Family Ties “Karen II, Alex 0” (part 1 of 3)
Let me get this out of the way: I liked Family Ties.
Looking back now, it was a hokey show. People forget that before the makers of Seinfeld famously declared, “no hugs, no lessons,” it was all hugs and lessons. All the time. On every show. I remember when Edie McClurg learned not to judge Marcia Wallace on Super Password. I cried my eyes out.
So it didn’t bother me when just about every Family Ties episode ground to a halt 21 minutes in so that Alex could apologize. That’s just the way TV was. He’d pick up his weekly Certificate of Narrowly Avoiding Being an Asshat, I’d get a snack and watch Cheers.
Oh, that’s the other thing. Family Ties was part of Must See TV. The first one. The real one. It was Cosby, Family Ties, Cheers and Night Court . The night just kept getting funnier. Even if Family Ties sucked, by the time Jennifer Tilly was getting killed on Hill Street Blues, you were in such a good mood, you didn’t care. And if the death of Jennifer Tilly doesn’t leave you grinning, nothing will.
Family Ties had a lot going for it. It had likeable stars. It had talented writers and directors. It also had a crazy amazing guest cast. In the same season as the episode I’m recapping, they had: Timothy Busfield, Alison La Placa, Tate Donovan, Tracy Nelson, James Cromwell, and David Paymer. And that wasn’t stunt casting; those people were all nobodies when they appeared on Family Ties. Except for James Cromwell. He’s been James Cromwell since about 1870.
The episode I’m recapping is titled “Karen II, Alex 0”. It’s episode 12 of season 3. It aired December 13, 1984. Where was I on December 13, 1984? I was watching Family Ties. With a remote that was actually attached to the television by a cord. I kid you not. We were savages back then.
On paper, “Karen II” should be a pretty decent episode. It was written by Gary David Goldberg and the guy who went on to produce Ned and Stacey. It features lots of Michael J. Fox being adorable. It has a character actor who’s been working nonstop since Kraft Suspense Theatre. It has an up-and-coming comic about to achieve national fame. And it has a future Academy Award winning actress, Olympic hopeful, and President of the United States.
It’s amazing, then, just how badly everything went. Because “Karen II” is an absolutely miserable episode. It is not funny. And I did not learn a lesson, or at least, not an appropriate one.
As the title suggests, “Karen II” is the second Karen episode. Albert has already recapped “Karen I” or, as it was known at the time, “The Great Karen”. Very briefly, the episode was about Alex hiring an absolutely terrible housekeeper. Why? Because she was played by Geena Davis.
Geena Davis wasn’t a huge star back in 1984. She’d gotten good notices for Tootsie and the cult hit Buffalo Bill. But she was way more unknown than known. Like Tom Hanks, she’d shown herself to be a rising star who hadn’t quite found her vehicle yet. Unlike Tom Hanks, her Oscar was not accidentally misprinted, “Fluke Davis”. And then, after she sent it back, “Geena Flukenstein”. And then, after two years of arguments with the Academy, “Fluky Fluke Fluke Fluke”. You turn it around and it continues on the back, “Seriously, bitch be a fluke.”
Before I can watch “Karen II, Alex 0” on the CBS/Paramount site, they make we watch a commercial. It’s Brooke Shields selling Colgate Total. Is she now the official spokeswoman for everything?
The credits start. A lot of people don’t realize this, but when Family Ties debuted, there was no such thing as Photoshop. Back then, the only way to transform a picture of your family into a painting was to have a guy paint it. Still, I’ve never been quite sure why the painter’s finishing touch was dandruff.
The episode opens in the kitchen, one of Family Ties’ two sets. Mallory, Jennifer, and Steven are at the table as Karen brings them breakfast. In a TV convention, Justine Bateman and Tina Yothers are pretending to talk without making any noise. And Justine is gesturing like she’s on Super Password. She and Tina would remain in hot competition for the title of Worst Actress on NBC for the entire run of the show.
Karen brings over their eggs. She announces that Jennifer has the cheese omelet, Mallory gets eggs benedict, and Steven ordered soft boiled. Steven points out that Karen just gave them three identical dishes of scrambled eggs. Karen admits, shyly, “I just thought it would be more exciting if I called them by different names.”
And that is the funniest joke Geena Davis gets in the episode.
Alex comes bounding out from somewhere. He demands Mallory get off the phone. For the record, Mallory is not on the phone.
Alex is nervous because he’s waiting to hear from Suzie Farkas. Yesterday, he invited her to a dance at Alpha Phi Epsilon and he’s expecting her to call any second with her answer. Step through this with me, will you? First, there really was a time when houses had only one phone line. And call waiting wasn’t widely available until the early ‘90s. In 1988, Dear Abby called it a “rude interruption”. Dear Abby would never say that today. Because she’s dead.
Unbelievably, there was also a time when college students needed dates to go to a fraternity dance. And that time was 1962. My parents’ first date was to a fraternity dance. By the 1980s, however, this practice had pretty much died out. When I started college in 1988, people didn’t date. They just woke up in the wrong room.
As you might have figured out, there’s no such frat as Alpha Phi Epsilon. At least, there isn’t in the United States. Without access to Wikipedia, the writers could not possibly have known that A Phi E was an active fraternity in the Philippines. And the writers could not possibly have read this real quote from Alpha Phi Ep’s Wikipedia page:
What the hell do they do to pledges in the Philippines? The most dangerous thing I ever had to do was ask girls to sign my boxers. And also, I had to slide down a flight of stairs on my belly, stopping to take a shot at each step. That worked out to twelve shots in four minutes. To this day, I still don’t know how 1988 ended.
Alex explains why he’s going to the dance, giving a tortured explanation of the concept of rush week. Mallory sneers that all Alpha guys care about are status, success, and money. I’m sure you can guess whether or not Alex views this as a good thing.
At this point, Alex notices Karen, though I’m not sure how anyone could miss her, and he turns to absolute jelly. He babbles about how great Karen looks, getting way too close to her. In 1984, sexually harassing the domestic help was actively encouraged.
As the two share the screen for the first time in the episode, I can see why they hired Geena Davis. She’s six feet tall. Michael J. Fox is a little over 5’4”. That’s seven and a half inches shorter. You could rest a basketball on his head, and it would end up just slightly taller than Geena Davis. At first glance, it’s very funny.
At second glance, it’s just stupid. They look ridiculous together. Geena Davis is absurdly tall and all of the men in her life have been tall. Jeff Goldblum and Renny Harlan are both 6’4”. Michael J. Fox is average height… for a woman. It’s just a disaster. The camera can barely catch them both in the same frame.
The phone finally rings, and Michael J. Fox proceeds to have a very unconvincing fake conversation. He’s like William Hurt in Children of a Lesser God. “I thought I was such a big deal? I didn’t think I was a big deal. I was laughing at you? I wasn’t laughing at you.”
On the other end of the line, Suzie Farkas tells Alex that she’ll go with him. Alex is ecstatic, claiming, “When the guys at Alpha House see her as my date, I’m as good as in!” Is sexism funny? The writers of Family Ties sure think so.