It’s exciting when acting legends return to TV. It’s a relief when they return in shows that are actually good.
Thankfully, The Crazy Ones, starring Robin Williams, and The Michael J. Fox Show, starring … well, you know, are great.
It’s a bit of a nerve-wracking experience when cherished actors return to TV after a long hiatus. Will it go the way of Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Watching Ellie (disaster!), or the way of Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Veep (delightful!)? The cautionary tales of Paul Reiser (The Paul Reiser Show), Jason Alexander (Bob Patterson), and countless others (any Matthew Perry sitcom from the past decade) are enough for news of a big star’s casting in a new show to be met with panicked fretting that stifles the cheers about their TV comebacks. What if the show is crap?
The respective successes of Williams’ and Fox’s new shows can be boiled down to one simple thing: they are giving audiences exactly what they want.
The two actors became Big Deals, at least in the TV world, at roughly the same time. Williams uttered his first “nano nano” when Mork & Mindy premiered in 1978, while Fox broke out as Alex P. Keaton on Family Ties just four years later. It was on those two series that the actors honed what would become their trademark shticks for the decades that followed—though their talents would prove far more prodigious than that word suggests.
Williams’ frantic clowning instantly won over Mork & Mindy viewers, while on Family Ties Fox developed the exasperated charm and—even all these decades later—adorable boyishness that has become his signature. Williams hasn’t starred on a network comedy since Mork ended in 1982. It’s been 12 years since Fox left Spin City to fight Parkinson’s disease. So often when TV stars return to the medium after such long stretches, there’s a pressure to--or assumption that they need to--reinvent themselves in order to escape the shadow of their marquee characters.
Williams and Fox, however, mercifully resist that temptation.
In The Crazy Ones (premieres at 9 p.m. on CBS), Williams plays Simon Roberts, a legacy adman whose daughter (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) is the creative director at his agency. The premise of the pilot is that the agency is about to lose its biggest account—McDonald’s—unless it can pull off one last, big, impressive campaign.
The stressful work situation provides the impetus for Robin Williams to go full-out Robin Williams. It’s all there: the frenzied monologues, the vacillation between grounded humanness and outlandish cartoon, the throwing of the voices. Robin Williams and his voices is a big, big part of The Crazy Ones. There’s a point in the first episode where his character jokes about having 25 voices in his head. Easily a dozen of them show up here.
Critics who are less bullish on The Crazy Ones bemoan all of this, protesting that the Robin Williams shtick is worn out. But watching a show starring Robin Williams and then knocking it for his hamminess is a bit like going to a dog show and complaining about the incessant barking. What did you expect? If you don’t like Williams doing silly voices, don’t tune in to The Crazy Ones. If you happen to be a fan, you’ll love him in this role, which is the finest showcase of his Robin William-ness in years.
A lot of that is owed to the tone struck by creator David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal, The Practice), who coaxes a balance of humor and heart from his lead. That’s where Sarah Michelle Gellar comes in, shading Williams’ neon comedy bits with some warmer colors. The father-daughter relationship between their characters is moving without being cloying, adding a bit of subtlety to a show that otherwise verges on being stressfully kinetic.
The Crazy Ones pilot is helped greatly by a revelatory performance by James Wolk as one of Simon’s employees. He’s perfection as a debonair goofball who sells a bold new ad campaign to Kelly Clarkson (playing herself and landing her fair share of one-liners), managing to upstage Williams in an improvisational duet about McDonald’s that may be fall TV’s most joyous moment.
But because the episode relies so heavily on Clarkson’s presence and the McDonald’s crisis, it’s not the perfect litmus test for how likely the show’s elements are to sustain a strong full season. Though it’s the pilot, it’s also an Event Episode. The next few installments will be the show’s real test.
There is no such question about The Michael J. Fox Show. It’s rare for a TV series to come out of the gate hitting that got-it-figured-out stride usually reserved for shows deep into their second seasons.
The brilliance of The Michael J. Fox Show is that, as Mike Henry, Fox is essentially playing a meta version of himself. Mike is a former star broadcast news reporter who leaves his job to battle Parkinson’s, simultaneously becoming a beloved posterboy for the disease. The show picks up with Mike making the decision to return to work, focusing on the challenges Parkinson’s brings to his comeback.
Adding an unexpected edge to the series, Mike’s family is fed up with his perceived infallibility and meddling around the house and all but bulldozes him out the door. “For 20 years he’s poured everything he had into work,” his wife (played by Breaking Bad’s Betsy Brandt, exceptionally witty) says. “Now he pours it all into us … yayyy.”
Rather than play coy with the fact that the show is art imitating life, the show unabashedly seizes every opportunity to joke about that very thing—to an almost shocking degree. (In one particularly brazen, and hilarious, instance, a repair man asks Mike for an autograph for his uncle who “has Alzheimer’s, too.” When Mike informs him that he actually has Parkinson’s, the repair man shrugs. “Same thing.”)
Fox’s expert comic timing—a harriedness punctuated by sharp zingers—is as finely tuned as ever, but made all the more interesting by his Parkinson’s. The show wisely rules that there’s no point in hiding the fact that Fox stutters and shakes and fidgets while delivering his lines, and goes the extra step in granting explicit permission to laugh at that very thing. And with such strong writing and a stacked cast (Katie Finneran as Mike’s brassy sister is a particular delight), you’re going to laugh a lot.
There’s a lot to celebrate about how bold network TV has gotten in recent years and how receptive viewers have been to sampling new kinds of series. But that doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with some good comfort food. While occasionally adventurous, by and large TV viewers know what they want and what they enjoy. Robin Williams and Michael J. Fox are giving them just that.