Real life imitates art on screen

By Nick Grant

Michael J Fox excels as a Parkinson's-inflicted self. By Nick Grant.

Michael J Fox in 'The Michael J Fox Show'.
Michael J Fox in 'The Michael J Fox Show'.

New sitcom The Michael J Fox Show is being promoted as the titular actor's return to the screen after retiring 13 years ago when he was diagnosed with early-onset Parkinson's disease. (A not-so-fun fact: Fox first noticed his related tremors while in New Zealand filming Peter Jackson's The Frighteners).

Actually, the star of Family Ties, Back to the Future and Spin City has continued acting during the intervening years, including providing the voice of an animated mouse in three Stuart Little movies and doing guest spots on such TV series as Boston Legal and Damages.

This is the first time in more than a decade that he's headlining a TV show though and, as the title suggests, it's one that has strong autobiographical elements. The most obvious is, of course, the inescapable fact of Fox's Parkinson's, which renders his speech slurry and his movements stiff and jerky.

Fox plays Mike Henry, a father-of-three who left his role as New York's most beloved newscaster after his Parkinson's diagnosis to, as they say, spend more time with his family.

Five years on, Mike is a hovering helicopter father and husband and the family is none too thrilled with the status quo.

"For 20 years, he poured all his energy into his work; now he pours it all into us. Yay," says his wife (Breaking Bad's Betsy Brandt) with a marked lack of enthusiasm. So when he is offered his old TV news job by his former boss (Wendell Pierce from The Wire and Treme), he's encouraged by his exasperated nearest and dearest to accept.

No prizes for guessing whether he does or not.

In fact, based on the opening episode, there's not much about the show that's likely to surprise, given it's set up as a conventional family-based sitcom - it even comes complete with wacky neighbour (Mike's 40ish sister, who lives in the same apartment).

I imagine taking an old-fashioned approach to the series' structure was a conscious decision on the part of the programme-makers, given having a lead actor with such an obvious physical malady is pretty radical.

Inevitably, the way The Michael J Fox Show seeks to mainstream Parkinson's looks like it will shape up as its singular strength and central weakness.

In the series premiere, at least, Mike is constantly stopped by passersby and told what a hero he is because of his condition, an accolade it's clear that neither Fox nor the show have much patience for.

Instead, there's an insistent subtext that suffering from Parkinson's, or any other disease, does not come with a ticket to sainthood. As such, although Mike exhibits Fox's trademark energetic charisma, he can also be a bit of a jerk.

Mike asks for no sympathy, and he's certainly not offered any by his immediate family.
Indeed, his Parkinson's is the source of the opening episode's best quips: "Can you not have a personal victory right now?" says wife Annie as he struggles to serve dinner.

"We're starving."

However, if this is to develop into a satisfying series, rather than a well-meaning, long-form public service announcement, it will have to cast its net wider than just leaning on Mike's condition as a comic crutch.

The Michael J Fox Show debuts tomorrow night, 9pm, on Four.

- Herald on Sunday

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