“He created not only families we recognized, but symbolized families we wanted to be.”
( Michael J. Fox’s tribute to Gary David Goldberg during the 2013 EMMY awards ceremonies )
CORRECTION, ALEX P. KEATON.
GARY DAVID GOLDBERG CREATED TV FAMILIES RECOGNIZED BY LIBERAL HOLLYWOOD.
GARY DAVID GOLDBERG SYMBOLIZED TV FAMILIES THE POLITICAL LEFT WANTED US TO BE.
GARY DAVID GOLDBERG the creator of FAMILY TIES and SPIN CITY greeted me warmly at the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf on Santa Monica’s trendy Third Street Promenade. It was midday on a weekday and he was dressed in sweatpants and a windbreaker. Goldberg is an unapologetic liberal. He counts Barbara Boxer and Chuck Schumer among his personal friends. During our interview, he told me that he had gone to an Al Franken fundraiser the prior night – “I think he’s going to be great” – and that he and his daughters had worked for the Obama campaign.
Goldberg got into the industry by accident, he told me. He was a 1960s era hippie. “In the 1960s I went out of my mind, just crazed. I’m still running into people going, ‘We lived together! How can you not remember?’ ” he laughed. After getting married, he and his wife moved to San Diego so that she could pursue her PhD. They were living on food stamps and welfare at the time. Because he needed college units, Goldberg took a writing course with a past president of the Writers Guild and former Oscar nominee. When his professor read his writing, he told Goldberg to head to Hollywood. And his professor set up meetings with agents and showed him script forms. Soon enough, Goldberg was writing for television.
It wasn’t long before the honchos in the industry took notice. At an interview with Nichols, Ross and West ( the same folks who produced “Three’s Company” ), they suggested that he join up with MTM Enterprises. After working on several shows, Goldberg had the idea for FAMILY TIES.
“It really was just observation of what was going on in my own life, with my own friends,” Goldberg told me. “We were these old kind of radical people. And all of a sudden, you’re in the mainstream. But now, you’ve got these kids and you’ve empowered them and they’re super intelligent and they’re definitely to the right of where you are. They don’t understand what’s wrong with having money and moving forward.”
As Goldberg describes, FAMILY TIES riffed on the angst of the 1960s generation at the Reagan Revolution. It also reinforced the nascent yuppie upset so evident in shows like “Cheers” and later “thirtysomething” questioning how the rebels of the 1960s could preserve their radical values while becoming bourgeois parents and business owners benefiting from the capitalist system.
But FAMILY TIES wasn’t designed to be an evenhanded riff on Reagan era politics or even 1960s liberal angst. IT WAS DESIGNED TO TARGET CONSERVATIVES.
ALEX P. KEATON ( Michael J. Fox ) WAS THE STAND-IN FOR CONSERVATIVES. He was brilliant and witty and serious-minded. And totally amoral. Gordon Gecko at age seventeen. The whole point of the show was that ALEX WAS ALWAYS WRONG. Only the panache of Michael J. Fox made Alex palatable.
“The interesting thing with Alex and to the same extent with Archie Bunker, and if you go back to Norman Lear and ask him, he’d say he did not think he was creating a sympathetic character,” said Goldberg. “But all the sympathy went to Archie. It was crazy. With ALEX, I did not think I was creating a sympathetic character. Those were not traits that I aspired to and didn’t want my kids to aspire to, actually.
But at the end of FAMILY TIES, when we went off the air, The New York Times had done a piece and they said, “Greed With The Face Of An Angel”. And I think that’s true. Michael J. Fox would make things work. The audience would simply not access the darker side of what he’s actually saying.”
A few examples. After being told in season three by his younger innocent sister that there’s more to life than just getting rich and that “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world,” Alex replies : “Jennifer, people who have money don’t need people.” Another season three episode has Alex telling his pregnant mother that she shouldn’t fly. “Alex, you know, if you had it your way, Mom would be locked in her room for nine months wearing a veil,” sister Mallory snipes. “Oh come on, that’s not true,” says Alex, “I see no need for a veil.”
ALEX IS CONSTANTLY PUTTING HIS FOOT IN HIS MOUTH THIS WAY, IRONICALLY POKING AT AND CARICATURING CONSERVATIVE POSITIONS – AND HE GETS A LAUGH BECAUSE HE’S SO CHARMING.
In fact, ALEX became so much of a hero that even liberals didn’t understand when he lost battles. “Steven Spielberg was a huge fan,” Goldberg recalled. “Used to come to all the tapings and was a close friend. And he’d come Friday nights. One night we did a show where Alex lies to this girl and completely disses the Equal Rights Amendment and everything it stands for and pretends to be a feminist. And at the end, she tells him off. So after, Steven comes over and I said: ‘How did you like the show?’ He said: ‘Well, it’s all right.’ And I said: ‘What’s wrong?’ And he said: ‘Alex didn’t get the girl.’ And I said: ‘Yeah but he lied and cheated.’ And he said: ‘But it’s ALEX, you want him to win at the end.‘”
But ALEX RARELY WON because Goldberg and the writers’ room didn’t want him to win. In fact, Goldberg said, “We actually had this structure that we’d inherited from Jim Brooks and Allan Burns which was six scenes and a tag. And then the last scene became ALEX APOLOGIZES IN EVERY SHOW. We just left it up. ALEX APOLOGIZES. Some version of it.
For example, in the season one episode “The Fifth Wheel”, Alex is supposed to babysit younger sister Jennifer. As always, his desire for cash gets the better of him. He decides to take Jennifer with him to a poker game, justifying his actions with an appeal to pseudo-conservative masculinity. “In this industrial society of ours, there aren’t a lot of battles for a man to fight. There aren’t a lot of opportunities to go one-on-one with another man. There aren’t a lot of tests of one’s courage and stamina. Do you know what I mean?” he says.
