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Spin City

Michael J. Fox's All-Time Favorites (Volumes I & II) (Universal / Dreamworks-2004)



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Copyright ©2004   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: October 20, 2004.

There was no way that a concept this high-fallutin’, this conceptual, would fly. It was too difficult, too cerebral, too complicated for a twenty-three minute situation comedy.

Perhaps – at least at first – the producers were persuaded by network executives to dumb it down and make it more palatable; perhaps they were strongly advised to smooth out the edges (and the edge). The idea itself was intriguing: a situation comedy about a fictional mayor of New York and his offbeat staff – now that sounds like a winning stew. Given the right chemistry, it could even be funny! Construct it as one of those workplace comedies in which a staff of employees functions as the traditional American family. The office becomes the living room, and each timecard puncher takes on a characteristic of a relative. It worked for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, WKRP In Cincinnati and even Cheers. It’s a recipe for success: mix in a few zingers, dampen with an occasional “special episode,” add a cozy timeslot and you’ve got yourself a hit on your hands. Simply sit back and watch the laughter (and the ratings) build.

Certainly, that would have been enough. However, the talented powers behind Spin City (former producers of the smart Family Ties) decided instead to raise the stakes and increase the wattage to a near-blinding brilliance. They took a conscious (and daring) roll of the dice and actually showed much respect for the intelligence of its audience. The result: delivery of a new kind of workplace sitcom that came roaring out of its suffocating cubicle, ready or not, with multi-tiered stories that could not easily be explained in a TV Guide synopsis.

As one of the most under-appreciated sitcoms of the last quarter century, the most amazing aspect of Spin City is its very storyline: it’s a show not about the mayor, but about the deputy mayor, and his attempts to make right, or spin, the mistakes of his boss and his staff. It’s a show about (among other things) comically correcting faux pas and the fine art of apologizing to the offended without being sorry. This complication would be enough to make the typical viewer’s head spin (did the average Joe know that there even was a deputy mayor?), but the feat was accomplished without anybody feeling woozy. It was a project that took one of the biggest dilemmas of its time – political correctness – and explained it comically, exposed it, ripped it apart and handed it back to the offended party, while all of those who “got it” snickered with satisfaction. 

Remember, this was in the very age of spin, when smart, popular politicians like Bill Clinton were being exposed as human beings and even the most unconnected Americans were becoming more media savvy – even aware enough to realize what spin was and exactly when it was being spun at them.

This was also the age of the Grand Poobah of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, who amazed cynics by doing something that no pollster thought could ever be done since the days of Fiorello: be a politician and -- at the same time -- be popular, respected and beloved! The timing was more than perfect and less than likely: a sitcom about a well-received mayor and his staff running a very serious operation was not the stuff of audience building, but lightning struck here, in this very time and place. This show would not have worked even ten years before, and it would probably never happen again. However, for a few short, winning seasons, it stayed on the air, and remained consistently smart, funny and highly rated. It was a pocketful of miracles all by itself.

Spin City grooves to a rhythm like no show before it. There are no standardly equipped sitcom quips. You never know what’s coming, after years of being conditioned to the contrary. The typical setup and comeback isn’t there. What you’re expecting is not what you’ll get – at last! What you’ll get is better.

In this last golden age of the television sitcom (the 1990s), either-you-get-it-or-you-don’t series like Seinfeld and Roseanne consciously (and not self-consciously) marched to a different drummer. The dreck that had been vomited up for years was suddenly replaced by a new and surprising, meandering pace, never veering lazily into Dum-Dum Land. The music of the dialogue was definitively branded, the banter űber-definitive to the series and always in tune with the attitude, the characters slightly more intricate and hard to pigeonhole. The writing was more hyper-written and yet it somehow sounded more real. Shows like these suddenly made the average sitcom seem even blander than usual, and the shows that desperately tried to catch up seemed like they were trying too hard. It was too late for them. They were still waltzing along but the band had already changed to a tango.

