It may have been four years since Season Five of "Family Ties" was released on DVD, but Paramount has finally issued the Sixth Season comprising the show's 1987-1988 run. To recap, "Family Ties" was a videotaped sitcom that began in 1982, taking place in Columbus, Ohio, dealing with Steven (Michael Gross) and Elyse (Meredith Baxter, when she was still Baxter-Birney) Keaton, a "hippie" couple who met and married in the 1960s and are now adjusting to life in the 1980s with four children: Alex (Michael J. Fox), Mallory (Justine Bateman), Jennifer (Tina Yothers) and the youngest addition Andy (Brian Bonsall), born during the show's 1984-85 season. Alex quickly became the starring character, with humor coming from his having opposing political and social views than those of his parents. While Steven and Elyse have outgrown their hippie pasts they are still all for the whole peace and freedom ideals, while Alex is conservative, with money and wealth the main thing on his mind as he looks up to then-President Ronald Reagan and even holds Richard Nixon (who was still alive then) in high regard. Alex is in his senior year of college this season, and begins a relationship with Lauren (Courteney Cox), a psychology student he meets in this season's first episode when volunteering for a study at his school. Mallory isn't very smart, with her being the butt of many jokes. By this season she's started attending Grant College, which is where the town's not-so-bright high school graduates end up, and has an artist boyfriend named Nick (played by Scott Valentine) who is even more of a dimwit. Jennifer is more in the middle, smarter than Mallory but seeing Alex as mostly full of himself. Andy starts kindergarten in this season and in many episodes Alex is seen grooming him to be a smaller version of himself, educating him on matters of money and the Republican party. (Andy's growth was a bit sped-up in this show, as he spent the 1985-86 season as an infant and suddenly became a pre-schooler able to walk and talk at the start of the 1986-87 season.)
"Family Ties" was only a minor show ratings-wise in its first two seasons, but exploded in 1984 when it had the good fortune of airing right after "The Cosby Show" which was an instant hit for NBC and became one of the biggest shows of the decade, making NBC's entire Thursday night lineup an institution for many years. This was when I first began watching "Family Ties", although I had stopped watching it by its final 1988-89 season. In 1987, it was displaced by "Cosby Show" spinoff "A Different World" and moved to Sundays for the rest of its run. While I don't remember watching it as religiously by then most of the episodes here were familiar to me.
What always made "Family Ties" stand out to me from other sitcoms of its era (there were many others I watched back then) was that it often had some very surreal situations while keeping everything else grounded in reality. Many of the ones in this season center around young Andy being influenced by his brother Alex, such as being read a finance textbook for a "bedtime story" (with Mallory later reading him something "more normal," a Bloomingdale's catalog), and an "I Love Republicans" Pop-Up book with a cutout Ronald and Nancy Reagan in front of the White House. Andy and Alex also have a routine going (though only shown in one episode) where they watch "Wall Street Week" together while eating popcorn, with Andy wearing a baseball cap with a dollar sign on it. In an episode where Alex meets Lauren's ex-boyfriend, as they discuss their professional accomplishments they suddenly both pull out their resumes from under their shirts. Later, Alex is in the kitchen talking to his parents, saying he's made a partial list of his "good points" and unrolls the list until it runs the length of the counter. These all work because everything is done with a straight face, all matter-of-factly (even though the audience is heard laughing at it). The best such moment in this season however is when the family is unable to find a decent Christmas tree and instead settles for a cactus with ornaments on it- again, it's completely ridiculous but everyone keeps a straight face.
Among the notable episodes in this season, one is the hour-long season premiere, "Last of the Red Hot Psychologists," where Alex first meets girlfriend Lauren as she examines him as part of a study on overachievers. Later in "Invasion of the Psychologist Snatcher," Lauren's ex-boyfriend drops by for a visit and while Alex is initially jealous he ends up practically falling in love with him himself after learning of his financial successes. The series takes a dramatic turn without losing its humor in "The Way We Were," when Elyse's aunt makes an unexpected visit and it turns out she has Alzheimer's. "Miracle in Columbus" is a memorable Christmas episode where Alex winds up working as a mall Santa Claus and is touched by a girl's wish for her traveling father to be home for the holidays. "Spring Reminds Me" reunites Mallory with the mother of a friend who had committed suicide- again touching on a serious subject without getting overly preachy and still getting a few laughs in. Two two-parters are included in this season- "Father Time", where Steven's recently-divorced brother comes to visit with his kids including a deeply-resentful daughter, and "Read it and Weep" which focuses on Jennifer taking a stand against the book "Huckleberry Finn" being banned from her school (the banning of classic books was a hot topic when it aired.)
