NBC's The Michael J. Fox Show is not, in fact, about Michael J. Fox. Instead, it's about Mike Henry, a former news reporter who left his job after his Parkinson's diagnosis in order to spend more time with his family. Fox and Henry do share many traits: both are beloved TV personalities, both have Parkinson's, and both have happy and supportive families. Mike's family consists of his wife Annie, a teacher; eldest son Ian, a college dropout who's living at home and working on starting his own web-search company; middle child Eve, a smart, manipulative, and academically challenged high schooler; and Graham, a generically energetic and simple-minded youngster who's used as little more than a prop in the first two episodes, both of which debuted Thursday night. Rounding out the main cast are Mike's vain and needy sister Leigh, his old friend and new boss Harris, and his new weepy segment producer Kay.
The premiere's action comes from Mike's somewhat reluctant decision to return to work. In a self-referential twist, Mike fears that his hard-hitting news stories will be overshadowed by the public's pity and glorification of his disease. As Mike tells Harris, he does not want a standing ovation from the entire office, nor does he want to be featured in any "inspirational" slow-motion promotions. In short, he does not want his Parkinson's to define him. The actual show struggles with this notion a bit, as it tries to find the perfect balance between self-deprecating Parkinson's jokes (in a bumpy car, Henry comments, "For me, this is perfectly still"), and treating Henry like a normal sitcom dad.
The second episode, "Neighbor," felt as if it was aired out of order. The plot is too wide-ranging, and it introduces too many new factors and characters. We don't need so many outside forces at a time when we are just learning each character's name and quirks. Eve's friend Reese, the Henrys' flirty upstairs neighbor, and the moms at the park all distract from our getting to know the Henrys to begin with. Even more unforgivable, Leigh is relegated to a C story, and is unable to interact with anyone else in the family except Graham, the human prop. Leigh already seemed tacked-on after the pilot; she doesn't quite fit into the show's ensemble, or possess any fresh, non-stereotypical traits. That didn't get better in the show's second episode.
Despite these issues, "Neighbor" is entertaining enough. Annie tries to get Mike to admit that he has a crush on their neighbor, and he tries so vehemently to deny it that he ends up setting the neighbor up with Harris, only to to sabotage the double date he and his wife have with them. Meanwhile, Eve is excited to have a lesbian friend, because she thinks it makes her interesting by association. It's an odd plot, but gives us the best exchange of the two episodes: Eve tells her parents that her friend is coming over, and that they are forbidden from telling any lesbian jokes. Mike responds that he doesn't know any. Annie says she knows one, but doesn't understand it. Mike replies, "Maybe she can explain it to us." Leigh goes to the park with Graham and pretends to be a single mom to gain the sympathy of fellow moms. It all ends with a playful family fight in a ball pit, as all feel-good sitcoms should end.
Connections will be — and probably already have been — drawn to Modern Family. The two sitcoms do have their similarities: a central family with three children, a loving yet acerbic atmosphere, jokes that nudge boundaries without breaking them, and an unexplained mockumentary style. But while Modern Family is about how family bonds outweigh cultural, lifestyle, and age differences, The Michael J. Fox Show is about how a normal family deals with a serious illness through laughter and carrying on with their lives.