Family Ties: Season 1

Photo: Everett Collection

TV Dads are supposed to be worldly and conservative, with a haircut you can set your watch to. Fred MacMurray of My Three Sons. Now, there was a TV Dad. But Family Ties creator Gary David Goldberg threw all that out when he imagined his easily befuddled patriarch, a bleeding-heart liberal who had danced naked in the rain at Woodstock. With Steven Keaton (Michael Gross) and his intelligent architect wife, Elyse (Meredith Baxter), baby boomers finally arrived as TV authority figures.

How ironic, then, that Ties‘ primary legacy was the fuzzy embrace of a new brand of conservatism, personified by Michael J. Fox’s monogrammed-sweater-vest-wearing Young Republican. Although the Keatons’ liberal common sense always checked Alex’s Gordon Gekko ambition, there was something endearing about Fox’s cartoon Reaganism. He wasn’t NBC’s first choice for the role (Matthew Broderick passed), but from the very beginning, Fox’s comic timing and earnest sensitivity negated Alex’s more obnoxious traits. Later, those gifts made him a huge star and the centerpiece of the show, but Ties originally belonged to Gross and Baxter, who was already a TV star from her work on the ABC soap Family. Alex, boy-crazy Mallory (Justine Bateman), and precocious tomboy Jennifer (Tina Yothers) always seemed to find trouble, and not just any trouble. After-school-special-caliber trouble. Family Ties: Season 1 is bursting with such issues as teenage pregnancy, peer pressure, and sexual predators, and the touchy-feely parents inevitably intervene to solve the kids’ problems. Fred MacMurray would surely have nodded his approval, but it reeks of ”Very Special” episodes of Diff’rent Strokes and The Facts of Life. Even when Tom Hanks guests as troubled Uncle Ned, who robs Wall Street to save blue-collar jobs, you’re half expecting him to turn to the camera and say, ”And that’s one to grow on.”

In fact, there’s little besides Fox’s undeniable spark that would indicate the show would enjoy a second season, especially after it finished with dismal ratings. Fortunately, the show quickly improved, became a smash after it was paired with The Cosby Show in 1984, promoted the Back to the Future trilogy, introduced Fox to his wife, Tracy Pollan, and enjoyed a seven-year run as one of the decade’s touchstone sitcoms before retiring into syndication. You’d think this degree of success would engender a healthy dose of DVD special features, but apparently 25 years wasn’t enough time to create even a single extra. No commentaries. No gossip from the Keatons’ dim-witted neighbor Skippy (Marc Price). No ”Catching Up With Tina Yothers.” Just 22 episodes of ’80s nostalgia and supply-side-economics jokes. As the saying went back then, ”Where’s the beef?” C-

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