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  • Dan Connors

Family Ties- the show where family and comedy were more important than politics

Imagine if the popular sitcom All in the Family were reversed- with two liberal parents raising a conservative child. The comedic tensions would be reversed while important issues could be discussed. This is exactly how the popular 1980's situation comedy Family Ties came about. Could such a show succeed in today's politically polarized climate? Doubtful.

Family Ties was created by Gary David Goldberg and ran on NBC for seven seasons, allowing us to watch the Keaton family grow from teens to adults. In the show, the parents, played by Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter, were ex-hippies of the 1960s who had grown up and started a family. Their liberal values still largely intact, they had to deal with their son Alex, an outspoken conservative in a decade where conservatism was resurgent under Ronald Reagan. (Reagan claimed this was one of his favorite shows.)

The show was originally supposed to revolve around the parents, but the growing popularity of Michael J Fox's Alex Keaton changed all of that. Fox was the perfect choice for the role, as his charisma and charm made his character lovable and relatable to tv audiences, even if his obsession with money was a bit odd. Matthew Broderick was the original choice to play Alex, but he had to decline due to an illness in the family back in New York. Keaton was known for playing child and teen parts due to his short stature (5' 5")and youthful looks.

By his own account his career was hanging by a thread when he was hired for the show and he was so strapped for money he was considering returning to his home in Canada.

Family Ties received 19 Emmy nominations and 5 wins, including three wins for best comedic actor for Michael J Fox. When Fox was hired to make the first Back to the Future film, he worked on both sets simultaneously, doing television in the daytime and movies at night. This punishing schedule somehow worked, and the success of that movie made him a superstar by the second season. His success eclipsed that of the rest of the Family Ties cast, and there was some resentment from both Gross and Baxter for their minimal influence in the series. But by most accounts Fox remained a gracious and grounded actor and treated his castmates with respect.

While Alex Keaton was portrayed as an obsessive capitalist and Republican, there were many episodes where his human side poked through. Given the choice between taking the low road towards success and doing the right thing, Alex almost always chose the right thing. He bowed out of a fraternity after finding out they were making fun of his best friend Skippy. He left a scholarship competition after finding out he would have beaten his sister Mallory out for first prize. And when a friend dies in a car accident, he goes through an existential crisis that is one of the most powerful hours ever presented on a network comedy show. This is what I found most engaging about the show- that someone so one-dimensional could turn out to be just as complicated and considerate as the rest of us.

A few other tidbits I gained from my binge of all seven seasons:

- Justine Bateman, who played daughter Mallory, was one of my big crushes during the 1980's. Her smile and emotional intelligence made her a nice counterpoint to her ego-driven brother. Mallory was portrayed as not as bright as her brother, but she ended up having the best advice of the show according to Alex- "The meaning of life? That's simple. Try to be happy, try not to hurt other people, and hope to fall in love"

- Tina Yothers played the youngest daughter Jennifer. She was the athlete of the family and grew into a strong presence in the show. The episode where she fights against a book ban at her school regarding Huckleberry Finn is very moving and still applicable today unfortunately.

- Meredith Baxter got pregnant during season three, and her pregnancy was written into the show, resulting in son Andy, who was given a touching storyline in the last season where he befriends a deaf boy and refuses to talk while the boy is bullied by classmates.

- Alex had many romantic interests during the show. The two most significant were pre-Friends Courtney Cox, who played a psychology student at his college, and Tracy Pollan, a tough, smart young lady from season three that went on to be his wife later on. (The two didn't date during the filming of the show). Probably the most absurd romantic pairing was Gina Davis, who at over 6 feet towered over Fox. The fact that Fox's height was never a mentioned as a factor in the show is an admirable thing, even if in reality it seems to make a big difference in the dating world.

- Marc Price played Skippy, Alex's best friend, and appears to be there for comedic purposes only. Skippy is an annoying character much of the time, and a lovable loser, making him a big contrast to Alex's driven win-at-all times persona. The episode where he's locked in the basement with Mallory, his crush, is his shining moment.

- Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross share the exact same birthday by coincidence. She and her mother were supposed to star in One Day at a Time, which was developed for them, but production problems shut down the show until they both aged out of the characters. Baxter had several troubled marriages and eventually came out as gay in her later years.

- Scott Valentine played Mallory's artistic boyfriend Nick, who added another contrast to Alex's driven personality. Nick's lax attitude towards money oddly enraged ex-hippy Steven Keaton, giving Michael Gross a reason to feel better about his role. Dad Steven was uncharacteristically rude to Nick, which was finally addressed near the end of the show. Nick was supposed to get a spin-off show of his own, but it never got past the development stage.

- Almost all of the action in Family Ties happens in the kitchen, which is an odd variation from the typical family sitcom where scenes are in the living rooms.

- Family Ties resorts to clip shows in almost every season, more so than any other show I've ever seen. These are shows with minimal new scenes and replays of parts of old shows. One way to fill a night while saving money.

- While Alex Keaton was one of the most famous conservatives of the 80's, Michael J Fox was a Canadian citizen and couldn't vote in US elections at all. He did become an American citizen after 2000, and when he developed Parkinson's disease, he began advocating for stem cell therapies and the Democratic politicians that were supporting it. His advocacy for stem cell therapy caught the ire of Rush Limbaugh, who mocked his Parkinson's symptoms on his show. Eventually Fox had to leave acting entirely but he remains a strong advocate for Parkinson's research.

- Bill Cosby's show dominated tv ratings during the 1980's, and Family Ties benefitted by following his show immediately afterwards. By season six, though, Cosby insisted on another African-American show in that slot and Family Ties was moved to Sundays, where it's ratings quickly declined. Ending by season seven worked out fine, as Alex graduated and moved to New York City in a symbolic break that made sense for his character.

Could a show like Family Ties be made today? I'd like to think we could laugh at our political differences while discussing important topics and issues. But perhaps the show was lightning in a bottle. Family Ties took on some tough issues, including death, drug abuse, alcoholism, Alzheimer's, and more, while preaching the importance of love, kindness, and family values. The theme song was a syrupy mess, but it got the point across.

In one of the most touching scenes, Alex is watching his college graduation unfold and quietly thinking an inner monologue that appreciates all of the people in his life. He concludes,

"Jennifer your pal Jean-Paul Sartre once said hell is other people, but I think he’s only half right, because heaven is other people too. I mean when you get right down to it, we are all we’ve got, and no matter how much they argue or hurt one another in the end we just keep running back for more because we’re human and for some strange unexplainable reason we need each other and maybe that’s the only real wisdom any of us will ever have."

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