After a dry spell, Paramount has finished off the DVD release of "Family Ties" with Season 6 earlier this year and now the last one, from the 1988-89 TV season. 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. In this season we see a photo of Nixon kept near Alex's bed, and he refers to him in one episode as one of the greatest presidents of all time. Alex is about to graduate college in this season and head out into the business world while continuing his relationship with Lauren (Courteney Cox) that began in the previous season, although things get rocky for the two this time. Mallory isn't very smart, with her being the butt of many jokes, and is still seeing her 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 first grade in this season and as in the previous one Alex grooms him to be a smaller version of himself, educating him on matters of money and the Republican party.
I had watched the show in its initial run from roughly 1985 through 1988; by the time this season aired I had already "cancelled" it from my regular viewing as I had less free time and preferred to watch more movies than TV shows, being jaded with the squeaky-clean atmosphere of most shows and developing a low tolerance for laugh tracks and commercials. Of course had I known how bad TV would get in the future, I might have been a bit more forgiving. Regardless, "Family Ties" had a big decline in its ratings this year and it was decided to make this the final one, with a memorable final episode that I wish I had caught in its first airing.
The 1988 presidential election is worked into the first few episodes, with Steven and Elyse supporting Dukakis and Alex supporting Bush (the first one). A prologue is added to the episode that aired after the election with Alex gloating about Bush's victory. An episode later in the season addresses the still timely topic of global warming, with Jennifer almost going insane worrying about it. Frequently visiting neighbor Skippy (Marc Price) tries joining the army, and later gets taken on a double-date with Alex and Lauren only to embarrass the girl he's paired with and fall for Lauren instead. Alex finally questions the cutthroat ways of the business world after he finds out his high-paying job at an investment firm came at the expense of his friend's employment there. A rather insignificant episode but one that's among my favorites from this season is one where Jennifer ends up working at a fast-food place with nerdy classmate Simon (Jason Naylor, who also appeared in one episode in the previous season).
There are a number of extended and multi-part episodes here as well: the epic 3-part "Heartstrings" has Steven suffer a heart attack and undergo surgery, during which he has some flashbacks (including some to the time he first met Elyse with the two played by younger actors) while the family worries in the meantime- like many previous episodes, it conveys the right amount of concern without getting overly dramatic and still providing many needed laughs. A running joke throughout this one is Alex being unable to listen to the doctors' graphic descriptions without fainting, but Andy being very into it and picking up the terminology. Philip Baker Hall plays the head doctor here. Two-parter "All in the Neighborhood" brings the subject of racism into the picture when an African-American family moves into the mostly-white neighborhood and starts receiving anonymous threats to move out.
"They Can't Take That Away From Me" threatens Alex and Lauren's relationship when a new girl (Jane Adams) catches Alex's affections. The hour-long "Wrap Around the Clock" is a bit of a waste, especially given that it is the third from final episode, in that it's a "clip show" centered around putting together a time capsule with flashbacks to previous episodes, some from this very season itself although it does make me want to check out the earlier seasons. Finally, there's the series finale "Alex Doesn't Live Here Anymore", which must have aired in an odd time slot given that it runs one hour and one minute on disc with no commercials. Here, Alex has graduated from college and is hired by a firm on Wall Street in New York, and moves out of the house. His sisters are mostly glad in that he won't be around to annoy them anymore and they make plans for his room, but his mother is rather distressed at the thought of him leaving. This comes to a head in a powerful confrontation between the two, and the episode ends with the cast doing a curtain call for the studio audience and some special "goodbye" messages from the cast and crew over the end credits.
Other notable guest stars in this season include Dan Hedaya as Nick's scheming car-salesman father, Stephen Baldwin at a couples' therapy session, and an early appearance by Hank Azaria behind the scenes at a fashion show.
While I didn't notice any obvious edits or music changes within any episodes (and there are many uses of copyrighted songs in this season), 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 as it was on the previous season set.
As with the sixth season set that I reviewed, I found the encoding of the 4x3 standard-definition video to be very good here, with no obvious compression artifacts that I have seen on some other TV show releases. The source material itself won't look perfect in the HD era, as the resolution is limited and there is some dot crawl, but it still looks about as good as it possibly can here. (In case you're wondering why you should buy this DVD set when these episodes are already available on Netflix, just know that the picture is presented here at the proper 30 frames per second rate, while on Netflix they are at a more film-like frame rate closer to 24 frames per second. As of this writing I have never seen online video able to display at 30 frames per second, even through the Netflix apps on my TV and Blu-Ray player.)
Audio is in 2-channel Dolby Digital. While "Family Ties" was among the first network shows to be produced in stereo beginning in 1985, the separation isn't used as effectively here as it was in the previous season. While the sound from the studio audience's laughter is spread out on some episodes, on others it remains centered with the only hint of stereo being music used in the show. A few episodes seem to give the dialogue a wider soundstage however, staying centered but allowed to echo into the left and right.
As with the previous season, player-generated subtitles are included for hearing-impaired support instead of traditional TV-decoded 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.
Having missed this last season of "Family Ties" in its initial run, I was glad to finally see how the series ended. While I may have been a little bored of it back then, watching it on disc now shows that it still had a lot of freshness left. Seeing how the Keatons handled the 1990s would have been interesting, but it was good to see the show go out on a high note rather than wear itself out.
DVD Talk has previously reviewed the First, Second and Sixth seasons of "Family Ties." A Complete Series set with an exclusive bonus disc has been announced for release on November 5th.
Jesse Skeen is a life-long obsessive media collector (with an unhealthy preoccupation with obsolete and failed formats) and former theater film projectionist. He enjoys watching movies and strives for presenting them perfectly, but lacks the talent to make his own.