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 TRACY POLLAN as Ellen.
Family Ties’ fourth season boasts the series’ strongest collection of episodes, representing what I’d call its peak, for while the premiere of The Cosby Show the previous year drove up Family Ties‘ Nielsens and also seemed to encourage an uptick in comic energy, as the show became more willing, like its neighbor, to more explicitly pursue laughs as a primary objective, Season Three merely suggested this correlation; Four makes it clear, as every single episode is comedically elevated in comparison to the show’s baseline. Now it’s competitive. Additionally, Four has the fewest Very Special Episodes (VSEs) of any Family Ties season — a stat that indicates a more conscious pivot away from the treacly, heavy-handed drama these family sitcoms typically employ but are unable to legitimately motivate (the closest here is an entry with Martha Plimpton as a juvenile delinquent), and towards the more humor-first style that The Cosby Show had used to distinguish itself upon its debut. Also, despite the Keatons adding a new member to their family last year, Four seldom involves the baby, avoiding the common trap in this subgenre of indulging a non-comedic plot device that often enables sentiment but can’t actually propel story. So, by minimizing the presence of the tot, Family Ties further signals an interest in focusing on its comedy more exclusively, especially in comparison to its domestic competition… Rest assured, though, if this happy absence of VSEs and the smart downplaying of the baby makes Four look like an imperfect example of this otherwise banal family sitcom subcategory, the year still reinforces all the other foundational tropes that you’d expect, for after Three’s pregnancy arc locked the parents into a more temperamentally even-keeled and supportive version of their roles — definitionally diluted (following the necessary mitigation of their politics) but more emblematic of the adult figures who usually populate these shows — Four is consistent about upholding the premised construct that exists within most traditional family sitcoms, where the parents are the moral status quo, and the kids err. And since everyone is around all the time now, particularly Meredith Baxter, who went on maternity leave for a third of Three — the structural necessity (if not the qualitative value) of the intact family is more obvious, guaranteeing a more fundamental affirmation of the premise on a regular, weekly basis.
Adding to all this is Four’s smarter utilization of character. Well, at least, of Alex and Mallory, as this year gives both major love interests who hone their usages. Her guy is Nick (Scott Valentine), the typical loser bad boy that most families — especially a bland bunch like the Keatons — would not want their daughter seeing. Nick has a big personality that inspires hahas, but stories thankfully afford him surprising depth too, for although he may look only like a cheap gag (and, yes, Nick for the sake of Nick wouldn’t work), his broadness belies an equal warmth, making him one of the series’ better designed characters, for he can deliver laughs and story. He’s good for Mallory because he improves her episodes… Now, that said, she still doesn’t have much definition when not placed directly next to Alex in plot, and she’s thus boring except as a prop used to sell another’s persona — a job she also fulfills here with Nick, who, like Mallory, is best viewed against something else: this family, and primarily Alex, its boldest ambassador (despite Steven being his true narrative foe). And yet, if Mallory is just a vehicle for delivering another character who can be placed in proximity to Alex, she’s integral to this setup, and again, her entries are better than ever… As for Alex, he gets his first love: Ellen, played by Michael J. Fox’s future real-life wife Tracy Pollan, with whom he shares an obvious chemistry. Ellen is defined as Alex’s opposite — a touchy-feely art student who emphasizes his persona from this strong contrast, yielding more possibilities for both comedy and drama. She’s never fully maximized, but Alex thrives in relation, and while this arc creates vital growth for his character that satisfies our expectations of his role as a child within the family, the fact that she’s made to be so unlike him also means that their relationship is designed specifically for this series and the figure who is now its lead: the guy not only anchoring the year’s big arc, but also appearing narratively relevant in every episode (in subplots, if not A-stories). Indeed, no season of Family Ties could be called the best if it wasn’t the best for Alex and Fox, who, in 1986, won his first of three Emmys (with nominations also going to the series, Justine Bateman, and the writing). Unfortunately, this new praise apparently made the show eager to remain important — a mission that, as we’ll soon see, replaces Four’s comedic crusade, ensuring that no year is ever again as enjoyable…
01) Episode 69: “The Real Thing (I)” (Aired: 09/26/85)
Alex falls for the artsy roommate of a popular freshman girl he’s dating.
