It was appointment viewing. It was a big part of the 1980s – for me anyway. I didn’t really get the move from liberalism to conservatism that was being pushed, the comment on the death of the Woodstock ideals – I just thought it was funny, and it was on around tea-time, watching TV at that time was a treat. And then, it started to make sense – Alex P. Keaton was this uptight teen, but we still thought he was cool, probably because he was quick with a quip, smart-mouthed, bright. He was a political contrast to his ex-hippie parents. They had real jobs now and were raising a family but they had probably owned John Fogelberg records if there was any prequel footage.
What I liked best about Steven and Elyse Keaton was the idea – I still stand by this – that if you put them together, morph them, they would become Gregg Allman.
Family Ties gave us Michael J. Fox. He was an adult playing a teenager – he was a conservative hero. Something I doubt I could stand (for) now – but it somehow made sense at the time. It was a comment as much as any validation or recommendation. And, anyway, you could follow him on to the movies where, in quick succession, Teen Wolf, the Back to the Future franchise and The Secret of My Success were huge.
Family Ties was soppy, nearly soapy, it had plenty of problems – and popularised the “Andy Syndrome” – you could see this on The Cosby Show and Full House (among many others) where when the youngest child is no longer deemed “cute” a new one is brought in. Andy, the fourth child, a baby written in, appeared halfway through the show’s run. This didn’t make the show better.
Perhaps I liked Family Ties because it came close to reflecting my own family. White, together (as in still in the same house) – the nuclear structure, kids and parents that argued, differed ideologically, but always stayed together. Even the jerk-with-a-heart-of-gold thing…
The are probably whole classes of study now devoted to unpicking the show – or, at least, internet clubhouses, but I liked it then. And, having watched a few shows in recent years, I can still see a smartness to it; the kids and parents frustrated each other, were given equal arguing time and the ideologies were given shared hearings. Alex P. Keaton, poster-boy for the Reagan Youth, sure, but his parents got to counter that. We heard their view/s. It was also just silly, sweet, charming, daft. But look behind all that – there was some commentary going on.
It’s a bit like the Cable Guy talking about his babysitter-TV, about learning the facts of life “from watching “The Facts of Life”. Family Ties was something I could relate to. This idea of the family staying together – not always agreeing, but finding a way to communicate, to share ideas, to live and learn and to accept that different personalities make up the family unit – made sense to me as a little kid. It helped me to understand my life, my family, our structure.
I still remember those key storylines too – like when Alex is “on drugs” (taking diet pills as the PG-rated, dinnertime version of amphetamines) or when Mallory is upset that her mum becomes “cool” with her friends, the mother working overtime to appear hip as compensation for being a working mum (sorry – working-MOM!)
There were some great cameos too – Tom Hanks as the drunk uncle, Courtney Cox (then unknown) was in it for several shows. You could squint and recognise Christina Applegate in an episode perhaps, Geena Davis more obvious in another. And River Phoenix. Well he was also a big part of the 1980s – so why not have a role on Family Ties as some maths whiz (sorry – MATH-whiz!) What would be so easy to see now – and probably then for some – as sugary, saccharine ghastliness, I simply understood as an essential sweetness of/for life.
And plus, any show with a theme tune sung by Johnny Mathis. I mean, come on! That’s something wonderful right there.
Family Ties finished with a three-parter where the entire cast came out to wave to the studio audience, to say their goodbyes. I felt a lump in my throat. It was like moving neighbourhoods, changing schools, starting a new career in a new town. It was the end of an era.
TV Shows That Meant The World To Me started life as a weekly series on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page