Feb 28, 2010
Family Ties “A, My Name is Alex” (part 1 of 5)
SUMMARY: In this very special, hour-long episode of Family Ties, Alex is reeling from the sudden death of one of his closest friends. To cope with the tragic loss of a character nobody had ever heard of prior to this episode, Alex goes to see a therapist.
Fortunately, his therapist happens to also be directing a summer stock production of Our Town, and he lets Alex wander around the stage, act out forgettable events from his childhood, and say nothing of any real importance about God and the meaning of life.
It’s time once again to examine the sitcom that everyone loved while it was on the air, but completely stopped caring about the minute it was over: Family Ties! This recap concerns a Very Special Episode. Well, yeah, of course it does. It’s Family Ties, so that’s sort of a given.
But this time around, I’m talking about the Mother of All Very Special Episodes: “A, My Name is Alex”, which aired on the NBC television network on March 12, 1987.
I don’t think anyone under the age of 25 can fully appreciate how much hype and anticipation there was surrounding this episode when it originally aired. All indications were that “A, My Name is Alex” was going to deliver something never, ever seen before in the television medium.
“A, My Name is Alex” was going to break genre boundaries. “A, My Name is Alex” was going to smash the fourth wall. “A, My Name is Alex” was going to give us all totally new insights into the nature of existence itself. “A, My Name is Alex” would be all that, and oh yes, it would also be the bag of chips.
It was the long overdue Big Statement from Family Ties creator/producer/writer Gary David Goldberg, because you can surely imagine how we as Americans were desperately wanting, nay, demanding the kind of profound spiritual wisdom that can only be dispensed by a sitcom writer. As he later explained in his autobiography, Goldberg even talked NBC entertainment chief Brandon Tartikoff into airing this episode in one, unbroken, hour-long timeslot, with limited commercial interruption, because this episode was just that important to our survival as a civilization.
The bold move paid off. Goldberg and co-writer Alan Uger won Emmys for writing, Michael J. Fox picked up his third consecutive Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, and we all came together as a country to witness a watershed moment in TV history. “A, My Name is Alex” was going to change the world!
Well, except for the part where it kind of… sucked?
I’ll grant you, it’s entirely possible the episode was some kind of revelation at the time. But it sure hasn’t aged well. The laughs are weak (even by Family Ties standards), the story gets stuck in a loop and repeats itself roughly twelve times, the profound truths are mostly just clichés, and it seems the writers completely forgot to have some sort of point to the whole thing.
So how did this episode become award-worthy and world-famous? How did “A, My Name is Alex” become the only episode of Family Ties that anybody remembers nowadays that doesn’t involve Tom Hanks drinking vanilla extract?
I’d say it’s mostly a sign of how dead in the water the sitcom format was at the time that a mediocre script like this could be hailed as a staggering work of genius. I mean, have you watched any late ‘80s sitcoms lately? Have you really sat down and watched, say, Charles in Charge or Full House or—god forbid—Webster lately? Compared to the greatest-ever episode of Punky Brewster, “A, My Name is Alex” is a sublime work of art.
But thankfully, a few years after this, the likes of Seinfeld and Friends and The Simpsons would come along to breathe new life into half hour comedies, as well as mercifully put a bullet between the eyes of the whole “Very Special Episode” concept. I’m actually pretty sure that when the Seinfeld writers came up with their “no hugging, no learning” mantra, they were thinking specifically of this episode. Because “A, My Name is Alex” contains more hugging and more learning than anyone had ever dreamt possible.
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The episode opens, like nine out of ten Family Ties episodes, in the Keaton family kitchen. Jennifer is here, and Tina Yothers is again dressed like a linebacker—in fact, it’s the exact same outfit she wore at the outset of the “Band on the Run” episode. She’s making hot cocoa for little Andrew and explaining how the rest of the Keaton clan will be back from “the funeral” soon.
I guess she’s getting impatient, because she threatens to kidnap Andy and take him to Mexico if the rest of the family doesn’t come home soon. No, really.
Andy mumbles something indecipherable that the closed captioning informs me is “What’s a funeral?” Wow, I can already tell this episode is going to be a laugh riot. Andy, you so crazy!
Jennifer explains that a funeral is where you go to show respect to someone who just died. In this case, “Greg, Alex’s friend”. A friend who, needless to say, we have never seen or heard of prior to this episode.
A lot of people trash this episode for killing off a supposed “close friend” of Alex’s that we never saw on the show before. But I think that’s mostly a retroactive criticism leveled by people spoiled on years of serialized comedies. You kids today with your Offices and your How I Met Your Mothers just don’t know; This was pretty much the way sitcoms worked back then. And we liked it!
It was definitely the way Family Ties worked. Whenever one of the kids was having an issue with a friend or a significant other, and that friend/S.O. was not Nick or Skippy, or played by Courteney Cox or Tracy Pollan, that friend/S.O. would be played by an actor who would show up for one episode, collect scale, and never be seen again. Alex had so many single-serving friends over the course of the series that I doubt it ever crossed the producers’ minds that he’d be grieving over some dude named “Greg” no one had heard of.
And really, what did you expect them to do? Kill off Skippy? Or take time out from earlier episodes to throw in some random friend named Greg, just to give his death some meaning? Come on, it was the ‘80s. That time was much better spent on original songs by Tina Yothers.
Upon hearing that Alex’s friend Greg just died, Andy says he wants to meet him. This leaves Jennifer to stammer her way through an awkward explanation of why you can’t see dead people unless your name is Cole Seer. And then Andy does that standard toddler routine, where he keeps asking “why” over and over, and Jennifer gets more and more flustered, and it’s all just painful.
