Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Top Ten Things: Family Ties Episodes

Welcome to another television-related Top Ten Things, where I'll pick my ten favorite episodes of a classic show.

Today it's the unforgettable 80s family sitcom that launched the career of Michael J. Fox, Family Ties!  When I was a kid, Thursday night primetime on NBC was unfathomably awesome.  For a few years you had The Cosby Show (fuck you Bill...) at 8pm, Family Ties at 8:30, and Cheers at 9.  Three of the greatest television shows ever, back-to-back-to-back.  Man, those were good times.

Anyway, Family Ties ran seven seasons, chronicling the goings-on of the Keatons, your average midwestern middle class family, but with a twist.  See the parents, Steven and Elyse, were ex-hippies who spent their college years steeped in the 1960s anti-war, peace & love movement, while their eldest son Alex was a stuffy, business-obsessed Republican who dreamed of becoming a powerful Wall Street executive.  This flipped the usual sitcom dynamic of the strict parents and the rebellious teenager.  Running contrary to most family TV shows, Alex (Michael J. Fox in the role he was born to play) generally didn't get into trouble with his parents in the traditional sense; instead their conflicts stemmed from their opposing ideologies and Alex's overactive ambition.

The two Keaton daughters were also wildly divergent characters.  Mallory the middle child (Justine Bateman in an often underrated performance) was a more typical teenage character - struggling at school and focused on her social life - while the youngest (until season 3) Jennifer was a precocious preteen who later displayed advanced intelligence and academic drive like Alex, albeit with much more compassion.  Then there was Andy.  Introduced in season three as a way to explain star Meredith Baxter-Birney's real-life pregnancy, Andy didn't become a full-fledged character until season five, when they magically aged him from toddler to preschooler so he'd have a speaking role.  Child actor Brian Bonsall was passable in the part, with stilted delivery but occasional moments of genuine sweetness and humor.

As for Steven and Elyse, they were perfectly cast.  Michael J. Fox may have been the show's breakout star (deservedly so, he worked very hard to make what could've been a detestable caricature into a sympathetic, three-dimensional, devoted son/brother), but in hindsight Michael Gross was for me almost always the show stealer.  His dramatic choices were reliably spot-on, and his comedic timing absolutely ingenious.  Meredith Baxter-Birney (initially the best-known cast member) took the somewhat unglamorous task of being the show's de facto "straight man" and imbued Elyse with gentle, poised wisdom, while getting to show off her acting chops perhaps more than any of her castmates.

Aside from reversing the parent-child dynamic, Family Ties was also notable for tackling serious subject matter with candor and realism.  Seldom did family sitcoms in the 80s talk openly about things like sex, drug use, race, suicide, child abuse, and of course politics.  The show employed the heartwarming family sitcom form as a vehicle to explore these topics and make them palatable, while also featuring smart writing and characters with real complexity.  It veered into slapstick at times too, but the cast had such great chemistry they almost always made it work.  Most episodes were structured with a fairly predictable formula - two or more characters would have a conflict in the first act, it would reach a crisis in the second, and in the final scene they would talk it out and come to a resolution.  Very few episodes strayed from this format, yet the show almost never felt repetitious because the issues at hand were so relatable.  I consider Family Ties to be one of the few long-running sitcoms that never "jumped the shark."  For me the last few seasons were just as consistent as the early ones, in spite of elements like Steven's increasing buffoonery or Mallory's over-the-top ditziness in the last few seasons.

Aside from its dated fashion trends, pop culture references, and grainy videotape medium, Family Ties is largely a timeless show that explores issues we as a society still grapple with 30+ years later.

Here are, in my estimation, the ten best episodes, plus some Honorable Mentions (Note: This list is pretty heavy on Season 4, as it was easily my favorite of the seven)....

Honorable Mentions

Say Uncle: Tom Hanks guest stars as Elyse's brother, whose ongoing battle with alcoholism throws the Keaton household into turmoil.

Philadelphia Story: Alex falls asleep while writing a paper about the Declaration of Independence and dreams he is a colonial stable boy who helps Thomas Jefferson (played in the dream by Steven) draft the historic document.

Band on the Run: Jennifer's pop band plays at Alex's homecoming dance, and he's so impressed with them he becomes their manager, ruining their act in the process.

Father Time: Steven's recently divorced brother Rob and his two kids visit the Keatons, but Rob's daughter Marilyn lashes out at her father over the dissolution of their family.

Heartstrings: Steven suffers a major heart attack and is rushed into emergency surgery, as the family comes to grips with the possibility of losing him.  After returning home Steven and Elyse cope with an uncertain future.

10. Mrs. Wrong

Mallory and her boyfriend Nick resolve to get married, much to the chagrin of her parents.  Steven and Elyse do everything in their power to prevent the nuptuals but the couple drives to New Jersey in the middle of the night to elope.  Alex tails them in the hopes of stopping the wedding, but as it turns out Mallory and Nick decide on their own that they aren't ready.  The second half for me didn't quite live up to the promise of the first, but man, that first half is brilliant.

Favorite Moment: The scene where Nick asks Steven and Elyse for their blessing is one of the funniest in the entire series.  Steven's reaction is ungodly hilarious - "My wife and I are going to leave the room, and we are going to come back, and you are going to tell us something else...."

9. The Disciple

One of several episodes involving Alex overstepping his bounds as Jennifer's mentor, "The Disciple" sees Jennifer ask his help with a US History presentation, and he feeds her so much sophisticated information she can't recreate the performance for a prestigious awards ceremony.  The episode explores the idea that Alex sees such potential in Jennifer that he can't help rushing her progress as a student.  Corey Feldman makes a cameo.

