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, COURTENEY COX as Lauren, and BRIAN BONSALL as Andy.
Following this series’ popular and praised but unfunny and self-important fifth season, Family Ties enters Six with its priorities still unconducive to sitcom excellence, for after being rewarded while offering inferior material in Five, this year doubles down on more of the same, supplying some of the flashiest Very Special Episodes (VSEs) of its entire run — ostentatious dramatic segments that feel out of place within this gentle family format because they aren’t motivated by (or well-attached to) the characters. However, if Five’s VSEs were bad, Six’s are worse, for they’re all hinged around guests — Barbara Barrie as an aunt with Alzheimer’s, Constance McCashin as the mother of Mallory’s dead friend (in a clear attempt to gift Justine Bateman her own “A, My Name Is Alex”), and Darrell Thomas Utley as a deaf kid whom Andy befriends — and this renders them both didactically overwrought and narratively irrelevant, as they inherently subordinate the leads, particularly Alex, whose centricity is the series’ only saving grace. Speaking of which, Six does at least one thing right: it gives Alex another love interest — Lauren, a psych student played by Courteney Cox. She’s something of a Diet Ellen — less of his total opposite but still an oppositional force, for while she’s emotional and introspective, she’s also intellectual and business-like: somewhere between Ellen and last year’s Rebecca. And fortunately, she’s different enough that Alex is able to pop as a contrast. So, Six does do a slightly better job than Five of using his persona for comedy. Additionally, Scott Valentine’s Nick is still around, following a failed spin-off attempt (see the 1987 pilot), and he remains a funny character with increasing depth, elevating many of Mallory’s stories. As for Mallory herself, this year makes a more formal commitment to her career in fashion, and this actually provides her with a bit of an independent comic perspective. Yes, she still mostly thrives in juxtaposition to others (i.e., Alex), but there’s more to her now than there ever was prior, and I have to give credit where it’s due. To that point, although most fans would call this year — which moved to Sundays, negatively influencing the ratings, but not Fox’s Emmy status (he won his third Emmy in 1988) — a big letdown from Five, frankly, they’re both too self-serious and banal for my tastes, and, in both cases, I’d rather be watching one of their contemporaries: Married… With Children.
01) Episode 123: “The Last Of The Red Hot Psychologists (I)” (Aired: 09/13/87)
Alex participates in a psychological study of overachievers.
Written by Marc Lawrence | Directed by Sam Weisman
Season Six opens with the introduction of Alex’s new love interest, Lauren (Courteney Cox), a psych major who is conducting a study on overachievers — a perfect venue to explore this series’ star characterization and find big laughs by spotlighting it. As discussed above, Lauren is like Diet Ellen, in that she’s emotional and introspective, thereby forcing Alex to get more in touch with his feelings (as Ellen did), but a little more business-like too, with a chosen profession that itself is more intellectual, making her seem more compatible with Alex than her predecessor. But… on the scale of Ellen to Rebecca (last year’s misbegotten romance), she’s closer to Ellen, so her existence in story remains good for the Alex persona. Indeed, this entry clearly takes its cues from the Emmy-nominated fourth season premiere that introduced Alex’s first major love, for some of the beats are exactly the same… And that’s okay with me; after all, why mess with success? This episode works exactly as the previous did because of how central its star is — his involvement is always the foundation for a great Family Ties — and merely by the way in which he’s displayed, it’s a winner. An MVE contender.
02) Episode 124: “The Last Of The Red Hot Psychologists (II)” (Aired: 09/13/87)
Alex fights and falls for the psych major leading an overachiever study.
Written by Marc Lawrence | Directed by Sam Weisman
Originally airing in the latter half of an hour-long block, this second part of the season premiere delivers more one-on-one time with Alex and Lauren, who is obviously positioned as his next big love interest when the pair fights, giving us an indication that, although she’s not as different from him as Ellen was, their relationship might actually be just as contentious, conflict-yielding, and persona-emphasizing, perhaps because their pairing also seems more realistic. This is heartening, and while Michael J. Fox and Courteney Cox don’t share as much chemistry as he did with his actual off-screen paramour, they’re believable performers who sell the material and help make the arc plausible. Also, as with Part I, the Alex characterization continues to be centralized, submitting this as another easy choice for Six’s “best of” list.
03) Episode 129: “Walking On Air” (Aired: 10/25/87)
Mallory reluctantly takes a job working for her dad at the TV station.
