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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
y the time “Family Ties” kicked off its third season in the fall of 1984, it was firmly entrenched as the number two hitter behind “The Cosby Show” on NBC’s soon-to-be-unstoppable “Must See TV” Thursday night lineup. Only three years old, the show boasted a breakout star in Michael J. Fox. Though his big-screen stardom was still months away, he was clearly resonating with viewers in the right demographics. The network had an obvious franchise in the making.
And then Meredith Baxter-Birney had to go and get herself pregnant.
Anyone who’s ever watched a long-running sitcom can tell you that babies and adorable kids are the kiss of death for an established show. The only addition proven to have more of a detrimental effect is Ted McGinley, but since McGinley has never (to our knowledge, anyway) filmed a scene requiring him to pee in someone’s face, he probably deserves the edge in this particular competition. Anyway, fans of “Family Ties” could have been forgiven for viewing the impending birth of Baby Keaton with increasing dread – soon, the show’s unique generational focus would surely shift to diaper jokes and lots of heartwarming cooing.
As it turned out, although “Family Ties” wasn’t able to avoid the pitfalls of the junior set entirely – viewers would experience the horror of Brian Bonsall beginning in Season Five – the show did a far better job than most. Matter of fact, the third season is one of its best, especially considering that the writers had to deal with Baxter-Birney’s protracted absence. Rather than taking the safe bet, and tossing the weight of each episode on Fox’s shoulders, the show’s handlers responded by spreading the storyline wealth about as evenly as it would ever get -- each member of the Keaton clan has his or her time to shine over the course of these 24 episodes.
Okay, so Fox has more time than most. But even taking into account the Alex P. Keaton-centric portion of the program (which includes such classic “Ties” episodes as “Hot Line Fever” and Geena Davis’ two-episode arc), the show’s third season does an admirable job of making the case for “Family Ties” as an ensemble comedy, rather than the Fox showcase you might remember. Even better, the cast members make the most of what they’re given. For instance, it’s impossible to watch Bateman step into the spotlight during “Auntie Up” without wondering why she never went on to do much of anything after the series ended. (Tina Yothers, as always, is the original cast’s weakest link, but at least her character hadn’t started her band yet.)
Perhaps the season’s nicest surprise is how organically the writers wove the birth of baby Andrew into the show – not only is his arrival not the focus of every episode, it isn’t the subject of the season finale. The youngest Keaton is four episodes old by the time the family packs up and heads to Buffalo for the hour-long special “Remembrance of Things Past,” an episode dealing with Michael Gross’ character coming to terms with his father’s death.
Baby or no baby, for fans of the show, the third season of “Family Ties” might be as good as it gets – you’ve got no Scott Valentine, no Bonsall and only a handful of appearances by Marc Price as Erwin “Skippy” Handelman. The special features are limited to a blooper reel, episode promos, and a Michael J. Fox PSA for Parkinson’s Disease, but given the amount of extra stuff CBS packed into the second-season set, that’s probably about all that was left in the vaults.