Michael J. Fox and Robin Williams will return to television starring in different shows on the same night (Sept. 26) on a medium that has evolved remarkably from the one they left years before. If nothing at all had changed technologically and culturally since the days of Mork from Ork and Alex P. Keaton, the debuts of their competing new comedies — “The Crazy Ones” and “The Michael J. Fox Show”— would be billed as a spectacular showdown between ’80s heavies, a modern-day Battle of the Network Stars. Viewers would have to choose which one to watch. There’d be a cartoon of them arm-wrestling on the cover of TV Guide.
Now they’ll both be lucky if anyone sends out a few halfhearted tweets during the broadcast or clicks on clips of either show online the next day. Buzz is the only expression of TV adoration anymore.
So what exactly are Williams and Fox each looking for, besides a hit? They’re looking for comfort — a mix of job security and creative satisfaction, perhaps. And what are we looking for when we tune in to shows starring actors whose long orbits have returned them to TV? We seek anything remotely funny or assured of itself; anything that lets us know that TV still works the way it used to when put in the hands of old pros. Familiarity is a powerful lure. What neither man could fully prepare for is the insecure nature of network comedy now — how meta is too meta? How much sarcasm kills a joke?
CBS’s “The Crazy Ones,” created by David E. Kelley (“Ally McBeal,” “Boston Legal”), is far more successful at a number of these goals, with a slicker launch and a better premise. It stars the 62-year-old Williams as successful adman Simon Roberts, who has turned over the business operation of his big Chicago-based agency to his daughter, Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar).
Williams of course brings the manic, free-associative ramble upon which he built his career. In Simon’s ongoing monologue about himself, we catch light-speed references to divorces and rehab stints. His attention-deficit problem and personal demons don’t help the trains run on time, but, as the agency stands to lose its big account with McDonald’s, Simon is still the one who can pop in with a brilliant, off-the-cuff idea, buying the agency another couple of days with the impossible promise of luring pop star Kelly Clarkson (who is featured in an energetic guest cameo in the pilot episode) to sing an updated version of the “You Deserve a Break Today” jingle.
Not lovin’ it? It’s interesting to note that both “The Crazy Ones” and “The Michael J. Fox Show” lean far too heavily on promotional tie-ins to get their stories started. The creators of “The Crazy Ones” swear up and down that their show does not have a deal with McDonald’s (or any other brand to be seen in future episodes). Their sole aim in choosing McDonald’s was verisimilitude; the energy spent conjuring a McDonald’s-like analogue to play the role of Simon’s top client should instead be spent writing scenes and characters, Kelley and his writers explained to critics earlier this summer.
Viewers are therefore supposed to believe that the McDonald’s logo and its old jingles are as free as the air we breathe — be sure to pop them into your next creative endeavor, gratis. The rationale is fine, but the net effect in the first episode of “The Crazy Ones” is that it feels like a protracted McDonald’s ad. (“Sponsored content,” in today’s parlance, even if it isn’t.)
Clarkson declines when Simon and his team beg her to sing the McDonald’s ad, but she’s intrigued by an ad-libbed idea offered by Simon and his charming associate, Zach, played by James Wolk; the two wind up improvising a sexier ad pitch that turns ketchup packets into syncopated pornography.
Wolk, as you may have noticed, is making a slow but worthy ascent to Jimmy Stewart-ville, where his twinkly eyes and an insouciant grin mask an unpredictable edge. You know him as the mysterious Bob Benson from the recent “Mad Men” season; or you know him as various boyfriends on canceled sitcoms or the number-one son on USA’s “Political Animals”; or you know him from “Lone Star,” the 2010 Fox drama that turned out to be the ratings equivalent of a snuff film.
Here, Wolk provides just the sort of casting ingenuity “The Crazy Ones” needs, especially as a counterbalance to Williams, who, it goes without saying, will motormouth his way through any scene he can. (“Don’t encourage him,” Gellar’s character says at one point.)
As for Gellar, I completely get that she’s permanently beloved for her work in the niche hit “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and is therefore entitled to flail about in other shows until the end of time. But watching her play Williams’s dutiful and comedy-challenged daughter is a dreary primer in the pitfalls of big-name casting. Even in the tender scenes, she and Williams seem to be communicating through a glass wall that separates two different shows. She’s politely tapping on it, but can’t get in.
Overall, “The Crazy Ones” shows sure signs of achieving what it’s attempting to be — a playful, upscale, single-camera departure from the usual sitcom. You can tell that it wants to be funny, which sounds like a strange compliment, until you watch enough new comedies in which detachment is the goal.
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Give “The Michael J. Fox Show” props for a similar aim: It wants to be funny, it wants to be urbane, it wants to be human and it wants to nail every line.
Where it fails miserably is in premise and character. The 52-year-old Fox has been lucky to star in two series that landed upon the sitcom equivalent of undiscovered territory: In “Family Ties,” he played the ambitious Republican teenager in a left-leaning, sort of proto-Whole Foods family. That part opened up a world of topical humor that straddled the remnants of the 1970s living-room sitcom and the newer, sassier ’80s. “Family Ties” was simple as could be and yet entirely suited to contrasting the Reagan revolution against MTV. And later, in “Spin City,” Fox played the deputy mayor of New York, adept at the obfuscating arts of politics and message, just as Bill Clinton’s White House was attempting to elude its biggest scandal. (Fox left the show in 2000 to cope with his Parkinson’s disease.)
“The Michael J. Fox Show,” naturally, is a riff on the actor’s ability to return to work, but that’s all it is. It’s a giant mirror that serves to reflect the triumph of his will, as well as the healing effects of gallows humor and family support. It’s about a former TV and movie star who comes back to a network comedy series by playing a New York news anchor, Mike Henry, who comes back to work after learning to manage his illness. Here, Parkinson’s co-stars as the sidekick (literally, as Fox’s character might jest, with a well-timed leg tremor). The disease is the bad guy and the butt of all the jokes; its symptoms are presented as an entertaining set of quirks.
But by making Mike an NBC guy, “The Michael J. Fox Show” burns off all its goodwill in the pilot episode with a shameful new low in cross-promotion, featuring cameos from the “Today” show’s Matt Lauer, Savannah Guthrie and Al Roker. It already seems like a million years since Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin were making cruel fun of NBCUniversal on “30 Rock.” What’s happening to Fox here feels like payback.
It’s hard to cut through the junk of all that and notice that Fox is as sharp a TV actor as he ever was, something viewers of “The Good Wife” already knew based on his recurring role there. The guy does not miss a beat, even when his body won’t obey. Betsy Brandt, shifting gears wildly from her final season on “Breaking Bad,” plays Mike’s wife, urging him to consider the station’s offer to rehire him, even if it comes at the price of a treacly, soft-focus “comeback” campaign cooked up by his boss (“Treme’s” Wendell Pierce).
The couple’s children (a son who dropped out of Cornell; a conceited teenage daughter; and a tyke who keeps breaking major appliances) are all eager to get Mike out of the house based on a series of stale “doofus dad” routines. (What a chump! He’s trying to get us to eat at the dining-room table! He makes us get up in time for school!)
“The Michael J. Fox Show” cracks the same jokes over and over and over, first about Parkinson’s and its symptoms (one of which is the unwanted attention of strangers), then about domestic shenanigans as they are experienced by upper-class residents of Manhattan. I have no doubt that the show sincerely believes its message is “You can overcome anything,” but the real message is: Watch NBC, we beg of you.
(30 minutes) premieres Thursday, Sept. 26 at 9 p.m on CBS.
(one hour; two episodes) premieres Thursday, Sept. 26 at 9 p.m. on NBC.