Family

TV classics: Family

USA 1976-80, five seasons, 86 episodes, approximately 50 minutes each, ABC, color. Produced by Leonard Goldberg, Aaron Selling, Mike Nichols. Cast: Sada Thompson, James Broderick, Gary Frank, Kristy McNichol, Elayne HeilVeil, Meredith Baxter Birney, Quinn Cummings.

Plot summary: Family life is not a walk in the park and no one knows that better than Kate and Doug Lawrence, two middle-aged parents who love and curse their kids at the same time.

family 1976Review: When Family premiered in the spring of 1976, the family shows had long been established on TV. Programs like Father Knows Best or The Donna Reed Show had coined the genre in the early days. Unlike its predecessors, however, Family dealt with issues and disputes in a serious way. Although joy and laughter belonged to the Lawrence’s household, the overall tone of the show was serious. In contrast to the early family sitcoms, Kate and Doug were loving but stern parents who had to deal with three children and their struggles.

Set in Southern California, the Lawrence family belonged to the upper middle class and led a comfortable life in Pasadena. Kate, played by a warmhearted but slightly melancholy Sada Thompson, was the female head of the household. A woman who had put her family before her own professional aspirations and thus fought with her own demons. Doug (James Broderick) was Kate’s husband and father of Nancy, Willie and Buddy. As an independent lawyer, he was the negotiator of the family, a strict man who had his convictions but wasn’t set in his ways. Nancy, the oldest daughter, was married in the beginning of the show but later divorced her husband. Selfish by nature and equally demanding, she had a difficult relationship with her mother whose own values differed largely from hers. Willie, the second-in-line, was a high school drop out who dreamed of becoming a famous writer. Buddy, the pet of the family, was his favorite sister. A tomboy on the outside, she was a teenage girl within. Insecure about her height and femininity, she slowly grew into a confident young woman who was a reliable and honest friend. As the youngest Lawrence offspring, she had suffered greatly after the loss of her older brother, Timothy, five years prior to the show’s beginning. His death a gash still tangible in the entire family.

It were topics like these that set the show apart from many others. Family didn’t shy away from touching uncomfortable or somber topics. Breast cancer, divorce and the doubts of an expectant mother are just some of the examples that made this program what it was: a story about a fictional family with realistic challenges and problems. Although not yet available on DVD as a complete collection, the first two seasons provide an insight into the difficulties and changes of the 1970s. Influenced by subjects and questions discussed at the time, the show now functions like a time capsule. No matter if you are fond of the era or critical of it like me, Family offers a wonderful cast and moving storylines. A real treat for anyone who wants to understand the sensitivities of a different time, as well as the roots of female characters who speak their mind. Kate Lawrence has always been one of my favorites, strong, hands-on and maternal. Here’s my favorite scene with her from the pilot, a great example of the style and tone of a show that started as a mini series and ended its run at the dawn of a new decade after five seasons.

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Family Ties

TV classics: Family Ties

USA 1982-89, seven seasons, 180 episodes, approximately 25 minutes each, NBC, color. Cast: Meredith Baxter-Birney, Michael Gross, Michael J. Fox, Justine Bateman, Tina Yothers, Brian Bonsall

Plot summary: In the Keaton household, two worlds collide. The parents are hip, the kids are square.

Family TiesReview: Hip parents, square kids was the pitch line to sell Family Ties to NBC. Originally focused on Elyse and Steven, the left-wing parents of a brood of three, the show picked up on the evolvement of the yuppie in the 1980s. Brought to life by a then still unknown Michael J. Fox, Alex Keaton was the oldest son of the family, a personified young Republican who idolized President Reagan. Alex was smart and funny, a perfect juxtaposition to his liberal parents, their values, likes and attitudes. It was that contrast that turned the show into an instant hit and pushed the baby-boomer parents on the sidelines of attention. Apart from Alex, Mallory and Jennifer Keaton were equally genuine characters. Mallory’s materialism was as defined as her brother’s enthusiasm for Reaganomics and, paired with her simple mind, turned her into a direct opposite of their mother and her strong feminist convictions. Jennifer, the youngest daughter, was the only Keaton offspring who followed into her parents’ idealistic footsteps and thus stood out with a mind of her own. Andy, the youngest addition to the family in season five, imbibed his brother’s conservative philosophy from his infancy, leaving Jennifer as the sole quasi-ally of the Keaton grown-ups.

Successful for seven consecutive seasons, Family Ties hit a nerve in the 1980s and reunited grandparents, boomers and their children in American living rooms. Lighthearted with a touch of sincerity, the show held its ground in a time when family sitcoms flourished on TV and also gave birth to a new star, Michael J. Fox. Fondly remembered by young fans and mature ones alike, the program also featured (now famous) guest stars such as Courtney Cox, Tom Hanks or Judith Light. Although already considered an 80s’ classic, Family Ties is every bit as fresh and entertaining as it was thirty years ago, in its freshman season. So for those of you who love to travel back in time or simply wish to pass on their childhood memories to the next generation, the program’s sixth season was just released on DVD with only the last one missing to complete your collection. Have fun diving back into the warmth and chaos of the Keaton family. I’m sure they will welcome you like a family member the way they used to back in the 1980s, no matter who you side with in an argument, Elyse and Steven, Jennifer, Andy, Alex or Mallory.

Want to get into the mood for some Keaton family banter? Watch the original Family Ties intro here.