Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday! This week, we’re continuing our coverage on the best of Family Ties (1982-1989, NBC), which is currently available in full 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.
The second season of Family Ties gets to apply the lessons learned over the course of its first. Not only are stories here even better at spotlighting the figure quickly becoming the series’ star — Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton, the funniest and best-defined character in the ensemble — there’s also a huge difference in Two’s handling of the political generational divide between Alex and his parents. That is, this divide barely exists now, for as we discussed last time, the show quickly realized that its initially premised clash on sociopolitical beliefs would have a difficult time coexisting in this super traditional family sitcom structure, where the parents must be an accepted status quo and the children the misbehaving figures who err, for in a conservative format during a conservative era and with a conservative audience, it’s their liberal progressivism that would stand out as more of the mockable contrast — not any personified conservative force. Accordingly, this family structure, along with the show’s own ideology (and Fox’s evident star quality), made it necessary to mitigate the politics, and particularly the parents’, in plot. Oh, sure, it still exists and is referenced for comedic banter, but it doesn’t come up in story during Season Two like it did in the year prior (when, for instance, Steven and Elyse were arrested at a nuclear protest, squeamish about buying a firearm, etc.). Now, the Keatons consistently have the temperamentally geared versions of their identities, as the parents’ liberal politics have morphed into a more emotionally generous, even-keeled normalcy, and Alex — with his strident objectives, perspectives, and flaws — gets to stand out as the contrast… but one with growing humanity too, because of this shifting emphasis from the political to the personal, as he also finds his personality, not just his ideology, guiding even more of his depiction. This trend ensures that Alex is beautifully displayed, but the problem is… no one else is, for the girls continue to lack trackable depictions, and the parents have had their rough edges smoothed out, making them less conducive to laughs and story — two things essential in the sitcom. That’s why, the fact that Two still has the adults often anchoring plot — not as much as last year, but more than the seasons ahead — keeps it from being great, for there are too many inherently lame outings.
Oh, yes, structurally, they are vital — I think it becomes clear now that, although Family Ties’ use of Alex is character-based and not as idea-led as it’d be on a Norman Lear series, this show’s choice to mute the parents in deference to the conventions of the family comedy (the main reason their politics is downplayed) actually does reveal a major idea-led concern, as the reinforcement of this construct is made more important than any lead within it. That means, Family Ties is no less driven by a macro theoretical goal than any of Lear’s efforts; it’s just doing so for a more intrinsic, creative cause: to honor its premise, and by extension, the subgenre. Of course, for quality, Alex is all that matters, as he’s the only one who can believably inspire comic, premise-validating conflict as a result of strong definition, and despite Two improving his usage (it’s the year he graduates high school), this would be a better season if it didn’t foist as many stories upon his parents, who are too bland to enliven or motivate them… As to the subgenre, this year takes on even more of the unideal traits associated with the family comedy of the ’80s, like false sentimentality and an uptick in heavier, dramatic outings that aren’t well-supported by these largely undefined and therefore unhelpful leads, who exist within a gentle format that doesn’t have a lot of room for tonal swings, especially when unearned. Entries here about Alex getting addicted to speed, Skippy finding his birth mom, and Uncle Ned fighting alcoholism are far away from good sitcommery, for fixed elements of the situation (the leads) are not used well for laughs, not just because, well, there aren’t many laughs, but, also, again, such plots are forced upon the characters as opposed to being motivated. Okay, maybe “Speed Trap” does try to root itself in Alex’s persona (more below), but on the whole, it’s still the kind of Very Special Episode that gives the sitcom a bad name. And it’s obvious that Family Ties, if not the official leader of this trend, is at least a leading influence — one to which The Cosby Show would soon respond… Nevertheless, the industry was finally taking note (the series got its first Emmy nod in 1984), and this season’s improvement over One can’t be understated, for with more Alex and, for better and worse, more deliberate corroboration of the family subgenre, Season Two makes a big step forward in the series’ evolution to its most self-actualized form.
