Sit, Judge Patrick Bromley. Sit.
What would we do, baby, without us?
One of the few remaining holdouts of '80s television finally makes an inauspicious debut on DVD.
Facts of the Case
Meet the Keatons: Elyse (Meredith Baxter Birney, Family) and Steven (Michael Gross, Tremors), two former hippies doing their best to bestow upon their children the values and ideals of the 1960s in the era of Reagan. They've got their work cut out for themselves, too; their oldest, Alex (Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future), is as far to the right as his parents are to the left—he's the Republican poster-boy ; middle-child Mallory (Justine Bateman, Satisfaction) is a self-absorbed and superficial mall queen; Jennifer (Tina Yothers, Celebrity Fit Club) the youngest, is a sarcastic and oddly literate tomboy. With so little in common, family life can be a struggle. The good news? There ain't no nuthin' they can't love each other through.
Here are the shows that make up The Complete First Season:
"Not With My Sister You Don't"
"I Know Jennifer's Boyfriend"
"Summer of '82"
"I Never Killed for My Father"
"Give Your Uncle Arthur a Kiss"
"Big Brother is Watching"
"No Nukes is Good Nukes"
"Death of a Grocer"
"Have Gun Will Unravel"
"A Christmas Story"
"The Fugitive Part 1"
"The Fugitive Part 2"
"Margin of Error"
"I Gotta be Ming"
"Suzanne Takes You Down"
"The Fifth Wheel"
Can anyone really believe it's been 25 years since Family Ties first came into our living rooms? 25 years? The show once designed as a showcase for Meredith Baxter Birney but quickly hijacked by Michael J. Fox (who became a breakout star and ran away with the series) is now old enough to vote, buy beer, and even rent a car. Hell, it's almost as old as I am. And, as with the first season of any series (with a few exceptions, like Arrested Development), Season One of Family Ties is sort of a rough draft of what the show would eventually become. The series is finding its voice; the characters are rounding out (Mallory, for example, is nowhere near the impossibly flaky creation she would eventually become); the actors are developing the chemistry that would hum in later years. There's a greater focus on the "'60s radicals in '80s America" notion that originally seemed designed to drive the show, as evidenced by the opening credits featuring snapshots of Elyse and Steven in their hippie days. It's rough around the edges, but the core of the show can still be found in this first season.
What's best about Family Ties is the way that it marries comedy and drama on a regular basis—and not in just the once-a-season, "very special episode" way. This is a family that argues and fights about more than a borrowed car or slipping grades. They argue about values and ideas; these are fully-formed characters, not just sitcom "types," and they stand up for what they believe in. Things aren't always easily resolved at the end of 22 minutes. A disagreement may end or reach an impasse, but minds aren't necessarily changed. The show is a lot like real life in that way. Even Alex, whose opinions are clearly the most unpopular among the writing staff (though we love him, he's the closest thing to an "enemy" on the show), isn't forced to come around to his parents' ideology. He's allowed to be who he is.
That's all good, too, because Family Ties was never the funniest of '80s sitcoms (laugh for laugh, The Cosby Show wins that contest by a long shot). Yes, there's the occasionally clever one-liner, and the cast boasts at least three very talented comic performers (Fox, Bateman, and Gross—who would only improve with age and facial hair), but the actual joke writing has never been the series' strongest suit. Close your eyes, ignore the English language, and you're still painfully aware that you're watching a situation comedy; even without understanding what's being said, the "setup/punchline" beats are way too obvious. And while it's still refreshing (I say "still" because this is from a quarter-century ago) to see an adult couple on TV that's still hot for one another—not just in a "man-wants-sex-but-woman-doesn't" way—the follow-up joke is always the same: some tired variation on "get a room." This particular exchange, repeated in nearly every episode of the first season, is rather indicative of the series strengths and weaknesses as a whole—the humanity is there, but the humor isn't always backing it up.
Paramount's DVD release of Family Ties: The Complete First Season doesn't give us much cause to celebrate; aside from finally having the show on disc, there's little to get excited over. The 22 episodes that make up Season One, spread out over four discs, are presented full frame (as they should be, which is fine) and show their age a bit—detail is soft and colors are washed out—but they look just as good as they do in syndication. The mono audio track balances the dialogue and the laugh track just fine, but might have been bolstered somewhat with channel separation or, at the very least, some subtitles. As it is, the presentation is serviceable and unspectacular.
Sadly, unspectacular is as good as this DVD set is going to get, as not a single extra has been included. There are no commentary tracks from the show's creator, Gary David Goldberg (now hard at work in Hollywood, writing and directing disposable films like Must Love Dogs). There are no cast commentary tracks. There are no interviews or retrospective featurettes. No behind-the-scenes footage. There's nothing. And what a missed opportunity it is; wouldn't fans of the show (more than likely the only group that's going to be picking this set up) have appreciated hearing the cast's experiences going into what would become one of the biggest TV hits of the 1980s? Family Ties did manage to carve itself a piece of the pop culture landscape, and these DVDs do nothing to reflect that.
I've always been a fan of Family Ties, and I still am today. Even in its maiden season, the show holds up rather well; the references are dated, but the character work and emotional truths that the series excelled at carry it through. I'm thrilled that the show is finally available on DVD. But to see it receive even less attention than something like So NoTORIous? That's a puzzler.
Family Ties is off the hook, but Paramount ought to know better.
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