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Series / Family Ties

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

Family Ties is a rather straightforward Dom Com that was created and executive produced by Gary David Goldberg, produced by his company, Ubu Productions, and Paramount, and ran on NBC from 198289.

Former '60s flower children Steven (Michael Gross) and Elyse (Meredith Baxter Birney) Keaton are now adults living in Columbus, Ohio (where Paramount eventually owned a television station, WWHO, now owned by Deerfield Media and operated by Sinclair Broadcast Group) 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 '70s), Family Ties is notable in that it features a completely standard, intact nuclear family. The fact that the show had no adopted children, stray cousins, stepkids from previous marriages, older kids living away from home, or single parents (in contrast to My Three Sons, Family Affair, The Brady Bunch, Diff'rent Strokes, Full House, etc.) made it something of a rarity, even for The '80s, not to mention the notorious lack of the backstage turmoil many '80s shows are known to have had.

This show provides examples of:

  • The '80s: The show ran from 1982 until 1989 and was drenched in the fashion and look of upper middle class 1980s Reagan America.
  • '80s Hair: Jennifer's hair in later seasons was a fairly extreme case.
    • Alex had a bit of a mullet around season 6, too.
  • Abhorrent Admirer: Skippy to Mallory, though he gets a girlfriend in the later seasons.
  • Aborted Arc: The episode "Working At It" introduced two new characters that were clearly meant to be recurring characters, Elyse's new co-workers Bill and Karen, much like Steven's co-workers at the TV station were. However, Meredith Baxter's pregnancy derailed Elyse's intended storylines thanks to her being absent for most of the season.
  • Academic Athlete: Jennifer, the sporty tomboy, gets good grades and is stated to be just as much as a Teen Genius as Alex. The "athlete" part is removed in later seasons, though.
  • Actor Allusion: The episode where Jennifer forms a Girl Group and Alex decides to manage them. Their song: "Mr. Sandman," which featured prominently in a key scene in Back to the Future.
  • Always Second Best: The show followed The Cosby Show during a majority of its run. The Cosby Show would go on to become a massive success and one of the most watched TV shows in history. Family Ties, while getting very solid ratings, was a distant second. Cosby's success resulted in him requesting his own creation, A Different World, to follow The Cosby Show on NBC's Thursday night lineup. Family Ties was moved to Saturdays, where the ratings plummeted.
  • Anti-Alcohol Aesop: In the episode "Say Uncle", Tom Hanks guest stars as the Keaton family's Uncle Ned, who turns out to have developed an extreme alcohol problem. In just his first night at their house, Ned drinks all the beer in the fridge and a pint of liquor, and then he raids the kitchen pantry for anything that might contain any alcohol, including a bottle of vanilla extract and a jar of maraschino cherries. He later shows up drunk to a job interview, and Elyse, Steven, and Alex stage an intervention to try and convince him of his addiction before it's too late.
  • Artistic License Chess: the episode where Alex plays chess against a Russian is an interesting case. They actually got many of the details right, including the use of the chess clock. But the presence of live commentary in the same room was more than a little silly, Alex's whole moral dilemma for the episode is created by ignoring the sealed-move rule for adjournments, and of course, for some reason, the Russian who suddenly decides he wants to lose can't simply do so by resigning.
  • Artistic Title: Beginning in Season 2, the opening sequence begins with the first brush strokes of a family portrait of the Keatons. By the end of the sequence, the painting is finished.
  • Beauty, Brains, and Brawn: Popular Dude Magnet Mallory (Beauty), competitive overachiever Alex (Brains), and Passionate Sports Girl Jennifer (Brawn).
  • 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 "Nobody has irritated me this much, this fast, since I met Ellen." He gets along much better with Marty (a music student he becomes attracted to while tutoring her), but they too only admit their feelings and kiss after arguing about it.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Steven Keaton is generally a mellow, understanding person. But if you make him mad, you might as well be a Graboid.
  • Big Brother Worship: Andrew, for Alex.
  • Big Damn Movie: Family Ties Vacation, an action-adventure TV movie filmed on-location in England (but ironically never shown there).
  • Big Ego, Hidden Depths: Alex has, on many occasions, shown that beneath his arrogant, overachieving self lies a rather insecure and scared young man who fears failure and seriously needs a hug.