The creators of Spin City did not opt for the obvious New Yawkah charactahs from Central Casting – everyone here gives a Bronx cheer to the stereotypes (once fresh to TV audiences twenty years before). Sure, the cast is often crude and rude, but like New York itself, the sophistication eventually shines through.

The show would not have worked without Michael J. Fox’s understated hipness and static-cling-type energy; he doesn’t zig-zag so much as he zag-zigs; he’s the ripple that causes the waves. He plays the workaholic smartass who runs the most complex city in the world, the power behind the power. It’s barely an acceptable premise, and yet his intelligence and his natural gift for acting (proven over and over and over again, even before the debut of this series) makes it solidly believable – and human – and damn funny. He’s like a vibrating washing machine stuck on the spin cycle, exercising constant and alertly automatic spin control. Even when his red flags go up, we tense up along with him: from a typo on the Mayor’s speech (who reads “the magic of Santa” as “the magic of Satan”) to the cute little National Spelling Bee champion who, in actuality, is a pyromaniac. The funny is how Fox uses his brains and quick resources to rescue the Mayor from these pickles.

This two-DVD set disappoints in only one way: it’s a “best-of” compilation, subtitled “Michael J. Fox: His All-Time Favorites.” This amounts to twenty-two excellent, memorable episodes worthy of reruns; however, hopefully a complete series on DVD is not being bypassed in exchange for this. Fox personally introduces each episode in the collection. Although it’s always good to see him, he offers little insight other than a quick and unnecessary summing up of what you are about to see, the humble act of how he had very little to do with the episode’s success, and the obligatory hailing of his co-stars, which always reeks a little too much of show biz phoniness. 

Not that Fox isn’t the real deal and that his co-stars don’t deserve to be hailed. His Honor the Mayor is not played but owned by the brilliant Barry Bostwick, in a virtual tour-de-force. He plays the blue-blooded, emotionally stunted figurehead who bumbles his way through crisis after crisis, barely aware of what is going on around him, leaving the mess for his befuddled staff to disinfect. This description sounds crass, but Bostwick plays the role with such delicate care that, in less talented hands, it would have been just plain funny instead of what it is: downright hilarious in an out-loud manner. This is evident when he awards a contract to the sanitation department with the “coolest logo,” or when he reluctantly admits to viewing MTV’s The Real World: Uncensored by meekly fessing up, “The alcoholic girl takes her shirt off.” The line is delivered with marvelous precision. And when he meets the Pope, he is impressed by His Eminence’s intelligence, confiding to his aide, “Did you know he speaks Polish?” His cluelessness is the stuff of awe; it takes a very smart actor to play a character this dumb. He sums it up definitively when he sighs in frustration, “This city, I tell ya. Somebody oughta do something.”

Richard Kind, playing the awkward, cheap-ass press secretary, is an acquired taste. However, once you set your watch to his warped delivery, you’re comfortably in his time zone.  There may be nothing funnier on television than when he gets his clumsy bear of a motor going. For instance, in one of the most politically incorrect moves of the series (literally!), he relocates to Harlem to save money on rent but disguises his thriftiness by pretending to connect with the African American community. Hearing him say “I hear ya, girlfriend,” with a quick snap of the fingers, is worth the price of admission. Or when an exasperated reporter asks him in the press briefing room, “Paul, I thought we had time for one more question,” he answers, “yes, but just the question. Not the answer.” And he means it. Or, while innocently standing by the candy machine and mistakenly taking a misfired bullet in the head by an elderly security guard, he says, “When I bite into a York Peppermint Patty, I get shot.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the series is the mega-metamorphosis of genius comedic actor Alan Ruck, in the role of Stuart Bondek. Best remembered for his portrayal of the geeky Cameron in Ferris’ Bueller’s Day Off, Ruck contributes his own spin in Spin City: here he’s still the nerdy outcast, but he turns the nerd inside out and wears it with the tag showing. He’s a squinty-eyed, crew-cutted cad, out of touch with his emotions only because he’s repressed them beyond recognition. His character is creepily confident and eerily quiet, the employee most likely to go postal while wearing his expensive suit and bookworm’s glasses; yet he’s never afraid to display his freaky sexual attitudes out loud. He’s not just thinking lusty thoughts – he’s saying them. As his occasional foil, Carter Heywood, Michael Boatman turns in his usual fine performance (he was one of the bright spots in the dreadful Arli$$) as the poster boy for political correctness: a gay black man. He plays it straight acting and straight appearing, but is not beyond an occasional flamboyant turn for the sake of a laugh. When Stuart winces at Carter’s hazelnut mint cream coffee in the break room, Stuart says, “Oh, great. Now you’ve turned the coffee gay.” To which, Michael J. Fox’s character replies, “You can’t turn coffee gay, Stuart. It’s born that way.”

