Though Michael J. Fox’s much-hyped return to NBC last week was trounced in the ratings by the return of fellow sitcom veteran Robin Williams to CBS, hopes are high among Parkinson’s non-profits that Fox’s new show will raise awareness of the chronic neurological condition which sidelined his career for years.
Indeed, when The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research solicited volunteers to host “premiere parties” for the sitcom’s debut a week ago, they hoped to get about 200 volunteers. Instead, the non-profit founded by the actor heard from more than 2,000 people.
The actor’s importance to the cause of Parkinson’s disease, which is progressive and has no cure, cannot be underestimated. His show will offer the Parkinson’s world a platform that most causes could only dream of – a network audience of millions. As more people become aware of the disease, more funds may flow to Fox’s charity and other organizations.
“There is so much that people don’t understand about this disease,” says Carol J. Walton, the head of the Parkinson’s Alliance. “The fact is that people will be talking about Parkinson’s. When you start talk about it than you have the opportunity to educate them.”
The National Parkinson’s Foundation live-tweeted the premiere. There was also plenty of chatter about it on social media among “Parkies” – a term sufferers of the disease, like me, call ourselves. “We know people are excited about the show,” says Todd Sherer, the Michael J. Fox Foundation’s executive director. “There is definitely a lot of energy out there in the community.”
Fox may be the only person with Parkinson’s that many Americans know. He left his last TV sitcom, “Spin City,” in 2011, two years after revealing he had been diagnosed with the disease. He has made guest appearances on other shows since then, but “The Michael J. Fox Show” marks his return to the sitcom spotlight. The new show centers on a television journalist who was forced to resign because of the disease and decides to make a comeback. As the promotions for the show and the first episode made clear, Parkinson’s disease will very much be in the spotlight, too.
Parkinson’s disease affects about 1 million people, far less than the 5 million people with Alzheimer’s and the 12 million people with cancer. Parkinson’s patients, including Fox, have to deal with side-effects of the drugs such as exaggerated body movements that may make them appear to a layperson to be far more ill than they are. One reason why Fox decided that he could take on a television series is that he was given new medications that had fewer side effects.
Fox is also unusual since he was diagnosed with the disease when he was 30, about two decades younger than when condition is typically uncovered. These patients represent about 5 percent to 10 percent of Parkinson’s cases. Fox founded his foundation in 2000, and it has since funded more $350 million in research.
The Parkinson’s world couldn’t have asked for a better spokesman. His “Q Score,” a measure of celebrity awareness and likeability, stands at 28 percent, nearly double the 16 percent average. A whopping 88 percent of adults aged 18 and older know who Fox is, more than double 31 percent average for other celebrities.
“He has got the credentials to create a high level of awareness into the disease based on how well-known he is,” says Henry Schafer, executive vice president of The Q Scores Company.
The federal government spends roughly $100 million on research connected to the disease. Finding a cure, though, has proven to be a vexing challenge. One reason for that is that the disease is highly variable. Medications that can alleviate someone’s symptoms for a while can stop working without explanation.
Fox’s new show has gotten middling reviews – “The problem is the feeling that you’re watching a long and expensive public service announcement,” The New York Times said – but even if it turns out to be a flop, the Parkinson’s community is hoping it will prove to be a hit in a more important way. The third episode airs tonight.