Written by Michael J. Weithorn | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Although a rotten on-location TV movie called Family Ties Vacation aired a few days prior to this broadcast and was later split into four parts for addition to the syndication package, this is the official season premiere — the debut of Tracy Pollan’s Ellen, Alex’s new romantic interest and spiritual opposite, who likes arts and dance and all the stuff that the law-loving, politics-loving, and money-loving Alex doesn’t understand. It’s a great match because of the many opportunities for comic conflict as a result of their juxtaposition, and since these actors have immediate chemistry, it’s a cinch from the start that this already Alex-focused show is going to yield a worthwhile arc for his character, whose utilization, as always, is seminal; this one obviously displays him well — that’s why it’s a classic. As for Part II, the more emotionally dramatic, Emmy-nominated second half where this coupling is officially formed, I prefer its predecessor — it’s funnier (it plays more with their dynamic), fresher (it has the novelty of her introduction), and more about the pairing of the characters (it’s got the famous “At This Moment” dance) than the narrative maneuverings of the pairing itself.
02) Episode 71: “Mr. Wrong” (Aired: 10/17/85)
The Keatons are stunned to meet Mallory’s new boyfriend.
Written by Alan Uger | Directed by Will Mackenzie
My choice for this season’s Most Valuable Episode (MVE), “Mr. Wrong” is one of the funniest segments of the entire series, with a quintessential family comedy narrative that simultaneously mines humor from its characterizations while indicating, per our discussion, the influence that The Cosby Show, the best iteration of this subgenre in the 1980s, came to have over its predecessor, Family Ties. This familiar story — of the folks meeting their daughter’s obviously unideal beau — is very reminiscent of a similarly strong Season One entry of Cosby’s series, “How Ugly Is He?” Now, I’m not attempting to make a link between the mere use of these notions — it’s a cliché that most family sitcoms could and did employ — but rather in the priorities exhibited when using them, for just as The Cosby Show took this idea and accentuated its humor, Family Ties seems similarly inspired to do the same. And in fact, it might even be bolder in its quest for yuks — less believable and unique overall (more generic), but bolder, introducing Scott Valentine’s Nick, whose big persona defines and dominates the proceedings. As discussed above, Nick is a helpful character because he inspires story and laughs (with nuance coming in later plots that retroactively elevate his inclusion here as well), and also because he’s so easily contrastable against this relatively bland family and the subgenre it represents, with Alex as the Keatons’ loudest ambassador and Nick’s preppy, suit-wearing, intellectual inverse, at least theoretically. (In actuality, Steven often takes the lead as Nick’s rival in plot.) That means Alex’s characterization tends to get highlighted whenever Nick is around too, satisfying the series’ basic requirement for top-shelf status, while Mallory also benefits because this is a story she anchors and, huzzah!, it’s not boring, for Nick is providing comedy, and though she (as she is with Alex) remains merely a conduit to someone with more definition, at least she’s engaged in a meaningful way. Accordingly, this is an outing where several characters are used well (even if Alex is not as central as he usually is in plot, his characterization is central to our understanding of the Keatons opposite Nick, which means he’s central to the comedy), and in addition to how it honors the classic family formula (it’s so typical), its boldness in swinging for guffaws renders it a titan in this series’ output: character moments + comedic ideas + premise validation = a hit.
03) Episode 73: “Don’t Go Changin'” (Aired: 10/31/85)
Alex tries to become involved in one of Ellen’s interests: dance.
Written by Marc Lawrence | Directed by Asaad Kelada
Without a doubt, this is the best Ellen show of the season and an attractive candidate for MVE, as the story zeroes in on how their differences can provide for comic conflict. As usual, and as we prefer, its focus resides on Alex, whose efforts to take interest in Ellen’s activities, namely dance, lead to a big physical centerpiece where he auditions for her group with his own interpretive version of the stock market crash. It’s quite funny — one of the most laugh-out-loud scenes in all seven years of Family Ties (you can definitely see the humor directive being applied this season, à la early Cosby Show), and it’s a bit that puts the series’ star asset chiefly at the center, with a clear motivation based on this arc and his characterization, on which this entire half hour is predicated. Notably, this script is by Marc Lawrence, who joined the staff last year and is responsible for many of this era’s funniest contributions. But there are few installments that exceed the comedy evidenced here. Bruce Springsteen’s sister Pamela appears.
