It’s great to see Betsy Brandt smile. The last time TV viewers saw her, her life was being destroyed by her brother-in-law on Breaking Bad. But in this world, she is happy and carefree, even if she is surrounded by tired sitcom clichés and people who have read 101 Wild Parkinson’s Jokes cover-to-cover and reference it regularly.
The Michael J. Fox Show premiere, which actually consisted of the pilot and the series’ second episode rather than a single, 44-minute narrative, contained several hits and a few excruciating misses. The series opens with an introduction to the Henry family: Mike (Fox); his wife, Annie (Brandt); his sister, Leigh (Katie Finneran); and children Ian (Conor Romero), Eve (Juliette Goglia) and Graham (Jack Gore). These intros are done mostly by talking heads as Eve is making a video about her family for an English project. In these expository moments, we learn that Mike was a beloved news anchor whose disease worsened to the point where he did not feel comfortable continuing to work. Unlike Fox, the onset of Henry’s disease is more recent, which allows for greater plot coherence. Unchanged, however, is Fox’s charm, which he displays amply in repartee with Brandt.
The following day, we are introduced to the final main cast member, Henry’s old news producer Harris (Wendell Pierce), who bumps into Mike on the street and tries to bring him back to work at the news station. Despite some waffling from Henry, Harris is eventually successful. In his return, Henry proves downright McAvoyan as he is at once demanding of and belittling to his female producer and shows superhuman journalistic ability in quickly unearthing a story no other New York news station had discovered. That said, Henry’s self-deprecating nature keeps him likable despite these warts.
In another form of journalism, Eve presents her mini documentary on her family to her English class, after which her teacher, Mr. Diaz, fails her for making no connection to The Grapes of Wrath. This scene reveals one of the early episodes’ greatest flaws in having characters telegraph obvious plot lines through dialogue. In his critique, Mr. Diaz explains Eve’s entire character type: a smart girl who needs to apply herself to become brilliant and successful and wonderful. Mike also falls victim to this writing in the second episode, “Neighbor,” when he explains to Annie that his obsession on their upstairs neighbor was caused by a crisis in self-confidence.
“Neighbor” is also the more uneven of the two episodes. Annie continues to shine brightest, but Harris shifts from a G-rated version of his character Bunk on The Wire to PG, and does so to great laughs. Further, Mike’s sister Leigh gets more screentime to round out her character, who can best be described as a slightly less zany Jenna Maroney. The episode also possesses two supremely uncomfortable concurrent storylines. In the first, Mike discovers that his upstairs neighbor (played by Fox’s real-life wife, Tracy Pollan) is attractive, and he develops a crush on her. To convince Annie that he does not, he sets up a double date with the three of them and Harris, which proceeds as you would expect in any paint-by-numbers sitcom: Harris and the neighbor hit it off, Henry becomes insane with jealousy and tries to vigorously cockblock his old friend. This kind of awkwardness can work if the show presents a compelling reason to watch (e.g. Jim and Pam), but The Michael J. Fox Show has yet to establish any such reason.
In similar fashion, Eve brings home a lesbian school friend Reese, whom she wants to add to her clique to further diversify her collection of lost toys. But mostly, the arc serves as a vehicle to make Melissa Etheridge and Chick-fil-a jokes and show that the series has no intention of trying out new material. The twist, if it can even be called that, is that Reese is not a lesbian at all but just made out with a girl at a party once. Eve’s older brother uses this as yet another telegraphing opportunity and explains to Eve that she only wants unique friends so that she, herself, can feel unique.
In spite of these flaws, there should be a glimmer of hope that the series can fix itself because it has great anchors in Fox, Brandt and Pierce. Unfortunately, though, it simply feels like a sitcom where the showrunners decided to put all their eggs in the Michael J. Fox basket and take the rest verbatim from the couch-and-stairwell playbook.