Robin Williams and Michael J. Fox became TV stars about four years apart, Williams with “Mork & Mindy” and Fox with “Family Ties.” They made their first big movies about five years apart, Williams with “Popeye,” Fox with “Back to the Future.” The movie business took much longer to figure out how to harness Williams’ unique gifts, but he’s worked steadily and topped call sheets for decades. Marty McFly was instantly a perfect film role for Fox, but his run as a successful leading man only ran a few years, up through “Doc Hollywood,” before he starred in some flops, went back to TV, then semi-retired due to complications from Parkinson’s.
Their careers are not identical, and yet it feels somehow appropriate for these two to be returning full-time to television tomorrow on the same night, at the same time, with a pair of shows – Williams’ “The Crazy Ones” (9 p.m., CBS) and Fox’s “The Michael J. Fox Show” (9 & 9:30 p.m., NBC) – that seem built with the same guidelines: Step 1. Build star vehicle that lets beloved actor do the thing people love watching them do. Step 2. ________ Step 3. Profit!
“The Michael J. Fox Show” is clearly the better of the two. At this point (I’ve seen three episodes), it’s more likable than funny, but it has a very clear sense of what it wants to do and how it wants to frame its star. Created by Will Gluck and Sam Laybourne, it’s sitcom-as-autobiography: Fox plays Mike Henry, beloved former New York TV news reporter who was also forced into early retirement due to Parkinson’s (when Fox has done guest appearances on shows like “The Good Wife” the last few years, they go out of their way to explain his twitching via another condition), got to spend a lot of time with his wife (played here by Betsy Brandt, enjoying herself much more than she’s gotten to of late as Marie on “Breaking Bad”) and kids, then went back to work once the drugs improved and his family got annoyed having him around so much.
It’s so meta that the first episode is largely devoted to making the audience comfortable with laughing at the guy with the serious medical condition, while the second episode (also airing tomorrow) features Tracy Pollan as a sexy neighbor Mike develops a crush on, as we’re asked to watch Fox’s TV wife be annoyed by his focus on his real-life wife, while also being invited to appreciate just how hot the former Ellen Reed still is.
And yet a lot of it works because Fox really is that good – a sitcom Hall of Famer whose Swiss watch timing has miraculously not been impaired by his physical limitations – and that charming. It’s just such a pleasure to see him back in his own show, both for what it says about his health and for the greater appeal of his work.
A lot of the material’s very broad – especially anything involving Katie Finneran as Mike’s flaky sister or Conor Romero as his oldest son, a college dropout who claims to be developing on a new search engine – and at times feels better suited to the old multi-camera rhythms of “Family Ties” or “Spin City” than to a single-cam show that very transparently models itself after “Modern Family,” with characters addressing the camera and a heartwarming voiceover to wrap up each show. But there’s abundant chemistry between Fox and Brandt, between Fox and Juliette Goglia (Little Girl God from “Joan of Arcadia”) as his teenage daughter, and between Fox and Wendell Pierce (Bunk from “The Wire”) as his boss at the TV station. The rest will hopefully come in time, but for now I’m just glad to see the man practicing his craft again.
Because Williams has been working much more steadily over a greater period of time, his particular persona doesn’t feel as fresh. Over the course of “The Crazy Ones” pilot, in which he plays Chicago ad executive Simon Roberts, Williams busts out all his greatest hits know from the ’80s, ’90s, and today: Marlon Brando, kung fu, an elderly Eskimo chief. In an early scene, an underling laughs at his voices, leading his frustrated daughter/partner Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar) to yell, “Do not encourage him!” “The Crazy Ones” is a show meant to encourage him to be Robin Williams to do all the material you know so well, whether you still love it or not.
But it’s also a strange show, wildly off-brand for CBS – a mix of drama and comedy, shot on film with no laughtrack – and created by David E. Kelley, who has certainly written lots of wacky jokes into his serious shows (and whose “Ally McBeal” won an Emmy for comedy series back in the ’90s), but who seems a loss for how to integrate the two tones here. There are a few suggestions that Simon is genuinely crazy and has recovered from a previous breakdown, and then others where he’s just the furry guy who won’t stop doing impressions.
The pilot episode is unusually short – the version sent to critics was less than 19 minutes, one of which was just outtakes of guest star Kelly Clarkson laughing at Williams’ improvisation, when a typical network sitcom can run 21-23 minutes when you remove the ads. It may not seem like a lot of time on paper, but in practice it creates a half-finished feeling to everything. Simon, Sydney and their colleagues work in a giant office that seems much too underpopulated, just as the first episode feels like a rough draft.
Gellar is largely stuck in killjoy mode, and in her one big comic moment comes across as too flop-sweaty by half. The biggest laughs in the pilot come, strangely, from Clarkson (playing herself as a possible jingle singer for one of Simon’s campaigns) and James Wolk (Bob Benson from “Mad Men”) as office himbo Zach. There’s a surprising ease to Wolk’s performance, so that when he’s riffing with an improv master like Williams, even though the older actor is clearly the one leading the way, Wolk is the one just relaxed enough to sell the jokes. (It’s also possible that Williams is a better point guard than he is a scorer these days, though he’s not able to do much to set up Gellar.)
If you don’t count “Ally” (a short-lived attempt to repurpose old “Ally McBeal” episodes at half the size), this is the first half-hour show Kelley’s been involved with since he created “Doogie Howser, M.D.” 24 years ago. Kelley seems in a more experimental mode these days: his low-rated TNT medical drama “Monday Mornings” was the most straightforward, non-quirky show he’s done in forever, and now he’s trying a more overt comedy, but doesn’t seem quite sure how to do it – or if he wants to – even with Williams at the center.
Neither show is a classic return to the form that made Williams and Fox into huge stars, but “The Michael J. Fox Show” has a more solid foundation, and a leading man whose schtick has aged much better, in part due to a forced absence. Both shows have a lot of growing to do, but I’m much more interested to see what Fox’s show can become than Williams’.
GRADES: “The Michael J. Fox Show” B / “The Crazy Ones” C
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org