Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday (on a Wednesday)! This week, we’re starting our coverage on the best of Family Ties (1982-1989, NBC), which is currently available on DVD and streaming.
Family Ties stars MICHAEL J. FOX as Alex P. Keaton, MEREDITH BAXTER as Elyse Keaton, MICHAEL GROSS as Steven Keaton, JUSTINE BATEMAN as Mallory Keaton, and TINA YOTHERS as Jennifer Keaton.
It is often lazily repeated that the sitcom in the 1980s was “dead” until The Cosby Show debuted in 1984. Although such a statement is obviously hyperbole, ignoring some key shows that had premiered prior (like Cheers), this pithy remark does speak to a few truths — one being that The Cosby Show was indeed the most popular sitcom of the 1980s, and it has since served as the fulcrum around which we perceive the rest of the era, just like I Love Lucy is our primary point of reference in the 1950s, and the 1970s hinges around the transition from Norman Lear to Garry Marshall. Additionally, like the culture at large, most decades in TV tend to take a few years to settle into the identities that most define them, shedding the remnants of the previous era’s shows and values in the process. So, it’s fair to say that the early ’80s’ landscape was riddled with aging ’70s comedies that were no longer as good as they once were, and it wasn’t until 1984, with the arrival of an obvious smash hit like The Cosby Show, that it become possible to track a new trend, one that would naturally accelerate because of The Cosby Show but had actually been percolating before it — Family Ties being the most visible predictor — thereby giving the sitcom new direction. I’m referring, specifically, to the traditional family comedy, with parents and kids, a home setting, and uncomplicated stories about growing up and learning relatable life lessons. This, as you know, is not my favorite subgenre of sitcommery, for I think shows in this category are often loaded with storytelling clichés that both undermine character and aren’t great for comedy. Exhibit A is the form’s over-reliance on kids, for unless a young player is defined with a consistent, individual perspective — and typically they’re not, because they have to be maneuvered to support all different kinds of weekly morality tales, forcing a certain broad-brush malleability to their depictions — they tend to become more plot device than character, as we’re not able to ascribe a clear decision-making process to their choices, and if we can’t do that, we’re also not able to attach to them a pattern of behavior, which means they can’t believably motivate stories or laughs. (Immaturity is a fine justification, but it’s not a personal impetus that makes a driving force; it’s just a blanket excuse for otherwise cookie-cutter plots.)
Indeed, many of these shows have a formulaic blandness, with a lack of humanity because of impersonalization and minimal humor because of a mitigated concern over building characters for comedy. So, again, these sitcoms tend not to be my favorite. But they were widespread in the 1950s (and even the ’60s), and saw a renaissance in the 1980s, following a decade more defined by an expanding number of workplace comedies and the fairly new “hangout” subset, as the biggest family sitcoms of the 1970s were outliers: All In The Family and Happy Days — the former dominated by its political ideology and the topical stories for which the family structure was merely a conduit, and the latter an overcorrection, with unserious nostalgia informing its use of everything — intentionally throwing back to an unthoughtful representation of the ’50s/’60s. Updating this subgenre would be up to the 1980s — the most conservative era in this country (politically) since the ’50s, sparking a new baby boom and a renewed commercial case for reinforcing the nuclear family unit. Like the 1960s, these thematic interests weren’t strictly reserved for shows with two-parent households and a set of biological kids though — often there might be some wrinkle, like a single-parent design with another proxy figure (a butler, a nanny, a relative, etc.), or some other slightly higher concept trapping to provide a hook for story (like a rags-to-riches or fish-out-of-water yarn). However, many of these “modified family” sitcoms were still largely adherent to the “traditional family” ethos, with the “wrinkle” not providing much by way of week-to-week differentiation, just a theoretical nod that might give some cover to the shoddy character work. And, as with the 1960s, this emphasis on family — with The Cosby Show epitomizing the trend in 1984 — also led to a backlash in the latter half of the decade, when more shows began to lampoon or comment upon domesticity, adding a more genuinely comedic disruption, via high-concept supernatural gimmicks (see: Alf), an overt sense of satire (see: Married… With Children), or even a general trend towards metatheatricality, as the entire genre became keener on telegraphing awareness about its limitations than upholding the falseness that family sitcoms of the ’80s seemed to exemplify, with their trite morality tales featuring unfunny, undefined, and unbelievable leads.
