Welcome to a new Sitcom Tuesday, on a Wednesday! This week, we’re wrapping 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, SCOTT VALENTINE as Nick, COURTENEY COX as Lauren, and BRIAN BONSALL as Andy.
Family Ties’ final season aired concurrently with the public controversy that gave rise to Married… With Children (then in its third year) — FOX’s no-holds-barred satire of Family Ties, The Cosby Show, and the entire family sitcom subgenre — along with the debut of the immediately successful Roseanne, ABC’s more mainstream application of Married’s ideas, injecting blue-collar realism and anti-sentimental comedy into this traditional domestic structure, but with more sincerity than FOX’s parody. And while there would continue to be family sitcoms in the conventional and rose-colored Family Ties vein throughout the ’90s, it was clear that these hot new anti-family family comedies had corrupted the trend and indeed become the more popular, critically lauded, and (I think) more enjoyable alternative, leaving Family Ties, in its seventh season, something of a dinosaur. This fact seems to have bred a little bit of an identity crisis for the aging series too, as its final year is tonally schizophrenic, still engaging in untenable Very Special Episodes — dramatic offerings that the show and these characters can’t support (a trilogy where Steven has a heart attack, a two-parter about racism, an entry where Nick has to put down his beloved dog, etc.) — while also trying to increase the episodic humor quotient above the last two years’, not just with plot but even character(!), as Mallory is more elementally dim than ever before (removed, even, from Alex) and Jennifer finally has a comic perspective: she’s just as politically progressive as her folks and therefore more prone to clashing with Alex over differences in opinion — particularly the 1988 election, which appears to spark this evolution in her definition. Remember, the series can’t have the adults arguing with Alex as forcefully, but if he’s against his sister, they can step in as even-keeled mediators and validate the genre’s requirements, making it a win-win-win: Alex gets spotlighted, the show’s politics get voiced, and the subgenre’s rules remain intact. It’s a shame the series didn’t think of this earlier — if not in Season One, then a few years ago, once the parents had been diluted.
At any rate, this more specific understanding of both Mallory and Jennifer renders each more comedically inclined, and while I could be snarky and say Seven is barely meeting the minimum for how these two should be used (for they’re still largely dependent on Alex’s characterization to make sure their traits are emphasized), it is an improvement, given how generic they were for most of the run. The problem is that this new definition seldom gets to influence the stories — like Alex’s well-defined persona — and even when it does, Jennifer is depicted as so extreme that plots still don’t feel earned (see below). It’s, ultimately, “too little, too late,” especially with her, for the show never fully figures out her ideal usage… That said, I still view this as a positive — a character stride when the year’s primary weakness (beyond the tonal whiplash due to the show’s identity being challenged by the subgenre’s contortion in Married… and Roseanne) is actually a character regression: Alex’s minimized involvement in A-stories. Yes, despite remaining the obvious star (it’s his departure that ends the series), Alex is not as centralized in plot, meaning few episodes here even have a chance to become classics, as he is still the only figure strong enough to inspire top-tier half hours. And, heck, since he’s not well-utilized — and actually looks checked out — I’d say it was a blessing that the year’s mitigated returns (in the Nielsens, with the Emmys, and in terms of quality) helped put the show out of its misery. For, again, with Married… With Children and Roseanne on the rise, Family Ties was inherently on borrowed time; the trend it had a hand in creating was now being undermined by better shows. The era of the 1980s’ family comedy had peaked, and the ’90s’ entries into this subgenre would be different as a result. The eulogy: Family Ties debuted at a time when TV comedies were in flux, and it helped, with support from The Cosby Show, stabilize the decade’s comprehension of itself around the nuclear family. But just as Garry Marshall popped up in the mid-’70s in reaction to Norman Lear (and MTM), an ’80s counter-reaction formed against them, and, through humor, it was now too compelling to ignore. In a few months, we’ll be completing this cycle of ’80s family sitcoms by highlighting Roseanne — which, in some ways, is to Married… what The Cosby Show is to Family Ties. But first, one last rose-colored jaunt…
01) Episode 151: “It Happened One Night” (Aired: 10/30/88)
Half the Keatons decide to go camping… while the other half regret declining.
