Step by Step is one of the many TGIF comedies on ABC that aired during the 1990s. Although at least partially designed as a vehicle for young actress Staci Keanan (and carrying along with her even younger costar Christopher Castile from their previous series Going Places), star billing for the show went to Patrick Duffy and Suzanne Somers as the parents Frank Lambert and Carol Foster. These two played a couple who, Brady Bunch-style, marry and merge their two households. In an intentional subversion of The Brady Bunch, however, their respective children know and dislike each other already, and forging a single happy family unit out of the conflicts so engendered drove many of the show's earlier plots. Even so, like its spiritual predecessor this Dom Com employed just about every trope in the book.The Foster side included the smart/sarcastic girl Dana, the flighty girl Karen and the nerdy kid Mark, with the Lambert side including the hip Book Dumb J.T., the tomboy Al(icia) and hyperactive Brendan. Frank's goofy adult nephew Cody lived in his van in their driveway, and would otherwise pop in regularly. A few years into the show Frank and Carol had their own child, Lilly (rapidly aged in her second season, of course).The show lasted 7 years and was popular enough during the time, but hasn't had any lasting influence due to limited post-series Syndication.
In 1993, Dana was once a near-victim of date rape when her boyfriend came over (unannounced) to talk to her and hopefully make out. Earlier in the show, her stepfather Frank had made a buffoonish attempt to check up on them when they drove up to Make-Out Point (after Cody warns that the boy is trouble), and gotten Dana very angry. The boy shows up unannounced one day, hoping to get Dana into her room so they could have sex, then tries to advance on her when she says no; Frank shows up just in time to kick the boy out ... and Dana breaks down in tears in Frank's arms.
A 1994 episode saw Dana once again get backed into a corner, this time a well-dressed man at a Chicago bus station. Earlier in the episode, Cody had annoyed Dana with a dream he had about her being attacked by a man in the suit, then got her angry at him after he intruded on her college interview (Cody tried to beat the college dean up, thinking he was the assailant). However, Cody is unable to shake his seemingly silly vibes and shows up at the bus station in time to run off Dana's would-be attacker.
In 1994, Cody takes Karen (and Dana and Al) to a college frat party, where Karen strikes up a quick friendship with a cute guy. When the two are alone, he tries to advance on her, and she has to rely on Cody and the other brothers to run the would-be rapist off.
A year later, Dana and Karen take Al to another college party, where the 15-year-old Lambert girl meets a cute guy that takes her back to his room to talk ... and kiss. When things go too far, Al objects and the boy presses on, it looks like she's about to be raped, until Dana and Karen show up. The boy runs off after being told Al's real age (she had earlier said she was 18). The sisters get their revenge by throwing his furniture out the window, and loudly revealing that the boy likes underage girls.
In 1997, Al is nearly raped again when her date unexpectedly reclines the seat of his car (a customized seat) and suddenly lays on top of her; she fights him off easily, but the real challenge is living down a new, unwanted reputation after the boy claims that the two went "all the way." Karen at first refuses to defend Al (Karen also had her eye on the boy, and is jealous of what she thinks is Al's newfound popularity), but later decides she has an obligation to get to the truth when a humiliated Al tearfully threatens to run home from school and never come out of her room ... while conscious.
Bumbling Dad: Frank, although he did display competence on occasion. This was a major reason why Dana had a great dislike for her step-family, especially in the early years.
The Bus Came Back: Sasha Mitchell had some legal troubles relating to supposed spouse abuse. Once it was cleared up (apparently he was protecting his children from his wife), he returned for one episode in the last season - "We're in the Money." Interestingly, his absense wasn't almost ignored until his return and they explained he went traveling the world looking for the best hamburger ever.
Butt Monkey: J.T. and Mark mostly, especially J.T. who kinda became the show's official Butt Monkey in later seasons.
Frank, Karen and Dana have their moments too.
