TV Picks: ‘The Michael J. Fox Show,’ ‘The State of Arizona’


“The Michael J. Fox Show” (NBC, Thursdays). I come to spare a few good words and happy thoughts for this fine family sitcom, to praise and not to bury it, though the dominant (and no doubt accurate) line in the press is that it is fatally low-rated and hanging around only because NBC committed to a whole season with a confidence the medium has all but outgrown. (The possibility of a new NBC Bill Cosby show, also lately in the news, has shone a sideways spotlight on the Fox show’s fortunes.) But popularity has never been our guide.

Though Fox had quit “Spin City” in 2000, when his advancing Parkinson’s made work as usual difficult, he later found ways to integrate his condition into his work, and recurring turns in “Rescue Me” and “The Good Wife” and a memorable appearance more or less as himself on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” made it clear not only that he was not finished, but that we were not finished with him. (“The Michael J. Fox Show,” in which Fox plays a newsman with Parkinson’s coming out of retirement, to the relief of the family he quit to spend more time with, is a metaphor for itself.) It must have seemed a natural, a no-brainer, TV gold spun from your good feelings about Michael J. Fox. And if you have no good feelings about Michael J. Fox, just what sort of inhuman brute are you?

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The show is old-fashioned, certainly. The family members, though their particular arrangement may be the series’ own, are types we have seen before: the precocious small child, the fuzzy-headed oldest, the somewhat cynical middle one, the hapless relation, the avuncular best friend (who here is also a boss), the wife who is generally more clever than her husband, the Dad with no control or authority over anyone. (Here they are, respectively, Jack Gore, Conor Romero, Juliette Goglia, Katie Finneran, Wendell Pierce, Betsy Brandt and, of course, Fox.) Plotlines, too, are sitcom-classic -- some hasty lie comes back to haunt the teller, usually -- and it is sentimental about family even in its most trying aspects. But this is no more, really, than saying that music in a major key makes you happy; it is a beginning, merely -- a foundation on which to erect something that is artful, and itself.

For my money, or anyway my time, “Fox” has. There is no practical professional reason for me to watch it as often as I do; it is simply a pleasure. The cast (sometimes including Ann Heche as the star’s workplace nemesis) is talented and convincingly tied to one another; watching Brandt here, playing a a capable, attractive and open person after years of abuse by “Breaking Bad” (in the exalted service, I understand, of “Breaking Bad”), is not merely a joy to me, but something of a relief. As Fox’s sister, a sort of middle-aged adolescent (the opposite of the part she played on “Wonderfalls,” a late, great show I am gratuitously calling back to your attention), Finneran keeps her dignity doing undignified things. Pierce, a baritone sax of an actor, little used early on, has since had stories built around him. And Fox, though he may have lost a little of his athletic easiness, and though his delivery is rounded by his disease and the drugs he takes to control it, remains boyish good company. His Parkinson’s is played mainly for laughs -- there was a little incidental pathos in father Charles Grodin’s inability to see him as in any way diminished -- which is a way of telling us that Fox’s character, as Fox himself, is no one we need worry about. As it should be, sitcomically speaking. (Old episodes are available online, interested latecomers.)

“The State of Arizona” (PBS, Monday). Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini (collaborators on the 2004 “Farmingville,” about the attempted murder of two Mexican day laborers in a Long Island town) co-directed this (relatively) evenhanded and necessarily inconclusive close-up look at immigration wars and identity politics in the Grand Canyon State. Most of the action takes place around 2010 and 2011, and centers on the passage of, implementation of and challenges to SB 1070, a still-controversial multi-part anti-illegal-immigration bill, and features both major players and ordinary citizens on both sides of the battle, as well as some who look at both sides from a confounded middle ground.

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Immigration is a complicated issue in a country founded by people who, from the first, just … showed up, pitched a tent, planted a flag; new blood is its lifeblood. The film feels naturally more sympathetic to the state’s Hispanic population, as the beleaguered and not the beleaguering parties, documented and otherwise. The police, as shown, can be heavy-handed; and it does not help that they often look dressed as if for a dystopian near-future action film. One irony-deaf supporter of the bill declares, “I’m from Texas; we fought at the Alamo, we fought at San Jacinto.... We took this country, we pushed the Mexicans back”; meanwhile, Gov. Jan Brewer insists, “I will not tolerate … racial profiling in Arizona,” as she’s signing a bill that essentially legalizes and encourages it, by requiring police to ask for the papers of anyone they stop and “reasonably suspect” to have none. Even its sponsor, former state Sen. Russell Pearce, said the bill’s aim was to depopulate the state’s undocumented population “one traffic stop at a time.” (Pearce, who took his victories as a sign to double down, found himself the subject of a recall election once the business community requested a moratorium on further such legislation, which it had determined to be bad for the state economy.)

But Sandoval and Tambini also make it clear that Arizona itself is a victim of unintended consequences, federal immigration policies having encouraged workers who once would have crossed back and forth across a more open border to remain in the U.S., and, by fencing off the borders of neighboring Southwest states, to turn Arizona into a sort of funnel for immigrants and smugglers alike. They give many voices a say; they don’t pretend to know the answer, other than to suggest, by the real lives they enter, that it should be something that pays respect to difference, to family and to actual if not legal roots in the country. (And I didn’t not go into politics to pretend I have any of my own.) You may well leave the film more unsure of your opinions than when you entered. But what “The State of Arizona” does do is give a sense of the issues as lived on the ground, of the energies marshaled by each side -- so often missing from the reported news -- and the human consequences of policymaking.