“Doesn’t anyone notice that filmed entertainment treats the iPad like a television monitor? Don’t you think that’s weird?”
It is weird, I suppose. But what’s weirder is that I’m having this conversation with one of the bigger “filmed entertainment” figures of my childhood — former Family Ties star Justine Bateman. “It’s a miracle of technology that you can touch it and move stuff around!” Bateman continues with evangelical zeal. If her endearingly unguarded enthusiasm about the future of media is anything to go by, I think she might be as much of a “nerd” as a certain Alex P. Keaton. Also — and this is so not Mallory Keaton — she really, really likes school.
In an era in which ranking the worst implosions by a child star has become a parlor game (think Lohan, Culkin, or the entire cast of Different Strokes), Bateman has chosen a decidedly different, albeit public, path. The 47-year-old is enrolled as a freshman at UCLA, and she plans to major in computer science. We’re sitting at a bustling patio near Powell Library, and later today she’ll check out an extra discussion group for the Chem class she’s taking, her fifth such discussion group since last week. She’s “a hog” when it comes to discussion groups. And don’t get her started on her Vikings class. She loves Vikings.
It’s a bit of a reboot for Bateman, one she says was prompted by her disillusionment with showbiz. Part of it was the grind of keeping an acting career going. Although Bateman has had a respectable run of TV credits since her ’80s heyday, at some point burnout set in: “I can’t audition anymore. I just completely ran out of gas,” she says. But a bigger part of it seems to be the industry’s general unwillingness to embrace change — at least as fast as Bateman wants it to.
Her conversion experience came during the 2007–2008 Writer’s Strike, when she helped produce a series of online shorts in support of the Writers Guild of America. The ease with which they reached people around the world blew her mind: “I thought, ‘This is what I’ve been waiting for my whole life,’ and I started getting ideas about what we could be doing.” Those ideas led her to form a production company, which in turn made her into somewhat of a go-to expert on the “digital space.”
But she eventually found that showing up on roundtables and panels was one thing, but actually raising money to realize her ideas was another. When I express surprise, mumbling something about how I thought companies wanted “multi-platform” content these days, she shuts me down: “No, they don’t. They want to sell the same thing five times. Every time I saw a new technology I thought, ‘How can this be applied to a filmed narrative?’. . . People kept saying, ‘This is great, but you’re four years ahead.’” Bateman pulls out her iPhone. “To me, that’s like saying ‘This touchscreen is four years ahead — I’m not gonna buy it!’”
So back to school it is, complete with a Tumblr to document her progress. Bateman insists there’s no master plan besides a desire to get a job someday. “I really, really love to work. I love tech, I was half in it. And when I did a search on Monster.com, no matter the keywords I put in half the jobs were for computer programmers and developers and I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’ll just go be a computer programmer.’”
It’s been satisfying, if not easy. For one thing, she’s had to shake off the “no-wrong-answers” vagueness of the arts for the precision demanded by the sciences. “When I started the chemistry class, I looked at the book and thought, ‘I don’t understand anything that’s in here.’ [After] reading it over and over and getting it explained and watching videos, it’s so cool to look at it now and say, ‘Oh yeah, what is it that I didn’t understand?’ But now the new challenge is to answer the questions absolutely perfectly on the test. Get the answer — nobody cares if you understand the concept. And it’s frustrating, because sometimes I’ll get a grade I could’ve gotten by not going to class at all.” She laughs — she has an easy laugh. “I could go on and on about my fucking grades . . . it’s just my ego.”
Speaking of which, it turns out most of her new Generation Y peers have never heard of Family Ties. Which, frankly, is just . . . Well, look. Anyone mind if I talk about Family Ties some more? Is that OK? Because Justine (I’m going to call her that now) and I spent so much time contemplating the future, I never had a chance to address the intense nostalgia this whole endeavor brought up. Here I am, profiling Justine Bateman, following in the footsteps of one-time People magazine writers Susan Toepfer and Michael Anderson, who began their piece in the May 16, 1988 issue like this:
Dark hair framing an intense pale face, T-shirt declaring her biker’s allegiance, black boots pulled over sleek black jeans, Justine Bateman whips out her black sunglasses and points her black Porsche toward the music of the night. “When in doubt, always wear black,” she advises.
I mean, if I try really hard I can almost remember reading that at age 16 — sitting in the leather club chair in the living room at my dad’s house, which was where I always caught up on my celebrity gossip via the stacks of People magazine that had accumulated since my last visit. We didn’t have the Internet then! No TMZ! And as for magazines, it was either People or The National Enquirer. That’s it. And the quaint, obviously publicist-approved non-scandals the article purports to address: Justine’s been “sniping at castmates”! Her brother Jason’s been “cold-shouldering the fans”! These, these . . . Showbiz Brats! It was a different time, kids.
Almost 25 years ago, in fact. And just a year later, Mallory would stick a red pocket square in her big brother’s suit as he went off to seek his fortune on Wall Street in the Family Ties series finale. I dare you to watch that bit where Alex rushes back in for the group hug and not choke up! You know, I was leaving the nest around that time as well (I graduated from Parkland High School). Ivy-League bound, just like Alex was once (until he blew off his Princeton interview to comfort Mallory that one time).
Anyway. Bateman says some of her teachers remember Family Ties, which is helpful when she needs a PTE (Permission to Enroll) in a class she wants. Otherwise, she’s pretty much just another South Campus bookworm, trying to get by. And best of luck to her.