First of all, I’d like to make it clear that I realize the title of this episode is not actually “The One Where Tom Hanks Plays a Drunk”. But if I gave this recap the actual title of “Say Uncle”, nobody would know what the hell I was talking about, other than the hardcore Family Ties fans who know every episode title by heart, and do people like that really exist? For their sake, I hope they don’t.
It’s probably been 20 years since the last time I watched a full episode of Family Ties, but I’ve been meaning to delve into the show for some time now. I was reminded of this when Family Ties found its way into the news lately. For those who haven’t heard, Meredith Baxter just announced she’s a lesbian, and let’s face it, it’s not every day that a sitcom mom comes out of the closet. My money’s on Patricia Richardson being next. She’s just got that look.
In honor of the occasion, I decided to recap an episode of Family Ties centered on Meredith Baxter’s character. But as it turns out, there aren’t any. Or rather, there aren’t any worth writing about.
Family Ties was originally a show about two ex-hippies, Stephen and Elyse Keaton, who settle down in the suburbs and have a family, and find their lofty Baby Boomer ideals clashing with the cynical realities of Reagan’s America. Ratings for the first two seasons were mediocre at best, but in the fall of 1984, the show was paired with future ratings juggernaut The Cosby Show. Blessed with this lead-in, Family Ties became a top 10 show, and helped kick off NBC’s dominance of Thursday nights for years to come.
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Okay, the show’s success wasn’t all about its lead in; Audiences (and by “audiences” I mostly mean teenage girls) were responding strongly to Michael J. Fox, who played oldest son Alex P. Keaton, who was every bit the icon of ‘80s upward mobility and voodoo economics as Gordon Gekko. And when Fox became a movie star in his own right, Family Ties was rechristened The Alex P. Keaton Show: All Alex, all the time, and you just had to tune in every week to see what that crazy Alex was gonna do next. That’s how I remember it, anyway.
Eventually, the Keaton Kids took over and became the primary focus of the show. Even the kids’ love interests got more screen time than the parents. Daughter Mallory (Justine Bateman) started dating an unemployed artist named Nick, and if you can believe it, the character was deemed popular enough for the network to order a pilot for a potential spinoff series.
It’s my understanding that, in the later seasons, Baxter and co-star Michael Gross fought tooth and nail to get at least a few plots devoted to the parents, but the sad truth is, there are no memorable Elyse Keaton episodes. It turns out the most memorable thing Meredith Baxter did in all seven seasons of Family Ties was play Tom Hanks’ sister.
Long before the Oscar, and the other Oscar, and becoming one of the biggest movie stars in the world, back when he was still “that guy from Bosom Buddies”, Tom Hanks did a couple of guest spots on Family Ties as Elyse’s brother, Ned Donnelly. His first appearance in season one established him as a corporate whiz kid who ran afoul of the law, while also introducing the world to the memorable line, "The falcon has landed, and the fat man walks alone." But it was his second appearance in season two that would find him confronting an even more important issue.
Family Ties relied a bit more on dramatic beats than most sitcoms of the day, leading to a proliferation of what might be called “very special episodes” today, though they generally weren’t billed that way at the time. But “Say Uncle” definitely qualifies. So join me now for a look back at a very special Family Ties, wherein very special guest star Tom Hanks struggles with the dark demons of alcoholism.
Opening credits time. I am soothed by the velvet tones of Johnny Mathis and Deniece Williams, while a painter touches his brush to a charcoal drawing of the Keatons. In clips from the show, much hugging happens.
Meredith Baxter (who was Meredith Baxter Birney at the time, because back then she was married to David Birney, and also into dudes) gets top billing on this show, of course. Let there be no doubt that Bridget Loves Bernie made her an entertainment force to be reckoned with.
And now, I’d like you to imagine yourself as an accomplished painter, and you’re called upon to use your considerable gifts to create a portrait of Tina Yothers. Would you just kill yourself on the spot?
Sha la la laaa...
We open on the Keaton family kitchen. Like all American families circa 1984, the Keatons cooked and ate dinner together every single night. But Jennifer, the youngest daughter, played by the aforementioned Tina Yothers, is driving the whole family insane with her cacophonous clarinet playing in the other room.