Written by Katie Ford | Directed by Andrew McCullough
When I suggested above that Season Six was the first to sort of supply Mallory with a perspective independent of the better defined figures whose elevated personas benefit her through a contact high, I mainly had this offering in mind, for even though it uses a familiar narrative — we’ve already had an entry where Alex worked with his father at the station (surprisingly, this script has the self-awareness to reference it) — this one finds a way to be comedically distinct based on Mallory. It’s built not from her lack of intelligence next to Alex, but from her fashion fixation — a lingering runner that hasn’t really driven plot… until now, when her interest in this subject leads to a comic climax where she bungles her father’s televised news report, interrupting serious subjects like war with copy about what people were wearing. It’s a funny idea — broader than this season’s baseline (more reminiscent of Four’s) — but it capitalizes on what we know of these characters: where Steven works and what Mallory hopes to pursue. Typically, neither of those details is enough to inspire a worthwhile notion in story (and, to be fair, this teleplay also employs the requisite “wrong video” gag that’s not tied to Mallory’s depiction), but for once, the series is making an effort, and accordingly, her entire characterization is rendered richer for it. John Hancock and John Hostetter guest.
04) Episode 130: “Invasion Of The Psychologist Snatchers” (Aired: 11/01/87)
Alex is jealous when he meets Lauren’s ex: a better version of Alex.
Written by Marc Lawrence | Directed by Matthew Diamond
Our leading man’s competitive side drives the humor in this installment, as he meets Lauren’s ex (Campbell Scott), a more polished and therefore intimidating version of Alex P. Keaton, whose insecurities are heightened and allowed to propel what is otherwise a traditional jealousy story, only dressed up smartly via these more unique, and specific elements. Unique, specific elements are what we crave from any sitcom, particularly one that belongs to a subgenre as clichéd as Family Ties’, for there’s only so many utilizable story possibilities and it’s up to the characters to make them interesting. Happily, this excursion succeeds on that front, and it’s one of this year’s finest as a result. Also, Fox and Cox have good chemistry in his half hour — it’s probably their best show outside of her debut, depicting their relationship as believable and comedic.
05) Episode 133: “Citizen Keaton” (Aired: 11/22/87)
Alex acts as campaign manager when Mallory runs for class president.
Written by Susan Borowitz & Marc Lawrence | Directed by Sam Weisman
Well, if there was any hope that the Mallory characterization was finally going to take off and be her own viable purveyor of comic story, based on her slightly more evolved usage in the above “Walking On Air,” this offering proves that, as always, she’s still a figure whose limited definition ensures that she functions best when placed in direct narrative relation to Alex. Yet while that’s indeed a shortcoming on behalf of the series, we’re accustomed to it by now, so there’s no point in complaining again here, especially when entries that pair the two help spotlight Alex, which is crucial to every classic episode of Family Ties anyway. So, this is actually a smart segment of the series (for this era), as Alex takes over as campaign manager in Mallory’s bid to be class president — a somewhat routine story idea (for sitcoms with teens in the family subgenre) that’s nevertheless personalized by Alex’s zealous political interests and the ego that drives him to think he knows best, even when he goes against Mallory’s sensibilities.
06) Episode 139: “Miracle In Columbus” (Aired: 12/20/87)
Alex takes a job as a mall Santa ahead of Christmas.
Written by Rob Okun | Directed by Lynn Hamrick
Truthfully, I’m not a huge fan of this Christmas show, as I think its deference to holiday-sparked sentiment and generic story concerns independent of the leads are not a comparable substitute for created laughs or the customized display of the series’ central characterization. However, it’s tonally indicative of this family subgenre in the ’80s (not to mention Six’s penchant for relying on guests to help push drama), which makes it rhetorically notable. And because there’s, at least, a turnaround in Alex’s commercialistic nature, as he gives of himself and — just like in the previous Christmas outing — finds the “true spirit of the holiday,” I can contrive an excuse for bumping this show up from the Honorable Mentions, on the grounds that it tries to satisfy both this series’ star character and its premised formula. Guests include Lee Garlington.
07) Episode 141: “The Spirit Of Columbus” (Aired: 01/17/88)
Alex encourages Nick to become more commercially motivated with his art.
Written by Charles J. Schlotter | Directed by Sam Weisman
This installment lands for the simple reason that most do — it showcases the Alex persona, using a version of this series’ classic story template to best display him while also honoring the subgenre’s rules, as he’s caught between his own self-motivated pursuits and someone else’s feelings. Here, Alex and his intensely capitalistic understanding of the world — his desire to make money — is placed at odds with Nick the artist’s fundamental desire to make art. So, this is a fine story for these two (generally) strong characters, and even though it’s not as comedically excellent as one would expect based on this fine idea for these two (generally) strong characters, it is deploying them in a plot that’s comical and tailored just for them. Bunny Summers appears.
08) Episode 144: “Read It And Weep (II)” (Aired: 02/14/88)
The Keatons escalate Jennifer’s refusal to back down on her Huckleberry Finn report.
