Is anyone else familiar with Antenna TV? (I have no idea what kind of response I’m expecting here.) I discovered it by accident when I was on vacation when it was one of maybe ten channels that were offered by the hotel. It’s basically rerun heaven, in a world where the television rerun is dead. (The short version: we have access to more media than we’ve ever had, and no one watches reruns anymore because we don’t have to. This rule does not apply to Seinfeld or Friends.)
Every night at midnight, Antenna TV plays Family Ties, an extremely popular television show that aired from 1982 until 1989, starring a still today very famous Michael J. Fox. Steven (Michael Gross) and Elise Keaton (Meredith Baxter) are liberal former hippies who now live in Reagan’s America’s version of Columbus, Ohio. Steven works at the local Public Television Station and Elise is an architect. They have three children: Alex (Fox), Mallory (Justine Bateman) and Jennifer (Tina Yothers). (Later, the show would add a fourth child, Andrew, played by Brian Bonsall.) It’s a series that, today, is kind of forgotten (as in people know what it is, but isn’t really part of the zeitgeist, except for maybe the two times Tom Hanks showed up) when compared with its contemporaries at the time, like Cheers and The Cosby Show — two shows that, along with Night Court (another kind of forgotten show), made up the first true “Must See TV” NBC Thursday night comedy block.
In the ’80s, Family Ties thrived thanks in part to Michael J. Fox’s popularity and benefited from its The Cosby Show lead-in. But Family Ties also lived in The Cosby Show’s shadow. The Huxtables were America’s first family. The Keatons were a distant second, maybe third. (For its sixth and seventh seasons, Family Ties was moved from Thursday to Sunday to make room for A Different World. In its fifth season, it was the second-highest-rated show on television. By its seventh season, it was 40th.)
I’d like to spend as little time as possible right now discussing Bill Cosby. I already wrote at length about what The Cosby Show meant to the many people who grew up with it. It’s one of the most important television shows ever to air and that’s always going to be the case. But, now, it’s impossible to look back on The Cosby Show and feel good about it. Bill Cosby was the TV dad of the 1980s, but that isn’t the case anymore. When Generation X looks back at the ’80s, we need a new TV dad. It’s here where I’m going to suggest it should be Steven Keaton.
(To be honest, I didn’t try to set out to write a piece that will probably only be appreciated if you are in the generation referred to as Generation X. See, this is foolhardy because, compared to the generation in front of Gen X and behind Gen X, there just aren’t as many of us. Also, I have a hard time referring to myself as “Generation X” because no one really used that term much, except magazines. At least I didn’t and I didn’t know anyone who ever did. “Man, us Gen Xers aren’t that lazy,” never once came out of my mouth. The most fascinating thing to me about Millennials is how often Millennials use the word “Millennial.”)
Rewatching Family Ties in 2016, I’m struck by just how good Michael Gross is at playing Steven Keaton. I already knew Michael J. Fox was the well-deserved Emmy winner, because for those of us who remember the show, that’s the part we remember. Fox is so likable that a character who’s essentially a parody of a Nixon- and Reagan-loving Republican, comes off as “cool,” while his liberal parents, Steven and Elise come off like squares. But so many of Fox’s punchlines are set up by Gross, who plays the straight man perfectly.
In the early episodes – basically any episode where Michael Gross has no facial hair – Steven Keaton was a bit too dramatic. The show played up his activism a bit too much for a comedy. As Family Ties shifted its focus from Steven and Elise to Fox’s Alex P. Keaton (which reportedly ruffled some feathers), Gross became even better. His comedic timing was so perfect that it’s hardly noticeable.
Here’s a great example. There’s an episode in which Tina Yothers’ Jennifer Keaton is starting to hang out with a more popular crowd at school. In the clip below (starting at :32), Gross answers the phone to take a message (let’s just skip the datedness of that) for Jennifer. His delivery and timing are so “dad”-ish, but also hilarious, especially the emphasis he puts on the word “gnarly.”
And here’s a great example of the chemistry between Gross and Fox (Gross was only 14 years older than Fox), as Steven, in all earnestness, makes a wager with his son over a football game for “a buck.”
I have mixed feelings about the character of Nick Moore* – Mallory’s dolt of a boyfriend best known for saying “ayyy” instead of “hello.” But I will concede that his paring with Michael Gross really works, bring out the best/worst of Steven’s passive-aggressive politeness. Family Ties is set in Columbus, Ohio and if there’s an overlapping trait about people from the Midwest, it’s our passive-aggressiveness. It’s only now, when I no longer live in the Midwest, that I can see the brilliance of what Gross was doing as Steven Keaton. He’s nice in all the ways that someone from the Midwest is nice, until he’s not.
In a “very special episode,” Steven has a heart attack. In what’s being set up as an emotional scene between Steven and Elise, Nick pops up. What’s great about this scene is the long lack of reaction by Gross. The longer he says nothing, the funnier this situation gets.
Looking through the Emmy winners and nominees from this era, the supporting categories usually went to over-the-top characters. There are lots of nominations for John Ratzenberger’s Cliff Clavin on Cheers and lots of wins for John Larroquette’s horndog Dan Fielding on Night Court. Gross was never nominated, which is surprising. I get why colorful characters get the attention, but it’s more difficult to play a nuanced, effective comedic straight man.
It’s also worth noting generation gap between Alex and Steven and Elise. It’s one that doesn’t really exist as sharply today. In the ’60s, it was cool to be a hippie. In the ’80s, it was cool to make fun of hippies, which Alex does any chance he can get. The 1960s were sooooo different than the 1980s. And when the show started, we are talking about the difference of only 13 years. Could you imagine a parent today telling their kids about how different it was in 2003? There’s a true generation gap that’s fascinating and has become less and less of a cultural phenomena.
It’s a strange thing to watch Family Ties now, as an adult, where my sensibilities now migrate closer to those of Steven Keaton than those of his children. It’s only now I can realize what a great comedic performance Michael Gross gives as Steven. Watching now, there’s no way this show works without him. He’s the sensible foil the show needs with all these other “personalities” crowding the screen. And, now, almost 30 years after Family Ties has gone off the air, I finally realize this: Fox was for sure the star power, but Gross is the glue that kept this series together. He’s the quintessential ‘80s TV dad.
*Nick Moore was thought of so highly at one point that he was given his own spinoff pilot, The Art of Being Nick in 1987, which mercifully was never picked up. Watch the opening credits, it’s just Nick staring through windows, smiling. Could you imagine if The Art of Being Nick became a big hit? We may never have gotten to see Julia Louis-Dreyfus on Seinfeld just a couple of years later. (Now I can’t stop wondering what a world in which The Art of Being Nick was a huge success would look like today. I bet “ayyyy” would be common slang.)
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.