Written by Marc Lawrence | Directed by Matthew Diamond
Season Seven (delayed like all series television by a long writers’ strike) opens with talk of the 1988 election, as Mallory reveals herself to be especially dumb and Jennifer exhibits a sudden progressive streak that persists throughout the year but otherwise comes out of nowhere. (I could generously say that her activism in Six’s two-part “book banning” entry was the start, but that’s a stretch.) Fortunately, this all increases the show’s laugh quotient and I’m happy to see Alex’s two sisters have comic perspectives that, although still existing in relation to his, could have stood on their own if this series was smarter. But per this year’s liminal tonality, the rest of the episode devolves into a sample of a clichéd family sitcom, with its musical montage at the end — as Elyse sings The Beatles’ “In My Life” — reiterating Family Ties’ identity as an old-fashioned, traditional addition to this subgenre, one that prioritizes heart over humor (unlike the new, comedically sexy alternatives, Married… With Children and Roseanne).
02) Episode 154: “Beyond Therapy” (Aired: 11/27/88)
Lauren convinces Alex to join her in group therapy.
Written by Katie Ford | Directed by Sam Weisman
“Alex and Lauren go to group therapy” is a story that we’ve probably been expecting ever since the pair became involved, for her profession as a psychologist has sort of promised a more introspective look at Alex — one that the series has never fully provided. That’s why this installment is so welcome, because it goes deeper into his characterization — and their relationship — while still getting a respectable number of laughs within the idea and from his well-established, anti-vulnerable persona. Beyond that though, I also want to highlight the sort of Married… With Children-like self-awareness that this year more frequently displays — Jennifer enters, is told to go away, and remarks: “I don’t know why I bother leaving my room.” A comment on the series’ chronic difficulty in providing for her character? It would seem so. (And since scripts are trying to make her more liberally progressive now, her usage is top of mind!) Guests include Don Amendolia, Stephen Baldwin, Helen Page Camp, and Diana Bellamy.
03) Episode 155: “Heartstrings (I)” (Aired: 12/04/88)
The family is stunned when Steven has a heart attack.
Written by Alan Uger | Directed by Sam Weisman
This is the start of an overwrought trilogy where Steven has a heart attack and the family wrings its collective hands about how much they love him and hope he doesn’t die — a possibility that’s essentially shmuck bait, for the chances of it happening are slim. This idea is akin to a Very Special Episode (VSE), for the plot isn’t motivated by the leads — it happens to them — and is so generic that any series could employ it. But it’s the kind of story that asserts the importance of the nuclear family, and the strength of the bonds within it — a relatable proposition to most viewers, and one that somewhat supports the melodrama. And I feature the first part of this trio because, unlike the middle entry, it’s actually funny, as the teleplay takes pains to stay humorous, like in the opening about Bush and the ’88 election. It’s a bit tonally jarring, sure, but comes across better than you’d expect. Also, Courteney Cox’s future Friends colleague Christina Pickles guests, along with Philip Baker Hall, Carolyn Mignini, and Bever-Leigh Banfield.
04) Episode 157: “Heartstrings (III)” (Aired: 12/18/88)
Steven comes home from his heart attack.
Written by Alan Uger | Directed by Sam Weisman
After an unfunny and wheel-spinning middle part, the conclusion of this nevertheless unideal arc finally takes Steven home from the hospital, and in continuing the trilogy’s gimmick of using flashbacks to ramp up both the humor and heart (no pun intended), this one probably is the most successful, courtesy of a scene where we see the Keatons moving into their house for the first time, offering us glimpses of little Alex and Mallory, who are both well-defined per Season Seven’s understanding of them, along with little Skippy, whose crush on Mallory we get to watch form. It’s a funny, character-based sequence that also honors the history and emotionality of the family structure, which consumes this series’ thesis, and, more than its two predecessors in this arc, Part III appears to boast a good balance between yuks and awws. Plus, with the false jeopardy of Steven’s fate evaporated, the plot is free from a lot of its earlier contrivance. Liz Sheridan guests in the flashback, while Nicholas Rutherford and Philip Baker Hall also appear.
05) Episode 162: “The Job Not Taken” (Aired: 02/05/89)
Alex feels guilty for taking a friend’s job.