04) Episode 75: “My Tutor” (Aired: 11/14/85)
Alex hires a tutor for himself — a young man who falls for Jennifer.
Written by Jace Richdale | Directed by Sam Weisman
I think it’s hard to deny that the big selling point of this offering is its guest appearance by a young River Phoenix, who plays a teenage genius whom Alex hires as a tutor to help boost his grade up from an 89 to a 90. That’s a funny idea that capitalizes on Alex’s depiction via his established perfectionism. However, the story then becomes about this young man’s crush on Jennifer, and Alex’s efforts to facilitate the love connection. It’s not the funniest or most exciting idea on this list — most plots that rely on Jennifer have limitations — but it’s solid and memorable based on the series’ usual standards, and with Alex well-involved in the action throughout, there’s enough here to make it feel distinctly Family Ties. Peter Hobbs also guests.
05) Episode 76: “Mr. Right” (Aired: 11/21/85)
Nick takes advice from Alex in how to impress Mallory’s parents.
Written by Alan Uger | Directed by Sam Weisman
As you can tell by the title, this is something of a companion piece to “Mr. Wrong,” as Nick is eager to make a positive impression on Mallory’s parents and turns to Alex for advice — an opportunity for these two actual characters to play off each other, heightening and emphasizing their characterizations in the process. This is good for laughs and for the episode itself, as Alex, of course, must be well-featured if Family Ties wants a winner. To wit, this installment does a better job than the aforementioned “Mr. Wrong” of directly contrasting Alex and Nick, and it therefore looks like a more ideal sample of the series. But the former is more straightforward, with a stronger link between this season’s sensibilities and The Cosby Show — a point that I think is important for our study. Also, the above is funnier too, with more jokes from all directions, and its plot stands as a greater embodiment of the series’ family premise… That said, this is still another MVE contender, and proof of the year’s improved quality, for if you’ll recall, a variation of this story was used way back in Season One with Jeff, a boyfriend of Mallory’s who had scant personality. Here, by having someone as outrageous as Nick transform into a proxy Alex, the hahas are essentially doubled. Another favorite. Bunny Summers appears.
06) Episode 81: “The Disciple” (Aired: 01/09/86)
Alex takes over Jennifer’s social studies project.
Written by Rich Reinhart | Directed by Will Mackenzie
You can count on one hand the number of offerings that propose hinging Jennifer’s characterization on the idea that she’s a less developed version of Alex — a decent notion that could prime her for better usage, as most regulars on this show revolve around him. The problem is that there’s never any follow-through — no continuity to suggest that this implication sticks, and actually, by the end of the series, she suddenly (out of almost nowhere) becomes his ideological opponent. This outing is interesting then because it wrestles with her identity in its story — a well-founded one where Alex is caught between his own self-interests (being a perfectionist who wows with his knowledge) and the feelings of a family member, as Jennifer is wary about taking credit for a project that she didn’t do herself. And while it verbalizes Alex’s belief that he and Jennifer are a lot alike, the trajectory of the story, and her depiction, seems to reiterate the opposite, leaving her undefined character back at square one. Nevertheless, because Alex and Jennifer are paired together, she benefits from a “contact high,” and with a story that’s right in Family Ties’ wheelhouse, this is a good showcase of the series — certainly one of her best. Among its guests are Belita Moreno and Corey Feldman.
07) Episode 82: “Where’s Poppa?” (Aired: 01/16/86)
Alex sets up a reunion between Ellen and her estranged father.
Written by Susan Borowitz & Marc Lawrence | Directed by Will Mackenzie
Ellen carries the dramatic burden of this unique excursion in which Alex is caught between her and her father (Ronny Cox), a man with whom he finds himself being more temperamentally compatible than he is with Ellen. That’s a fun comic idea that bucks expectations — normally the boyfriend and father clash — while also spotlighting the inherent contrast of Alex and Ellen, with his characterization giving their entire romance its purpose. Unsurprisingly, the parts that work best in this entry — and the reason I feature it here — also involve Alex, for Ellen herself is never funny enough to make the scenes with her dad truly enjoyable, because although Pollan’s a fine actress and we have more emotional investment in Ellen than many of the random guests-of-the-week who will soon be tasked with upholding heavier, dramatic plots, she’s a satellite of Alex (like everyone on this show) and functions best in that capacity… Fortunately though, with Alex wisely placed in the middle of her family drama, he’s engaged properly and this is another strong episode from Family Ties‘ peak year.
