If only loving a star were enough.
It's been clear for decades that audiences love Michael J. Fox and Robin Williams, and with good reason. Fox is one of the most accomplished and personable performers ever to grace a TV screen, and Williams is a once-in-a-generation comic genius - which is why you can assume they're heading back to TV Thursday with viewers on their side.
As you'd expect from stars of their caliber, each has been given a series - The Michael J. Fox Show for Fox, The Crazy Ones for Williams - tailor-made to suit his talents. To a large extent, the fit is fine. It's the finish that's the problem.
That flaw is less evident in the first of Thursday's two episodes of Fox (* * ½ out of four; NBC, 9 ET/PT), which casts him as Mike Henry, a beloved New York TV reporter who, in an obvious nod to the star's own life, leaves his job when he gets Parkinson's disease. Now, thanks to a new medical regimen and some prodding from his wife, Annie (Breaking Bad's Betsy Brandt), and his former boss Harris (The Wire's Wendell Pierce), Mike has decided to go back to work.
The first outing skillfully introduces us to the characters, including Mike's three children and a sister, Leigh (played by Tony winner Katie Finneran), and even more skillfully introduces us to Fox's condition. There may be one too many jokes about Parkinson's, but the intent is clear: to make us comfortable with the idea and give us permission to laugh at it.
Unfortunately, having successfully created Mike and his family, Fox seems to have no idea what to do with them. The second episode and a later one made available for preview that features Anne Heche as Mike's rival at work fall back on what can be labeled the Comedy of Sitcom Stupidity: plots that require the characters to do ridiculous things, mainly so they can learn some life lesson at the end.
With each thudding moment, with each unnecessary address to the camera, it becomes more apparent that the show is searching for a tone and, worse, wasting its cast, most horribly the supremely funny Finneran. Even the later episodes' sudden, largely hands-off approach to Parkinson's feels inappropriately passive: The show can't be about the disease, but it also can't ignore it.
Tonal confusion also haunts The Crazy Ones (* * ½ out of four; CBS, Thursday, 9 ET/PT), but it's more intricately tied to the star, who spends the half-hour bouncing between manic and maudlin. That's been a large part of Williams' act ever since he left Mork & Mindy, and either it appeals to you, or it doesn't.
If it does, you're obviously better-positioned to enjoy this comedy from David E. Kelley (Boston Legal, Ally McBeal), which casts Williams as Simon Roberts, an advertising legend whose unorthodox ways are countered by his more strait-laced partner, daughter Sydney (Sarah Michelle Gellar). By their side is Simon's handsome, horn-dog protégé (James Wolk), a neurotic art director (Hamish Linklater), and a lovely assistant (Amanda Setton) who allows Simon to smell her hair as a calming gesture.
Thursday's crisis involves a well-known fast-food chain - which will go unnamed here - as the entire episode serves as one long commercial for its burgers. (Which, to be fair, is less annoying than the way NBC uses Fox to prop up the Today show.) To save the account, Simon must persuade Kelly Clarkson (who handles her acting stint quite well) to sing a jingle, a task that ultimately falls to Sydney.
You'd be hard-pressed to find better actors than Crazy has gathered, and despite their show's abrupt shifts from frantic to torpid, there are moments when they make the relationships work. What they're less likely to do is make you laugh. Initially, at least, Crazy is less a comedy than a half-hour version of one of Kelley's dramas, which makes it both an oddity and an odd fit for CBS' Thursday lineup.
The stars are there. For now, the alignment isn't.