Michael J. Fox is back with his own show, and I for one am excited to see him on my screen.
My excitement is about more than just fangirling MJF, however. As a person with disabilities, just the idea of having a show about a character with a disability who is played by someone with that disability themselves is kind of wonderful. There are a lot of things about having a disability that people without really don’t understand, no matter how close you might be or how many hours you spent with them. There are bits and pieces of your life — inside jokes, coping skills, attitudes — that other people really can’t capture without living it. As far as this part goes, the Michael J. Fox Show actually gets it — even if a lot of viewers and reviews I’ve read don’t seem to.
Premiere night gave us two episodes, so prepare yourself! (Also, forgive me, I’m new to this sort of thing.)
The first episode, our pilot, is themed around something that in the disability advocacy community we call “inspiration porn.” There’s an excellent article by Stella Young on the topic you should read, but the short version is this: when you take people with disabilities doing normal things like their jobs or opening jars or something and say how inspirational and brave and “heroic” it is, that’s not cool. Period.
In the pilot, we are introduced to Mike Henry, former TV guy, and his family: loving and smart English teacher wife Annie (Betsy Brandt), former gifted kid college drop out Ian (Conor Romero), thinks she’s smarter and more liberal than she is Eve (Juliette Goglia), and 8-year-old Graham (Jack Gore). (There’s also Mike’s sister Leigh, but I’ll say my bit on her later.) Mike left TV a while ago when he was still adjusting to his diagnosis of Parkinson’s after a viral-video-worthy at-work mishap. Since then, he’s primarily been annoying his family by trying to be a perfect stay-at-home dad, complete with planning picturesque apple picking trips that no one wants to go on. Annie decides that enough is enough, and —unbeknownst to the viewer until later — arranges for Mike’s former producer Harris Green (Wendell Pierce) to offer him his job back.
Mike is hesitant, and honestly, with good reason — Harris tries to manipulate him into not only doing it, but also into covering stories about “overcoming personal obstacles.” He even commissions an ad that fits exactly the sort of “slow motion with uplifting music” promo that Mike had earlier told him was not okay. In the end, Mike does go back to work, but refuses to do inspiration porn. He instead goes for investigative reporting, taking on a inefficient and expensive new 911 system the city had put in. When people attempt to be patronizing and expect him to go easy on them, he gives them some side eye and keeps on going.
Meanwhile, Eve finds herself behind schedule at school and decides to BS her way through her English assignment by making a video about her father. It’s pretty exploitative — she goes on and on about what an “inspiration” he is, how “brave” he is, mixed with slow motion clips of him trying to open jars and other mundane things. Thankfully her teacher calls her on her intellectual laziness and exploitative use of her father, and fails her — but not before telling her he thought she could have done something amazing. As much as I’m wary of the “disapproval of male authority” tactic, I have to fist pump for the teacher. Most college journalism professors seem to miss what he’s told Eve, if every newspaper in this country is anything to go by.
The show uses her having been called on her behavior to both demonstrate the affectionate portion of Eve and Ian’s relationship and to explain why we continue to have scenes of the characters talking into the camera. It’s a really touching scene — in between lobbing water-filled condoms off their roof, Ian advises her to ask the teacher for a chance to do it right. He also confides the real reason he dropped out — though he tells everyone it was to build a start up, it was really that he struggled with no longer being the most gifted student in the room.
Personally, I am hoping for the central idea themes for episodes to continue throughout the series. I’m also hoping for the style of comedy to continue. For the most part, the comedy feels organic to their lives — it’s the sort of humor that a family like this might have in real life, in contrast to how a number of sitcoms tend to make the characters and situations outrageous. These characters actually end up feeling like people you might know, and so the jokes (as well as the embarrassment) feel like spending time with that friend. It doesn’t have that “funny just for funny’s sake” feel that many shows play with, and I feel like that makes it a different kind comedy from a show like Parks & Rec (which preceded it that night and was as excellent as I had anticipated), the now ended 30 Rock, or the annoyingly successful Big Bang Theory.
The one exception might be the character of Mike’s sister, Leigh (played by Katie Finneran), whose personality seems to be made out of Cosmopolitan articles and Sex in the City gags. It feels kind of as though all the stereotypes about ladies are worked into her to avoid them in Annie or Eve. I really, really hope we see something different from this character in the future, because her caricature character style really doesn’t fit in with the rest of the show or cast very well. Writers, I’m looking at you… When a 30-something woman is portrayed as competing for “most immature” with an 8-year-old in your script, there’s a problem. Now make it better, because I love me some feminine ladies done well.
Our second episode is “Neighbor,” in which the noisy neighbor upstairs turns out to be an attractive divorcee instead of the hairy retired man they had hypothesized. In general, the episode deals with the different ways that we attract people — Leigh is trying to find someone to vent to, Eve wants to make friends with a girl she believes is a lesbian, and Mike finds himself enchanted with having the neighbor find him attractive.
Much like the writing for Leigh’s character in general, “Neighbor” doesn’t quite cut it for Mike and Annie’s story line. There’s just something too infinitely awkward about how the situation — a fairly common comedy plot — plays. I’m not entirely sure what it is, it could be the editing or it could be that the hot neighbor is played by MJF’s real-life wife Tracy Pollan, and there’s more chemistry there than with Annie. It’s especially evident in the scenes where Annie and Mike attempt a double date with the neighbor and Mike’s lech producer. The neighbor and Harris hit it off well, and while there was some hilarious lines (“Oops, Parkinson’s”), watching most of the scene was uncomfortably rather than humorously awkward. That’s not to say that there isn’t any chemistry, Brandt is a great actor, but comparing that to the real thing was a little rough, and might have worked better if “Neighbor” was a mid-season episode and the on-screen chemistry had already been sorted.
Leigh’s plot line can be summed up by saying, “you’ve learned nothing,
Jon Snow Leigh.” While watching Graham, she’s mistaken for a single mother and uses that attention to get a group of mothers at the park to lend her a sympathetic ear. When they get sick of her bull crap, Leigh storms off. She continues to be self centered and Cosmo’d as ever, having apparently gained the superpower of being immune to learning from her mistakes.
Eve’s plot was the better one in this episode. She kind of exemplifies a certain type of young person, ,not yet confident in how she’s seen so she tries to overcompensate. In this case, she wants to be seen as liberal and accepting, but really doesn’t know what she’s doing. For example, she complains that there’s no Melissa Etheridge in the house, but when Annie points out there’s some k.d. lang, Eve’s response is, “Who’s he?” The older members of her family keep trying to point out that she’s making this friendship another check on her diverse friends group list, but she doesn’t really get it until she realizes that the other girl is not a lesbian and in fact has a crush on Ian. Oops.
As much as I loved how it critiqued the sort of faux-liberalism that seems prevalent on tumblr sometimes (and I say that with love, there’s a reason my LiveJournal is inactive), there was still a few parts that made me cringe about the way they wrapped it up. They explain away the new friend having kissed a girl as trying to be alluring to boys (bisexuals doesn’t exist don’t you know!) and they followed it up with Eve reacting disgusted to the friend having thought SHE was a lesbian. I’m not sure if that last part is just an extension of her faux-diversity line or not, but it was kind of unsettling.
Thankfully we are treated to a scene of the family in a ball pit before credits roll. Who doesn’t love a ball pit?