When I first heard about this, I thought “great, another fucking reboot.” Is Hollywood really this creatively bankrupt? (Yes.)
With The Transformers reboot, at least there was the chance that today’s technology could give us a paradigm-shifting experience (and it did! Seven times!). And reboots of 90s classics like Sabrina the Teenage Witch just make sense. Who wouldn’t want to watch a cat puppet talk to a girl we’re not sure how to feel about wanting to hump?
But Family Ties? Really? The only reason it worked in the first place was the spank-bankability of Meredith Baxter-Birney. Without the sexual tension between her and Michael J. Fox, what’s the point?
I’m happy to report that I was wrong.
Family Ties: The Ties That Bind melds all of the classic archetypes of the original with today’s dystopian angst. We still have the liberal dad (Jeff Goldblum), the hot mom (Meryl Streep), the stupid sister (Gabrielle Union) and the stupider sister (Emma Watson), as well as the feisty young Republican Alex P. Keaton, played this time around by Willem Dafoe.
At first, the relative ages of the actors is jarring (all of them are in their mid to late 60s except for Gabrielle Union, 45, and Emma Watson, 28), as is the fact that Gabrielle Union, who is black, is playing Mallory, who is indeed supposed to be the biological sister of Alex and Jennifer. But this ensemble cast of veteran actors manages to pull it off. Within the first five minutes, you truly believe you’re watching a real life, all white, suburban family.
Streep and Goldblum capture the disillusionment of a “middle class” mom and dad who can’t even afford a two bedroom apartment, and Union and Watson shine as a struggling teenager and a moron respectively, but the show-stealer is Dafoe’s Alex, who is no longer an 80s young Republican, but a “now” young Republican. Gone are the suits and the briefcase, exchanged for confederate flag t-shirts, ripped jeans, and “shitkickers.” Gone too are young Alex’s pretententions about “school learnin” and civil rights. In Alex P. Keaton, we have the portrait of a frustrated man-child who has turned his sexual rage against the minorities in his community. One key scene, in which Alex curb stomps a Korean grocer, is eerily reminiscent of Edward Norton’s performance in American History X.
As the show progresses, Watson’s subdued portrayal of a mentally challenged child cuts deeper and deeper. She isn’t “pretending” to be Jennifer, she’s living it. You feel like you’re watching a real life moron. When she grabs Alex and screams “Who are you? Where am I? What the hell is going on!”, her confusion is palpable.
Goldblum’s “Jeff Goldbluminess” is inevitable at this point, but the show manages to incorporate it brilliantly by making the patriarch a stroke survivor. “How – can I work on the radio – now?” And Streep’s relentless harpy compliments him perfectly.
Union, as usual, is a revelation. As a black woman playing a white teenager with no makeup, prosthetics, or CGI, she, like her ancestors, undoubtedly has the heaviest load to carry, but she pulls it off with dignity and aplomb. If there’s one black person in America who could catch a cab at night or get a fair shake at a job interview, it’s Gabrielle Union. That’s how good she is at pretending to be white.