High expectations hurt OK show

Dave Bartlett
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Last week I wrote how I put off watching “The Crazy Ones,” partly due to the hype surrounding Robin Williams’ return to the small screen after almost 30 years. Another reason was that I was already disappointed with the return of Michael J. Fox after more than a decade.

Jack Gore (left) stars as Graham Henry and Michael J. Fox stars as Mike Henry in NBC’s “Michael J. Fox Show.”
— Submitted photo

I’ve always liked Fox from his Alex P. Keaton days on “Family Ties” and his movies from the ’80s such as “Back to the Future” and “Teen Wolf.”

I didn’t own a TV back in the “Spin City” days, but people tell me I really missed a great show, at least when Fox starred as the deputy mayor of New York. In 1998, Fox announced he had Parkinson’s disease, but for two years he continued on with the show until his symptoms became too bad to continue.

Then a year or so ago, NBC announced it was going to air “The Michael J. Fox Show,” about a popular former news anchor with Parkinson’s named Mike Henry, who returns to his job on TV after five years away.

I’m sure much of the show is fictionalized tidbits gleaned from Fox’s own experiences, and some of that works well. In fact, there should be more of it. The show should have been developed as a dramedy rather than a straight-up sitcom, as most of the show’s jokes don’t work.

But first, I really hate when show runners are so lazy they just name them after an established star. It’s been done since the pre-TV days on radio, but for me it puts me on alert for flaws in the show’s creative thinking.

I watched the double episode debut back in October and immediately put the show on hold. I wasn’t sure why I didn’t like it, but I was worried it may be to a touchy subject.

Is Fox’s disease hurting his comedic timing? I asked myself. In comedy, timing is often everything. But I don’t want to be the guy to rip the talented actor for bravely coming back to TV after a long lapse, affliction aside.

After watching another couple of episodes, I realized timing is not the problem at all. The show is just poorly written, too obvious at times and in some cases plainly dishonest.

Recently I read Stephen King’s book “On Writing,” which is a fantastic and inspiring book for people interested in the craft. One of King’s cardinal rules is to write honest — make your characters act how they would act and talk how they would talk.

This is where “The Michael J. Fox Show” fails most. I didn’t realize until afterwards that the sexy neighbour in Episode 2, whom Mike falls for, is Fox’s real wife. It still doesn’t explain why Mike tries so hard to sabotage a potential relationship with the new neighbour and his friend and boss (played by the woefully underused Wendell Pierce) after he and his wife set them up.

On top if that, the Henry family isn’t terribly likeable or amusing, except for Mike’s wife Annie (played by Betsy Brandt of “Breaking Bad”).

As the show opens, Mike is thinking about going back to work, and his family is overjoyed, as he spends way too much time trying to plan family activities for his kids: a college “opt out” son who spends his days “reimagining the search engine,” which can only be found using Google; a teenage daughter who tries to manipulate the people around her and comes across as shallow and lazy; and a young son who seems to break things, make a mess and basically be as mischievous as possible. (OK, the youngest is pretty funny.)

Mike’s sister also lives in the basement of their apartment building and is generally annoying. Overall, there is a sense of entitlement to all of the characters, but Leigh (Katie Finneran) more so than the rest.

I’m used to Pierce (“Treme,” “The Wire”) playing dynamic and well-rounded characters. Here, he is a one-dimensional caricature, which makes me sad.

And Mike’s new segment producer is so star-struck, she can’t stand next to him for 30 seconds without crying. She’s also way too sycophantic to be a producer. These are the people who know how to handle the talent, and still get the job done.

I did guffaw and snort a few times during the episodes I watched, but overall the show was not that funny, nor terribly engaging. And the ratings have been really bad, so I can’t be the only one who has been disappointed.

The rumour is NBC will let the full season go to air, when other shows without a star as renowned as Fox would have been cancelled long ago. Hopefully, we haven’t seen the last of Fox on TV. But unless “The Michael J. Fox Show” gets a better group of writers stat, it can’t last. In fact it may already be too late.

Send correspondence to Dave Bartlett

at talkingtelevision@gmail.com.

Organizations: NBC, Google

Geographic location: New York

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