Both The Cosby Show and Family Ties reflect these criticisms, but they’re also the family comedy’s best ’80s samples — specifically The Cosby Show, whose first season is one of the strongest of the decade, courtesy of its star’s personal brand of humor, which, in being prioritized, allows laughs to be the focus of his whole show, accordingly cutting this subgenre’s usual treacle while inviting both more truth and more personality into the characterizations. To that point, it’s not a coincidence that The Cosby Show descended from the MTM camp, with Jay Sandrich as the resident director and Ed. Weinberger as the co-creator, for their pedigree suggests a recognition about the import of character. Similarly, Family Ties also has MTM DNA, counting as its creator and executive producer Gary David Goldberg, an alum of The Bob Newhart Show and The Tony Randall Show who brought several staffers with him. Perhaps because of this lineage, both series lean into the low-conceptness of the family comedy, avoiding shiny “modified” options in favor of a straightforward “traditional” look — two parents, some kids, the home as the nucleus, etc. And any premised notions that would make them unique are personally entrenched, not a gimmick — i.e., the Huxtables are upper middle class Black Americans, and this certainly informs their depictions, but it seldom exists as the point of the storytelling, which doesn’t lead with its sociopolitical aims, for unlike the Lear comedies of the decade prior, it’s not so interested in mining drama from this crucial element of their identity and instead wants to rely more on the created facets of their individual personas (with sociopolitical good coming, ultimately, because this is done well and they end up both funny and relatable). Family Ties, meanwhile, has a politically-minded generational divide between its parents and the eldest kid — a relational construct that could be Lear-ian, but as we’ll see, is mostly applied to uphold conventions of the family comedy in story… (the exact opposite of, say, All In The Family, which uses its family design as support for its politics). As with The Cosby Show, this creates a dynamic that helps Family Ties stand out from the rest of the domestic sitcoms of its time (it is a hook)… although, in being rooted in the leads and their familial bond, it’s still more low-concept and character-focused — call it the family sitcom, à la MTM.
Now, if The Cosby Show is the funniest in this family pile, with the most personality, Family Ties, which premiered two years earlier, is lesser — the character work is not as collectively sharp, denying some of the leads vital definition, and it never commits as much to comedy as the raison d’être. What’s more, as its characters are less defined and, as such, less capable of pushing story, Family Ties also chooses to be more narratively serious too, indulging in more of the form’s anticipated moralizing, and with Very Special Episodes (VSEs) that, in this post-Lear era, falsely equate sitcom quality to dramatic relevance, never mind that heavier stories feel unsupported in this gentle design, and with leads who are not complex enough to handle (let alone motivate) them, thereby rendering such efforts both unfunny and unearned. This VSE push is another common habit of the subgenre that I don’t appreciate, and while The Cosby Show validates this style of sitcom by adhering more to its tropes than not, at least it’s reacting to what’s been established in series like these by injecting a little more truth, a little more character, and a little more comedy. One could say, then, that Family Ties is more indicative of the traditional family sitcom of the ’80s, for it better reinforces the general weaknesses that tend to define all of them: they’re false, clichéd, and laugh-lite, with a shortage of memorable characters…. However, if all that’s mostly true, there’s one exception. And it’s a huge one, for Family Ties does have one of the best sitcom characters of the 1980s — more fun and iconic than anyone on The Cosby Show. His mere presence is enough for me to put aside my distaste for this subgenre, overlook the series’ own individual handicaps, and choose to call Family Ties one of the decade’s most worthy sitcoms of study. You know exactly to whom I’m referring: Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton. He’s up there with Happy Days’ Fonzie in terms of wattage — only, by being in a show with MTM bones, Alex is actually better deployed in story, with his depiction informing more of the plot-generation, or at least, the comedy that unfolds. To wit, it’s clear even in Season One that the best Family Ties episodes are those that emphasize his characterization, utilizing what we know about him — a fixed element of the series’ situation that can then be mined for humor. He, fairly exclusively, becomes why we watch.
