Tonight’s TV lineup is packed with the return of such hits as The Big Bang Theory, Grey’s Anatomy, Parks and Recreation and Elementary, but it’s the return to series TV of two A-list stars, Michael J. Fox and Robin Williams, that’s the most noteworthy. Their respective sitcoms, NBC’s The Michael J. Fox Show and The Crazy Ones on CBS, both show a lot of promise, but NBC’s decision to launch Fox’s series with two back-to-back episodes means that, tonight only, the two shows are time-slot rivals at 9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific.
CBS is giving The Crazy Ones a dream lead-in with a double episode of The Big Bang Theory, but even so, I suspect The Michael J. Fox Show may very well win tonight’s face-off. While a lot of people probably assumed Fox’s career was pretty much over when he went public with his status as a Parkinson’s disease sufferer in 1999, he has rebounded in recent years via his very popular (and Emmy-nominated) recurring comic role on The Good Wife as Louis Canning, a Parkinson’s-afflicted attorney who aggressively exploits his disability to score courtroom points.
Fox and the creators of his NBC sitcom have taken a page from that same playbook for his role as Mike Henry, who was a beloved presence on the New York TV news scene before a Parkinson’s diagnosis led him to retire five years ago to spend more time with his schoolteacher wife, Annie (Betsy Brandt, Breaking Bad), and their three kids.
Since Mike left, ratings at his old station have steadily fallen, and his former boss, Harris (Wendell Pierce, Treme) is begging him to return to work. Mike’s understandably reluctant, however.
“I don’t want a pity job,” he tells Harris. “We both know that if I come back, NBC is going to milk it by showing me in slow motion with lame, uplifting music in the background.”
Eventually, of course, Mike decides to accept Harris’ offer, setting up the show’s split focus between family life and workplace. It’s a solid set-up. I just wish it were funnier.
You can’t blame the cast for that. Mike and Annie’s three kids may be standard sitcom issue, but in addition to Brandt and Pierce, clearly relishing this chance to show off their comedy chops after years of intensity on their respective drama projects, the show also co-stars two-time Tony Award winner Katie Finneran as Leigh, Mike’s comically neurotic younger sister, with recurring roles for Candice Bergen and Charles Grodin (as Mike’s parents) and Anne Heche as Susan, Mike’s bitchy anchor rival at the station.
Nope, the problem, as usual, is the writing. Fox and Brandt have a wonderful, sexy chemistry together, so they can make even underwritten moments seem funny just because they feel so true. Otherwise, though, the story lines seem sitcom-stale. Mike develops a crush on a pretty upstairs neighbor (guest star Tracy Pollan, Fox’s real-life wife and former Family Ties co-star). Teenage daughter Eve (Juliette Goglia) tries to up her hipness by befriending a lesbian. Hypersensitive Leigh pressures Annie for her opinion on Mane Attraction, a ghastly teen novel Leigh has written about a boy who turns into a horse at night. (OK, that last one is pretty funny.)
The writers compound the problem by falling back on the tired mockumentary device of making Eve a vlogger, so she’s constantly taping the other characters, allowing them to talk directly to the camera. What once seemed fresh in a single-camera sitcom like this one now just feels more like lazy writing.
Despite that, The Michael J. Fox Show has done so many things right that it’s impossible not to hope the show will grow into a bona fide comedy hit. NBC certainly could use one, but then, so could we.
The Crazy Ones, on the other hand, is a much harder show to call. The sitcom, from executive producer David E. Kelley, stars Emmy and Oscar winner Williams as Simon Roberts, a former advertising wunderkind who is starting to doubt himself now that he’s reached AARP member status. His no-nonsense daughter and creative director, Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar), worries about him, and, in tonight’s premiere, the future of their company: McDonald’s, which represents 60 percent of their business, is leaning toward going to another agency.
Simon’s only hope is to land a major talent to star in a series of new ads, but when he and his handsome protégé, Zach (James Wolk, Mad Men), pitch singer Kelly Clarkson on the prospect, she agrees to consider it only if they’ll tailor it to the sexy new image she’s trying to cultivate.
“So we just need to come up with a meat-related sex song,” Zach sums up.
“…for a family restaurant,” Simon adds. “How hard could that be, really? It almost writes itself!”
The two men then launch into what such a song might sound like. This heavily improvised scene is comedy gold, with Wolk (who knew this guy could be so funny?) and Williams riffing seamlessly like longtime improv partners.
Given that each episode will feature a different real-world client (and, presumably, a name guest star playing himself), it’s hard to imagine what this show will look and feel like on a week-to-week basis, especially because Clarkson, I have to say, absolutely throws herself into her guest role, scoring her own big laughs and, I suspect, launching a credible acting career, if she chooses.
Then again, Simon’s motto, often referenced in tonight’s pilot, is “Leap and the net shall appear.” After years of watching him work without a net, I’m inclined to give Williams the benefit of the doubt, but mark my words, if this show becomes a hit, it’s Wolk who’s going to be red-hot and superstar-ready.
The Crazy Ones may take a ratings hit on its first outing tonight, if The Michael J. Fox Show opens as strongly as I expect it to, but next week Crazy will be up against the premiere of Sean Hayes’ weaker new sitcom, Sean Saves the World. It’ll be interesting to see how this Thursday-night network rivalry eventually shakes out.
