Can Parkinson’s disease be funny? That was the question that Michael J. Fox and showrunner Will Gluck faced when they decided to create “The Michael J. Fox Show,” a sitcom inspired by the actor’s real life.
Fox has made memorable recent guest appearances on TV series, including “The Good Wife” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” but this is his first leading role since he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. At the new NBC show’s press conference to TV critics Saturday in Los Angeles, both men emphasized that, while Fox’s disease will be the source of some of the humor and conflict in the series, the show is a family comedy at heart. “The show reflects on my experience,” Fox said. “In the pilot episode, [Parkinson's] is more prevalent than it is in subsequent scripts.”
The series blurs the lines between Fox and his character, local news reporter Michael Henry. Both men are returning to work after lengthy, illness-related hiatuses. Both men are very devoted to their three kids. Henry’s gorgeous New York apartment was even designed to look like Fox’s actual home. With scenes that feature Fox accidentally dialing 911 with hilarious consequences and struggling to serve his family breakfast, the pilot does not shy away from the difficulties of life with Parkinson’s.
But Fox emphasizes that the toughest part of the disease is other people’s reactions to it. “A lot of times when you have a disability, what you deal with is other people’s projections of what your experience is. People projecting on what they think it is and their fear of it, and not seeing the experience that you’re having. For example, Parkinson’s itself, there’s nothing horrifying about it to me. What I do with it is the reality of my life. But it’s not horrifying. It’s not gothic nastiness. There’s nothing horrible, on the surface, about someone with shaky hands. There’s nothing horrible about someone in their life saying, ‘I’m tired of this shaky hand thing.’ And you say, ‘Me too.’”
Fox is surrounded by a talented cast, including “Breaking Bad’s” Betsy Brandt as his wife and recurring guest star Anne Heche. Said Brandt, “It’s good to be Betsy Brandt right now. I didn’t want to chase the next “Breaking Bad” because there may never be one. I would have shanked some of the other actors [auditioning] to get this role.”
Heche’s job is to add some edge to the sweet-natured show. “Anne Heche has been fantastic,” said Gluck. “We were excited to get a nemesis for Mike. Without giving away too much, let’s just say there’s a disputed incident that happened 20 years ago in Orlando and the Everglades in which she may or may not have used Mike a little to help her career, and now she’s back as the anchor and they’re going to butt heads.”
Another guest star that will excite “Family Ties” fans who watched their characters’ romance develop into a real-life marriage is Fox’s wife Tracy Pollan. “Tracy did an episode of the show,” revealed Fox. “There’s a moment in the episode Tracy was shooting where they’re in between shots and Mike and Tracy were sitting at the dining room table … and they were sitting at basically their dining room table in their apartment shooting a show, and it just felt so much like home. It was incredible.”
“The Michael J. Fox Show” shares one element with another hit NBC comedy, “30 Rock”: It has characters who work for NBC. Gluck explained why Fox’s character works for an NBC affiliate rather than a fictional network. “A fictional network didn’t give us 22 episodes,” joked Gluck. Executive producer Sam Laybourne added, “We’re trying to come from a place of more grounded, real character interaction. It’s fun to have a character who is a celebrity. Michael J. Fox is a celebrity who is playing a news celebrity. His world can be filled with colorful people who are fun to see on TV.”
In the pilot, “The Today Show’s” Matt Lauer appears as himself, along with cameos by Savannah Guthrie and Al Roker, while New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will appear in a future episode.
“The Michael J. Fox Show” premieres Thursday, Sept. 26 on NBC.