FAMILY TIES

U.S. Domestic Comedy

Few shows better demonstrate the resonance between collectively-held fictional imagination and what cultural critic Raymond Williams called "the structure of feeling" of a historical moment than Family Ties. Airing on NBC from 1982 to 1989, this highly successful domestic comedy explored one of the intriguing cultural inversions characterizing the Reagan era: a conservative younger generation aspiring to wealth, business success, and traditional values, serves as inheritor to the politically liberal, presumably activist, culturally experimental generation of adults who had experienced the 1960s. The result was a decade, paradoxical by America's usual post-World War II standards, in which youthful ambition and social renovation became equated with pronounced political conservatism. "When else could a boy with a briefcase become a national hero?" queried Family Ties' creator, Gary David Goldberg, during the show's final year.

The boy with the briefcase was Alex P. Keaton, a competitive and uncompromising, baby-faced conservative whose absurdly hard-nosed platitudes seemed the antithesis of his comfortable, middle class, white Midwestern upbringing. Yet Alex could also be endearingly (and youthfully) bumbling when tenderness or intimacy demanded departure from the social conventions so important to him. He could equally be riddled with self-doubt about his mettle for meeting the high standards he set for himself. During the course of the show, Alex aged from an unredoubtable high schooler running for student council president, to a college student reconciled to his rejection by Princeton.

Alex's highly programmatic views of life led to continuous conflict with parents Steven and Elyse. Former war protestors and Peace Corps volunteers these adults now found fulfillment raising their children and working, respectively, as a public television station manager and as an independent architect. If young Alex could be comically cynical, his parents could be relentlessly cheerful do-gooders whose causes occasionally seemed chimerical. Yet (especially with Elyse) their liberalism could also emerge more authoritatively, particularly when it assumed the voice, not of ideological instruction, but of parental conscience and loving tolerance. And so Family Ties explored not just the cultural ironies of politically conservative youth, but the equally powerful paradox of liberal conscience. Here that conscience was kept alive within the loving nuclear family so frequently decried as an instrument of patriarchal domination, and so constantly appropriated by conservatives as a manifestation of their own values.

Significantly, the show's timely focus on Alex and his contrasts with his parents was discovered rather than designed. Family Ties' creator was Gary David Goldberg, an ex-hippie whose three earlier network shows had each been canceled within weeks, leading him to promise that Family Ties would be his last attempt. He undertook the show as a basically autobiographical comedy which would explore the parents' adjustments to 1980s society and middle-aged family life. The original casting focused on Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter-Birney as the crucial Keatons. Once the show aired, however, network surveys quickly revealed that audiences were more attracted by the accomplished physical comedy, skillful characterization, and approachable looks of Michael J. Fox, the actor playing Alex. Audience reaction and Fox's considerable, unexpected authority in front of the camera prompted Goldberg and his collaborators to shift emphasis to the young man, a change so fundamental that Goldberg told Gross and Baxter-Birney that he would understand if they decided to quit. The crucial inter-generational dynamic of the show, then, emerged in a dialogue between viewers, who identified Alex as a compelling character, and writers, who were willing to reorient the show's themes of cultural succession around the youth. Goldberg's largely liberal writers usually depicted Alex's ideology ironically, through self-indicting punch lines. Many audiences, however, were laughing sympathetically, and Alex Keaton emerged as a model of the clean-cut, determined, yet human entrepreneur. Family Ties finished the 1983 and 1984 seasons as the second-highest rated show on television, and finished in the top 20 six of its seven years. President Ronald Reagan declared Family Ties his favorite program, and offered to make an appearance on the show (an offer pointedly ignored by the producers). Fox was able to launch a considerable career in feature films based on his popularity from the show.

Alex had three siblings. Justine Bateman played Mallory, the inarticulate younger sister who, unwilling to compete with the overachieving Alex, devotes herself to fashion and boyfriends, including the elder Keaton's nemesis, junkyard sculptor Nick (played by Scott Valentine). Tina Yothers played the younger daughter, Jennifer, an intelligent observer who could pronounce scathingly on either Alex or the parents' foibles. During the 1984 season, a baby boy joined the Keaton family, and was played by three separate children, as--by the next season--he quickly developed into a toddler.

 


Family Ties

Both Family Ties' creator and its production style are products of a specific set of events in Hollywood which, in the mid-1980s, granted promising writer-producers unusual opportunity and resources to pursue their creative interests. Goldberg's first jobs in television were as a writer and writer-producer for MTM, the independent production company founded by Grant Tinker and Mary Tyler Moore. The company was initially devoted to the production of "quality" comedies, and known for the special respect it accorded writers. In the early 1980s, the booming syndication market and continued vertical integration prompted Hollywood to consider writers who could create new programs as important long-term investments. Paramount Studios raided MTM for its most promising talents, among them Goldberg. Like many of his cohorts, Goldberg was able to negotiate a production company of his own, partial ownership of his shows, and a commitment from Paramount to help fund his next project--all in exchange for Paramount's exclusive rights to distribute the resulting programs. Goldberg applied the methods of proscenium comedy production he had learned at MTM, developing Family Ties as a character-based situation comedy, sustained by imaginative dialogue, laudable acting, and carefully-considered scripts which sat at the focus of a highly collaborative weekly production routine. (Inside Family Ties, a PBS special produced in 1985, shows actors, the director, and writers each taking considerable license to alter the script; Goldberg mentions that he takes it for granted that 60% of a typical episode will be rewritten during the week.) Each episode was shot live before a studio audience, to retain the crucial excitement and unity of a stage play.

In Family Ties' third season, the program played an unprecedented role in the production industry's growing independence from the declining broadcast networks. Paramount guaranteed syndicators that it would provide them with a minimum of 95 episodes of Family Ties, though only 70 or so had been completed at the time. Anxious to capitalize on the booming syndication market, Paramount was, in effect, agreeing to produce the show even if NBC canceled it--a decision anticipating Paramount's later, successful distribution of Star Trek: The Next Generation exclusively through syndication.

-Michael Saenz

CAST

Elyse Keaton..............Meredith Baxter-Birney
Steve Keaton
...........................Michael Gross
Alex P. Keaton
........................Michael J. Fox
Mallory Keaton
....................Justine Bateman
Jennifer Keaton
..........................Tina Yothers
Andrew Keaton
(1986-1989)......Brian Bonsall
Irwin "Skippy" Handelman
...............Marc Price
Ellen Reed
(1985-1986)...............Tracy Pollan
Nick Moore
(1985-1989)...........Scott Valentine
Lauren Miller
(1987-1989).........Courteney Cox

PRODUCERS
Gary David Goldberg, Lloyd Garver, Michael Weinthorn

PROGRAMMING HISTORY
180 Episodes

NBC
September 1982-March 1983     Wednesday 9:30-10:00 March 1983-August 1983                  Monday 8:30-9:00 August 1983-December 1983     Wednesday 9:30-10:00 January 1984-August 1987              Thursday 8:30-9:00 August 1987-September 1987            Sunday 8:00-9:00 September 1987-September 1989       Sunday 8:00-8:30

 

See also Comedy, Domestic Settings; Family on Television