Oh my God, you guys.
In waiting for my illegal download of the series finale of Breaking Bad to complete, I chose to spend 23 minutes watching the recently-aired pilot of The Michael J. Fox Show. That is 23 minutes of my life that I can never get back—I could have spent that time huffing paint, boiling pasta, cooking meth—pretty much anything I can think of off the top of my head would have been better than watching this sitcom. All the characters have the same snappy dialogue. Fox’s kids are annoying smartasses, his sister is a Sex in the City reject, the show makes New York feel like a quaint little town in the Midwest where everybody knows each other, and the jokes, if you can call them that, are not even worth a pity laugh. If you don’t believe me, see for yourself, in one of the opening scenes:
If you thought “Maybe the beginning’s just a little slow,” you would be wrong. The entire show is that way. It’s just bad writing, bad characterization, unfunniness, and terrible pacing. It’s safe to say, I should have known the show would be like this. But even so, The Michael J. Fox Show was met with a lot of anticipation, mostly due to the fact that Fox is both a beloved TV and film star, as well as pretty much the public face of Parkinson’s. AKA, an American Hero.
There’s a part of you that really wants the show to work out. Michael J. Fox is still kind of a fox (eh? Ehhh??) in his weird dad sweaters (are you sure you live in NYC, MJF?), and even better looking in his news anchor suit. Somewhere in there, we can still see the faint glimmer of the man who was, at one point, the sexy, hoverboarding, Wild Gunman-playing, Calvin Klein-wearing Marty McFly. So it really is a shame to see the show fall on its proverbial face.
But honestly? It doesn’t matter. Obviously, the show would have been way cooler had it been good, and because there’s a dearth of good characters with disabilities on TV and in film, there’s that extra pressure to make something good due to the fact that there’s such little representation. But there’s a lot of bad TV that really doesn’t do anything for anybody. Meanwhile Fox’s role in the show is participating in an ongoing attempt to normalize people with disabilities and treat them respectfully, and as an integral part of the cast. And that’s just what the show does. It shows how disability might play a role in someone’s lives without demonizing it or even just making it weird. The majority of the jokes in the episode are made at the expense of non-disabled people who perceive Fox’s disability from a limited and usually patronizing perspective. When his character returns to his job after a five-year hiatus from being a news anchor, he rolls his eyes and predicts that they’ll show his return to the network using inspirational music and slow motion, as if he’d already died. The show does a good number by introducing the audience to the concept of inspiration porn, and how it negatively affects/ignores disabled people. And yeah, they totally do that. Fucking predictable.
My guess is that the show flopped, and it’s gonna continue to flop. But it doesn’t mean all shows like it will flop. There are actually several good shows featuring characters with disabilities, and whose writing doesn’t turn these characters into jokes, or novelties (*cough*Monk*cough*). One of the shows is The Bridge, whose leading character, a detective played by Diane Kruger, has Asperger’s syndrome. My only beef here is that you maybe walk a fine Gilbert Grape-y line when a non-disabled person plays someone with a disability, and then there’s the issue with representation. Another is the aforementioned Breaking Bad, which has a character named Walt Jr. played by RJ Mitte, an actor who has cerebral palsy. Similarly to the way Fox put Parkinson’s on the minds of TV-viewers, Mitte sort of did the same with cerebral palsy, but the attention toward him and his disability get kind of weird. See Dr. Drew’s attempts to veer toward an inspirational tone in this clip:
The fact that Walt Jr. is a character on TV, the fact that he just so happens to be someone’s son in this story, and the fact that he just so happens to have cerebral palsy, isn’t some magnificent thing that would never happen in real life. His character’s existence in the show is more indicative of writers who probably already get it. This is not to say that Mitte isn’t a talented dude, or a hard worker, but he’s right: people with disabilities can be actors if they want to. It’s not a far-fetched idea. It all just depends on whether other people aren’t assholes about it. Most people would have guessed that Michael J. Fox’s career was going to be over when he was diagnosed. But why the hell not? Can a dude with Parkinson’s not be a dad? Can he not be a husband? Or a dweeby guy who wears sweaters and has a boring life in New York? Obviously he can, so it’s not so hard to believe that he might be able to play one. After all, he is an actor. By the same token, if non-disabled people can be in such awful shows as The Carrie Diaries, or Married to Jonas, Michael J. Fox can be in one of many television flops starring people with disabilities, so long as it treats him right.