No question it's great to see Michael J. Fox back as a prime-time series regular, but if NBC's "The Michael J. Fox Show" (9 and 9:30 tonight, WPXI) precludes him from shooting his superb recurring role on CBS's "The Good Wife," it may be a disappointing trade.
Mr. Fox is fantastic on "The Good Wife" as attorney Louis Canning, a well-written, extremely funny character for a legal drama. But "The Michael J. Fox Show" is more amusing than it is smart or outrageously funny.
He stars in his namesake comedy as Mike, a former New York local news anchor who quit five years ago after a diagnosis of Parkinson's disease. References to Parkinson's, which Mr. Fox also has, are threaded through the pilot although they dissipate in future episodes.
As the series begins, Mike is ready to get back to work and his family is even more ready for him to leave the house.
"For 20 years he poured everything he had into work," says English teacher wife Annie (Betsy Brandt, "Breaking Bad"). "Now he pours it all into us. Yay!"
In addition to his wife, Mike also annoys his children: College dropout Ian (Conor Romero), high school vlogger Eve (Juliette Goglia) and young Graham (Jack Gore). Mike's sister, Leigh (Katie Finneran, "Wonderfalls"), is the sassy, fun aunt who lives in the basement.
Mike's former boss, Harris (Wendell Pierce, "Treme"), coaxes him to return to work, which leads to run-ins with the cast of NBC's "Today" in scenes that try to set up a one-sided rivalry between Mike and Matt Lauer. Where "30 Rock" made excellent, funny use of NBC News personalities, on "The Michael J. Fox Show" their presence feels like not-that-funny product placement.
This comedy has its moments, particularly in scenes featuring Ms. Brandt and Mr. Fox, but too often the stories, as in tonight's 9:30 episode, feel like they're straight out of Sitcom 101. In this second episode, Mike meets an attractive upstairs neighbor (actress Tracy Pollan, Mr. Fox's real-life wife) but fails to tell Annie about how attractive she is, leading to awkward scenes of Mr. Fox as a comedy punching bag.
Perhaps "The Michael J. Fox Show," which is shot in single-camera (no laugh track) style, will find its way with time. But its early efforts are just OK, not good or even great, like Mr. Fox's "Good Wife" episodes.
After this week's back-to-back episodes, "The Michael J. Fox Show" will regularly air at 9:30 p.m. Thursday.
'The Crazy Ones'
Another big-name star returns to TV tonight, but he's been away even longer: Robin Williams stars in the CBS comedy "The Crazy Ones" (9 tonight, KDKA-TV) 31 years after "Mork & Mindy" ended its prime-time run.
Mr. Williams stars as Simon Roberts, a brilliant if eccentric (is there any other kind on network TV?) Chicago ad executive who has been through rehab and two marriages.
He works alongside his brittle, Type A daughter, Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"), at their ad agency when he's not boxing a humanoid robot (he calls it an "emotional surrogate") or sniffing his assistant's hair. This last attribute of weirdness should be a clue that "The Crazy Ones" is written by David E. Kelley ("Ally McBeal"), who loves loading up characters with quirks.
The pilot story involves McDonald's threatening to drop the ad agency until Simon hooks them with a pitch for a nostalgia-tinged revival of the "You Deserve a Break Today" campaign from the 1970s. (Perhaps surprisingly, integration of a real brand in "The Crazy Ones" feels more organic and less craven than the NBC icon cameos in "The Michael J. Fox Show.)
Simon overpromises, which makes Sydney anxious, but he eventually lands a meeting with pop star Kelly Clarkson, who wants to sex up her image but "doesn't do jingles." (Ms. Clarkson is terrific and makes you wish she was a series regular.)
This leads to bumping and grinding in a recording studio with Simon's horndog protege, Zach (James Wolk, "Mad Men"), after Simon and Zach hilariously riff a song pitch during their first meeting with Ms. Clarkson. (Outtakes from that scene in the end credits are even funnier.)
"The Crazy Ones" oftentimes wants to be a sentimental father-daughter story, but it shows the most potential as a buddy comedy focused on Mr. Williams and Mr. Wolk. By comparison, Ms. Gellar's character is a wet blanket.
Mr. Williams' shtick was already getting old before "The Crazy Ones," and when he lays it on thick in this show, it grows more tired still. But he's surprisingly affecting in the show's quieter moments, and his goofy noises/expressions/reactions still surprise when they are original and not seemingly recycled bits from past performances.
Whether "The Crazy Ones" can come together as a series over time remains an open question, but the pilot offers enough charm and humor to warrant future consideration.
TV writer Rob Owen: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published September 26, 2013 4:00 AM