The Cast Show Off: Cody was a skilled martial artist because Sasha Mitchell was (who starred in a few Kickboxer sequels) and got to demonstrate it in several episodes:
Teaching Mark in a way to stand up to the class star (a la The Karate Kid). While Mark (who loses) gains his classmate's respect, Mark's teacher continues to shoot off his mouth and belittle Mark ... until Cody finally shuts him up with a well-placed kick to the jaw.
Another time, beating up an entire bar while protecting Dana and her friend.
In the episode where he had the wild dream, running off a would-be rapist trying to corner Dana at a bus station. Although Cody misses completely and puts his foot through a vending machine, it is enough to scare the creep off.
Channel Hop: Along with Family Matters, the show moved from ABC to CBS in 1997, to anchor a new TGIF-type programming block called "CBS Block Party." Both sitcoms lasted only a year on their new network.
Ivy and Penny Baker, model-like Carol's noticeably fat mother (Peggy Rea) and sister (Patrika Darbo) who were also her work partners) vanished without a trace after the first season (also killing in midway a Stalker with a Crush plot, as Carol's sister was obviously jealous of her pretty sister and wanted Frank for herself Thus she always creeped him out by constant flirts, which Carol either ignored or never noticed). One explanation for why the characters were dropped was that the two characters failed to catch on with viewers.
Brendan Lambert, Frank's youngest son played by Josh Byrne, who departed after the sixth season. Early in the series, he was presented as a carefree but chubby boy and did get a few storylines (one involving Minnesota Twins great Harmon Killebrew), but eventually he was relegated to a glorified extra and — after baby sister Lily was age-advanced to speaking age — was eventually dropped altogether. (Although his absence is never explained, Frank and Carol acknowledge they still have seven children.)
Driven to Suicide: In "The Ice Cream Man Cometh," Cody's best friend George is in mourning over his recently deceased wife, goes skydiving and intends not to pull the parachute cord. Cody manages to talk him down.
Drop-In Character: Cody. Technically, he lives at the same address, but he lives in his van.
Expository Theme Tune: The lyrics of the song ask if a second marriage can go better than the first, and if a blended family can survive. It's even called "The Second Time Around."
Fan Disillusionment: The perception was that youngest boy Brendan was a glorified extra, but he did get a few storylines of his own. One of the best was "Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio," where Cody and Brendan go to a baseball game to see Brendan's favorite player, Kenny Barton. When Brendan tries to get an autograph from Barton after the game, the egotistical player is rude and tells him to go away (if he can't pay the $50 autograph fee). Brendan is crushed, but Harmon Killebrew (the ex-Minnesota Twins great) overhears the whole thing and is outraged at Barton's behavior; after setting Barton straight, Killebrew comforts Brendan and gives him everything he asks for at no charge.
Follow in My Footsteps: In "Great Expectations," Cody's dad insists he come work for him in real estate. Cody would rather keep working for Frank's construction company, but he needs help turning his dad down.
Generic Guy: Brendan, the youngest of Frank's kids. Aside from being chubby, he was a non-entity and didn't have anything interesting about him. He got a pretty bad case of a certain TV illness and vanished.
Hypocritical Humor: In one episode, Dana became so high on morphine to block the pain of her fillings on her teeth, she becomes so mellowed like Cody. Even Cody is annoyed by her not giving him his space, which is what he's been doing with the family the whole episode.
I Was Quite A Fashion Victim: Carol went to high school in The Sixties, and in one episode she and an old friend plan to look through their yearbook and laugh at their "Age of Aquarius" fashion sense.
Also, Al. She's hot-tempered, rude, and rebellious - but she does have a moral center. Although she continues to be self-assured in later episodes, the negative aspects were toned down somewhat in later seasons.
Dana. She can be extremely rude especially to Cody and J.T. but in the end she cares about her family.
Long Runners: In reruns on ABC Family (from 2001-2010), becoming one of that cable channel's longest-running rerun packages in its history. The show — which flopped in terrestrial syndication — ran sometimes as many as four episodes a day (in two separate one-hour blocks) during its height, and also had multiple weekend airings and "pinch hitter" status (to fill programming gaps, mostly when a movie ran short). The run finally began winding down in the fall of 2009, and the show's contract with ABC Family finally ended in March 2010.
