Family Ties revolved around the precocious Alex Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox. This second season finds Fox’s character somewhere between a cute high school kid and an obnoxious college student. He had not quite evolved into a stubborn Reagan-ite, completely full of himself and the Republican Party, but he was well on his way.
The rub is that Alex’s parents are ex-hippies, with a father who works for an Ohio PBS television station. But despite its obvious cultural conflicts, the show was oftentimes just a little too cute for its own good. Even so, this second season set nevertheless showcases a few truly exemplary episodes.
The first program that catches your attention is titled “Speed Trap”. In it, Alex gets caught up in taking uppers to stay alert while studying for school. And what makes this story compelling, is that it reveals a vulnerable side to Alex. He’s usually so confident. But even he can be a victim to drugs’ sway – if under the right circumstances. Another challenging situation is explored with “Birthday Boy”, where Alex decides to go out drinking with friends to celebrate his 18th birthday. This leads to a showdown between Alex and his mother, Elyse, played by Meredith Baxter Birney.
Alex’s older-than-his-years image sometimes gets him into big trouble. For instance, he is a DJ at the school radio station where he plays big band music. This DJ role attracts one lonely female listener to his radio voice. But when the lady turns out to be a 40-year-old French divorcee with a young daughter, Alex finds himself in a brief relationship he’s just not mature enough to handle.
Of course, there are other characters besides Alex on the show. For example, “Not an Affair to Remember” looks in on a near affair between his father, Steven, played by Michael Gross, and a female coworker. As “Speed Trap” and “Not an Affair to Remember” reveal, this program was never afraid to take on tough issues. For instance, alcoholism is dramatized via “Say Uncle”. On this one, Tom Hanks guests as a fun-loving uncle, with a dangerous drinking problem.
One of Alex’s arch nemeses is his sister, Mallory (Justine Bateman). Mallory is not bright like Alex, nor is she particularly principled. Instead, she is enthralled with fashion; so the mother-daughter modeling competition at the center of “This Year’s Model” seems to be the perfect parental/ offspring bonding experience. But when Mallory learns that the modeling agency is more enamored with her mother than her, it nearly breaks the young teen’s heart.
We don’t see much of Alex’s politically conservative side during season two, but an episode called “A Keaton Christmas Carol” forces him to face his increasingly stingy nature. Although it’s not nearly as dramatic as A Christmas Carol, this lighthearted takeoff on Charles Dickens’ classic is nevertheless compelling in its own small, TV-land way.
The fourth CD in this package includes three bonus features. One is called “The Making of Family Ties”, and is a behind the scenes piece. The second is titled “Michael J. Fox: The Best Gig in the World”, and finds Fox speaking fondly about his past experiences with the show. The last special section deals solely with Michael Gross’s decision to grow a beard for the Steven character. This is obviously just silly fun, but you’d be surprised how much difference a little facial hair makes in a character. Lastly, there’s a special public service announcement from Fox concerning Parkinson’s disease, an ailment he also suffers from.
Watching Family Ties again all these years later is a little strange. If you’re like me, your first impression may be a negative one. After all, we have a whole slew of reality shows now, which make this ‘80s program look almost as outdated as a ‘50s Disney film. The actors in this show were just so likeable, however, that you might grow to love them all over again.
This was not the funniest show on television; then again, it was also not a group of comedians trying to make a sitcom, either. Most significantly, when these actors aimed for sincere, non-sitcom-y emotional moments, they hit the mark every time. And this, my friends, is the tie that kept this family show together.