This scene reminds me of something I neglected to mention earlier about Family Ties, which is that, like most sitcoms of the era, it was painfully unfunny. The laugh track is cranked up to full volume even on the mildest jokes, and even the most feeble bits of physical comedy inspire the audience to burst into applause. And so it is with this episode. For the most part, I’ll be glossing over the unfunny jokes and just concentrating on the important! drama.
Also in this scene, I’m noticing for the first time that Meredith Baxter is kinda MILFy. At the time this show originally aired, I’m sure I was paying more attention to Justine Bateman, and in the later years, maybe even Tina Yothers (it was more of a “she’s awkward looking, just like me!” kind of thing). And even now, I’m sure my opinion is influenced a lot by how she just came out, sort of the way I suddenly started thinking Amanda Bearse from Married... with Children was kinda hot.
The usual brother-sister antagonistic banter happens between Alex and Mallory, and then Jennifer enters the kitchen, clarinet in hand. She’s excitedly waiting for “Uncle Ned” to show up, so she can “play for him”.
This triggers a big expository infodump from all members of the family, wherein we learn Uncle Ned is Elyse’s brother, and he’s very “unpredictable”, and father Stephen is trying to set up an interview for Ned down at “the station”. That would be the PBS station where Stephen works, if I recall correctly.
Speaking of Stephen, he now arrives home and tells his family he spoke to “Mr. Wertz”, and Wertz is totally down with interviewing Ned. Then the infodump resumes, with lots of discussion about Ned’s previous appearance on the show, and the parents talk about how he embezzled $4.5 million from his last job.
Alex sets them straight, and expositionizes some more, saying that Ned didn’t “embezzle” any money. He simply “hid that money in the computer” to prevent a merger that would have put a lot of people out of work. Uncle Ned hid money in a computer? Did he by any chance work for the same company featured in Superman III?
At long last, Uncle Ned arrives, and there’s a smattering of applause, because look, kids, it’s TV’s Tom Hanks! True to his unpredictable nature, Ned is cracking jokes left and right, and he even has the Keaton’s trash bags in hand, claiming some guys in a truck were trying to take them away. Hilarity! He then greets Mallory by singing a few bars of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl”, which is our first indication that he’s probably already drunk.
Ned then jokes about how Stephen has grown a beard since the last time he saw him. Wait, Stephen grew a beard in the second season? Does that officially make him this show’s Riker?
In our first hint of the “very special” nature of this episode, Ned immediately wants to “celebrate” his arrival with some beers. Then Jennifer enters, and Ned picks her up, and I swear he calls her “monkey face”. No lie. And he actually means it as a term of endearment.
The punch line that closes out the scene happens when Jennifer offers to play her clarinet for Uncle Ned. The whole family gets into a huddle behind her, frantically waving at Ned, warning him against listening to her play. End scene.
“No! Don’t! For god’s sake, don’t do Bonfire of the Vanities!”
Later, the Keatons unwind like any moderately affluent upper-middle class family back in the 1980s: by playing a rousing game of Trivial Pursuit. And here, I can’t help but notice how Uncle Ned is sitting with his arm draped over his niece’s knee. He’s practically sitting in her lap.
I guess when there’s enough beer going around, it’s easy to break down all sorts of boundaries, am I right, Mackenzie Phillips? Yeah, sorry for that one. But seriously, a few minutes after this, Mallory even runs her fingers lovingly through Ned’s hair. I have no idea what was going on there.
The whole time, Ned continues his wacky, unpredictable antics, and then tells Alex to go get him another beer. And now it’s ten o’clock, and the younger kids have to go to bed.
And with that, we now switch over to the Keaton Household After Dark, where the adults finally get to let their hair down. For reasons unknown, Alex gets to stay up with the grownups. This might have something to do with the fact that Michael J. Fox was 22 years old at the time. And Meredith Baxter was 35. What the hell?
Stephen tells Ned that he got him an interview tomorrow, for the position of “program consultant” down at the station, whatever that entails. Ned, being the fun loving drunk that he is, responds by kissing his brother in law on both cheeks.
