Family Ties Bind Us Together

Last week’s blog was about Meredith Baxter.  Today we are taking a more in-depth look at one of the shows she is best known for, Family Ties.

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Steven (Michael Gross) and Elyse Keaton (Meredith Baxter) are liberal ex-hippies with three children when the show starts out: super conservative son Alex (Michael J. Fox), shopping maven, boy-crazy daughter Mallory (Justine Bateman), and easy-going Jennifer (Tina Yothers). Later they have a baby and Andrew (Brian Bonsall) is added to the family. The name Keaton was a tribute to Diane Keaton. (One fun fact is that Both Baxter and Gross had the same birthday, being born June 21, 1947.)

The concept was based on the life of Gary David Goldberg and his wife Diane when they transitioned from flower children to suburban family. Goldberg explained that “It really was just an observation of what was going on in my own life with my own friends. We were these old, kind of radical people, and all of a sudden, you’re in the mainstream . . . now you’ve got these kids and you’ve empowered them, and they’re super intelligent, and they’re definitely to the right of where you are. They don’t understand what’s wrong with having money and moving forward.”

Debuting in 1982, the show was on for seven years, producing 172 episodes.

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Originally Ed O’Neill was considered for the role of Steven, and Matthew Broderick was slated to play Alex. When Broderick’s father became ill, he had to decline. (Broderick’s father played Baxter’s father on the show Family in the 1970s.) Another source simply stated that Broderick decided he didn’t want to move to LA. Fox made the role his own and won three Emmys. Despite his disdain of his parents’ ethics and lack of materialism, Alex was a likable character. When Goldberg explained why he liked Alex but not Alex’s philosophy, he said, “With Alex, I did not think I was creating a sympathetic character. Those were not traits that I aspired to and didn’t want my kids to aspire to, actually . . . But at the end of Family Ties, when we went off the air, then The New York Times had done a piece and they said, ‘Greed with the face of an angel.’ And I think that’s true . . . [Michael J. Fox] would make things work, and the audience would simply not access the darker side of what he’s actually saying.”

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Steven and Elyse went to school in Berkeley; he is now the manager of a public radio station in Columbus, Ohio and Elyse majored in architecture.  Although she has been a stay-at-home mom, during the run of the show, she is now ready to return to work.

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Fox with Scott Valentine, Mallory’s boyfriend Nick

Rounding out the cast was Alex’s friend Skippy (Marc Price), Mallory’s boyfriend Nick (Scott Valentine), and Ellen (Tracy Pollan) who was Fox’s girlfriend and later wife in real life.

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The theme song is a memorable one. “Without Us” was written by Jeff Barry and Tom Scott. For the first season, it was performed by Dennis Tufano and Mindy Sterling, and for some reason, it switched to Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams for the rest of the show’s run.

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Freddie J. Rymond was the set decorator for the show. In an article “The Set Design of Family Ties” by Cathy Whitlock in 2012, we catch a glimpse of the thought process of Rymond’s creation.

“Rymond explains, ’Most sitcoms evolved around the living room in those days, and they all pretty much had the same furnishings. Rymond received numerous requests from viewers regarding the kitchen set’s appliances; of particular interest was the Wolf commercial-style range, an item that was gaining popularity in the consumer-driven ’80s. Executive producer Gary David Goldberg, who was very specific about the set’s decor, had a Wolf range in his home in Los Angeles. The kitchen was the epicenter of the Keaton family’s activity and one of the multi-camera sitcom’s three primary sets. . . At its best, set decor defines and supports a character—here, hanging above the bed of Alex P. Keaton is a poster of conservative icon William F. Buckley, Jr., rather than, say, Farrah Fawcett, who was probably the more popular poster subject of the time. The bedside WKS lamp comes from the local public television station where father Steven Keaton works. Rymond used what he called a ‘conglomeration’ of accessories to decorate youngest daughter and resident tomboy Jennifer’s bedroom. A pop-cultural mélange consisting of a Cleveland Browns pennant, a white iron–and-brass bed, and a world-globe throw pillow round out the set. Mom and dad Elyse and Steven’s master bedroom was reminiscent of so many interiors of the ’80s—shelves filled with clutter and white porcelain figurines, tchotchkes and knickknacks from a lifetime of family vacations.

