Zero Ghost Tolerance Policy

The Michael J. Fox Show – “Hobbies”

Last week, I said I thought The Michael J. Fox Show was in an upswing, but after revisiting “Art,” I found most of it flat. There were aspects that worked, but the plots felt tired, and I realized that the novelty of a full-time Michael J. Fox sitcom is really starting to wear off. It hit even harder during “Hobbies.” There are still things that work, but I’m losing confidence that they’re enough to keep the show together for much longer.

Is there a family-sitcom plot as played out as the “parents disapprove of child’s hobby, but disagree over new hobby”? I’m sure there are plenty, but this one always strikes a nerve with me. Perhaps because I recently watched the Freaks & Geeks episode “Smooching and Mooching,” where Nick’s father’s disapproval of his drumming comes to head and he sells the drums behind Nick’s back, I can’t help but be annoyed by the story here. Graham plays video games a lot. This is not weird, since he a modern youth, and despite the fact that Mike and Annie pride themselves on being progressive parents, they are deeply disturbed by his gaming. Thus begins their search for a new hobby for him, which obviously is just a competition between them to see who can pick the better hobby–Mike blatantly spells it out for us in the very first scene so we’re not too shocked later when they become obsessed with their hobbies of choice instead. There’s some comedy to be found in Betsy Brandt’s attempts at pottery, but there was nothing about Mike’s dalliance into hockey that was interesting. It even verged on tasteless when Annie finally goes to the hockey practice and sees that it’s just the dads playing instead of the kids. “Wife!” one dad yells, and aw shucks, their dude fun is just ruined because an awful nagging wife showed up. Ugh. We Are Men already got canceled and Dads is still being terrible over on Fox (the network), so please, none of that. And when Mike and Annie decide to just let Graham play video games, it doesn’t feel like an earned, heartwarming moment, it feels like common sense. The fact that Fox has to spell it out for us in a talking head like Jay Pritchett on Modern Family makes it feel even more tired. While Brandt and Jack Gore get some credit for some decent comedy–Gore continues to be one of the better child actors on television–it’s still not enough to keep the story from being anything but boring and dated.

Mike’s other plot is also familiar, but not nearly as groan-worthy: his former field producer/rival, Suzie Jones (Anne Heche), has been hired by Harris as the station’s new anchor. This is an interesting development for the show, as Mike doesn’t really have anyone who really opposes him in any capacity ever, but it’s also weirdly undercooked. Obviously, Suzie is a long-term addition to the show, but her introduction here feels half-formed, and there’s no real story outside of “Everyone likes Suzie but Mike knows she’s actually crazy.” Anne Heche is a fine actress, and very good at harnessing meanness (just see her in the disastrous Save Me for proof), but that level of meanness feels grossly out of place here. In the first three episodes, Mike has typically been the “meanest” character, but that meanness has been more “smartass” than “psychopath,” and I’m not sure The Michael J. Fox Show has room for a character that genuinely just comes across as evil and insane. (That fact that she had to be an attractive, successful woman certain doesn’t help.)

But fortunately, there are things to enjoy in what I’m calling the episode’s B-plot. I was wary of another “adult being bad at social media” story, especially after Trophy Wife did a fairly great spin on it just this week, but Katie Finneran owns it, and her conclusion, where Leigh, having been in a writing dryspell, realizes that her true writing voice is “bitchy teen,” was perfect for Finneran. Eve and Ian kind of just hang out for the first half of the episode, but once the secret of Eve’s weird running comes out (Leigh: “Why do you think your butt always hurts when you run?”), both get to engage in some great physical comedy. Leigh is great when put with any of the kids, and having her with both the oldest was a smart choice. It wasn’t perfect by any means (seriously, Leigh is a freelance writer and doesn’t have her own Twitter?), but it was a bright spot in such a dull episode.

It’s disappointing to see a show I was so optimistic about fail to deliver, and if the rest of the season plays out like “Hobbies” (and yes, “Art”), it’s going to be a bumpy ride. The Michael J. Fox Show is so content to play it safe that what comes out is incredibly bland. And what really stings is how talented the adult cast here is, yet no one is being pushed. Everyone is fine, and I’d say Betsy Brandt and Katie Finneran are even doing great work here, but with such boring and tired stories, what are they supposed to do? The Michael J. Fox isn’t a disaster, nor does it seem to be heading that way, but at least a disaster can be entertaining. Indeed, boring is the real killer, because there’s no draw to boring. And when there’s no draw, why should the show even exist at all? The Michael J. Fox needs to address these issues, and much, much sooner than later.

Stray Observations

  • I’m assuming the climax of the Leigh/Eve/Ian story, where Eve is running from the bully in slow-motion then suddenly learns to run “correctly,” was a homage to Forrest Gump. That was… a little weird.
  • “It’s my Cosmo article, the one on side-boob!”
  • After Eve’s weird run is revealed, the shots of Ian and Leigh both doing their impressions of it were hilarious.
  • That vase was truly horrific.
  • “Cronkite’s ghost!”
  • Mike’s assistant was great in the pilot, why have they shoved her away to do-nothing land?
  • We need to talk about those talking heads. I don’t get them anymore, and they’re essentially warmed-over versions of Modern Family‘s. They also seem to be a fail-safe for when the show doesn’t think the audience is smart enough to remember something that happened ten minutes earlier in the episode.
  • I’ll let Tony Hale take this one:

Dad’s piccolo is gonna be huge

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The Michael J. Fox Show – “Art”

Until The Michael J. Fox Show, I never thought about what it’d be like to have Katie Finneran and Wendell Pierce together in the same show, but now that I’ve seen it, I want more. Honestly, I would watch this collective cast in just about anything, that’s how much I love the individuals and the way they work together. But when you’ve got such a knockout ensemble, you really want the show around them to deliver. After a solid pilot but disappointing second episode, I was anxious about the direction The Michael J. Fox Show would take, and “Art” fell somewhere in between, mostly funny, with the occasional groan-worthy moment. The show is still working within tried and true tropes, but there was a refreshing new element to the palate: self-awareness.

