If you were making a list of potentially fruitful subjects for television comedy, my guess is you wouldn’t include “getting old and scared” or “having Parkinson’s disease.” Well, think again.
If you sign actors — say, Robin Williams or Michael J. Fox — and writers — say, David E. Kelley — with enough talent, anything can be made funny. And the sitcoms debuting Thursday prove it.
Parkinson’s is practically a character in NBC’s The Michael J. Fox Show, in which the comedian riffs — funnily and affectingly — on his own affliction with the disease. And CBS’ The Crazy Ones, with Kelley producing and Williams starring, is a witheringly but poignantly hilarious tale of the excruciating moment in life when children begin to switch places with their parents.
Fox’s winning performance should come as no surprise. He’s been slyly exploring the comic possibilities of Parkinson’s — that’s an extraordinary but utterly accurate phrase — for the past three seasons on The Good Wife in a recurring role as an attorney who gleefully exploits his quivering hands and shuffling gait to gain sympathy from judges and jurors.
As a producer as well as the star of The Michael J. Fox Show, he’s able to go much further. The show doesn’t shrink from the physical consequences of Parkinson’s — one magnificently constructed scene shows Fox’s sister in the foreground, prattling on about his “charmed life,” while behind her, he’s engaged in an epic struggle with a jar lid.
But the show doesn’t stop there. It also documents the way the disease ripples outward, impacting families, friends and even strangers in unexpected and sometimes dotty ways. (“Can I get you to sign an autograph?” asks a cop. “My uncle has Alzheimer’s!”)
Fox plays a swashbuckling TV reporter who’s been housebound by Parkinson’s. He’s learned to co-exist with it, even to the point of admitting that he left his job not so much because of physical disability but fear of becoming known as “Mike, the poor son of a bitch.”
His family is less sanguine. “For 20 years he’s poured everything he had into work. Now he pours it all into us. Yayyy,” says his wife, Annie (Betsy Brandt, Breaking Bad). His three kids are also weary of all the attention paid to Mike’s disease, though teenager Eve (Juliette Goglia, Ugly Betty) is not above exploiting it for a classroom project, a mawkish video comparing her family to Depression victims in The Grapes of Wrath. (“My dad’s condition is the dust bowl of my family. And we are the grapes. Wait, are we the grapes or are we the wrath?”)
Yet The Michael J. Fox Show (which debuts with back-to-back episodes) is never cloying or condescending. And any time it seems to be veering toward disease-of-the-week-movie territory, you can be sure that lampoon is on the way. The show’s signature moment may be a slow-mo close-up of Fox trying, determinedly but haphazardly, to dish out scrambled eggs to the family, a scene that screeches to a halt with Annie’s plaintive request: “Can you not have a personal victory right now? We are starving.”
The family relationship in The Crazy Ones is even more stressed. Williams plays Simon Roberts, the aging head of a powerful but sagging Chicago advertising agency, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer star Sarah Michelle Gellar is his partner and daughter, Sydney.
The seemingly perfect business match between a daffily creative father and his hard-charging, bottom-line daughter is going to pieces. Sydney’s ambitious efforts to keep the firm on top are being undercut by Simon, who, after two divorces and a stint in rehab, has lost his edge.
He’s steadily retreating into a second childhood, preferring to box with his giant Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots and convulse the secretaries with mugging wisecracks. Not even Sydney’s increasingly obvious anguish can get him back on track. “This is not something you do to a partner — my name is on the door,” she sharply reminds him, only to be met with a quip: “I thought it was my name twice.”
Like Sydney’s hopelessly bemused staff, you’ll find it nearly impossible to keep from laughing at Williams’ manic goofs. But this is comedy that cuts to the bone. Anyone who’s started the end game with aging parents knows it’s a story without a happy ending.
It may seem odd to see the name of a renowned dramatist like Kelley on what is, however blackly, a sitcom. But many of his shows, including Ally McBeal and Boston Legal, have been broadly streaked with comedy, and Kelley toyed with the serio-comic half-hour format in Doogie Howser, M.D.
The subtext of loss and longing, which sometimes isn’t all that sub, makes The Crazy Ones a tightrope act. But Kelley gets tremendous support from his cast. The madcap Williams has never been better, and Gellar’s performance is a magnificently winning mixture of quiet desperation, mounting rage and wistful yearning.
The pilot episode also benefits enormously from guest appearances by Gail O’Grady ( American Dreams) as an imperious McDonald’s executive and singer Kelly Clarkson playing an uproariously bawdy version of herself, trying out as a jingle singer. She’ll almost make you believe that It Ain’t the Meat, It’s the Motion was written to sell Big Macs.