When I was 13, I was certain I’d grow up to marry Michael J. Fox. I never missed an episode of Family Ties, I forked over my allowance to see Back to the Future in the theater on five occasions, and I plastered Tiger Beat photos of Fox to the door of my bedroom walls and junior-high locker.
Revisiting the first season of Family Ties on DVD, I can see why I was so taken with Fox. When he began playing the teenage Alex P. Keaton, he was already in his mid-twenties, and underneath his blue-eyes and baby face lurked a biting wit and ace comic timing. He was a slice of apple pie with a dash of spice, ideal adolescent-crush material.
But rewatching these episodes as an adult, I find myself thinking more and more about the show’s other Michael — Michael Gross, who played Alex’s father, Steven Keaton. Indeed, it’s Gross’ winning performance that makes the hit-or-miss first season of Family Ties worth your time. His impeccably dry delivery showcases the show’s humor, to be sure, but his good-guy aura makes him truly extraordinary. Gross’ every word and gesture radiate decency, patience, and warmth. He’s the Perfect Guy as imagined by former flower children.
When the show premiered in 1982, it distinguished itself from other family sitcoms with that generation gap conceit: the Keaton parents (Meredith Baxter played Elyse) were 40-something ex-hippies raising three Reagan-era children: money-hungry Alex, mallrat Mallory (Justine Bateman), and wisenheimer Jennifer (Tina Yothers). As the show progressed, the characterizations of the children wavered into caricature; Alex was an arch-conservative overachiever, Mallory a complete dimwit, Jennifer a Kierkegaard-spouting proto-tween. Here the Keaton kids are less quirky — and not as funny — as their later incarnations.
Steven and Elyse remained consistent over the series’ eight-year run, however: They were passionate activists who tried to do right by their children and the world at large. In contrast with the Huxtables, the Keatons weren’t always 10 steps ahead of their kids. They tried their best, but sometimes they got it wrong, which arguably made them more sympathetic.
In the pilot episode, Steven is struggling with moral outrage when Alex attends a date at a restricted country club. He crashes the club and tries to persuade Alex to leave, but his son refuses, mortified. Afterward, Steven explains his point of view but attempts to understand where his son is coming from, remembering a time when he sacrificed ideals for the sake of cute girl. “You see, there once was this young Republican, Sandra Futterman. A real fascist, but she wore it well, you know?”
In a later episode, “Sherry Baby,” Steven offers to help Mallory with a science project and eventually can’t resist taking over the assignment entirely. Mallory eyes him quizzically as he struggles with the project materials, leading to one of the show’s effectively ironic, signature role reversals:
Mallory: What’s that, Dad?
Steven: Oh, it’s your science project.
Mallory: How am I doing on it?
Steven: I’ll be honest, Mal. You’re having trouble. At this point, it’s a B or B+ at best.
Mallory: Well, Dad, what’s important is not the grade, but what you learned.
The writing and delivery on Family Ties are strongest when the main characters were in conflict with each other, especially when Alex and Mallory go head to head. In “Sherry Baby,” Mallory bribes Alex to date one of her friends, to disastrous but hilarious effect; in “Stage Fright,” the season’s funniest episode, Mallory becomes the all-star of the school quiz team while Alex sputters and chokes on camera.
The episodes that focus more obviously on “big issues” (nuclear disarmament, gun control, and sexual harassment) are less successful. Uneven and flat, they come off like public service announcements scored with a laugh track. Released without extras, this first season set of Family Ties is wanting. Even Steven Keaton would say it’s a B- at best.