Cut to later that night. Ned sits alone in the kitchen, in the dark, polishing off a bottle of whiskey. Alex turns on the light and goes looking for a midnight snack, and Ned yells at him, scaring the crap out of him. Alex says he’s pulling an all-nighter to study for an economics final, and Ned says he knows just the thing to help him study: a beer. True dat.
Alas, the beer’s all gone. He invites Alex to make a “beer run” with him, but it’s after 2 AM. Instead, Ned runs into the pantry to look for alcohol, thus setting up one of the greatest moments in TV history.
He emerges with an armful of jars, containing everything from artichoke hearts to maraschino cherries. Finally, he zeroes in on a bottle. One very small, very brown bottle. It’s vanilla extract. Oh, hell yes.
In the absence of any other liquor, Ned decides to chug the whole bottle of vanilla extract, just to get a quick buzz. In the process, he informs an entire generation of kids that drinking vanilla extract is one of the primary signs of alcoholism. But the best part is Ned even has an awesome catch phrase to accompany this moment: “It may not be Miller Time, but it is vanilla time!” Jesus Christ, somebody needs to put that on a shirt.
Alex can’t believe his eyes. Then Ned offers to help Alex study for his exam, but Alex turns him down, given that Ned is currently loaded. So Ned suddenly transforms from a goofy, happy drunk into Mr. Angry Drunk, grabbing Alex by the arm and reminding him that he’s a genius in the area of economics, and he even “spoke at the World Bank!”
Then he whipsaws right back into happy-go-lucky drunk mode. He opens up the jar of cherries and pours Alex a glass of a cherries. Alex says he’s a little freaked out, because he’s never seen Ned drunk before.
This brings back the rage monster, and Ned tosses his chair around and charges at Alex, before coming back around to affectionate drunk, and hugging Alex. And then, ten seconds later, he goes right back into mean drunk mode. It’s like the eight stages of addiction all compressed into two minutes.
Ned yells at Alex for thinking he could just come in here and “prop me up with some pious platitudes”. Because as everyone knows, drunks love tongue twisters.
The scene ends with Ned angrily calling Alex a “punk”. Ned seems near tears, but then he turns back into Lovable Drunk Ned, and leaves with his glass of cherries. End scene. And despite the awful, hackneyed writing here, I have to admit it’s really not that hard to believe I’m watching someone who went on to win back-to-back Academy Awards for Best Actor.
The next morning in the kitchen, Ned’s getting ready for the interview. Alex tries to confront him about what happened, saying he couldn’t sleep at all last night. Ned turns this into a joke where he implies Alex was having wet dreams, suggesting one of the cures is to “think of Buddy Hackett”. When in doubt, throw in a Buddy Hackett reference, it’s comedy gold.
Just then, everyone comes streaming into the kitchen, and Mallory and Jennifer present Uncle Ned with dress socks they bought for him. How they bought these between last night’s Trivial Pursuit game and this morning, I have no idea. Maybe they sewed the socks themselves.
Dad leaves, and the girls leave, and Ned wanders off into the living room. Alex finally tells his mom that Ned has a drinking problem. She blows him off at first, so Alex has no choice but to drop the big vanilla extract bombshell. Elyse is stunned into silence by the revelation that her brother drinks vanilla extract. Alex grabs his attaché case and heads for school, telling his mom that she really needs to talk to Uncle Ned.
Enter Ned, wearing a suit. He digs around in his jacket pocket and finds a small bottle of vodka left over from a flight he took last year. He promptly dumps the vodka into his orange juice. So, what this episode seems to be saying is that if a person feels the need to have a screwdriver first thing in the morning to take the edge off before a job interview, that person might have a drinking problem. This is good information to have.
Elyse nags him about his drinking, but Ned assures her that (all together now!) he “can stop this anytime I want to.” Elyse calls him on this, so he dumps his orange juice down the sink. So, problem solved, right?
