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Michael J. Fox says goodbye

Wednesday night's episode won't be the final one for Spin City. But after watching it, you get the feeling it might as well be.

That's because the show marks the departure of star Michael J. Fox, and it's hard to envision the sitcom about life in New York's city hall without him. Fox, who is leaving because of the Parkinson's disease he has battled for the past seven years, is the heart and soul of Spin City _ making a traditional, often mediocre comedy into something special.

Fox, who looks only slightly older than he did playing Alex Keaton in Family Ties nearly two decades ago, is a Fred Astaire of subtle comic timing but may be one of the most generous sitcom stars in the history of television. Like Mary Tyler Moore, he makes everyone around him better by being the quintessential straight man, giving his fellow cast members the perfect setting for their bits.

That, in fact, was the greatest strength of Spin City. It was one of those shows that succeeded because of the way the cast delivered their lines, not because of the lines themselves. On paper, Spin City wasn't much; in execution, it was often delightful.

The one-hour final episode is a fitting farewell, providing Fox, as mayoral aide Michael Flaherty, and such standout performers as Barry Bostwick as the mayor, Michael Boatman as a fellow aide and Connie Britton as Flaherty's ex-girlfriend one last chance to spin some collective comedy magic.

The story line is two-pronged. Mike Flaherty scrambles to protect Mayor Randall Winston (Barry Bostwick) from a mushrooming mob scandal before realizing he'll have to be the fall guy himself. Meanwhile, his flirtatious relationship with Caitlin Moore blossoms "to the next level." There's also a sly cameo from Michael Gross, who played Fox's father on Family Ties, as a therapist.

Post-Michael J., Spin City's next season well could be its last. Even with him, the ratings have gotten droopy. The show ranked a solid 29th in the 1998-99 season, averaging 13.1-million viewers per week. This year, it's 37th, with 12.1-million viewers an episode.

ABC is even more vexed by Spin City's drop-off from the preceding Drew Carey Show, which ranks 23rd for the season with 14.4-million viewers. Those are not healthy signs.

Still, there won't be a dry eye in the house when, within the context of the show, the other cast members say goodbye to Fox.

One almost feels sorry for Charlie Sheen, who takes over the lead on Spin City next fall. Fox is one tough act to follow.

While it doesn't rank up there with Fox's farewell, it's worth noting that Andy Richter, long-time sidekick on Late Night With Conan O'Brien, makes his final appearance this Friday night at 12:30 (Okay, it's technically Saturday), on NBC.

Richter, who has been an integral part of the show since it made its debut nearly seven years ago, says he never expected his stint to last as long as it has, and now "it's time for me to go out and do something on my own."

Among the possibilities: a film career (he just completed a role in Robert Altman's Dr. T and the Women) and a television sketch show.

The departure of Jill Kirkendall (Andrea Thompson) from NYPD Blue (9 tonight, WFTS-Ch. 28) doesn't rank up there with the farewells of major characters on some other shows, but it's still worth noting when an interesting series figure takes her leave. Kirkendall was an intriguing character that the series' writers never quite figured out how to use effectively. She leaves for work as a TV reporter in Arizona.

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