Alex’s domination of the show happens over a few years, and it doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of the other regulars, for rather, it’s more that he’s having to fill a void left by the fact that no one else is getting as much definition — particularly, his sisters. Okay, I’m willing to say that Mallory, despite not having much of a personality of her own (like many sitcom kids, she changes based on the demands of the story), is used as something of the blank board against which Alex is contrasted. It’s not necessarily that she’s a dumb underachiever, it’s that she’s average compared to her intelligent, perfectionist brother — a juxtaposition that can make her look dumb and underachieving, but often only in direct narrative relation to him, whose definition is the one constant and definite force, the focus of their pairing. Her best episodes therefore directly involve him, for most of the ones she alone anchors are wishy-washy, which means they’re short on hahas. That said, Season Four (the series’ peak — we’ll talk more about it later) creates a way for Mallory stories to be interesting: giving her an over-the-top “loser” beau named Nick, someone who can also be contrasted against Alex (and the rest of this milquetoast family) even more outrageously for comedy. But Mallory is a device here too — a prop to better sell another character’s comic existence. (The same goes for the stories she shares with the recurring Skippy, their dweebish neighbor.) And yet, she’s still a lot more utilizable than Jennifer, whose position as the youngest child in the family initially allows for some non-personalized notions about her being the baby… until she’s replaced by an actual baby, Andrew, an eventual toddler who never moves from plot device to character but is smartly positioned as a mini-Alex, another choice that, again, emphasizes his characterization and asserts its centricity. As for Jennifer, the series fails to give her a consistent persona in plot, not to mention a unique relationship to Alex… until maybe the last season, when it’s suggested that she’s ideologically progressive and could be his political opposite. It’s too little, too late though — she’s a dud for most of the run, leaving Alex the only kid who’s really reliable as a comedic pusher of story by himself. And we want to be with him as much as possible, for there’s no one else.
“What about the parents?!” you ask. After all, they have definition: they’re dyed-in-the-wool hippies from the 1960s who went from protesting to parenthood in a snap and are now raising conservative kids — or at least, one very conservative kid — in a more conservative era. This positions them as the 180-degree contrast, politically, of Alex — or rather, Alex is the contrast to them, for here in Season One, the show is more about them, seeking to explore whether these liberal “Boomers” can raise conservative “Gen Xers,” especially one so extreme. This conflict over their divided ideals is often called the reverse of All In The Family, but it’s only structural — the age groups have just swapped values. Actually, this show’s textual perspective also leans liberal, for despite a “conservative” family premise (this two-parent sub-subgenre is historically conservative because it’s rooted in tradition and often unchanging), the point-of-view being magnified and mocked, à la Archie Bunker, is Alex P. Keaton’s. And the show gets to employ this family design for its ideological benefit, using the trope of a rambunctious kid who errs and must be taught a lesson by his parents at episode’s end to then subliminally posit their values as more correct. To wit, one of the most common story templates in Family Ties has Alex’s personal interests (attached to his Reagan-era, super-capitalist, self-driven ideals) in conflict with someone’s feelings — usually it’s a member of the family, which is the macro force that’s premised as more important (it is the premise) and therefore the “collective good” for which we are primed to root. In other words, we’re encouraged to favor the others over Alex when their goals clash — as with Archie Bunker, we’re usually not supposed to agree with him or his beliefs. However, unlike Lear’s work, this show is seldom political in episodic story — it chooses not to be, for in a conservative era and with a conservative format (catering to more conservative viewers), the traits that would naturally stand out as heightened and incongruous are those associated with ’60s progressivism. And this is a problem, because, comedically and ideologically, Family Ties would rather be mocking Alex, while structurally, if the parents are the butt of the joke, then the family sitcom design, in which the folks are wiser than their kids, is undermined too, breaking the rules of this traditional setup to a trusting audience.
