How Michael J. Fox Had the Best Start of a Sitcom Season Ever

By  · Published on September 23rd, 2015

Michael J Fox in Family Ties

Paramount Television

Everything was perfectly aligned for the fourth season of Family Ties to be its most popular yet. The sitcom had already seen a huge ratings boost the previous year, thanks to a day and time slot change that put it on air directly after newcomer The Cosby Show, which was an immediate hit. Michael J. Fox saw an increase in his status as a teen idol, his appeal having altered the direction of the series from the start, and in the summer of 1985, his stardom shot up tremendously due to his leading roles in Back to the Future and Teen Wolf. Come mid-September, he had the number one and number two movies at the box office, for the fourth weekend in a row. And he had one more movie debut before the Family Ties season premiere.

On September 23, 1985, at the strangely non-family-friendly time of 9pm ET/8pm CT, NBC broadcast Family Ties Vacation, a two-hour TV movie event in which the Keaton clan, minus new baby Andrew, take a trip to England. The reason for the excursion is a special summer session scholarship to Oxford University for Fox’s character, Alex. While there, sister Mallory (Justine Bateman) finds romance with a lord, and the whole family becomes accidentally entangled in an espionage plot when a Russian spy sneaks a MacGuffin microfilm into the purse of mom Elyse (Meredith Baxter). Arriving too soon after the theatrical release of National Lampoon’s European Vacation (which briefly knocked Back to the Future off its box office throne), it came off as a cheap knock-off, even in its title, that could have derailed the series and more.

Nobody liked the thing (except 8-year-old me, who actually loved the idea of a mashup of one of my favorite TV comedies of the decade and one of my favorite movie comedies of the year). Fox wrote in his memoir “Lucky Man” that Family Ties Vacation (which he calls Family Ties Go to London) was rushed into and through production with a “contrived story and slapdash script,” for which the writers apologized. It is true that while the characters are relatively faithful, the plot and tone are very different from the regular series episodes and would have seemed like a shark-jumping moment for the show. Meanwhile, Universal was apparently upset with the fact that it took Fox outside of the country during the opening of Back to the Future and so he couldn’t do traditional promotion for the movie.

But if any fans of Family Ties were disappointed with – maybe even turned off by – the goofy TV movie, they only had to stick with the Keatons for another three days and give the actual season four premiere a shot. Surely it must have looked bad before the fact to anyone aware that the first episode would be only half of a two-part arc that wouldn’t be continued until the following week. But by the end of “The Real Thing Part 1,” there should have been no doubt this was the beginning of a special year, as much a leap forward for the show as Family Ties Vacation was a leap back. Thirty years later, its cliffhanger remains one of the most memorable of all time. It even helped propel a four-year-old song to an eventual #1 position on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

In the episode, Fox’s young yuppie in training meets Ellen Reed (Tracy Pollan), an art student whom he immediately clashes with. Over the course of the episode, their bickering builds up to the sort of sexual tension and release most sitcoms draw out over many seasons. The first part ends with Alex and Ellen kissing at a college dance while Billy Vera & The Beaters’ “At This Moment” memorably mushily plays throughout the scene. Ellen, who has just agreed to marry her boyfriend, quickly runs off, leaving Alex with her ditzy roommate, whom he happens to be dating. It’s a tender, emotional moment for characters who’ve only just met, for viewers, 20 minutes eariler. In real life, Pollan was in a relationship with Kevin Bacon, Fox with The Fact of Life’s Nancy McKeon (his co-star in another 1985 TV movie, Poison Ivy). Yet together, on screen (and only on screen for the time being), they exhibit incredible chemistry.

The romance on the show only lasted seven, sporadically aired episodes, fizzling out by the end of the season (Pollan quit before she could participate in something more climactic), plus a random appearance from Ellen in season five thanks to a delayed airing of a two-parter meant for season four. But Fox credits his first Emmy, which he won the following September, to his work with Pollan, whom he says helped and challenged him in his craft more than any other person ever. In that season premiere, though, he’s already giving a stronger, more confident performance, maybe because of his sudden megastardom. The Ellen character also offered Fox, via Alex, the chance to show more depth as she tears down the one-dimensional arrogance he’s always displayed on the surface. She actually does so literally, with words, in “The Real Thing Part 2.”

Fox and Pollan would go on to become involved for real, though not until a few years later, when they were reunited for Bright Lights, Big City, and after 27 years of marriage they remain one of the strongest Hollywood couples to this day. Fox admitted in his memoir that he first became “smitten” with his future wife one day while working on Family Ties when, after they’d developed a good friendship on set over the first few weeks, she called him “a complete and total fucking asshole” because of a rude comment he made about her breath. They apparently weren’t that similar off screen in general, either, and so their eventual union is almost like reality imitating art.

Season four of Family Ties is memorable for other reasons, one in particular being the introduction of Scott Valentine as Nick (“ayyy!”) in the third episode as Mallory’s new earring-wearing artist boyfriend – oddly enough the show paired both its conservative family members with artsy types. The next season would bring even higher ratings and more accolades, but it also brought in the distraction of the cute new sibling (Brian Bonsall). Fox never had a more successful year as a movie star than he did with his summer 1985 breakout, and in spite of continued Emmy success he wasn’t really ever better than he was during that subsequent TV season. And his character certainly never had a more perfect love interest, even if his next big one, played by Courtney Cox, lasted much longer.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.