Nine-year-old Jennifer was a typical kid in the midst of all the craziness. She began as somewhat of a tomboy, but eventually she and her family had to face her impending teenager-ness. Jennifer dealt with the pressures of popularity and first dates, changing friendships and bigger responsibilities. And all under the watchful eye of (and constant interference by) her family, particularly Alex and Mallory.
Fifteen-year-old Mallory was another story. While Alex excelled in academics, school held little interest for Mallory. What she thrived on was fashion and boys. In fact, her fashion-sense frequently outweighed even her common sense. Her time was spent on shopping, dating, bickering with Alex, and ignoring the goofy boy next door, Skippy, who had a crush on her. In season 4, Mallory brought home a new boyfriend. Nick Moore was an unkempt, slow-witted artist, greeting everyone with a short Fonzie-like "Ayyyy."
The oldest, Alex, played by the show's breakout star Michael J. Fox, was a seventeen-year-old conservative who dressed in a suit and tie and kept a framed picture of William F. Buckley, Jr., in his room. His main interest from an early age was money, and he didn't take this interest lightly. A school paper Alex wrote in the first grade prompted the following note from his teacher: "Alex knows more about economics than most people in America. I'm assuming this paper deserves an A. I don't fully understand it." Alex was an academic overachiever, but he finally got a chance to grow emotionally through his two serious romantic relationships. The first was in Alex's freshman year at Leland College (season 4) with Ellen Reed, played by Tracy Pollan. Ellen and Alex disliked each other at first sight, but soon fell passionately in love. (Michael J. Fox and Tracy Pollan began dating in real life after meeting on the show, and eventually got married.) The next was in Season 6, with psychology student Lauren Miller, played by Courtney Cox.
Andrew, the youngest, was born at the end of season 3. He could be thought of as a last-chance kid, a cute child brought into a show to help sagging ratings after all of the existing kids have out-grown their cuteness, except that he appeared too early in the show's run. Andy's arrival was really more an opportunity to show how a well-established family unit deals with a big shift in their lives. By season 6, Andy (Brian Bonsall) was already four-years-old, and had taken on the role of sidekick to big brother Alex. Andy idolized Alex, and Alex in turn taught Andy all about his favorite past-time-money.
One of the most famous episodes in this vein, the one-hour "My Name is Alex" in season 5, centered around a car accident that had killed Alex's close friend Greg. Alex, having refused to accompany his friend on the fatal trip because he was too busy, is overcome by guilt. His family convinces him to see a psychiatrist, which prompts a theater-style performance on a nearly bare stage in which Alex works through his anger and grief in a series of flashbacks to periods of his childhood.
In the show's final season, the Keatons faced some of their biggest challenges. They dealt with racism when a black family moved into their neighborhood and a family crisis when Steven had a heart attack and had to undergo bypass surgery. But the biggest challenge came in the final episode. Alex, who had never strayed far from home (even while attending college), accepted a job at a Wall Street brokerage firm. This meant the inevitable dissolution of the family unit. It was clear to the Keatons, and to the audience, that things could never be the same again. Alex moved away, and Family Ties came to an end on May 14, 1989.
Elyse and Steven Keaton, one-time flower children, were now parents and professionals trying to hold on to their liberal beliefs. Elyse, played by Meredith Baxter-Birney before she dropped Birney from her name and became queen of made-for-television woman-in-peril movies, was an architect. Steven, played by Michael Gross, managed the public TV station WKS-TV Channel 3. Although at times they got caught up in their careers and worked too long and hard like any parents, they also did things like participate in an anti-nuke rally on Thanksgiving Day that landed them in jail. But despite their personal struggles with changing values, what tended to test them most was their children.
It took some time for the Keatons to see what Mallory liked about Nick, including his sensitivity and talent as a sculptor. In season 5, after barely graduating high school, Mallory entered Grant Junior College to study fashion design. She and Nick continued as a couple, moving together into adulthood.
Although a comedy at its heart, Family Ties tackled many serious issues. There were episodes that dealt with topics like divorce, suicide, teen pregnancy, and illness, all with a mix of gravity and humor.