Thursday, July 31, 2014

Where They Were Calling From

The well-received new novel Landline makes this seem like a good time to discuss the function of the phone on Family Ties. When I first started re-watching the show, the use of the phone to advance the plot jumped out at me; it rings in nearly every episode. But the one-sided-conversation as delivery system for exposition is hardly unique to old tech; cell phones accomplish the same thing now, even as they've allowed television and film to convey information in new ways, such as making text messages or social media visible.

What's different about the landline is what the shared status of the phone makes possible. People are waiting to make a call and threatening their little sisters if they hog the phone:

Or fighting over who should have answered the phone when it rang and rang earlier. (It's not clear to me if the Keatons have an answering machine). Then you get to reconcile when the phone rings again, this time fighting to see who can answer it first:

Which leads to make up kissing, courtesy of AT & T:

Who called? Who cares?

And of course it never seems to occur to anyone that the phone can be left unanswered - even if you're in the middle of, say, gluing a broken plate back together with two other people - which allows for physical comedy too:

And while we're on the subject of old tech, let me close with a little love for the newspaper. I've written before about my love for newsprint, so I'll just say that you can imagine my joy at images like this one, from the opening credits of season one:

The newspaper is also pretty ubiquitous on Family Ties, but it's more of a prop and less of a plot-advancer (with a few exceptions, like the episode where the calling hours for Aunt Trudy coincide with the family's yard sale because Alex forgot to pull the ad in time). 

I might write more at another time about other examples of great old tech - tape cassettes and rolls of film come to mind - but for now I'm going to take a break from that subject and from the show itself. I realized that not only do most of four seasons remain for me to watch, but also from the episode guides on Netflix it looks like I haven't even reached the halfway point for the series. So I'm going to gather more data and will probably write again when I'm done. In the meantime, I might write about The Grapes of Wrath, which I have finally started and which looks to be amazing, obviously a different kind of portrait of the U.S. from Family Ties but one that, from the 2014 vantage point, shares its compelling mix of the gone and enduring.  

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Clothes Make the Continuity

If you Google "Alex P. Keaton sweaters" - and I know you've, like, been dying to - you'll find articles and blog posts about how he epitomized preppy style, the APK monogram, and readers' identification with or replication of his wardrobe. 

I'm primarily interested in something else: sweaters as sign of continuity and income status. On some television shows, characters seem to never wear the same outfit twice and/or what they do wear is always expensive. On the one hand, this makes sense; if a production has money, why not spend it? Audiences like to look at nice things. But when wardrobes are enormous and enviable, clothes become a sign of affluence even if the characters aren't presented as wealthy, and although those clothes may be as inanimate and unspeaking as a large house with expensive fixtures, still they loudly proclaim, "These people have money!" There's something about the silence of all this adornment that can feel insidious; wealth, sometimes extreme wealth, is presented as being as natural as air. But of course it's not, and television has not always operated this way.   

On Family Ties, for example, not only do characters wear clothes that are normal-looking and wear them more than once, but also those clothes stick around for years. Here's just one example:

Don't you wish you owned this sweater? 

In real time that represents a sweater that was on set from November 1983 until at least March 1985, if not longer. (I've just started season four, so the joy that is this particular sweater could continue). In regular-people time, wearing a sweater for a year and a half is normal; on TV, it can seem radical.

Now this is not to say that Family Ties doesn't have some continuity or presentation-of-class issues. Near the end of season one, Elyse, who has been working as an architect from home, goes back to work at an office, but the episode before she's hired has Jennifer referencing mom being back at work. Huh? As great as the actor Earl Boen is, doesn't anyone else notice when he's both selling airline tickets in season one and showing up at the Keatons' when Alex turns the house into a hotel for a weekend in season three?

And yes, that is Jeff Cohen of Goonies fame in the hat.

There is also the question of whether the incomes of an architect and a PBS station owner could support three children and a new baby, even in 1985 Ohio. But the family doesn't go on lavish vacations or own fancy cars (despite Mallory's lobbying for a Maserati near the end of season three); the house is big, but the furniture is modest. They own one television.  