Not every episode is a winner however- most glaring is an hour-long "clip show" (made up primarily of flashbacks to previous episodes) centered around Lauren interviewing the Keatons for one of her psychology projects. "Mister Sister" has Nick taking a job as a janitor at Mallory's sorority house, with him trying to become an actual sorority sister complete with gender confusion. In "The Play's the Thing", Steven puts on a production of a play titled "A Draft Card for the Burning" dramatizing the time he met his wife, with Elyse playing herself but someone else playing Steven which makes the real Steven jealous. I remember watching this one as it first aired reminding myself why I was no longer watching the show regularly- it just falls flat.
Watching all of these episodes in a short amount of time, I noticed a few loose ends and abandoned concepts, something which has also annoyed me when watching other TV shows on disc. In "The Blues, Brother" we find out that Alex has a show on his college's radio station (in the episode he convinces a long-retired blues musician to put on another show) but the station doesn't come up in any further episodes, nor does Alex again show that apparently he's a big fan of blues music. In "A Sign of the Times," Andy befriends a deaf student in his kindergarten class, in fact he refers to him as his "best friend," but we never see him in the show after that. I suppose the writers assumed we'd forget about things like this when we only saw the show one time per week.
Notable appearances from other actors in this season include Campbell Scott as Lauren's ex-boyfriend who visits in one episode, Robert Klein as an old high school friend of Elyse who may still be in love with her, and Dan Hedaya as Nick's estranged dad. Two episodes also include a very young Joseph Gordon-Levitt as one of Andy's kindergarten classmates. Bunny Summers, whom you may remember from Re-Animator's opening scene, also appears in one episode as a buyer of one of Nick's mass-produced art pieces.
Oddly, there are two older episodes included- "Anniversary Waltz", dated 1983, and "Return of the Native" dated 1985 (which is another clip show on top of that!) The included episode listings give these shows' air dates as during the sixth season, so they may have aired as network repeats then but they throw off the continuity when watched in order (Andy has not even been conceived yet in one episode, and he is an infant in another after we've just seen him walking and talking in the previous episode.)
While I didn't notice any obvious edits or music changes within any episodes, there is a note on the back cover stating: "Some episodes may be edited from their original network versions. Music has been changed for this home entertainment version." It may just be standard practice for Paramount to include this note nowadays, but it's worth pointing out for the obsessive folks whatever the case. The only alteration that did stand out was the replacement of the closing "Paramount Television" logo at the end with a newer "CBS Television Distribution" tag, with music noticeably louder than the rest of the show.
Paramount has done a great job with the presentation here. "Family Ties" was shot on video in the pre-HD era, and looks as good on DVD as it did when it originally aired. I've been dismayed at how other TV show DVDs were overcompressed, resulting in digital compression artifacts, but I saw none of that on this set! Even the lettering during the opening credits is free of the "mosquito" effect that has plagued many other TV show releases I've watched recently. Of course this isn't going to look perfect compared to newer HD material- there's the obvious lower resolution along with some dot crawl, but that was just a fact of life with standard-def video.
Audio is in Dolby Digital 2-channel stereo. Starting in 1985, almost all of NBC's shows were produced in stereo and I was lucky enough to be equipped to hear it from the start although I remember not many shows used stereo to its full advantage. I do remember being quite excited watching "Family Ties'" 1985 premiere and hearing the opening theme "Without Us" re-recorded in true stereo, with Johnny Mathis' vocals in the left channel and Deniece Williams' in the right. That continued through the rest of the series' run, although strangely the amount of separation varied per episode as it does on the episodes here. As for the rest of the show, most of the audio is kept in the center as I remembered it the first time around (although I didn't have a Pro-Logic setup back then). On my current sound system, the laughter and applause from the studio audience has decent separation although not quite enough to really stand out, and in the scenes set in the shopping mall in the "Miracle in Columbus" episode, there is some separation in the ambient background sound effects.
While Paramount has usually used TV-decoded closed-captions on its TV show releases (which are becoming increasingly more difficult to access on current equipment), here they have been dropped in favor of player-generated subtitles in "SDH" style, where music and sound effects are described the same way as in standard closed-captions.
No extras are included on this release. The four discs (with Paramount's usual plain grey labeling) are packaged in a clear single-sized keepcase, with episodes listed on the reverse side of the cover sheet, with synopses and original air dates.
Watching this season of "Family Ties" for the first time since its initial broadcast, I found it still held up very well and provided plenty of 80s nostalgia. I have to give Paramount props once again for delivering this with great picture and sound quality as well. (I'm sure I don't need to remind anybody that while these episodes can currently be viewed on Netflix, they are delivered at a more choppy frame rate. As of this writing, I've never seen any internet streaming service deliver video-based material at the proper 30-frames-per-second rate.)