‘The Michael J. Fox Show’: Harping on heartwarming, with fewer laughs

| TV Critic

When: Thursdays, 8:30 pm
Channel: NBC

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXl-krlLoxg

Does this sound familiar? Mike Henry is a former newscaster who went off the air when his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease started getting in the way. For the past five years, he’s spent a lot of time with his family off the air, but now he’s ready to return to television. Being billed as a comedy sitcom inspired by the life of Michael J. Fox, “The Michael J. Fox Show” certainly seems like just that.

The pilot follows Mike and his family as they adjust to having him back in the newsroom. In his years away from the office, Mike has turned into quite the overbearing dad, and his children and wife are thrilled to see him leave the house. The pilot switches between heartwarming and attempted-comedic scenes. I say attempted because where the show comes up short is in real laughs. Harping on the humor and almost-tragedy of Mike’s Parkinson’s disease is the premise of the show, but just like his daughter’s teacher says about her own mini-documentary within the pilot, it seems a bit too manipulative.

Maybe I’m just saying that because there may have been a few tears shed in the final scene when Mike finally has the family dinner he’s been hoping for throughout the pilot. Or maybe I was tearing up because I was cutting onions for my lunch right before I watched. Either way, heartwarming scenes abound around Fox while the successful jokes seem to come from the mouths of his family members rather than him—notably his daughter Eve (Juliette Goglia), son Ian (Conor Romero) and sister Leigh (Katie Finneran).

What I missed most from the pilot was the Fox of “Back to the Future.” What I mean by that is not a young Fox but rather one with better lines and better timing. It’s not that Fox has “lost it”—I think “it” is still there—but the show’s writing just isn’t feeding him the lines that play up what we know him for: his comedic timing and sarcasm.

One of Fox’s best moments in the pilot was in the last scene when he tries to serve his wife eggs. The spoon is shaking, his head is twisting and he’s clearly trying hard to flip the eggs onto the plate. His wife (Betsy Brandt) says, “Can you not have a personal victory right now; we are starving.” In moments like this heartwarming scene, we actually get a bit of humor from Fox and a hint at what this show could actually be.

Possibly the best part of the show so far—and I’m not just saying this because my Cadenza editor knows and loves her—is Finneran. She plays the “I’m going to pretend we’re sisters” aunt, and she plays it well. She delivers lines about feeling old, neglected by the family and frustrated with her overbearing brother to a T. She, like Goglia and Romero, plays one of the characters that most authentically make jokes about Fox, not as a Parkinson’s patient, but as a father.

Right now, as Ian says about Mike early in the pilot, “The Michael J. Fox Show” is “not as funny as [it] thinks [it] is.” The show needs to find a balance between the heartwarming and the humor, and until it does, Fox will seem like a caricature of himself, of a person with Parkinson’s, instead of his character as a dad, newscaster and beloved man who happens to have an illness. I’m looking forward to keeping up with the Henrys, at least for now and seeing what the show becomes.

Watch “The Michael J. Fox Show” Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on NBC.