Friday, October 4, 2013

The Michael J. Fox Show

The Michael J. Fox Show
Episode 1: Pilot
Episode 2: Neighbor
By: Carlos Uribe

The Michael J. Fox Show is a series about a news anchor with Parkinson’s disease that goes back to work. It is partially based on Michael J. Fox's real life. I will be covering this show weekly.

Spoilers Ahoy!

The Michael J. Fox Show has a slightly interesting history. Michael J. Fox is a popular television star who became a household name due to his role as young Republican Alex P. Keaton in Family Ties. He became a film star with the classic Back to the Future trilogy and Casualties of War. He would later star in Spin City until he was forced to semi-retire from acting due to his health. He was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and the symptoms got too severe for him to continue to work on a daily basis. He's managed to make a come-back by having all of his characters written with Parkinson's in mind. The peacock network is in desperate need of a comedy hit. The Office is now gone and it's largely cleaned it's comedy slate. The only series to survive, Parks and Recreation, has always been a critical darling but it's never been able to attract a large audience. It makes sense that the network would look at one of their former stars and hope that he still has a large enough following to launch a new comedy. He was interested in starring in a comedy again so they ordered the project straight to series with a twenty-two episode order. This risky move meant bypassing the pilot season which means the network had very limited quality control. If the pilot was a disaster, the network couldn't forever hold it back. They would have a very limited time to retool it. The episode order is an even bigger risk. Twenty-two episodes is a large order. If the series fails to attract an audience, the network is on the hook for the whole season unless it goes back on it's word. NBC sees The Michael J. Fox Show as the potential messiah but these first two episodes should serve as yet another warning of why skipping the pilot season is rarely worth it.

It doesn't matter how many times I say it: a series can often take time to find it's legs. It doesn't matter because audiences have a very limited patience when it comes to growing pains. They might be willing to stick around if they like what's already there but they will abandon ship if any promise they see isn't fulfilled quickly. That's what makes the pilot so essential to the future of the series: it determines how strong the early episodes are going to be. The Michael J Fox Show has a lot of promise but the pilot is so rough that I'll doubt a lot of people will be sticking around. The primary problem is that this one-hour premiere wasn't very funny. There were occasional chuckles here and there but it never came close to actually making me laugh. The pilot had the issue that there was only one writer coming up with the jokes but it's concerning when a writing team actually churned out a second episode that was worse. Second episodes are tough but they shouldn't be uninspired. After all, the second episode is the second pilot. It rehashes the premise, makes sure everybody knows who everybody is, and hammers home their relationships to each other. What's more is that because it's not an origin story, it can provide a sketch of how the show is going to look like on a weekly basis. The pilot for The Michael J. Fox Show was a very busy origin story that it never really has a lot of fun. It sets up the premise, characters, and relationships but it's never really that funny. The second episode is worse because it uses those characters to depict a largely typical sit-com plot. Okay, some elements have been modernized but it's mostly been-there-done-that. It's more like the writers are doing this because it's their job rather than because their actually having fun with these characters and relationships. The cast is game enough but when the writing feels more obligated then art, it's hard to really jump on board. Structurally the series has some flaws: the workplace and domestic need to be better balanced out. The series can work that out over time but it needs to solve the “I'm having fun” watching this factor. I should be having fun rather than experiencing a chore.

The Michael J. Fox is in many ways a typical show so it's no surprise that most of the characters are stereotypes at this point. The main character is Michael Henry. It's no surprise that Michael J. Fox is able to play a character based on himself very the same time, it's disappointing to see how thinly written his fictional version is written. There is more to Michael J. Fox than Parkinson's Disease but often that seems to be all that there is to Michael Henry. His major conflict in the second episode arises from his happy surprise that a stranger found him attractive despite his disease. If the series wants to mime Parkinson's Disease for humor, all the power to it. It just shouldn't allow it to overwhelm Michael Henry to the point where that's all he is. It makes sense in the first episode to concentrate on it because that's an important part of who he is. It also explains why he has to go back to work and why he left. At the same time, couldn't we have gotten a little more? I mean, we get he's a loving husband and father but they don't really make up a personality. The major challenge for future episodes due to this over-reliance on Parkinson's Disease is going to develop him out so he's an actual person. If the series doesn't, it might find itself with a reputation where every other joke is about Fox having the disease. That's not really a reputation that the show should be going for nor do I think that it is.

The rest of the characters are stereotypes as well. Mike is married to Annie. I have a feeling Betsy Brandt accepted this role because it'll be a cake-walk after Breaking Bad. Her character type is basically the snarky wife. She's supportive of her husband up to a point. She loves him and her kids but she won't take any bull. It's an okay character who slightly subverts the typical housewife but at the same time affirms it. The daughter, Eve, is really into being progressive and artistic. The son, Ian, is into girls. He also flunked out of college. Graham is basically the cute kid who does cute stuff. Leigh is Mike's sister who is very demanding and egocentric. That's the family. Mike also has two co-workers. Harris is his boss. I love Wendell Pierce so I'm hoping the series is able to work him in more but he's largely being presented as a womanizer. The final character is Kay, the segment producer that has an obsessive crush over Mike. Overall, they all need to be fleshed out over the coming weeks. The good news is that it does have a cast that would be able to easily work with improved writing. At the moment, they're being wasted.

The Michael J. Fox Show is one that the peacock network has laid a lot of their hopes on. They made a huge commitment by skipping the pilot season with a straight-to-series twenty-two episodes. A leap in confidence that might have been misguided. The weak one-hour premiere wasn't funny. It was actually kind of a chore to get through it all. There are some structural problems but the series but the writers should hold off solving those for later. They need to make this show fun first. Mike Henry would be a solid underdog protagonist if he wasn't almost completely defined by Parkinson's Disease. The rest of the characters are largely stereotypes that could easily have come from any typical sit-com. Laying their hopes on Michael J. Fox was the smart move to make. Allowing him to land in a piece of junk? That's just bad business...and tragic.

Here's hoping it gets better.

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