Maybe I underestimate NBC or maybe I've just been trained by other shows that feature an actor's name in the title, but I fully went into The Michael J. Fox Show pilot expecting it to be a star vehicle for his comeback and that alone. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to find that while Fox himself is certainly in the center of the action, the heart of the show really beats fully because of everyone that surrounds him. While Fox spends most of his time in the pilot being self-deprecating and letting the audience know it's okay to laugh when his character mis-dials 911 or takes forever to spoon out dinner because his hands are shaking from Parkinson's, the talented supporting cast that makes up his family rounds out the other kinds of humor-- from snark to sass to teenage manipulation. The Michael J. Fox Show is a well-rounded family comedy that may cause big, out-loud belly laughs. No need to consult your own physician.
The Michael J. Fox Show pilot is pretty tongue-in-cheek. While Fox is not playing himself, an actor making a return to network television, he is certainly playing a closely aligned version of himself-- a news anchor contemplating a return to network television. The pilot sees Fox's family-- from wife Betsy Brandt to daughter Juliette Goglia-- angling to get him out of the house and back to work, something pulled from Fox' own personal experience. And then there's the element of recognition. Whether he's walking down the New York City street or talking to police officers and deliverymen who show up in his own apartment, Fox is recognized within the show. Just as there are millions of eyes on Fox, making an example of him, so are there on his character within this show. It's very meta, but both rise to the occasion beautifully.
Admittedly the first few minutes of the pilot are an adjustment. We are so trained as a society not to laugh at others' discomfort or disability or disease that the amount of times Parkinson's was a punchline to get viewers comfortable with it was actually a little uncomfortable at first. The use of the disease feels heavy-handed in the pilot, which is not indicative of the overall tone of the series to follow. But even with that initial heaviness, the show still manage to let its audience to settle in and not forget about Mike's particular quirk but certainly begin to laugh with it. This is because the show breaks the fourth wall by having some characters talk directly to the camera since Goglia's character is working on a documentary project for school. This stylistic device could feel like a Modern Family copy-- but instead actually works on another, real level that tears down any divide and allows the audience to be one of the family, too, experiencing everything they do and therefore knowing Mike well enough to laugh without feeling like it's exploiting him-- even when Goglia's character actually is exploiting him.
As the pilot episode goes on, Parkinson's-as-punchlines don't completely disappear; this is a major part of the character, as strong a relationship as any of the others introduced here. But they do dissipate, indicating that once you get used to it, you can turn your attention to other important things-- such as the dynamic between Fox and wife Brandt, or Fox and sister (Katie Finneran), or even Fox and boss (Wendell Pierce) all of which are equally appealing in their own rights. In all honesty, since the pilot relies so heavily on the Parkinson's part of Mike's character, it does feel like the show is defining him by it. We see some of his limitations, but we also see where he is determined to be a regular guy even with it. So much attention is called to it, that it takes over, so the show probably would have had a stronger start if it had just had it be one element of who Mike is, seeing it manifest in the background of the story, rather than as the story. But by no means should you skip the pilot and only start with episode two where things do feel a little more fluid. The pilot allows additional characters around Mike to shine in ways that we may not see again for a few episodes, as they rotate stories around the ensemble.
I can't tell you how nice it is to see Brandt in something lighthearted for a change, and I eagerly await watching her deal with her opportunistic daughter (Goglia). Personally I am much more interested in those at-home family dynamics than I am at seeing Mike back in the workplace for long hours, and I was pleased with the balance of the two in the pilot episode. I was even more pleased with the parallels the show managed to make between the two: Mike was worried about the state of the news he was going back to with its puff pieces, all the while his own daughter was creating one of the greatest puff pieces for her aforementioned school assignment. It is in the overlap-- whether physical, with family visiting him at work or colleagues coming into his home, or in theme-- that proves The Michael J. Fox Show knows what it's doing right out of the gate. A good thing, too, considering it was picked up with a full order before the pilot had even been shot. All that means is that they've been arcing out stories and shooting more episodes for awhile now, and I want to see them already!
The Michael J. Fox Show premieres on NBC on September 26 2013 at 9 p.m.
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