So, Family Ties discovers over the course of its first season — and certainly by its second — that the parents’ politics must be downplayed, not to the extent that they evaporate entirely, but enough so that we don’t expect narrative drama between the characters based on differing beliefs; they won’t be fighting about trickle-down economics. Hereafter, this intrinsic political clash is sublimated into a difference in adjacently temperamental personas, with his parents being more touchy-feely and emotion-based, and Alex being overly factual and career-driven, possessing flaws that can be scolded as a result, like egotism and arrogance. And, regardless of the show’s own leanings — even if it was ideologically aligned with Alex — the personalization of these leads, removing the threat of political story as the only way to make them clash, is vital in sustaining the structure, for comedy is reliant upon some collective idea of “normal,” and if conservatism is closer to this show’s normal, then Alex’s conservatism can’t be maximized as well for comedy; that burden would fall onto his liberally progressive parents. But… if those liberally progressive parents can be sufficiently reduced into more even-keeled and average figures (like the adults on most family comedies), then Alex’s exaggerated beliefs can be made to blossom as the wild contrast, validating the relationship between parent and child in these types of shows, while also taking advantage of both the series’ own ideals, and frankly, the simple fact that Michael J. Fox is a magnetic performer. For as stories here in Season One prove — as the show is trying to figure out just how much the parents (who are initially the stars) can be lampooned, since it won’t fully commit to making them as broad as Alex — it’s better to make sacrifices to spotlight him, for he’s where the biggest yuks are always going to reside… Unfortunately, suppressing the adults’ personalities to make the show’s storytelling more congruous with the family sitcom subgenre (along with the other aforementioned aims: to highlight Fox’s talents and support the series’ own leanings) inevitably renders them not as capable of pushing laughs or story either, especially in comparison to Alex, next to whom they now pale. Thus, as with his sisters, the parents quickly become only valuable as tools in relation to Alex, the sole force bold enough to fully drive plot and yield big comedy from his precise, yet nuanced, characterization.
I say nuanced because, in making the clashes more about personality, Alex gains depth, as Family Ties avoids the All In The Family trap of having his politics be essential for story. That is, Alex’s conservatism, yes, remains the butt of the joke, for it’s successfully attached to a variety of other objectives, flaws, and perspectives that make him conducive to comic conflict. But episodic plots come from his disposition and goals chafing against others’, and in the best segments, he’s opposite family members directly, with their relationships giving emotional weight to the narrative clash. This is unlike All In The Family, where the family’s personal dynamics exist chiefly to support the politics; here, Alex’s politics merely support his larger persona and the family’s personal dynamics. And if it sounds like I’m splitting hairs, look at story: the best episodes of All In The Family demand a conflict correlated to sociopolitical topics, where Archie’s perspective on a subject can be mocked. The most famous example is “Sammy’s Visit,” which personifies Archie’s racial prejudice and unenlightened views on civil rights by putting him face-to-face with a Black (and Jewish) celebrity. If the comedy was just about Archie being a jerk — and not about him being narrow-minded on these exact social issues — then it wouldn’t need Sammy Davis Jr. specifically. But it does, for it’s an idea-driven show dependent on the right ideas, deploying its leads to deliver them. The best episodes of Family Ties, on the other hand, merely put Alex’s selfish desires in conflict with someone’s feelings — they don’t have to be associated with a political or sociopolitical topic, for he’s seldom expressing a partisan view; he’s just being a jerk, concerned only with what he wants, at the expense of others. Now, sure, I think there’s subliminal messaging given the way Alex is oriented and how the show delights in using the family structure to chastise him, but in terms of the situation comedy, Alex’s characterization is informing the laughs in Family Ties’ best segments, and stories are about his pursuits, not the sociopolitical issues that are necessary for a top-tier All In The Family. So, the takeaway is that, despite a seemingly political divide, Family Ties is far more character-driven in its use of Alex P. Keaton than All In The Family is with Archie Bunker, who remains much more rooted in his show’s ideological, or idea-led, priorities. It’s an important distinction.
