Between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis and the rise of the sons of Aryas, there was an age undreamed of. It was called Must See TV Thursday. From the mid ’80s through the late ’90s, NBC ruled the airwaves with a block of sitcoms that included such hits as “Mad About You,” “Wings,” “Seinfeld” and “Frasier.” But the brand name declined over the years as popular series came to an end and CBS began to dominate with its double-shot of “The Big Bang Theory” and “Two and a Half Men.” The Peacock Empire’s fate was sealed last season, when NBC's last-remaining long-running shows “30 Rock” and “The Office” retired to the great syndication in the sky. Now NBC is left to forage for scraps with a lineup that includes “Parks and Recreation,” “Welcome to the Family,” “Sean Saves the World” and “The Michael J. Fox” show.
“Parks and Recreation” remains the network’s strongest cornerstone but will have to weather the absence of several cast members this season. (Chris Pratt is off shooting Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, and Rashida Jones is poised to jump ship later this season.) “Welcome to the Family” is not as awful as its premise would lead you to believe. (Teenage white girl gets pregnant by teenage Hispanic boy, and their respective families are forced to get along.) Still it’s among the more indistinct, laugh-free sitcoms of the new season. “Sean Saves the World” benefits from Sean Hayes’ big personality, but the show is a generic collection of gay jokes left over from “Will & Grace.” That leaves NBC with one hope: “The Michael J. Fox Show.”
There are few television personalities as beloved as Michael J. Fox. He’s anchored two major TV series (“Family Ties,” “Spin City”), and he had a solid run as a movie star (the Back to the Future trilogy). Several years ago he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and retired from acting. But now he's back in a sitcom that winkingly reflects real life. Fox plays Mike Henry, a famed New York City newscaster who retires from TV after being diagnosed with Parkinson's. After five years of puttering around the house and otherwise interfering with the lives of his family, Mike decides to go back to work.
There's been a bit of controversy over whether Fox should be doing the show. On the one hand, he demonstrates that people with degenerative nervous system disorders can accomplish a great deal. On the other hand—some say—he’s exploiting his condition for laughs. Truthfully the show gets about as much mileage out of Fox’s condition as “Modern Family” gets out of Sofía Vergara's cleavage. That is to say, a decent amount. But it’s not the entire focus of the show. Fox’s sense of timing is still sharp—even if the Parkinson’s slows it down a notch. The producers of the show have been wise enough to surround their star with a veteran cast, including Betsy Brandt (fresh off “Breaking Bad”) and Wendell Pierce (HBO's “Treme”). And the writing generates laughs, even if its idea of television broadcasting is charmingly old-fashioned. (Investigative reporters? What are those?)
“The Michael J. Fox Show” isn’t exactly edgy. But TV rarely rewards edgy. It’s comfortably mainstream and comes with a better pedigree than most sitcoms this season. Bank on it to stick around long after “Welcome to the Family” loses its lease on life and NBC looks for other fingers to stick in the leaky dike that once was Must See TV Thursday.