and his marquee name that inspired the decision. NBC was so gung-ho on the program that they even agreed to let production take place in New York, where Fox and his real-life, non-TV family reside, making this the only NYC-produced network sitcom currently on the air now that 30 Rock is all done. After years of producing award-winning but little-watched workplace comedies like 30 Rock, Parks and Rec, and their ilk, NBC is making a conscious shift towards family-centric sitcoms this season, with all three of the network’s new comedies (Fox Show, Sean Saves the World, and Welcome to the Family) focusing on subject matter that’s made ABC very successful in recent years.
Loosely based on the star’s life, The Michael J. Fox Show’s pilot picks up with Fox’s character Mike Henry driving his wife and kids crazy by spending too much time around the house after retiring from his job as a NYC newscaster after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Fresh off of playing Marie Schrader on Breaking Bad, Betsy Brandt co-stars as Fox’s wife in perhaps the most drastic tonal shift a performer has ever done while moving from one show to another. Encouraged by his wife and former news director Harris Green (played by The Wire’s Wendell Pierce), Mike Henry makes a return to the anchor chair, directly paralleling Fox’s return to sitcom acting.
Like a lot of TV pilots, Michael J. Fox Show’s first episode spends the majority of its time just getting into its neutral state. Mike Henry spends the bulk of the first 22-minute installment debating whether to return to news before we finally see it happen in the third act, so the pilot isn’t really an example of a typical episode of the show as much as it’s just getting the plot to its resting place where a typical episode can take place. Still, it’s funny throughout and features a supporting cast of strong characters to back up Fox, particularly Brandt and Pierce.
Making a good TV pilot is tough, but making a good sitcom pilot is especially difficult, given that the creators are given half as much time as drama shows to get all their exposition out while making the content funny the whole time. Modern Family was arguably the most recent network comedy to pull off an impressive pilot in 2009, so you can’t really fault Fox Show for being one of the dozens of shows to fall short of that.
Modern Family is also worth mentioning because it seems like what this show is aspiring to be. Fox Show takes Modern Family’s broad, fast-paced treatment of similar subject matter and the show’s talking head/confessional segments. Sure, Modern Family just borrowed those talking head segments from The Office, who borrowed it from the UK Office, who borrowed it from Christopher Guest, who borrowed it from real documentaries; but those moments in the Michael J. Fox Show ’s first couple episodes still feel awfully Modern Family-y. But two things that the series has that Modern Family definitely doesn’t are 1) a big name as its star and 2) a star with a disease that figures largely into the plot, something you don’t really ever see on a network sitcom. Fox’s Parkinson’s is the subject of a lot of good-natured comedy in the pilot (less so in the second episode), and it’s unprecedented seeing a primetime network show exploring a subject like that, let alone having a sense of humor about it.
Two episodes in, The Michael J. Fox Show is still finding its footing, albeit with a lot going for it. The 22 episodes NBC ordered last year will give it plenty of time to grow.