  • Bittersweet Ending: To "They Can't Take That Away From Me." Alex ends things with both Lauren and Marty, realizing that neither is the girl for him, but manages to do so without either of them hating him and genuinely wishing him well.
  • Bourgeois Bohemian: The central premise of the show is that the parents are former hippies who have settled down into a comfortable middle-class lifestyle and now suffer culture clash with their yuppie kids.
  • Bratty Teenage Daughter: Mallory, sometimes. Jennifer, when Andy came along and later when she was going through puberty.
  • Breakout Character: Alex. Michael J. Fox even went from losing an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor to winning three consecutive awards for Outstanding Lead Actor.
  • Bumbling Sidekick: Irwin "Skippy" Handelman, particularly to Alex.
  • 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, he 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 children Alex, Mallory and Jennifer do all sorts of shenanigans when their parents are away and never get away with it.
  • Characterization Marches On: Early on, Steven Keaton was much more meek and wimpy. By the time Mallory's boyfriend Nick Moore was introduced, Keaton developed more personality and showed more depth and a range of emotions. Michael Gross, the actor that played Steven Keaton, said he was unhappy at how one dimensional his character became and considered leaving the show because of it, but stayed because the introduction of Nick to the series made his character much more interesting.
  • Cordon Bleugh Chef: In season one, Jennifer experiments with cooking by making breakfast. The specialty: scrambled eggs with chocolate chips in them.
  • Chekhov's Skill: In the opening credits of Season 1, Elyse is seen playing the guitar to baby versions of Alex, Mallory and Jennifer. It wouldn't be until the Season 2 episode "Lady Sings the Blues" when it would become a plot point that she was once a talented folk singer, and in the Season 3 two-parter "Birth of a Keaton," she goes into labor with Andrew while performing for the WKS Pledge Week.
  • Christmas Episode:
    • In "Christmas Story," the Keatons miss their Christmas ski trip because of a snowstorm. Instead, they spend Christmas Eve at home, looking at a photo album and opening early presents while Steven and Elyse reminisce about the circumstances of each child's birth.
    • "A Keaton Christmas Carol" is as the title suggests Yet Another Christmas Carol in which Alex relearns the spirit of Christmas by seeing his past as a Christmas-loving child and his future as a rich miser who leaves his family in poverty. Upon waking he goes to buy presents at 7-Eleven.
  • Clip Show: Several. Two of them see the Keatons sharing stories with Alex's girlfriends Ellen and later Lauren; another has the family rehashing past incidents. This was even parodied on Saturday Night Live.
  • 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 write 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 tarred and feathered.
    Alex: ...okay.
  • Cool Uncle: Uncle Ned (played by Tom Hanks) is really cool, but has a drinking problem.
  • Cool Kid-and-Loser Friendship:
    • Elyse in high school was the cool girl with a loser friend named Roger, as seen in the school reunion episode.
    • Alex is not the stereotypical "cool guy" but he's much more successful and respected than his dorky best friend Skippy.
  • 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.
  • Cousin Oliver: Andrew, the youngest Keaton child, who was born in season 5 (due to actress Meredith Baxter being pregnant in real life at the time).
  • Crisis Makes Perfect: In the Season 3 episode "Auntie Up," with Elyse out of town and Mallory grieving the death of her beloved great-aunt - his own Aunt Trudy - Steven says "funerals, first dates and plumbing" have always been Elyse's job, while he handles "colds and flus, open school nights, and office supplies." He also says, "I don't deal that well with death myself." Season 3 would end with the two-parter "Remembrances of Things Past," in which Steven travels to his own father's funeral, which he had known was imminent since the Season 1 episode "I Never Killed for My Father," and he must comfort his mother.
  • Crossover:
    • Oddly happened a decade after the show ended. Michael J. Fox went on to play the lead on Spin City (once syndicated by the first incarnation of Paramount's television division and now owned by the second) 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, which was co-created by Family Ties creator Gary David Goldberg.
  • Decade-Themed Party: In "I Know Jennifer's Boyfriend," Jennifer has a 1950s-themed birthday party, with posters of James Dean and an authentic 1950s jukebox playing rock and roll.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Everyone.
  • The Ditz: Mallory, although she's not as bad as most examples.
  • 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, and he fails at things like building kites, cooking, or fixing cars even with extensive directions.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Even though Alex P. Keaton is a major focus in the pilot episode, the whole incident is shown from the POV of the parents, Steven and Elyse. We only get to see the controversial club when Alex is being picked up there by his parents. Also, in the very first episode where Skippy Handelman appears, Alex treats him with just as much contempt as Mallory does — and it's only later established that they were friends from childhood.
