Wednesday, October 10, 2012

It's True, You Can't Go Back Again: Family Ties - The Complete First Season

The Good: Moments of character, Moments of acting
The Bad: Laugh track! No DVD bonus features, Very tired concepts, Strangely formulaic, Music
The Basics: Decent acting and mediocre characters are underplayed by domineering issue-oriented plots and some truly campy 80's family references for this debut season.

Well, all right now. I grew up in the early 80s. That's my big confession for today. I am a child of the 80s and I remember watching Family Ties as a kid. Indeed, it was probably Family Ties that made me into enough of a Michael J. Fox fan to watch the Back To The Future Trilogy (reviewed here!) and Spin City while he was on it. I do not believe I ever saw the entire first season of Family Ties and in the past, I've used Family Ties as an example of a series that ought to release itself as a complete series boxed set as opposed to season by season volumes. After sitting through the four-disc, twenty-two episode Family Ties - The Complete First Season set, I stand more firmly by that idea. I can't imagine spending money on this set . . . and I can't recommend it.

For those unfamiliar with the series, Family Ties is a pretty simple concept: two children of the '60s have had children and find themselves in the early 80s as middle aged parents of kids growing up in a very different world than the one they envisioned when they were protesting, fighting the power and loving freely. They continue to be politically active, but discover they have raised a Republican son, a daughter that is entirely superficial and another daughter who has no verbal self-control. Indeed, the DVD box describes Elyse and Steven Keaton's youngest daughter Jennifer as a "precocious tomboy who always speaks her mind," but an impartial viewing of the first season finds Jennifer to be a pseudo clone of Alex; she follows him and delivers lines that are often the counterpoint to what most would expect from a young woman. But the truth is, we soon come to expect the blunt quips that come from the seemingly innocent girl and it becomes somewhat predictable that the camera will focus on Jennifer and she will deliver a blunt retort that seems beyond her years.

The show seems, in many ways, like an afterschool special with various episodes having a moral and a stand. The show is largely episodic, with the Keaton family encountering such tribulations as Alex attending an exclusive club because he is interested in a girl, Mallory going off with a boy on her own, Jennifer succumbing to peer pressure to hate boys, Alex being seduced by an older woman, Mallory being hit on by a sleazy older man, and Steven and Elyse protesting nuclear arms on Thanksgiving. The show is largely a family show, with episodes like "A Christmas Story" describing how each of the children came into the world and "Elyse D'Arc," wherein Steven is finding it untenable to not have time alone with his wife. The series is also largely about political issues, which is encapsulated in episodes where Alex leaves his job at a small, independent grocer to go work for a chain, Steven and Elyse bringing a gun into the house after they are robbed, Elyse advising one of Mallory's friends who gets pregnant, and Alex playing the stock market.

The problem with the first season of Family Ties as it appears in this DVD boxed set is that it is horribly dated and it plays on it terribly. Steven and Elyse constantly reference the '60s and all they fought for, as if one is likely to forget they were aging hippies by the time the opening credits (which illustrates their early relationship) finish rolling. It becomes a pretty tired mantra as everything in their personality becomes justified as a function of their era as opposed to . . . well, simply it being their personality. As a result, most of their conversations and viewpoints they express contain virtual "works cited" lists wherein they reference moments in their past that justify their views as opposed to simply having their views and the convictions for them. It seems silly in retrospect.

Similarly, Mallory's entire character the first season seems to be to be interested in boys but constantly calling attention to how grossed out she is by her parents expressing affection for one another. Now, I like that Steven and Elyse are open and kissing a lot in the series, but it gets real tiresome to have Mallory walk in and express discomfort with it. Moreover, if Mallory has been raised by these people her whole life, it seems odd that she's not more open to it by her sophomore year of high school!

The other terribly dated and tragic element of this boxed set is the laugh track. I cannot think of a show I have watched recently that is so dependent upon and utterly misuses a laugh track as this first season of Family Ties. There are episodes where the laugh track is used after lines that are biting or not funny and the laugh track cheapens the impact of them instead of adding any genuine levity. It's like the producers simply turned the laugh track on and set it off at thirty-second intervals.

