Television review: Michael J. Fox, Robin Williams back to the future

Hello, America! Here are your boys Michael J. Fox and Robin Williams back again on television, each with a series of his own (each premiering Thursday), each with the dust of many roads upon him.

They have had their triumphs, their tribulations, their hits, their flops. But they worked their way into our lives when the world was young, and are stuck there good and tight.

You can probably guess the star of the highly likable “The Michael J. Fox Show” from its title, which in itself hearkens back to an age of purpose-built star-vehicle sitcoms. Its premise is a kind of metaphor for its own existence, mirroring as it does the star’s own retirement from and return to work — the necessity that mothered this invention being, of course, his Parkinson’s disease.

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Here he plays not the beloved actor he is in life but a beloved New York City newsman, and family man (which he is in life). Having retired five years earlier, after an on-screen, Parkinson’s-related, rolling-chair incident, he has been hanging around the house, spending more time with his family than his family would like. After some light skulduggery on their part, he accepts an offer to return to the job.

“What if I’m not the guy they remember?” he wonders to wife Betsy Brandt, on the eve of his return.

“You won’t be,” she answers. “You’ll be different. But you’ll still be you.”

And so he is. Fox, in fact, has been working his way back into the public eye for some time, in bits and pieces — an arc on “Rescue Me,” an appearance on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” a recurring character on “The Good Wife” — never trying to hide his condition, usually playing with it, and careful not to make it a pretext for pity.


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The new NBC series puts it on the table immediately: “Dad, you’re moving too much,” says his daughter (Juliette Goglia), who is filming him for a class project. “I’ve got to zoom out and start again.” Though there are jokes about controlling medications, we are shown every so often that Fox can still run up stairs, still has a sex life, when the kids aren’t bursting in. But none of the other characters treat him with kid gloves. (“We might be friends,” says Wendell Pierce, “but I’ll take you out; it’s not that hard.”)

Indeed, as the dad in what is in most respects a very traditional sitcom (a new role for the actor), he is a magnet for mockery. His faults — he is foolishly competitive and, as is often the case with sitcom dads, slower on the uptake than the rest of his family — are distinct from his diagnosis.

It is a familiar, exaggerated TV reality. At home: his wife, three kids (woolly-headed, woolly-haired older son Conor Romero, sardonic middle daughter Goglia, precocious smaller son Jack Gore), floundering relative (the excellent Katie Finneran as Fox’s sister). At work: eccentric boss (Pierce), a semi-nemesis played by Anne Heche (arriving after a few episodes and well-used). Standard sitcom issue — yet they feel convincingly bound to each other from the start.

Particularly valuable is Brandt, who has been playing Marie Schrader on “Breaking Bad,” and for whom this job must constitute a psychic relief. (It is something of a psychic relief for the reviewer too.) She is smart and very funny, and, practically speaking, as much the star of the show as Fox.

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You can probably guess the star of “The Crazy Ones” from its title too. This CBS series, from David E. Kelley, proposes the hyperactive Williams, in his first series since 1982, as the mad-genius head of a Chicago ad agency; Sarah Michelle Gellar is his daughter, the company’s creative director, though her father seems to be doing most of the creating and directing.

Kelley, of “Ally McBeal” and “Boston Legal” and so on, is its creator, and the speedy pilot finds him in a bit of an Aaron Sorkin mood, shooting for an atmosphere of institutional urgency, with rat-a-tat rhythms and overlapping dialogue. None of the workplace details feels particularly convincing, however.


If Fox at 52 is not the same actor as when he left “Spin City,” Williams, 62, has also traveled far from Mork (from Ork). But where Fox seems appealingly both boyish and mature — some of that is just the way he looks, of course — there is a kind of tension between Williams’ age and his antics that here produces an air of melancholy, underscored by lines long on nostalgic reverie. Indeed, of the two series, it is the more baldly sentimental.

“My daughter,” he says, in a pitch to McDonald’s, whose account they might lose. “Sometimes when I look at her I still see my babycakes, my piglet — I was flat broke but I still had enough money to buy her a Happy Meal — it made me look like a king to her.” This is as unsettling a monologue as I have heard this fall season.

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It is not a hopeless proposition. The pilot, busy as it is — it includes an extended appearance by Kelly Clarkson, who may have more lines than series regular Hamish Linklater — is just overstuffed. Williams takes up a lot of air with his mockingbird asides without getting around to creating a character, while Gellar, who at least gets to save the day, seems to be struggling to be heard. (Where is the girl who spent her evenings staking vamps?)

That may be the point, but it is buried in whimsicality and paeans to “feeling” and leaping into the void. And the stars do feel out of sync. (Williams is more comfortable riffing with James Wolk — “Mad Men’s” Bob Benson — as … some other guy who works there.) We will give it some time.


‘The Crazy Ones’


Where: CBS

When: 9 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-14-DL (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)

‘The Michael J. Fox Show’

Where: NBC

When: 9 and 9:30 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)

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