Disability Studies · Reflections

The Michael J. Fox Show

For all the questionable (and downright awful) representations of disability in movies and TV series, I was hesitant by the recommendation to watch The Michael J. Fox Show, which premiered last night. But since the recommendation came from my ex who knows very well how picky I am about such things, I figured it couldn’t hurt. If nothing else, it would be another show to add to the growing list of very bad (and very teachable) portrayals of disability.

I was immediately surprised. This show is very teachable but not as the typical media artifacts that portray disability as something terrible that ruins lives and tears apart families. Instead, it is a tongue-in-cheek comedy that critiques these popular representations.

Even in the pilot episode, the show draws a number of pointed critiques. Mike Henry (why is it called the Michael J. Fox Show if he isn’t playing himself?) is a celebrity news anchor who quits his job after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s. People constantly stop him to ask for autographs, photographs, and to compare his situation with their own. A woman on the street embraces him, saying, “Mike Henry, you’re a brave man. My grandma has Parkinson’s.” Classic.

When the cops show up to the Henry household after a 911-dialing mishap, one of the cops asks Mike to sign something and says, “My uncle’s got Alzheimer’s.” Mike responds, “I actually have Parkinson’s.” The man looks at him, tilts his head slightly: “Either way.”

The humor is not targeted at the disability as much as how people perceive it. The scene with the cops ends not on the fact that this mishap started because Mike’s medicine hadn’t kicked in, causing his hand to jerk and hit the wrong button on the phone; rather, it ends with an oblivious comment from the cop.

A screenshot from the pilot episode of The Michael J. Fox Show. The scene shows co-workers standing and applauding at Michael's return to work after quitting due to his Parkinson's diagnosis.
Mike’s co-workers stand and applaud his “inspirational” return to work.

When trying to decide whether to return to his old job, Mike consistently references the fear that he’s getting a “pity job” and that NBC will play slow motion clips of him accompanied by uplifting music that emphasizes how brave he is, how inspiring. This fear is warranted because we do see a segment like this, and his boss encourages him to talk about “overcoming personal obstacles” on The Today Show. Similarly, when Mike meets his new segment producer, she starts crying and sputters something about him being an inspiration. Again, the humor is on her and how silly she seems rather than on him or his disability.

Another thing I loved about this pilot episode is how it addresses an often taboo subject: sex. There are multiple references to what seems to be a healthy relationship to his wife and an (arguably) active sex life.

Image features Annie, Mike's wife, kissing him before leaving for work.
Mike and his wife Annie: a healthy relationship!

I know I can’t be too excited just from watching the pilot episode, but I’m looking forward to seeing how this show develops. I hope it maintains its critique of disability inspiration and that the humor remains pointed pointed not at disability but the way people so bizarrely (and unfortunately realistically) react to it.

Next up I guess I need to check out this Derek show that everyone keeps talking to me about…

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