    • The political themes were much more heavily emphasized and taken seriously in the early seasons. By the later seasons, they were mostly used as comedic fodder.
    • Steven Keaton's lack of facial hair in season 1 is a bit jarring compared to his look for the remaining seasons.
    • The season 1 opening credits is a montage of photos of Elyse and Steven Keaton as hippies, activists and members of the Peace Corps during the 60s. From season 2 onward, the credits would be some variation of family photographs with clips of episodes mixed in as well.
  • 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.
  • Falling-in-Love Montage: Alex and... Marty, a shy, awkward music student he's tutoring while Lauren is away.
  • 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.
  • Formula-Breaking Episode:
    • Family Ties Vacation, a two-hour movie episode which was filmed on location in London.
    • "A, My Name is Alex", an hour-long character piece dissecting everything that made Alex who he was. Arguably Michael J. Fox's finest hour.
  • 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 nonetheless), Steven (melancholic/phlegmatic), Nick (melancholic), Mallory (melancholic), Skippy and Andy (sanguine), Elyse (sanguine/choleric), and Jennifer (phlegmatic).
  • Gender-Separated Ensemble Episode: In one episode Elyse takes Mallory and Jennifer away to a cabin for a mother-daughter weekend. Steven stays home with Alex and Andy and attempts some male bonding. Neither weekend goes well.
  • The Ghost: Alex's crush and unsuccessful high school (and into freshman year at college) date Suzie Farkas.
  • Girliness Upgrade: Over the years Jennifer went from a sport-loving tomboy to a music-loving Girly Girl with massive '80s Hair.
  • Grandparent Favoritism: Steven and his father Jake always had a difficult relationship, partly because of their political differences, but Jake gets along much better with Alex. In "I Never Killed for My Father," Jake and Alex go fishing, the kind of one-on-one bonding activity Jake never did with Steven.
  • G-Rated Drug: One episode has Alex becoming dependent on "diet pills" (stated to be amphetamines in initial airing and on DVD/streaming release, with those lines cut from syndication) to stay up late studying.
  • Heel Realization:
    • Happens in about half the episodes, usually to Alex, though the other characters get their fair share as well.
    • The two-part episode "Remembrance of Things Past" begins with Steven convinced that he was the misunderstood, rebellious hero of his family with his father and brother were the uptight jerk-asses. However, through flashbacks and a "The Reason You Suck" Speech from his brother, Steven realizes that he was a brat who thought he was always right without ever considering how his actions affected his family.
  • Hired for Their Looks: Alex hired Karen as a housekeeper, despite her being a klutz and having no experience.
  • Hollywood Board Games: Insufferable Genius Alex and his father Steven get extremely invested in their Scrabble games, to the point of playing the game at night while everyone else is sleeping. They even gamble the house's deed. Both are sore losers, with Alex getting frustrated because he's smarter and Steven sometimes just doesn't know when to stop.
  • 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.
  • I Ate WHAT?!: Steven takes a bite of Jennifer's scrambled eggs, unaware at first that they have chocolate chips in them. Although grossed out, he says they aren't bad and that they need more chocolate chips.
  • In with the In Crowd: Alex and Mallory both try (and often fail) to get in with the popular kids.
  • Infant Sibling Jealousy: Jennifer, having previously been the youngest, gets hit with this hard when baby Andrew comes home and turns the household on its ear. One episode has her freaking out at her parents because the baby has woken everyone up in the middle of the night, and she has an important test in the morning.
  • 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.
  • Irony: Alex prepares to end things with Marty and Lauren, only to have each of them say to him almost verbatim what he was planning to say to him.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Alex.
  • Just the Introduction to the Opposites: The entire premise was an inversion of the "younger radical vs. older conservative" dynamic seen on All in the Family and in other works influenced by the '60s counterculture. Here, the parents Steven and Elyse were liberals who never fully let go of their hippie values, while their teenage son Alex was a Reagan-loving capitalist.
  • Lamaze Class: Elyse and Steven attend this during Elyse's pregnancy with Andy. It's also the focus of the episode "Oh, Donna" in which Alex becomes obsessed with helping out an unmarried student in the class.
