If you’ve been getting a heavy Family Ties vibe off Spin City (ABC, Wednesdays, 8-8:30 p.m.) lately, you’re not the only one. As if the presence of Ties creator Gary David Goldberg and its star Michael J. Fox weren’t enough, Spin has engaged in a pair of November-sweeps stunts designed to evoke memories of the 1982-89 NBC sitcom.
First, Tracy Pollan, who played Fox’s girlfriend on Ties from 1985 to ‘86 and is now his wife, guested as an ex-girlfriend of Fox’s Spin character, New York City deputy mayor Mike Flaherty. And on Nov. 19, Meredith Baxter, who played Fox’s mom on Ties, begins a two-week stint on Spin as…Mike’s mom. Conveniently unattached, she starts dating Mike’s boss, the freshly divorced Mayor Randall Winston (Barry Bostwick).
These nostalgic reunions are surefire ratings boosters — CBS’ George & Leo recently scored its biggest numbers ever with an episode that brought back 20 former costars of Bob Newhart and Judd Hirsch. Yet such gimmicks can’t hide the fact that Spin and Ties are fundamentally different sitcoms. In fact, their evolutions have been opposite: Ties started out as an ensemble sitcom with political themes and turned into a star-driven comedy with romantic themes, while Spin started out as a star-driven comedy with romantic themes and turned into an ensemble sitcom with political themes.
Ties’ concept was simple: Hippie parents with yuppie kids. Sixties survivors Steven and Elyse Keaton (Michael Gross and Baxter) were shocked their three kids didn’t share their flower-power values: Their son Alex (Fox) was a Young Republican who slept with a photo of William F. Buckley over his bed.
The sitcom earned mediocre ratings for its first two seasons, then suddenly shot into the top 5 in 1984 when it moved onto NBC’s Thursday-night schedule (a powerhouse driven by Ties’ lead-in, The Cosby Show). The show started to focus more on Alex’s love life — and less on his politics — after Fox became a bona fide movie star with 1985’s Back to the Future. Alex first dated Pollan’s Ellen, then moved on to Lauren, a psychology student played by a post-Springsteen video, pre-Friends Courteney Cox. Even though the Keatons added another towheaded moppet to their brood, Andrew (Brian Bonsall), Fox remained the show’s star.
Apparently determined not to make the same mistake twice, Fox and Goldberg set out to make Spin a romantic star vehicle that just happened to take place in the world of politics. Mike moved in with his girlfriend (Carla Gugino) in last fall’s pilot, and the first episodes dealt more with his sexual travails than his governmental exploits.
But by concentrating on a young couple, Spin started to seem like a warmed-over Mad About You (which isn’t all that hot to begin with). At the same time, Mike’s coworkers emerged as fascinating characters, particularly Bostwick’s blithely above-it-all mayor and Michael Boatman’s gay activist Carter.