Written by Marc Lawrence & Alan Uger | Directed by Sam Weisman
Jennifer is the anchoring force of this gaudy two-parter that comes close to being a Very Special Episode, engaging with a sociopolitical topic that gets exploited for drama and is not terribly motivated by the unique qualities of this sitcom or its players. Okay, it isn’t as bad as some others, not only because it puts the family (as opposed to guests) in the center, but also because it makes sense that the elder Keatons, classic liberals, would be so against the threat of banning books that they’d stick by Jennifer and escalate a conflict with the school board. But it’s never not a forced and unideal story for Family Ties as a sitcom, given that Jennifer has no personality, and while I might generously try to say that her activism in this entry serves as something of an inspiration for next year’s mission to depict her as politically liberal like her parents, it’s not totally fair to say that it starts here, for this script doesn’t allow her to have a strong perspective. That is, the chosen sociopolitical story is sanitized — it’s a topic on which the entire family, and probably the audience, agrees, so without any real character-rooted conflict, the didacticism of the message comes in unchallenged and no one gets any dimension from it… However, with all that said, Part II boasts some BIG laughs — far more than its predecessor — largely thanks to guest Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the SNL alum who starred in the failed Nick pilot and was about to debut as a regular on Gary David Goldberg’s Day By Day. Here, she plays a lawyer with whom Alex has a rivalry — a hilarious notion in which she shines and Alex’s characterization is emphasized. In fact, that’s why I highlight this outing, and, because there’s no other option on this list as comedically memorable — giving Alex genuine hahas in his interaction with Louis-Dreyfus — it’s my choice for this year’s MVE (Most Valuable Episode). Frankly, nothing truly deserves that honor in Six, but I’ll remember this one the most, and favorably. Other guests include Granville Van Dusen, Rachel Jacobs, and Christian Clemenson.
09) Episode 145: “Quittin’ Time” (Aired: 02/21/88)
Lauren quits her thesis program and decides to dedicate her time to Alex.
Written by Susan Borowitz | Directed by Matthew Diamond
As with Ellen, Lauren doesn’t have much of a personality beyond the ways in which she differs from Alex, and in that regard, she’s mostly just a device used to ensure that his characterization is being well-featured. That limited arrangement is made clear in this installment, which has a story that isn’t emotionally sound — Lauren has heretofore seemed quite career-focused, so it doesn’t track for her to all of a sudden abandon her studies and cater subserviently to Alex… And yet, for as much as it doesn’t work for her, it really works for him, as this is everything he’s always claimed to want from a woman: someone who does all he desires and lives only for him. But, of course, once he gets it… he finds it’s not what he wanted at all. So, this is an idea that’s built for the Alex character, which is why it’s laudable — his persona is vital to this series’ comedic returns — despite nevertheless coming at the expense of others and thus indicating why Family Ties is ultimately never a great sitcom, even when it’s celebrating its greatest element.
10) Episode 150: “Father, Can You Spare A Dime?” (Aired: 05/01/88)
Nick is hesitant to accept money from his estranged father.
Written by Ben Cardinale & Peter Schneider | Directed by Andrew McCullough
Dan Hedaya, best known to us as Carla’s sleazy ex-husband Nick Tortelli on Cheers, guest stars in this episode as Nick Moore’s sleazy estranged father, a used car salesman from whom he’s reluctant to take money. Hedaya is inspired casting — a big comic presence who is believable as Nick’s dad and whose performance is unique and material-elevating. Also, the emotional expansion of the Nick persona is valuable too, for although entries like this communicate why such a character is a little too broad and one-note to anchor an actual series — a spin-off for him would have been tough, just as, ironically, Nick Tortelli proved incapable of heading up his own show, The Tortellis — the more heart this series gives Nick (Moore), the more we buy him as Mallory’s love interest and the more we invest in their relationship, which makes stories about them more conducive to both comedy and drama. For that reason, this offering is a plus. Additionally, unlike some other Nick outings, Alex has moments to shine, so even though he’s not the focus, he’s still involved — thank goodness! (Oh, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt appears.)
Other notable episodes that merit mention include: “The Other Woman,” which puts Andy in the center of the action for an idea that has some value for Alex’s character but relies too much on a story device (Andy) who loses his comedy when tasked with story-pushing (where he’s out of his depth), “Mister Sister,” a laugh-seeking entry where Nick essentially becomes a member of Mallory’s sorority — a one-joke notion that gets old quick and doesn’t do much for her characterization (or Alex’s), and “The Play’s The Thing,” which uses the parents’ hippie background for a gimmicky story with a broad climax that would be better if it could validate the family subgenre in the process. Meanwhile, I’ll also reference “Dream Date,” for its fun subplot of Alex reading books to Andy, “Father Time (I),” for its one GREAT scene where Alex is concerned that his uncle is no longer a Republican (it’s hilarious — too bad the rest of this VSE about Rob’s divorce — gasp! — is dire), and, mostly by default, “Read It And Weep (I),” the first, unfunny half of the predictable “banned book” two-parter highlighted above. (And, no, I’m not singling out any of the awful VSEs I already mentioned in my introduction. They’re unideal and I cited them there to avoid having to do so in this space!)
*** The MVE Award for the Best Episode from Season Six of Family Ties goes to…
“Read It And Weep (II)”
Come back tomorrow for Season Seven! And stay tuned next week for Kate & Allie!