Sunday, September 29, 2013

Photo Of The Day

Young woman sitting in manual wheelchair, legs crossed, taking a selfie with a phone camera, viewed in a mirror
From tumblr blog, The Lame Dame.

Full Review: The Michael J. Fox Show

Episode 1, "Pilot"
Episode 2, "Neighbor"

Spoilers Ahead? … Yes, I reveal a few punchlines, but it's not clear yet whether this show is going to feature long-running story arcs with big secrets to keep from late viewers.

What's It About? …

Mike Henry was a beloved local news anchor in New York City, and some time ago left the job due to Parkinson's Disease. We meet Mike and his family as he decides to go back to his old job behind the anchor desk. His family is happy, because they have become the only outlets for Mike's natural enthusiasm, driving them crazy as he benevolently meddles in their everyday lives. His former producer, Harris, is glad, partly because he can parlay Mike's "inspirational" return into higher ratings. Henry is given a new assistant, a young woman who's admiration for him borders on worship. Meanwhile, his wife and three children … and his permanently irresponsible sister … deal with their own lives and quirks.

Background Information …

The big news, obviously, is that Mike Henry is played by Michael J. Fox, who actually has Parkinson's Disease. How much of a difference will this make to the insightfulness and authenticity of the show?

Annie Henry, Mike's wife, is played by Betsy Brandt, who has just finished a long and excellent run as Marie Schrader on "Breaking Bad". Here she may be able to let her comic talents shine a bit more.

Harris Green, Mike's producer at the TV station, is played by Wendell Pierce, who was Bunk, McNulty's partner on "The Wire". Will Harris become more than just a TV news version of Bunk?

The Pilot episode used several real-life NBC personalities to establish the kind of world Mike inhabits. How often will the show continue to use Matt Lauer cameos?

In Episode 2, the sexy neighbor is played by Tracy Pollan, who is Fox's wife.

The Good ...

The show kicked off with two episodes broadcast back to back, and gave us two important and relatively sophisticated disability themes right out of the gate. The Pilot episode beautifully introduced us to the concept of "inspiration porn". It didn't use that term, (I would LOVE IT if a future episode used that phrase!), but by showing us how silly it is when people over-praise and sentimentalize disabled people, it got the idea across better than an academic explanation or a direct complaint. There were three main points where the message hit home:

• When Mike predicts how the network will use slo-mo footage and heroic music to promote his return, his producer denies it, while exactly such a promo plays on the newsroom screens behind them.

• When daughter Eve's teacher gives her an F for her documentary film about Mike, because of how sentimental and phony it is.

• A throwaway moment, easy to miss, when Mike's boss unwittingly illustrates the cynicism of "inspiration porn" by suggesting that an equivalent option would be showing footage of pandas. Overcoming disabled people / cute pandas, same emotions, right?

Both "sides" of the issue get fair play. Mike isn't depicted as bitter or ungrateful for his dread of effusive praise, while his wife gets a moment when she maybe speaks for most viewers. When Mike fears that he'll get a standing ovation from his coworkers at the station, she responds, "Standing ovation? Ugh, those sons of bitches!"

My favorite direct Parkinson's Disease joke was at the breakfast table, as Mike sloooowly moves to serve his wife a scoop of scrambled eggs, until she interrupts, grabs the spoon, and says, “Can you not have a personal victory right now? We are starving.”  It is a joke at the expense of his disability, and how it annoys others, but it's gentile and truthful. It also works because by this point the show has well established that Mike is belittled only the way all sitcom (and real life) Dads are in their families. His disability is just one unique quirk that sometimes makes his family roll their eyes. He is emphatically not a dependent or lesser member of his family.

In fact, I think a key to how this show handles disability is that so far, what silliness there is in Mike isn't mainly about his disability. It's more that he's kind of an eager-beaver … an enthusiastic, straightforward optimist in a family … and a profession ... where everyone has a layer of feigned weariness and cynicism. He's a goofy, slightly out of touch Dad. We love him, but he's a little embarrassing. Nobody says it, but it feels like he probably was always that way, well before he got Parkinson's.

The second episode, titled "The Neighbor", should have been titled "Self-Image". That seems to me to have been the episode's main theme … how people see themselves and how twists in their self-image can mess them up.

First, Eve has an image of herself as a progressive person who embraces a carefully assembled group of diverse friends. She seems really excited to have found a lesbian friend, but worries that clumsy comments from her family will ruin things when the friend comes to visit. Clearly, none of them could care less either way. It's Eve who is all wound up about it, to the extent that she even gets it wrong … her new friend isn't a lesbian. She just kind of vaguely looks and dresses like a certain stereotype of lesbians, so Eve just assumed.

Meanwhile ...

Mike meets a sexy new neighbor, and makes a mild fool out of himself in seemingly having a "crush" on her. Later he tells his wife that it's not so much that he had a crush on the neighbor, but that the neighbor kind of had a crush on him. This pleased but also discombobulated him because it ran counter to his feeling that since his Parkinson's, he might not be desirable anymore. Well, the neighbor really was flirting with him a bit, and Mike's wife makes it absolutely clear that she's still attracted to him.

So far, "The Michael J. Fox Show" not only gets the disability stuff right, it digs surprisingly deep, past bland, entry-level disability awareness platitudes.

The Bad ...

I can't believe I'm saying this, but everyone talks too fast. Mike, especially, and that may be an effect of his Parkinson's Disease. I hope I'm just imagining this, or that either I get used to it or they actually manage to slow down a little. 

So far, the older son is kind of a confusing mess, the younger son is a blank slate, and Mike's older sister is shaping up to be really annoying … to us, the viewers, not just to the Henry family.

I don't really like having the morals spelled out for us by characters addressing us through the camera. Maybe it's necessary, to help reinforce the fairly ambitious disability themes the show seems to be laying out. If every episode has what my favorite Star Trek podcast calls a "You see Timmy …" moment, it will take the show down a notch.

As some critics have said, the show isn't very funny. I'm not saying they need "More Jokes!"; there have been several comedies in recent years that were hilarious without being dueling standup routines. I just hope as the rest of the characters fill out they'll each pack in more laughs by being themselves.

Conclusion …

If the show itself can improve enough to survive, then "The Michael J. Fox Show" could actually do what we always hope disability stories and characters will do, change how real people understand disability.

Further reading …