The Classic Sitcom That Couldn't Happen Today

Let us pitch you a sitcom ...
The Classic Sitcom That Couldn't Happen Today

Let us pitch you a sitcom. It's about a MAGA-hat-wearing teenager, played by the lovable Tom Holland, who's stuck living with his liberal parents and politically indifferent sisters. He's the only one in his family who supports Donald Trump, so he jokes that they're brainwashed idiots destroying America and betraying the white race. But while he may complain about immigrants and trans Americans having too many rights (whereas the rich are not being appreciated enough for powering the society that the poor leech from), at the end of the day, he's a charming rascal who loves his family (and denies climate change).

That would be a weird show, right? Well, go back to the 1980s, change the political talking points accordingly, and you have the five-time Emmy-Award-winning Family Ties, starring Michael J. Fox as a young Republican being raised by hippie liberals. Alex P. Keaton loved Ronald Reagan, Wall Street, and making money at the expense of other people. He turned to conservatism partially out of embarrassment over his parents -- an architect and a TV station manager who own a palatial suburban home and can easily send their children to college -- obviously not being successful or ambitious enough.

No, we're not calling for a 30-year-old sitcom to be cancelled because of how triggering it is. The fashion alone makes it difficult to take seriously today, and the hokey jokes are told in that classic sitcom style of pausing all conversation so the audience can laugh uproariously at a mild pun. It's a completely inoffensive product of its time. But that's the point: It's a once totally innocuous sitcom that couldn't be done today without looking misguided to the point of insanity.

Drop this scene in any modern show, and it'd produce enough hate mail to cause a global paper shortage.

One episode features Alex pretending to support the Equal Rights Amendment because he's attracted to one of its supporters. He eventually comes clean, and is then applauded for finally being honest about believing that it's fine if women are discriminated against in the workplace. He does get dumped, but can you imagine a modern TV show watched by a third of America nonchalantly ending an episode with "Well gee whiz, it's okay that you don't believe gay people should have equal rights, because what's important is that you were nice about it"? The subsequent hot takes could fuel cities. That's an argument you make on Reddit, not the biggest stage of pop culture.

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To a good chunk of our readership, Family Ties is a show you either haven't thought about since you were a kid or is so far removed from your own generation that it might as well be a series of cave paintings brought to life. But in its day, it was huge. It was credited with helping heal a politically divided America in the wake of Reagan's election and the return of conservative politics. Entertainment sites routinely run retrospectives and where-are-they-nows. It got a stage adaptation in 2017, and in 2018, Fox News reran "Alex P. Keaton's Top 8 most conservative moments." Reagan gushed about it, and Keaton became an icon for young Republicans, because even though the show often poked fun at him, the simple fact that he was there meant something. It's almost as if seeing themselves represented in pop culture mattered, but now we're just talking crazy.

Contemporary reviews on Amazon are awash in nostalgic praise for a show unlike what you can find today, with terms like "clean" and "wholesome" making regular appearances. It's fondly remembered by people who no longer see themselves, or the America they thought existed in the '80s, in pop culture. This sums it up pretty well: "Great show to teach my children about the T.V I grew up on with family and values the combat the nonsense T.V my children are being fed these days. Thank you." Oh, and the moral of that ERA episode is apparently "never pretend to be a Snowflake. There are plenty of Deplorable women out there who'd love to date you." Lesson learned!

Keep in mind that Family Ties was aggressively neutral, not a one-sided political screed. There were episodes about dating, getting into college, and having an alcoholic Tom Hanks in the family. Roughly every three episodes, Alex would learn that family was sometimes more important than money. His perpetual horniness was arguably a more defining trait than his politics, and those politics weren't "The white race is under threat by cultural Marxists and genetically inferior minorities" but "Taxes are bad." That ERA episode neatly dodged around Alex explaining why he didn't support women's rights. Opposition was just the default conservative stance, and surely every political issue has two precisely equal sides. If there was a consistent message, it was "Can't we all just get along?"

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Apparently not at the moment, if all the stories about support or disdain for Trump destroying families (or all the political arguments being screamed into the void that is the comments of Family Ties clips) are any indication. The show's whole concept looks baffling now. What teenager complains about their parents being too liberal, unless they're getting sucked into the alt-right movement? Who's saying "Curse the politics of our boomer predecessors for giving us easy access to college, a strong job market, and affordable homes? We have to rebel and become part of the cool conservative counterculture to save America from this hellscape!"

The '80s were often lousy, but you'd never know it if Family Ties was your only touchstone. All the nostalgia for the show seems based, however inaccurately, on its portrayal of an America in which your politics mostly determined whether you wanted to use your copious spare time and money to support a generic protest movement or buy a Wall Street Journal subscription.

But the way we view our political differences when they're not being filtered through a saccharine sitcom lens is telling. Family Ties had a running joke about how Alex was such a huge Richard Nixon fan that he had a Nixon lunchbox. If a Trump-loving teenager sported a George W. Bush lunchbox and casually joked about how the Iraq War wasn't really a big deal (especially compared to all these immigrants we need to keep out with a wall), they would not be a charming sitcom lead you'd be rooting for to kiss this week's girl. They would be someone you worried was watching YouTube 16 hours a day, right until they shot up a mosque.

So Family Ties was, what, a vision of a kinder, gentler conservatism of days now gone by? Well maybe, but no sitcom is based in reality, and the legacy of the president Alex worshiped is dismal. Reagan's stance on immigration would get him called an SJW cuck today, but his administration mocked gay men dying of AIDS, stepped up the War on Drugs, and gave America a scandal in Iran-Contra that makes most of Trump's blunders look silly and unimportant.

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William F. Buckley, the conservative commentator whom Alex has a picture of over his bed, built his career on opposing desegregation, continued it by praising a dictator who systematically murdered civilians, and topped it off by arguing in The New York Times that AIDS victims should be tattooed and sterilized for carrying "the special curse of the homosexual." It's like if one of the characters in Brooklyn 99 or Modern Family talked about how great Ben Shapiro or Alex Jones was, and in the interests of carefully marketable neutrality, it was never considered unusual.

Judge for yourselves how much politics have changed since, but holy hell has the way we perceive politics shifted. If you've ever been confused by Trump or his supporters complaining that Hollywood, where gigantic studios carefully calculate how to wrangle a billion dollars from bland remakes, is full of liberals pushing their radical politics on the country, this is why. You can't have an Alex P. Keaton character anymore, because the idea of having a show that ostensibly revolves around political differences while refusing to make any value judgement would look bizarre, given that you can't spend five minutes on social media without being told why America is doomed and who's responsible for it.

"I'm a fan of someone who thinks that gay people are a scourge on society and you're not, but what really matters is that we're family" would be a formula for commercial disaster, not awards. That's good for, you know, society, but it's also why people think America is more divided than ever. That political division was always lurking; you just can't pretend otherwise now.

Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.

For more, check out Why The Sandlot Is Secretly About American Racism:

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