FAMILY TIES : Reagan’s Children Of The Corn

“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 )

michaeljfox1

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 )

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