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Series: Family Ties

"What would we do baby, without us?
Sha-la-la-la."
—Last lines of "Without Us", the Family Ties theme song.

Family Ties is a rather straightforward Dom Com that ran on NBC from 1982-89.

Former flower children Steven (Michael Gross) and Elyse (Meredith Baxter-Birney) Keaton are now adults and raising three kids of their own: hyper-conservative Alex (Michael J. Fox in the role that made him a star), ditzy Mallory (Justine Bateman) and precocious Jennifer (Tina Yothers). A fourth Keaton child, Andrew, is born in the third season and played by Brian Bonsall beginning in season 5.

Much of the humor comes from the conflict between the Republican Alex and the very Democratic parents. In a rare example, there are no Strawman Political sequences to be found here: both ideologies are given equal time in the spotlight, and there is no Strawman Ball episode eithernote .

Unlike many Dom Coms (and most of the ones made since The Seventies), the show was about a completely standard "nuclear" family. Think My Three Sons, Family Affair, The Brady Bunch, Diff'rent Strokes, Full House, etc. The fact that Family Ties had no adopted kids, cousins, kids from previous marriages, or single parents actually made it something of a rarity, even for The Eighties.


Provides Examples Of:

  • Absentee Actor: Meredith Baxter is absent from some of the season three episodes. Sometimes it is explained, often nobody bothers with an excuse.
  • Artistic Title: The opening Title of season 3 features a family portrait. The beginning of the theme shows the first brush stroke. By the end of the opening sequence, the painting is finished
  • Belligerent Sexual Tension: Alex and Ellen. So much so that, years after she moved to Paris and they broke up, when Alex met Lauren he knew he liked her because "No girl has made me this angry this quickly since Ellen."
  • Big Brother Worship: Andrew, for Alex.
  • Big Damn Movie: Family Ties Vacation, an action-adventure TV movie filmed on-location in England.
  • Big Ego, Hidden Depths
  • Bourgeois Bohemian: The elder Keatons are the Ur Example.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Mallory, sometimes. Jennifer, when Andy came along and later when she was going through puberty.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: In the episode, "The Fugitive" Bert Carlyle the FBI agent who comes to apprehend Uncle Ned, is this. He is so quirky, especially in his first and last appearances, that it makes you wonder how he even became an agent. However, he isn't as dumb as he seems, since he knows the Keatons are lying successfully follows Alex to the airport and while he doesn't make an arrest, he prevents a "known criminal" from fleeing the state. He also knows the law very well. And while he kinda got lucky that the fugitive gave up running, he took the correct actions to get him. Although he almost let him slip through his hands AFTER catching him. He still qualifies.
    • He even says "I'm pretty good at this, aren't I?"
  • Canon Welding: In the last episode of Spin City where Michael J. Fox appears as a regular, it is suggested that the series takes place in the same universe as Family Ties.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin'
  • The Cast Showoff: In later seasons, Jennifer. In earlier episodes, Elyse.
  • Clip Show: several. Two sees the Keatons share stories with Alex's girlfriends Ellen and later Lauren, another has the men and women of the family rehashing past incidents.
    • Parodied on SNL when Justine Bateman hosted. They did a Family Ties spoof where they would flashback to another episode and in that episode they flashback to another episode and so on until they flashback to a real episode of The Jeffersons, which was itself a Clip Show.
  • Comically Missing the Point: In "Remembrances of Things Past", Robbie tells Steven's family a funny story of how he got in trouble for refusing to right his name on his paper at school. Alex doesn't see any humor in this because...
    Alex: Papers needed to be graded. All those names have to be in the same place every time. That was deviant behavior, and I hope Grandpa Jake punished you appropriately.
    Steven: I was tared and feathered.
    Alex: ...okay.
  • Cool Uncle: Uncle Ned (played by Tom Hanks) is really cool, but has a drinking problem.
  • Costumer: In the episode "Philadelphia Story" Alex has a dream where he must convince Thomas Jefferson to write the Declaration of Independence and the cast wears clothing from that time period.
  • The Couch
  • Cousin Oliver: Andrew
  • Crossover: Oddly happened a decade after the show ended. Michael J. Fox went on to play the lead on Spin City and his character on that show eventually had an off-screen run-in with Alex - who is revealed to have become the junior senator from Ohio.
    • There was also a crossover in the short lived series Day By Day.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Everyone.
  • The Ditz: Mallory