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Although the show was a comedy, it tackled some dark subjects including alcoholism, incest, and death. In one of the earliest episodes, Mallory is scared and confused when “Uncle Arthur, a close friend of the family and her father’s co-worker at the television station, makes a pass at her. Meanwhile, Steven prepares a farewell tribute to Arthur to air during the station’s pledge drive. In season five, Alex works with a renowned professor on an economics paper. Reviewing the final content, he finds the hypothesis is incorrect, but the professor wants to submit it with false data. During the final season, the Keatons are delighted by a surprise visit from Elyse’s Aunt Rosemary. The family starts to notice a difference in her actions, and Rosemary finally admits she is becoming forgetful. A doctor diagnoses the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

The finale was a very emotional time for the entire cast. In an article “Cutting the ‘Family Ties’” by Daniel Cerone on May 2, 1989, some of the stars discuss what the week was like. In the final episode, Alex gets his dream job on Wall Street and is moving to New York City.

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The article interviewed the cast. “‘We taped the last episode in front of an audience of family and friends,’ said 27-year-old Michael J. Fox, who joined the show in 1982 as an unknown Canadian-born actor and parlayed his role as the conservative, wise-cracking Alex Keaton into a flourishing film career. ‘I was fine until the curtain call, then I started weeping. I felt like an idiot, until I looked around and realized I had company.’ Baxter also commented on the end of the show, ‘This week has been so much more grueling than anyone expected,’ said Meredith Baxter Birney, who plays Alex’s mother, Elyse Keaton. ‘Everyone involved thought the show would just sort of take care of itself. No one was prepared for what we went through. It was awful.’”

Goldberg also discussed the finale, “‘Last night was extraordinarily emotional,’ agreed 44-year-old Gary David Goldberg, whose UBU Productions produces ‘Family Ties’ in association with Paramount Network Television. ‘It was a very surreal feeling. We started a half-hour late because everyone was crying and we had to redo their makeup. The sadness is overwhelming. It’s like raising a great kid who you love to have around, and then he has to leave you and go to college.’”

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Although the show was based on the differences between the generations, it was not their differences that made the show one of the most-watched sitcoms of the decade. Despite their range of values, the kids loved and respected their parents. The parents truly liked their kids. While the show was very funny, it was also heart-warming. There was unconditional love in the family. Alex could be very sarcastic to Mallory, but then we would see them having an intimate conversation in the kitchen late at night. While the elements that separated the characters is what drew us to the show, it was the qualities and love that they shared that kept us coming back.

All Hail to the Grief

Monday is Presidents Day, and as I mention that fact, I can hear the collective groans.  Whether you’re in the Hate Trump or Love Trump camp, you are probably thoroughly sick of politics.  Believe me, I hear you. However, today we are going to look at presidential moments in television. And before you exit out, be assured I am not talking about the Nixon-Kennedy debates.  We’re going to look at my top television episodes that featured a president.

Several series have included presidents with people dressed in costumes at Halloween parties.  George Washington showed up on Growing Pains in 1990 and on the first episode of The Munsters in 1964, while Thomas Jefferson appeared on Mike and Molly in 2011. I mention the roles, but we’re not going to concentrate on them.

Several candidates also made whistle stops campaigning on television.  Thomas Jefferson was on Simon and Simon in 1986 when they were trying to recover a family journal, Teddy Roosevelt was on The Virginian in 1962 fighting with the Rough Riders, and Franklin Roosevelt was a minor character on Wonder Woman in 1975, when she used her super powers to return a wounded WWII pilot to Washington. In 2002, Teddy Roosevelt, Abe Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson all made an appearance on Sabrina the Teenage Witch to convince her aunt not to run for city council. Because these were minor appearances and the shows were not about the presidents, I did not include them in my top five.

Here are my top five television episodes featuring a president as a character.

