Sometimes, late at night, Judge Jeff Robbins pretends he is the deputy mayor of Funky Town.
Our reviews of Spin City: The Complete First Season (published November 4th, 2008), Spin City: The Complete Second Season (published May 4th, 2009), Spin City: The Complete Third Season (published November 11th, 2009), Spin City: The Complete Fifth Season (published August 16th, 2011), and Spin City: The Complete Sixth Season (published December 13th, 2011) are also available.
"Mike's a big boy and I just don't think we need to get all misty about
Many of the 26 episodes on Spin City: The Complete Fourth Season suffer from spotty writing, cast overpopulation, and the introduction of a new lead character played by Heather Locklear that only fitfully works as either a workplace adversary or a romantic interest for star Michael J. Fox. But thanks to a mostly superb cast—especially Richard Kind, Barry Bostwick, and the wonderful Fox—Season Four delivers many moments of memorable comedy, topped by a touching swansong to Fox, who left at season's end to focus on his battle against Parkinson's Disease.
Facts of the Case
By its fourth season, Spin City had firmly established who really was in charge at its fictional City Hall: New York City deputy mayor Mike Flaherty (Fox), who is more adept at just about everything than the actual mayor, dimwitted Randall Winston (Bostwick). But a run for U.S. Senate has led Winston to decide—against Flaherty's wishes—to bring in an outsider to run the campaign. That outsider is Caitlin Moore (Locklear), who Flaherty begrudgingly hires only because she initially professes to be unintelligent and therefore easy to manage. It is only after getting the job that she reveals herself to be Flaherty's intellectual equal, thereby threatening his leadership in the Winston administration…not to mention making him feel all lovey-dovey inside.
By the 1999-2000 TV season, Spin City had become a casualty of my
marriage. Let me explain: the turn of the century was the period between our
"honeymoon stage" and the birth of our first child, a time when my
wife and I were enjoying each other without the giddiness of being newlyweds or
the complexity that comes when children are added to the equation.
As deputy mayor Mike Flaherty, Fox is effortless, likable, funny, and immensely watchable. The cast addition of Locklear as the ambitious Caitlin Moore works for his character in that she brings out a dimension of self-doubt to the previously confident Flaherty; never before challenged as the smartest person in the room, Flaherty now is forced to deal with his intellectual equal on a daily basis. If that wasn't unsettling enough for him, he's further unhinged by the sexual attraction he feels for her. Fox's work highlighted on Spin City: The Complete Fourth Season is simply awesome; his Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in 2000 wasn't handed to him out of sympathy, it was earned.
Fox's Flaherty is undoubtedly the center of the show, but Richard Kind, as
selfish, nasty, sycophantic, vindictive, cruel, and clueless press secretary
Paul Lassiter, is Spin City's funniest character. As such, Kind is given
the most outrageous material to work with, through which he is often able to
elevate the performances of those around him. Check out how he channels John
McEnroe in an absurdly hilarious argument with office assistant James Hobert
(Alexander Chaplin) in the episode "My Dinner with Caitlin," or his
ill-conceived insurance scam with Alan Ruck in the season opener, "Catcher
in the Bronx."
Indeed, it is the writing that is the central problem of Spin City: Despite being set in City Hall, a place that should be full of smart people doing smart things, Spin City is full of stupid people doing stupid things (not surprisingly, Barry Bostwick's Mayor is the dimmest of them all). Instead of satiric humor that strives to reveal some unpleasant truths about local politics (or any politics) in America, we have jokes about the Mayor having smelly feet ("The Thanksgiving Show"), jokes about three grown men's inability to change a light bulb ("Airplane"), and worst of all, jokes about a dog being an insatiable lady killer ("How to Bury a Millionaire").
Spin City's other unavoidable problem is its sexism: it's clear in the episodes on Spin City: The Complete Fourth Season that the writers on the show simply don't know how to write for the women characters. While Fox, Kind, Ruck, Bostwick, Michael Boatman (as head of minority affairs), and Chaplin are given loads of relatively strong material to work with, the delightful Connie Britton (as accountant Nikki Faber) and Victoria Dillard (as Mike's secretary Janelle) are either flatly ignored or given insulting plotlines. Britton's low point comes during "The Great Debate," when her character embarrassingly tries to seduce a very young intern. To the producers' credit, this problem did not go unrecognized: Britton and Dillard were both unceremoniously dumped at the end of this season.
Then there is Locklear's turn as the strong-minded campaign manager Caitlin Moore. As previously mentioned, her addition to the show helped to round out Fox's Flaherty, but otherwise her presence is more of a mixed bag. Simply put, Locklear isn't funny in the role. Blame for that has to be shared between the scripts and Locklear herself. Coming off of Melrose Place, where she was easily one of the most talented actors (sorry, Andrew Shue), Locklear proves here that her skills as a comedic actress are unfortunately limited. It certainly didn't help her cause that she was placed at the forefront of a (mostly) strong group that had the advantage of having worked together for three seasons.