Lennie James and Mark Strong (from left)
Low Winter Sun, a new 10-part crime drama premiering Sunday on AMC after the return of its Emmy-winning Breaking Bad, starts out on an intense note, as Detroit homicide detective Frank Agnew (British actor Mark Strong, Zero Dark Thirty) teams up with police colleague Joe Geddes (Lennie James, The Walking Dead) to murder a corrupt cop who – Frank has been told by Joe – killed one of Frank’s loved ones in a drug-fueled rage. The crime is grossly out of character for Frank, an upright cop driven to violence by his grief. After all, the victim was a nasty piece of work, so the two men don’t feel that bad about making his death look like a suicide.
Except, almost immediately, things start to go spectacularly wrong. The morning after the murder, Frank learns that the victim was under the scrutiny of Simon Boyd (David Costabile, Suits), an Internal Affairs investigator. Worse, when investigators retrieve the victim’s car from the watery site of his “suicide,” they find a second, dismembered corpse in the trunk.
What the heck is going on here, Frank starts to wonder. Has Joe played him? Did the dead guy really kill Frank’s loved one, or did Joe, or is she still alive? And is the crime going to suck Frank into an ugly morass via the Internal Affairs investigation?
So many questions, so little reason to care.
Seriously, I can’t remember the last time I saw a drama with a strong cast and a solid pedigree (former Criminal Minds and Cold Case scribe Chris Mundy adapted this new series from a well-received 2006 British miniseries) that left me so thoroughly disengaged. While I like the audacity of starting the series with this shocking act of violence, the murder loses a lot of its impact because we never see Frank – who, we are reassured by most of his colleagues, is a stand-up kind of guy – not behaving badly. Low Winter Sun wants to make us feel emotionally invested in the moral disintegration of a decent human being, but we never make a connection with Frank in the first place, nor do we care about the relationship the murder victim apparently destroyed. It doesn’t help that James, in an otherwise good performance, is so transparently a bad guy from the first moment we see him that Frank seems pretty simpleminded to be taken in by him. (If you’re about to scream, “Hey, spoiler alert!” trust me. You can see that one coming a mile off).
There’s a secondary story line involving a blue-collar aspiring drug kingpin named Damon Callis (James Ransone) and his Lady Macbeth, wife Maya (Sprague Graydon), but their scenes in the first two episodes AMC made available look like outtakes from every other episode of Law & Order you’ve ever seen.
I suppose it’s possible that Mundy will find a way to make us care about Frank, or any of the other characters for that matter, in the episodes to come, but after spending two hours with this chilly, cliché-filled story, I can’t in good conscience suggest you clear another hour in what is probably an already full Sunday night of TV viewing for such a half-baked effort.
Adapted from a hernia-inducing bestseller by Stephen King, Under the Dome – a summer series premiering tonight on CBS – is set in the rural Maine town of Chester’s Mill, a picturesque spot that could be the backdrop of a Norman Rockwell painting … if David Lynch painted under the name Norman Rockwell.
As in so many sleep burgs, Chester’s Mill harbors some unsettling secrets, some sexy, some sinister. A few locals have noticed mysterious propane tanker trucks pulling into town, but who is stockpiling it, and why? Local politician Big Jim Rennie (Dean Norris, Breaking Bad) seems to know, and worse, he seems to know how to use that information to his best advantage.
Elsewhere, we see a shadowy out-of-towner, Army vet Dale “Barbie” Barbara (Mike Vogel, Bates Motel), hastily burying a corpse in a makeshift forest grave, and waitress Angie McAlister (Britt Robertson, The Secret Circle) trying to end a dead-end affair with a handsome but unstable player (Alexander Koch) who doesn’t like to be told no. Oh, and the stressed-out sheriff (Jeff Fahey) has a pacemaker installed in his chest. Uh-oh.
Still, to the untrained eye, things appear to be tickety-boo in Chester’s Mill right up until a previously calm morning is shaken by an abrupt tremor and the church bells start pealing at a deafening level, just seconds before an enormous but completely transparent dome slams down around the town with a force that renders a hapless cow into carpaccio on the hoof.
The barrier tingles to the touch, yet is otherwise invisible, although nothing can pass through it, including phone, TV or radio transmissions. Where did it come from? Is it the work of some government, either domestic or foreign? Will it eventually go away? If not, will the people inside eventually suffocate? (Spoiler alert: probably not, because in tonight’s premiere, you can’t help noticing an inexplicable amount of wind blowing through this supposedly hermetically sealed-off town).
Much like King’s disappointing 1999 miniseries Storm of the Century, Under the Dome explores how a small community unites and/or comes apart at the seams when separated from the rest of the world and confronted with a deadly challenge. Since I haven’t tackled this hefty novel, I have no idea where the storyteller is going with this yarn, but tonight’s first hour is well-acted and boasts some very cool special effects, including the arrival of the dome, a trucker turning into an accordion on wheels when it slams into the invisible barrier and, of course, that poor bifurcated bovine.
The cast, which also includes Rachelle Lefevre (A Gifted Man) and teen actor Colin Ford (best known for playing Jared Padalecki’s younger alter ego in Supernatural flashbacks), is solid, even if their characters come across mainly as types more than three-dimensional human beings in the premiere episode.
All in all, there’s enough here to keep me tuning in to see more. I’m doing so with some trepidation, though, because more than once King has handed us a dazzling premise that fizzles in its execution and resolution. Fingers crossed!