  • Long-Lost Uncle Aesop: Elyse's brother Ned (Tom Hanks), who is an alcoholic, and 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 great-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 the deaths of friends whom we'd never seen alive and would never hear about later.
    • Ned was in a two-part episode the previous season fleeing the FBI for stealing money from his company.
    • There's also a one-off episode with Elyse's other sibling, Stephanie, who never gets mentioned in any other episode. Stephanie herself is a perfectly lovely person, but for some reason her husband and two children are self-centered boors who have the entire Keaton family literally counting the days until they leave. Steven eventually gets fed up and throws them out.
  • Love Triangle: Between Alex, Lauren, and Marty (a music student for whom he develops feelings while tutoring her). Despite the deep feelings he has for both women, he realizes that neither of them is "The One" for him and ends it with both of them.
  • 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 the World Series 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 the Detroit Tigers had just won. However, Steven somberly enters the room and explains that his his father (and Alex's grandfather), Jacob, had just died from heart failure. Alex pauses and then begins to talk about how well-off his grandmother will be because of his grandfather's earnings, and when Steven stops him, Alex tearfully admits it will be the only way to stop himself from crying. Steven, beginning to get emotional, tells Alex that it is okay to cry, and the two embrace, sobbing in each other's arms. The scene was critically praised as a very sweet, tender moment between father and son grieving the loss of a loved one.
    • Alex also starts to get choked up at the end of "They Can't Take That Away From Me", having realized that neither Lauren nor Marty is the girl for him and that he has to end it with both of them.
  • Mean Character, Nice Actor: Alex is selfish and materialistic, but series creator Gary David Goldberg noted that although Michael J. Fox quickly became the breakout star of the show, Fox himself never asked to have his billing changed (he was billed third in the credits), or missed any time because he was holding out for a bigger salary, or ever behaved remotely like a prima donna.
  • 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.
  • Named After Somebody Famous: Michael J. Fox's real middle name is Andrew. (He uses a Stage Name for professional reasons.) Andy is a loving meta-Mythology Gag.
  • Not Even Bothering with the Accent: Michael J. Fox plays Alex (a teenager from Ohio) with his own native Canadian accent. Any time he says "tomorrow" or "sorry" is a dead giveaway.
  • Opening Credits Cast Party: The shows credits open with the Keaton family looking at family photo albums at the couch and introduces the cast members in order.
  • Opposites Attract:
    • Reagan-loving conservative Alex and artsy feminist Ellen.
    • Alex and Lauren are ironically very similar personality-wise—driven, overachievers, but much like him and Ellen, have contrasting views on everything.
    • Alex and Marty. She's downright flaky at times, and at the very least, far more carefree than he is, as well as shy and awkward.
    • Alex and Skippy are a platonic example. Alex is smart, successful, and confident, while Skippy is an unintelligent, clumsy nerd.
  • Papa Wolf: Steven is a very nice guy who generally gets along with everyone but harm his children and he will get you. Even his brother-in-law (played by Tom Hanks) is not safe from his wrath.
  • Popular Is Dumb:
    • Book Dumb Mallory is apparently popular, especially with boys.
    • In one of the later episodes, Jennifer dumbs herself down to date a popular guy.
  • Post-Robbery Trauma: Elyse invests in a gun after a break-in.
  • Retool: The show went from focusing on Steven and Elyse Keaton to Alex P. Keaton being the main focus.
  • Santa's Existence Clause: "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.
  • 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 yiddle-diddle-ing.
  • Screaming Birth: Elyse throughout the births of Alex, Mallory and Jennifer in flashbacks, and eventually Andrew in season 5.
  • Second Love: Lauren for Alex after Ellen.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Alex is so good at chess that he competes against a player from the Soviet Union.
  • Snowed-In: Season 1's Christmas Episode, "A Christmas Story", has the Keatons unable to go on a planned skiing trip due to a blizzard; with the family passing the time by telling stories on how each of the Keaton children were born.
  • Soap Opera Rapid Aging Syndrome: Andy went from an infant in season 4 to about four years old in season 5.
  • Spiritual Antithesis: The show's setup, in which conservative Reagan-era teenagers butt heads with their liberal ex-hippie parents, was almost an inversion of that of All in the Family, in which the conservative patriarch Archie Bunker frequently spars with his liberal activist son-in-law Mike.