Not to mention that Caitlin and Mike are no Sam and Diane, Jim and Pam, Ross and Rachel, or even Joanie and Chachi: though their characters are predictably written to progress from enemies to friends to lovers, Fox and Locklear have absolutely no sexual chemistry together. Again, this is largely a problem of the scripts. The writers seem unaware that in order to work, a flirtation has to feature romantic interest from both sides. Here the "courtship" mainly consists of Fox begging until Locklear finally relents. No sparks here.
But the main reason Spin City's flaws are irritating is because despite them, there are many moments to treasure in Spin City: The Complete Fourth Season. Many of the best involve Fox and Bostwick, who, unlike Fox and Locklear, have a marvelous rapport together that moves seamlessly during the season from a boss-employee relationship to a rather touching father-son bond—and not in an obvious way. When the mayor's father dies in "Uneasy Rider," his lack of emotion alarms Flaherty, who encourages him to seek therapy. When the therapist suggests that Flaherty has replaced the mayor's father as the controlling figure in his life, the mayor goes through a comical teenage rebellion stage before the two men reach a truce that is highlighted by Flaherty coaching the mayor on how to ride a bike, a skill that the mayor's neglectful father had never bothered to teach. The episode ends on a touching note of dedication to Bostwick's father, who had recently died.
But for sheer emotion, nothing comes close to the two-part "Goodbye" episode that closes Spin City: The Complete Fourth Season. Midway through the year, Michael J. Fox announced his intention to leave the show at the end of the season to spend more time with his family and to be more active in the fight against Parkinson's Disease, an affliction he had been diagnosed with in 1991 but had only gone public with in 1998. (People looking for obvious manifestations of Fox's illness may find some, but in no way are they distracting.) The "Goodbye" episode, therefore, which originally aired in May 2000, is moving not because it is a goodbye to Mike Flaherty, the fictional deputy mayor of New York City, but because it is a goodbye of sorts to Michael J. Fox, the actor. The goodbye is if anything more powerful ten years later, not because Fox has passed, of course, but because his regular presence in TV and movies has indeed trickled to a sporadic but always welcome series of guest spots, most recently on CBS's The Good Wife.
"Goodbye" does point out the creative limitations of the program—the plot and the reason for the departure of the Mike Flaherty character are highly ridiculous, the program uses the Macy Gray hit "I Try" all too obviously—but the episode also highlights the strengths of its core ensemble, particularly in a wonderful scene with Bostwick taping a farewell speech to Fox. Also welcome are a couple of allusions to Fox's former series "Family Ties," and a very funny guest spot by one of that program's former regulars. The episode ends with Fox's emotional final curtain call in front of Spin City's studio audience that will bring a tear to even the most jaded viewer.
It's interesting to note that Michael J. Fox's replacement on Spin City was none other than Charlie Sheen; replacing the beloved Fox with the troubled Sheen now seems akin to the organizers of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade replacing an Elmo float with one of Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi.
The 26 episodes on Spin City: The Complete Fourth Season are spread across four discs (six on the first three, eight on the last) and are presented in their original full-screen format. The shows look exceedingly sharp. The 2.0 mono audio won't impress anyone, but it is serviceable to the material.
Unfortunately and somewhat surprisingly, there are no extras included. Given that the fourth season was a major turning point in the series—what with Locklear's arrival and Fox's departure, at the very least some interviews with the cast or creators would have been welcome. Note that Fox recorded introductions to several of these episodes as part of two Spin City "best of" releases put out by Dreamworks in 2003. Though it would have been nice if those had been included in this package—or perhaps an update on Fox and his work fighting Parkinson's Disease (Spin City: The Complete Third Season had such a feature, but that was released in 2009), there is nothing here. That is, unless you consider trailers for Sports Night, My So-Called Life, and Freaks and Geeks "bonus features."
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite his standing as one of the most beloved TV actors in recent memory, Michael J. Fox could easily be blamed for many of the shortcomings evident in Spin City: The Complete Fourth Season. As executive producer, he certainly has to take some of the responsibility for not only the overall quality of the scripts but particularly for the way the female characters were consistently underused. And the lack of any sexual chemistry between him and Locklear clearly isn't all her fault.
Spin City: The Complete Fourth Season is an easy recommendation for anyone who misses their weekly fix of Michael J. Fox. Though Spin City could have and arguably should have been much more than simply a mildly enjoyable workplace comedy, for what it is, it usually works.
Though Shout! Factory should be reprimanded for neglecting to put more effort into a DVD release marking Michael J. Fox's final episodes as a television regular, in the end the shows are what matter. Not guilty.
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