On the bigger-picture level, for all the lessons Alex learns about valuing his sister Mallory (as when he cuts short his college interview at Princeton to comfort her during a breakup) or caring about people instead of money (as when he volunteers at a hotline to fulfill a college humanities credit and ends up helping a suicidal man), he continually makes fun of Mallory and derides nonprofits. Some of that feels normal - a brother is going to tease a sister - and some of it feels like the writers have decided these characters will conform to certain types with nods to lessons learned but minimal actual evolution. 

Maybe as viewers in 2014, some of us have become accustomed to both continuity and growth. We want our fictional worlds thoughtfully and intricately constructed, consistent, and evolving, conducive to weekly visits and schedule-busting binge-watching. On that measure, Family Ties mostly fails. A detail dropped in a joke or a minor character met in season one is rarely mentioned again, let alone brought to developed life two seasons later; there is no Jesse Pinkman and the lovingly handmade box here.

But there are small, consistent rewards. Jennifer has a best friend, Chrissy, whom we never see but who is referenced throughout the show. The same treatment extends to the next door neighbors, the Obecks. Alex will always beat Steven at chess; Mallory will hate films with subtitles. Details like these help create the fabric of this world. And sometimes there is a wonderfully resurrected detail: in the opening scene of the pilot episode, Steven and Elyse show their kids slides of their anti-war protests from the '60s, but the kids collapse in sighs at the prospect of looking at Peace Corps footage, too. Two seasons later, after a long day, the kids are begging their tired parents to hang out to no avail. Then Alex says, "All right, all right. You win. Get your old Peace Corps films. We'll watch those." In this moment, a viewer could have jumped from episode 1 to 54 and laughed with recognition, firmly in the same comfortable old home. 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tom and Judith and Geena and Daphne

Despite my previous posts' focus on serious political and social issues, Family Ties was very funny at times and, more to the point, concerned with never straying too far from comedy, from the attempt to be funny. What's fascinating to me is that, given just 20-odd minutes to tell a story, comedies like this persisted in trying to tackle difficult topics at all.

Take the story of Uncle Ned, played by probably the most famous guest actor on the series. We meet him in season one; it turns out he's on the run after embezzling 4.5 million dollars from the corporation where he was vice president. When he comes back to visit in season two, he has a drinking problem brought on by how his life has unraveled. He downs a bottle of vanilla extract and ends up hitting Alex. Not funny stuff.

Here's Uncle Ned calling AA. More on the character of the landline phone in a later post.

Yet even in these social issues with a capital-S episodes, there are lots of jokes, most of which land with at least some of the studio audience. But when Ned finally calls AA for help, and opens with, "Would you be interested in subscribing to the Columbus Express?" the studio audience doesn't laugh, and it's not supposed to. In that moment, the show performs the neat trick of holding a mirror up to some of its own comedic impulses.

Tom Hanks's character also has a purple problem, or rather, the whole episode does.
But then again, this aired in January 1984, just a few months before Purple Rain. 
Maybe purple was the zeitgeist. 

Other guest stars are enlisted for similarly serious parts, as when Judith Light plays the new production assistant who propositions Steven in season two.

Who's the boss? This happily married father of three.
Also, who knew PBS could be the site of such intrigue?  

Even Geena Davis's story arc as the beautiful-yet-inept housekeeper ends on a serious note when she quits the gig to focus on the personal problems she'd been running away from.

"Do you have any references?" Alex asks during the interview.
"No," she answers brightly. Hired!

The guest star whose role surprised me the most though was Daphne Zuniga, playing a classmate of Alex's. She's the smart girl who has had a crush on him from afar, and he asks her to the senior prom when the girl he really wants to take says no. But then that girl changes her mind, Alex has two dates to the prom who don't know about each other, etc., etc.

