Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday, on a Wednesday! This week, we’re doubling up our coverage on 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. With MARC PRICE as Skippy.
After a formative pair of opening seasons, Family Ties’ third year really steps into the identity with which we’ll associate the series for the rest of its run. And, interestingly enough, this self-actualization is primarily sparked by Meredith Baxter’s real-life pregnancy, which the writers choose to incorporate into the scripts, adding a baby arc and eventual new member of the Keaton family — a storyline that also invites the usual clichéd milestone episodes (the announcement, the big event birth show, the jealous sibling story, etc.), all of which emphasize the innate shortcomings with these types of family comedies, as there’s a decided lack of originality due to a lack of strong characterizations. Now, we don’t need to re-litigate the value of the family sitcom — check out my introduction to this series for more — but because we’re tracking the ways in which Family Ties embodies its subgenre, this arc is important because it helps further cement the show as being capable of standing as an ambassador for this entire trend. For in addition to merely existing as a hook for story, the baby continues to strip the adults of their uniqueness, rendering them even more blandly typical, as now, more than ever, they’re simply “the parents.” And, what’s more, with the pregnancy forcing the minimized use of Elyse (as Baxter went on maternity leave), the parents are also less often utilized collectively within episodic story as well, meaning that last year’s issue of reducing their politics but still trying to assert their narrative centricity is gone and the show has even more space to commit more profusely to Michael J. Fox’s Alex P. Keaton. Accordingly, this year increases its spotlight on the show’s primary asset — the one characterization well-defined enough to drive comic story — and as a result, the season indeed becomes funnier, yielding more classic episodes (by this series’ own standards) than ever before. Meanwhile, although Alex’s elevated presence is certainly an engine for this uptick in quality, I also have to cite The Cosby Show, which premiered this season and rocketed Family Ties to new heights by being its popular lead-in.
As we’ve discussed, Cosby’s series did a better job of prioritizing comedy than all of the other family sitcoms at the time, largely because it was built for a standup comic, and this in turn created characterizations that were better defined because they had to be more available to push laughs. Family Ties is thus a more conventional “family” offering in contrast, for while The Cosby Show still reinforces all of the format’s structural tropes, it was able to establish itself against expectations, especially in its first few seasons where it’s considerably fresher and funnier. Heck, comparing the two series’ 1984-’85 collections makes for an evident distinction… And yet, this season of Family Ties is significantly funnier than its own predecessors too, for aside even from the increased use of Alex that naturally highlights his great character (not to mention more appearances by Marc Price’s reliable Skippy, a recurring player who’s always good for laughs and steps it up here, probably because of Elyse’s reduction), there seems to be a conscious effort to ramp up the hahas via the storytelling as well. Not only are there fewer of those dreaded Very Special Episodes (overly dramatic plots that this form is unable to sustain, mostly because they’re not motivated by a regular), there are also more stories willing to go bolder with their comic ideas, particularly during the year’s middle trimester, pre-baby but after these scribes would have had a chance to take a gander at The Cosby Show. In fact, though I think Family Ties‘ efforts to “up” its comedic “game” following increased competition from its scheduled neighbor become more obvious in the first full year post–Cosby Show (Season Four, which I call this series’ peak — stay tuned), the acceleration of this trend in Three — and specifically around the time it would have been aware of what its freshman companion was doing — looks to suggest a correlation, if not a causation… Nevertheless, for whatever reason, this year is both a comedic improvement and the biggest step forward in the show’s projection of its identity, and as usual, so much of its success is dependent on the ascension of Alex, whose portrayer was nominated for his first Emmy (along with the show itself — its second as Outstanding Comedy). His characterization remains Family Ties’ chief strength, as these episodes prove.
01) Episode 47: “Little Man On Campus” (Aired: 10/04/84)
Alex gets an F on his first college paper.
