In the rugby-style heap for sitcom dominance in the 1980s, "Family Ties" was always my personal favorite choice. It just breathed differently than anything else on television; a comedy with political awareness, genuine sentiment, and broad laughs. It felt like a real family onscreen, and with each passing week I watched with glee as the Keatons went about their daily bread of touching drama and boisterous comedy.
I'm sure most remember "Family Ties" simply as the "Michael J. Fox Comedy Half Hour" from the mid-80s, and that's certainly when the program hit its surest footing in both writing and performance. The release of "Family Ties: The Complete First Season" on DVD rockets the viewer back to the 1982-83 inaugural season, when the show was a very different creature with exceptionally ambitious intentions and hearty delivery.
It began with Steven and Elyse Keaton (Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter-Birney), two ex-hippies with immense love for each other forced to abandon their globe-trotting, Peace Corps ways for the comforts of suburban Ohio, raising their children Alex (Michael J. Fox), Mallory (Justine Bateman), and Jennifer (Tina Yothers). Swapping blazing political activism for a balanced family life, the show was initially intended as an exploration of the frustration of Steven and Elyse, as they try to employ their 60s idealism to raise three kids in the materialistic and Reagan-controlled 1980s. And for one single, sweet season, that's really what the show was all about.
Creator Gary David Goldberg had a vision with "Ties" to create a show that would be emotive, uproarious, and thought-provoking all at the same time. Season One essentially throws all those ingredients out on the table, and spends 22 episodes trying to figure out how to best mix this cocktail. The ride is bumpy at first, as the writers try with every opening they get to remind the audience of the corniness and general ironies that swirl around Steven and Elyse, and the comical revulsion of the children, who love mom and dad, but have no connection to their former activism days and current romantic ones. While initially thematically iffy, it doesn't take "Ties" very long to demonstrate an alarming respect for these characters and their rational hopes and fears.
That's truly the show in a nutshell: a 23-minute-long, weekly valentine to respect, personal integrity, and familial communication. With, of course, the occasional pratfall or exaggerated sitcom snark thrown in for effect (the show was never above a clichéd one-liner). "Ties" accomplished this objective with such an overflowing quantity of grace and dignity, inviting the viewer into the home of a family that legitimately loved, not just tolerated each other for the smirky benefit of cheap TV laughs.
Of course, no discussion of "Ties" could be complete without paying lavish attention to the acting. Season One handed us the Keatons in their most raw and unfiltered form, and it's a hoot to watch these great talents hone their personalities over the 22-episode arc. Gross especially seems the most untamed. A stage-trained actor, Gross bellows his lines across the set, hitting his punchlines with a deliciousness that could very well be considered the complete opposite of cynicism. He's tremendous on the DVD, matched perfectly in effort with Baxter-Birney, who embodies her role as the ERA woman keeping hope alive at home with tenderness and authority.
Season One turns out to be the Steven and Elyse Show, and these two are truly an anomaly on the sitcom scene: a married couple that honestly enjoys the romantic company, supportive to the end, and deeply involved with their children. Can you fathom a relationship like that on today's television landscape? It would be laughed off the screen. I'm grateful I witnessed these two compassionate characters when I was at such an impressionable age.
While the Keaton kids do get their share of the storylines on this DVD, it would be in future seasons where their personalities would take shape into the iconic roles we know today. Alex's conservatism and Regan idolatry is introduced slowly, mostly to frustrate Steven's liberalism. Mallory goes from intelligent spitfire to boy-crazy shopoholic in a matter of episodes to great comic effect, but it's strange to witness. Jennifer isn't jostled around too much, taken from a one-liner machine to a more tomboy role over the year. While everyone is aces right from the starting gate, Season One is an effective reminder that while Fox got all the glory, Bateman and Yothers were just as wonderful as his foils.
Season One doesn't deliver the precision of later years, but it does show how effortlessly this show could organically blend complicated plots and performances, and how fearless "Ties" was when it came to addressing volatile topics or uncomfortable situations. Perhaps it wasn't groundbreaking television in the richest sense, but it took the road less traveled: authenticity, and make it work on a level that everyone could enjoy and embrace, without fear of ridicule. It was a beaut of a show, and here at the beginning of a seven-year run, it was already clear that "Family Ties" would find an easy spot in the annals of classic television.
EPISODE LIST (synopses taken from the DVD packaging)
"Pilot" - September 22, 1982
Former flower children Steven and Elyse Keaton are appalled when son Alex attends a restricted country club to impress a pretty, young socialite.
- Ah yes, the first glass of orange juice is consumed.
"Not with My Sister You Don't" – September 29, 1982
When Mom and Dad go away for the weekend, Alex throws a house party. But the party's over when Mallory leaves with the school playboy
"I Know Jennifer's Boyfriend" – October 6, 1982
Teased for being friends with a boy, Jennifer gets her first taste of peer pressure.
"Summer of '82" – October 27, 1982
On his first day as a delivery boy, Alex meets a sophisticated older woman who offers him tips on more than just groceries.
- Truly the first "wow" episode of the series. Alex loses his virginity, the inclusion of a masturbation joke, and Ginny Field herself, actress Amy Steel, plays the "sophisticated older woman."
