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Parkinson’s and Disability Have an Image Problem, and Michael J. Fox Isn’t Helping

Actor Michael J. Fox delivers an address to IBM Lotusphere 2012 conference on January 16, 2012 in Orlando, Florida. He tells how social networks help him fight his Parkinson disease. (Photo: via Shutterstock )

The Michael J. Fox Show is a fitting welcome back party for a beloved sitcom veteran, but there’s no trace of serious symptoms and the show minimizes discrimination and other difficulties victims face daily.

In the brutal auditioning rounds of new fall television, Michael J. Fox is the sentimental favorite – the underdog with a stacked deck and a 30-year NBC pedigree. Fox’s new eponymous half-hour sitcom has a plum Thursday night slot, a cast poached from the best dramas of the decade (The Wire’s Wendell Pierce and Breaking Bad’s Betsy Brandt), and a shotgun season commitment from the network. The show is a fitting welcome back party for a beloved sitcom veteran, and a feel-good show could go a long way to stripping the stigma from Fox’s disease.

There’s seemingly no better way to humanize a destructive neurodegenerative disease than to show it in a beloved celebrity, and The Michael J. Fox Show is doubling down on the star power. Its protagonist Mike Henry, beloved news anchor returning to television after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, is such a close surrogate Fox might as well be playing himself. He’s the “most loved man in the world,” in the words of Pierce’s news boss. But as the public face of Parkinson’s, a disorder often associated – and made invisible or taboo – with old age and immobility, Fox and his feel-good, celebrity-driven show risk staging a theater of PD and disability that’s too rosy, and at a time when cuts-mongering, runaway self-sufficiency and hyped up surveillance have made the status of non-famous disabled and ill people precarious and suspect.

In pre-show junkets, Fox has been insistent that The Michael J. Fox Show isn’t a pity party or a maudlin epic of trampling adversity. It isn’t even predominately about Parkinson’s after he dispenses with the tremor slapstick in the first episode, producers say. That’s fair: Fox is certainly more than his diagnosis, and it’s his prerogative to play his disability however he wants. In The Michael J. Fox Show he plays it, tepidly, for laughs.

The show is funny, but generally only when it’s tackling Parkinson’s. It isn’t as gleefully sardonic as Fox’s cameo on Curb Your Enthusiasm, where he terrorized Larry with shaken soda bottles and disapproving headshakes and dodged criticism by pleading PD. And it’s nowhere near as subversive as his arc on Rescue Me, where he smashed the sainthood of disability to bits playing a passive-aggressive, drug-abusing paraplegic. But it does attempt, in a lily-livered, sitcom way, to deconstruct disease and the sanctimonious ways we portray it. It half works. In the pilot episode, Fox’s fictional daughter milks her father’s illness for a grade in class, portraying their plight as a Steinbeckian family drama with musical numbers – and fails the project for being manipulative. In another scene, his exasperated wife snatches a spoon out of his hands as he painstakingly tries to dish up eggs for the family. “Can you not have a personal victory right now? We are starving,” she hisses.

But ultimately the show can’t decide if it wants to canonize its disabled icon or poke fun at the soft-voiced people who do. One minute Fox rails against deification and slo-mo montages, and the next, he’s walking down the street to the strains of Enrique Inglesias’ “Hero.” It’s supposed to be satirical, but it’s also dead earnest. Fox can hardly appear on television without stuffing up our noses. His best cameos have worked by exploding that gut reaction, portraying him as an unrepentant asshole and undermining every soppy instinct we have about that ‘brave disabled man.’ But The Michael J. Fox Show isn’t interested in moral ambiguity. It’s running purely on Fox’s sentimental star power. It can’t afford to dim his wattage, or show him as anything other than a normal guy with a few tics.

“There’s nothing horrible on the surface about someone with a shaky hand,” Fox has said. Clearly there’s nothing advertisers or NBC executives found horrible about a grown-up Marty McFly with a tremor manageable enough for prime time. It’s the less sitcom-friendly symptoms of Parkinson’s – the drooling, the swallowing difficulties that often lead to pneumonia, the medicine-induced psychosis, the dementia, the walks sillier than anything the Monty Python Ministry ever attempted – that people are recoiling from and, more dangerously, mislabeling as public intoxication or suspicious behavior.

In surveys, more than half of people with Parkinson’s have reported regular discrimination. One in five recounted being mistaken for being drunk and one in 10 to being subject to verbal abuse or hostility in public. People with Parkinson’s or another disability are particularly vulnerable at transportation hubs or high-profile events, places where deviation from the mean is instantly suspect. An unsteady gait or a frozen frown can push someone onto the radar of a cabal of police and security forces and a public that has been deputized to scout out and react negatively to difference. That’s what Mike Worsfold learned when he was handcuffed on the sidelines of a cycling race during the 2012 London Olympics, allegedly for failing to smile. Worsfold has early-onset Parkinson’s and the frozen face characteristic of it. Just days after Worsford’s arrest, Alaska Airlines staff in Redmond, Oregon, drew outrage after refusing to allow a man with late-stage Parkinson’s board a plane to see his daughter. They assumed he was drunk.

Parkinson’s UK says this discrimination stems from a fundamental misconception about PD – simply, that it isn’t a big deal. Overwhelmingly, the public thinks Parkinson’s is a trembling handshake from an elderly person and isn’t equipped to deal with the more dramatic symptoms, particularly in the 20 percent of people with Parkinson’s who are younger than 50. In surveys, only 1 in 4 Britons could identify a symptom beyond the tremor, a misunderstanding that, Parkinson’s UK argues, is leading the public and officials to dismiss Parkinson’s as a “minor ailment” and then to misread and mistrust its more serious manifestations when they see them.

Parkinson’s has an image problem, and it’s causing the people who have it to be harassed, arrested, profiled and misunderstood. But when Fox’s Mike Henry walks down the street on network television, he gets high fives from garbage men and greetings from friends. He doesn’t worry about searching stares from police and worried looks from mothers. When he accidentally dials 911 and brings a full squad of cops to his home, guns drawn, he defuses the situation with sheer celebrity: He signs autographs. When he returns to work, he’s greeted not with the hostility and inflexibility many working people with Parkinson’s face, but rather with a gushing interview on The Today Show. In his cover story interview for Rolling Stone, Fox admitted people find him frightening when he’s particularly symptomatic. “People look at me and have fear and sadness in their eyes,” he says. Even the unflappable Larry King was unnerved when Fox stammered and rocked on his show. But there’s no trace of those awkward encounters on The Michael J. Fox Show. Bystanders are more likely to burst into corny tears than cringe at Mike Henry.

Maybe it’s too much to ask that a 9:30 pm sitcom expose the discrimination people with Parkinson’s face for their fixed faces and funny walks. After all, that would require viewers to interrogate the ways they perceive disabled or visibly ill people – as creepy, suspicious, or gross – and the ways state surveillance and our own security radars tag and criminalize any difference, even lopsided gaits and persistent frowns.

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