Written by Marc Lawrence | Directed by Andrew McCullough
Of all the outings here in Seven, this one comes the closest to engaging with the series’ most reliable Alex-showcasing narrative template from the first half of the run, as his personal self-interested objectives are positioned against a greater moral good embodied by someone’s feelings. Now, it’s not as effective as it used to be, not only because Alex is not being opposed by a member of the family (in whom we have a higher degree of emotional investment, and with whom premise-validation is more possible), but also because the show now pulls its punches with Alex, generally agreeing up front that he’s a good guy, which means the fun of his dilemma is completely zapped — we know what he’ll do before he does it (that’s sort of a subgenre problem too), and the comedy of getting there, as he should theoretically be torn, is eliminated since he’s not really conflicted: he just feels guilty… That said, it’s an Alex-focused show in a season where that’s a rarity, and Marc Lawrence understands this character well, so his script is better, overall, than the conception of its story. Ethel Ayler and Billy Morrissette appear.
06) Episode 164: “My Best Friend’s Girl” (Aired: 02/19/89)
Skippy falls for Alex’s girlfriend Lauren.
Written by Bruce Helford | Directed by Sam Weisman
There are two Skippy-led entries in the final season of Family Ties and one of them is more exclusively dependent on his comic persona, with little value for the series’ premise or anyone else in the cast. Fortunately, “My Best Friend’s Girl” actually involves Alex (somewhat) and makes use of established relationships within the ensemble, giving more support from the situation to this episodic idea. Truthfully, it’s not one of his funniest shows — “peak Skippy” probably coincides with the era when the series is also at its most comedic (Seasons Three and Four) — yet it’s more character-based than a lot of this year’s narratives, which generally know the regulars better (again, refining Mallory and Jennifer), but aren’t exhibiting this knowledge within the generation of plot, or the place where the show practices its identity and we therefore need to see this awareness reinforced, as it is here. (Incidentally, I also appreciate the more laugh-filled subplot where the parents teach Jennifer to drive.) Maura Tierney guests.
07) Episode 165: “‘Til Her Daddy Takes The T-Bird Away” (Aired: 02/26/89)
Mallory hopes to buy a car from Nick’s father while Jennifer writes a play about Nixon.
Written by Susan Borowitz | Directed by Matthew Diamond
Dan Hedaya, introduced last year as Nick’s estranged father, returns in this installment that treads a lot of familiar ground in its A-story, as Steven is hesitant about cosigning a loan for Mallory to buy a used car from Nick’s dad, due to his unwavering general disdain for Nick as a possible in-law. It’s an idea supported by what we know of these relationships, taking advantage of pre-established particulars (like Nick’s dad being a used car salesman), and it works. However, what I really like about this offering — and why I highlight it — is the subplot, which pits Alex and Jennifer against each other in their most overt sociopolitical narrative clash of the series, as she writes a play about his idol, Richard Nixon, and depicts the former president in an unflattering light. Okay, so they’re not arguing about an issue, for Alex’s worship of Nixon is more like a running gag attached to his politics than an actual example of them, but it’s very funny, rooted in character, and allows for the family structure to remain unharmed (which wouldn’t be so if, say, Alex and Elyse were fighting about Nixon). For the record, there’s another episode (see below) that has a Nick/Mallory/Steven A-story and relegates Alex to a subplot, but the latter’s usage is so much better here that the choice between them was clear.
08) Episode 170: “They Can’t Take That Away From Me (II)” (Aired: 04/09/89)
Alex is caught between two women on the eve of his college graduation.
Written by Marc Lawrence | Directed by Matthew Diamond
This is a strange two-parter that serves almost as a soft finale, culminating in Alex’s graduation from college after wresting him from his romantic entanglement with Lauren (so the show doesn’t have to deal with their breakup when it needs to set up his move). The tactic chosen to separate them is another woman, a clumsily goofy music student played by Jane Adams (you may remember her best as Mel from Frasier) — and the first half of this twofer is concerned with drawing Alex to her, in the same way he was drawn to Ellen and Lauren. (It feels overly familiar but a little more forced now.) Part II’s concern then is to make sure neither girl sticks with Alex, and while its script is just as story-led, it’s more revealing for him, and more ambitious with its comedy too, thanks to several bits that are more imaginative than the series’ norm (the cafeteria physical comedy, the philosophers’ daydream, Alex’s narration). And although I think his breakup with Lauren is utterly contrived and the entry is a herky-jerky mess, I appreciate that the series’ star is centered and that the show is taking risks with its humor. Also, I admit that I love Mallory’s casual take on the meaning of life: “Be happy, try not to hurt other people, and hope that you fall in love.” (Marianne Muellerleile also appears.)
09) Episode 175: “Alex Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (I)” (Aired: 05/14/89)
Alex lands his dream job in New York and prepares to move.