08) Episode 83: “Fool For Love” (Aired: 01/23/86)
Skippy tries to make Mallory jealous by going to Homecoming with an older woman.
Written by Marc Lawrence | Directed by Lee Shallat
This silly laugh-driven outing is not as sharp as many on this list, for it’s focused on Skippy, a peripheral player who’s always good for a few chuckles (and indeed has accrued some emotional continuity by being around so long) but is tangential to the family and seldom capable of pushing forth Alex’s persona as much as others in this ensemble do. Accordingly, while this script is deliberate about keeping the central character involved in its plot, this is an installment that you have to enjoy because of Skippy alone and his relationship (or lack thereof) with Mallory — a crush that’s never again used within story as well as it is here. Oh, I suppose some viewers may be attracted to the broader laughs of Lawrence’s teleplay and the adult therapist who accompanies Skippy to the dance, but that’s a little more extreme than this series’ baseline, and it doesn’t play as well, I think, as the sincerity that Marc Price is able to offer within his character’s comedy… So, I ultimately highlight “Fool For Love” because it’s based on ensemble dynamics and thus feels, despite a fairly routine idea, tailored to this series and his character.
09) Episode 85: “Engine Trouble” (Aired: 02/06/86)
Alex is frustrated that his mom is better than him in auto repair class.
Written by Ruth Bennett | Directed by John Pasquin
With a great premise that takes advantage of Alex’s self-driven desire to be the best at everything, this episode’s story puts him in the center of a terrific character-rooted conflict as he proves to be terrible at understanding auto mechanics, particularly in relation to his mother, who is taking the class with him and is excelling. It’s a turnaround of expectations — usually Alex is the superior student, to everyone — but it still makes sense, for his intellectualism can’t help with the more technical and hands-on requirements of such machinery. However, the real key to this entry’s success is its use of Elyse, as the incorporation of a family bond gives emotional support to the drama, elevating it, along with the comedy, to create a funny half hour that showcases the lead character — and his flaws (like sexism) — within the series’ chosen structure. An underrated favorite. Robert Costanzo and Anthony Tyler Quinn appear.
10) Episode 89: “Teacher’s Pet” (Aired: 03/02/86)
Ellen enrolls in a class that Alex is student teaching.
Written by Marc Lawrence | Directed by John Pasquin
Another relationship show with Ellen, this installment isn’t necessarily driven by their differences, but rather by Alex’s flaws, as his need to be superior to everyone in life, especially in this arena (the classroom), chafes against his love for his girlfriend, creating a nice dilemma with that classic Family Ties shape, where Alex is caught between his own self-interests and someone else’s feelings — in this case, Ellen’s, who’s not a family member, but a person in whom Alex has clearly emotionally invested, making her a sturdy partner for this story… Okay, Tracy Pollan, though a natural actress, is not hilarious, so the comic centerpiece where Ellen disrupts the class is not great… but the foundation for this narrative is so strong that there’s enough comic tension in supply, just by how it finds conflict through Alex, the series’ chief characterization, ensuring that he brings the laughs. Guests include Macon McCalman and Mark Moses.
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “How Do You Sleep?,” a quiet ensemble show that’s centered on Alex but never really takes off comedically like this year’s finest, “The Real Thing (II),” the Emmy-nominated but more sentimental and story-driven second half of the season premiere cited above, and “My Buddy,” which has a surprisingly decent A-story with Steven and Jennifer (a testament to Four’s strength) and a hilarious subplot for Mallory and Alex. Also, I’d like to mention two entries where Mallory’s usage is benefited by both the year’s comic focus and her association with Nick, even though she’s not juxtaposed as directly with Alex as she’d need to be for them to be great, “The Old College Try” and “Paper Chase.” Lastly, I’ll also cite “Nothing But A Man” for its funny subplot with Alex, Andy, and dolls, and “Checkmate,” which has an ostentatious story that’s removed from the family (it tries to incorporate Steven, but halfheartedly) and can’t be fully recommended, outside of a funny physical climax where Alex fights with his Soviet chess opponent. (Oh, and no, I appreciate Peter Scolari, but his guest appearance is too parent-heavy to be laudable here.)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Four of Family Ties goes to…
Come back next week for Season Five! And stay tuned tomorrow for a new Wildcard!