Now Ned’s down at the station, in the office of Mr. Wertz, your typical gray haired boss man type. Boss Man is impressed by Ned’s résumé, and Stephen is giving him two big thumbs up behind the Boss Man’s head. Then Boss Man gets into some of the dicey areas on Ned’s résumé. So Ned responds by reaching into his attaché and pulling out, of all things, Jennifer’s clarinet. He says he can explain the gaps in his resume with “music”.
Just as he blows into the clarinet, the phone rings. Stephen answers, telling Mr. Wertz it’s for him, and I would imagine so, given the phone is on Mr. Wertz’s desk. While Wertz is on the phone, Stephen tries to gently talk some sense into Ned, though it’s pretty obvious Ned is bombed out of his mind.
Ned continues to be the ridiculous, goofy drunk, playing musical chairs and jostling and shoving Mr. Wertz around. And yet, despite being manhandled, the thing that really sets Mr. Wertz off is the fact that Ned isn’t wearing socks. I’d have thought trying to play the clarinet during a job interview would be the deal breaker, but I guess not.
Good news, though: Ned didn’t forget his socks. In fact, he has them in his jacket pocket. And the moment when he pulls the socks out of his jacket is about the only genuinely funny moment in the entire episode. Eventually, Ned completely goes off the rails, and now he’s on the floor, and climbing under Mr. Wertz’s desk. Finally, Wertz tells Ned the interview is over. Stephen looks mortified as Ned quips his way out.
That night, Stephen comes home, boiling over with rage. He tells Elyse and Alex that Ned showed up to the interview “drunk... without socks!” It’s now obvious to everyone that Uncle Ned has a drinking problem. They wonder what they should do about it, and Stephen helpfully says Ned should “call Alcoholics Anonymous.”
Just then, Ned bursts in with a bottle of champagne, loudly referring to Stephen as “Steverino”. So, what makes him think Ned should call AA? Elyse reminds Ned he promised he wouldn’t drink. So Ned jokes that the only reason he drank is because he ran into “Merv Griffin”, and I would go into more detail on this, but the joke is not funny in context, either.
Finally, Ned says he doesn’t give a damn about what happens to him, because he’s not even 30 and he’s all washed up. He says, “Olga Korbut, the Mouseketeers, Ned Donnelly, we’re all has-beens!” Olga Korbut? Yeah, I had to look that one up, myself.
Elyse says he needs to call AA, and she goes to the phone book to get the number. And now, here’s Stephen to tell it like it is. The thing about Stephen Keaton is, the angrier he gets, the more focused and precise he becomes. He carefully tells Ned, “You’re sick. You have a diseeeease,” and he warns Ned that this disease will kill him.
But Ned doesn’t care if he lives or dies. So Alex pulls out newspaper clippings that he carries in his wallet at all times, describing all of Ned’s accomplishments on the world economic stage. In a nice nod to continuity, the clippings he shows off are the exact same clippings he showed off in the previous Ned-related episode.
So Ned responds by taking the clippings and throwing them in the fireplace. Alex tries to stop him, so Ned pimp slaps Alex, sending him flying across the living room. Holy shit. I had no idea I would see real, actual stunt work on Family Ties.
Ned sobs like a baby, and Alex looks destroyed. And then, Stephen brings the white hot heat. Let there be no doubt that this bullshit ends now. “Alright, Ned. That’s it. It’s over. Right now... either you get some help... or you get the hell out of my house.”
Thankfully, Elyse is right there to stiffly hold out a piece of paper with the number for AA. She got that number out the phone book and everything!
Ned gets up, still cracking weak jokes through his tears as he picks up the phone and dials. Eventually, he tells the person on the other end, “My name is Ned Donnelly, and I have a drinking problem.” You idiot. It’s Alcoholics Anonymous, and you just told them your last name. Now they can’t help you at all.
And with that, the episode ends. Because to cure alcoholism, all a person has to do is pick up a phone and call Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s just that simple! End of story.
Unfortunately, we never find out what becomes of Uncle Ned. A few months after this episode aired, Tom Hanks hit the big time with Splash, and that was the last anyone ever heard of Ned Donnelly. But we’ll always have this episode, and fond memories of vanilla time.