By Ken Tucker
Updated September 13, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

In another new TV season crowded with wooden stand-up comics learning how to act while starring in sitcoms, it is a blessed relief to see Michael J. Fox back on television in Spin City. Fox plays Mike Flaherty, a hustling little bulldog of a deputy mayor of New York City, and the instant you see him, striding down an office hall, tossing out orders and sarcastic comments, you just relax. That’s because you realize immediately you’re in the hands of a pro — that Fox is one of those TV stars who can take even a lame joke and, through phrasing and timing, get a laugh out of you.

Spin City is at once familiar and fresh. It’s a workplace sitcom, as Mike oversees a staff of oddballs and comic losers, the most enjoyable of them a gullible press secretary played with winning smarm by Mad About You‘s Richard Kind. Better still is Mike’s boss, Mayor Randall Winston, a cheerfully stupid fellow played with immense charm and WASP glory by Barry Bostwick.

Add to the mix an aggressive City Hall reporter (played appealingly by Carla Gugino) who just happens to be living with the deputy mayor, and you’ve got a sitcom that comes as close to classic farce as you’ll find these days. In the premiere, it’s not just the taut verbal interplay that gets the guffaws; while in bed with Gugino, Fox engages in some deft physical comedy that executive producer Gary David Goldberg stages for maximum — sexy but not lewd — amusement.

The party line is that Fox is returning to television after a bungled movie career, but that’s not quite right. In fact, the kid who became famous in the mid-1980s as Republican wise guy Alex Keaton on Family Ties has done a lot of good work in underrated films, ranging from Brian De Palma’s Casualties of War (1989) to this year’s fascinating flop The Frighteners. Except for his Back to the Future films, Fox took some admirable artistic chances that didn’t pay off in box office success. And for a guy who had been used to stardom, being in chancy movies must have become frustrating. It is revitalizing, therefore, to have the man who made him a star, Ties creator Goldberg, build a solid new show around him.

Mind you, this praise for Spin City is based on its pilot, and there’s no doubt the show also benefits from its seasonal context — that is, there are an awful lotta mediocre new sitcoms out there. The premiere’s neatest trick is that it’s a lively show about an overworked guy. Mike looks perpetually tired — he blinks and sighs a lot, just as a frazzled policy wonk would. The next few weeks will prove whether Goldberg can keep his tired boy looking good.

Even more interesting, though, is the question of how involved Spin City will remain with political themes. Goldberg, who cocreated the show with Bill Lawrence, seems to be trying to tap into all our doubts about the efficacy of government. In fact, if you can get past Fox’s blinding charm, you’ll realize the full depth of the pessimism that is the premise of Spin City, beginning with the title itself.

On this show, no piece of political or moral policy exists without ”spin” — the forceful positive interpretation applied by Deputy Mayor Mike and his staff. Indeed, the entire first episode turns on a crisis that pops up when the dim-bulb mayor makes an unintentional slur against gays at a press conference. Rather than merely apologize for the indiscretion, Mike feels he has to come up with a gay staff member to placate potential protestors.

Similarly, when Mike sees an African-American activist eloquently lambasting the mayor’s policies on TV (he’s played by China Beach‘s Michael Boatman), his first reaction is to hire the man. Our hero’s instinct is to co-opt just the sort of progressive criticism that a younger Mike Flaherty probably held dear to his own heart and mind.

Is such cynicism now the stuff of first-rate TV comedy? We shall see. A-