If you’ve been watching the Olympics (and who hasn’t?), you’ve probably seen the promo ads for a new show called Growing Up Fisher, which will debut on NBC this Sunday, at 10:30 p.m., after the network airs the games’ closing ceremonies. And if you’ve seen the ads, you’ve probably noticed that the family patriarch, Mel Fisher, is—well—blind. And, yes, it’s a sitcom.
But before assuming it’ll take potshots at the visually impaired, consider the man who created it—and who also produces and writes for Fisher: D.J. Nash.
“It’s the reality I grew up in,” Nash says of the show, in which Mel acquires a guide dog after he and his wife, Joyce, agree to divorce. “I didn’t write a story and say, ‘Hey, what’s the hook? What if he were blind?’ I’m recounting my experience. I met the most amazing man of my life when I was four-and-a-half minutes old. It’s the story of how my father fathered me and how it’s affected the way I am as a dad.”
If the first episode, which I got a chance to see, is any indication, it’s an entertaining, heartwarming story—even if, as Nash says, the entire Fisher family “is going through their adolescence at the same time.” Mel, played convincingly by J.K. Simmons (a veteran TV and film actor lately known for his Farmers Insurance ads), is a lawyer who’s been faking having vision but is now “coming out” via his guide dog, Elvis. Joyce (Jenna Elfman), who got married and started having kids young, is in mid-life crisis mode, and their two kids, Katie, 16, and Henry, 11, are actually coming of age. Although the show’s set in present day, it’s narrated by a grown-up Henry, voiced by Jason Bateman.
“My story took place in 1982,” says Nash, a veteran TV producer (‘Til Death, Up All Night). “But we switched to present day because of production limitations. Plus, we want to tell a contemporary story. For example, a woman going through divorce in 1982 faced not easier or harder but different challenges than a woman going through that today.”
As did someone who’s visually impaired. Nash’s dad (whom he’d rather not name, for privacy reasons) lost most of his sight at age 11, after an ear infection went untreated and spread. “Penicillin wasn’t readily available back then,” explains Nash. So the man D.J. “met” when he was born had the equivalent of a halfway-closed eye’s vision, which has diminished even further since. “There was a time in my life,” Nash says, “when he could tell if someone was in the room with him or not. That has gone away.”
His father, however, didn’t indulge in self-pity, and made up for his vision loss with steely determination—a trait shared by Mel Fisher, who, in the first episode, engages in activities one wouldn’t usually ascribe to a blind person. Like cutting down a tree with a chainsaw. Or teaching his daughter how to parallel park. And playing football with his son. “Everything in that first episode—that all happened,” says Nash.
Those activities are, indeed, sources of humor, magnified by Simmons’ comedic skills. But they’re grounded in Mel’s—and, one assumes, Nash’s father’s—dignity. One poignant moment, which those with guide dogs will appreciate, comes as Mel temporarily moves into a hotel, Elvis in tow. When a snooty clerk says the hotel has “a strict no-pets policy,” Mel shoots back, “I have a strict don’t-break-the-law policy,” then cites California Civil Code 54.1, under which service dogs can’t be denied lodging.
More than anything, Nash is hoping that, over time, Growing Up Fisher will be less about Mel’s blindness and more about his exceptional parenting, and how the members of one dysfunctional family are able to make something of themselves. He would, in other words, like to redefine “normal.”
“A few weeks ago,” Nash says, “I visited my dad for his 80th birthday. We went out to dinner and, as usual, walked into a restaurant with this guide dog, and everybody looked. That’s something I’ve never fully gotten comfortable with. But I said as we were walking in, ‘You know, Dad, a year from now, if this show’s still on the air, people will look at us and say, “Oh, it’s just like that guy on TV.”’ It’s pretty amazing to think that TV might make something like that normal.”
Pictured, top: J.K. Simmons, as Mel Fisher, in Growing Up Fisher, accompanied by his guide dog, Elvis. Photo and video courtesy of NBC Universal.