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

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'."

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions