A lady had a baby in a tree

The Michael J. Fox Show – “Pilot”/”Neighbor”

All families suffer life-changing events, and sometimes those events can shake the very foundation of a family for what feels like forever. But even the most traumatic events eventually fade in intensity, and the changes become normal. Families shift back into their routines, and life goes on. The Michael J. Fox Show, which is inspired by Fox’s own life, skips past the trauma of his Parkinson’s diagnosis, past the tumult and uncertainty, and begins with the moving forward.

The pilot episode of The Michael J. Fox Show is, to quote The A.V. Club’s Todd VanDerWerff, “almost entirely about getting The Michael J. Fox Show on the air.” To be psuedo-intellectual, the narrative of the show is the narrative in the show. Mike Henry (Fox) has become a stay-at-home dad since his Parkinson’s made him unable to continue his job as New York City’s most-loved news anchor, and while he cherishes the time he gets to spend with his family and wants to make the most of it, the rest of the family is moving forward. His wife Annie (Betsy Brandt) is an English teacher at a local high school. They have three children: Graham (Jack Gore), the youngest son; Eve (Juliette Goglia), the teen daughter; and Ian (Conor Romero), the college-age son who has come back home. Additionally, Mike’s sister Leigh (Katie Finneran) is a free-lance writer living in a basement apartment in the same building as the Henrys. They’re all supportive of Mike, but he has a good handle on his condition now, and they feel stifled in their attempts to live their own lives.

So when Mike runs into his former colleague Harris Green (Wendell Pierce), who asks Mike to return to the news now that his condition is under control, it seems like a golden opportunity. As we’ll learn later, it’s not just coincidence that Mike ran into Harris, as Annie has been trying to nudge Mike back onto the air. But Mike is resistant, worried that they’ll turn him into a human-interest story instead of just letting him do his job. At the same time, Eve is making a video for school about their family’s struggle with Mike’s Parkinson’s, which establishes the talking heads (more on those in the stray observations), but she wants her video to be the exact thing Mike doesn’t want back at work. (Spoiler alert: Eve gets a failing grade and her video is called “manipulative” and “a puff piece.” Sorry, this really gets pushed to the side in the pilot so I just wanted to wrap it up.)

After some persuasion from Annie, Mike decides to take his old job back, and it’s like he never left. On his first day, he and his segment producer Kay (Ana Nogueira) head to city hall to find answers about faults in the new emergency services phone system, which lands him a spot on The Today Show. With such a successful return, Mike’s fears are abated.

“Neighbor” has a more traditional structure, and we get our first taste of what the show will be like week-to-week. Unsurprisingly, all of the episode’s plots are classic tropes. In our A plot, Mike goes to their upstairs neighbor to ask them to turn their TV down, only to find that she’s incredibly beautiful, newly single, and loves to bake. He tries to keep this information from Annie, but when Kelly shows up on their doorstep with a fresh batch of cookies, Annie realizes Mike is crushing on her. But instead of getting jealous, Annie just teases him about it, which is not only refreshing, but also gives Betsy Brandt some great comedic moments to boot. But Mike won’t admit it, and instead sets Kelly and Harris up for a double date at their apartment, where Annie pushes the two together in an attempt to also push Mike’s buttons, and Mike makes every attempt to sabotage so that Harris won’t end up with the beautiful upstairs neighbor. Thankfully, they’re all saved by a call from Leigh to come pick up Grant from JJ’s Funcade.

The B plot is a bit more problematic: Eve is bringing a friend over, but look out! She’s a lesbian! Look, it’s 2013, there’s no way to make this trope feel anything but tacky, and boy, do they try, but not even Betsy Brandt’s killer delivery of the k.d. lang joke could really save it. I even felt conflicted about the resolution, where we learn that Eve’s friend Reese is not actually a lesbian, she just kissed a girl at a party once. Everything is by-the-books, from the way Reese’s heterosexuality is revealed (she ends up making out with Ian), to their last exchange, where Eve apologizes to Reese for thinking she’s a lesbian, and Reese responds with, “It’s okay, I thought you were one, too.” Groan. The cast does their best to sell it, but it’s a stinker plot no matter what show it’s in.

