Everyone knows Michael J. Fox’s story. The beloved star of “Family Ties,” “Spin City” and the “Back to the Future” movies thought he would have to give up acting all together when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Instead, after taking a few years off to get treatment, he returned to work, winning Emmy nominations for his guest-starring roles on “The Good Wife,” “Rescue Me” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” Fox realized he could handle the workload of doing what he does best: headlining a comedy.
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“The Michael J. Fox Show,” which premieres Thursday, September 26 on NBC, is inspired by his own life. Fox plays a reporter with Parkinson’s returning to work after years of being a full-time dad. Here are five things you need to know about “The Michael J. Fox Show.”
1. It’s Less About Parkinson’s and More About People’s Reactions to Parkinson’s. A lot of the humor in the pilot stems from Mike Henry’s Parkinson’s disease. There are moments when physical tasks are difficult for him and a flashback to a newscast in which his symptoms caused him to roll his chair out of frame. But most of the jokes are less about the disease and more about other people’s reactions to him, such as a plumber who confuses Alzheimer’s with Parkinson’s. His family is exasperated by his determination to serve them breakfast even if it takes an hour. Fox explains, “A lot of times when you have a disability, one of the things you deal with is other people’s projections of what your experience is, and people projecting on what they think it is, and their fear about it, and not seeing the experience you’re having.”
2. But After the Pilot Episode, the Focus Shifts Away from the Disease. After the pilot, the disease plays a much smaller role in the show. Showrunner Will Gluck explains, “In the pilot, we really wanted to get people to just say, hey, this is Mike, this is the family, this is the way the family feels about Mike. This is the way people on the street feel about Mike… Stay for the family and the episodes coming up. It’s just going to be a family show with Mike, who has a unique perspective about being the father of three kids and wife, but is also dealing with something. It’s always going to be there, but it’s not going to be the spotlight.”
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3. It’s Throwback Thursday. “The Michael J. Fox Show” could easily air between “The Cosby Show” and “Family Ties.” It’s a timeless, wholesome family comedy with less edge than “Modern Family” or “The Middle.” Michael and the rest of the characters — his school teacher wife Annie (“Breaking Bad’s” Betsy Brandt), his flaky sister Leigh (Katie Finneran) and his three kids — all get along. The only source of family tension comes from Mike being too devoted to being the perfect parent. This dynamic comes from Fox’s own life. He explained that in his years away from television he kept busy, “Being with my family, hanging out with my family and driving them nuts in a similar way to Mike Henry on the show, just being there… my son is 24 and my daughters are 18 and my youngest daughter is 11… so I really got a good piece of their lives, a good piece of their formative years where they were the focus of my attention, and it was beautiful. It was so great.”
4. It’s Two Shows in One. Though the pilot focuses more on Mike’s relationship with his family, the series is evenly split between Mike’s family life and his career as a local news anchor in New York City. The two halves will mesh together organically, according to executive producer Sam Laybourne. “We got so excited working with Mike, to just squarely nail a kind of truthful family show and that [work] informs your family life. If you’re having a hard day at work, clearly it’s context for a funny story at home.” There will be interaction between Mike’s “work family” and his actual family. “His daughter, Juliette Goglia, on the show, gets an internship at work. Harris is over for Thanksgiving dinner.”
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5. Betsy Brandt’s Character Is More Competent Than Her “Breaking Bad” Character. Betsy Brandt has carved out an unusual niche playing the wife of men with disabilities. But her character here, Annie, is nothing like “Breaking Bad’s” Marie. She does not shoplift or wear purple. She is the typical, competent sitcom wife and mother. Brandt relishes the change. “I was really hoping I would get a comedy. This is beyond whatever I could have come up with in my mind. I didn’t want to chase the next “Breaking Bad,” because there may never be one. When I read that script, I just said, ‘I say these things. These are things that I say to my kids’… Then once I read with Mike, I would have shanked all the other actors that were there to get this role.”
“The Michael J. Fox Show” premieres Thursday, Sept. 26, with back-to-back episodes airing at 9/8c and 9:30/8:30c on NBC.