The success of any workplace series comes down to casting. If we believe that every character in a show could be our co-worker or friend, then the show should be destined for success. Perhaps the greatest example is The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which created a real sense of family with the oddballs that supported Moore during her historic show’s run.Since then, countless numbers of sitcoms have tried and failed to capture what Moore’s did so well.
However, Spin City came close in its seven-year run. With a certified television icon, Michael J. Fox, as the show’s center, the producers of Spin City had gold to work with. DreamWorks Television and Shout! Factory have just released the first season of Spin City in a sleek new DVD box set that reminds us of the comic genius of Michael J. Fox and how great network sitcoms used to be.
Created by Gary David Goldberg, who had discovered Fox and guided him to fame on Family Ties, and Bill Lawrence, who would go on to create the beloved Scrubs (which took the visual humor of Spin City a step further), Spin City showed the inner workings of the Mayor’s office in New York City. One of the luxuries of watching a complete season of a television show, especially one in its first season, is seeing it work out the kinks and find its true voice over the course of 13 or 22 episodes. In the case of Spin City, the producers had a bit of a dilemma.Was it a romantic comedy set against the backdrop of the mayor’s office, or was it a work place comedy with romantic inclinations?
As the cast portraying the mayor’s staff gradually revealed how talented they were, it didn’t matter how charming Fox and Carla Gugino (playing his reporter girlfriend Ashley) were together — the laughs came from the interaction of the mayor’s staff and the mayor himself. Listening to the commentary of Goldberg and Lawrence, they express regret that they couldn’t have had both facets of the show carry on. But as you can see by the end of the first season, it was just more interesting to watch the oddball characters in the office.
Obviously, the show centered on Fox and his interaction with the rest of the cast. As I stated, he and Gugino had a natural, fun rapport. Their relationship was quite believable as they struggled to separate work from personal life. But this relationship was doomed from the start because of the office staff. They included then-newcomer Alexander Chaplin as the naive James, Alan Ruck as the uptight, priggish Stuart, Victoria Dillard as Janelle, Mike’s assistant, Connie Britton as maneater Nikki, and Michael Boatman as the in-your-face gay activist Carter. The moment Ruck and Boatman shared their first scene, the producers must have realized they had gold. These two actors immediately had the ability to work off each other to create laughs. Likewise, Chaplin as the hapless James provided a much needed kick of “aw shucks” that made him feel like one of us. Also in the cast are Richard Kind as the often clueless Paul, and the great Barry Bostwick as the Mayor.
What’s interesting to watch in this first season is how willing Fox is to let the other actors have their moments. His name was the reason people tuned in, but Fox clearly wanted this to be a team effort. As he literally bounces from scene to scene, Fox shows the talent to adjust his timing and mannerisms to better accommodate the people he’s sharing the camera with. It says a lot about an entertainer and an actor who can place his ego aside and allow his co-stars to shine. Many a show has failed because the stars failed to grasp the concept of what an ensemble is about. In particular is the episode “Kiss Me Stupid,” in which Carter’s ex-boyfriend (played by Luke Perry) shows up with his new girlfriend. Desperate not to appear that he’s still hung up on his ex, Carter ropes Michael into acting as Carter’s new beau. Sure, we’ve seen this plot contrivance a thousand times, yet in the hands of Fox and Boatman, the scenario feels fresh (and hilarious).
As the season progressed, the writers delved deeper into the personal lives of the staff, making Gugino’s character expendable. By mid-season, Ashley was written out of the show, leading to an emotional episode in which Fox’s character deals with a broken heart. The final scene of that episode, between Fox and Britton, a touching, sad confessional from Mike to Nikki sans the studio audience, is a perfect example of why Fox is so revered by his fellow actors. He gave a restrained performance and allowed us to see him as human and not just some caricature on a sitcom. Tapping into the pathos Goldberg had mastered on Family Ties (and foreshadowing what Lawrence would further achieve on Scrubs – mixing the heart with the humor), this is the moment when Spin City became something more than just another workplace sitcom: it became a show about a family with characters you would care about, no matter what outrageous situation they were thrown into.
A technical aside: the DVD collection features five audio commentaries, as well as new interviews with all of the main players from season one. There is also a featurette about Fox’s charity organization that raises money to find a cure for Parkinson’s disease, the illness that afflicts Fox and ultimately forced him to retire from Spin City. Knowing that he was already suffering from the disease when this first season was filmed only furthers your admiration for Fox as an actor, an activist, and a human being.