  • Suddenly Always Knew That: In the Family Ties Vacation TV movie, when the Keatons are in England, Steven and Elyse try unsuccessfully to drive British cars. The only person who can drive one? Mallory, about whom there is a Running Gag how she is an awful driver. Alex says, "Well, yeah, this is the side of the road you always drive on."
  • Surprise Checkmate: In "French Lessons," Steven challenges Alex to a chess game even though Alex has won all of their 139 previous games, except the one that ended in a draw. Steven takes hours to make each move, and usually blunders when he does. By the end of the episode, the two have been playing all day, and Alex has captured most of Steven's pieces. Then Steven suddenly checkmates Alex. He's so thrilled to have finally won that he flips the board into the air.
  • Take the Third Option: In one episode, Mallory is torn between boyfriend Nick and a handsome young teacher who writes sappy love letters. Alex hears one of the teacher's love letters and tells Mallory, "I think you should dump both of them and start over in the morning."
    • This ends up inadvertently Foreshadowing Alex being in a similar situation and doing exactly that; while he admits that both Lauren and Marty are wonderful girls and that he cares deeply for both of them, he also knows that neither of them is "the one" and that he needs to end it with both of them.
  • Teens Are Short: Alex being only 5'5", exactly a foot shorter than 6'5" Michael Gross. Interestingly, NBC Entertainment's then-president Brandon Tartikoff initially thought Michael J. Fox was too short to be Michael Gross's son.
  • Thanksgiving Episode: In "No Nukes is Good Nukes," Steven and Elyse are arrested at an anti-nuke rally and spend Thanksgiving in jail.
  • Thematic Theme Tune: "Without Us", sung by Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams.
  • Throwing the Fight: Alex is thrilled at the chance to play against a Soviet chess prodigy, until he learns that his rival plans to throw the game so he can be allowed to return to Russia and live a quiet life away from the glare of the spotlight. Not wanting to see his opponent disgrace himself, Alex ends up trying to play a worse game than his opponent. Hilarity Ensues.
    Jennifer: I never thought I'd say this at a chess match, Alex, but nice tackle.
  • Title Montage: In the first season.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Jennifer (in early years) and Mallory.
  • The Tonsillitis Episode: In "Diary of a Young Girl," Jennifer is afraid she won't survive getting her tonsils out. She has flashbacks to times she was mean to each of her family members.
  • Tranquil Fury: Don't get Steven mad. The best example might be the chillingly matter-of-fact 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?"
  • Uptight Loves Wild: All of Alex's primary love interests—Ellen, Lauren, Marty—are very much unlike him.
  • Vacation Episode: Presented as a TV movie where the family goes to England.
  • Valley Girl: In one episode, Jennifer falls in with a group of Valley Girls and starts imitating their behavior. She leaves a note to her parents peppered with "likes."
  • Verbal Tic: Nick's "aeehh" anytime he's introduced or enters a room.
  • Very Special Episode: A number of these including: Uncle Ned's alcoholism, a colleague of Steven'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, Steven has a heart attack, among others...
  • What Have I Done: Uncle Ned (Special Guest Tom Hanks) in "Uncle Ned" (from Season 2), where he loses out on an opportunity to work at the TV station where Steven works (after he shows up to the job interview drunk), then comes home even more drunk... and then (fitting the trope) after getting into an argument with Alex, punches him in the head, sending him flying across the room. Only then is Ned shocked into realizing he has a serious problem.
  • Where Did We Go Wrong?:
    • The Keatons are at a loss as to how their kids ended up so differently from themselves, particularly Alex.
    • Also, with Mallory, when she begins dating Nick. They had envisioned Mal dating a nice guy, perhaps college-educated... not some motorcycle-riding Rambo-wannabe.
  • Written-In Absence: Meredith Baxter Birney is completely or almost completely absent from almost all of the first 16 episodes of Season 3. Although it was really due to Baxter Birney's maternity leave for her real-life pregnancy, it is usually explained in-show as Elyse's being either bedridden or out of town visiting relatives for her in-show pregnancy to Andrew. However, in one or two cases, it is explained as her being out of town for her recently acquired job out of the home at an architectural firm, and in at least one episode ("Auntie Up"), why she is out of town is not explained other than to say she is.
  • 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 also 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 looks like she could be in her late teens or early twenties toward the end of the series. Also, Michael Gross (Steven) went grey early, his hair thinned a bit, and he was only about 42 by the time the show ended.

"Sit, Ubu, sit. Good dog."


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