In ‘The Michael J. Fox Show’ And ‘Ironside,’ NBC Bets Big On Characters With Physical Limitations

Amidst all the business-oriented discussion of whether NBC, which cancelled much of the new programming it tried to introduce last year, can succeed by starting over, going middlebrow, or recreating past hits, there’s one part of the network’s programming decisions that merits mention on the content rather than the financial or audience calculations. The network is remaking Ironside, a show about a detective who uses a wheelchair after he’s shot in the line of duty that ran on NBC for eight seasons between 1967 and 1975. And it’ll be airing The Michael J. Fox show, a sitcom featuring the titular comedian, who did seven years on NBC with Family Ties, which ran from 1982 to 1989, as a news anchor who returns to work despite the way his Parkinson’s Disease, from which Fox suffers in real life. In other words, NBC is putting two shows on air that feature characters with physical limitations, moving a kind of character who’s often relegated to supporting roles — and who’s often there to illustrate the goodness of or provide moral tests to fully able-bodied characters — to the center of the frame. And from the trailers, it looks like both Ironside and The Michael J. Fox show won’t shy away from discussing their characters’ physical limitations, and other people’s reactions to them, directly.

Ironside presents its main character as a man who isn’t limited in his work — or from the trailer — his love life by the fact that he’s had to learn how to use a wheelchair. But the show does look like it’s going to give him something of a chip on his shoulder about it. There’s an interesting moment in the trailer when one of Ironside’s (Blair Underwood) colleagues suggests that he’s demanding for wanting more than the standard, and legally required, accommodations that make it easier for him to maneuver his home and office, and Ironside snaps at him that he was only pursuing what’s due him. It’s nice to see Ironside push back against the idea that people with disabilities need to be saintly exemplars to people who don’t have to use wheelchairs or other adaptive technologies. But it does look like the show might fall into another trope, that of demonstrating just how fully people with disabilities can live their lives, instead of taking that fact for granted. “You really a cripple?” a criminal asks Ironside at one point in the trailer. “You tell me,” Ironside shoots back: Video WidgetEdit descriptionwww.nbc.comThe Michael J. Fox show takes a different approach, suggesting that Fox’s character, news anchor Mike Henry, isn’t exceptionally prickly about the fact that he has Parkinson’s — and that Fox, who’s played off his medical condition as manipulative lawyer Louis Canning on The Good Wife, in a cameo on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and as a irritating wheelchair user on Rescue Me, isn’t overly sensitive about it either: Video WidgetEdit descriptionwww.nbc.comThere are very funny jokes in the trailer about some of the things that can happen when one’s mobility is impaired, like a viral video of Henry drifting off-screen during his sign-off from news cast because he has a hard time controlling the chair, but they don’t come at the expense of Henry, because he obviously finds them funny, too, if somewhat frustrating. The show also riffs on the way that able-bodied people have a tendency to conflate all physical disabilities or medical conditions, seeing only an ailment or impairment, rather than its specific contours, or the person experiencing them. “My uncle’s got Alzheimers,” a cop tells Henry, asking for an autography. “Actually, I’ve got Parkinsons,” Henry tries to explain. “Either way,” the man tells him, seeing Henry only as an Afflicted Celebrity. And finally, it looks like The Michael J. Fox show will riff on what the trope of Saintly People With Serious Illness Or Disability does to the people around them, too. “Can you not have a personal victory right now?” Henry’s wife, played by Breaking Bad’s Betsy Brandt tells him at one point when Henry takes his time serving himself some eggs. “We are starving.” In other words, Henry is a person who has a medical condition, rather than a condition and opportunity for uplift who happens to have a person attached to them. With any luck, Ironside can get to the same place relatively quickly, and be a cop show that illustrates the capacities of a person who uses a wheelchair simply by being a good cop show.