Paramount/CBS DVD have released Family Ties: The Second Season, a four-disc collection of all 22 episodes from the 1983-1984 season of this blockbuster 80s sitcom. Fans of the show will no doubt embrace this collection, particularly since it offers a couple of nice bonus featurettes on the series that were absent from the first season collection.
Frankly, I was never a big fan of Family Ties (or for that matter, any of the celebrated NBC Thursday night line-up from the mid-80s). Catching it occasionally, it always struck me as a little too slick and facile for its own good, particularly once Michael J. Fox became such a phenomenon with the Back to the Future films, and the series morphed into basically a one-man show. Artificial-sounding one-liners bounced off saccharine family dynamics that were made to seem "relevant" by wrapping many episodes around a current social concern.
And the "affectionate" ribbing of conservative values was never really as effective or pointed as it could have been (primarily because it was so outrageous and broad) because Family Ties largely abandoned any balance it had in the first season, where liberal values were commented on, too. By this second season, the object of parody and humor is squarely on Fox's dyed-in-the-wool Republican Alex (with an undercoat of derision aimed at anyone who could think such a way). I've read several pieces on Family Ties where the authors have stated the series was fair and even-handed in its approach to the culture clash between the former flower children parents Elyse and Steve Keaton, and their materialistic, conservative children of the "Reagan Era."
But I see none of that here in the second season of Family Ties. Alex's character is the stand-in for all that is repressed, square, intolerant, obnoxious, old-fashioned, bland, and out-of-touch in America of the 1980s (and add this-side-of-moronic and materialistic for the Mallory character). In Tender is the Knight, the return of childhood sweetheart Carrie (Talia Balsam) - a liberated free spirit - sends uptight Alex literally up the walls (several scenes show him almost climbing them, trying to get away from her affectionate, forward advances). Many laughs are generated at not only Alex's conservative take on Carrie's "behavior," (which is never really clearly defined), but also in Alex's pathetic, geriatric attempts to reform her (an ice cream parlor date, bingo). As conveyed by the producers of Family Ties, Alex isn't so much a conservative in this and other episodes, he's an uptight Cromwellian puritan.
And again, that's all good if you're in the mood for one-sided attacks. But I would have found Family Ties far more interesting if it had the guts to make Elyse and Steven just as ridiculous in their liberal notions (which you never see coming out of Hollywoodland). Thoughtful commentary is made about disparities between their old ideals and new realities, but the real yocks are aimed squarely at conservatives, Republicans, and anybody else outside the liberal norms of the series' producers. The object of ridicule and derision is reserved for conservative viewpoints; liberal views are "the norm," and therefore, the bar to which Alex's "aberrant behavior" is set against. On one of the extras included on this Family Ties: The Second Season disc set, Michael J. Fox mentions guys who are now in the world of business, who grew up on his character. I wonder how they feel about his portrayal now, seeing how the character is frequently seen as a source of ridicule - ridicule not shared by his flower-power parents, who could have presented the producers (had they the courage) with an equal number of opportunities for lampooning and satire.
In a totally over-the-top (and frequently ridiculous) episode, Speed Trap, the producers aren't satisfied with just making Alex a clueless, money-hungry Republican - they have to turn him into a speed freak, as well (with Mallory, totally unmotivated, as his connection, if you can believe it). Once Alex crashes, the producers could have taken this opportunity to really explore the effects of drug-tolerant parents (Steven admits as much in the episode) who grew up in the 1960s, having children with drug problems. But no, not on Family Ties. Elyse and Steven get a pass, as always, with their own political beliefs, when they butt up against the patently ridiculous ones of Alex's. And even when they have to stand alone without Alex as lowest common denominator, such as in The Harder They Fall, where both Elyse and Steven punch-out Alex's teacher, the producers have to weight the equation so far in their favor (they make the teacher out to be a fascist bully with a nasty mouth - sort of an "SuperMax" Alex) to allow them to tweak their ideals. And of course Alex sees the errors of his ways at the end, rejecting the teacher's letter of recommendation for college (Elyse and Steven assuage their betrayal of their own professed non-violence beliefs by...inviting the teacher to dinner. No jail time or punch backs for the Keatons). On Family Ties, the learning curve is always Alex being brought "into the light" of Elyse and Steven's ever-wise, annoyingly self-righteous ideals - never the other way around.
Obviously though, at least from a ratings standpoint, mine is the minority opinion. Not a ratings success its first season (when NBC was in the absolute ratings dumper), this sophomore season of Family Ties didn't fare much better than the first (it didn't even crack the Top Thirty). Following NBC's only hit of the night, The Facts of Life (27th for the year), the entire line up was dragged down by the last season of the awful Real People, and the at-best mid-level performer St. Elsewhere (as well as having to go against #3 for the year Dynasty, over on ABC). A midseason move to Thursday nights would dramatically alter Family Ties' fortunes when at the start of 1984-1985 season, The Cosby Show debuted, rocketing poor performers like Family Ties and Cheers into the ratings' stratosphere - a fact born out when Family Ties moved away from the protection of The Cosby Show's shadow in 1987 to Sunday nights, only to be creamed in the ratings by giant killer, Murder, She Wrote.
