The Third Season
Starring Michael J. Fox, Justine Bateman, Michael Gross, Meredith Baxter Birney, Tina Yothers
Paramount Home Video
Release date: February 12, 2008
OK, first things first: The third season of Family Ties is the one with the kangaroo.
Along with pretty much everyone else in the United States at the time, I totally dug this series when it originally aired back in the 1980s, but truth be told, the main question I found myself asking when I initially agreed to review its Third Season DVD set was, “Is this the season with the kangaroo?” Not to beat a dead horse (or live kangaroo, as it were), but I’m very glad to reiterate that it is.
Because Family Ties was to the Eighties roughly what Leave It to Beaver was to the Fifties and The Brady Bunch was to the Seventies, I find it a little odd to have to explain the basics of the show to any readers out there who might not know what it was all about. To put things in pop music terms, such a requirement strikes me as not altogether unlike needing to explain what Wham! was. OK, so perhaps you did have to be there, but come on. I mean, I was born in the 1960s, but look, I still know who the f*cking Little Rascals were, right? My point being, I can only assume that you’ve been living under a rock somewhere if you’ve never heard of Family Ties.
Scathing indictment of pop-cultural illiteracy aside, Family Ties was an immensely popular 1980s sitcom about a Midwestern family named The Keatons — father, Steven (Michael Gross); his wife, Elyse (Meredith Baxter Birney); their eldest son, Alex P. (Michael J. Fox); their eldest daughter, Mallory (Justine Bateman); their younger daughter, Jennifer (Tina Yothers); and — making his debut in the Third Season — their newborn son, Andrew (Garrett Merriman). Another frequent cast member is Alex’s friend, Erwin “Skippy” Handleman (Marc Price).
Although a long list of family-centered sitcoms of varying quality preceded it, the thing about Family Ties is that it was truly a product of the Eighties. Like The Cosby Show, it simultaneously mirrored and helped define the sensibilities of that decade. I have a close friend who designs clothing, and I remember her telling me once that the ‘style’ of any given decade is typically set by the “3” year of that decade. Even though it premiered in 1982, Family Ties’s popularity only really took off around 1984. Perhaps because of that, the show really does crystallize the feel of that time — especially the Third Season, which ran from late-1984 through 1985, when the Eighties were still fresh. (Personally, I think the decade got stupider as it drew to a close, what with the introduction of the compact disc and the proliferation of music videos resembling aerobics classes.) Anyway, when Family Ties started out, things were still sort of Ton Sur Ton–ish and cool. At the time it was a like big deal to have an Izod shirt. Or, for some, a Chams (as in “Chams de Baron”) shirt.
One of the more original and hilarious narrative elements in Family Ties is the distribution of political leanings within the Keaton family. Parents Steven and Elyse are, more or less, a couple of ex-hippies. Eldest son Alex P. Keaton (a character that launched Michael J. Fox into superstardom), on the other hand, is a staunch Republican who even has a large portrait of Richard Nixon hanging on his bedroom wall. Like Gordon Gekko, Alex is a fine embodiment of the obsession with wealth that seemed to permeate at least the first half of the 1980s. Unlike his gecko-like cinematic analogue, however, Alex is more innocent and compassionate than he’d probably want to admit, and glimmers of the sense of social equality and fairness projected by his ex-counterculture father and mother can occasionally be seen through cracks in his Wall Street–wannabe exterior.
For me, the comedic backbone of the show is the interaction between Steven and Alex. Actors Gross and Fox each demonstrate more than once in the Third Season a formidable talent for visual comedy, such as in “Help Wanted,” an episode in which the Keatons hire a completely inept housekeeper (played by guest star Geena Davis). The pair also exchange a good amount of the season’s more hysterically funny dialogue, with special mention going to Gross’s delivery of a mini-lecture about the kinds of mishaps that parents are conditioned to expect when they leave their children home alone.
One truly pivotal injection of adrenaline given to Family Ties’s humor level is not, unfortunately, included in the season under review here. That, of course, would be when the Keaton’s daughter Mallory begins dating Rambo-esque boyfriend Nick, in the show’s fourth season.
Luckily, there are lots of laughs to be found in the four Third Season DVDs. The discs feature extras, too, including promos for the episodes themselves and a bloopers reel. Factor in the cool series theme song (sung by Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams), and Family Ties: The Third Season emerges as a real winner. Definitely required Eighties viewing.