Someone with a lot of power and pull can more or less dictate the material they'll deign to play -- regardless of whether that material suits their skills or dovetails with what large segments of the public will find enjoyable. But big problems aren't always the famous actor's fault: Sometimes there's so much riding on a high-profile star vehicle that the show becomes a chaotic mishmash of what a dozen different executives and focus groups want. Whatever the reason, a mismatch between talents and execution is just one of many problems afflicting "Sean Saves the World," which was in my recent list of new comedies to avoid.
"The Michael J. Fox Show" (9:30 p.m. ET Thursday, NBC) probably should have been on that list, too, but I just didn't have the heart to put it there. Like many people, I have a great deal of affection for Fox's previous work and a great deal of respect for how he's handled his Parkinson's diagnosis, and the idea of him returning to TV full time to help out a struggling NBC made a lot of sense. Unfortunately, in its early outings, Fox's show is either bland or disappointing. And the first episode of CBS' Robin Williams vehicle, "The Crazy Ones," is also a mixed bag at best.
One of the fall's most promising shows, on the other hand, is "Trophy Wife," which is filled with recognizable actors who are not quite household names (though I suppose that depends on the household). "Trophy Wife" (9:30 p.m. ET Tuesday, ABC) is charming and buoyant, and it has fun with tasks that feel like homework on many other new shows: It creates specific characters, establishes a consistent tone and sets up a host of relationships that are full of potential. There are not many new programs to get excited about this fall, but the pilots for "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and "Trophy Wife" are among the few that I enjoyed watching more than once.
The most impressive thing about "Trophy Wife," which stars Malin Akerman as the third wife of a guy played by Bradley Whitford, is that it gets so much done in an entertaining fashion without breaking much of a sweat. Creating comedy that feels breezy yet anchored in real emotions is incredibly hard, but "Trophy Wife" is like a duck on a pond: The feet below may be paddling furiously, but all you see is graceful gliding. The ace cast, which also includes Marcia Gay Harden, Michaela Watkins and Natalie Morales, meshes very well, and (miracle of miracles!) the various kids on the show are actually winning, not grating.
"The Michael J. Fox Show" (9:30 p.m. ET Thursday, NBC), on the other hand, reeks of flop sweat in almost every scene, which is disappointing given that Fox is one of the rare performers who has the ability to put an audience at ease and make them feel comfortable with almost anything his characters do.
His show, unfortunately, has the opposite effect much of the time. It's a strained, generic affair that, like "Sean Saves the World," appears to be trying much too hard to recapture the glory days of NBC's mid-'90s dominance. That bright, chirpy, smug tone doesn't quite jibe with the show's frequent recourse to sentimentality or with the moments in which cast members talk directly to the camera, an element lifted directly from the post-millennial playbooks of "Modern Family" and "Parks and Recreation." There's nothing wrong with a comedy trying various things to see what works, but the show's frenetic attempts to nail down a style and tone, alongside the alternating stabs at family sitcom and workplace comedy, make it feel like the Fox show doesn't have a consistent vision or a sense of identity.
The worst element is the character played by Katie Finneran, who is stuck with the role of the annoying sibling who exists to create problems for the leads, Mike (Fox) and Annie (Betsy Brandt). Slightly more successful is the addition in the third episode of Anne Heche as one of Mike's co-workers at a New York news station. She adds welcome grit and conflict to the proceedings (though, sadly, Wendell Pierce is wasted in a nothing role as Mike's boss). Still, Mike's exchanges with Heche's brassy character just highlight the fact that the sly, cunning calculation Fox played so well on "The Good Wife" is nowhere in evidence here. "The Michael J. Fox" show addresses the actor's Parkinson's diagnosis -- his character shares it -- but then it treats the man and his life with such cheerful matter-of-factness that both the show and most of the people in it end up seeming featureless and vague. One exception is Conor Romero as Mike and Annie's older son, Ian, who has a sweetly bumptious quality the show exploits fairly well.
At least "The Crazy Ones" knows what it is: A workplace comedy about an advertising guru whose creative genius frequently runs off the rails. In this David E. Kelley production, Simon Roberts' (Williams) unpredictable antics create problems for his daughter, Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar), who is saddled with the unfortunate job of being the voice of reason.
Weirdly, Williams' manic flights aren't really this comedy's biggest challenge, though they are an outsized element the show will have to learn to use more effectively. Still, when Williams can rein in his hyper qualities, he can be an effective presence. And at least he knows his way around a joke, unlike Gellar, who, post-"Buffy," still hasn't risen above the level of the writing she's given (and the writing for her here is flat and one-dimensional).
That said, "The Crazy Ones'" biggest problem is a clash of styles. There are moments in which the show just about works, but Williams' energy is very different from that of Gellar and that of James Wolk, who plays one of the agency's creative hot shots. Wolk appears to be the only one having fun -- "Mad Men's" resident chameleon, Bob Benson, just genially rolls with whatever's going on -- but how all this will gel in the long run is anyone's guess. Presumably CBS wants to stay in business with Kelley and the stars it's crammed into this wafer-thin premise, so presumably we'll have time to find out.
Stars can use their wattage to help attract the public -- a considerable advantage in these media-saturated times -- but audiences tend to lose interest if the fictional people those stars are playing don't have much going for them. And one of the reasons "Trophy Wife" works is because it's creating a fresh group of people, not drafting off the ghosts of previous personas.
What won me over to "Trophy Wife" was the sense that the writers not only have specific ideas about who the characters are, but they also have a great deal of affection for every member of this ad hoc family. "The Michael J. Fox Show" and "The Crazy Ones" try to play the family card but with much less intelligence, honesty or success (at least so far).
In the first of two new Talking TV podcasts, Ryan McGee and I talked about "The Michael J. Fox Show," "The Crazy Ones" and "Trophy Wife" (in addition to "The Goldbergs," "Back in the Game" and the most recent "Breaking Bad" episode). In the second podcast, we talk about the new dramas "Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.," "Lucky 7," "The Blacklist" and "Hostages." The first, comedy-themed podcast is here and below. The second, drama-themed podcast is here. Both are also on iTunes and Stitcher.
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