“Family Ties” occupies perhaps the most enviable time slot in network TV. It follows “The Cosby Show,” consistently rated the No. 1 show. But the four-year-old sitcom has managed to create its own following, and now, surely, as night follows day, “Family Ties” clocks in at No. 2.
Like all good sitcoms, “Family Ties” has grown since its debut. When it first debuted in September 1982, it tapped into what was then a new phenomenon: the generation gap in reverse.
Hippies raising yuppies
Steven and Elyse Keaton (Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter Birney) were portrayed as aging flower children who listened to Dylan records and supported (unfashionably) liberal causes, much to the consternation of their three children (Michael J. Fox, Justine Bateman, Tina Yothers).
Alex (Fox), the oldest, was particularly disturbed by what he saw in his parents. He was a yuppie in training (in 1982 when the show debuted, the word was not yet coined) who wore three-piece suits to high school and had a picture of William Buckley on his bedroom wall.
This was a nifty gimmick, one that sustained the show through its first couple of seasons, when its ratings were not very high
Last season, however, interest in the show accelerated as “The Cosby Show” hit its stride and bolstered the entire NBC Thursday night lineup.
In real life, Meredith Baxter Birney was pregnant; this was worked into the storyline, always a good gimmick to hook viewers. One of the most memorable moments in series TV last year occurred when Elyse went into labor while performing on a public broadcasting telethon.
Fox the real star
But the primary reason for the show’s ascending popularity is Fox. During the summer of ’85, Fox became a matinee idol with his role as the teen time traveler in the box office smash “Back to the Future.” He’s committed to the show for two more seasons.
The characters continue developing, Alex still lives at home, but he’s gone on to college. Miss Bateman, who plays middle sister Mallory, has matured into an attractive young woman. Both Alex and Mallory now have romantic interests — Tracy Pollan as Ellen Reed, and Scott Valentine as Nick Moore, a punk-rock type who sounds like a young Sylvester Stallone.
“Family Ties” is also downplaying the generation-gap hostilities (and obvious jokes) and has settled into a comfortable family groove. The Keatons, like the Huxtables of “The Cosby Show,” are likable and human.
“Family life is the most important thug in my life,” says series producer Gary Goldberg, “and the show is autobiographical in that it is my view of what family life is all about.”
Meet the “Family Ties” family
“Family Ties” will begin its fourth season this fall. Two years ago, this family sitcom finished 56th in the Nielsen ratings. Last season it finished fifth, thanks in part to Bill Cosby’s show that it follows on Thursday nights on NBC. A two-hour special, shot in England, will be part of the new 1985 season. Meet the cast:
1. Michael Gross, age 38, plays the father, Steven. Michael grew up in Chicago. His wife, Elza, is a casting director. His big interest is model trains and railroads of all kinds.
2. Meredith Baxter Birney, age 38, and the character she plays, Elyse, are both working mothers. Meredith has five children, including twins born last October. She met her actor husband, David Birney, when they starred on a TV series in 1971.
3. Michael J. Fox, age 24, plays Alex. Michael, one of five children, grew up in Canada: His father is an army officer and his mother a payroll clerk. Michael began acting on Canadian TV at age 15.
4. Justine Bateman, age 19, plays Mallory. Justine’s father is a director and her mother is a stewardess. Her brother, Jason Bateman, has been in several TV shows. She began her career as a model. She hopes to study journalism in college.
5. Tina Yothers, age 12, plays Jennifer. Tina is the youngest of five children. Her father is also an actor. Tina has been in show business since age 7. She does volunteer work helping abused children.
6: Garrett and Tyler Merriman play Baby Andrew (Andy). There are strict laws about how long babies can be on a studio set. Twin boys take turns playing the role of baby Andrew (not shown).
“Family Ties” opening credits and theme song
The theme song,”Without Us”, was composed by Jeff Barry and Tom Scott in 1982. In season 1, it was performed by Dennis Tufano and Mindy Sterling. For season 2 onward, the theme song was performed by Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams.