Family Ties: The Fifth Season

[22 March 2009]

By J.M. Suarez

Family Ties’ strengths were always in the writing and in the charisma of its actors.  Usually dealing with standard sitcom storylines, especially as it relates to family relationships, the series set up an interesting dynamic in the parent/child relationships. 

Steven (Michael Gross) and Elyse (Meredith Baxter-Birney) Keaton are liberals grounded in the ‘60s – the show often flashes back to a younger Steven and Elyse during their college years at Berkeley – who have four children that are very much the product of the capitalistic, ambitious, and less idealistic ‘80s.  Their passionate beliefs are frequently challenged by their children, Alex in particular, and the ways in which they respond to and compromise with them is at the heart of the series.  By reversing the classic strict parents with rebellious teens trope, Family Ties established a different dynamic that served it well throughout its seven seasons. 

The fifth season of Family Ties is a pivotal one for the show in that there are some significant changes to the cast.  Alex (Michael J. Fox) is no longer dating artsy Ellen (Tracey Pollan), leaving him brokenhearted for part of the season, while youngest brother Andy (Brian Bonsall), previously only seen as a baby, is introduced as a toddler.  These changes positioned the series to tell fresh stories with these characters. 

Season five begins with Andy starting preschool.  Andy’s introduction as a foil for Alex added another dimension to Alex’s character and unlike in later seasons, their dynamic had not yet been worn out.  Alex’s protectiveness over Andy often leads to some very funny scenes, especially as he tries to groom Andy in his own image, but there is also more to the relationship that adds a bit more to their interactions.  For instance, in the first episode Alex makes a decision about Andy’s school without consulting his parents and when confronted with their anger he can only respond with misguided over-protectiveness for his brother.  Alex rarely exhibited the kind of caring and investment in his sisters and this shift makes for some good storytelling.

While Alex and Andy are firmly entrenched in each other’s storylines, the rest of the cast is given ample opportunity to shine.  Mallory’s surprise engagement to Nick offers up a very funny two-part episode that showcases the two along with Steven and Elyse, as they try to convince the family that getting married is a good idea and then their second thoughts during their elopement.  Although focused on Mallory, Steven really stands out with his ridiculous, over-the-top reaction – seemingly unaware that he is doing so, he begins to mournfully sing spirituals at awkward moments, even getting Elyse and Alex to join.   

Though Fox tends to get the bulk of the attention for his work on Family Ties, deserved as it may be, Michael Gross’ Steven is really one of the more underappreciated characters on the series.  Steven Keaton, one half of the liberal, idealistic parents to their four often jaded children, is played with such sincerity, almost ridiculous at times, yet always with a perfect deadpan delivery.  Gross’ often bewildered and benignly sarcastic reactions to those around him are some of the funniest moments in the series. 

Yothers also has some nicely underrated moments throughout the season.  She is the most “normal” of the Keaton children.  While Alex is intelligent and extremely intelligent, Mallory is his ditzy, popular counterpart.  Jennifer on the other hand is a more restrained blend of the two extremes and therefore, she gets more of the typical teenager storylines about having a crush on a boy and letting her grades slip or trying to fit in with the cool kids.

Family Ties addressed the ‘80s in a way that put conservatism and traditional values at directly odds with a recent idealistic time and used that juxtaposition to tell the story of an average American family.  Though at times broad and somewhat exaggerated, the series managed to create characters that have become iconic and over 20 years later, their stories still offer wonderful moments of comedy and emotional resonance.   

Strangely, there are several episodes included in the fifth season set that were obviously filmed earlier than this season.  It seems that these episodes were aired out of order during the original fifth season, so they are included the same way on the DVD, but their inclusion is obviously out of place and jarring.  As for any bonus features, unfortunately, the only addition to the episodes on the set is a gag reel on the last disc.  While funny and a nice extra, more substantial features would have been a welcome complement to the DVD.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/71947-family-ties-the-fifth-season/