  • Ditzy Genius: Alex. He's a hyper-competitive straight A student and math genius who was doing his parents' taxes when he was five years old and advised his parents on mortgage rates when they bought their house. Yet in everyday activities he often proves completely incapable. His little sister frequently beats him in sports, he fails at things like building kites, cooking or fixing cars even with extensive directions.
  • Dom Com
  • Drop-In Character
  • The Eighties
  • '80s Hair: Jennifer's hair in later seasons was a fairly extreme case.
    • Alex had a bit of a mullet around season 6, too.
  • Evil Matriarch
  • Executive Meddling: In-universe, when Alex becomes manager of Jennifer's rock band and makes them into a group more like the Andrews Sisters (Jennifer: "(One audience) thought we were the Andrews Sisters!"). In the end, they rebel and go back to what they used to be.
  • Extraverted Nerd: Skippy Handelman, even though he's not particularly intelligent.
  • Field Trip to the Past: In one episode, Alex P. Keaton falls asleep - and he witnesses the Declaration of Independence. As this episode occurred around the time that Michael J. Fox (Alex's actor) was also playing Marty McFly on Back to the Future, this episode was possibly a nod to the then upcoming film. In the film, Doc Brown types in the date of the Declaration of Independence - when demonstrating to Marty how his time machine works.
  • Four Philosophy Ensemble: Steve (the Cynic), Skippy (the Optimist), Jennifer and Nick (the Apathetic), Alex (the Realist), Elyse (the Realist-Optimist), and Mallory (the Conflicted).
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: Alex (choleric, a very gentle and affectionate choleric, but a choleric nontheless), Steve (melancholic/phlegmatic), Nick (melancholic), Mallory (melancholic), Skippy and Andy (sanguine), Elyse (sanguine/choleric), and Jennifer (phlegmatic).
  • Good Parents: Steven and Elyse
  • G-Rated Drug: One episode has Alex becoming dependent on "diet pills" (implied to be amphetamines) to stay up late studying.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Steven's father.
  • Happily Married: Steven and Elyse
  • Heel Realization: Happens in about half the episodes, usually to Alex, though the other characters get their fair share as well.
  • Hired for Their Looks: Alex hired Karen as a housekeeper, despite her being a klutz and having no experience.
  • Hollywood Nerd: Alex is the "sexy" nerd, while Skippy is an Extraverted Nerd.
  • Huge Girl Tiny Guy: Karen (played by Geena Davis) and Alex, especially in one episode where he hugs her and his feet dangle off the floor.
  • Insomnia Episode: In one episode, Alex is unable to sleep, even when his family offers various ways that usually help them sleep.
  • Inter-Class Romance: Mallory and Nick.
  • In with the In Crowd
  • Ivy League For Everyone: Subverted.
  • I Want You to Meet an Old Friend of Mine
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Alex
  • Lamaze Class
  • Locked in a Room
  • Long-Lost Uncle Aesop: Elyse's alcoholic brother Ned (Tom Hanks), and Elyse's sister Michelle—although in an earlier episode Elyse argues with her mother and refers to herself as "your only daughter". There's a Very Special Episode featuring Mallory's favorite aunt, the never-before-seen Trudy, who dies of a heart attack (which of course is never again mentioned). Also teen pregnancy was dealt with by bringing in a never-seen-before friend, and both Alex and Mallory mourn friends whom we'd never seen alive or would hear about later.
    • Ned was in a two-part episode the previous season fleeing the FBI for stealing money from his company.
  • Manly Tears
    • Alex in "A, My Name Is Alex." His best friend was just killed in a car crash. Alex was supposed to be with his friend but wasn't. Alex later admits that he wasn't with him out of his own selfishness. Alex begins sobbing uncontrollably and repeatedly yelling, "Why am I alive?!" It's one of the few moments in the series that we see Alex vulnerable and completely fall apart. He cries again in front of the therapist later in this episode.
    • In "Heartstrings Part 2", we find out the happenings of the day Steven's father died. Steven and Alex are watching a game on TV when the phone rings. Steven goes to answer it and while he is in the other room on the phone, the game ends. Alex is excited for his father that his team won. However, Steven is not excited. Alex asks him what is wrong and Steven tells him that his father, Alex's grandfather, died from heart trouble. Alex begins to talk about how well-off his grandmother will be because of his grandfather's earnings. Steven asks Alex what he is doing. Alex tearfully admits to his father that he needs to keep talking or he will start crying. Steven tells his son to not hide from his feelings. Steven himself begins to cry. His father's tears paired with his grandfather's death becomes too much for Alex. He and his dad sob in each other's arms. It is a very sweet, tender moment between father and son.