Nevertheless, for as stellar as Alex is, the character work around him is subpar (for all the reasons discussed), and with this traditional family format, itself so reliant on tropes that make it difficult to produce ideal segments of a situation comedy, Family Ties is not what I’d call a good sitcom. Heck, like The Cosby Show — but with fewer hahas and less definition for the leads — it’s still a prime display of why I’m not a fan of this subgenre or the 1980s as a whole. Oh, I’d like to say that the traditional family sitcom — no bells and whistles — is not inherently confining… but when the best that MTM scribes can do is The Cosby Show and Family Ties, it’s hard to argue the reverse… Okay, maybe I’m being harsh. This is a basic format that will always be around because it’s effortlessly relatable to many viewers, and after stripping away major hooks and gimmicks, the low-concept design really asks these shows to enliven their overly familiar, rote stories by having unique, individual characters whose personalities must then create narrative freshness and memorable comedy. In this regard, the family sitcom is not automatically prohibitive, it’s just tough and rarely great. However, for the record, one of the two best comedies of the 1980s (next to Cheers) is The Golden Girls, essentially a “modified family” sitcom also set in a domestic space (although it takes on aspects of the hangout comedy too, like the workplace-set Cheers does). I bring up The Golden Girls because Family Ties also too-often indulges one of the unfortunate plagues on this era in domestic sitcommery — the previously-referenced Very Special Episode: a phenomenon that, as we’ve seen, accelerated post-Lear when the genre became self-conscious about its own worth, turning to the misguided belief that drama is intrinsically more valuable than comedy, and that sitcoms of prestige must engage in heavier moments in order to have credibility… no matter if they can’t believably sustain them. Perhaps this show is cognizant of that innate tension, and that’s why it often turns to guest characters to spark these strained dramatic offerings, sparing the leads. If so, such efforts are noble, but they still don’t work, for we have no emotional investment in episodic figures who exist purely for anti-comic plots that go against the format and wouldn’t work even with these regulars.
This is actually one of the big problems with Family Ties — its format and these weak characters aren’t strong enough to handle heavy subject matters. So, such episodes feel false, further divorcing the show from both its humor and its sense of truth, while elevating our awareness of its shoddy character work. The problem is common — one of the endemic issues I find with many ’80s sitcoms… Nonetheless, I easily see the value of The Cosby Show, given the influence it had within the genre due to its popularity and, to be fair, its initial creative success, retroactively vindicating Family Ties (which premiered in 1982 but didn’t become a hit until it was paired next to Cosby’s new series in ’84) as an early example of this decade’s trend. And, hey, if The Cosby Show was a reaction to what was established on series like Family Ties, maybe we’ll also see its influence boomerang back… But that’s for later. In the meantime, I’ll reiterate that I wish Family Ties had more going for it than Alex P. Keaton. And yet, because of its ideology, its need to maintain the subgenre’s structure, and its natural inclination to go where the biggest laughs are, I understand why everyone else is so muted. No, it’s not an excuse — I think this show could have built up the others if it was willing to be bolder and realer with its conflict, and less deferential to both the syrupy sentimentality of the family genre in the ’80s and the more conservative mores of the era’s audience, but again, this is the ’80s, and the show is indicative of its time. My purpose for covering it here is not only to examine how Family Ties embodies the family sitcom of this decade more accurately than The Cosby Show, which, in being slightly better is also less reflective of the norm, but also to praise the very specific, special source from which it finds its fresh form of MTM character-based excellence: Alex P. Keaton, the only font of anything notable from a creative standpoint. In fact, as I’ve said above, the best episodes of this show are centered around him, spotlighting his comic persona in a way that makes this series look better than it is, allowing us to forget about how limp the rest of the peripheral players are, and how the show seems to be purposefully reducing itself in submission to a format that doesn’t have to be bland, but often is, mainly because it’s significantly hard not to be.
