Videotaped at Chelsea Piers, New York by Ubu Prods./Lottery Hill Entertainment, in association with DreamWorks. Created by Gary David Goldberg and Bill Lawrence; executive producers, Goldberg, Michael J. Fox; supervising producer, Lawrence; director (premiere), Thomas D. Schlamme; producer (premiere) , Linda Nieber; associate producer (premiere), Randall Winston; ABC has a lot riding on Michael J. Fox’s return to both the network and to series TV seven years after the final telecast of “Family Ties.” In button-down conservative Alex Keaton, the young Fox and executive producer Gary David Goldberg tapped into the Reagan-era zeitgeist and struck a ratings motherlode. With “Spin City,” Fox and Goldberg take a similarly cynical, against-the-current tack, and the results are unformed, but hold some comic promise: It’s a decade later, and image-mongering has replaced greed as a key motivating social force. Fox plays Mike Flaherty, a glib New York City deputy mayor whose waking hours are devoted to making sure that no news out of city hall ever reflects poorly on the boss.
In this regard vigilant wily underling constantly saves butt of dull-witted elected official “Spin City” actually harks back to an earlier ABC series, the Robert Guillaume vehicle “Benson.” But the new show aims for a younger and presumably more urbane audience, so the humor cuts sharper, the sex unfolds faster and the political stakes rise considerably higher.
The show opens with sanitation workers on strike and Mike going into overdrive to play down the seriousness of the crisis. Feeding the bumbling press secretary (Richard Kind) anything resembling the truth is an infraction that will cost staffers $ 10 in the kitty. Testing their mettle is an aggressive city hall reporter (Carla Gugino) who also happens to be Mike’s longtime g.f.
Their affair allows for some mild bedroom hijinks; Fox is no Tom Hanks, but he’s a seasoned physical comedian, and Gugino’s game. The first episode wisely seems to sew up the question of whether the couple will officially move in together. (They do; let’s hope they stay put, so the commitment thing doesn’t unbalance the spin thing).
When the mayor (Barry Bostwick, wasted in a one-note role) makes an offhand comment that offends gays (“Great, there go all our free show tickets,” a staffer laments), Mike is revealed in all his essential, Alex Keaton-ish emptiness. First he coerces a hapless aide into pretending he’s homosexual; then he convinces a gay activist (Michael Boatman, in what one hopes will be a regular turn) to join the administration and work from the inside. Uh huh.
Had Goldberg given Fox a foil in the mayor’s character, rather than a fool, “Spin City” might have had a real charge, and maybe that’s still in the cards. While some of the humor scores, too much is of the red-herring variety one-liners that don’t really have anything to do with anything. And anyone even mildly versed in Gotham politics will find “Spin City” low on the believability scale, which is probably a good thing, since you’d need a Robert Altman to find much humor in the real thing.
Still, there are some genuinely funny lines, and few actors project more ease on the small screen than Fox. He still impresses as someone whose ties and trouser legs are always too long, but that’s Mike Flaherty’s saving grace. Whether dissembling to a press secretary or hyperventilating when his girlfriend announces she’s moved in, Mike is perpetually poised one step between adulthood and detention.