October 13, 1996 in Features

Getting The Right Spin On The Real Mayor’s Office How Close To Reality Is Michael J. Fox’s New Sitcom ‘Spin City’?

Clyde Haberman New York Times
 

Let’s start with the easy part. The sets of “Spin City,” the new ABC sitcom about New York’s City Hall, look much like the real thing.

Sure, one could quibble about details. Take the Blue Room, the city hall chamber that is the scene of news conferences and other misdemeanors. The real room, indeed painted blue, is somewhat gloomier than the television version, with dark portraits of long-gone mayors looking down from walls upon their successors, some seeming not entirely happy.

From the sets, you also get a sense of open space, with lots of employees roaming long corridors. Not quite. The real city hall may be an architectural gem, but it is so compact that if you turn too abruptly you are likely to smash your elbow into a pillar or wall.

And the set designers have not yet replicated Room 9, the city hall pressroom, where the crowded working conditions might charitably be compared to those at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co.

Still, the essence of city hall’s layout and atmosphere are captured well in this new series. But more than likely, what you really want to know is whether the human side is real.

You probably are aware that the show is a hit, filled with zingy one-liners, especially from Michael J. Fox, cute as a button as always.

This time, he plays a speedy deputy mayor, Michael Flaherty, the brains and power at city hall, Mayor Randall Winston being a basically good-hearted man but often a clueless 25-watt bulb.

Is that real?

Nah.

A mayor of New York can be many things. He - and thus far all 107 to hold the office have been “he’s” - can be vain and tyrannical, nasty and foulmouthed. But not dim. Certainly not the hapless pawn of an all-knowing deputy whose main talent seems to lie not in getting things done, but in “spinning” reality so that it looks as though he is getting things done.

(Increasingly, the mayor is also not likely to be the detached Brahmin that Barry Bostwick plays. New York has not had a WASP mayor since John V. Lindsay in the 1970s, and the early field for the 1997 election suggests that this ethnic fact of life will not change into the next century.)

Deputy mayors I have seen up close in Room 9 since the early ‘80s have been powerful figures, riding herd over municipal agencies. But as the former Mayor Edward I. Koch observed recently in an Entertainment Weekly column, “a deputy mayor usually manages everyone other than the mayor.”

Hollywood’s vision of a New York City deputy’s role has been a tad out of whack all year, starting last winter with the movie “City Hall,” in which the deputy mayor hero (played by John Cusack), among other things, travels hither and yon to solve a murder.

In reality, deputies usually remain within shouting range of the mayor, and the only things that get killed are expensive social programs.

At least Michael Flaherty stays put. That’s real. So is his preoccupation with keeping the press in the dark about emerging scandals, like one involving a yacht-owning school janitor. Even his romance with a reporter named Ashley is believable.

I know of at least two such dalliances in the past. While ethical purists will invoke an adage that reporters who cover the circus have no business sleeping with the elephants, Michael and Ashley seem truly in love.

There is no evidence in the first few episodes that the relationship brings her any scoops. Believe it or not, that, too, is credible. You have to give people credit for some integrity, even at city hall.


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