Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sunday Best: Sitcoms of All Time #20 - Family Ties

7 SEASONS (1982-1989)

What happens when two ex-hippies raise a conservative Republican, a ditzy fashionista, a tomboy, (and later clone of the the oldest son)?  You get Family Ties.

Family Ties was a very interesting show for a number of reasons.  The thing that I find most fascinating about it is that the center of the show shifted from its original intention.

If you look at the original opening credits sequences, it is clear that the show was supposed to focus on the parents Steven and Elyse Keaton (Michael Gross and Meridith Baxter Birney).

The central idea of the show was "how do children of the '60's raise a family in the '80's?"  The concept was about how they would try to live their hippie ideology in a practical family setting.  Particularly, their eldest son Alex (Michael J. Fox) was set up as a foil to everything they stood for.  As a young Ronald Reagan, Alex was supposed to be the "villain" of the show.  By "villain" I simply mean that he was the one who was always supposed to be wrong and the parents were to show him the right way to live.

But what the producers did not realize was that not only that a large percentage of their audience agreed with Alex's politics (this was the same audience that elected Reagan in the largest electoral landslide in history), but that Fox had so much talent and charisma that the show began to revolve around him.  Granted, the writers still did their best to show the error of Alex's ways each week.  But they couldn't overcome the stardom of Fox.

That is not to take anything away from the rest of the cast.  Gross and Baxter Birney do an outstanding job of juggling the comedic and the dramatic, as parents must do.  Justine Bateman takes her one-dimensional Mallory and gives her as many layers as possible while still making her funny in her simplicity.  Tina Yothers has a difficult transition from the young tomboy into a young lady, but led with her sarcastic best.  There was also a great supporting cast with Scott Valentine as the amiable tough guy Nick and Marc Price as dim-witted Skippy.

Even though Family Ties was a product of its time, it transcends its era.  To this day, I still remember some absolutely funny sequences that, upon recollection, simply crack me up.

I particularly love the episode where Steven becomes obsessed with Scrabble.  He starts making up words to win, like "zoquo" which he insists is an ancient Greek word which means to do water sports.  He gets so crazy he insists that the family start using the word one every day conversation.  Later in the episode, after Alex hordes the "u" tiles uses them to make the word "usnuu," which he says Greek for "to towel off."  Steven becomes upset and demands that word be used in a sentence.  Alex says, "After I zoquo I like to usnuu."

I don't know why, but that line always makes me giggle.

"Ready or Not" (2x16)
It actually took a while for me to warm up to the show.  But this episode not only does a good job of mapping out a lot of the relationship dynamics, it also has one of the funniest moments.  Mallory's boyfriend asks her for sex.  She is confused and asks for some advice on what to do.  The best part is where Steven hides a tape recorder (he is trying to document real family life) and Mallory asks Alex about how important sex is for a guy.  Realizing what is being recorded, Alex wordlessly takes the tape out and smashes it.

Mallory does bring up the double standard regarding sex and men and women.  In society men are lionized and women demonized for sexual experience.  In fact, Alex lost his virginity in the 4th episode of the series.  But the producers were wise enough to understand the unfairness of the standard, they did not let Mallory make the same mistake Alex made.

(Let me digress, I believe that this double standard is still in place today.  I see it in high school life.  But I always found it strange that for many the solution was to stop demonizing promiscuous sex among girls and make it "empowering."  I always thought that the solution was to hold men to a higher standard and not celebrate their piggish behavior.)

"Be True to Your Preschool" (5x01)
This is actually a very good episode.  But the nature of jumping the shark is not that the episode is bad or that there are no good episodes after.  Instead shark jumping means that there is a fundamental shift in the tone, story, dynamic or some other fundamental aspect of the show that alters it forever and the quality begins to trend downward.

The reason why this episode jumps the shark is because it introduces the pre-school age younger brother Andrew Keaton (Brian Bonsell).  Adding him as a character shifted the entire family dynamic and the increased "cutsie kid" humor I believe took a lot away from the series.

To be sure, there were some great episodes after, but the overall trend was downward.

"A, My Name is Alex" (5x22)
I believe most fans of the show would point to this episode.

It is easily the most dramatic and heartbreaking.  Alex's selfishly doesn't help his friend move and his friend dies in a car accident.  Alex deals with the guilt as best he can until he has a breakdown.

The second part of the episode was run commercial free (a big deal back in the day).  And it was done on a minimalist set ala Our Town where Alex talks to a psychiatrist (but really the audience) about his life.

I remember being a kid and seeing this and it effected me deeply.  There was something so daring about taking away most of the sets and props and focusing just on the actors.  I was fascinated as Fox played Alex at different stages of his life from young child to young man.  It was amazing to me how much the actors were able to transform themselves with simple changes in posture and voice.

But I think some people also forget that not only is this the most dramatic episode, it is also at the same time incredibly funny.  This is Family Ties at its best: using humor and tragedy, laughter and tears, to create a strong emotional impact on you.


Family Ties is a show that still holds up after decades of being off the air.  I believe that is a testament to not only the skill of those involved, but their willingness to evolve beyond their own pre-conceived ideas.

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