Shout! Factory // 1997 // 540 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // May 4th, 2009
"Teamwork. That's the kind of thing I like to see."
From 1982-1989, Michael J. Fox kept television audiences smiling with his portrayal of young conservative Alex P. Keaton on the show Family Ties. During his time on that show, Fox shot to stardom in the cinematic world in films like Back to the Future, Teen Wolf, and Casualties of War. When the television show concluded, Fox focused exclusively on his movie career, continuing to get leading roles in a series of lightweight comedies. Though he had some good roles here and the there, the post-Family Ties Fox seemed to be quietly drifting out of the spotlight. In 1996, he decided that it was time to consider returning to television. Family Ties creator Gary David Goldberg and newcomer Bill Lawrence (who would later go on to create Scrubs) took on the task of building a new show around Fox's talents, and thus Spin City was created.
In the program, Fox plays Mike Flaherty, the deputy mayor of New York City. His job mostly entails of keeping Mayor Randall M. Winston (Barry Bostwick, The Rocky Horror Picture Show) out of trouble. The mayor is not a particularly corrupt or evil man; he's just remarkable incompetent at times when it comes to making sensible decisions. Every time the mayor makes a bonehead play, it's up to Flaherty to fix the situation by putting the attention of the public on something else or by spinning a bad decision into a great PR situation. He is assisted in his office by a colorful assortment of co-workers, including womanizer Stuart Bondek (Alan Ruck, Ferris Bueller's Day Off), daffy press secretary Paul Lassiter (Richard Kind, The Grand), gay liberal Carter Heywood (Michael Boatman, Arli$$), sensible Nikki Faber (Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights), clueless James Hobart (Alexander Chaplin, The Basketball Diaries), intelligent secretary Janelle Cooper (Victoria Dillard, Ali), and brand-new assistant Stacey Paterno (Jennifer Esposito, Samantha Who?).
The 24 second season episodes are spread across four discs.
* Paul Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
* Porn in the U.S.A.
* Wonder Woman
* The Goodbye Girl
* In the Heat of the Day
* Radio Daze
* Thirty Year Itch
* My Life is a Soap Opera
* Family Affair (Part 1)
* Family Affair (Part 2)
* They Shoot Horses, Don't They?
* Miracle Near 34th Street
* Same Time Next Year
* The Paul Lassiter Story
* Gentlemen's Agreement
* Deaf Man Walking
* The Marrying Man
* One Wedding and a Funeral
* A River Runs Through Me
* The Pope of Gracie Mansion
* Bye, Bye, Birdie
* The Lady of the Tiger
* Single White Male
* The Paul Bearer
Back during the heady days known as "the 1990s," I almost always enjoyed catching an episode of Spin City whenever happened to be on. The show was a fairly ordinary '90s sitcom, with loads of PG-rated sex jokes and predictable resolutions to routine plots. On paper it was just another throwaway half-hour of television, but it always just managed to be a touch more compelling than the rest for me due to the fine cast involved. Spin City is loaded with absurdly overqualified people, led by Michael J. Fox in one of his best roles. He makes Mike Flaherty a person that we really like and care about, and that general sense of likeability trickles down and affects the entire show.
One of the slightly odd things about Spin City over the course of its entire run (well, at least the Fox run, I stopped watching when he was replaced by Charlie Sheen in season 5) was the show's inability to decide whether or not it wanted to deal with any long-arc plot developments. There was a good deal of this in the first season, for instance, when the show devoted a great deal of time to the developing romance between Flaherty and a character played by Carla Gugino. Other seasons have devoted time to exploring extended plot developments, but every once in a while the show backs off and employs the "done in one" format of introducing and resolving all plot strands within a single episode. The latter mentality particularly applies to this second season, which mostly avoids any significant plot developments...with a few notable exceptions.
The first big change is the addition of a new cast member. Early in season two, we're introduced to Stacey, played by Jennifer Esposito. Honestly, I've always felt that her character was something of a poor addition to the program. To a certain degree, all of the characters are stereotypes, but unlike most of her cast members, Esposito lacked the comedic chops to make her New York mob girl role exceptional. Even so, she gets a good deal of playing time this season (though she would disappear near the beginning of season 4 for unexplained reasons). The other big plot development is Paul's decision to get back with his ex-wife Claudia, but even this is not really focused on until the season finale (A big wedding to conclude a season of television? What a concept!), serving as a little more than a running gag throughout most of the episodes. The only actual plot development that is focused on for an extended series of episodes is a romance between Mike and a lawyer that begins during the season premiere and concludes some four episodes later.
Otherwise, what we're treated to is a series of hit-and-miss tales of frustration with the relationship between the city government and the citizens of New York. Some of them work quite well (for instance, the mayor's feud with a local shock jock DJ that turns into a media event), others are less successful (the story in which Paul is sued by an old janitor), but at least there's a level of consistency in the acting. Most of my favorite comic bits come from Barry Bostwick as the mayor, who handles life with a poker-faced carelessness that almost suggests Leslie Nielsen in the Naked Gun films. You also get fun guest turns from Meredith Baxter (who played Fox's mother on Family Ties and plays the same role here), Mos Def, Regis Philbin, Alan Dershowitz, and others.
The full-frame transfer is mostly solid, though I did notice that the image struggles a bit during scenes featuring any sort of frantic motions. Otherwise, the show looks clean and sharp, lacking any of the scratches, flecks, or smudges that sometimes still turn up in shows from the 1990s. The 2.0 audio gets the job done without ever being really exceptional, and on occasion I think they could have dialed down the laugh track a bit (though admittedly, my ideal of "dialed down" is something resembling "completely absent"). While the first season set received the usual commentaries and featurettes, this DVD collection gets nothing in the way of supplements other than a 6-minute featurette for Michael J. Fox's charity foundation. Bummer.
Spin City may not be one of the great '90s sitcoms, but does what it does with skill and is a good pick for those who still enjoy old-fashioned sitcom material.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 540 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Not Rated