We begin at the Henry dinner table, where the whole family (including Leigh and Harris) have gathered. The episode’s threads revolved around the three children: Eve’s been taking photography classes, which have brightened her mood, but her photos are all of nude men; Ian can’t stop texting or fighting with his girlfriend Reese, and looks to Harris for advice; Graham learns the “You’re right, I’m wrong, I’m sorry” trick from Mike to use on the ladies after using the wrong soap in the dishwasher.

After learning about the subject of Eve’s photos, and that she’s presenting them in an upcoming show, Mike and Annie both try their hand at convincing her to expand to other, less nude areas. Both are disastrous. Mike tries to relate, telling her about when his parents took away his guitar (and I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t listen to a Michael J. Fox-led metal band) and forced him to play the piccolo, which only results in Eve dedicating her installation to him, even entitling it “Dad’s Piccolo.” (“Don’t call it that!” Mike exclaims, with a genuine look of terror on his face.) Annie tries to scare her with a trumped-up story about a girl who chopped her hair off during a performance piece and shot heroin in the bald spot on her head. Eve barely listens, instead opting to capture her mom in the perfect light, and even convincing her to pose topless. (This was one of those groan-worthy moments I mentioned above.) Realizing how hard they failed, Mike and Annie choose the next logical option: art heist. But when even that plan fails (in hilarious fashion), they sit down Eve and tell her she can’t shoot nudes anymore because they said so, proving that even progressive parents have to resort to the old standbys sometimes.

After asking Harris for advice, Ian is exposed to the world of car-related metaphors for dating, with Harris telling him to shop around for other models. Ian breaks up with Reese, but still isn’t happy. After receiving a faked wrong text from Reese to his best friend (brilliantly orchestrated by Leigh, who can’t help but empathize with the teary girl), Ian returns to Harris for more advice, none of which does him any good. Ian becomes increasingly more depressed, and when Leigh tries to get to the heart of it, she discovers a trail of destruction leading back to Harris. Dragging Ian with her, Leigh confronts Harris outside his apartment, and the tensions of a history come to the surface, Leigh deriding Harris for his womanizing ways, and Harris chiding her for her “jilted woman” techniques. (This sounds much ickier than it comes across, thanks to Pierce and Finneran’s performances.) Ian sees the mess these tactics make, and gets back together with Reese on his own terms.

Graham is relegated to the C-plot, but his scenes weave in and out of the other stories, keeping him connected to the episode. Realizing that “You’re right, I’m wrong, I’m sorry.” is essentially a get-out-of-jail-free card, especially for a young child, he performs more and more ludicrous acts, including building “the world’s biggest crazy straw,” a creation that actually looks pretty badass. His new trick works on his sister and aunt, but when he fills the kitchen with suds from using the wrong soap in the dishwasher again, he tries it on Annie, who recognizes it immediately, and shuts the whole operation down.

“Art” was a decent enough episode of television, and if this is the level The Michael J. Fox Show is going to be playing at the whole season, it’ll be a passable show. But I can’t help but see the glimmers of something truly great in here. Pierce and Finneran are on fire in scenes together, and the history between them is played perfectly by both actors. It could also be a strong well for the show to draw from for B-stories, or ever larger arcs, depending on how the show evolves. Fox and Brandt are still great, though Brandt definitely gets in more laughs this episode. I hope to see these two split up more in the future, but for now I’m content watching them scheme. And I’ll even throw the younger cast members some props, because I wasn’t annoyed with any of them during this episode. Even Jack Gore, whose story could have been run into the ground so easily, plays his short scenes with confidence and enough “cute kid” to make them work. Juliette Goglia and Conor Romero haven’t done as much to stand out, but they do just fine, and even get off some good jokes. (One of the best lines in the episode was from Ian, during a talking head: “Harris was right, I had to put Reese in my rearvie–God, dating really lends itself to car metaphors!”)

I’m remaining optimistic about The Michael J. Fox Show, and I’m hoping that “Art” is the beginning of an upswing. The show still has time to prove itself, I just want something with so many great elements to achieve that greatness right off the bat. The ingredients are all here, we just haven’t quite made it past 3-star dining yet. But that’s a little insane, since few shows begin at their best, so I’m more than happy to see where we go from here. Hey, I’m laughing, and that’s more than I can say about Dads.

Stray Observations:

  • Seriously, Graham’s crazy straw was insane, and probably wouldn’t work in the real world, but man was it cool.

  • Ian’s extended car metaphors were some just-okay cringe humor, but they were totally validated by his talking-head exclamation later in the episode.

  • Ian getting dressed to go out, then seeing Reese’s name in the pants and immediately slumping back into his funk was a bit too familiar. Sorry, I think there’s something in my eye…

  • “She said I would be in shadow, but I don’t know man, it seemed really light in there.”

  • “Reese wants her skinny jeans back.” “I don’t know where they are.” “You’re using them as a blanket!”

  • The talking heads are still around, but I didn’t mind them so much. Less descriptive, more jokes, which is the best way to use them.

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.