Lovable Alpha Bitch: Karen. Extremely popular, vain, shallow, ditzy and only interested in fashion and boys but arguably the sweetest out of the three girls.
Missing Mom / Disappeared Dad: The explanation for why Frank and Carol were previously single. Frank Lambert's wife had recently left him and her children (J.T., Al and Brendan), disappearing and having no apparent contact with any of them. Carol Foster's first husband had died about two years earlier, leaving behind the couple's three children (Dana, Karen and Mark).
Opposites Attract: Dana started dating J.T.'s friend Rich (played by Jason Marsden), who was not all that different from J.T. himself. They even mention the trope name when they discuss why they got together.
Cody again in the episode where he and J.T. take Karen to a party at their frat house. Although Cody had earlier scoffed at Dana's suspicion that the frat brothers would try to take advantage of Karen, he is not pleased when Karen declines an offer of sex and is immediately taunted by all the boys for being a "virgin." The physically larger Cody confronts Karen's tormentor and indignantly demands: "What's wrong with being a virgin? I'm a virgin!"
Frank plays this several times with both stepdaughter Dana and biological daughter Al; he rarely does this with Karen, as Cody usually has aided her when boys would try to take advantage of her. With Dana, usually Frank's efforts to make sure Dana isn't being mistreated end in comical failure (usually due to his bumbling or taking Cody up on some stupid idea); however, by the episode's end, Frank plays things straight, and it always comes as the boy reveals his true colors. In Al's case, a sneaky advertiser had videotaped her in a beach scene, telling her and the girls that they were taping a suntan lotion commercial but instead it is for a 1-900 sex hotline; Frank is outraged and, during his visit with the producer, hangs him from a tall-story window and threatens to drop him unless he confesses and pulls the commercial off the air.
Put on a Bus: Cody disappeared late into Season 5, initially without explanation. (As stated above, actor Sasha Mitchell was accused of domestic abuse - though this turned out to be unfounded. As Walt Disney had purchased ABC around the same time, it was felt that it would create bad publicity for their family friendly image if Mitchell remained on the show.) Season 6's "Bonjour Jean-Luc" would later explain that he had gotten a job in Russia. (Of course, while the first episode of the season to be produced, it was the last one to be aired - thus prompting some confusion.)
Shout Out: To Married... with Children, of all shows. Frank complains that he feels like Al Bundy when the kids are pestering him for money, echoing the way every Married... episode began with Al giving money to each of his freeloading family members.
Suspiciously Similar Substitute: After Sasha Mitchell's legal difficulties mentioned above, Cody was dropped from the show late into Season 5. Filling the void in these remaining episodes was the very Cody-like Flash, a hyperactive adult who worked at Frank's construction company. He was dropped in-between seasons. (Presumably, his sole purpose was to take Cody's role in scripts/stories developed before the change.) Season 6 gave us another Cody subsitute with Bronson Pinchot as Jean-Luc, Carol's new French Wacky Guy business partner. He only lasted the season (though unlike Flash, got a goodbye episode).
Television Geography: The show is supposed to take place in Port Washington, Wisconsin, north of Milwaukee, but the lack of accents and local flavor (beyond a few mentions of landmarks and a couple of copies of the Ozaukee Press here and there) suggests otherwise.
Although the accents were a whole lot more accurate here than they were in ABC's last pair of sitcoms to take place in Metro Milwaukee, and in real life, the "Wiscaaansin" accent isn't all that pronounced until you go further north in the state.
But they did know that Port Washington High School's mascot is the Pirates and had school letter jackets for the appropriate characters with the true logo.
Very Special Episode: A couple, although an unusually subtle one happened when J.T. finds out he has dyslexia. It was basically one scene of drama (as he realizes his trouble in reading) and the remainder making some mild Gallows Humor on the subject.
J.T.: "It's confirmed. I have dyslexia."
Carol: "Thank God! I knew you couldn't be that stupid!"
There's one in wich someone offered weed to Al. She doesn't seem so reluctant about smoking it, but rejects the joint anyway at the end.