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"The Michael J. Fox Show" is taking a break on NBC, as is much of the network's prime-time programming during the winter Olympics in Sochi. Some shows aren't really affected by lengthy breaks, but they can be lethal for a show that has never really found the audience it deserves.
It may be difficult to imagine that one of the medium's most beloved stars could be in danger of seeing his return to series TV canceled after the first year, but the "Fox Show" is in trouble. Its ratings hit a new low a couple of weeks ago, but recouped some of its losses with a terrific Olympics-themed episode titled "Sochi."
Fact is, this is the time of year when you have to start looking at freshman series and think seriously about which ones will be renewed and which ones won't at the network upfronts in May. At the moment, several tea-leaf readers have the "Fox Show" either canceled or on life support.
Many shows are in that category, and while I'd be sad to see some of them go, the loss of the "Fox Show" in my mind is right up there with the cancellation of other high-quality shows such as "Vegas," "The Hour" and "Boss."
At the beginning of the season, we welcomed the return to series TV of two giants: Fox and Robin Williams. Williams hasn't done TV in a long time, although Fox had done a number of memorable guest roles on other shows, notably "The Good Wife."
Playing a legend in the advertising business, Williams allowed Mork to slumber upside-down in the past and re-calibrated his singular comic mania to become first among equals in a superb ensemble cast.
Fox went for a more traditional sitcom about a dad named Mike Henry, his loving wife (Betsy Brandt), his two teenagers (Conor Romero and Juliette Goglia) and a precocious but blessedly realistic younger kid named Graham (Jack Gore).
New York news anchor Mike Henry, like Fox, got hit in the gut by a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease and took a break from work. Now he's ready to get back in the saddle.
The show was created by Will Gluck and Sam Laybourne, who, with Fox, had what seemed like the right idea about how to deal with Parkinson's on the show. Mike Henry has the disease, but is dealing with it fine.
Wary of appearing to milk sympathy for Fox, the star and the writers created episodes that reflected what Fox's real life was like. He'd drop things, he'd make wisecracks about his physical limitations and, most of all, he made it clear he was doing just fine. He may drop a glass now and then, but as far as his sitcom family was concerned, it was having him underfoot that made life in the Henry household a challenge.
The show was great from the get-go, but it's become even better in recent episodes and in two of the episodes you'll see once the Olympic games are over.
Before we get into what's different about the show, here is what isn't: The perfect mix of authentic, character-based humor and a dream cast.
Mike Henry is the kind of dad every kid wishes they had, except when they wish he'd just stay out of their rooms and lives. He's not perfect. He probably tries too hard to be the rock of the family, but that doesn't mean he's the empty-headed dopey dad of old sitcoms.
Up until recently, the show remained good but, stuck in a tough Thursday time slot, it has always struggled for viewers. While nothing was wrong with the show before the new episodes, there is a subtle but significant change in tone that was evident in "Sochi" and continues in two forthcoming episodes, "Surprise" and "Biking": There's more warmth.
In "Sochi" and the two new episodes, Mike and other family members are more demonstrative about how much they care about each other, about their lives and colleagues. In "Sochi" we saw Mike compete valiantly against his work rival (Anne Heche) for a prime spot covering the Olympics, only to realize at the end that hanging around in Russia for a few weeks was going to keep him away from his family.
In "Surprise," we get to see a deeper side of Mike's relationship with Leigh. "Biking" is about Mike trying too hard to teach his son to ride a bike because he thinks, as the dad, that's something only he can do.
This small dose of vulnerability makes a great show even better. And even more deserving of an audience.
The TV sitcom landscape is awash with snark and a certain emotional brittleness that, in broadcast, is meant to be taken as edginess. Shows like the "Fox Show" and ABC's "The Middle" don't always get a lot of attention because they aren't as noisy as shows like "New Girl," "Two Broke Girls," "Two and a Half Men" and the like.
But "The Michael J. Fox Show" deserves more viewers. But more important, viewers who haven't given it a shot really don't know what they've missed.
The Michael J. Fox Show, returns Thursday, Feb. 27, on NBC.