Tuesday, August 5, 2008

What Would We Do, Baby, Without Family Ties?

It was a time when America had a Republican president, mall stores sold parachute pants, and NBC aired only a handful of sitcoms, leading critics to declare widely that the format itself was dead.

It may sound like 2008, but the year we’re talking about was 1982, when a comedy called Family Ties helped turn an unknown 5’4” Canadian actor into a big Hollywood star.

Created by veteran writer Gary David Goldberg, Family Ties was initially conceived as the story of a generation gap in reverse. Instead of the All In the Family-esque combination of conservative parent and free-thinking kids, Family Ties would focus on Steven and Elyse Keaton (Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter-Birney), two ex-Woodstock hippies who find themselves raising three children born unto Reaganomics.

In its first few seasons, Family Ties stuck to this original mission – and was merely a middling success in its midweek timeslot. Then, in September of 1984, a brand-new sitcom called The Cosby Show breathed life into a brand-new NBC Thursday lineup. Family Ties moved to the new night along with Cheers and Night Court, creating the network’s first-ever comedy lineup worthy of being dubbed “Must-See TV.”

Soon after, in the summer of 1985, the release of Back to the Future forever altered the future of Family Ties. The film’s star Michael J. Fox became a household name, and his sitcom quickly rose to become TV’s second-highest rated program. Ironically, Fox had not been the producers’ first choice. A broke 21-year-old from Burnaby, British Columbia, the actor born with real middle name Andrew (he took “J.” as a stage initial in tribute to character actor Michael J. Pollard) had won the career-making part of Alex P. Keaton only after Matthew Broderick had turned it down. Now, he had become so popular that the show’s whole focus shifted; Family Ties was all about Alex.

A full decade before his Republican heroes coopted the term, eldest sibling Alex was the true embodiment of a “compassionate conservative.” Clearly having been influenced by his liberal-minded parents more than he cared to admit, the fiscally-focused Alex showed a heart of gold as over the course of 180 episodes he sacrificed an admissions interview at Princeton to care for his heartsick sister, defended a feminist at an ERA rally, and even saved a life on a suicide hotline.

The Columbus, Ohio Keaton clan also included middle sister Mallory (Justine Bateman), an underachiever devoted to fashion and boyfriends -- particularly Nick Moore (Scott Valentine), a combination avant-garde artist / biker dude, and her pesty nerd-next-door admirer, Skippy Handelman (Marc Price). Initially the youngest Keaton, Jennifer (Tina Yothers) often seemed the best-balanced, able to wisely and bitingly size up both her parents and brother. Then, in the show’s third season, Meredith Baxter-Birney’s real-life pregnancy was written in, and architect Elyse gave birth to Andy. By the start of season four, baby Andy had magically become a walking, talking toddler (Brian Bonsall.) And much to his parents’ dismay, he quickly became Alex’s pupil in all things conservative, complete with mini briefcase.

In 1985, Alex met Ellen Reed during his freshman year at fictitious Leland College – and as a result, Fox met real-life wife Tracy Pollan. One Alex-loves-Ellen episode in Season 4 featured an obscure four-year-old song called “At This Moment” by Billy Vera and the Beaters; in a testament to the show’s popularity, viewer response was so great that the song was released for the first time as a single and became a top hit.

When Pollan left the show, Alex spent the final two seasons dating another Leland coed, Lauren Miller, played by Courteney Cox almost a decade before Friends. Family Ties had always managed to get great guest stars -- even future Oscar winner Tom Hanks occasionally dropped in as Ned Donnelly, Elyse’s ne’er-do-well brother, wanted for embezzlement.

After a period led by shows like Taxi and WKRP in Cincinnati, Family Ties and Cosby suddenly repopularized the family sitcom setting. But within that setting the show still wasn’t afraid to tackle sensitive subjects, and as a result piled on the accolades, including three consecutive Emmys for Fox. Even President Reagan announced that Family Ties was his favorite program.

In 1989, after only seven seasons, the series called it quits, and Alex left home to take his dream job in New York. His chosen field of investment banking was still prototypically ‘80s, but on May 14, as Alex crossed the Keaton threshold for the last time, it was palpably the end of an era.

Family Ties Season 4
Release Date: August 5, 2008

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