When casting was completed for The Michael J. Fox show, the odds were not in Katie Finneran’s favor. After all, she had to compete for screentime with the series’ iconic star, a beloved actor from one of the two greatest dramas of all time in Wendell Pierce and an actress whose previous show was still crushing the airwaves when this one premiered. Finneran isn’t a total unknown—she was in You’ve Got Mail (credited after someone whose most memorable screen performance involved being chased by a naked, chainsaw-wielding Christian Bale) and 13 episodes of something called I Hate My Teenage Daughter—but if you didn’t know who she was before this series, it would be entirely understandable. Despite these obstacles, Finneran has turned Aunt Leigh into the only consistently enjoyable character on the series week-in and week-out.
By any measure, “Golf” is not a good 22 minutes of television. The intentional jokes are half-finished, the unrealized jokes are bountiful, and the main premise gets sweaty in a hurry. But through it all, Leigh manages to keep the episode afloat with her PG darkness. In “Golf,” Mike and Annie go to a resort for the twin purposes of enjoying some time away from the kids and partaking in a charity celebrity golf tournament. All goes according to plan until the last oceanview suite is taken by a legally blind jazz musician named Chaz who, in the ultimate stale sitcom non-twist, ends up being Mike’s golf partner. The musician is not just blind but also an asshole, which seems like a premise that Louie or Seinfeld would handle really well, but The Michael J. Fox Show is simply not up to the challenge. What starts out as Mike’s first watchable moment of extreme awkwardness—he calls him out for being a jerk and not using common courtesy—is stretched thin over the duration of the episode to the point where it devolves into more tedious public humiliation for all parties involved. After Mike, Annie and Chaz have each confused and distracted both their banquet and TV audiences, Annie pulls a Nucky and flings a lobster at Chaz as she and Mike storm out. The Blind Asshole joke fails because it’s handled as any mediocre sitcom would: by writing in awkward situations that the scenario allows and not giving its adult characters any depth. Were this Louie or Seinfeld, the humor would have arisen from the characters’ self-reflection on the situation. Mike and Annie simply go in guns blazing, and it fails spectacularly.
On the other hand, Leigh handles her minor story arc in a much more amusing way because she does internalize and reflect on the plot events. In a nutshell, Leigh is stood up by three separate men at once and has to babysit Graham. What unfolds is a date between an aunt and her eight-year-old nephew wherein he treats her as any other date. He’s surly and distracted by his PSP (Aside: In a previous episode he had a 3DS. If Mike and Annie want him to play fewer video games, perhaps one handheld might be advisable). Leigh realizes that he’s treating her as adult men do, which is a bit of a cliché, but her response when he calls the next day—to invite her to a movie, no less—compensates for any tiredness inherent in the joke. Leigh’s subtle self-awareness, as opposed to Mike’s obviousness and Annie’s obliviousness, strikes a perfect balance and frequently makes her the only watchable character on the series.
“Golf” harkened back to the early weeks of the series when the show was borderline unwatchable and certainly not worth viewers’ time. At the very least, this episode provides a few Huluable clips (and a reference to Back to the Future II). But right now the best you can say for The Michael J. Fox Show is that at least it isn’t Sean Saves the World.