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.