"I Never Killed for My Father" – November 3, 1982
As always, Steven's liberal views clash with his visiting dad's conservative, macho mindset. But his father's news changes everything.
"Give Your Uncle Arthur a Kiss" – November 10, 1982
Fifteen-year-old Mallory is shocked and confused when long-time family friend Uncle Arthur makes a pass at her.
- A pure miracle of an episode; A 23-minute roller coaster that addresses sexual abuse, mid-life crisis issues, and climaxes with a rousing bit of farcical comedy. It's pitch-perfect in every way.
"Big Brother Is Watching" – November 17, 1982
As new editor of the school paper, Alex uncovers a cheating ring that leads straight to the principal's office...and implicates Mallory.
"No Nukes Is Good Nukes" – November 24, 1982
On Thanksgiving, Steven and Elyse attend an anti-nuke rally and wind up in jail.
- Easily the season low point. The writers really beat the idea of hippies vs. 80s hard here, to a point of unintentional laughter.
"Death of a Grocer" – December 1, 1982
Alex loves his job at Adler's Market. But when a huge chain store opens, he seizes the opportunity to join the corporate jungle.
- What's this? Why, it's the first appearance of everyone's favorite spaz, Keaton neighbor Skippy Handleman. Mallory's world will never be the same.
"Have Gun, Will Unravel" – December 8, 1982
When the Keatons are robbed, peace-loving Steven and Elyse get a gun to protect the family. But will they feel safe...or sorry?
"A Christmas Story" – December 15, 1982
At Christmas, a snowstorm strands the Keatons at home. Reminiscing, they flash back to each of the kids' birth.
- The start of a "Ties" tradition: the holiday flashback episode.
"Oops!" – December 22, 1982
Mallory's pregnant friend turns to Elyse for advice, causing Elyse to examine her own relationship with her daughter.
"Sherry Baby" – January 12, 1983
A popular sorority girl befriends Mallory to get closer to Alex.
"The Fugitive: Part 1" – January 19, 1983
Elyse's brother Ned (Tom Hanks), a successful Fortune 500 executive, visits. But his long-held secret brings the FBI to the Keatons' doorstep.
- Tom Hanks makes the first of two appearances on the show. The future Forrest Gump makes a fine addition to the Keaton household in this restless two-parter.
"The Fugitive: Part 2" – January 26, 1983
To save hundreds of jobs, Elyse's kid brother (Tom Hanks) stole millions from his company. Now wanted by the FBI, Uncle Ned gets Alex involved in his escape plan.
"Margin of Error" – February 9, 1983
In a school project, Alex proves he's a stock-market wizard. But things take a dip with the aspiring day trader starts secretly buying and selling with Mom and Dad's money.
- Fox's first sublime moment of physical comedy is found in this irresistible episode.
"French Lessons" – February 16, 1983
Mallory has a crush on her shy French tutor. But the timid boy starts taking lessons in l'amour from a not-so-reliable instructor...Alex.
"I Gotta Be Ming" – February 23, 1983
When Alex becomes a Big Brother, he tries to mold the impressionable kid in his own image.
- "E.T." reference! "E.T." reference!
"Suzanne Takes You Down" – March 16, 1983
Business and friendship don't mix when Elyse hires her friend Suzanne as her office assistant.
"The Fifth Wheel" – March 28, 1983
When Mallory pawns off her babysitting duties to Alex, he takes Jennifer along to a poker game...where she goes missing.
- George Clooney's future business and writing partner Grant Heslov appears in this episode.
"Stage Fright" – April 4, 1983
When one of his teammates drops out of the high school quiz-off, Alex recruits a reluctant replacement...Mallory.
- Alex pulls a Cindy Brady, and the laughs follow. Future "Valley Girl" Deborah Foreman shows up here as an academic rival.
"Elyse D'Arc" – April 11, 1983
Elyse's community service commitments leave Steven feeling neglected.
- Take a trip back in time to this ill-conceived 1982 episode that NBC rightfully burned off at the end of the season.
All 22 episodes of "Family Ties" are offered in their original full screen presentation. Originating from a video source, the picture quality doesn't jump off the screen like the modern sitcoms. The DVD does a fine job replicating the original broadcast look and the image is free from damage.
"Ties" is presented with a Dolby Digital mono sound mix. No dimension of any kind to be found here, but the sound nicely captures the sitcom edge of the show. I did notice a very short audio dropout in episode three.
Also, as with many television DVD releases, some of the music has been changed due to legal and financial concerns. Since "Ties" wasn't quite the music-centered program just yet, the changes are minimal, but do result in some footage being cut. Episode three (yet again!), with its assortment of 50s pop tunes, tends to suffer the most from the music swapping.
Disappointingly, Paramount has failed to provide anything in the way of supplements for this DVD release.
Soon, with a laugh track smoothed out, the characters rounded, and the performances tightened, "Ties" would become the comedy behemoth that, paired with "Cheers" and Cosby, would come to dominate Thursday night entertainment for most of the decade. It's almost stunning to revisit its origin and see what a humble show it actually was.
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