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
The Harder They Fall
This Year's Model
Not an Affair to Remember
A Keaton Christmas Carol
To Snatch a Keith
M is For the Many Things
Ready or Not
Lady Sings the Blues
Baby Boy Doe
Diary of a Young Girl
Working At It
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.