For a TV icon forced to step away from his career at the height of his fame, mounting a full-scale return to the medium might seem a daunting task. Unless, of course, that icon is Michael J. Fox.
In the new NBC comedy “The Michael J. Fox Show,” premiering Thursday (Sept. 26), Fox returns to the network and the format that made him a star, headlining a family sitcom loosely based on his battle with Parkinson’s and his quest to return to work. Only, don’t call it a comeback. Fox makes this look easy.
Fox plays Mike Henry, a beloved former news anchor in New York who decides to return to the news desk after years away dealing with his diagnosis and generally annoying his family. Let’s talk about the diagnosis first. The show doesn’t treat Fox’s Parkinson’s like a sacred cow, as if it’s off-limits for some good-natured ribbing. That’s not to say that every joke is at Fox’s expense, either, but the series makes the wise choice not to veer into “very special episode” territory. Rather, Mike is presented as a man who’s come to terms with the hand he’s been dealt and is working through life as best he can. There are no tears here.
While the premiere episode hinges on Mike’s disease (as it should — it definitely must be addressed), future episodes back off from making it the main focus. It’s still prevalent, but, as in life, other things happen, too. Fox’s real-life wife Tracy Pollan shows up in episode two as a sexy neighbor and Anne Heche begins a very funny recurring bit as a rival reporter at Mike’s NBC affiliate in episode three.
As you could probably guess, Fox shines in the series, but he’s not doing all the heavy lifting on his own. He’s surrounded by an enormously talented cast that includes “Breaking Bad” vet Betsy Brandt as wife Annie and “Wire” alum Wendell Pierce as his boss Harris, both clearly reveling in the light after the heaviness of their former shows.
Though the choice to have the characters speak to the camera feels a little tired (and the plotting to have it continue past the premiere is quite contrived), the show is quite possibly one of the funniest new comedies of the season, full of small moments that lead to big laughs. One such moment occurs in the pilot as Annie is talking directly to the camera with a view of the kitchen behind her, as youngest son Graham (Jack Gore) swings slowly back and forth on the open freezer door. It’s a small sight gag, sure, but it’s moments like these that give the world of the show a real “lived in” feel.
Ultimately, though, it’s Fox’s show, and fans of the actor who’ve missed him on their TV screens every week won’t be disappointed when they tune in. At a certain point in the premiere, Mike tells Harris, “I don’t want a pity job.” Thankfully, there’s nothing to pity here.
“The Michael J. Fox” show premieres Thursday, Sept. 26 at 9 p.m ET/PT on NBC.