Written by Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by John Pasquin
The year’s third entry is this, its first Alex-centered show and the first to deal with his college chapter, which officially begins here in Season Three. This one is fairly unremarkable by the standards of the rest of this more comedically heightened collection, but I suppose it could be viewed as proof of the change that seems to transpire later in the year, perhaps in part by the show’s awareness of its new neighbor (and Nielsen savior) The Cosby Show. At any rate, this is a successful outing because it’s focused on the series’ one strong character, who anchors a relatable conflict that nevertheless makes unique sense based on his specific persona — he’s a perfectionist, rendering this a story precisely designed for him and one that, because it starts his college era, also suggests trackable growth. Michael McGuire and Timothy Busfield appear.
02) Episode 49: “Keaton And Son” (Aired: 10/18/84)
Alex takes a job with his father at the TV station.
Written by Lissa Levin | Directed by Will Mackenzie
With Meredith Baxter out on maternity leave (she misses seven episodes spaced out in the middle of the season), this installment focuses on Alex’s relationship with his father, who is excited that his son has chosen to take a part-time job alongside him at the local PBS station, since he couldn’t get his preferred spot at the bank. Naturally, this show then enacts its most reliable story template where Alex’s self-interested wants are put in conflict with someone else’s feelings, for he gets the bank job that initially turned him down and has to break the news to a family member — his dad — whose feelings will likely be hurt. Thus, this is a great story, showcasing the central character well and strengthening the father-son dynamic as it exists within the family structure, for you’ll notice that the political tensions undergirding their divide are no more — Steven is merely supportive and loving, like most parents on these traditional family comedies. This lets Alex’s characterization pop as the bolder, less “normal” comic force. Guests include Frances Bay, Warren Munson, Sal Viscuso, and Marsha Warfield.
03) Episode 50: “Fabric Smarts” (Aired: 10/25/84)
Alex tutors Mallory so she can improve her grades enough to keep her job.
Written by Lloyd Garver | Directed by Will Mackenzie
As we’ve discussed, Mallory shows work best when she’s paired with Alex, not only because he’s the series’ richest character and his smart incorporation is vital to its production of classic offerings, but also because when they’re directly juxtaposed, she gets more of a personality. In other words, because he’s such an eggheaded perfectionist, she gets to look like a slacker dullard in contrast. That’s what makes this entry comedically work, as Alex tutors his sister so her grades will her improve and their parents will let her keep a job she likes down at the clothing store — a plot that inherently allows for this relational depiction of Mallory. Also, I appreciate that the ending is a little more realistic than the show’s baseline, with Mallory NOT making the grade but her admittedly pushover parents agreeing to let her stay working anyway. Doris Belack, Bunny Summers, and Alison La Placa are among the guests who appear.
04) Episode 51: “Hotline Fever” (Aired: 11/01/84)
Alex and his old school rival work at a suicide hotline.
Written by Marc Lawrence | Directed by John Pasquin
Frankly, this is my least favorite excursion on this list, bumped up only because it’s a good showcase for Alex, who gets a two-time rival in the form of James (Jeff Joseph), a fun character that should have recurred more often because he enables stories that maximize the competitive aspect of Alex’s persona. Beyond that, this is the closest Season Three comes to a wretched Very Special Episode, as the pair are working for a suicide hotline, a job that inspires drama that’s not motivated by the characters and therefore exists as bad situation comedy. However, I still think it’s more original than the rote “big event” birth show below, and because Michael J. Fox does a capable job with his dramatic monologue — which is a believable summation of the Alex character — I can use it to round out my chosen ten. Sam Whipple lends his voice.
05) Episode 52: “4 Rms Ocn Vu” (Aired: 11/08/84)
Alex rents out the house to travelers while his parents are away.
