Family Ties: Season Five
Most television sit-coms are short lived managing only a couple of seasons before the inevitable cancellation. If a series is enough of a hit that it persists longer than that brief duration it is only natural for the premise to drift. This is the case for the popular comedy ‘Family Ties’. It lasted a respectable seven years starting in 1982. Initially the concept was the perennial favorite theme of the generation gap. The parents of the show were free spirited; Steven (Michael Gross) and Elyse Keaton (Meredith Baxter) where children of the sixties’ flower power, hippy generation. This was not the case for their children Alex (Michael Gross), Mallory (Justine Bateman) and Jennifer (Tina Yothers). They were more oriented towards the eighties’ consumer market place philosophy. In the early eighties when the series started this was a strong and workable basis for a series but longevity brings on the necessity to grow if the series was to survive. When a show fails to do this they tend to rehash the same old stories over and over often hastening its demise. To its credit ‘Family Ties’ managed to shift its focus to reflect its cast of kids growing up. Situations that depend on cute little kids would no longer work so the writers had to come up with age appropriate topics to take over the story lines. The heart of the series remained the conflict inherent in all families but the stories reflected more teen and young adult problems. In order to keep some of the cute factor a forth child, Andrew (Brian Bonsall) was added to the regular cast. This is a major category over at ‘Jump the Shark’ but in this case it did permit the writers to keep some of the problems that stem from a new child in a well established family dynamic. During the fifth season under consideration here the show was the consistently number two in the ratings and had a fan base in the millions. The parents weren’t portrayed as clueless and the children were realistically shown allowing families all over the country to readily identify with it. Season five has joined its predecessors on DVD distributed through CBS Paramount. It you are at all into classic television it is reasonably certain that there are a number of their titles on your shelves already. There is a gentle nature to this show that allows it to stand the test of time. While most of the humor is rooted in the decade of the eighties family interaction and the generation gap will live on forever.
Newcomer to the family Andy was born in season three was a baby in season four and now in season five is a toddler. It is amazing how children grow up so fast on television but it is expensive to have babies on the set and there is a limit to the story lines that can involve them. Since it has been awhile since Steven and Elyse have had a child in the home they have to revisit their old methods and try to adjust them to the new times. Part of this is the pressure to get Andy into the right preschool. The school they chose for Andy is of the new age variety that uses a non competitive approach to education. Alex takes this as a personal affront. He is a staunch republican and a firm believer in competition. He wants his parents to make sure that Andy can survive in the cut throat real world. With this episode a new variation of the central theme begins to emerge; the parents versus the kids in how to raise little Andy. Alex is also trying to cope with his separation from the previous season’s girlfriend Ellen (Tracy Pollen, subsequently Fox’s real life wife). She has gone to Paris on a dance scholarship. Traditionally in a television series Paris seems to be the place where characters go if they are out of a season but may need to come back later. Alex discovers that looking for a new girlfriend is not easy to cope with. Eldest daughter Mallory also has some growing to do. When she is paired with an elderly woman, Margaret (Julie Harris), on a school project Mallory finds out that she has a long way to go in terms of sensitivity and tact. When Margaret is at the point of giving up on her dream and quitting school Mallory has to learn to be more understanding. This is typical of this show infusing some little morality play into the mix.
At this point the former youngest member of the Keaton household, Jennifer also has some trails and tribulations to endure. She has developed a passion for music and forms a band with some friends. She tries to get Alex to book them for a gig at his college for a reunion with the usual comical mishaps ensuing. She has also discovered boys and tries to keep a boyfriend by acting dumb; something that rapidly begins to irk her. She has to find out that the only relationship worth having is one that is based on being yourself. As a new teenager Jennifer is constantly trying to fit in and goes so far as to ask for Mallory’s help. This results in Jennifer becoming a valley girl stereotype and forcing her to reevaluate her image and new friends. One episode that is delightfully dated is when the Keaton’s get a new home computer; for educational purposes only of course. Some of the story lines take a far more dramatic slant than usual for a family comedy. When Alex’s best friend Greg (Brian McNamara) dies in an accident he is devastated. This story took two episodes to unfold and it gave Fox a chance to expand his range with a more dramatic part. Alex begins to spiral into depression resulting in his parents urging him to seek professional help in coping. In all there are six sets of double episodes in this season. The writers were trying to deal with more intense topics and they just didn’t fit in the twenty two minute resolution category. Another story that warranted a two episode treatment is when Mallory wants to elope with her boyfriend Nick (Scott Valentine). He was a bit rough around the edges for the parents and they oppose the relationship for the most part. The kids were not the only focus of the stories. In another episode Steven is asked to resurrect an old radical paper. He finds that he has drifted from his radical politics of the sixties and has to reevaluate his life. There are enough moral dilemmas to go around in this family. Alex finds out that one of his professors has been falsifying data on an important paper. He feels obligated to bring this situation to light but it will result in the professor pulling their recommendation for a coveted award.
This is the season of the show that brought home three Emmys. It is classic television that can still provide hours of entertainment for the whole family. There is a gag reel added as an extra that shows this cast had a lot of fun making the series. This translated to one of the best sit-coms around.