01) Episode 1: “Pilot” (Aired: 09/22/82)
Steven and Elyse demand that Alex not attend a discriminating country club.
Written by Gary David Goldberg | Directed by Asaad Kelada
The series’ premiere is the boldest encapsulation of the first season compared to the rest of the run, with a parent-heavy story that pits them on the opposite side of their son Alex, who is excited to gain entry (with his new girlfriend) to an elitist country club with discriminatory policies — a fact that the family, and the audience, obviously finds morally unacceptable. Accordingly, this is the very first indication of the common story template mentioned above where Alex’s objective is positioned in conflict with someone else’s feelings and the overall greater good linked with the family, enabling the show to simultaneously exploit the domestic comedy trope in which the kid errs and is chastised by his adult superiors. This arrangement always serves to favor the parents’ perspective over Alex’s, but in this year where the politically oppositional dynamic between the folks and their eldest child is still getting explored more explicitly in the text (particularly in this pilot, which establishes it), and the characters themselves have not yet settled into their more temperamentally geared personas (where Alex, at least, is better and more personally defined), the moral lesson comes less from Alex having a relatable flaw than from his political ideology, which dominates his characterization here and is thus suggested as the motivation for his choices — in a story that is especially black-and-white. As a result, this is one of the most Lear-ian episodes of the entire series, with an ideological sense of right and wrong that’s attached to politics, and a character who is being used as a caricature of the unappealing opposition. Other segments in Season One will express similar beliefs and engage this same template, but never so harshly, and never with Alex’s politics so squarely attributable to actions that earn him a deserved scolding. So, I feature this outing as an important example of the season, but one that must be asterisked for its unique extremeness — which will not only evaporate after this year, but get considerably diluted throughout One as well.
02) Episode 4: “Summer Of ’82” (Aired: 10/27/82)
Alex gets his heart broken by a college girl.
Written by Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Tony Mordente
This is the first offering where Alex is truly centralized, as the story finds him romancing a college girl to whom he loses his virginity. It’s an interesting Bildungsroman with a more honest and adult sensibility than, well, pretty much the rest of the series, but in being a stepping stone for the eldest child’s growing up — his first heartbreak — there’s a genuine affiliation to the domestic comedy format, and this allows the story to play as a more modern take on an idea otherwise part of this overly familiar and traditional subgenre. More importantly, though, this script is funny and focused on the series’ main attraction, whose characterization is happily developing outside of his politics — a necessary forward march.
03) Episode 7: “Big Brother Is Watching” (Aired: 11/17/82)
In the school paper, Alex exposes Mallory as part of a cheating scandal.
Written by Ruth Bennett | Directed by Alan Bergmann
Of all the episodes in Season One, I think this is the most straightforward sample of the aforementioned story template where Alex’s wants are positioned in conflict with someone’s feelings and the greater good of the family, for here, Alex’s career-driven high standards lead him to publicly out his own sister as having partaken in a cheating scandal — thus disappointing his family, who believe that he should have protected her. This is a strong version of this type of plot, for it stems from qualities that we can already associate with Alex, and, because the opposition to his actions come from within the family, the story is premise-validating. But, again, while Alex’s political ideology is fodder for discussion, it alone is not driving his choices — he has traits that, yes, are associated with his leanings (and certainly more believable because of the connection), but they can exist independently: ambition, egotism, perfectionism, etc. And while these flaws remain heightened, keeping him funny, they’re also more personal and therefore more universally relatable too, simultaneously enabling him to also become more human — the only character who’s growing more dimensional and more comedic. Philip Sterling guests.
