This coming Tuesday, March 10, Family Ties Season 5 will hit the store shelves. I was fortunate enough to receive a review copy.
STORIES AND CHARACTERS
First of all I have to assure you that season 5 is an improvement over season 4. Season 4 was the first season after Michael J. Fox’s double-triumph with Back to the Future and Teen Wolf and the omnipresence of Alex was overbearing. I was watching the show when it originally aired and at the time it didn’t bother me – but I was a 13-year-old MJF fanatic and the more Alex the better.
Now that I’m older and have an appreciation for the other performers on the show, I find season 4 a little painful to watch. Alex wasn’t just prominent in every episode, he often felt shoehorned into plots in which he just didn’t belong. This ultimately made Alex appear even more obnoxious than he already was and by the end of season 4, I was Alex-weary.
It may not have been intentional, but season 5 returned to a more balanced show. Yes, Alex is still in more scenes than he was prior to season 4, but the plots in which he was involved worked to knock him down a few pegs and make him more human. Also, the other characters got to have a moment or two to themselves.
Season 5 is probably most remembered for the introduction of ‘talking’ Andrew, played by Brian Bonsall. For all you Andrew-haters, do not despair. This is his first season and doesn’t talk very much. It was later, when he started grasping language better, that he became a bit too precocious. In this season, Bonsall is still parroting lines given to him and the few times he goes off script actually work. The picture I include here was my favorite Andrew moment, in which he perfectly mimicks Nick’s (Mallory’s boyfriend) ‘Hey!.’
The only character who really got a short shrift in season 5 was Jennifer (Tina Yothers). While not a bad actress, her style just doesn’t seem to fit in with the others. She was best when delivering dry, witty lines and Family Ties just did not utilize dry humor very often. This may be why she was not given much to do, but I honestly don’t know what the actual reason was.
Jennifer did have one stand out episode, which was rather prophetic. She put together an all-girl rock band, over which Alex immediately took management. After Family Ties, Yothers formed a group with her brother and was later in musical theater. There is also a Jennifer-centric two-part episode that ended the season that was actually shot during the previous season. No doubt this confused viewers because after a year of Alex being sans girlfriend, Ellen (Tracy Pollan) shows back up and appears in both parts.
This two parter wasn’t the only out of order, shot in previous seasons offering in the 5th. There is also an episode that aired in the middle of the season in which Alex uses a computer to find Mallory (Justine Bateman) a boyfriend. This might not have been quite as confusing since the opening credits were still from the previous season, but it’s still jarring. Especially since at the beginning of the season, she was trying to convince Nick (Scott Valentine) to marry her.
Other than Andrew, season 5 is remembered for the Emmy award-winning two part episode A, My Name is Alex. In this episode, Alex is saved from a fatal car wreck in which his best friend (that we have never seen before) dies. Alex is saved from death solely due to his own selfishness and has a mental breakdown from the guilt he feels as a result. More than half the hour-long episode takes place in a psychiatrist’s office and is shot like a play. The doctor is never seen, Alex is sitting in a chair with a window hanging behind him to indicate a wall and behind that are mini-sets in which he walks around and interacts with his loved-ones. When these sets are not being utilized, everything is black and hidden.
This episode was very innovative for the time and even more so for Family Ties, which was an extremely formulaic situation comedy. Most of the actors got to do something a bit different with their characters, especially Justine Bateman, and Michael J. Fox probably earned his second Emmy award with this one episode alone.
Family Ties rarely did stunt casting. I honestly can’t remember them ever doing it, actually. However, they have had a few actors on the show that later became stars and season 5 included a few.
Wil Wheaton of Star Trek: The Next Generation fame appears as Jennifer’s boyfriend in one episode. Wheaton is more famous today as a blogger, but at one time he was a promising child actor. Unfortunately for him, he has many detractors due to the annoying writing of his character on Star Trek. He also starred in Stand By Me with River Phoenix, who appeared on Family Ties in season 4 – as a Jennifer love interest. Wheaton also shared the screen with Brian Bonsall when Bonsall was cast as Worf’s son, Alexander.
Another Star Trek favorite, this one from Deep Space Nine, made an appearance: Terry Farrell. She plays Liz Obeck, one of the oft-mentioned Obeck neighbors – in fact, she’s the only Obeck we ever see in the entire run of the series (that I can remember). Alex’s reaction to Liz is pretty much the same that my husband has towards Ms. Farrell.
And, finally, Christina Applegate makes an appearance as the keyboard player in Jennifer’s all-girl band. She’s the only one that seems to have any appreciation for Alex’s management skills.
Like season sets 2-4, the picture quality is good, considering the show was originally shot on video tape. The sound seems even better than previous seasons.
Bonus features, as usual, are lacking. I was quite disappointed that the episode promos were not included in this set. They had been part of three previous season packages. However, there is a gag reel from the season and unlike the previous set gag reels, these include bloopers from rehearsals and not just tapings. It was interesting seeing the actors out of their ‘costumes’ and MJF even rehearsed in a ‘Barbusters’ t-shirt, which is the name of the rock group his character was part of in the film Light of Day.
What I most liked about this set was the lack of music cuts. I didn’t notice any scenes cut at all and I couldn’t find any music replacements. Several episodes used popular songs such as ‘I Got You Babe’ by Sonny and Cher and ‘Light My Fire’ by The Doors. There were even scenes left in, music intact, that would have been very easy to cut, such as Steven (Michael Gross) singing a popular 60’s pop tune at Jennifer’s birthday party in the next-to-last episode.
Now, if only they would release the butchered episodes from previous seasons on later discs to replace the very bad music-cut choices they made in the past.
I recommend the set for several reasons. One is the A, My Name is Alex two parter. I do wish they had put it on the disc as it originally aired, which was a one-hour special episode. Instead, they chose to put in on the set as two seperate episodes. The placement of the cut for syndication is very abrupt and inorganic and ruins the flow of the ‘one-act’ portion of the episode, but it is still a powerful episode.
Second is the return to a ‘Family’ program as opposed to an ‘Alex and Friends’ program. Maybe this isn’t a plus for some, but I’ve always enjoyed the camaraderie of the cast and the good chemistry between the actors.
Third is the fact that CBS is finally starting to take some care with their decisions regarding music cuts.
And finally, I think this season has some of the best writing and not just the A, My Name is Alex episode. The first few episodes are weak (and Alex heavy) but once past that, the writing, acting and ‘feel’ of the show get much better.
So, when Tuesday comes, go out and get your own copy (or order it online so you can get it delivered to your mailbox) and enjoy all the 80’s family fun from the Keaton clan.
And now, in parting, some more visual previews of the season 5 dvd set:
Alex helps Nick get his high school diploma and a little bit of Nick rubs off on Alex:
Michael J. Fox spills orange juice all over himself in one of the gag reel takes. This leads to a question I have: just how much orange juice did the Keatons drink during the 1980s?
Alex meets his match in his new boss Rebecca Ryan. Melinda Culea appears in three episodes as Ms. Ryan and proves herself to be quite funny as well as a talented actress. I always hoped she would make more appearances, but alas, no one but Skippy and Nick ever stick around long on Family Ties.
And speaking of Skippy, young Irwin actually gets a girlfriend this season. Way to go, Skippy!