News Column

Fox premise wears thin; Williams still a treasure

September 26, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 26--One of the obvious highlights of this TV season is the return of two cherished prime-time drivers in new vehicles: Michael J. Fox and Robin Williams.

Guess what? The networks, in their wisdom, have decided to pit them against each other on the schedule.

Guys, you have 22 hours a week to program. You had to put Alex Keaton and Mork from Ork in the same slot? (Fox's show begins Thursday night at 9 with two episodes, but will move to its regular time, 9:30, next week.)

In The Michael J. Fox Show, the protagonist is Mike Henry, a beloved news anchor for NBC in New York. Beset with Parkinson's, he left the air years earlier to spend more time with his family.

And after years of enforced togetherness with peppy Mister Mom, his clan can't wait to see him go back to work on television.

Even physically challenged, Fox is a gifted natural comedian. Also funny are Conor Romero as his son and Wendell Pierce (Treme) as Mike's boss.

The rest of the cast (Betsy Brandt, Juliette Goglia, Kate Finneran), not so much, despite some bright and inventive writing.

As a benefit of Fox's stature, you do get a succession of big-name guest stars -- Matt Lauer, Tracy Pollan (married to Fox in real life), Anne Heche.

But the show depends to a dismaying degree on jokes about Fox's, and Henry's, condition. His wife asks him in bed, "When was the last time you took your medication?" "Hours ago," he responds. "Good," she says, jumping his bones, "then I won't have to do all the work."

That will strike some viewers as a brave way of confronting your disease. For others, it's a joke in dubious taste. But there are so many of them.

When Henry begins to consider going on camera again, he tells Pierce, "If I did come back, it would be for the work, not the exploitation." But all too often, that's what this semiautobiographical series feels like.

Williams reenters our orbit as Simon Roberts, the gonzo owner of a Chicago advertising agency. And The Crazy Ones (Thursday at 9:30 p.m. on CBS3) is a well-crafted launching pad for his manic energy.

Sarah Michelle Gellar plays his more practical daughter and partner. Hamish Linklater (The Newsroom) is the tightly wound art director, James Wolk (Mad Men) the horndog account executive, and Amanda Setton (The Mindy Project) the goofy assistant.

Williams is a treasure, leapfrogging through voices, characters, and puns. He's like a comic scat singer, zipping through his scales.

He's also the only reason to watch, because the show's premise is so limiting. Every week, Simon has to be totally flaky for 20 minutes and then pull out a brilliant ad campaign at the last minute.

The show tries to set up Wolk as Williams' volleying partner, firing zany ad libs back and forth. But Wolk is way out of his league, which only detracts from Williams' shtick.

The Crazy Ones would be a lot better if the rest of the cast just stood back and let the big dog riff.

Television

The Michael J. Fox Show

9 p.m. Thursday on NBC10 (moving to 9:30 next week)

The Crazy Ones

9:30 p.m. Thursday on CBS3

dhiltbrand@phillynews.com

215-854-4552 @daveondemand_tv

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