Shout! Factory // 1996 // 630 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // November 4th, 2008
"If the Deputy Mayor speaks in his office and there are no cameras to hear, does he make a sound?"
Seven years after working together on the Family Ties, Gary David Goldberg and Michael J. Fox reunited to create a new show set in the world of New York politics: Spin City. When the series debuted in 1996, people tuned in to see how Fox would fare in his return to the small screen. Would lightning strike twice, or might lingering memories of Alex P. Keaton keep viewers from embracing Mike Flaherty? Thanks to smart writing and a talented cast, the show took on a life of its own and survived multiple personnel changes, including the sad departure of its ailing star. 12 years later, the Keatons are a memory and the multi-camera sitcom is on life support. Is there room in this crowded TV-on-DVD landscape for Spin City: The Complete First Season, or will it be another election year casualty?
New York City is a tough place to live, especially for Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty (Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future) and his staff, who spend their days protecting the bumbling Mayor (Barry Bostwick) from a ravenous press corps that just happens to include Mike's live-in reporter girlfriend. Who said politics was easy? Spin City: The Complete First Season has all 24 episodes, spread across four discs.
I've watched a lot of sitcoms in my life. After 31 years, they start to blur together. I could have sworn that Spin City began in the late-'80s or early-'90s. But no, it started in 1996. 1996! I was a sophomore in college. Bill Clinton was running for re-election. Seinfeld and Friends had both been on for several years. Actually, it's that last fact that shocks me the most. Spin City is a fairly traditional sitcom, and yet it hit airwaves at a time when TV was changing. Mike Flaherty never tangled with a bubble boy. Paul never accidentally killed his fiancée. Compared to Family Ties, Spin City was edgy. Compared to the anatomic specificity of Friends, it was tame. So how did it last until 2002? Talent.
Spin City was an embarrassment of riches from the producers on down. With little more than the idea of "creating a new series for Michael J. Fox," Goldberg brought in writer/producer Bill Lawrence -- who would go on to create Scrubs -- to help develop the show. Though Fox was the focus, they surrounded him with a strong cast of characters who carried on after Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and had to leave at the end of the fourth season.
Mike's memorable office-mates include improv veteran Richard Kind (Mad About You) as flustered press secretary, Paul Lassiter; Michael Boatman (China Beach) as gay activist turned head of minority affairs, Carter Heywood; '80s icon Alan Ruck (a.k.a. Cameron, from Ferris Bueller's Day Off) as the piggish Stuart Bondek; Connie Britton (24) as modern woman Nikki Faber; Alexander Chaplin (Scrubs) as naïve speech writer James Hobert, and, of course, Barry Bostwick (The Rocky Horror Picture Show's Brad) as Mayor Randall Winston. Extra points to anyone who remembers Mike's first girlfriend, reporter Ashley Schaeffer (Carla Gugino, Sin City...yes, I see the irony).
When the series began, Ashley and Mike's relationship was the focus, and might have continued to be had Gugino not decided to leave after 13 episodes. She was great but I'm glad she left. From the beginning, it's obvious that Spin City's supporting cast is too talented to stay in the background. After Ashley dumps Mike for a job in L.A., they're let loose and the show hits its stride: Paul meets his future wife, Claudia (Faith Prince, Huff); Carter and Stuart's Bert and Ernie-like friendship begins; Nikki's love life becomes more than a punch line; Mike's newly single status frees him up to date some now-famous faces, including Lost's Cynthia Watros, Courtney Thorne-Smith, and Amanda Peet. The guest stars don't stop there, though. The first season also features appearances by George Wendt, Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Garner, and Isaac Mizrahi -- and that's not counting a video for Mayor Winston's birthday bash with good wishes from Rosie O'Donnell, Patrick Ewing, Larry King, the Monday Night Football guys, and David Letterman. Not bad for a new show's freshman season.
As anyone who's ever seen him in anything might guess, the best reason to watch Spin City is Michael J. Fox. Not many actors get the chance to star in two hit shows. It's just not that easy to reinvent yourself -- ask anyone from Seinfeld who isn't Julia Louis-Dreyfuss. Yet somehow, Fox did it. He's a joy to watch from beginning to end. Even knowing he has since turned personal tragedy into a platform for Parkinson's awareness, watching his work in this show makes me wonder what might have been for this underappreciated comic talent.
It's not unusual for shows this old to get barebones DVD releases, so Shout! Factory deserves major credit for giving Spin City: The Complete First Season a decent slate of extras, including half an hour of highlights from a 1996 appearance by Goldberg and Fox at The Paley Center for the Media, talking about creating the show; a 35-minute making-of featurette that's actually worth watching; and commentaries on six episodes. Though six commentaries might not sound like a lot, they include not only Goldberg, Lawrence, and director Thomas Schlamme (on the pilot), but also Boatman, Chaplin, Kind, Ruck, and (on two episodes) Fox himself. Getting more of anything is always nice, but in this case having any commentaries at all is a treat for fans.
For a show this recent, I expected a better audio-visual presentation. About halfway through the season there's a noticeable increase in schmutz -- mostly little white splotches -- in the full screen picture; and the audio track is often unbalanced between the laughter and dialogue. Neither problems are deal-breakers (heck, some viewers might not notice), but it's still disappointing.
Though much about Spin City: The Complete First Season will seem dated to modern viewers, fans of the show who have been anxiously waiting will enjoy this trip back to City Hall. No, it's not a classic, but it does have an outstanding cast, great old-school sitcom writing, and Michael J. Fox. Just try to spin that into a bad thing.
Review content copyright © 2008 Erich Asperschlager; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 630 Minutes
Release Year: 1996
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "The Spin"
* "Prime-Time Partners"
* Commentaries by Cast, Creators, and Crew