To Jennifer’s relief, the entire Keaton clan files in, all dressed in black, minus Alex. Alex is obviously hanging a few paces back on the long, arduous walk from the driveway to the house, just so he can have a comical entrance in a minute or two.
As everybody comes in, Andy spills the beans about Jennifer wanting to abduct him and take him to Tijuana, but Jenn just excuses it by saying it was “a long afternoon”. And now that everybody’s home, Jennifer is free to… take Andy in the other room to look at “travel brochures”. Huh? Wasn’t she desperate for everyone to come home just so she could pass off Andy to someone else?
The parents and Mallory talk about how sad the occasion is. Greg was only 21, and Elyse feels really bad, but all she could say to Greg’s mom was “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” Actually, I think at a funeral, that should about suffice.
Steven says everyone’s pretty broken up about Greg dying. “Look at Alex!”
And with that, a stage hand cues Michael J. Fox, and here’s Alex, incongruously jubilant, loudly declaring, “Was that a funeral, or what?” He cracks wise all over the kitchen about the service, and how it’s important to show the dead some respect, because “the dead have an image problem”. Which would’ve almost been a funny line, if it wasn’t immediately followed up with way too loud canned laughter. I really get the feeling they were told by the network after the fact to lighten up some of the black humor, which they accomplished primarily by piping in extra laughs.
Everyone’s disturbed by Alex’s upbeat demeanor, and they try to tell him to go get some rest. Yeah, sleep that denial off!
But Alex perches himself up on a counter and talks about how “lucky” he is. You see, he was supposed to be in “that car” with Greg. He describes how Greg wanted Alex to help him move a piano—a piano?—but Alex said he was too busy. “Selfishness saved my life!” Alex yells. “I knew it would come in handy!” Trust me, Alex, selfishness always comes in handy.
Then Alex casually asks the family what they thought of his eulogy. Steven approves, but suggests it wasn’t really necessary to “mention his net worth”. Apparently, Alex also talked about Greg’s “projected earnings” during the eulogy. So it’s the usual “Alex loves money” humor you get with this show, but when you think about it, really, really dark. I mean, just imagine the guy’s poor crying mother sitting there, and Alex has charts and graphs on an easel showing what Greg would’ve earned had he lived. That’s… probably one of the most fucked up things this show ever implied Alex did, actually.
Mallory gives Alex some crap about his eulogy, so Alex snarks back about Mallory’s eulogy. He says the guy was lying in the casket and Mallory had the nerve to say “his tie didn’t go with his suit”. Wait, Mallory gave a eulogy, too? Was she also close to Greg? Nothing else in the episode gives that impression, so I’m guessing they only threw in that detail as a setup for that silly joke.
And it’s also a setup for the next silly joke, where Mallory says Greg’s burial outfit was indeed hideous. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in those colors!” Hah! She immediately realizes she’s spoken out of turn, and puts a hand to her mouth. Which is how you know it’s a Very Special Episode: Mallory almost shows tact.
The parents try to counter all the dark humor by making everyone sit around the kitchen table, reminiscing about what a special guy that Greg was. Good ol’ Greg, the light in everyone’s lives. Who didn’t love Greg? I mean, for sure, everyone in this family had heard of him. He really and truly did exist!
Elyse thinks back to the time when Andy was born. For those keeping track, that was about two years ago in real time, but five or six years ago in Andy Rapid Aging Time. And like any great TV retcon, we find out Greg was important in the Keatons’ lives even back then.
At the time, Greg gave Elyse a Bible, allegedly quipping, “If [Andrew] turns out to be another Alex, you’re gonna need it!” Oh, Greg, you so crazy! Wait, that doesn’t even make sense. Even if Alex is the Antichrist—which is certainly possible, given he was elected to Congress during the run of Spin City—how exactly would owning a Bible help?
And now here’s Steven to shoehorn in a little exposition. It seems Greg was a real sports nut. He was never, ever seen without his Indians cap. Nobody “loved the Indians” more than Greg. The baseball team, he means. Though I’m sure Greg had nothing but love for native peoples.
Alex bitterly says they should have buried him in that cap. Mallory chimes in that the cap wouldn’t have gone with the suit, and poof, just like that, fondly reminiscing about Greg’s specialness is officially over.
They all leave the kitchen, but then someone calls out to Alex. Alex turns around, and some dude in an Indians cap is sprawled out across the counter. Indians cap? OMG, it’s Greg! But wait, he’s dead! OMFG, it’s Zombie Greg, here to feast on Keaton brains!
Okay, not really. “Greg” is just a figment of Alex’s imagination, as will become obvious in a second or two.
But hey, good thing they established the Indians cap thing, right? Otherwise, we’d have no clue who this guy is. Especially since Alex sees him and immediately yells, “Greg!” and “Gregger is back!” Yeah, I guess there really was no point to all that “sports nut” talk, was there?
Alex is ecstatic to see Greg alive again, and runs over to hug him. Cut to the rest of the family coming back into the kitchen, only to find Alex hysterically hugging himself. So it would appear that the inevitable has happened: Alex has finally lost his ever-lovin’ mind.
To cover up this apparent psychotic break, Alex claims he was just inventing a new dance called “the Keaton Samba”, and to prove it, he starts doing halfhearted dance moves. Everyone realizes that Alex is swiftly losing his grip on reality, and they all skedaddle to allow Dad to have a heart-to-heart with Alex.
Steven tells Alex not to rush things, and let himself take the time he needs to grieve. And then Steven quickly skedaddles as well. Because seriously, who wants to be that close to some crazy Republican nutjob having hallucinations?