Here are the 22, one-half hour episodes of Family Ties: The Second Season, as described on its episode guide insert. PLEASE NOTE: As with most vintage TV series released by CBS/Paramount, there is a small disclaimer at the back of the DVD slimcase that states, "Some episodes may be edited from their original network versions. Music has been changed for this home entertainment version." There is no further explanation of what cuts, if any, were made. I, however, didn't notice anything egregious in the editing. It's possible, though, that these are the syndicated versions, which may account for the minor cuts for time. It's also possible, as quite a few of us suspect here at DVDTalk, that these kinds of disclaimers are now de facto run for legal reasons, and may (and I stress "may") not pertain to each and every box set they appear on:
Tender is the Knight
When Alex watches a girl go out with a guy who's not good enough for her, he feels he should ask her out in order to protect her dignity.
New college man Jeff asks Mallory to go steady, but he confesses to Alex that he hates Princeton and just needs an excuse to move home.
The Harder They Fall
When peace-loving Elyse decks Alex's obnoxious teacher on parents' night, Steven goes to apologize, and ends up slugging the guy, too!
This Year's Model
It's Elyse everyone wants when Mallory enters them both in a mother-daughter modeling contest. So a jealous Mallory sabotages her mother's first commercial.
Not an Affair to Remember
With Elyse busy with work, Steven experiences a mid-life crisis when he is tempted by a pretty assistant at his station to have a "no strings" affair.
In order to study all night for mid-terms, Alex convinces Mallory to help him get a hold of some pills, and he ends up spinning out of control on speed.
Alex has a blind date with a radio caller impressed with his taste in music. But she turns out to be a 40-year-old French divorcee with a young daughter.
With so many players out with the flu, coach Alex asks Jennifer to get nerdy Arlene to join the girls' softball team, just so they can play in the big game.
A Keaton Christmas Carol
Alex the Scrooge wants no part of Christmas. But then he is visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Future, and is finally filled with the spirits of the holidays.
To Snatch a Keith
The Keatons' best friends fight over the custody of their little boy...with the father eventually kidnapping his son.
Alex defies his mother when he goes to a bar in West Virginia with his friends on his 18th birthday. So she travels a hundred miles in order to bring him back.
Mallory ruins Alex's big interview at Princeton when she tags along to surprise Jeff...and Jeff surprises her by having a new girlfriend.
M is For the Many Things
It's bad enough that Elyse's parents are separating. But then her visiting mother goes on a date and stays out all night!
Uncle Ned is back, and this time he's interviewing for a job at Steven's station. Only it becomes very clear to the family that he has a serious drinking problem.
When he becomes attracted to a young feminist, Alex passes himself off as a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment...and lands in jail!
Ready or Not
Mallory's friends, family members, and especially the guy she is dating, all have different opinions about the right time to have sex.
When the girl of his dreams tells Alex she doesn't have a date for the prom, he asks her to go, even though he already has a date with a nice girl who likes him.
Lady Sings the Blues
Although Elyse hasn't performed on stage since college, she hopes to revive the folk-singing career she started twenty years ago.
Baby Boy Doe
When next-door neighbor Skippy finds out he is adopted, he is determined to know his real mother. So Alex volunteers to drive him to Dayton to meet her.
Excited that he will most likely be his graduating class's valedictorian, Alex is in for quite a shock when his girlfriend Rachel is selected instead.
Diary of a Young Girl
On the eve of a tonsil operation, Jennifer lies awake in the hospital and writes in her diary, recounting all the horrible things she did to each family member.
Working At It
After working at home for so long, Elyse finally lands a job in an office, but can't handle the pressure of being a wife, mother, and career woman.
The full frame, 1.33:1 video image for Family Ties: The Second Season looks about the same as it did when it aired on TV: shot on video, you can expect that same cheap look that most sitcoms had at the time with a soft picture, plenty of picture noise, and occasionally hot lighting.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio mix accurately recreates the original broadcast presentation. Close-captioning is available.
In a definite improvement on the first season, Family Ties: The Second Season offers some nice bonuses for the fans. First, there's a recent P.S.A. from Michael J. Fox on Parkinson's Disease. Next, there's The Making of Family Ties, a 21-minute look at the making of the series, with contemporary interviews with the producer, as well as Fox and Yothers. Next, there's a eight-and-a-half minute Michael J. Fox: The Best Gig in the World, where Fox discusses his career-making role. And finally, there's The Year of the Beard (2:42), where Gross discusses his beard for this second season.
Hey, listen; I was never a fan of Family Ties, disliking its one-sided humor, its phoney family dynamics, and facile, slick sitcom veneer. But what do I know, obviously? Family Ties was a huge hit in the mid-80s, and there's a whole generation of viewers who view it as one of their favorite series. They will no doubt love this Family Ties: The Second Season four disc set, particularly because of the added bonuses that were conspicuously absent from the first season set, and for them, I'm recommending the set. But newcomers to the series may want to rent first to see what all the hubbub was about.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.