on how not to depict a serious illness on a sitcom

By Leah Dubuc

All is not normal
It was a few days ago, deep into a k-hole of watching Hulu on my laptop when all of the sudden The Michael J. Fox Show came on, due to a lapse in consciousness and the wherewithal of instant play. I let it play on for a possibly uncharitable reason or even a couple of them: one, from the first few scenes I could tell that there was something odd about this conventionally structured sitcom; and two, Fox was behaving strangely and no one seemed to be noticing at all.

Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease many years ago, causing him to have to leave his film and television career behind to care for his health. After a long hiatus, he has returned for a NBC show that, given sitcom aesthetics, has the unsurprising title of, The Michael J. Fox Show.

Is everything normal?
Watching the show without any preconceptions was interesting. The episode I caught was three deep into the season and so it was without any explanations of the premise, the characters or their backstories. All of which is important to understanding how awful and strange the show really is. Instead, all I saw was a show about a family, with Fox as the father, as he juggles his time between being a responsible parent and working for NBC news. His Parkinson’s disease is clearly noticeable to the viewer, and although still a phenomenal actor, his struggles to move around the set and say his lines is obvious and impossible to ignore. In the episode I saw his Parkinson’s was never once addressed.

I was shocked that the producers would cast an actor with a major disability, and then pretend that it wasn’t an issue. There has always been a disconnection between what people want to see and the reality of the world. The sad truth is that diseases like Parkinson’s are horrible and are too real for the “emotionally limited” form of the sitcom to handle. I couldn’t believe that a show would try to pretend that such an obvious disability didn’t exist. The philosophy seemed to be, if we don’t talk about it, no one will notice. Even given the inherent limitations of the form, The Michael J. Fox Show is stunning in its inability to address or attempt any kind of honest depiction of this horrible illness.

He's game, but you can tell
With these thoughts in mind I decided to start with the first episode, and re-watch the show from the beginning. Ooooops, I guess network sitcoms are capable of directly addressing serious illnesses. The whole first episode is dedicated to a discussion of Parkinson’s, which Fox’s “character,” Michael Henry, is also afflicted with. The storyline of the show closely parallels that of Fox’s real life: Henry was a famous newscaster, got diagnosed with Parkinson’s and then leaves television to raise his family and battle his disease. Then, twenty years later, he returns to the medium that made him famous. He feels triumphant and afraid at the same time. I felt like an asshole while watching it.

However, as the show progresses, Fox and his character’s Parkinson’s is less and less important, and typical sitcom problems set in: should his son play hockey or do pottery? Will Henry cheat on his wife with the hot new neighbor that just moved in? Will his daughter fail her paper on the Grapes of Wrath? As with all other sitcoms, these stories fall flat and are uninteresting. The one thing that keeps the show remotely interesting is Fox, a great actor saddled with a horrible disease that is impossible to miss.

Oscar Bait, but Fox is a different story
This raises the question of how this show came to be, and if the show would have been possible if Fox hadn’t been an established actor before he got sick. Playing disabled, or as some actors call it, Oscar gold, is one of Hollywood’s favorite tricks. My Left Foot, I am Sam, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape all exploit our love of actors “playing” disabled. But how often do actors with disabilities get roles at all? Would it be possible for an actor with Parkinson’s to get a TV show on a major network if we didn’t have the memory of him before his illness? Of course you know the answer.

One of the core issues of The Michael J. Fox Show is sadly inescapable: its pretty much sitcom junk. It’s getting harder and harder to reinvent the sitcom, and since the new wave of Office style comedies, we haven’t seen a single innovative idea come from the networks, basic cable or pay-tv. Unfortunately Fox’s show tries to mimic the documentary style of The Office and Modern Family but in a way that seems too stilted, staged and self-aware. Maybe it’s because the style has become old and tired, or because it’s a poor match for a star-centered show or the producers are just using it in an arbitrary manner, but everything seems off. As a friend suggested, the best you can hope for with The Michael J. Fox Show is “pleasant background noise while you occupy yourself with something else.” You can’t really bring yourself to focus on it, despite the fact that the lead is a ticking time bomb of illness.

We can't get away from it!
The most disturbing and yet heartwarming (Possibly? Let’s figure that one out later, America) element of the show is that it is about someone who is sick. This makes the show a moral quandary of sorts, as it doesn’t specifically ask for your sympathy but inherently expects it. We just can’t forget Fox’s condition. Parkinson’s, in a way, is the show’s sole appeal. Wait, wait, scratch that. A celebrity with Parkinson’s is the show’s sole appeal.

The Michael J. Fox Show taps into the larger narrative of America’s relationship with Michael J. Fox and how we want him to succeed because he got sick on our watch. Okay, that sounds harsh. But think about it really: millions of people are afflicted with Parkinson’s and even more so with any number of horrible diseases and we never give them the time of day. Does anyone remember those animal shelter commercials with Sarah McLachlan? No? That’s because you changed the channel. Except in this case it’s Michael J. Fox and he’s funny and easy on your brain or was and so maybe, just maybe, we pay attention to the sick person. But only because he was once well.

Watching Fox is haunting
It’s such a lost opportunity. One wishes that The Michael J. Fox Show was more interesting and took more daring aesthetic choices, or really any at all: Fox is capable, but very ill. Without having his illness take over the narrative, the show could have explored the difficulties of living with a debilitating disease. NBC chickens out after the first episode. Their decision to superficially handle Fox’s disease is not a surprising one. No one want’s to be burdened with disease when they are looking for light entertainment. Still, why not take a chance and see how far you can push an audience to bond with a man who is clearly suffering? Without the realism of actually depicting Fox’s disease the show becomes in a way, a sad and boring lie. The show tells us that man will prevail. Sadly, no, man doesn’t prevail, and neither does that man’s show either.

Let this man smile

©Leah Dubuc and the CCA Arts Review

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