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Why Michael J. Fox's departure may sink ''Spin City''

Bruce Fretts explains how casting and chemistry made the ABC sitcom thrive

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Why Michael J. Fox’s departure may sink ”Spin City”

It’s been a week, and the reality is finally sinking in: Michael J. Fox has left ”Spin City.” The ABC sitcom will continue next season with Charlie Sheen taking the lead as a new character working in the New York City Mayor’s office, but will the show ever be the same? I vote no.

”Spin City” has never really lived up to its potential — creatively or ratings-wise — but one thing always kept me watching: Michael J. Fox. The series’ 1996 pilot was one of the best I’ve ever seen: Fox was perfectly cast as deputy mayor Michael Flaherty (a spin on his George Stephanopoulos-like character in the film ”The American President”), and he displayed instant chemistry with costars Barry Bostwick (as the deliriously ”above it all” mayor) and Michael Boatman (as a militantly gay activist turned aide).

Unfortunately, the only costar Fox didn’t have chemistry with was Carla Gugino, who had been cast in a regular role as Mike’s girlfriend. The first season’s scripts faltered, Gugino made a quick exit, but ”Spin” still earned strong ratings in its post-”Home Improvement” Tuesday time slot.

When ABC moved the show to the too-early airtime of Wednesdays at 8 p.m., ratings dropped, so the net foolishly started bouncing it all over its Tuesday and Wednesday slates. This scheduling inconsistency seemed to mirror the series’ uneven quality. While Boatman’s line readings remained hilariously crisp, his character lost any political edge. Too many new cast members were added (including Jennifer Esposito, who left last season, and Victoria Dillard, who’s splitting this fall along with Connie Britton and Alexander Chaplin), and plots got bogged down by big-name guest stars like Heidi Klum — not exactly a noted comedian.

Heather Locklear signed on this season and added some welcome spark, until she was saddled with a tired story line in which her professional tension with Mike boiled over into sexual tension. And now that they’ve hooked up, he’s gone — sent off in an overly emotional one-hour farewell that seemed more like a tribute to Fox than anything to do with the characters on ”Spin.” (Would you weep that much if your boss resigned?)

Somehow, through all this, Fox’s pinpoint-precise timing held the show together. I’m not sure Sheen will be able to do the same. While he was funny portraying himself in ”Being John Malkovich,” he’s never shown a flair for fictional comedic characters. His first attempt at a sitcom, ”Sugar Hill” (exec produced by ”Spin” meister Gary David Goldberg), didn’t make ABC’s schedule and morphed into NBC’s brain-dead ”Battery Park.”

If ”Spin” runs out of steam this season, it may be because it’ll be airing opposite NBC’s ”The West Wing,” starring Sheen’s dad (and Fox’s ”American President” costar), Martin, as the Prez. That show’s addictive mixture of politics and humor is a winning formula that ”Spin” never quite mastered.