NBC was so certain that “The Michael J. Fox Show” would be a hit that the network ordered a full season worth of episodes without even making a pilot. Instead, the sitcom was such a ratings disappointment that tonight NBC quietly pulled it from the schedule, replacing it and the already-canceled “Sean Saves the World” with “Hollywood Game Night.” Production had already wrapped on the season, 15 episodes have aired; it’s unclear when the remaining 7 (including a “Back to the Future” reunion between Fox and Christopher Lloyd) will air, though an NBC publicist told Vulture’s Joe Adalian that they were looking for a place on the schedule after April 3. It’s not officially canceled, but with those numbers and the amount of money NBC spent, it’s hard to imagine it returning next season.
I was mixed on the series when it premiered in the fall. Fox is among the more inherently likable actors in sitcom history, and his time away from acting and the effects of Parkinson’s hadn’t taken away his Swiss watch comic timing. He was essentially playing himself, with talk of his condition adding genuine pathos to the humor, and he was surrounded by a strong comic ensemble, particularly Wendell Pierce as his boss, Betsy Brandt as his wife and Juliette Goglia as his teen daughter. And yet as I watched the show off and on in the fall, it never quite settled on a tone or a point of view. Some characters were down to earth, others cartoonish (notably Katie Finneran as Mike’s sister, who in the most recent episode became convinced she was having an affair with a ghost). At times the Henry family seemed warm and loving, and at others they could come across as sociopaths who took pleasure in each others’ failures. In isolated moments, it could be funny or sweet, but it never really cohered into anything beyond “Here’s Michael J. Fox in a new TV show, and we’ll figure out the rest as we go.”
That’s not a terrible sin for a first-year comedy, and you can’t really blame those growing pains for the terrible ratings. The ratings were poor from the start, though they went down as the season went along (in recent airings, it was drawing about half the already lousy 18-49 demo rating of “Parks and Recreation”). It could have turned into a classic by November and no one would have noticed; the interest simply wasn’t there for this show, at least not on NBC on Thursday nights.
Though Fox was a sitcom star twice in the last century – first with “Family Ties,” then with “Spin City” – that star power was far removed enough to not matter. The first episode aired opposite the premiere of Robin Williams’ “The Crazy Ones” on CBS, a network that both has a sturdier Thursday lineup to begin with and an audience with a greater interest in the stars of yesteryear; swap the two and Williams might be the one getting the bad news tonight.
But the show’s failure is interesting because it’s representative of two big trends in television at the moment: nostalgia, and ordering shows straight to series without filming a pilot. NBC is already at work on a new Bill Cosby show, while FOX is trying to bypass the pilot process as much as possible, and has already ordered several series for next season without making a pilot episode to see if the concept works on screen.
I don’t think the struggles of “The Michael J. Fox Show” can be pinned to the lack of a pilot being filmed in advance, since the first episode (produced after NBC ordered the show) was one of the better ones to premiere back in the fall. Nor is getting a familiar star an automatic kiss of death, even though hit TV shows tend to create stars far more than the other way around. At the same time, NBC saw the idea of Fox doing a new, more autobiographical sitcom as such a sure winner that they leapt to get it on the air as soon as possible, for as long as possible, and what they got was a pleasant comedy that was still trying to find itself in front of an indifferent and dwindling audience.
TV is a better place with Michael J. Fox in it (and Pierce, Brandt and some of the others, too), but nothing’s a sure thing in this business, and caution and modest expectations aren’t the worst ideas to have.
What does everybody else think? If you were watching, how did you feel the show was doing creatively? If you stopped, why? If you never started, but perhaps liked Fox in his earlier shows, in “Back to the Future,” etc., why didn’t you watch this one?