Michael J. Fox is back, and by mocking the way society treats people with disabilities, he’s breaking new ground on prime-time television.
On the eponymous show, Fox plays Mike Henry, a New York television news anchor who took a leave when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. But after a few years, he’s contemplating returning to work because his family is sick of him hanging around the house.
His old news director wants him back because ratings are low, and the return of Fox’s character might provide a ratings boost. But Fox is reluctant to return because he’s all too aware of the shallow cliches the news media uses to tell disability stories.
“If I come back, NBC’s going to milk it by showing me in slow motion with lame uplifting music in the background,” he says. “When they show you in slow motion, you’re either dead or under indictment.”
Sure enough, when Fox’s character returns to the air, the NBC promo shows him in slow motion with a heroic musical score playing.
Fox is also unafraid to make jokes about the physical awkwardness of his character. In the old footage of him sitting behind the anchor desk and breaking the news of his Parkinson’s diagnosis to his viewers, his tremors are so severe that his office chair keeps rolling away.
Also, Fox’s character tries to make a simple phone call and accidentally dials 911 because his medication has not yet kicked in.
It’s heartening to see Fox skewer the tired old narrative of disability as a constant struggle to triumph over personal obstacles. He also exposes the truth about how polite society expresses its profound discomfort with disability through false hero worship.
There need to be a lot more people with disabilities on television like Fox, telling the whole truth from the inside about living with a disability. I hope his new show has a good, long run.
Mike Ervin is a disability-rights activist and writer for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues.