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. With MARC PRICE as Skippy, SCOTT VALENTINE as Nick, and BRIAN BONSALL as Andrew.
Family Ties‘ fifth season sees the series at the peak of its commercial and critical favor, with its highest annual ratings ever, and, once it was over, three Emmy wins, including Michael J. Fox’s second of three consecutive triumphs and the show’s only top-line creative victory outside of its leading man, for the script of the iconic “A, My Name Is Alex.” On the outside looking in, this would seem to be one of the best seasons of Family Ties. But it isn’t, and there’s no finer example to use when disproving the link between commercial success and artistic value, or even golden statues (industry acclaim) and artistic value, than this subpar season of a series that had recently been better. What happened? Well, coming after a year that we’ve previously defined as the show’s best (see more last week), Season Five does almost the exact opposite of its predecessor. While the previous year was principally interested in comedy and consciously seemed to avoid the family subgenre’s noxious fixation on empty and unmotivated Very Special Episodes (VSEs), heavy-handed dramatic segments that banal domestic sitcoms can’t support, especially when they aren’t given much aid from undefined leads, this season is back in that mindless fold, offering several serious entries that are not only unfunny, but also not well-connected to the regulars — boasting neither of the qualities that make the situation comedy an art form. In fact, the aforementioned “A, My Name Is Alex,” a winning showcase for Michael J. Fox as a dramatic actor, is the epitome of these unfortunate efforts, with a self-important laugh-lite teleplay that claims a narrative not actually motived by Alex P. Keaton, the show’s only dimensional regular and someone whom previous years were more dedicated to spotlighting. We’ll talk more about this famous two-parter below, but that VSE is emblematic of other trends this year too, for while it’s clear that Alex remains the series’ star, he’s not narratively driving as much as he was in the two most recent years, as Five devotes more time to his largely undefined sisters and comedically diluted parents. As always, their outings are almost exclusively bland and unrewarding, and without Alex around in a motivated capacity, there’s little about them that’s recommendable. (Okay, Nick is helpful to Mallory, but, with Alex not in great form, Nick’s fortunes are more dependent than ever on external comic story, so he’s not as reliable either.)
As for Alex’s usage beyond story, that’s changed as well. Despite the formal addition of Andy, who’s miraculously grown into a preschooler and a mini-Alex — a gag that’s good for a few laughs per episode (he’s wisely spared from plot) — the show’s leading man is not being comedically maximized as before. This seems to be, in part, because the show has lost Ellen, Alex’s love interest from Four who made his persona pop because she was such a contrast. In her place, Five teases a new lady — someone exactly like Alex: Rebecca (Melinda Culea), his money-loving boss at the bank. But there’s no chemistry between the performers and their dynamic is simply not as capable of suggesting increased depth or elevated comedy. So, before the arc can even start, the show wisely pulls away. Also, remember the narrative template where Alex’s self-interested wants are put in conflict with someone’s feelings (usually a member of the family’s)? Yeah, that barely happens in Five, for Alex has become a far nobler guy, indicating, uh, I want to call it growth, but it doesn’t come attached to trackable developments, so it just feels random and disappointing, as both laughs and drama are surrendered in favor of a diet, family-friendlier Alex. This is criminal, for Alex was the series’ one primo character, and since he’s being constrained, Family Ties is constrained too, no matter what the ratings or Emmys say about Fox and the audience’s enjoyment of this subgenre. That’s right; I believe much of this year’s success is correlated to its maintained validation of the family format — of which this unfunny and character-poor season is indeed a quintessential representation — for look at ’86-’87’s Top Ten: there are four straightforward family sitcoms, all at their commercial peaks. This was their shared apex in the ’80s, implying a collective value greater than the individual. (Of course, ’86-’87 is also the year that premiered Alf and Married… With Children — two subversions of the family formula, indicating soon-to-shift tides…) As to the Emmys, critics have always prioritized drama over comedy, believing it to be of more value — a delusion especially felt in this era, of which Family Ties is, again, a prime ambassador. Thus, if this year is not tops for Alex, it’s still an accurate look at the boring but self-important family sitcom of the ’80s — the true star of both ’86-’87 and Family Ties’ Season Five, supplanting Alex, comedy, and good sitcommery.
01) Episode 93: “Be True To Your Preschool” (Aired: 09/25/86)
Alex pulls Andy from a preschool when he doesn’t agree with its values.
Written by Marc Lawrence | Directed by Sam Weisman
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE) is its underrated premiere, “Be True To Your Preschool,” the funniest and most unique application of the iconic Alex P. Keaton persona in this otherwise disappointing collection. In fact, aside from the debut and more involved use of Brian Bonsall’s toddler Andy as something of a mini-Alex (a funny comic idea that’s reiterated throughout the remainder of the run), this installment actually isn’t an accurate sample of the season, for there’s no other offering here willing to be as comedically bold with how it engages its central, star characterization — even going so far as to put his politics in the main text (a rarity for this era), as the story finds him disagreeing with Andy’s new preschool over their touchy-feely, pro-sharing beliefs. From there, we get a great scene where Alex takes over the class — his “tax monster” joke is a particular riot: a specific gag that only Alex P. Keaton could motivate in this era of the sitcom, and one that comes out of a narrative that’s also directly attached to his well-established characterization. I truly wish the rest of Season Five was as strong — tonally, this feels more like the superior Four than anything else — for it’s one of the few genuinely recommendable highlights from this year. Jennifer Salt appears.
02) Episode 98: “Mrs. Wrong (I)” (Aired: 11/06/86)
The Keatons object when Mallory plans to marry Nick.
Written by Alan Uger | Directed by Sam Weisman
The first half of this popular two-parter about Mallory and Nick considering marriage and running off to elope (before changing their minds), is stronger than its counterpart, with more interaction between the family and Nick, the latter of whom is always well-contrasted against the Keatons and becomes more comedically useful because of it, particularly when Alex (the family’s ambassador) is well-involved, as he is here, in a scene where he tries to fix Mallory up with a fraternity brother, just to get her away from Nick. As we’ll see throughout these lists, Nick’s strong, easily identifiable characterization makes him more capable of procuring hahas than most of the leads on Family Ties, so segments that display him well (with Alex) tend to be funnier and therefore more commendable in the context of this blog’s sitcom study.
03) Episode 99: “Mrs. Wrong (II)” (Aired: 11/13/86)
Mallory elopes in the night with Nick.
Written by Alan Uger | Directed by Sam Weisman
Truthfully, I don’t like this two-parter enough to say that it deserves two spots on this list, but with so much of the season itself mediocre or worse, this entry is the beneficiary, for while I’m not crazy about the narrative-led mechanics of the elopement plot, as opposed to the family-focused and more character-based interactions of its predecessor, there’s one really great scene with Alex and Mallory as she’s leaving to get married — “You’ve been like a brother to me!” she says — that’s very funny and helps tie this Mallory/Nick story to the series’ central character, which I appreciate and consider necessary as far as classic episodes of Family Ties are concerned. So, this is not a favorite, but it’s still enjoyable. John Ingle guests.
04) Episode 101: “My Brother’s Keeper” (Aired: 11/20/86)
Alex feels bad after learning that Skippy is to be pranked by his fraternity.
Written by Susan Borowitz | Directed by Asaad Kelada
There are two adequate Skippy-focused outings in Five and this is the one I prefer, as it better includes Alex, who improves every narrative simply by his involvement, for although Skippy is one of the show’s more comedically defined side players and we do have some emotional investment in him just because of the continuity of his presence, stories with him as an anchor don’t validate the family structure like most do, particularly those with lots of Alex… And yet, even with lots of Alex here, the series’ most reliable story template is not actually deployed in plot either, for he’s never truly positioned between something he wants and another person’s feelings — he’s merely confronted with a basic moral dilemma while we wait for him to make the right decision. We know he’ll get there, because of the subgenre, and, due to the lack of a well-rooted character objective pulling him temporarily in the other direction (that is, he’s not really torn), there’s little comic suspense along the way… Nevertheless, Alex and Skippy are strong characters for Family Ties, and their relationship has enough emotional value to render this a decent offering for both. George Newbern is among the guests.
05) Episode 102: “High School Confidential” (Aired: 12/04/86)
Mallory tries to tutor Nick.
Written by Ruth Bennett | Directed by Mark W. Travis
What I like best about this Nick-heavy story is how it defines both his character and Mallory in relation to Alex, thereby corroborating everything we’ve been discussing about the latter’s centricity and how even Family Ties’ best comic players, like Nick, really only thrive when they’re viewed in response to him. However, I credit a lot of this episode’s success to its smart story, where Mallory attempts to tutor Nick — a fun idea because, when viewed next to Alex, Mallory is the last person who should be tutoring anybody, and while she doesn’t have a lot of definition removed from her brother, this script ensures that Alex is around, so this very funny notion plays well, before leading, ultimately, to the centerpiece where Alex himself helps Nick. Do I wish this entry was bolder? Yes. But this is Season Five, and standards have eroded again.
06) Episode 105: “Oh, Brother (I)” (Aired: 01/08/87)
Uncle Rob announces that he’s separating from his wife.
Written by Alan Uger | Directed by Sam Weisman
Season Five is loaded with two-parters — bloated self-important narratives that reveal the year’s overarching crusade to earn greater respect among its peers through drama, all in the misguided belief that (A) drama is more laudable than comedy (it isn’t — comedy is harder and should be more respected) and that (B) Family Ties can handle heavier, more emotional stories… even though this gentle structure and these bland leads typically can’t. To wit, there’s an ironic value here, as the Keatons’ over-the-top reaction to the prospect of Uncle Rob separating from his wife becomes campily comical, for while the show is merely reinforcing its thesis about the moral good of the nuclear family unit, it comes off so exaggerated, in large part because this is a side character about whom we care little. (To that point, I’m highlighting Part I and not II mostly because the latter is more about the guests than the leads.) Meanwhile, although there are laughs when Rob’s date shows up, per Five’s norm, the script pulls too many punches and lands few. In Four (when, incidentally, Michael J. Weithorn was still on staff), this might have been more of a winner, but alas… (Julie Cobb, Wendel Meldrum, and Norman Parker guest.)
07) Episode 114: “Keaton Vs. Keaton” (Aired: 03/05/87)
Alex and Mallory are both up for the same scholarship.
Written by Stephen J. Curwick | Directed by Sam Weisman
With an intelligent story that pits Alex against Mallory for the same scholarship down at Steven’s station, this looks to be a fun episode, with a juicy comic drama that should yield some fun character sparks by juxtaposing Alex with Mallory, who might receive some definition in the process. But, true to this year’s form, the script treats this narrative rivalry rather gingerly, and while, sure, Mallory receives some dimension through the confirmation of her forward trajectory as a fashion-lover — along with a sweet final scene where Justine Bateman is afforded a rich, human moment that she performs well — this entry’s shortage of laughs due to its muted conflict is unappealing… Instead, I include it now in evidence of something discussed above — the year’s mellowing of Alex, who’s so much more moral than he used to be, no longer caught between his own selfish goals and somebody’s feelings, for here, he pretty much cedes his own interests well before we expect it of him, sacrificing himself in a way that honors the family sitcom subgenre and the greater good it represents… only without enough of the character-based comic tension that made Alex special. Ben Piazza appears.
08) Episode 116: “A, My Name Is Alex (II)” (Aired: 03/12/87)
Alex explores his memories in the wake of his friend’s passing.
Written by Gary David Goldberg & Alan Uger | Directed by Will Mackenzie
As implied, this Emmy-winning, Humanitas-winning, WGA Award-winning, DGA Award-winning offering of Family Ties is actually awful and contributes to the series’ reputation as an inferior situation comedy, for quite frankly, this is the opposite of a good sitcom: in addition to a dearth of laughs as a result of a heavy-handed dramatic story that seeks relevance with a gaudy “experimental theatre” sketch-like structure, none of the action is even motivated by the Alex P. Keaton persona or dependent on his particular uniqueness. Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s a fine showcase for Michael J. Fox and his skills as an actor with a range of emotions, including some really serious human stuff. But the story is about Alex having a crisis of faith after his best friend (whom we never met before) dies — a circumstantial notion that has little to do with Alex’s individual objectives, perspectives, or flaws. And this ostentatious construct doesn’t do a great job of displaying any of these traits either (and certainly not for comedy). Instead, it’s a rather generic Our Town wannabe, and the only reason I highlight it now is because it’s too iconic to ignore, for it’s perhaps the first show that comes to mind when thinking about this series — the most popular segment from its most popular season, revealing this era’s fixation on try-hard VSEs that the form can seldom motivate: a problem not just for Family Ties, but the subgenre as a whole — one of the things we’re tracking in our coverage here. As for preferring Part II over I, at least Part II attempts to make its unmotivated scenes more about Alex’s characterization/history than the overwrought scenario alone. Guests in this two-parter include Richard McGonagle, Brian McNamara, David Wohl, and Meg Wyllie.
09) Episode 119: “The Visit” (Aired: 05/07/87)
The Keatons get a visit from Elyse’s sister and her obnoxious family.
Written by Marc Lawrence & Alan Uger | Directed by Sam Weisman
With a one-joke gag about obnoxious relatives stretched to fill an entire half hour’s story — and a script that folds Alex in with the rest of the family instead of letting him stand out as its best-defined member — this installment was initially earmarked for definite exclusion on my list. But then, in the context of our study here, specifically on how the fifth season of Family Ties can represent the apex of the family sitcom subgenre in the 1980s, I’ve cultivated a surprising appreciation for this atypical sample, viewing it as a preemptive defense of this series’ rose-colored, and thereby bland, depiction of a family — personified as the Keatons — by juxtaposing it, and them, against a crasser, laugh-seeking, and obviously flawed alternative. In fact, this terrible visiting bunch might as well be the Bundys, who just premiered on FOX a month before this episode aired, and while I’m certainly not asserting that this is a direct response to Married… With Children, it does look a whole lot like a knowingly prescient dismissal of the course the family sitcom was about to take. As such, it’s pretty clever. (Stuart Pankin guests, and yes, you’re right — that is Jeff Cohen, the same rotten kid from “4 Rms Ocn Vu.”)
10) Episode 120: “Matchmaker” (Aired: 07/23/87)
Alex uses the computer to set Mallory up on a date.
Written by Bruce Helford & Bruce David | Directed by Barbara Schultz
Family Ties was notorious for producing episodes that the network would later burn off over the summer or in special time slots years later. Five’s technical calendar season not only includes three weaker outings held over from Four, it also claims this excursion that was produced at the end of Three. It’s definitely out of place here in terms of continuity, but with a gently comic story (all tied to the presence of a then-novelty: the computer) and a heavy focus on the Alex and Mallory relationship — naturally centralizing his overbearing persona, via his quest to set her up with a date, regardless of her own feelings — it’s more akin to a classic entry than most of what was produced for Five. Now, I’m not totally sure this would have made my earlier list if it had aired with the rest of Three’s collection, but given the state of the series at this point in the run, it obviously stands out as more character-forward and amusing.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Starting Over,” which sets up Alex’s new single status in a believable star-focused story (a contender), “Architect’s Apprentice,” a solid outing for Nick, who is fleshed out in a plot that bonds him with Mallory’s parents but barely uses Alex (still another contender though), and “Love Me Do,” the year’s other Skippy show, where he is more of the focal point (as opposed to Alex). Meanwhile, of lesser quality but equal note are “The Freshman And The Senior,” an unfunny dramatic show featuring Julie Harris, “Beauty And The Bank” and “A Tale Of Two Cities (II),” two segments with Alex’s un-comedic new love interest Rebecca, with whom he has no chemistry, “Band On The Run,” a Jennifer show with a rotten story that surprisingly uses Alex smartly, “‘D’ Is For Date,” which I cite ONLY for the subplot where Alex helps Nick with his tax returns, and by default, “A, My Name Is Alex (I),” the first part of the gaudy VSE featured above.
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Five of Family Ties goes to…
“Be True To Your Preschool”
Come back next week for Season Six! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!