Sunday, February 9, 2014

Two Down, One To Go?

Photo of an old-style TV set with wheelchair symbol on the screen
Dustin Rowles, - February 6, 2014

This article is how I found out The Michael J. Fox Show has been cancelled.

The Michael J. Fox Show was one of three new TV shows featuring disabled characters that I was looking forward to this TV season. The others were Ironside (remake of the late ’60s, early ‘70s Ironside starring Raymond Burr), and Growing Up Fischer, which premieres February 23 and is being hyped by NBC during Winter Olympics ad breaks. "Ironside" was cancelled after only 3 episodes. Fox’s show lasted awhile longer, and received somewhat better reviews, but it never came even close to catching fire.
It seems like "The Michael J. Fox Show" made it’s best, maybe it’s only points about disability in the Pilot episode. After that, it really did become just another generic sit-com with somewhat higher quality than usual stars … particularly Michael J. Fox, who portrayed a news anchor with Parkinson’s Disease, the same condition he actually has, and Betsy Brandt, who was so brilliantly dramatic and funny in "Breaking Bad”. But, neither star power nor the potentially powerful themes generated by the main character’s disability could save the show from mediocrity … maybe because they failed to use disability after the first episode, other than a few shallow cracks. The writers and possibly Fox may have thought that focusing strongly and frequently on Parkinson's would send the wrong message about it. Touching on it occasionally and lightly, then maybe once or twice per season depicting a real disability-related dilemma probably would have worked well on the show, except that none of the other stories or character traits were interesting or particularly funny.

“Ironside", too, failed because except for the main character using a wheelchair the show was generic. "Ironside" was bolder in using the main character’s paralysis as an important plot and character point. But again, the unusual inclusion of disability didn’t alter the fact that “Ironside” was just another police procedural, with nothing much to say that most viewers haven't heard before.

Pajiba’s Dustin Rowles says of “The Michael J. Fox Show”, along with some other cancelled NBC sit-coms:
"But the other thing they had in common was tired writing. They took decades-old sitcom tropes and simply modified them to fit these updated characters. They built shows around a premise, instead of around the characters. They didn’t bother challenging the audience, they simply tried to please as many people as possible.”
In the case of “The Michael J. Fox Show” and “Ironside”, disability was “the premise” that wasn’t enough by itself. Not that it was a bad premise for either show. I don’t think people were put off by characters with disabilities. But, disability alone is probably not enough to sustain a TV show in the absence of interesting characters, good writing, and up-to-date or innovative filming styles.

I’m hopeful for “Growing Up Fischer”. J. K. Simmons, who plays the blind father of a “typical” family, is one of the very best “that guy” character actors, and Jenna Elfman, who plays his wife, is accomplished, though to my mind a bit harder to like. The real problem that worries me is that I haven’t seen any indicate yet that there’s going to be anything interesting or funny about this show except that “Dad is blind” and makes lots of jokes about that aspect of himself. If that’s all they’ve got in mind, I’m not sure it will work, and it just might be noxious.

One thing does occur to me now that I’ve never really considered before. Maybe the reason disability is so rare on television is that doing it well is really, really hard.

Meanwhile, if you want to see complex, challenging, empowering disabled characters on TV, watch Game Of Thrones, a show that is not at all about disability, but has, at current count, four characters with disabilities. The Fourth Season begins April 17.

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