01) Episode 23: “Tender Is The Knight” (Aired: 09/28/83)
Alex hopes to reform and refine a childhood crush.
Written by Ruth Bennett | Directed by Sam Weisman
Season Two’s premiere immediately telegraphs both the series’ understanding of Alex’s importance and its choice to mitigate politics as the sole, defining aspect of anyone’s characterization in plot, as this story finds Alex imposing his personal ideas of social acceptability on the daughter of a family friend (Talia Balsam), with whom he’s always been smitten. It’s a fairly serious, mature narrative idea undergirded by Alex’s self-driven conviction about his own intellectual superiority — that he knows best — and it’s a relatable human foible, identifiable beyond political ideology. Thus, in being a showcase for his persona within a script that also knows to maximize this conflict for comedy, it’s an ideal sample of the series. More human and sincere — believable — than most of the run, and most of this list in particular.
02) Episode 25: “The Harder They Fall” (Aired: 10/19/83)
Steven and Elyse fight with a stuffy teacher from whom Alex wants a recommendation.
Written by Rich Reinhart | Directed by Sam Weisman
Truthfully, there’s an unappealing broadness to this outing — no sense of nuance; everything is especially heightened, particularly the cartoonish villainy of the smug, nasty instructor — that makes me want to asterisk its inclusion here as evidence of the season, and even this series’, weaker quality in relation to the majority of what we cover on this blog. But in seeking to find the best ambassadors of this season and series, I include it because it’s so indicative of the common story pattern, as Alex is caught between his own personal self-interests (his desire for a recommendation letter) and the feelings of his family, which suggests a greater moral good. Obviously, we know which direction he’ll choose — this subgenre is dependent on weekly morality tales — but it’s a conflict made precisely for his characterization, so it’s a noble display of the type of character-driven comedy that flatters Family Ties’ reputation.
03) Episode 28: “Speed Trap” (Aired: 11/09/83)
Alex becomes addicted to speed.
Written by Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Sam Weisman
This popular entry was referenced above in illustration of Season Two’s increasing number of Very Special Episodes (VSEs) — a plague on this era — as “Speed Trap,” in which the series’ central character gets hooked on speed for one single half hour, precisely embodies why VSEs are often mocked, and then extrapolated out to deride the sitcom as an inferior narrative form en masse, never mind that VSEs are mostly confined to a very specific kind of show and (for the most part) era, following Lear’s efforts the decade prior. But this installment indeed reveals why such stories don’t play well — they’re not predicated on or supported by character and they’re not funny, so they literally don’t do anything the sitcom promises… However, this one is better than some other VSEs because it uses the lead character — this series’ prime asset — instead of a guest in whom we have no emotional investment, and to its credit, it also tries to root Alex’s motivation for taking pills in his characterization: he’s so driven and self-determined to be excellent in school, that he’s willing to do anything to improve his performance. I appreciate that attempt to make this plot more personalized, and that’s why I highlight it here, even though, frankly, neither this show nor Alex can uphold the overwrought drama — they aren’t real enough — and there’s not enough comedy to compensate for this fact.
04) Episode 31: “A Keaton Christmas Carol” (Aired: 12/14/83)
Alex dreams he’s the Scrooge in his own personal A Christmas Carol.
Teleplay by Rich Reinhart | Story by Robert Caplain | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Utilizing the familiar structure of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, this holiday outing employs what was already a clichéd sitcom gimmick. So, in terms of story, there’s nothing original to laud here, especially because it’s a device that’s fundamentally not motivated by character — it’s a fantasy dream sequence that the writers foist upon the regulars. That said, this list needed filling out, and because Alex P. Keaton is well-cast in the Scrooge-like role, as that takes advantage of the flaws this series gives him (as a temperamentally driven, but nevertheless believable expansion of his well-established politics), I can enjoy this excursion for knowing to spotlight his characterization in the process. And, while I am not fond of the stunty story or its inclusion, I appreciate how the series uses it to display its core strength. (Kaleena Kiff appears.)