04) Episode 9: “Death Of A Grocer” (Aired: 12/01/82)
Alex quits his job with a local grocer to work at a newer, bigger store.
Written by Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Will Mackenzie
This offering uses the same formula as the above, with Alex’s personal objective clashing with someone’s feelings and framed by the show as wrong, letting the script admonish him like it would any sitcom teen who schemes, as he learns a gentle lesson that honors the series’ conservative structure while chastising, indirectly, the only character with such politics. I don’t like it as much as the above though for the individual whose feelings Alex crosses is an outside guest (Jack Somack) and not a fellow Keaton, and by placing this positional role away from the family unit, the conflict becomes less premise-validating and emotionally earned. However, for being a decent showcase of the series’ storytelling, and Alex’s character specifically, I still include it here. Also, Marc Price debuts as Skippy, and William Schilling and Ann Nelson appear.
05) Episode 13: “Sherry Baby” (Aired: 01/12/83)
Alex agrees to date one of Mallory’s friends if she’ll go out with Skippy.
Written by Barbara Hall | Directed by Tony Mordente
Although the sophomore excursion’s A-story pairs Alex and Mallory, this is the first installment to flesh out their dynamic in a way that’s unique to their characters — or his, anyway — as they strike up a deal: he’ll go out with one of her peers, a girl in a sorority that Mallory is eager to join, if she’ll (Mallory) go out with Alex’s friend Skippy, who has a big crush on Mallory that’s formalized here. This is a comic idea that works by this series’ standards, for Skippy is an amusing peripheral player and the continuity of his feelings for her is a nice comic runner that doesn’t yield too much narratively but is nevertheless reliable. And generally speaking, I like that the series is engaging with stories built on character relationships, for while I maintain that Mallory’s lack of definition is a hinderance, her best work comes when she’s positioned next to Alex — with a segment like this serving as easy proof.
06) Episode 14: “The Fugitive (I)” (Aired: 01/19/83)
Elyse’s big-time executive brother comes to stay, but he has secrets.
Written by Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Tom Hanks makes his first two of three appearances in this well-liked double-header that, frankly, I consider to be something of an overrated mess. For starters, it’s an ostentatious plot-led story that’s too far removed from the series’ generally relatable purview — most viewers haven’t had the FBI hunting them for stealing money from a Fortune 500 company — and what’s more, it’s predicated on a guest character instead of one of the leads, asking that he take on Alex’s traditional emotional arc as a proxy: caught between his own capitalistic interests and some larger moral good. This means it’s not as emotionally impactful as it would be with Alex, who’s not as well-showcased as I’d like… However, Tom Hanks is a memorable, iconic guest whose mere inclusion elevates these outings, which boast a heightened comic energy that’s appealing, regardless of how it’s specifically situated or earned.
07) Episode 15: “The Fugitive (II)” (Aired: 01/26/83)
The Keatons struggle as Elyse’s brother is hunted by the FBI.
Written by Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Will Mackenzie
It’s a testament to the mediocre quality of this list as a whole that I have room to highlight both halves of a two-parter that I appreciate but don’t love, for reasons expressed above. In fact, I enjoy Part II even less than its predecessor, for now that the novelty of the premise and Tom Hanks’ inclusion has worn slightly, the story becomes more outrageous, with an overly broad sequence in the airport that better involves Alex, but stretches a lot of logic, even by this rose-colored series’ standards. Ultimately, though, it works just as the previous does — it’s essentially too notable to ignore, thanks to Tom Hanks, and if the story is gaudy, at least there seems to be some consciousness about how Uncle Ned had to reckon with a grander version of what Alex faces every week: his own good vs. “the greater good.” Earl Boen appears.
08) Episode 16: “Margin Of Error” (Aired: 02/09/83)
Alex loses when playing the stock market with his parents’ money.