Written by Susan Borowitz & Katie Ford & Marc Lawrence & Alan Uger | Directed by Sam Weisman
Part I of the series’ two-part finale — broadcast originally in an hour-long block but then separated into halves for syndication — sets up the event that is bringing about the end of this series: Alex has gotten his dream job in New York and will finally be moving out of the house, thereby destroying the fully intact nuclear family structure, so important to this series’ premise. I like this idea because it’s not just buyable, it also corroborates our perception of Alex P. Keaton as Family Ties’ star — he’s exactly in the middle of the action here, and it’s extremely fitting that his happy ending, getting the job that he wants, is positioned against the maintenance of the family, and its nice status quo. Only, this time, the greater moral good is seeing Alex so satisfied and self-fulfilled, and thus, the family’s wants are also Alex’s wants, even though they will be separated and the series will end. That’s what growing up is about. So, this is also a sneaky endorsement of the family’s supremacy and ultimate value, both as an idea and as a relatable fixation for a subgenre of sitcoms… However, what I really enjoy about Part I is that it’s still comedic (by this season’s standards), with strong one-on-one scenes between Alex and Steven, whose advice is jokey but sweet; Alex and Mallory, whose characterization shows more individuality than almost ever before (emphasizing both her brains in relation to Alex and her interest in fashion); and most remarkably, Alex and Jennifer, who is suggested to not only be Alex’s intellectual rival, but also just as zealous in her progressive political beliefs as he is with his conservative ideals — making for a very funny exchange, and one that, if only the series had realized this and committed to it sooner, would have improved the whole run tremendously. In that regard, this finale shows a great understanding of character, in addition to the show itself, and while I typically hate finales — and still do (because they’re narratively heavy, atypical samples of their series) — Season Seven of Family Ties has no classics. And since this is the funniest and best written half hour on this list — the one I’ll most remember for implying that the year is better than it is — I’m selecting it as my final MVE (Most Valuable Episode).
10) Episode 176: “Alex Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (II)” (Aired: 05/14/89)
Alex finally says goodbye to his mother.
Written by Susan Borowitz & Katie Ford & Marc Lawrence & Alan Uger | Directed by Sam Weisman
The second half of this series’ two-part finale (originally airing in the second half of a single hour-long block) is more sentimental than its predecessor, focusing on the remainder of the people to whom Alex must say goodbye, with a fine scene that takes care of his final interactions with Skippy, Nick, and Lauren — the three most important recurring players from the last few years — and an amusing centerpiece at Andy’s play where Elyse deals with her son growing up as she imagines Alex in Andy’s place, indicating how fast the time has flown and how hard she’s taking his upcoming leave — the disruption of the family structure. It all culminates in a final scene between the two that’s very emotional — the kind of fare you’d expect from a traditional family comedy, so it doesn’t feel out of place on Family Ties — and it has genuine power given our history with the characters, again validating this type of sitcom by, surprisingly enough, cashing in on long-accrued emotional investment from this form’s innate relatability. Now, I don’t think this is great situation comedy — it’s lacking in humor (that’s why I prefer Part I as my MVE — it has emotion, but prioritizes the hahas, which are more essential) — yet for this series, and its particular situation, it’s a wise conclusion, better than the rest of this season. So, much like this coverage of Family Ties has been for me as a whole, I’m choosing to look at the best parts of an otherwise collectively mediocre package.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “Mr. Keaton Takes A Vacation,” the aforementioned segment with a Nick/Mallory/Steven A-story that covers familiar territory but without as many laughs or a strong involvement from Alex in its respective subplot, along with “Truckers,” which has a funnier script and idea than most but isn’t buyably attached to the characters (particularly Steven’s), “Basic Training,” the previously referenced Skippy-focused show where he goes into the army — a funny notion with little relevance for the rest of the regulars or the premise, and “They Can’t Take That Away From Me (I),” the first part of the fascinatingly ambitious two-parter cited above. Also, it’s not good, but I just have to call out “Rain Forests Keep Falling On My Head,” which is unique in making Jennifer’s progressive beliefs just as extreme as Alex’s — not exactly putting them in direct conflict but letting her be so heightened that she’s against the greater moral good of the family. It’s shocking to see the series deploy this idea (it feels wrong given its own views), and with Jennifer’s ideology only popping up this season, her grandness is much too much to feel motivated, but it’s still a telling indication that the show is trying to do something with her character (for once).
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Seven of Family Ties goes to…
“Alex Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (I)”
Come back next week for a new Wildcard, along with the start of Kate & Allie!