In many ways, the laugh track and applause at the end of every episode make the show ripe for parody. So, too, is the campy "issue of the week" sincerity of each episode. The first season is very much like a catalogue of social and political issues of the day explored in earnest for twenty-five minutes. It's almost surprising that when Strangers With Candy (reviewed here!) came along, they did not simply make a parody of Family Ties to more poignantly nail the after school specials they were criticizing.

It is certainly not all bad, though! Because of the canned applause at the end and the terrible laugh track, along with the limited sets - most of the action of most of the episodes happens in the kitchen and living room of the Keaton house - Family Ties - The Complete First Season has the air and attitude of being a half hour play every episode. There is a very theatrical quality to the whole series at this point that resonates well and works wonderfully. Sure, Mallory and Alex square off to give dialogue that is delivered with a passion and wide-eyed sincerity that seems like a high school production at points, but there is something refreshing about the show's simplicity in that way. Indeed, with each episode standing like a little play, we get something that is virtually unseen on television (or DVD) until The West Wing (reviewed here!); writing that is largely theatrical and sometimes dense delivered by true professionals who have a strong sense of dramatic presentation.

While this season is largely issue-driven, the characters are the constant. Here are the principle characters of Family Ties:

Elyse Keaton - A flower child who is an architect and has raised three children to be their own people. She is deeply in love with Steven and works with him to raise actualized, independent children, while still fighting for the causes she believes in. She is liberal, proud and strong-willed,

Steven Keaton - Director of the local PBS station, he has been married to Elyse for almost twenty years and is only really baffled by Alex and how his son turned into a conservative. He works with Elyse to hold onto the principles of pacifism, citizen involvement in government and the right to protest,

Alex P. Keaton - A young Republican, he is a big supporter of Ronald Reagan, supply-side economics and male-domination in the workplace and society. He takes on a little brother who idolizes him, works to score with the ladies and applies his genius to pursuing personal wealth and glory. He is a classic overachiever,

Mallory - Alex's dippy sister who only cares about boys and reviles the affection Steven and Elyse show to one another. She has some self-respect and intelligence but she is constantly berated by Alex and neglected otherwise,

and Jennifer - The ten year-old daughter of Steven and Elyse. She is pretty independent, though she is at an age where it is not cool to like boys and she has a friend who is a boy. She comments on puberty, politics and family happenings almost like she was a narrator and largely, she involves herself in schemes Alex comes up with to her own advantage.

The cast is a decent one and the show makes good use out of Michael J. Fox, Michael Gross, and Tina Yothers. Justine Bateman, who plays Mallory, is lost in the shuffle of the first season too often, but her character is also pretty simple, so it's hard to truly evaluate her performance.

It is the performance of Meredith Baxter-Birney that dominates the first season of Family Ties. As the matriarch of the Keaton clan, Baxter-Birney is charged with playing a smart, efficient, emotionally-connected and in control mother and while I don't know how much of her performance is simply the function of wonderful casting, she pulls the roll off quite well. Baxter-Birney steals virtually every scene she is in and becomes the cast member who seems most instantly at ease with embodying her character and the complexities that come with it.

Family Ties either gets better or my continued watching is going to completely corrupt my childhood memories. The show is smart in its topical nature but it lacks subtlety to be genuinely entertaining and it is not focused quite enough on character for my tastes. On DVD, the show is a complete wash; it looks good, which must have taken some work and it sounds fine, but there are no DVD bonuses. Not one.

As well, there is something lacking and that is some of the original music. The back of the box references that and there is one painful scene where Alex is talking about music and changes the music, but then nothing plays! It pretty much guts the humor of the scene when character reference music that is not playing!

The show might get better, but in its first season, it's a tough sell and it does make me wonder how the series survived to get as good as it got. As it stands, it's not there yet!

For other television shows that focus on families, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Once And Again - Season 1
Veronica Mars
Arrested Development


For other television reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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