Comebacks are big news this fall — James Spader enjoyed one on Monday with the splashy premiere of NBC's The Blacklist — and nowhere is this more true than on Thursdays, with three high-profile comedy vehicles for beloved stars from sitcoms past. And while conventional wisdom has long suggested that it's easier to create new stars on TV — Sleepy Hollow's Tom Mison, anyone? — than to build new shows around old favorites, what really matters is giving them material that lives up to the billing.
Speaking of billing, two NBC sitcoms scream "look-who's-back" by putting their leading man's name in the title. Of the two, The Michael J. Fox Show does a much better job than Sean Hayes's Sean Saves the World (which opens next week) at showcasing its marquee in a way that feels real and refreshingly funny.
Fox's show (premiering with back-to-back episodes at 9/8c and its regular time period of 9:30/8:30c) manages the neat trick of both affirming and deflating Michael J. Fox's "world's most beloved man" image, as a celebrity (a New York City TV anchor returning to the spotlight) who's deemed a hero as he deals with his Parkinson's disability, but is even more adept at acting the fool within his own bustling and exasperated family.
"Can you not have a personal victory right now?" snaps his supporting — but only to a point — wife (smartly played by Breaking Bad's Betsy Brandt) as he gamely tries to serve dinner to the hungry brood. Despite a cliché video-journal gimmick that has everyone talking to the camera Modern Family style, which ends up belaboring each point, and schmaltzy life lessons ("Sometimes you underestimate the ones you love") wrapping each of the three episodes I've screened, the Fox Show has an appealingly unforced rhythm to its humor. Whether he's annoying his kids or sparring at work with a viper co-worker (a very funny Anne Heche), Fox is an affable charmer who honestly earns our affections.
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Whereas the most surprising thing about CBS's The Crazy Ones (9/8c) is that, even with Robin Williams at its center as a manic ad-agency executive, it could stand to be crazier, and funnier. Landing this legendary live wire was a coup for CBS, and while it seems like an inspired match to pair him with exec producer David E. Kelley (who though a sitcom novice has been veering more heavily into comedy in his dramas for years), the result is a mostly wan workplace sitcom hamstrung by the premise of yoking Williams to a wet-blanket daughter as business partner (Sarah Michelle Gellar, not exactly in her element).
The co-star who really pops is James Wolk (playing his second ad man in a year after Mad Men's infamous Bob Benson) as the agency's rakishly handsome creative director, whose rapport with Williams is evident and infectious as they riff together on their latest pitch. Though weirdly, the first episode feels almost like a commercial for McDonald's, built around an effort to woo Kelly Clarkson to re-record the classic "You Deserve a Break Today" jingle. I'll give The Crazy Ones a break and the benefit of the doubt by saying it's the kind of show and ensemble (including the gifted but so-far-underused Hamish Linklater) that could very easily gel over time. As with Fox's show at NBC, this one's going to get a long leash to figure itself out.
TALLY HO: After all, one show that definitely improved over time is NBC's Parks and Recreation, which offers the night's most appealing episode in its super-sized sixth-season opener (8/7c), an hour-long jaunt to London for Leslie (Amy Poehler) and her Pawnee posse — including xenophobic Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), who can't take in the fresh air without remarking on "the foul stench of European socialism." Leslie, overdue for a confidence boost in the midst of a town recall, earns recognition (thanks to April, of all people) from an International Coalition of Women in Government, and while she tries to heal her bruised psyche with this respite from her literally thankless job, Andy (Chris Pratt) gets the best subplot, bonding with a carefree nobleman (Peter Serafinowicz) who has money to burn — hopefully in the direction of Ben's charity. And while I was less enchanted by the antics of Tom (Aziz Ansari) trying to save his Rent-a-Swag business back in Hoosier-land, there's a fun surprise when we learn who's trying to take him down.
Several of the night's more established shows are also experiencing growth spurts this premiere week, including Parks' mega-hit competition on CBS: The Big Bang Theory (8/7c), opening its seventh season with back-to-back episodes dealing with the impact on the gang of Leonard's (Johnny Galecki) mission to the North Sea. ... ABC's Grey's Anatomy swells to two hours (9/8c), launching its 10th season in the immediate wake of May's cliffhanger, which left Richard's (James Pickens Jr.) life in the balance after he risked everything to turn the power back on. Now the storm has caused a giant mudslide, which will keep Grey Sloan's ER busy.
Joining Parks for a special London outing: CBS's enjoyable Elementary (10:01/9:01c), which takes Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller) back to his old stomping and sleuthing grounds, with Watson (Lucy Liu) in tow, to help a mentor with an unsolved case. Along the way, he encounters his estranged brother Mycroft (Rhys Ifans), which promises to set off some familial fireworks.
NEW NIGHT, SAME GREAT SHOW: The little show that could on Tuesdays has its work cut out for it on Thursdays, as NBC's moving family dramedy Parenthood sets up shop in much more competitive territory (especially once Scandal returns next week) — but those who need a good cry at the end of a long week will be happy to follow and adopt it wherever it goes. Much of the crying in the fifth-season premiere (10:01/9:01c) is done by the newest addition to the cluttered Braverman clan: Crosby and Jasmine's little wonder, not immediately named because who has time with all of these noisy, nosy relatives dropping by all the time. As Max bonds with a back-in-town Hank (Ray Romano), causing sibs Sarah and Adam some concern, and a healing Kristina takes a "carpe diem" approach to new political overtures, this endearingly busy series juggles subplots dealing with separation anxiety, domestic job disparity and culminating in a tear-jerking reunion. No show makes you feel better for turning into a blubbering mess. It's great to have it back, regardless of the night.
THE THURSDAY GUIDE: In case you missed Tuesday's premiere — and it looks like the fanboy/gals turned out en masse at the very least — ABC is replaying the pilot episode of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (8/7c). ... Before the mourning, a little Fab Four action as Fox's Glee starts its fifth season with a Beatles salute (9/8c) that concludes next week, after which the cast, past and present, will gather to remember Cory Monteith in the Oct. 10 episode. ... Having way outlived its original premise, title and our patience, CBS's Two and a Half Men introduces Amber Tamblyn to the cast as the late Charlie's surprise 25-year-old daughter Jenny, who's a chip off the old womanizing block.