NEW YORK-- It's an '80s style party scene, with big hair and bigger bling.
At a bar on Manhattan's West Side one morning this month, Betsy Brandt -- best known for playing Breaking Bad's Marie Schrader -- is wearing a bikini over a spandex bodysuit and belting out Pat Benatar's Hit Me With Your Best Shot.
"That was humiliating and life-changing all at the same time," she cracks after one take.
Wendell Pierce (The Wire) is in a white suit with gold chains. And Michael J. Fox is watching from the sidelines as they and other employees of a fictional TV newsroom celebrate a birthday night out in a late-October episode of The Michael J. Fox Show, NBC's new family sitcom
Fox plays Mike Henry, a local New York news anchor who quits to battle Parkinson's -- just as Fox put the brakes on his acting career -- only to resurface at the urging of his family and friend/newsroom boss Harris Green (Pierce).
The beloved actor, 52, says he's tired but still "feeling good" about his return to TV. He became famous as right-wing teen Alex P. Keaton on NBC's Family Ties, went on to ABC's Spin City and a career in movies, but pulled back after he revealed he had Parkinson's disease in 1999. And after resurfacing in guest stints on Rescue Me, Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Good Wife, he was ready for a TV comeback.
"I'm feeling good," he says. "I knew it was going to get really tough really fast or I was going to build the muscles to do it. When I'm at my best I can get into the groove, it's like hitting all the lights on Madison."
By design, his battle with Parkinson's was a focus of last week's premiere, which mined sometimes uncomfortable humor.
"If we came out of the gates with a wackier treatment of what's going on with Mike Henry's life, and by extensions Mike Fox's life, that would be jarring for folks," says co-creator Sam Laybourne.
But after establishing that premise, "I quickly wanted it to turn into a family show," Fox says, a "direct continuation" of his early career, although it is shot in the more modern single-camera style with no studio audience. "Certainly there are moments that are still Family Ties-like to me. Way family hangs around the island in the kitchen." So retro, in fact, that "Sometimes I think, where's the penis joke?'"
The Parkinson's jokes will pop up "where it's relevant," Fox says, as in an upcoming scene where Fox has difficulty manipulating a touch-screen weather map and reveals an aerial view of Zimbabwe.
But the emphasis will lessen as the series goes on.
"It will mirror my own life, it's not central to my life, it's incidental." His kids are central -- a 24-year-old son, twin 18-year-old daughters and an 11-year-old daughter who started middle school on this day of shooting. "I don't want to say it's a family show, all ice cream and lollipops and unicorns," but "I related to the concept of playing a dad, because I've played a real dad for 24 years now."
Fox says Mike's "humanity doesn't just come from his health situation. He's a gentle soul, but he's tough in ways he can't define, and then he tries to be tough in ways he's not."
So far, Fox's accomplishment is modest: The series premiered with a solid 7.5 million viewers last week. That figure more than doubled the audience of its lead-in, Parks and Recreation, but was less than half the audience of Robin Williams' competing TV return in CBS' The Crazy Ones. (Fox this week moves a half-hour later, to 9:30 ET/PT Thursday.)
But as a testament to his appeal -- and a bidding war among networks -- NBC gave the show an unusual 22-episode guarantee, without a pilot episode.
Laybourne says "we wanted the show to have a modern feeling…but we also return to some staples that made a show like Roseanne, The Cosby Show and Family Ties resonate with people, because they're truthful" in tackling parenting issues, helped by the actor's broad appeal, a combination of intelligence, irreverence and playfulness, Laybourne says. Thursday's episode centers on Mike's daughter's naughty art drawings, and asks the question, "How do you deal with supporting kids' artistic instincts without letting it go too far," Laybourne says. "We're constantly coming back to this idea of control, which is part of Mike's journey."
Like his fans, his co-stars say they welcomed the chance to work with Fox.
"He can be as talented, smart and wonderfully inspiring as he is, but he's also just a guy," says Brandt.
Pierce says the job "was an easy yes to say. He has a way of working that freeing, that's liberating, that's uninhibiting."
Candice Bergen and Charles Grodin will play Mike's parents in a Thanksgiving episode, and Fox's wife, Tracy Pollan, appeared in an episode last week as Mike's hot neighbor.
"It's a sweet show, and it's not trying to reinvent the form," Fox says. But "it's fun to be back."