Michael J. Fox returns to television Thursday night* on NBC’s The Michael J. Fox Show playing a character, Mike Henry, very similar to Michael J. Fox, who works for a network, NBC, very similar to NBC. Henry is a beloved television personality, a former news anchor at NBC’s New York affiliate, who retired five years ago after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. As the show begins, he’s a stay-at-home dad micro-managing the lives of his wife (Betsy Brandt, who also plays Marie on Breaking Bad —it is spiritually restorative to see her in happier circumstances), his sister, and his three children when NBC tries to woo him back to the job. “We need you,” his former colleague Harris (The Wire’s Wendell Pierce, sly as ever) tells him. “No one’s watching the news anymore. We got beat by a show called Color Splash last night. That’s literally watching paint dry.” Long beleaguered, NBC’s primetime series have not yet been toppled by a show about paint drying, but zombies, vampires, duck warblers, medical investigators, and pretty much every other member of television’s vast menagerie have beaten NBC in the ratings. Last winter it came in fifth during sweeps, behind not just CBS, ABC and Fox, but also Univision.* The NBC of The Michael J. Fox Show may need Mike “guaranteed ratings” Henry, but not nearly as badly as the real NBC needs Michael J. Fox.
NBC has been struggling since Friends ended nearly a decade ago. In that time it has been home to a number of best-ever sitcoms, like 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, and Community, that are all essentially niche products: Three times more people watch Duck Dynasty than Parks. NBC’s previous attempts to draw a bigger audience have failed. A sitcom starring Dane Cook was pulled before it ever reached the air, and its multicamera sitcoms Whitney and Guys With Kids should have been. The other new comedy on its fall schedule, Sean Saves the World, starring Will & Grace’s Sean Hayes, is a dud. In the context of all this flailing, The Michael J. Fox Show is a kind of victory: a show with broad appeal led by a still sparkly and high-strung Fox that is pretty good, a shade too predictable and manipulative to be excellent, but neither excruciating nor embarrassing. It seems like a hit.
Like ABC’s Modern Family, The Michael J. Fox Show has cribbed enough, tonally and stylistically, from more adventurous sitcoms to look and feel up to date, freeing it up to revisit standard sitcom tropes with aplomb. Fox is a single-camera comedy without a laugh track. It has a “mockumentary” element, the ultimate “quality sitcom” cliché. It is, as all the ratings jokes suggest, reflexively meta and knowing. In the pilot, Mike complains, “I know if I come back NBC’s gonna milk it by showing me in slow-mo with lame uplifting music in the background.” When exactly such a video plays later, the song used is Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero” and the joke is insulated just enough from its own cheesiness to elicit laughs. And the show is edgy enough not to treat Fox’s Parkinson’s like a sacred cow, an elephant in the room, or any other sort of special animal. The pilot ends with Mike tremblingly holding up a plate of food before his wife Annie grabs it and says, “Can you not make this a personal triumph, we’re starving.”
Plot-wise, however, Fox is old-school. In the second episode, Mike develops a crush on his upstairs neighbor (played by Fox’s real life wife Tracy Pollan). When Annie asks him about it, instead of copping to the attraction, he insists that it doesn’t exist. Annie gets mad, not because he’s attracted to another woman, but because he’s lying about it, a storyline that my colleague Dana Stevens correctly ID’d as having previously appeared in “The Every Sitcom Ever Show.” Also from Every Sitcom Ever, the scene in which Annie and Mike’s attempts to have sex are interrupted by every single one of their children, until Annie falls instantaneously to sleep.
This combination of familiar plots, knowing wit, and contemporary aesthetic makes for extremely effective, if not at all original, television. Fox is an old-fashioned show, powered along by simple stories, a loving family, and the still-palpable charm of Alex P. Keaton, but it looks great, moves along at a clip, has a welcome self-awareness and a surprisingly prickly sense of humor. If Fox is up for Emmys against shows like Parks or Louie or Veep, I’ll be screeching my head off about how it’s not in their league. In the meantime, I would so much rather watch this version of The Michael J. Fox Show, the one cribbing tonal and visual clichés from Parks and The Office via Modern Family, than the one with terrible lighting, huge pauses between jokes, and absolutely no shame about getting as corny as possible. Ketchup is ketchup wherever it comes from, but that doesn’t mean the squeeze bottle wasn’t a good invention. The Michael J. Fox Show serves up an undiminished Michael J. Fox in a trendy package: It’s not great, but for NBC, it might be just right.
Correction, Sept. 25, 2013: The article initially gave the incorrect air date for the show. (Return to the corrected sentence.) It also misstated that NBC had finished behind CBS, ABC, Fox and Telemundo during sweeps. NBC finished behind CBS, ABC, Fox and Univision. (Return to the corrected sentence.)