A.J. Jacobs
November 15, 1996 AT 05:00 AM EST

Michael J. Fox is now, at 35, an elder statesman of sitcoms. And as such, the star is giving a good-natured lecture to fellow Spin City actor Alan Ruck, who has been nervously poring over the latest ratings to see if they’ve dipped.

”This isn’t Muscle!” Fox scolds during a break on the show’s cavernous New York-based set. ”We’re not going anywhere!”

Muscle? What’s Muscle?” asks an onlooker.

”A show I was in on The WB,” sighs Ruck, who plays Fox’s backstabbing foil. ”It failed abysmally. We held our own at 100 — the lowest-rated show.”

Point well taken: Spin City is here to stay. In a season where some insanely hyped TV comebacks have sputtered (CBS’ Cosby, for example, has dropped off about 35 percent since its debut), the snarky city hall sitcom has so far been a landslide victory. The show, which reteams Fox with Family Ties creator Gary David Goldberg, has the star playing Mike Flaherty, a weaselly-but-lovable deputy mayor (think Alex P. Keaton with interns), who is dating no-nonsense reporter Ashley Schaeffer (Carla Gugino). Critics, including ex-New York City mayor Ed Koch and Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos, have given their votes of approval; and, despite an occasional spotty episode, the sitcom has landed in the top 10 nearly every week, with enviably young demographics to boot.

So maybe Fox need not look at the Nielsens (”The important thing now is that they’re not going to cancel us,” he says). But you can bet that a posse of hand-wringing TV execs are studying the numbers like the Talmud. For this show isn’t just any old sitcom. Nor is it simply the first project that DreamWorks’ TV division can phone home about. No, Spin City is the vehicle that troubled ABC hopes will take it back to the future and may even soothe the new bosses at Disney. ”We needed Spin City,” says ABC Entertainment chairman Ted Harbert, who wooed the sitcom to his network. ”We would not be denied. We convinced them they could be the leaders of our comeback.”

Back on the set, a member of the crew glides into the faux city hall offices balancing a tray with cups of water for the cast. ”Time for our meds?” cracks Fox, who still looks barely past puberty despite some crow’s-feet and the occasional worry line. The star wears jeans and a blue blazer; a lone cigarette pokes out of his shirt pocket. He glances down at his pink script. ”I shall make it funny!” Fox intones in a mock from-the-diaphragm thespian voice. ”I shall make it riotous!”

The nearby writers’ office resembles an ”upscale frat house,” as 27-year-old cocreator Bill Lawrence puts it. Here, on one Friday afternoon, a gaggle of absurdly young scribes cooks up Fox’s cynical comebacks over Pringles, Foosball, and little packets of energy-boosting vitamin C. (”We get our cocaine specially packaged,” jokes one.) In the corner, a white storyboard illuminates future plots: ”Next week on Spin City,” it reads, ”Nikki reveals she is getting an abortion, and the father is a handicapped, Latino veteran. Also, Paul has a stutter.”

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