05) Episode 33: “Birthday Boy” (Aired: 01/05/84)
Alex wants to go out and drink with friends for his 18th birthday, against Elyse’s wishes.
Written by Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Will Mackenzie
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Birthday Boy” is the year’s finest utilization of Family Ties’ most tried-and-true story template, where Alex’s individual wants are positioned in conflict with someone’s feelings. And, as in the best of this lot, those feelings belong to a family member, thereby vindicating the low-concept premise of the series — the idea that the family unit is itself the greater good, and in turn, the subgenre’s very structural existence must be purposeful. These series are dependent on this type of arc, in which the child misbehaves, the parents scold, and a lesson is learned: the morality tale, in sitcom form. But this version of the story is less didactic than the norm, thanks largely to a funny script and elevating performances that patch in a lot of relatable humanity, supplying what might otherwise be a fairly routine plot with memorable laughs (Alex pretending to be a colonel is hilarious) and a typically lacking sincerity. In particular, the kitchen scene between Alex and Elyse — a notable pairing because Alex has heretofore mostly clashed with his father instead of his mother — is a well-played and believably rendered highlight, and I point it out to further prove how Season Two has consciously reduced the show’s political understanding of itself so that it can offer a more personalized sensibility (at least, for Alex) and stories that are more identifiable, like this narrative about him growing up — an idea to which everyone can connect (no matter their age), and one that fits well within the traditional family subgenre, which Family Ties seeks to maintain. And in doing all this — reflecting this type of show as it existed in the 1980s, but with more charm than usual — while also focusing on Alex P. Keaton, the series’ chief calling card, this becomes an easily winning representation of Family Ties at large. One of the best of the entire run, penned by one of the show’s key scribes — future The King Of Queens co-creator Michael J. Weithorn. Guests include John Putch, Crispin Glover, and Kate Vernon. (Also, “Birthday Boy” marked the series’ debut in its classic Thursday at 8:30 slot, where it would find huge success.)
06) Episode 34: “Go Tigers” (Aired: 01/12/84)
Alex takes Mallory with him for an interview at Princeton, where her beau is caught cheating.
Written by Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Although it might be easy to view this installment and get sidetracked by the continuity, as Mallory ends things with her recurring college beau Jeff (John Dukakis) after she catches him cheating, this entry is really just another play towards the series’ most reliable narrative template, as Alex is caught between his personal interests (a successful meeting at Princeton) and the feelings of someone else — here, they belong to another family member, Mallory, as she’s heartbroken over Jeff’s betrayal. Once again, rooting this conflict within the Keaton family dynamic gives more emotional support to the drama, and with a comedic script like this, the balance is well-calibrated, especially because the story uses Alex’s characterization so well and benefits from its strengthening of the Alex/Mallory bond, which is an important part of the series (even though I maintain that she has scant personality when not directly opposite him).
07) Episode 36: “Say Uncle” (Aired: 01/26/84)
Uncle Ned doesn’t want to admit he has an alcohol problem.
Written by Ruth Bennett | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Tom Hanks is back as Uncle Ned in this Very Special Episode (VSE) that, as expected, I think is a bad example of the situation comedy but a fair representation of this situation comedy — and a common type of story that shows of this ilk, and in this era, were prone to engage. Now, I suppose I could be generous and say there’s more emotional weight to the notion because the offering uses a previously introduced member of the extended family, but, he’s still a guest, and regardless of Hanks’ star wattage, which has retroactively made these entries more popular than they deserve, his characterization doesn’t have enough depth to support this kind of heavy VSE narrative, even if, as before, his comic energy is appealing. So, like his previous turn, I am not enthused. But in needing to fill out this list, and in recognition of why this outing would be more memorably enjoyable than others, I include it. (Ben Piazza also appears.)
08) Episode 37: “Ladies’ Man” (Aired: 02/02/84)
Alex pretends to be a feminist to impress a girl.
