How can you hit a man in my condition? Michael J. Fox complains when his television daughter gives him a playful smack on the arm in the premiere of The Michael J. Fox Show.
He might as well be saying it to the viewing audience, not as banter but as a gentle taunt.
My condition, for Fox, is Parkinsons disease, and his new series, which has its premiere on Sept. 26 on NBC, doesnt just work it into the show. It basically makes a character out of it. Several series in the new season continue the welcome advance of characters with disabilities or severe medical conditions on television, but The Michael J. Fox Show takes things to a different level. Its a fictional series wrapped in Foxs personal reality show.
With our natural tendency to want to feel as if were part of something groundbreaking, its easy to forget that characters with disabilities have been turning up on television for a long time. That is underscored this season with a new version of Ironside, a series about a detective who uses a wheelchair, which arrives on NBC on Oct. 2. The original Ironside, starring Raymond Burr, made its debut almost half a century ago, in 1967.
Since then, television has brought us blind investigators (Longstreet in 1971, Blind Justice, in 2005) and a defective detective with obsessive-compulsive disorder (Monk in 2002), not to mention a paralyzed convict (Augustus Hill on Oz in 1997). Mary Ingalls lost her sight in Little House on the Prairie back in 1978. Before it was a Broadway hit or an acclaimed film, The Miracle Worker was a teleplay, on Playhouse 90 in 1957.
And Fox is far from being the first actor with a disability or serious medical condition to play a character with that challenge on television (though advocates argue that this kind of casting doesnt happen nearly often enough). Jim Byrnes, a double amputee, was a featured player on Wiseguy in the 1980s and Highlander in the 1990s, among many other credits. Chris Burke, who has Down syndrome, played a son with that condition on Life Goes On, a domestic comedy that ran for four seasons beginning in 1989. When Dana Elcar, an actor on MacGyver, developed glaucoma and began to lose his sight in the early 1990s, the series had his character experience the same thing. On AMCs Breaking Bad, RJ Mitte, who has cerebral palsy, portrays Walter White Jr., who has that condition.
Those precedents acknowledged, there are certainly more characters with disabilities and disruptive conditions on television now than in Burrs day. And they are being given richer, more active lives, aggressively so, as writers emphasize the abilities part of disabilities.
Other fall shows
When we first meet the new Ironside, played by Blair Underwood, he is beating information out of a man detained by the police; later he and his girlfriend steam up the screen with a love scene. In the opening moments of Growing Up Fisher, a domestic comedy NBC has slated for midseason, a father (J.K. Simmons), who is blind, cuts down a tree with a chain saw. In Mind Games, a new ABC show, Steve Zahn plays a bipolar man who, with his brother, runs an agency that uses human-behavior research to alter clients fate, the latest in a glut of shows since Monk in which conditions like Aspergers syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder are disruptive but not debilitating.
The actors in these series do not have the disabilities theyre portraying, something also true of Kevin McHale (Artie on Glee,) DJ Qualls (Billy on Legit) and others. Advocacy groups continue to complain that few such roles go to those with the impairment being depicted. They also emphasize that the number of characters with disabilities on television is still far short of reflecting real life.
Foxs role reflects his life
Foxs new series lives in a different universe from all those debates. He not only has the disease that his alter ego, a television newsman named Mike Henry, has, but he is also surely the most famous Parkinsons patient in the world. He was one of Hollywoods more beloved stars long before he announced that he had the disease in 1998. And since then, he has been fearless in talking about Parkinsons, using his fame to put its symptoms and effects on display and emphasizing what he can still do rather than what he cant.
All of that is rolled into his new show. He and the writers know what you know about Fox and how you are naturally inclined to feel about it that condescending mix of sympathy and pity and discomfort that any disability brings out in those not directly affected by it. And they take advantage of all of it.
The pilot is just as aggressive as the other new series in showing what someone with a disability can do. But there is a lot more going on. The episode involves Mikes decision to return to work at NBC, which he left because of his Parkinsons. The man trying to coax him back knows what a ratings boost Mike would bring, and Mike knows exactly how NBC would promote his return that is, with manipulative schmaltz.
Fox has used his Parkinsons to good effect for a couple of guest spots on other shows, most notably a recurring role as a lawyer who plays up his symptoms to win cases on The Good Wife, but The Michael J. Fox Show pilot goes well beyond that. Its head spinning in its meta-ness. Its about Mike Henry and his Parkinsons; about the fictional world of the show reacting to Mike and his Parkinsons; about Fox forcing you to react to his Parkinsons; and about NBC letting you know that it knows that there is a certain amount of string-pulling in forcing you to react to Foxs Parkinsons.
And Fox, a very good comic actor before Parkinsons and since, is doing it all with a wink. The viewer is brazenly invited to decide whether its all admirably courageous or loathsomely exploitative, while Fox says impishly, How can you hit a man in my condition?