When looking up some reported facts about Family Ties to use in the Alex P. Keaton post, Meredith Baxter-Birney's role, life and career seemed a bit odd (excluding the lesbian angle). What was even more odd was seeing how her personal life intertwined with her acting on Family Ties. I ended up watching the first few seasons, and the show deserves the fond memories people have of it. Meredith had a great rapport with Michael Gross (Mr. Keaton) and the kids. The show changed, she changed, and looking back on it, we know more of the story now. Putting everything together, she comes off as a bit worse then I remembered. This is a bit of a Michael Moore "Fahrenheit 9/11" reach, but it's my blog. Theory: when she found out the producers were changing focus to center Family Ties on Alex + Mallory rather than her character, she decided to get pregnant and flip the show the bird.
I'm not going to mock her later in life lesbianism. I can buy it. So what if she was married for decades and had 5 kids with multiple men? She considers herself a lesbian, so she is. I'd view her as a bisexual who said, "Forget men", as she got older. I've seen it in real life with the little people, so it can happen in Hollywood, too. I'll be an adult, and move on from making any snide remarks. I will say that she definitely challenges Jodie Foster for prettiest lesbian of the 1980s-90s. While typing fluff here, Justine Bateman is an all time TV fox. I had a huge crush on her as a little kid. Seeing the show again reminded me how she was bright eyed and gorgeous with a slender, natural looking thin figure (with great hair). Anorexia destroyed that.
When Family Ties was first created, it was designed as a family dramedy that would focus on two aging Boomer hippies who had kids and were dealing with the issue of selling out like many Boomers did in the 1980s. It was suppose to focus on Meredith's character Elyse, as Michael Gross was a virtual unknown when cast (same for Michael J. Fox). Even in their roles, Meredith plays Elyse as the virtuous dramatic lead, while Gross plays Mr. Keaton as the comedic second. If you look at how the show was configured, they had a 17 yr old rebellious by being conservative son, a 15 yr old fashion + boys obsessed daughter, and an 11 year old tomboy. Many early episodes in the first two seasons have Elyse's conflict as the "A" story for the sitcom. Her brother, played by Tom Hanks, shows up with alcohol problems in those first two seasons and never again. Had the show been a success and stayed focused on Meredith's character arc, we would have seen her children leave one by on as she transitioned to fully formed, 40-something woman. The show could have timed its end with her last child leaving the home, and Meredith facing an empty nest. It makes sense. It isn't how it played out.
The character of Alex P. Keaton, and Michael J. Fox's acting, received praise and fan support. The producers decided to focus the show more on his character and Justine Bateman's Mallory. This message would have been delivered to the cast during season two or maybe when season two was renewed and season three planning began for the team. What happened in season three? Meredith Baxter is almost non-existent because in real life she became pregnant with twins. Her character, Elyse, was written as pregnant again because they couldn't hide it like Seinfeld did with Julia Louis-Dreyfeus' pregnancies with giant jackets, shot selection + '90s fashions. Was her pregnancy planned in real life + the 4th child always going to happen on the show? Maybe, but would you believe that told by sharks from Hollywood? I don't because despite being a show supposedly about her, she spends most of the pregnancy off camera. Would you rather believe that Meredith Baxter-Birney acted well in the 1970s, was finally given a lead role on TV only to see the producers take that away from her and focus 'her show' on the formerly unknown actor, and at age 37, decide to get pregnant as a spiteful protest of "fuck this"? In real life, she had her last child prior to the twins 10 years earlier. She had three kids already. She just plans on another kid as the show is rolling along? Things just don't add up right. Plus, adding a new child would throw a monkey wrench into the show's dynamic and developed relationships.
This had a major effect on the show because season three is really interesting with her absence, leaving Michael Gross as the one adult. It is the transition year as the writers had to feel their way to making Alex a true protagonist with friendlier story lines while balancing that he was still a teenager. In a smaller way, the same goes for Mallory. The real hero of the show's third season, who acted superbly, is Michael Gross. For '80s sitcoms, he's the gold standard dad. You didn't know his name, but you said, "The dad from Family Ties". Season three is the clincher for me. He was the funny and thoughtful dad in the first two seasons, but in season three, he shines. With Elyse out of the picture on many shows, he becomes the pivot point for the action. He is the dramatic figure when needed, the comedic partner when needed, and he has classic dad answers at many turns. The show was three teenage actors and him, and it was excellent. A show with three teens and one adult would most likely suck due to poor acting and credibility issues. Michael Gross was the foundation for that season. It gave the show time to figure out how to transition Alex and Mallory from ancillary comedic characters to more serious characters with varied story lines.
Meredith returned full time near the end of season three, but the show was transitioning away from her. Looking at season four, the first eight episodes focus on the children's conflicts. There is no big Elyse (or marital) conflict until episode nine. Season four is also when Family Ties became the show we remember it as (awesome). Michael J. Fox was such a tremendous actor at such a young age, that he could carry episodes by himself. Stereotyping Hollywood here, this feels like something a Hollywood actress would do when they get their dream role and set up only to see it be handed to someone else. "It was suppose to be my show. How dare they do this to me? Screw them. Scorched earth baby." If one looks over her roles outside of Family Ties, she managed to play characters that had interesting quirks that mirrored her real life. Sounds like a normal Hollywood narcissist. This conspiracy theory might sound crazy, but it makes more sense than the rest of her personal life.