The fall television season in 1982 brought us a slew of what went on to become hit sit-coms. This fall marks the 30th anniversary of Cheers, Silver Spoons, Newhart, and Family Ties… as well as Square Pegs, less successful but still cherished in the hearts of 80s girls. Did viewers know that Shelley Long, Ted Danson, Ricky Shroeder, Michael J. Fox, and Sarah Jessica Parker would become icons of an era? Probably not. But in the wake of The New Normal, The Mindy Project, and The Neighbors in recent weeks, I can’t help but feel nostalgic. (What’s the obsession with definite articles?)
Family Ties debuted on NBC on September 22, 1982. We were in the middle of Reagan’s first term and two films deep into the Star Wars franchise. The Keaton family is probably remembered most for the kids, particularly eldest son Alex, but from the viewpoint of the pilot, the show was really meant to be about the parents.
In a sweet opening scene, parents Elise (Meredith Baxter Birney) and Steven (Michael Gross) show slides of their hippie youth to the chagrined offspring, Alex, Mallory, and Jennifer. There’s a Star Wars reference in the first, like, minute. Who knew? Anyway, Elise and Steven banter fondly of their time spent with flowing, long hair, protesting Vietnam. The opening credits, with their now well-known theme song, further solidify the picture of these two lovebirds as an idealistic match made in heaven.
A Day in the Life scene gives a fuller picture of the kids, as each one enters the kitchen in turn, preparing for the school day. You know what was big in 80s television that we’ve lost forever? Phone gags! Arguments over who’s tying up the phone line, having to pick up a receiver with no clue who was on the other end, covering for a person standing two feet away mouthing “I’m not here!” Telephones are important props in the pilots of both Family Ties and Cheers. (I’ll get to Cheers in my next post.) Anyhoo, a fight over the phone between Jennifer and Alex paints a picture of typical sibling rivalry.
A visit from a girl Alex likes provides an opportunity for some more details about the family. Steven works as the manager of the local PBS affiliate, and since Elise is an architect, we can guess she’s the bread-winner in this loving, progressive couple. You know what else? The Volvo was the Prius of the 80s; owning one was shorthand for saying a character was educated and liberal.
After setting everything up, the episode moves into a story about Alex’s crush on the girl in question. She invites him to a whites only country club, a gesture that makes Steven exceedingly uncomfortable. It’s a rather delicate subject to tackle in the pilot of a sit-com, and Steven’s struggle with how to parent an a not-quite-adult son is touching and earnest. We understand that what we’re watching isn’t just another show about a generation gap, but about a family committed to loving each other even when they don’t understand each other. Right away this was a comedy with heart, and it’s easy to see why we welcomed the Keatons into our living rooms for seven season.
Here are some Family Ties fun facts from Sitcoms Online.