Early in “The Michael J. Fox Show,” the central character — who is not exactly Michael J. Fox, but close enough — tells his wife of an appearance on the “Today” show: “I’d just be a feel-good story to them.” And therein lies the nagging problem with a series that, given Fox’s heroic struggles against Parkinson’s disease, many people will be rooting for, and would cheer harder if only it were better. Having Fox back on NBC Thursday roughly 30 years later has a certain symmetry, but generating sustained interest in his comeback vehicle will require more than just good will.
The series does have fun with the meta aspects of Fox resisting a sympathy factor in plotting his return to TV — in the show as a local TV newsman in New York, where he has been nursing a longstanding (if apparently one-sided) rivalry with “Today’s” Matt Lauer. (Someone should really declare a moratorium on NBC News talent making sitcom cameos, but at this point, anything to soften up Lauer’s image.)
The conceit is that Mike’s caring wife (“Breaking Bad’s” Betsy Brandt, getting the most out of a pretty stock sitcom-spouse role) and his news-director boss Harris (Wendell Pierce) have conspired to get him back to work and out of the house after the character’s Parkinsons-related sabbatical, since he’s driving the whole family crazy. Of the three kids, the show also seems to devote extra attention to Mike’s eye-rolling teenage daughter Eve (Juliette Goglia), though another teenage smartass is close to the last thing primetime needs.
Not surprisingly, writer Sam Laybourne seeks laughs in Mike’s condition, including an errant 911 call that only gets worse when he explains he mis-dialed because “my drugs haven’t kicked in.” Pierce also has fun portraying Harris as a ladies man, although you sort of wish that didn’t extend to flirting with attractive young interns around work.
Harmless as it is, “The Michael J. Fox Show” remains a pretty thin concoction, built heavily around the appeal of its leading man. The project’s perceived vanity aspects aren’t aided by the fact that Fox’s real-life wife Tracy Pollan has a guest role in the second half of the two-episode premiere as an attractive neighbor who makes Mike extremely uncomfortable.
Since the scheduling eventually places the show after “Sean Saves the World” instead of the more logical 9 p.m. anchor spot, Fox’s vehicle is likely going to have to be a true self-starter — on a night where NBC’s expectations have fallen far and fast from those heady “Must-See TV” days.
The Peacock made a major commitment to bring Fox back into its coop, and if the gamble succeeds, it will indeed be a feel-good story (although in point of fact, the star has been too busy in series like “Rescue Me” and “The Good Wife” for the “comeback” designation to fully apply). It’s only too bad that watching the show doesn’t make you feel a little better, too.
“Guaranteed ratings,” the anything-for-a-viewer Harris announces when Mike reenters the newsroom. But for Mike’s alter ego and real-world NBC, there are, alas, no such sure things.