Naturally, things get out of hand. Jennifer walks out of the game and gets lost. Later, she shows up at home after taking the bus. Alex gets into trouble, promising his parents that he’ll take better care of Jennifer from now on. “Yeah, we’ll keep her happy. We’ll make sure she gets out every now and then. We’ll feed her and keep her clean.” Finally he apologizes, blaming his own self-centeredness and his lack of sensitivity. This is a more subtle episode than some of the earlier ones, but it is just as effective: money is the root of all evil and Alex is the greedy Reaganite who loses the child.
This show format, repeated over and over again – ALEX HAS A CONSERVATIVE / GREEDY IDEA, ALEX SCREWS SOMETHING UP, ALEX APOLOGIZES – exposes just what Goldberg and the 1960s era creators thought of the Reagan generation. The show always ends with with Alex needing to be reaccepted into the family, after attempting to individuate, to be himself. The liberal assumption is that ALEX’S POLITICAL CHOICES ARE MERELY TEENAGE REBELLION and that reunification will inevitably occur once Alex comes to his senses. For that reunification to occur, however, ALEX MUST SUBORDINATE HIS PRINCIPLES – which aren’t true principles but greed manifest in a false facade of principles – to his need for communion with his family.
Goldberg makes that clear in the pilot episode. In that episode, Alex wants to go out with a hot, blonde, rich cheerleader named Kimberly. She takes him to a “restricted” country club. It bans blacks, Hispanics, Jews, and anyone who “didn’t come over on the Mayflower,” as Elyse puts it. Steven stands up against Alex but Alex goes anyway. Later Steven shows up at the country club, humiliating Alex. Alex reams Steven when he gets home.
“I was wrong to go over there like that.” says Steven. “But I hope you understand why I felt so strongly about your being at a restricted club.”
“I do, Dad.” replies Alex. “But I’m seventeen years old. When I see Kimberly Blanton in a strapless evening gown, I don’t look past her for the Bill of Rights.”
“I was seventeen myself once.” answers Steven. “But I had principles. I had beliefs.”
The pattern is set: ALEX, DESPITE ALL HIS TALK OF PRINCIPLE, IS UNPRINCIPLED; Steven and Elyse are the principled heroes of the piece. ALEX’S REBELLION IS SIMPLE FREUDIAN PSYCHODRAMA. ( By contrast, Meathead’s rebellion in “All In The Family” is principled opposition to conservative bigotry. ) What Goldberg did not expect, of course, is that by allowing Alex to mock liberal values, he was unwittingly undermining them.
Goldberg made no bones about the fact that he infused politics into the show – but he learned early on that he couldn’t simply do it in Norman Lear’s obvious fashion. “That’s a tension ( between messaging and entertainment ) we welcomed. What you can’t do is ‘a very special episode of’, where you do this show and there’s no jokes. The shows we did earlier in the season were the ones we buried, because I was completely wrong about what I thought the show was going to be : nuclear war, gun control, climate change, death. And so you had to put it in a different package. It had to come out in a different way.”
And FAMILY TIES did do it in a different way. There were episodes about nuclear war – one in particular in which Alex learns to get along with a Russian kid at a chess tournament – and episodes about sex and episodes about the evils of capitalism. But they were covered over in a brilliant display of hilarity. It’s no wonder that Ronald Reagan said that FAMILY TIES was his favorite show.
Like “Cheers”, FAMILY TIES was a slow starter out of the gate but the network stuck with it. And like “Cheers”, it eventually became a massive hit when it was placed behind “The Cosby Show” in 1984 running for seven seasons.
Goldberg’s other big show came years later when he brought back Michael J. Fox for SPIN CITY. Goldberg wrote the show with partner Bill Lawrence ( who would go on to create “Scrubs” ). That show cast Fox as the deputy mayor of New York, and was even more political than FAMILY TIES. Fox was still playing Alex Keaton, but this time Keaton was grown up and a Democrat. He was just as Machiavellian, just as manipulative, but this time he was good-heartedly trying to ram through The Liberal Agenda.
His liberal conscience was Carter ( Michael Boatman ), a gay man who made sure that Michael didn’t lose his leftist principles. Boatman’s character ardently pushed the gay rights agenda including same-sex marriage ( one episode featured Boatman staging a marriage to one of the straight employees at the mayor’s office as a political statement, then cancelling the wedding when it became clear that he had too much respect for the institution of marriage generally ).
“Carter came about in the pilot,” Goldberg told me. “We decided that was really a one-shot, but we just fell in love with Michael Boatman and what his character represented. So after that, we made a deal to put him as a regular and bring him in.” Goldberg said, “Carter was basically a saint.”
I asked Goldberg why there didn’t seem to be any real debate about politics on television anymore – why everyone simply assumed that the far left position was correct and that the only real question was whether that position was practical. At least on “All In The Family”, I said, the conservative position was articulated, however badly, and then knocked down. Modern television doesn’t even bother articulating the conservative position.
“If I was writing now, I wouldn’t be having those debates either,” Goldberg said. “Because I think it’s great we’ve moved beyond that.”
That’s certainly arguable. But if we’ve begun to move beyond such debates, it’s due in large part to the success of writers like Gary David Goldberg who have made the leftist position so palatable to a broad swath of Americans simply by presenting likable characters who promote liberal politics as tautologies.
( “Primetime Propaganda : The True Hollywood Story Of How The Left Took Over Your TV” by Ben Shapiro, Broadside Books, Harper Collins Publishers : 2011 )