No. 5 – Bewitched: “George Washington Zapped Here” – 1972. When I saw a Bewitched episode that starred George Washington, I was sure I had my number 1 show for this blog.  Then I watched the show.  I tend to look at Bewitched almost as two different shows.  I love the first five years and include them in some of my all-time favorite tv episodes.  It was one of the best fantasy shows ever created, but by the last season the fantasy had died. The last season, including this episode, is like trying to watch a wrinkled, saggy grandmother trying to pull off wearing a mini skirt and go-go boots.  It’s a bit frustrating, a bit humorous, fairly sad, and extremely uncomfortable. If George Washington had a premonition about appearing in this episode, I’m sure he would have found a way to ban television in the Constitution.

Trying to help Tabitha with her homework, Esmeralda zaps George Washington to the present time. George is played by Will Geer. I feel like this theme of zapping historical figures happened more often than it should have during this show’s run.  Also, Esmeralda is not as likeable a character as Aunt Clara or Uncle Arthur. Of course, Washington wanders off and is arrested for speaking without a permit.  The only thing more painful than watching this show was the realization that it was a two-parter; the second episode has George going before a local judge and finally being exonerated by the truth. Talking about truth reminds me when George said, “I cannot tell a lie”, and I have to admit this episode is dreadful. Apparently, politics was just as painful 45 years ago as it is today.

No. 4 – Dharma and Greg: “Dutch Treat” – 2001. Numbers 3 and 4 are really a toss-up.  Abraham Lincoln stars in both shows, and he appears in dreams in both episodes. This sitcom was on the air from 1997 to 2002 starring Jenna Elfman and Thomas Gibson as a young couple who eloped on their first date.  She was raised by hippy parents and he comes from a wealthy family. The show earned eight Golden Globe and six Emmy nominations, and Elfman won the Best Actress Golden Globe in 1999. This episode was a bit too formulaic for me, so Drew Carey beat it out for number 3 in my list.

In this show, Dharma and Greg argue about being a role model for their young college friend.  During the argument they both claim to be independent, so they decide to go dutch for a week to find out which one is truly independent. Of course, they end up realizing they are dependent on each other during the experiment.   Peter, Greg’s coworker, has some weird dreams during the show.  At the end of the episode, Peter leaves for lunch with a bunch of Victoria’s Secret models who think he’s hot (he’s not), and Abraham Lincoln arrives at the office for a consultation with Peter. Dharma and Greg inform him Peter is out and invite him to lunch with them.  He takes off his hat to reveal it is full of waffles. At this point, Dharma informs Greg that they are now in Peter’s dream and the show ends. Abe is played by Ryan Stiles and, by chance, our no. 3 show features Stiles as a cast member.

No. 3 – The Drew Carey Show: “Drew’s in a Coma” – 2001. From 1995-2004, Drew portrays the average guy. He works at a department store and has a group of friends he hangs out with, primarily at the Warsaw Tavern.  Ryan Stiles is one of these friends, who played Abe Lincoln in the Dharma and Greg episode. He also appeared on Drew’s improv show, Whose Line Is It Anyway?.

In this episode, Drew is in an auto accident and goes into a coma.  His friends and family try to bring him out of it, but he is enjoying his unconscious dreams.  We see him in an apartment with a bunch of sexy women. Mimi is his sister-in-law who wears flamboyant make-up.  They have a love/hate relationship, but in his dreams, she is very conservative looking and tells him she is his slave, being very respectful.  He has a pizza tree, a beer fountain, and a door that opens to the greatest moments in sports featuring himself.  After several attempts to bring him out of the coma, his family gets ready to pull the plug to see if it shocks his body into waking up.  When they unplug the respirator, Drew is in the middle of a Trivial Pursuit game with William Shakespeare and Abe Lincoln.  (Abe is played by Charles Brame, and he also was Abe Lincoln on the Growing Pains episode mentioned in the second paragraph of the blog.)  Abe is excelling at all the history questions, until Drew reads him a shocking question.  The card asks “Who shot Abraham Lincoln?” The shock Abe feels equals the one Drew feels when he is unplugged and it forces him to realize he has to choose between going on to heaven or back to his life on earth. In the words of his fellow gamer, he had to decide “to be or not to be” and he chooses to return to earth for a while.