Written by Alan Uger | Directed by John Pasquin
This is one of the few scripts outside of Season One willing to incorporate a specific political topic into its narrative. And yet, this topic is not employed as the point of conflict — i.e., Alex is not clashing about it with a family member — for although the adult Keatons still hold progressive beliefs that can be addressed in dialogue, their leanings have to be downplayed within story, because if they are made to be as explicitly extreme in their ideals as Alex, then everything we’ve discussed above happens: he is decentralized as the key comic force, the show goes against its own ideological values, and this traditionally conservative format jeopardizes its anticipated dynamic between parent and child. In other words, utilizing the parents’ extreme politics in conflict would be damaging to the audience’s expectations of this subgenre, which Family Ties is dedicating to protecting. However, because Alex is still allowed to be extreme, it’s okay for him to express a political view; it just happens to be a rare occurrence after One for it to make its way into story, because as we’ve seen, the de-escalation of the adults’ politics has yielded temperamental differences that have provided increased personalization for Alex — objectives, perspectives, and flaws, all of which now fuel more of his plots. And even here, as Alex is pretending to support the Equal Rights Amendment to impress a girl, the drama is less about him going against himself than about him lying — prioritizing what he wants over some greater moral good, like honesty. As such, it’s actually a traditional Family Ties, despite the political hook, and while Alex’s takeaway does suggest a Lear-ian didacticism, it’s second to the fact that his characterization is well-featured within plot, concurrently honoring the family format’s needs. Gail Strickland, Tracy Nelson, Philip Sterling, and John Hostetter guest.
09) Episode 39: “Double Date” (Aired: 02/16/84)
Alex books two dates for the prom — the girl he initially wanted, and his backup.
Written by Douglas Wyman | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Daphne Zuniga and Jami Gertz guest star in this familiar teenage plot where Alex books two dates to the prom — the popular girl (Gertz) who initially turned him down and the nerdy girl (Zuniga) whom he asks as Plan B, until his previous choice reverses her decision. It’s a clichéd arrangement, but it works within the family sitcom’s wheelhouse, and satisfies the series’ most reliable story template while emphasizing the central characterization in the process — for Alex is torn between what he wants (Gertz) and the more moral alternative (Zuniga). Now, everything that transpires after this initial setup is predictable, but almost all Family Ties is, and so beggars can’t be choosers, especially when a script has the right priorities.
10) Episode 42: “The Graduate” (Aired: 03/15/84)
Alex is shocked that he didn’t make valedictorian — his girlfriend did.
Written by Ruth Bennett & Lloyd Garver | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Alex finally graduates from high school in this seminal growing-up story that serves as a relatable trapping in this subgenre of sitcom but also seizes upon the uniquely created elements of his persona, as the eldest Keaton child’s big ego is shocked to not only lose the spot of valedictorian, but to his girlfriend to boot (Zuniga again). This personalization allows the familiar milestone to be attached to a more character-rooted concern, and although Alex is not clashing here with a member of the family, the continuity of using someone we’ve seen before provides for a slightly greater degree of drama — and comedy — than if it was just some random episodic guest. So, this is a pure sample of what Family Ties is like in this era, prior to some of the changes that occur in Season Three, coming soon…
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Sweet Lorraine,” an Alex-focused show that is light on laughs but also positions his personal objective in conflict with his parents’, before — in a rare instance — waffling about its own thoughts (and what we should think about this), “Ready Or Not,” a routine Mallory entry that has one good scene between her and Alex, and “Baby Boy Doe,” the previously referenced segment where Skippy goes searching for his birth mom (it’s not nearly as funny as it should be, and the drama is criminally story-driven). Also, I don’t have any reason to celebrate them, but “Batter Up” is interesting as a Jennifer outing that sort of tries making her a mini-Alex (something Andrew will be in Season Five), and “Lady Sings The Blues” is a fine, if timid, indication of how Season Two uses the parents’ hippie background for story that’s fitting, but bland and apolitical.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Two of Family Ties goes to…
Stay tuned soon for Season Three and a new Wildcard Wednesday!