Why You Must Watch Michael J. Fox's (Not Very Good) TV Show

The star of the 'Back to the Future' movie trilogy returns to acting with a series that is more than just entertainment.

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

One of the secrets of a successful career on stage or screen is timing, and this holds equally true for actors and actresses, movie studios and TV networks. With “The Michael J. Fox Show,” which started broadcasting in Israel this week (on Yes Comedy, 15, Sundays at 20.50), it looked initially like the timing was right on all counts.

This is the third comedy series starring Michael J. Fox, the slightly hyperactive, fast-talking, Canadian born actor of “Back to the Future” movie trilogy fame (1985-1990). He was the young Republican Alex P. Keaton in NBCs’ “Family Ties” (1982-1989) and then Mike Flaherty, the fictional deputy mayor of a fictional New York in ABCs’ “Spin City” (1996-2001), and his timing as a comedian is generally considered to be impeccable.

But unlike his very rich and varied TV and film career (some 30 movies, innumerable appearances in cameo and guest roles in TV series, four Golden Globes and five Emmy awards), this sitcom is more than just entertainment. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1992, went public about it in 1998, and semi-retired from acting in 2000 as his symptoms worsened. Since then he has become an advocate for finding a cure for the disease, and created the Michael J. Fox Foundation for that cause, raising about $200 million. In an act of personal courage, he appeared as a witness before the Senate Appropriations Committee in 1999 without medication, and explained, in his book “Lucky Man” (2001): “I had made a deliberate choice to appear before the subcommittee without medication. It seemed to me that this occasion demanded that my testimony about the effects of the disease, and the urgency we as a community were feeling, be seen as well as heard. For people who had never observed me in this kind of shape, the transformation must have been startling.”

Timing goes awry

“The Michael J. Fox Show” is his return to full-time acting, but also a personal statement that could have served as a beacon of hope for people with the misfortune of suffering from debilitating diseases. In it, Fox portrays an anchor for a local NBC-TV station who had to retire from an active career due to an onset of Parkinson’s disease, and who goes back to work on screen after driving himself and his family crazy during his forced retirement. In a way, the 
disease became another character in the series, along with Mike Henry (Fox portraying his own alter ego), his family and colleagues. Fox had already appeared as himself (being a Parkinson’s patient) in eight episodes of Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” series.

NBC commissioned 22 episodes of the series sight unseen, based on the premise (a TV star’s comeback with a personal sub-plot) without a pilot. The show went on air in the United States in September 2013, with mixed reviews and initially encouraging ratings. NBC’s timing was impressive as well: The 15th episode, entitled “Sochi” – in which Mike fights for his right to be sent to Russia to broadcast the Winter Olympics (NBC Sports broadcasts the games live) – was screened in the U.S. on January 23, a mere two weeks before the games’ opening.

However, something in the timing went awry, it seems. In the week prior to the series’ premiere in Israel (which augured a timing problem in itself, as the “Sochi” episode would air in Israel long after the games had receded into the past), NBC announced that it was not commissioning a second season of the series. That in itself is not necessarily a failure, since very few new series get a second season. But as of this writing, even the fate of the remaining seven already produced episodes remains unclear. The series does not figure in NBC’s post-Olympic schedule, and the network is looking for a time slot to broadcast the shows in the spring.

On a personal note, I have to admit that I have a very soft spot in my heart for Fox. First of all, his first name is 
Michael, and I do believe that namesakes of the world should root for each other. Secondly, his way of living and coping with a debilitating disease, using his high profile personality for the cause of a common good, strikes a receptive chord in me, even with my disease (MS) and personality public profile (justly humble) being so very different.

Time’s TV critic James Poniewozik tried to draw some lessons for TV producers and viewers from what seems to be – all things said and done – a failure for a much-hyped American TV show. He makes four points: “1. Stars Aren’t Enough (…) a beloved star from your viewers’ pasts will get their attention, but it won’t keep their attention. (…)There seemed to be no point to ‘The Michael J. Fox Show’ beyond, well, having Michael J. Fox in a show. 2. Nostalgia Has An Appeal, and It Has Limits. 3. Risks Are Worth Taking, But They’re Still Risks. One thing that was encouraging about the show was NBC’s willingness to make it the way it did. Rather than make a pilot and throw it in with dozens of others for the focus-group-testing of pilot season, NBC pulled the trigger on the series. (…) The good thing about that is that it’s a way to get daring ideas on the air before they can be watered down by executive second-guessing. 4. Michael J. Fox Should Be Back on TV. Whatever problems ‘The Michael J. Fox Show’ had, Michael J. Fox was not one of them. Not only is his comic timing still there, his ability to shade characters has matured. (…) No nostalgia necessary: get a good actor in a show that is worthwhile in and of itself, and these are the good old days.”

There is one unexpected bonus here for Israeli viewers. Any new series carries the dangerous seeds of addiction. You see the first episode and find yourself hooked, if not to a particular day and hour to be glued to your TV set, at least to the need to follow it by watching the episodes on VOD or YouTube as long as it is on. With “The Michael J. Fox Show,” the addiction – if it arises – promises to be short-term: 15 to 22 weeks at most, and you are weaned. And there is quite a lot of fun in watching it.

Michael J. Fox (center) plays an TV anchorman suffering from Parkinson's disease. Credit: Eric Liebowitz/NBC