Favorite Moment: Jen's classroom presentation is so over-the-top complex and theatric, complete with a Statue of Liberty costume and theme music.

8. The Harder They Fall

Alex is excited about his new English teacher Mr. Tedesco, who he hopes to impress so as to get a strong college recommendation letter.  Problem is Mr. Tedesco is a verbally abusive bastard who runs afoul of both Elyse and Steven, placing Alex in the middle.  Played with icy derision by Edward Edwards, Tedesco is brutal to both students and parents, and eventually even Alex has had enough of his behavior, illustrating that from time to time Alex does place integrity and family loyalty above his own ambition.

Favorite Moment: After inviting Tedesco over for dinner to smooth things over, Alex gives his parents index cards to read from, with apologetic notes like "Never has so cruel an attack been perpetrated on so innocent a victim."

7. The Real Thing

Alex picks a prospective girlfriend out of the freshman directory but instead develops a deep, reluctant attraction to her roommate, a dancer/artist with whom he has nothing in common.  It becomes clear she is also drawn to him, despite being engaged to someone else.  This episode introduced Ellen Reed, Alex's first long-term girlfriend (played by Tracy Pollan, Michael J. Fox's future wife) and built the romantic tension between them so well the producers recycled this formula two years later with the Lauren Miller character (Courtney Cox).  That episode is alright, this one is essential.  It also resurrected the Billy Vera song "At This Moment," forever marrying it to this episode.

Favorite Moment: The angst is palpable during the dance scene where Alex and Ellen share a dance and end up kissing, and she runs away.

6. Don't Go Changin'

Alex struggles to find common interests with Ellen and goes overboard to prove to her that he can be the man he thinks she wants him to be, ultimately signing up for her dance class just so he can spend more time with her.  This episode is a great follow-up to "The Real Thing," keeping the Alex-Ellen relationship interesting after they've gotten together, an ongoing arc many sitcoms struggle with (Ross & Rachel anyone?).  There's also a hilarious subplot where Elyse forces Steven to accompany her to a book club when he just wants to watch football.

Favorite Moment: The climax of the episode is Alex's dance routine, which he claims is an interpretation of the 1929 stock market crash, set to the William Tell Overture.

5. Birthday Boy

Upon turning 18 Alex decides he is now a full adult and has no time for things like chores and family outings.  His friends invite him to a bar in West Virginia, where he can now legally drink alcohol, and after Elyse forbids him, he sneaks out with them anyway.  Of note is the guest appearance by Crispin Glover, of Back to the Future fame.  One of the definitive Alex vs. Elyse episodes.

Favorite Moment: Elyse tracks Alex to the West Virginia bar and confronts him in front of his friends and their dates.  Alex's date mistakes her for a romantic rival.  Great, great scene.

4. 4 Rms Ocn Vu

With the parents away, Mallory borrows the car and gets into an accident.  In a desperate attempt to raise the money to repair it, Alex rents out the house to guests visiting for the Homecoming game, and all hell breaks loose.  It's a spin on the sitcom trope of the kids throwing a wild party while the parents are away, and it's comedy gold.  Chunk from The Goonies makes his first of two appearances on the show.

Favorite Moment: Steven's response after returning home is a masterful exercise in comedic restraint.  "Parents are conditioned to expect a few minor accidents when they leave their children home alone.  Broke a vase...spilled milk on the rug......there was a my living room."

3. Alex Doesn't Live Here Anymore

In the series finale, Alex has accepted a job on Wall Street and makes arrangements to move to New York immediately.  Everyone is able to take the news in stride except for Elyse, who disapproves of Alex's eagerness to leave.  This hour-long final episode manages to balance some great comedy bits with some of the best dramatic delivery of the entire series, while also serving as a logical conclusion to the show and its character relationships.

Favorite Moment: Having fallen asleep on the counter, Steven begins talking in his sleep, reciting a poem written by Nick earlier in the show.  He wakes up screaming and says "I just had the most awful nightmare....I dreamt I was Nick...."  Pure hilarity.

2. A, My Name is Alex

Probably the most poignant of any Family Ties episode, "A, My Name is Alex" involves the death Alex's friend Greg in a car accident, after which Alex sees a therapist to help him cope with the loss.  What follows is a series of flashbacks played out in real time with the cast of the show, as Alex talks about his relationships with friends and family.  This is a deeply touching, fantastically written and acted episode that won a 1987 Emmy.

Favorite Moment: After hiding his grief, Alex begins hallucinating visits from Greg, finally confronting his guilt over not being with Greg when the accident occurred.  Fox's performance here is heart-wrenching; one of his best-acted scenes.

1. Mr. Wrong

Yeah, I know.  Mallory's new love interest Nick was an absurdly exaggerated version of The Boyfriend Your Parents Hate, but the episode that introduced him is so goddamn hilarious I place it at the top of the Family Ties heap.  The laughs in this 23 minutes of television are almost non-stop, and every character gets to join the action.  Nick may have ultimately worn out his welcome after four seasons, but Scott Valentine played this rather one-note character to the hilt here, coming off dimwitted, kinda dangerous, and yet caring and noble.  For my money "Mr. Wrong" is the greatest episode in the show's seven-year history.

Favorite Moment: The entire dinner scene is outrageously funny.  Steven asks Nick how he became interested in art and Nick replies, "I don't know."  Steven asks, "Can you expand on that?"  "I.......don't.....KNOW...."  So stupid and simple it has no right to be as hysterical as it is.

There you have it, kids.  I love me some Family Ties, but those episodes are the cream of the crop.  Thanks for reading - comment below with your favorites, and follow us on Facebook, MeWe and Twitter!

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