The women in the series are underused. The fine work of Connie Britton as Nikki Faber goes unappreciated for most of the series. The show’s only weak link is when the writers try to shoehorn in a romantic relationship between her and Fox, a la Sam and Diane on Cheers. It comes out of nowhere, goes nowhere, and the writers mercifully let it fizzle. To add insult to injury, Heather Locklear is brought on in a winning performance as Caitlin Moore, the Mayor’s re-election campaign manager. As in her million other series, Locklear is all things to all people, but that obligatory will-they-or-won’t-they romance storyline between her and Fox is tiresome and tacked on. The chemistry is there (how could it not be between two such competent actors), but when they’re not flirting, the characters work best. For instance, when an old ‘80s tape of Star Search turns up at the office and reveals that Caitlin was a not-very-good contestant singing “Flashdance: What A Feeling,” you can’t help but laugh at the ridiculous idea, and at the fact that Locklear is a such a good sport about it. Upon watching the dreadful (but hilarious) performance, Nikki comments, “I’m guessing that the star search didn’t end that day.”

Minor misfires also include Jennifer Esposito, who plays the Brooklynese “Working Girl” Stacey Paterno, as Mike’s secretary. Again, here was a potentially great character who eventually evaporated. And Victoria Dilliard as Fox’s smart, no-nonsense secretary was barely ever given anything to do, although she exhibited wide open skies of promise. Also, it took the entire series to find out why the character of James Hobert (Alexander Chaplin), a naïve, corn-fed hick from the Midwest, was hired as the speechwriter for the mayor of the most cosmopolitan city in the world. It was a baffling choice, and there was always an uneasy feeling of miscasting about this character. However, in the last episode, Fox explains that James was brought on because he spoke the way “he wanted the mayor to sound.” Fair enough. Sold.

Sadly, Fox made the difficult decision to leave the show in 2000 due to his battle with Parkinson’s disease. The series continued on with the excellent Charlie Sheen in the role of the spin slinger, not exactly eclipsing Fox but bringing to the table that playboy/frat boy sense of humor that has become Sheen’s ticket to ride on television. Even though the show did not lose any of its punch, it somehow lost its hold on the public and left the air a couple of seasons later.

Fox’s parting episodes are included in this collection, and they are poignant but not overly sappy. What sticks in your mind, however, is not so much Fox’s tearful final curtain call, but an earlier episode in which he is standing on the bow of the Staten Island Ferry, his arms outstretched a la Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. He is shouting, “I AM DEPUTY MAYOR OF THE WORLD!” It’s funny as anything, but what makes it touching is the view of the skyline in front of Fox, with the World Trade Center gleaming in the foreground. It reminds us of that Clinton-Giuliani era of joyous stability. We didn’t know how content we were before the world changed forever, with Fox balanced firmly on that boat, happiness gushing out of his big heart. The Twin Towers spread out in front of him, all of us unaware of what was to come and what we were leaving behindYou can still recapture some of that lost magic in this terrific DVD collection.

For more information about Parkinson’s Disease – and how you can help – log on to www.michaeljfox.org or call 1-800-708-7644.

Ronald Sklar

Copyright ©2004   PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: October 20, 2004.