  • Mysterious Middle Initial: Both actor Michael J. Fox and character Alex P. Keaton.
    • It's been suggested that the P stood for Peace. Mallory at one point suggests, not necessarily jokingly, that it stands for Pompous.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Michael J. Fox is Canadian and says sorry as sore-ee. The show is set in Ohio.
  • Opening Credits Cast Party
  • Opposites Attract: Alex and Ellen.
  • Out of Order: The two part episode "It's My Party" (where Jennifer turns 13) was made for the fourth season but delayed and not shown until the end of the fifth season. This was quite noticeable since Andrew, who was now being played by a much older Brian Bonsall, was back to being a newborn baby and Alex's girlfriend Ellen is back even though she had already broken up with Alex when she moved to Paris. No explanation was ever given for why the episodes were shown out of order.
  • Papa Wolf: Steven is a rather nice guy to get along with, but harm his children and he will get you. Even his brother-in-law (Played by Tom Hanks) is not safe from his wrath.
  • Parent Ex Machina
  • Post Robbery Trauma: Elyse invests in a gun after a break in.
  • Scatting: Mallory unconsciously does a weird, Yiddish scat to the tune of "If I Were a Rich Man" while she and Alex are sitting at the kitchen table working. Alex starts dancing in place for a moment before he stops her.
    Alex: You were yidle-didle-ing.
  • Screaming Birth
  • Smug Snake: Mr. Tadesco, Alex' teacher in "The Harder They Fall".
  • Soapbox Sadie: Jennifer in later years.
  • Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome: Andy. Went from infant in season 4 to about four years old in season 5.
  • Sucky School: Grant College.
  • Teens Are Short: Alex being only 5'5", exactly a foot shorter than 6'5" Michael Gross
  • Thematic Theme Tune: "Without Us", sung by Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams.
  • Talk About That Thing
  • Title Montage: In the first season.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Jennifer (in early years) and Mallory.
  • Tranquil Fury: Don't get Steven mad. The best example might be the chillingly calm way he asks his longtime (now ex) friend who's been making passes at Mallory, "Can you think of one reason why I shouldn't kill you?"
  • Vacation Episode: See Big Damn Movie, above.
  • Very Special Episode: A number of these including: Uncle Ned's alcoholism, a colleague of Stephen's inappropriately touches Mallory, Alex gets hooked on stay-awake pills, a friend of Alex's is killed in a car crash, Alex suffers from insomnia, Stephen has a heart attack, among others...
  • Wacky Guy: Mallory's boyfriend, Nick
  • Where Did We Go Wrong?: The Keatons are at a loss as to how their kids ended up so differently, particularly Alex.
  • Yes Virginia: "Miracle in Columbus" has a little girl called Michelle not believe in Santa Claus but by the end of the episode, Santa's existence is confirmed.
  • Yet Another Christmas Carol: Jennifer and Mallory take the form of the Ghosts of Christmas past and future (respectively) and Alex learns the true meaning of Christmas, and what his greed could lead to.
  • You Are Not Alone:
    • A particularly stirring example is the episode "'A,' My Name is Alex,." After denying the death of a close friend, Alex begins to feel guilt for not going with his friend the night he died (his friend asked him to drive across town with him and was killed in a car crash). Feeling it is his fault, Alex begins sobbing uncontrollably and yelling "Why am I alive?!" His mother runs and hugs him while his father assures him they'll get help.
    • Alex returns the favor for his mother in "Heartstrings Part 2." After finding out Steven needs surgery, Elyse is going hysterical about how she doesn't know how she will get by without him. Alex calms his mother down and wipes her tears. He tells her that he has depended on her for all his life and that she can depend on him now. His exact words: "There's no way that I'm not going to be here for you and let you go through this alone."
    • Mallory actually winds up doing this for the shattered mother of a friend who committed suicide.
  • Younger than They Look: In the last couple of seasons, Jennifer is 15 or 16 years old, but look like she could be in her late teens or early twenties toward the end of the series. Also, Michael Gross who plays Steven. He went grey early, his hair thinned a bit, and was only about 42 by the time the show ended.

Growing PainsKid ComHappy Days
Family MattersDom ComFrasier
Eli StoneDramedyFairly Legal
DeadwoodCreator/ParamountFriday The 13th: The Series
The Facts of LifeCreator/The HubFraggle Rock
The EventCreator/NBCFather of the Pride
Extraverted NerdImageSource/Live-Action TVTwo-Timer Date
The Dick Van Dyke ShowCreator/HuluGreen Acres
Family MattersAmerican SeriesThe Famous Jett Jackson
Family FortunesSeries of the 1980sFantasy Island

alternative title(s): Family Ties
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