The Michael J. Fox Show- What It Is Not
I had a chance to Hulu several episodes of Michael J. Fox’s new sit-com this weekend and walked away very impressed with what the show is not. It is not a program in which Parkinson’s disease is a character. It is not a show in which PD drives the plot. And it is not a vehicle for educating the audience about the disease. Rather, this eponymous show that marks the return of a talented veteran actor to the television screen has turned its “nots” into a program folks dealing with PD should give a try.
Mr. Fox is the lead character, a New York television news anchor named Mike Henry, who has PD. He returns to work after a hiatus during which he appears to have driven his family crazy with his chirpy availability as a stay-at-home dad. Mike decided to leave the business when his dyskinesia-energized anchor chair caused him to drift in and out of the frame. He decides to return when the station news director sells him on the idea that the audience has missed him and the studio now has locking wheels on its chairs.
What I like about the show is that Mr. Fox allows Parkinson’s to be an aspect of his persona without allowing it to dominate the character. PD is an aspect of who Mike Henry is, existing in conjunction with an impish smile, short statue, public integrity and a sometimes reckless determination. Jar lids are a challenge and dinner serving spoons perform familiar mid-air ballets that threaten to prematurely eject the contents. Mike Henry even displays another side of PD familiar to many of us when a jealous pique causes a well-aimed dinner roll to fly from serving tongs into a friend’s lap because of “Parkinson’s.” Mike Henry is a man who loves his family enough to pester them over their habit of eating meals standing in the kitchen rather than sitting at the dining room table. He is clueless about how to bond with his adolescent children and prone to retreating to trite phrases that deflect some responsibility for his words and actions. He is even the kind of man who sits on an open dishwasher door with predicable results. I don’t have PD and Mike Henry seems a lot like me.
The show works because Mr. Fox portrays a man who has matured into acceptance of his PD. Mike Henry is not acting out of a burning need to beat the disease but out of a very human desire to enjoy his life, his family, and his vocation. To do this, he must engage in the same daily struggles we all must meet. He chooses to do so in the same way we all should, without asking for sympathy or special treatment, only opportunity.
I would like to think that the show demonstrates that the Parkinson’s community is also maturing. Mr. Fox is arguably the most identifiable face of PD and he is now the protagonist in a network program that demonstrates that a man or woman with PD can get on with life. The Michael J. Fox show not only normalizes the life of a man with PD, it does so with a theme so formulaic that it effectively becomes another of the unending line of family-centered comedies with which we are all so familiar. The show will rise or fall on factors other than the man character’s neurological status and how the audience feels about it.
No one denies that early onset PD is a game changer for anyone who receives the diagnosis but the manner in which one responds to it is always key. It may take an actor as respected as Michael J. Fox to show others that engaging in life is a valid and even necessary response to PD. It is a skill that one can develop on one’s own but what better way to learn than by watching other men and women reduce the disease to one of many aspects of who they are.
Or, as Mike Henry loves to say when parting company, “Stay informed.”