Both in real life and on television, meeting someone’s parents can help explain many of that person’s idiosyncrasies. Jack Donaghy’s brash-but-fragile personality is a clear product of his upbringing at the hands of Colleen Donaghy on 30 Rock. The Stark children’s ferocious loyalty and tendency toward morality clearly reflect the values of Ned and Catelyn on Game of Thrones. This makes sense. “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” as they say. Unfortunately, the writers for The Michael J. Fox Show missed that fundamental part of character building, and it is most apparent in “Thanksgiving.”
For the duration of the series, the Henry family has been a bit strange in part because there are very few similarities in personality or physical appearance between any of the family members. This hasn’t been the biggest problem because the characters are typically pleasant, if also exceedingly generic. As such, this failure can just be written off as an issue inherent to shallow network sitcoms. This week, however, the holiday episode introduced audiences to Mike and Leigh’s parents—Mike and Leigh are siblings but just barely—who are both intolerable and intolerant caricatures. Beth (Candice Bergen) and Steve (Charles Grodin) drive up to New York to enjoy Thanksgiving at Mike’s apartment rather than at their home, and their interactions with Mike and Annie comprise almost the entirety of the episode.
In an effort to save Leigh from interacting with her mother—Leigh has been carrying on an extended lie that she lives in Portland. (Leigh is such a Janice)—Annie volunteers to let Beth Henry help her prepare Thanksgiving dinner. What follows is a series of situations in which Beth micromanages Annie’s cooking to death—“That’s a pinch, not a dash”— in such a way that is just exhausting. The overbearing mother-in-law is already an impossibly lame cliché to begin with, and the episode just hammers the us over the head with it until the viewers, like Annie, are broken shells of humans who just want to escape their living horror.
As bad as the mother is, Mike’s father, Steve, is even worse. He is a wildly unself-aware hyper-masculine cartoon, and any intended joke in this characterization fails miserably. He demands that he, Mike and Ian take on several athletic 20-somethings in a game of touch football, he makes homophobic remarks such as “I hope that’s a girl dog he’s dancing with,” when referring to Mike’s 8-year-old son, and he wears his misogyny like a badge of honor as he questions why Mike and Ian aren’t making the oh-so-obvious connection between his angina and the word “vagina.” It is a truly brutal display of idiocy that the writers make only the most casual of efforts to dispel. The episode makes a feeble stab at salvation at the end when Mike asks why his 70-year-old father (Mike is 53 IRL) has to act so tough. The Henry men share an admittedly touching moment as they both lament the obstacles presented by aging and disease, which Steve sums up with odd and teary poeticism by saying, “We used to be so good at football.” This doesn’t come close to redeeming the episode, and Beth still runs away with the Livia Soprano Award for Supportive Parenting, but it keeps it from being a 22-minute pit of despair.
For an episode called “Thanksgiving,” it was pretty void of reasons to be thankful. Eve and Harris’ canned cranberry sauce hunt is moderately amusing. There was a solid Honda commercial with Michael Bolton during one of the breaks. But I was most thankful when the episode ended.