How does a middle-aged married guy make new friends? He can’t, according to The Michael J. Fox Show, because he and his wife are terrible people with a weakness for ridiculous schemes.
“Couples” starts with Fox at his most charming, as his character shyly strikes up a friendship with a neighbor who shares his love of hockey and guitars (Frederick Weller, of the USA series In Plain Sight). After Mike corners Will in front of their apartment building’s mailboxes — a nice substitute for high-school lockers — he stammers and giggles and says things like “You’re cool” while he looks at the floor and kicks an imaginary can. If you remember watching Fox on television three decades ago, this scene has got to make you feel younger, and maybe inspired to look around for a new friend of your own. (Fox is 52 and Weller is 47, but I don’t remember an age being assigned to Fox’s character, and I suspect NBC would insist that Mike Henry is short of the mid-century mark.)
But this isn’t Men Of A Certain Age, so “Couples” doesn’t have much to say about male friendship after a few minutes. There are some mild gay jokes, as Mike’s best friend Harris gets jealous and Mike has a talking-head in which he says of Will, “He didn’t even care that I was a local celebrity, which made me want him all the more.” (Wife Annie finds this “creepy.”) And because The Michael J. Fox Show insists on trying to be a Frasier-like farce and has an old-fashioned allergy to serialized elements, it moves quickly to eliminate Will and his wife Trista (Alexandra Wentworth) from the series. As I’ve written before, MJF would be arrestingly fresh if it were airing in the early 1990s, but its aversion to character development just seems odd now.
Annie bonds with Trista when the latter introduces herself by reciting a list of grammatical tics and other things she hates — something that would, in real life, would lead to an embarrassed and concerned silence among everyone in earshot. Annie and Trista even high-five after discovering that they both hate waiters who sit down to take an order. But Mike and Annie quickly decide that the best thing about their new friends is their house in Fiji.
When Will and Trista announce that they’re breaking up halfway through the episode, Mike and Annie decide to “parent trap” the couple so they can preserve an invite to paradise. (Amnesty International isn’t as thrilled with Fiji, which you might think would trouble a journalist in politically correct Manhattan.) Their certain-to-be-discovered plan involves the couples “coincidentally” meeting in front of the restaurant where Will and Trista had their first date, running into the priest who married them, etc. Even before the pièce de résistance of a replica of Will and Trista’s wedding cake, this is so transparent and ridiculous that there’s no comic suspense here. At least it’s consistent for Mike and Annie, who never think past the first step of a ruse (see “Party”). Fox and Betsy Brandt are a cute couple, but I wish they’d stop scaring every new character off the show.
- The B-plot has daughter Eve trying to impress a hipster named Andreas by pretending to be “bad-ass,” which means talking about her awful, drug-addicted family at an open-mike storytelling night. Aunt Leigh backs up her ridiculous stories, which is sweet of her, but Andreas discovers the lies and immediately dumps Eve. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
- Leigh puncturing Eve’s attempt to seem Brooklynese: “You don’t get every signature from the original Broadway cast of Mamma Mia! ‘ironically.’”
- Meanwhile, Ian gets caught masturbating by younger brother Graham. (I missed the first 30 seconds or so of the episode due to a DVR glitch, so there’s a tiny chance that Ian gave a different explanation for why he wanted high-speed Internet service.) He also tells the camera that he once jerked off in the kitchen. No mention of food accoutrements? You have to try harder to be as risqué as you think you are, MJF Show. On Community, Chang has masturbated everywhere.
- Ian on how Graham was able to infiltrate his bedroom: “I used to lock the door when the video was buffering. Damn you, high-speed Internet!” No one in this family thinks ahead.
- Annie is disappointed by Will and Trista’s break-up for strategic reasons: “We liked them, they liked us. The only variable we didn’t think of is that they wouldn’t like each other.”
- Will to Trista in front of their new friends: “Maybe I wouldn’t have to drink so much if you’d look at me while we’re making love.” That’s not going to end in a game of charades.
- Katie Finneran sits on a Big Wheel and, more amusingly, tries to get up from it.