Glasses were just really big in 1984, OK?
I love you Daphne, but I'm really waiting for Tracy Pollan to show up.

What surprised me is that Alex chooses Rachel, Daphne's character, just because she's the kinder, smarter, and funnier of the two. I've been so conditioned to expect certain kinds of romantic narratives that I kept waiting for her to take off those glasses so he could recognize her beauty. Not only does Rachel keep her glasses on, never once taking them off, but also in a later episode she becomes valedictorian instead of Alex, and, after he overcomes a sexist and jealous reaction, their relationship survives. That's what we're to believe anyway, but we never see her again. Ah, the unpredictable life of a guest star.  

Monday, July 28, 2014

Our TV, Ourselves

In the season one Family Ties episode unfortunately titled "Oops," Mallory's friend Cindy finds out she's pregnant and struggles with telling her mother. First, they confide in Mallory's mother, Elyse.

"I'm so confused," Cindy says. "I don't know whether to have an abortion or put the baby up for adoption or keep it."

It was December 22, 1982, only one month away exactly from the tenth anniversary of the Roe v. Wade ruling, and the extent to which this decision had become an established fact in American lives seems reflected in the structure of Cindy's sentence; she lists abortion alongside adoption and becoming a mother as a possible choice. It's X or Y or Z, each possibility given equal weight.

We don't learn what Cindy chooses to do - the main point of the episode is about establishing open communication with her mother - but even that unresolved ending feels different from how this same subject matter would be handled on later television and film, where the point often feels like an avoided abortion  - whether that's avoided through miscarriage, as on Party of Five in the 1990s or adoption, as in Juno in 2007. The prevalence of these alternatives makes stories where a character actually has an abortion, as on Friday Night Lights or The Obvious Child, rarities and news. And not knowing the outcome of a pregnancy, as in the case of Cindy? Other than the 1996 film Citizen Ruth, I can't think of another example off the top of my head, although I'm sure there are more. Still, the dearth of such examples seems telling: in most mainstream TV and film, women's bodies need to be resolved.

"Did I really look like that when I was born?" Jennifer wants to know.

Before Cindy comes over to the Keaton house, 10 year-old Jennifer sits down on the couch with the copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves that she's taken from Mallory's room. Alex, the conservative teenager, objects to "a book like that being in this house," but Elyse sets him straight: "There's nothing wrong with this, Alex," she says. "It's just a health and sex manual for women."

This scene, and much of this episode, amazes me and makes me a little sad, too. I love that it's "just" a manual, just another day for this family, but it makes me sad that their ordinary day, 30 years later, feels more than a little extraordinary now.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Those Other Ties Beyond the Family

In re-watching Family Ties, one of the elements that has struck me the most is the political content. Some of it is played for laughs, as in a season two episode when Alex considers taking amphetamines to cram for exams and consults with his framed picture of Nixon.

"Would you do something you knew was wrong?" Alex asks the former president. Cue studio audience laughter. 

But other times the politics are more serious and the ideas behind them not as easily encapsulated in one image or joke, as in the season one episode where the parents, Steven and Elyse, are arrested at a Thanksgiving Day protest of nuclear weapons. All the other jailed protestors sign a piece of paper agreeing never to protest again and are promptly released, but not these two, even though it means they'll be apart from their family on a very family-oriented holiday. The First Amendment means just that much to them.

I was transfixed with this story line. I couldn't imagine a 2014 comedy being so civic-minded, though in fairness I've been far more devoted to dramas recently. Even comedies that center on the workings of government, like Veep, are primarily focused on the shallow and manipulative hijinks of the individuals wielding power; few characters are funny and have laudable, public-minded convictions.

And a show not about a workplace but an actual family, like Modern Family? I've stopped watching it, but from what I did see, I can't imagine any of those characters going to jail for justice. As others have noted, Modern Family is problematic for a number of reasons, one of which being that it presents affluence as normal. Another is that it views family ties as The Most Important Thing.  

