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Family Ties: The Complete First Season

B-

Family Ties: The Complete First Season

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Just as the rural sitcom of the late '60s gave way to the topical, urbane sitcom of the early '70s, so All In The Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show fell away, supplanted by the likes of Three's Company and Welcome Back, Kotter. Eventually, what started as a return to "fun" on TV—shadowing the movie business' shift from malaise-soaked American art films to blockbuster thrill-rides—became a general dumbing-down, to the extent that even attempts to address topics as serious as pedophilia or rape came couched in scripts full of catchphrases and slapstick.

Hence Family Ties, an issues-driven sitcom stocked with more corn than an Iowa silo. Remembered fondly by children of the '80s as a warm, goofy show about ex-hippie parents and their materialist kids, Family Ties hasn't held up too well. In the 22 episodes on the Family Ties: The Complete First Season set, Michael J. Fox embodies the Reagan-era go-getter, pursuing success at the expense of his kid sisters—fashion-conscious Justine Bateman and tomboyish Tina Yothers—and to the consternation of his parents, Meredith Baxter-Birney and Michael Gross. Aside from a few sparkling episodes—like "The Fugitive," where Tom Hanks guest-stars as Baxter-Birney's little brother, or "Summer Of '82," where Fox loses his virginity—the season-one episodes tend to be pleasant but bland, prizing one-liners over any deep exploration of the early-'80s culture clash.

To be fair, Family Ties got better in season two, as the writers figured out how to wring dry, absurdist humor out Fox's chilly brilliance and Gross' easily flustered liberalism. Then it got much worse, as the characters grew broader and seemingly every episode introduced a new "old friend of the family" in spiritual crisis. Still, the main reason to watch Family Ties in 2007 is to witness a dynamic we don't see much on TV these days, between two likeable, intelligent, decent men with opposing approaches to life. Today, men on sitcoms are largely geeks and oafs, equally petrified of anything feminine. On Family Ties, men ran public-TV stations and read the newspaper, and though most episodes ended in copouts, with Fox's conservatism safely neutered and Gross' liberalism overwhelmed by his paternalism, at least they were allowed to feel.

Key features: None.