Written by Alan Uger & Lawrence Uger | Directed by Lee Shallat
My pick for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “4 Rms Ocn Vu” is a popular entry that’s most reflective of the year’s willingness to go bigger and bolder with its storytelling, utilizing heightened ideas that indicate more of a consistent emphasis on comedy. Again, I attribute some of this to a growing awareness of The Cosby Show, the hot new family sitcom whose magnetic force both elevated Family Ties’ ratings, and also, probably its comedic returns as well. But, as always, most of the credit still belongs to Alex, and this outing works for the same reason that any good segment of this series does — it’s a story driven by him, the show’s sole regular who’s well-defined enough to believably propel comic plot, for here, the somewhat routine family story of the kids having people over while their parents are out is merged with another common family story of the kids raising money to secretly fix something they’ve broken, in a narrative package that also indulges Alex’s extreme capitalistic fantasies, as he starts by renting rooms out to temporary lodgers before the lure of money has him turning the entire Keaton house into a veritable hotel. It’s a funny idea, made funnier because of his persona, which gives some justification to the broadening. And, yes, this is broader than the series’ norm — a kangaroo?! — but because Family Ties seldom takes the comedic risks necessary for excellence (mostly because it only has one character who’s part of the situation and capable of motivating such ideas), and all of this is indeed fueled by Alex’s depiction, it’s both worthwhile and laudable. Guests include Sam Whipple, Earl Boen, Marcianne Warman, and Beverly Archer.
06) Episode 55: “Don’t Kiss Me, I’m Only The Messenger” (Aired: 11/29/84)
Skippy falls for Mallory’s friend, who falls for Alex, who falls for her back.
Written by Ruth Bennett | Directed by Will Mackenzie
One of the best Skippy offerings of the entire run, this story has the Keatons’ dweebish neighbor temporarily, but buyably, transferring his crush on Mallory over to her friend, who turns out to be more interested in Alex. And, per this series’ ideal storytelling formula, Alex, after initially trying to help Skippy, ends up falling for this girl too, thereby putting him in the classic spot where he’s caught between his own self-interests and someone else’s feelings. This could be a solid drama because the recurring Skippy is now accruing enough emotional investment for the story to carry weight as if he’s a family member, but in this season that’s more comedically oriented, Alex’s dilemma is handled lightly, and the focus is more on Skippy and the humor of the centerpiece, which involves slapstick that Marc Price handles well. So, this is one of the year’s funniest, deploying ensemble relationships but with more of a comedic bent.
07) Episode 56: “Help Wanted” (Aired: 12/06/84)
Alex convinces his father to hire a pretty but inexperienced housekeeper.
Written by Ruth Bennett & Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Geena Davis makes her first of two consecutive guest appearances here as the Keatons’ new housekeeper Karen, an attractive woman who catches Alex’s eye even though her skills in the home leave a lot to be desired. It’s an amusing, if unoriginal idea, but it places Alex, again, in the middle of a dilemma — caught between what he wants and a truth suggested as more morally right (that is, she doesn’t deserve the job, so it’s wrong to hire her). And yet, like the above, if this story has something of a character-based dramatic foundation, that’s not really the concern of the script, for it’s more interested in mining laughs from the broadness of her ineptitude, which inspires more physical gags and a grander sense of humor that, once more, I’m inclined to associate with The Cosby Show and its prioritization of yuks. Regardless, it’s good to see the show become funnier at this time, while still using support from character too, so this was an easy inclusion. Robert Costanzo also appears. (Interestingly, Geena Davis went on the next month to star in Sara, a Gary David Goldberg sitcom co-created by Ruth Bennett.)
08) Episode 58: “Oh Donna” (Aired: 01/03/85)
Alex becomes caught up in the idea of helping raise a pregnant woman’s baby.
Written by Alan Uger | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Although this installment is not one of the funniest from this relatively funnier year, I include it here because it’s another strong showcase for the Alex characterization, as the baby arc invites a story where he becomes the birthing partner for a young single mom to whom he has an instant connection. In his zeal for her, he quickly becomes obsessed with the idea of starting a family and raising her child… despite them not being romantically involved and the kid not being his. If that sounds like an emotional stretch and logistical leap, that’s because it is, but Fox does a decent job of supplying enough humanity to ground this idea in Alex’s conservative traditionalism (and the show’s own premise) — for he so desires a family and the “normal” life that someone like him would believably want, that it makes sense why he would get wrapped up in the prospect. Thus, it’s a hard-to-motivate episodic notion, but it’s attached as best as possible to his depiction, fleshing him out with an emotional objective that, I think, ultimately helps his character, especially as he goes forward in the series with more serious romantic relationships. Additionally, Alex wanting a family further validates this family structure and the subgenre to which this series belongs. So, win-win. David Paymer and Jack Blessing appear.
