”I don’t want a pity job.” That’s what Michael J. Fox tells his boss, Harris (Wendell Pierce), on The Michael J. Fox Show. But he might as well be talking to you and me. His new comedy finds him sending up his image as Mike Henry, a beloved NBC news anchor who decides to stay home with his wife (Betsy Brandt) and kids after being sidelined by Parkinson’s. Harris wants his anchor to make a comeback, but Mike isn’t so sure. ”NBC’s going to milk it by showing me in slow motion with lame, uplifting music,” he sighs. Before long, that’s exactly what happens, to the hilariously over-the-top, tearjerker strains of Enrique Iglesias’ ”Hero.” ”Guaranteed ratings!” Harris exclaims, beaming.
The real NBC probably thinks the same thing. Fox, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 1991, has built a brave second career by refusing to take pity jobs. Instead, he’s opted for roles on Rescue Me, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Good Wife that force fans to confront his tremors and stammering while challenging them to decide whether these characters exploit the disease for sympathy. The Michael J. Fox Show smartly trades off that history. By setting up a meta-world where ”Mike Henry’s” viewers react to manipulative TV cues with an outpouring of support, the show acknowledges that it isn’t above using schmaltz to trigger a similar reaction. (Episode 2 features a warm-and-fuzzy voice-over about how family are ”the ones who love you no matter what.”) Whether that strikes you as refreshingly honest or just exploitative likely depends on how determined you are to love Fox, no matter what.
Luckily, he still has some of that Alex P. Keaton charm, and he’s also helped by a strong supporting cast. Katie Finneran is deliciously inappropriate as Mike’s sister, a loudmouth who pretends she’s a single mother so that actual moms will listen to her rant about her problems. And Juliette Goglia is touchingly awkward as Mike’s unself-aware daughter, who befriends a lesbian because she wants to have ”a diverse crew that doesn’t pigeonhole people, unlike the jocks, the drama nerds, the mean girls.” The critiques of self-serving political correctness are sharp, but when Fox swerves into more conventional family-comedy territory, with Mike’s daughter tearing up because Dad ”never stopped being part of this family,” it feels as manipulative as any sitcom, with or without the Parkinson’s angle. Maybe those ratings aren’t guaranteed after all. B