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.
Every good show needs a clunker early in its run. This is especially true for sitcoms. Its rare that any comedy comes out of the gate doing everything exactly right (I would argue that only Arrested Development has ever come close to doing that). Series like The Office, Parks and Recreation, or The New Girl, which began their first seasons laden with possibility but had a dud or two at the start. Putting out an episode with big flaws—or even a few of them—early on can give a series a better sense of what is and isn’t working so that it can throw off dead weight and write to its strengths.
To my thinking, the biggest thing Brooklyn Nine-Nine could learn from “The Slump”’s failings is that it desperately needs to transition into an ensemble comedy, because it’s never a good sign when your show’s star is also its least interesting presence. There’s no denying the fact that Andy Samburg’s fratboy persona is popular with a broad swathe of the population or that Fox needs a comedy hit, given the low ratings for its other Wednesday night programs, but over these first three episodes, anything nuanced or interesting about the character of Jake Peralta has given way to the Samburg schtick; if that continues, it means that whether or not you enjoy Brooklyn Nine-Nine is going to depend on how you feel about Samburg.