In 1967, the very idea of a major character in a wheelchair was so astonishing that it could make an otherwise typical detective show, the original Ironside, stand out from tediously similar programs. The seventies brought a string of TV movies and mini-series about people dealing with “overcoming” a physical or mental condition; the condition was often what the lead character had instead of a personality. Although TV still has a long way to go, the approach is now usually more sophisticated, treating disability as one characteristic among many—and, unless a specific episode’s plot demands it, not a defining one. On Lie to Me, the research assistant Sarah was hearing-impaired; Breaking Bad’s Walt Jr. had cerebral palsy; The Secret Life of the American Teenager featured a romance between a character with Down syndrome, Luke Zimmerman’s Tom Bowman, and a young woman with cerebral palsy, Michelle Marks’s Tammy. NBC puts the phenomenon front and center in two new series, The Michael J. Fox Show and a revamped Ironside starring Blair Underwood. Both programs feature characters with disabilities in the spotlight rather than in the chorus or on the sidelines, and that’s cause for celebration.
Unfortunately, Ironside is problematic for many reasons, including how it dramaturgically returns the character to 1967, when TV was more about situations than psychology and you could make a dull hero slightly less dull by putting him in a wheelchair. Underwood’s New York City police detective, who’s on wheels after getting shot while chasing a perp, is just another arrogant, angry, rule-breaking hero on the edge, as if TV needs more of those. The pilot kicks off with the hero terrorizing a suspected kidnapper by getting into the back of a car with him, punching him several times, and taunting, sneering, and otherwise mind-effing the guy until he gets the confession he wants. Ironside’s superior admonishes him, “This behavior stops tonight!,” while the episode cuts to a shot of a girl being rescued. “You were saying?” asks Ironside smugly. He’s just as predictable in the rest of the pilot, barking orders at everyone and telling them How It’s Gonna Be, as if this were another cookie-cutter CBS procedural about a cranky genius loner and his wary yet worshipful acolytes. And like many broadcast-network cop dramas, it’s cavalier in accepting brutality and torture as justifiable means to righteous ends. (In a flashback, Ironside even hangs a tight-lipped suspect over the side of a building, just in case you’d gone a week without seeing a TV cop do that.)
The show is partly redeemed by Underwood’s snitty charisma and The Killing co-star Brent Sexton’s affecting work as the hero’s self-loathing former partner, who blames his inaction for Ironside’s condition. Overall, though, this is weak stuff. And it’s hard to shake the feeling that the show is using Ironside’s physical circumstances to artificially jack up interest and sympathy in a character we’d write off as a cliché if he were strutting rather than rolling.
The Michael J. Fox show is as evolved and unusual as Ironside is retrograde and familiar. Fox plays Mike Henry, a New York City TV-news superstar who retired years ago owing to a Parkinson’s diagnosis. (In one of many grimly amusing flashbacks, we see Mike, who’s recently begun losing control of his muscles, drifting out of camera range because he can’t plant his feet under his wheeled desk chair.) Mike’s news director—played with buoyant energy by the great Wendell Pierce, the Danny Ocean of scene-stealing—conspires with Mike’s wife, Annie (Breaking Bad’s Betsy Brandt), to lure him back to the station, where he’s treated as a prodigal hero but feels rusty and out of place.
The show’s chilled-out confidence (as if it were starting its second season rather than its first) is appealing, and the cast’s Swiss-watch timing makes even lackluster exchanges crackle, but The Michael J. Fox Show’s selling point is its multivalent comic richness. You could describe it as “a sitcom about a guy with Parkinson’s” and not be wrong, but you’d be equally correct if you described it as a domestic comedy about balancing work and life, or a show about the challenge of maintaining even an essentially happy marriage (episode two is about Mike’s mortifying crush on a neighbor), or a show about the bittersweet pleasure of being beloved as the legendary performer you once were rather than celebrated as the man you now are (Fox’s offscreen predicament as both actor and person). Fox’s still formidable comic chops unify these facets, and the fact that he does, in fact, have Parkinson’s gives him license to demystify the condition, even treat it as a source of shtick. Intentionally spilling food on Pierce’s character to signal disapproval, Mike chirps, “Oops, Parkinson’s!” He’s not just using it, he’s owning it.