|Family Ties: The Complete First Season (1982)
Starring: Michael Gross, Meredith Baxter Birney, Michael J. Fox, Justine Bateman, Tina Yothers
“In a world where ‘Saved by the Bell’ is up to its fourth season on DVD, why isn’t at least Season One of ‘Family Ties’ out by now? (That show) was a real guilty pleasure for me back in the day. I mean, they’ve got ‘The Facts of Life’ and ‘Diff’rent Strokes.’ Where the fuck is ‘Family Ties’? Don’t they even have that Kirk Cameron show (‘Growing Pains’) out on DVD now? If that’s out, where is ‘Family Ties’? It’s got Michael J. Fox in it!”
- Kevin Smith
At last, Kevin Smith, your prayers have been answered: “Family Ties” is available on DVD!
It’s funny to think that, when “Family Ties” premiered on NBC in 1982, the matinee name of the sitcom was Meredith Baxter Birney (Elyse Keaton), who already had two successful TV series (“Bridget Loves Bernie” and “Family”) and was a recognizable face on the small screen. By the time the series ended in 1989, of course, the show was known almost exclusively for the fact that Michael J. Fox (Alex P. Keaton) was in its cast. What we sometimes forget, however, is that one of the funniest people on series was actually Michael Gross (Steven Keaton), whose deadpan delivery provided countless laughs. In this first season, the character of Mallory Keaton isn’t the complete airhead that she would become in later years; Justine Bateman plays her as just another teenage girl, no less intelligent than any other, and she does a decent job. If there’s a weak comedic chain in the Keaton family during the initial year of the series, it’s Tina Yothers, who suffers the same fate as Cindy did in the later years of “The Brady Bunch.” As Jennifer Keaton, she’s stuck delivering lines that veer between cute and smart-ass. (This was, after all, right around the same time as “Diff’rent Strokes.”) As a result, you sometimes dread her appearance on the screen, since you know the action will invariably stop dead in its tracks to allow Jennifer her obligatory one-liner.
When you slap in Disc 1 of “Family Ties: The Complete First Season,” don’t be surprised if you’re shocked at how completely pedestrian it is during the first episode or three. One has to wonder if the series was approved because of its one-liner of a premise (two former hippies try to raise their kids in the ‘80s), then, after it was picked up, creator Gary David Goldberg said, “A-HA! Now it’s time to get controversial!” Not that it was necessarily on the cutting edge of comedy, but during the course of the first season, there’s an episode revolving around Elyse serving as regional chairperson for the Vietnamese Relocation Services, jokes at Richard Nixon’s expense, and Elyse and Steven getting arrested at an anti-nuke rally. There’s also a lot of comedy mined from Steven’s job at the local public television station (although it’s mostly just offhanded lines in this first year), as well as from Alex’s raging conservative politics. The show wasn’t just walking on the political edge, though: Alex loses his virginity in Episode #4, and a couple of weeks later, Mallory gets hit on by a longtime family friend. Unfortunately, even with these topics, “Family Ties” didn’t seem to have any idea what actual teenagers were into in the ‘80s. In one episode, Mallory asks Alex if he’s going to see Barry Manilow in concert, and when he claims he’s going to see someone even better, she replies with absolutely no trace of irony, “Better than Barry Manilow…?”
Inevitably, the must-see episode – make that episodes, actually; it’s a two-parter – is “The Fugitive,” which introduces Elyse’s brother, Ned, played by none other than future Oscar winner Tom Hanks. It’s obvious that it was during these episodes, where Hanks portrays a man on the run from the FBI, that he developed a lot of the dramatic acting chops that caused the Academy to take notice. Or maybe not. Either way, we can only hope that this set sells well enough for the release of future seasons, because it’s not until Season 2 that Ned comes an alcoholic. (Not that we’re rooting for alcoholism, you understand, it’s just that it’s a classic episode.)
Special Features: Welcome to the suck, my friends, this is a special-feature-free zone. It’s so bizarre that CBS’s TV-DVD releases are split down the middle so dramatically. Some are completely tricked out with commentaries, featurettes and the like, but there’s been a very disturbing trend lately (generally with shows from the ‘80s, though the decade may be incidental) where they’re shoving four or more discs into a single plastic case and throwing them onto the market without so much as even subtitles, let alone anything that could be reasonably called a special feature. So don’t be afraid to make like a baby bird and go “cheap, cheap, cheap,” because that’s what the contents of this set are…and that’s why the rating isn’t as high as the comedy deserves.