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Mike vs. Mork

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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.
James wolk
James Wolk