09) Episode 60: “Philadelphia Story” (Aired: 01/17/85)
Alex dreams that he’s witness to the writing of the Declaration of Independence.
Written by Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Will Mackenzie
With a gaudy dream sequence centerpiece that plays more like a sketch than a sitcom (because it literally disrupts the usual situation for its own comic purposes), this isn’t a segment that I could genuinely say is ideal. However, as far as these dream sequences go, this one does a good job of being predicated on character, or at least, Alex P. Keaton’s specific reverence for the American Dream, something that we buy based on his established persona. Accordingly, a 1776-ish parody involving the regular cast where Alex urges Thomas Jefferson (Steven) to write the Declaration of Independence doesn’t feel disconnected from this series and its now-central character, for, actually, it’s related and wouldn’t work nearly as well on another family sitcom, like, say, Growing Pains. Also, I have to note that while the previous season did a similarly gimmicky A Christmas Carol dream sketch that took advantage of the Alex persona and was surprisingly bold for its era, this one comes across better because of Three’s more all-encompassing comedic nature, making this entry feel more of the year than outside it. Ben Piazza and James Cromwell guest.
10) Episode 61: “Birth Of A Keaton (I)” (Aired: 01/24/85)
The kids don’t want to join Steven at his station’s annual pledge week telethon.
Written by Lloyd Garver | Directed by Will Mackenzie
I’m not a big fan of either halves of this “big event” two-parter that culminates in the birth of the new Keaton child, but I have to admit that I slightly prefer Part I, for while Part II is saddled with a bunch of genre clichés that never seem to gain their own comic momentum rooted in the specifics of this series (largely because the plot isn’t well-attached to Alex, who is the only character with specifics from which one could root viable comic ideas), its predecessor at least operates a little more precisely with Family Ties‘ created givens, as there’s a reliable story where Alex (united, for a rare change, with his sisters) is caught between his own personal desires to avoid the embarrassing telethon at his dad’s station, and the family-validating feelings of his folks, who wish the kids would attend. Of course, it all ends happily… until the fat lady screams. But prior to that, this story uses some of the series’ particulars in a variation of its most common narrative template. Guests include John Hancock, Bruce Jarchow, Fran Robinson, and Ron Karabatsos. (Incidentally, I just have to point out that I’m including no episodes on this list from after the baby is born; this was not intentional, for it’s not as if there’s a huge drop in quality. The stories heavily featuring the baby just aren’t great for Alex, and they’re not as competitively original or funny either. So, there’s simply nothing worth highlighting after this — and, that’s right, I’m also referring to the overwrought, unfunny Steven-led two-part finale too.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Birth Of A Keaton (II),” the bigger and less unique second half of the two-parter mentioned above, along with “Karen II, Alex 0,” the second Geena Davis outing, which has a potentially fun story that isn’t fully maximized for its comedy, and “Cold Storage,” which is burdened by a lame subplot for the parents and the baby but a decently amusing and relationship-based A-story with Mallory and Skippy. Also, of lesser quality but equal note are “Love Thy Neighbor,” a rare attempt at giving Jennifer a big-laugh show (it’d be better if she had a true characterization), “Lost Weekend,” a solid entry for the family that’s conscious of the coming baby, and “Don’t Know Much About History,” the second and final installment with Alex’s rival James, who should have been used more. (And, lastly, for the record, I’m not fond of the above-referenced two-part “Remembrances Of Things Past”– the drama isn’t well earned by the personality-less Steven, despite stemming from his family history, and there’s not enough humor, nor enough Alex, to be competitive here.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Three of Family Ties goes to…
“4 Rms Ocn Vu”
Come back next week for Season Four and a new Wildcard Wednesday!