In Stephanie Coontz's phenomenal The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap,  she busts the notion of a "return" to private life as the cure for societal problems. She writes, "the idea that private values and family affections form the heart of public life is not at all traditional. …John Adams argued that the foundation of a virtuous republic must be 'a positive Passion for the public good.'" (The academic in me is fighting the urge to give you a page number right now :) She closes that paragraph: "The passion to have a baby or spend more time with one's family was not high on the founders' list of public virtues." Zing!

Seriously, though, there are times when all of that is easy to forget, when a person can feel crazy or blasphemous for not wanting children herself or for valuing something in addition to her family. And so I was surprised to find you're-not-crazy backup in a 1982 TV episode with the word "family" in the show title.

The nukes episode ends with the kids and grandparents bringing Thanksgiving dinner to the jail.

The family that goes to jail together stays together.
One could argue that ending this way seeks to reassure viewers that the family is The Most Important Thing on the show after all. But I think it's significant that the parents are prepared to stand up for the public good with or without the others; public virtue comes first and spending the holiday with one's family, second.

Are there current TV comedy episodes that I'm forgetting/unaware of that similarly value democratic values in action? 

Friday, July 25, 2014

In Praise of Nerdy TV and Certain Canadians

What to do when you've just finished teaching a summer course and haven't yet regained the mental bandwidth to pick up The Grapes of Wrath, a book you've promised your friend that you'll finally try to read?  For me, the answer appears to be watch Family Ties on Netflix... and write extremely after-the-fact observations and cultural criticism! I'm inspired by my friend Moxie to begin what I think will be at least a few posts. She has also re-watched TV shows (and Randy Newman videos) and written astutely about them. (Spoiler alert: I am definitely planning a post on Alex P. Keaton sweaters)!

I watched Family Ties when I was a kid, on re-runs and, near the end when I was old enough, as it aired. So I already knew that 9 year-old me liked it, that alongside Peter Jennings, Michael J. Fox was an important Canadian in my early life. But I wasn't sure that I would like it again, that the me of 2014 would have enough in common with the me of 1989. I'm only about two-thirds of the way through season 3, which puts me a little less than halfway through its 7 season run and early in 1985, episode-airing-wise, so my thoughts are still evolving and my views could change as I keep watching. 

But at this early date, I am happy to report that there is a fair amount in Family Ties to sink one's teeth in to and a lot of enjoyment to be had in spending time in this fictional, 1980s Ohio. Chief among these pleasures is the sheer nerdiness of some of the references and plots. 

What to do when your dad is Thomas Jefferson and you find yourself a mere stable boy? Make sure he sits down and gets to writing. 

In one season 3 episode, for example, Alex P. Keaton (played by Michael J. Fox) falls asleep trying to write a paper about the Declaration of Independence for a college course. In a dream, he is transported back to those pivotal days in Philadelphia and has to convince an uninspired Thomas Jefferson (played by his father, Steven, the wonderful Michael Gross) to put pen to paper (preferably cool-looking, crinkly paper). Elsewhere I've read about how this episode seems to openly anticipate Back to the Future, which Fox was filming around the same time and which would be released in theaters later that same year, in July of 1985. But what interests me just as much is how it's a whole episode of a mainstream, live studio audience comedy that revolves around a piece of American history. Yes, it takes a ton of liberties with that history for the sake of making jokes - Jefferson probably never considered writing that "we hold these truths to be pretty obvious, even to a dope" - and in this way is an older, sober cousin to Drunk History. But it also has its 18 year-old character name-checking John Trumbull and his painting and pinning a copy of it and the Declaration of Independence to the kitchen wall for inspiration. 

The whole episode is devoted to the Declaration of Independence. How cool is that?

It's not afraid to be smart or to care about history, in other words, while at the same time being a network comedy. 

I'll write more about the show's sense of history and politics in a later post. I think I'll also write about cameos by famous and later-to-be famous actors, how abortion is represented, and, of course, the aforementioned sweaters. Hope you'll keep reading!