Written by Michael Russnow | Directed by Tony Mordente
One of the most unique applications of this sturdy teenage troublemaker template — where Alex steps out of line and gets reproached by his folks, learning a lesson in the process — this installment engages a story that’s dependent on the individual definition afforded to its most rewarding character, as he secretly plays the stock market using his parents’ money. On typical domestic sitcoms, a kid might steal cash to buy a bike for himself… not to play the stock market and live out his own capitalistic, Reaganomic fantasies! So, this is a terrific display of Alex’s persona within plot, utilizing the tropes of the family sitcom in aid of something fresh and deliciously character-based. Philip Charles MacKenzie and Anne Haney guest. (Of note: this episode also tries to make Jennifer a sidekick for Alex; it’s okay, but doesn’t stick.)
09) Episode 17: “French Lessons” (Aired: 02/16/83)
Mallory’s prospective beau seeks dating advice from Alex.
Written by Ruth Bennett | Directed by Tony Mordente
Although I think this offering puts too much of its comedic burden on recurring character Jeff (John Dukakis), Mallory’s boyfriend in the first two seasons (he makes his debut here), and it’s therefore not the most ideal sample of the series on this list, I appreciate that the story is still hinged around Alex, who gives Mallory’s future beau advice about how to court her — a character-based notion that reflects way more on the show’s central player than this new guest, again corroborating Michael J. Fox’s Alex as the nuclear comic persona of the series, one that’s already strong enough and well-established enough to be farmed out and filtered through other people, for it will always get laughs, especially when the linkage is clear. And, of course, in being a showcase for the Alex character, this entry’s an obvious winner.
10) Episode 21: “Stage Fright” [a.k.a. “Video Jitters”] (Aired: 04/04/83)
Alex trains Mallory to be a replacement on his school quiz team.
Written by Ruth Bennett & Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Sam Weisman
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Stage Fright” is the year’s funniest, most character-rooted segment, with a story that utilizes not only Alex in a way that’s smarter and more comedic than usual, but several of the other regulars as well. Its plot has Alex training Mallory to be a replacement on his school’s quiz team — an idea that makes her funnier, for, as discussed above, she’s fairly average and doesn’t have much definition until she’s directly contrasted with the brilliant and overachieving Alex, next to whom she obviously looks like a dumb slacker. Indeed, stories that pair the two really lean into the idea of her unintelligence, and while she’s no Kelly Bundy, it’s the start of a comic characterization that can be maximized for laughs, as in this specific case. Speaking of laughs, this narrative also naturally allows for a big comedic centerpiece, as the quiz bowl is televised at Steven’s local PBS station, a detail that incorporates one of the established parts of his identity while also providing the script with an opportunity for surprising comic shtick in a climactic sequence where Alex gets the eponymous stage fright and completely whiffs his chance to be a public show-off, ceding that ground to the now-smarter Mallory. It’s a classic comic turnaround that’s broader than the season’s baseline (as is this whole teleplay) but steeped in relatable human foibles, knocking the arrogant Alex down a peg, but not on his politics — on identifiable aspects of his developed personality, making this a victory for his characterization first and foremost, in addition to the others’, whose usage is elevated by the comedic story. (Also, Carlos Lacamara appears.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “I Gotta Be Ming,” which isn’t funny enough to make the above list but uses a story that puts Alex in the dad position and mirrors his relationship with Steven, “A Christmas Story,” a parents-focused show with a flashback anthology structure that’s more gimmicky than revealing, but nevertheless does have some character-based charm, particularly in the final bit where we see young Alex, and “The Fifth Wheel,” a generic story that any family sitcom could apply but in a script that’s slightly funnier than you’d expect. Also, it’s not a great show, but I also want to mention the novelty of “No Nukes Is Good Nukes,” the entry that makes the most explicit use of the parents’ liberal politics in story, displaying the inherent conundrum of handling their progressivism within this conservative family structure. No wonder all politics would soon be downplayed!
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season One of Family Ties goes to…
“Stage Fright” [a.k.a. “Video Jitters”]
Come back next week for Season Two and a new Wildcard Wednesday!