I wouldn’t doubt that The Michael J. Fox Show feels tremendous performance anxiety. Expectations run high whenever a big-name star like Fox makes a comeback, of course, but add to that how desperately NBC needs a reliable performer on Thursday nights (or any night, for that matter), and you’ve got more riding on your shoulders than most sitcoms ever have. It’s clear that NBC would like MJF to be the network’s answer to ABC’s Modern Family, and that’s a lot to live up to. I can’t speak to how MJF will perform for the network; Thursday’s episode, “Art,” took a sizable ratings dip, but it’s not impossible that the series could pick up a bigger audience as the season goes on. But as the show seeks out that audience, it seems to be having some trouble figuring out the kind of show it wants to be, and if it doesn’t get a handle on that, it’s going to dip in quality as well.
The series’ focus on the Henry family continues to be the most successful element of this week’s episode, particularly in the A-story. When Mike and Annie discover that Eve has been taking snapshots of nude male models in her community center photography class, they’re conflicted over how to tell her it’s not okay without giving up their new status as the cool parents supportive of their daughter’s passions. In some ways, this plot treads familiar sitcom territory—probably every family sitcom in history has done a story or two about parents’ struggles to connect with their moody teenage kid and to be more accepting and accommodating than their own parents were—but I thought this was a unique, funny take on that well-worn trope. It’s also a blast to watch Mike and Annie’s uncertain and quickly sidetracked attempts to broach the subject of the nude photos with Eve; in particular, seeing Annie devolve from sharing a punched-up cautionary tale of heroin-laced performance art into enthusiastic topless voguing for her daughter’s camera is an expert use of Betsy Brandt’s slightly neurotic, self-conscious delivery.
If “Art”’s other two plots don’t quite succeed—and I would argue that they don’t—it’s because MJF still hasn’t figured out what to do with its other elements, an issue that lingers from its first two episodes. For starters, the supporting players—especially Wendell Pierce’s Harris and Katie Finneran’s Leigh—remain problematic for the show; this week, they’re giving Ian and girlfriend Reese (the non-lesbian from last week’s “Neighbor”) bad relationship advice. Both characters are much broader, and thus less funny, than any of the nuclear Henry family. In particular, Harris, with all his womanizing and casual misogyny, feels like a character imported from a lesser series altogether, most likely Two and a Half Men (Speaking of casual misogyny, the episode’s C-plot has Mike teaching Graham that he can get away with almost anything as long as he tells a woman, “You’re right, I’m wrong, I’m sorry;” the way Graham’s story plays out is cute if inconsequential, but the joke still feels lazy and out of touch).
Furthermore, I’m still not sure how Harris or Leigh can continue to plausibly take up space in every episode. Leigh just seems to sort of hang around the Henrys’ apartment all the time; I guess that’s as good a means of getting her involved as any, but the character feels a little like an afterthought at this point, a background player in other people’s stories. Harris would be less difficult to integrate if only the series could find a way to more effectively incorporate Mike’s work life into episodes; like with “Neighbor,” “Art” spends very little time—only one scene, in fact—in the newsroom, and Mike’s not even present for it (Ana Nogueira, as production assistant Kay, is really getting the short end of the stick here). The series’ pilot sold the workplace stuff as a major element of the show, so perhaps there’s more of that to come in future episodes, but I get the impression that the writers simply aren’t as interested in this aspect of Mike Henry’s life as the pilot would lead viewers to believe.
Despite my reservations, though, I keep coming back to the episode’s final scene, where Eve looks on from the living room doorway, smiling, while her dad rocks out on his guitar and her mother proudly admires her nude portrait. It’s no secret that I have a soft spot for sweet family shows (it’s why I find it so hard to ever be objective about Parenthood), but I really like the Henrys. I like watching them. I’d like to keep watching them. And that’s why I hope The Michael J. Fox Show‘s writers will figure out what to do with everything around them.
- I already apologized for the lateness of my posts earlier this week in my New Girl review, but again, I’m sorry that this is two days late. Parks review will be up tomorrow, and hopefully my life will slow down long enough that I can start getting posts up in a more timely fashion.
- Somebody needs to cast Juliette Goglia and Alison Brie as sisters in something, stat.
- Annie explains the Clinton Era: “Things got really bad in the 90’s because heroin was coming back in style just as hats were going out.”
- Not only is Ian’s hottest friend is a guy called “Albino Tim,” the dude’s stolen three girls away from him. “Damn him and his mysterious red eyes!”