Family Ties “Help Wanted” (part 1 of 2)
It’s like I always say: There’s no better way to follow up a recap of an episode of Family Ties that guest stars a future Oscar winner than with another recap of an episode of Family Ties that guest stars a future Oscar winner.
Geena Davis first appeared on the show back in 1984 (which is actually the same year as Tom Hanks’ final appearance on the show) in the season 3 episode “Help Wanted”. On the strength of this episode and one more appearance, NBC gave Geena her own sitcom, the short-lived Sara. After that, she gained notice for a small role in Fletch, then went on to score leading roles in The Fly, then Beetlejuice, then The Accidental Tourist, then Thelma and Louise, and the rest is history.
Unlike the Hanks appearance, “Help Wanted” cannot be classified as a “very special episode” in any sense of the term, because it deals with absolutely no touchy subjects. In fact, this is one of those rare Family Ties episodes that’s genuinely funny, thanks mostly to Geena Davis’ warm and lovable screen presence.
Opening credits. They’re exactly the same as season two’s opening credits, which I already talked about, so there’s nothing for me to say here. The Keatons get their portraits painted all over again. And the hugging continues.
Sha la la laaa…
The episode opens with Alex and Steven in the living room, interviewing candidates to be their new housekeeper. Steven explains to the current applicant that they’re looking for someone to help out while Elyse is “off her feet”, and also to help out with the baby later. Meredith Baxter was pregnant at the time, and her pregnancy was written into the show, but this is the one of the episodes filmed while she was taking time off to have her baby. Well, babies, actually. Twins! So, despite Elyse being frequently mentioned, she’s never actually seen in this episode.
The first candidate they’re interviewing is Anne Ramsey, an actress who would later gain a small measure of fame as Danny DeVito’s momma in Throw Momma From the Train. She was one terrifying old lady in that movie, and here they just happen to have her playing a terrifying old lady.
When Steven mentions that the salary was listed in the newspaper ad, Anne yells, “I thought it was a misprint!” She insists that kind of salary isn’t enough to deal with three children, and they need to “pay me more, or get rid of one of your children!” And she’s looking directly at Alex when she says this, as though he’s a prime candidate for being gotten rid of. But I’m not so sure that a 23 year old man really qualifies as a “child”.
Eventually, it comes out that Anne hates kids because she’s a total germophobe. And germs cause “disease which erodes the living tissue! The very fiber of life!” So, it’s sort of like that guy in Dr. Strangelove who was obsessed with his precious bodily fluids suddenly decided to become a housekeeper. Understandably, Steven quickly wraps up the interview and shows her out, and to no one’s surprise, she refuses to shake his hand on the way out.
Next, Jennifer and Mallory run in, saying they found someone who would be perfect for the job. They call this person in, and the joke is it’s a sweaty, bald, Italian guy in a tight shirt named “Max” who immediately offers to show off his tattoo. Steven tells the girls to go check on their mother, and Max even refers to Mallory as “dollface” as she leaves.
Max is played by Robert Costanzo, a character actor with an astounding 232 roles on his filmography. I’ll bet you any insane amount of money that you’ve seen him in something. In fact, he appeared on five different episodes of Family Ties as five different characters, which just about says it all.
It turns out Max was in prison for six years, and now he wants to be a nanny. Steven immediately decides it’s time to wrap this one up as well. Before Max heads out, for some reason, he really wants them to know that he can operate a “drill press”.
He leaves, and Steven has to pause, because Robert Costanzo is actually getting a round of applause from the audience. Hell, if you attended a taping of Family Ties all day, I’m sure you’d be starved for entertainment, too.
So, the first five minutes of this episode are basically an illustration of how good help is hard to find. Got it? Steven comes up with some contrived reason for leaving the room, and now Alex is alone when one final candidate rings the doorbell.
He opens the door, and hey, look, it’s Geena Davis! She introduces herself as Karen Nicholson.
Alex just stares at her with total lust in his eyes. She says she’s come to apply for the housekeeper position, and Alex says in near disbelief, “You have?”
He tells her to have a seat so he can interview her. During the interview, she cheerfully admits she has no experience, no references, and she can’t cook. Alex’s punchline to the scene is, “You’re hired!” And you knew that joke was coming, but Michael J. Fox’s delivery makes it really funny anyway.
The next day in the kitchen, Steven is miffed that Alex went ahead and hired someone without his approval. Alex assures him that he “couldn’t dream of a better woman! …For the job.”
And then Karen shows up at the back door, and actually lets herself in. Alex is still smitten, and I would say the funniest part of this episode is that Geena Davis is at least a foot taller than Michael J. Fox. She is a giantess. I haven’t seen a more mismatched couple since Yick and Melanie.
Karen and Alex and Steven all sit down at the kitchen table to get better acquainted. Steven tells her to be careful, because the table is “a little wobbly”. That becomes important later, so no, it’s not just some random detail they threw in.
Karen says she thought she’d never get the housekeeping job, seeing as how they were looking for someone with experience. Steven is humorously disconcerted to find out she has no experience. So Alex jumps in and, of all things, paraphrases Jean-Paul Sartre, saying that “suffering through the existential angst that is life, isn’t that the best kind of experience?” I doubt Sartre ever said anything like that, but one thing’s for sure: Karen is clearly suffering from existential angst. I mean, just look at her.
And I’m sure some smarty pants with a philosophy degree will be along in the comments to pick apart the joke, but frankly, the idea of Family Ties referencing Jean-Paul Sartre is hilarious enough in and of itself. Steven’s comeback is, “You ever see Sartre’s house?” Zing! But seriously, I’ve heard it’s a real dump. Also, it has a severe lack of exits.
Karen insists she’s a fast learner. Alex says that’s a great quality to find in a housekeeper, along with a “little button nose”.
And now it’s time for Karen’s first assignment. Steven says his conspicuously unseen wife wants breakfast, and tells Karen to make some eggs. So Karen just stands there, looking around the kitchen bewildered, until Alex whispers, “In the refrigerator.” Yes, Karen has no idea that eggs are usually kept in a refrigerator. I think she was raised by wolves. Or the Inuit. They have fifty words for snow, but not a single one for “refrigerator”.
She pulls out a huge, uncovered cardboard tray of eggs, and I have a really bad feeling about where this is going. Steven says Elyse likes her eggs boiled. Karen cracks open an egg, then immediately realizes, “That’s not right, is it?” Luckily, Alex remains completely supportive and encouraging the whole time, assuring her that a cracked egg can somehow still be boiled.
Karen says she’ll start over. But then she proceeds to spazz out, and dump the whole tray of eggs on Steven’s shoes. I warned you this would end badly, didn’t I? No one ever listens to me.