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No. 2 – Spin City: “A Tree Falls in Manhattan” – 2001. Spin City is about a group of city hall employees who work to help the mayor.  Mike, played by Michael J. Fox, is great at his job but he is leaving to get married and travel around the world.  The staff covers up for the mayor who is not very competent, but they struggle with their personal lives.  I did not watch Spin City a lot when it was on the air from 1996 to 2002. This was a funny episode, so it came in at number 2, even though Washington is only an on-air character for a minute or two.

Trying to impress his new girlfriend so they can watch the sun rise over the East River, the mayor orders a tree outside the mansion to be cut down, not realizing that it was a tree planted by George Washington and is protected. Charlie tells a girl he picks up that night about the tree story, not knowing she was the campaign manager for the opposition.  She tells her boss, and they go on the air to make an announcement.  When Charlie sees her, he realizes what has happened. Four George Washingtons appear in this episode played by David Hayman, Jack Wright, Gelbert Coloma, and Anthony Provenzano Jr. They are part of the Revolutionary War Society picketing city hall. After all this mayhem, Mike realizes he needs to be back in city hall and returns to his job. He arranges for the mayor to go on television saying “I cannot tell a lie, I chopped down George Washington’s tree, but I used the wood to build a shelter for the homeless.”  At this time, Fox was dealing with Parkinson’s Disease and announced he would be leaving at the end of this season.  When he did eventually leave the show, the explanation was that he accepted a job as an environmental lobbyist who moved to Washington, DC.  He met a senator there named Alex P. Keaton, the name of Fox’s character on Family Ties.

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No. 1 – My Friend Flicka: ”Rough and Ready” – 1956. I had heard of the book and movie My Friend Flicka, but I did not know that it was ever a television show. It was only on the air one year, and only 39 episodes were made, airing between February 1956- February 1957. It was a mid-season replacement for The Adventures of Champion, a show starring Gene Autry.  Unfortunately, neither show could compete with The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin which was on another channel during this time slot. The show was later aired Monday nights on the Disney Channel in the mid-1980s. Ken McLaughlin, played by Johnny Washbrook, is devoted to his horse Flicka.  He and his parents live at the Goose Bar Ranch in Coulee Springs. After this show was cancelled, Washbrook appeared on several shows, including three different characters on My Three Sons, but then went into the banking profession and moved to Martha’s Vineyard.

This episode was a delightful and charming show featuring Theodore Roosevelt played by Frank Albertson. Young Ken McLaughlin decides to write a letter to the president because there is too much overgrazing going on due to the government failing to put restrictions on the lands. A couple of weeks later, the newspaper has an article about Vice President Roosevelt coming to Coulee Springs for a vacation.  In the meantime, several families are forced to put their ranches up for sale and move because there is no place for their cattle to graze.  Ken meets a man fishing and shows him lures he makes himself.  The man is quite impressed, and they make plans to meet again in the morning to fish.  The next day, Ken explains what is happening with the land, saying he wrote the president but never heard back, and then tells the man that his family had now put their ranch up for sale also.  The man tells Ken to have his father come to town, and he will arrange for him to talk to the vice president.  He also has Ken take his picture with a large fish they caught.  When he and his father go to town for the meeting, he realizes that the man he has been fishing with is Vice President Theodore Roosevelt who takes care of the situation, putting regulations in place.  A few weeks later, Ken gets a letter.  Theodore Roosevelt is now President Roosevelt and he wanted to make sure Ken did get a letter back from the President. He also included the photo that Ken took of him and the fish. Albertson did a bully good job playing Teddy.

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Hopefully watching some of these episodes will convince you that it is possible to have a Happy Presidents Day.  Watching the influence these men still have in our modern-day history reminds us that our Constitution and government were created and modified by great men such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt, creating  a strong foundation that is hard to destroy. All you have to do to enjoy politics today is to choose one of these five episodes to watch. And wearing red, white, and blue while you do so wouldn’t hurt.