The C plot, fortunately, is much better. Leigh is babysitting Graham, and when she takes him to the park, she gets mistaken for a single mother and is welcomed into the group of moms that hangs out there. Leigh is happy to find a group of people who will listen to her problems (which currently include writing a 200-word article for US Weekly) and tell her what she wants to hear. Of course, this backfires once they realize that Leigh is a pretty incompetent mother, so she abandons the group and takes Graham to JJ’s Funcade, where a waiter tells her she’s much too young to be Graham’s mother, thus validating her all over again.

The whole family converges in JJ’s Funcade, where Annie is picking up Graham, Eve and Ian are hanging out with friends, Leigh is flirting with the waiter, and Mike comes to apologize to Annie. The apology is sweet, and there’s even a funny auto-tune gag, a phrase I never thought I’d type. The whole family ends up in the ball pit, and everything’s back to normal once again.

The Michael J. Fox Show is very much a work in progress. While these episodes are heartwarming, they’re not really very ha-ha funny, and most of the humor is split between Parkinson’s jokes and Betsy Brandt. The pilot is an all-around better episode than “Neighbor,” largely due to that icky “my friend’s a lesbian!” plot, but both are pretty good, especially in this particularly barren season for new shows.

The thing that really gives this show that extra push is the cast. Obviously, Michael J. Fox is a national treasure, and he’s great here: warm and at ease, but able to be kind of a dick when he needs to. Betsy Brandt is also fantastic, maybe one of the best bits of casting this season. Just like on Breaking Bad, she’s able to effortlessly shift between the softly dramatic and the weirdly funny. Juliette Goglia is the early standout of the children, and even when she’s working with less-than-great material, she gives it her all. Her performance is even reminiscent of Jamie Lynn Sigler’s Meadow Soprano, toned down a few notches, which might be overpraise, but you’ll live. Wendell Pierce wasn’t given nearly enough to do in the pilot, but I loved his scenes in “Neighbor.” (“Don’t touch my belly. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m about to go make love with my shirt on.” I’m with you 100% there, buddy.) I don’t know how exactly they’ll balance the work and home stories going forward, but no matter what, they need to use him as much as possible.

Like most of the best new series this season, The Michael J. Fox Show is at good-not-great level, and it needs some time to figure things out, but with a stellar cast and a reasonable demand for this brand of warm, pleasant comedies right now, the potential is here for a truly fantastic show.

Stray Observations:

  • Welcome to my reviews of The Michael J. Fox Show. This and S.H.I.E.L.D. are the only new series I’m reviewing this season, so please bear with me as we all grow with the show together. I’m in for the whole season, no matter what happens.

  • Yeah, those talking heads: I get it, and they’re okay, but I don’t love them. If they slowly fade out of the series, I wouldn’t mind.

  • Hey, if you enjoyed Katie Finneran here, check her out in the one-season-wonder Wonderfalls. (Heh.) It’s a weird little show, where fake animals talk to Caroline Dhavernas, but she’s a gut-buster the whole way through.

  • I was pleasantly surprised to see how much the amount of Parkinson’s-related humor dropped between episodes. It’s a tricky subject, and too many jokes would make it feel hokey, but when used in the right context (like when Mike punches Harris during the double date with a “Whoops, Parkinson’s!”), it’ll help the show distinguish itself.

  • I look forward to the continued fleshing out of Ian and Graham, and kudos to Jack Gore for being a child actor who isn’t insufferable.

  • I’m glad there’s only one more episode of Breaking Bad left, because the Betsy Brandt whiplash was a little intense. Semi-related: Marie is totally going to kill Walter. Calling it now.

  • Given Fox’s clout (and the number of guest parts he’s done since leaving Spin City), I imagine we’ll be in for more guest stars in future episodes. I mean, we got Matt Lauer in the pilot, but.. he’s Matt Lauer. I’ll just leave it at that.

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