The Michael J Fox Show: Putting Parkinson's at the heart of the story
Michael J Fox's new sitcom confronts the Parkinson's he was diagnosed with in 1991. But can he tread the difficult line between send-up and sentimentality? Sarah Hughes finds out
Tuesday 17 September 2013
Everybody loves Michael. That's the betting behind the most anticipated new US sitcom this autumn, The Michael J Fox Show, a comedy which was given a full-season order by the NBC network before an episode had even aired. It finally screens in America next week and has already been the subject of frenzied interest from British broadcasters, with ITV, Channel 4 and Sky all interested.
The comedy, which draws on the 52-year-old Fox's experiences with Parkinson's disease, centres on Mike Henry, a TV anchor with Parkinson's who returns to work after a five-year absence. Much of the humour (in the first episode, at least) derives from the character's problems adjusting to daily life: there are jokes about his difficulties using the phone (an attempt to call his wife ends up with him accidentally summoning the police) and about the length of time it takes him to serve the family meal: "Can you not have a personal victory right now, we are starving," snaps his wife, played with entertaining steel by Breaking Bad's Betsy Brandt.
Parkinson's might sound like a depressing central subject for a comedy (especially in a week when the sad news has been announced that Billy Connolly also has the condition) but if anyone can make the concept entertaining it is Fox, an actor who occupies a unique position in the cultural psyche as the ultimate boy-next-door and America's favourite straight man. A star since the age of 21, when he played the Reaganite teenager Alex P Keaton in the hit sitcom Family Ties, Fox played the lead in some of the biggest hits of the 1980s, including the Back To The Future trilogy and Teen Wolf, before returning to television in the mid-1990s with Spin City, a show about mayoral politics in New York City, for which he won three Golden Globe awards and one Emmy.
Fox, diagnosed with the neurological disorder in 1991, admits that he struggled to come to terms with his condition and turned to drink for comfort; he didn't go public about it until 1998. After spending several years raising awareness about Parkinson's through the Michael J Fox Foundation, he recently returned to television, taking small but eye-catching roles in The Good Wife and Curb Your Enthusiasm. In both shows, Parkinson's was written into the role. "It's too difficult to hide it," he has admitted. "I could manage it for a scene or so, but it would fall apart over time. As long as I play a guy with Parkinson's, I can do anything."
Those roles also gave him the confidence to attempt a more permanent acting role. "It really brought me to a place of 'this is what I do'," he said. "This is what I was built and programmed to do and so I wanted to do it ... I thought, 'Why can't I? There's no reason not to do it."
Yet even with the huge amount of public goodwill for the Canadian actor, there is no doubt that NBC has taken an enormous financial risk in an era when hits are far from guaranteed.
Does that risk pay off? The answer is: sort of. The pilot episode is uneven, with some odd tonal shifts and a sense that the cast, which includes the always-charming Wendell Pierce – late of The Wire and Treme – hasn't quite gelled yet. There are also some sweetly funny moments as Mike struggles to cope with the mundanity of day-to-day living – and there are flashes of a less polished, more sardonic show. "NBC's going to milk it by showing me in slow motion with lame uplifting music in the background," Fox remarks to Pierce's news boss when he agrees to return to work, adroitly addressing Fox's own image as a Parkinson's sufferer.
The comedy's biggest problem, however, is that Fox has built his career on playing the straight man. He is at his best as the still centre, reacting to the mayhem surrounding him. In Family Ties, his conservative character was constantly horrified by the crazy antics of his liberal family; in Spin City, Mike Flaherty was the only normal member of a dysfunctional mayoral staff; even Back To The Future and Teen Wolf required him to react to his strange circumstances ("Oh no I'm stuck in my parent's past"; "Oh no I've become a teenage werewolf") rather than drive the narrative.
By contrast, The Michael J Fox Show casts Fox as the zany centre at the sitcom's heart. Still boyish, he appears little different from his heyday; his voice no longer has the control, but his face is unchanged and his timing is still perfect. His Mike Henry has a big heart, but is an enthusiastic control freak with a tendency to do the wrong thing – think Modern Family's Phil Dunphy, but with tremors and a job as a newsreader. The rest of the cast (with the exception of Katie Finneran as Mike's blousy sister) play it practically straight, meaning that, while the show is good-natured and slickly put together, it is not always that funny.
Fox has been clear that he doesn't expect Parkinson's to drive the comedy in future episodes – "In the pilot it was more prevalent than it is in subsequent scripts," he says, but the pilot undeniably walks an uncomfortable line between send-ups and sentimentality. It might mock the idea of uplifting music and the hero's return, but it also believes in its power. It wants to have its cake and eat it, to both laugh at Fox's experience – and to lionise it.
Fox himself certainly appears to have few qualms about the level of expectation: "A lot of times when you have a disability, the one thing you deal with is rejection of your experience, or fear other people have about it," he said. "But there's nothing horrifying about it. There is no gothic nastiness.
"The reality of Parkinson's is that sometimes it's frustrating and sometimes it's funny. I need to look at it that way, and other people need to look at it that way ... I think people will look at it and say, 'Yeah, I need to laugh at my own stuff, too'."
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