News Column

Review: Michael J. Fox, Robin Williams return in promising sitcoms

September 24, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 24--When Robin Williams took prime time by storm in "Mork & Mindy," only three broadcast networks existed. And when Michael J. Fox was closing out his run on "Spin City," America had yet to discover the magical wonders of the DVR.

On Thursday, these old pros return to a very different television landscape, in dramatically different sitcoms. But will viewers return to embrace their comeback efforts?

Fox, who rose to fame in the 1980s as Alex P. Keaton of "Family Ties" and departed "Spin City" in 2000 after being diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, headlines "The Michael J. Fox Show" on NBC. Williams, who left "Mork" in 1982 to hit it big in movies, stars in "The Crazy Ones" on CBS.

One is mostly

a family comedy. The other is set largely in the workplace. Both offer fairly promising pilot episodes, but those may not bear much resemblance to future episodes.

The Fox vehicle is a quasi-autobiographical show that has him playing Mike Henry, a popular TV news reporter who is set to return to work after retiring five years earlier to cope with his Parkinson's.

The running joke is that, while Mike viewed retirement as a chance to bond with his family, his wife (Betsy Brandt from "Breaking Bad") and three kids very much want him out of the house because, well, he's just too overexuberant with all the family togetherness stuff. Apparently, leaf fights just aren't cool these days.

But despite the hard-sell efforts of his old boss (Wendell Pierce), Mike is leery about resuming his TV gig. He doesn't want to be just a feel-good story for ratings. He doesn't want to take a "pity job." And some of his fears are confirmed when he gets a peek at the station's sappy, heart-tugging promotional campaign tied to his comeback.

"The Michael J. Fox Show" tries really hard to be as warm as a cup of cocoa yet hilariously irreverent. Maybe too hard. Much of the pilot is spent making Parkinson's the butt of the jokes with a gallows humor approach. And so there are gags about Mike's shaky hands as he tries to serve up a meal, or when he mistakenly dials 911 on the phone. And there are attempts to wring chuckles from the effect his meds have on his sex life.

It's an admirable strategy. Fox and his writers are letting us know that nothing is sacred, that it's OK to relax and laugh at his disorder, because he certainly does. But the pilot just doesn't gently tap on the subject, it hammers it into submission. I counted at least a dozen references to Parkinson's over the half-hour.

Producers have said the health-related humor will taper off, so it will be interesting to see what this show will look like down the road. For now, it has some wrinkles to iron

out.

Katie Finneran, who plays Mike's man-hungry sister, stuck with an annoying stock character, is a real drag. But on the plus side, Fox still oozes self-deprecating charm, and I love the sweet and playful chemistry he has with Brandt. Also, Pierce is a hoot as the smooth con man of a boss.

More of that, please.

Whether you become a fan of "The Crazy Ones" will depend a lot on whether you still get a kick out of Williams' manic, off-the-rails shtick. At 62, he's not quite at full-throttle, but he's still a live wire.

Williams plays Simon Roberts, a legendary Chicago ad man whose glory days are past. He can still deliver flashes of brilliance, but they're intermingled with an attention deficit disorder, some personal demons and a twinge of insanity. Pity, then, his daughter, Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who has to rein him in while handling most of the firm's major business decisions.

Like the Fox show, "The Crazy Ones" has given us a pilot -- penned by David E. Kelley -- that might not be the best indicator of a typical episode. It is almost exclusively devoted to the firm's desperate attempt to retain its major account with McDonald's by recruiting a reluctant Kelly Clarkson ("I don't do jingles") as a pitch person.

The result is a substantial -- and hilarious -- guest turn by Clarkson, and what feels like an extended ad for the maker of Happy Meals. That doesn't leave much time to get to know the core characters, especially the one played by Gellar. Poor "Buffy" is saddled with the drippy, wet-blanket role while everyone else is having fun.

That said, there is some real potential. Williams remains a charismatic force who knows how to temper the hilarity with humanity, and you can see the makings of a warm, father-daughter chemistry with Gellar.

And "The Crazy Ones" has a real secret weapon in James Wolk, recently seen in "Mad Men." He plays Simon's protege, Zach -- a slick playboy type who radiates an all-smiles shrewdness and lifts the show to a higher level. One of the highlights of the pilot has him riffing with Williams through a hilarious sexed-up jingle about exploding ketchup packets and "drive-thru lovin.' "

They seem to be having a blast playing off one another, and their comedic energy is infectious.

Contact Chuck Barney at cbarney@bayareanewsgroup.com.

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(c)2013 the Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.)

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