Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
On March 12, 1987, NBC aired a special one-hour episode of its hit Thursday-night comedy Family Ties, with limited commercial interruption. The first third of “‘A’ My Name Is Alex” follows the Keaton family of Columbus, Ohio, in the days after the funeral for Greg, oldest son Alex’s best friend, who has died in an automobile accident. Everyone seems down about it except for Alex, who’s strangely upbeat—even manic. That’s because he’s hiding the deep spiritual crisis that Greg’s death has touched off. Alex was supposed to be in the car with Greg when he crashed. Is it pure coincidence that Alex blew off his plans that day? Does God have some larger purpose for sparing Alex and taking Greg? The last, commercial-free half-hour of the episode takes place on a mostly bare stage, as Alex talks with an off-screen therapist about all this—about his life, his family, and his expectations.
“‘A’ My Name Is Alex” was heavily hyped before it aired, and well-received immediately afterward. The episode won two Emmys—one for the screenplay by Alan Uger and series creator Gary David Goldberg, and one for “Outstanding Technical Direction”—and Michael J. Fox won the second of his three consecutive Outstanding Lead Actor Emmys in 1987 for playing Alex P. Keaton. It’s one of the best-remembered episodes of Family Ties, and maybe one of the best-remembered hours of the television of the ’80s.
It’s also, today, one of the most-mocked. The website The Agony Booth did a vicious takedown last year of the silliness and pretension of “‘A’ My Name Is Alex,” and I’ve found that when I mention the episode to my peers, they reflexively roll their eyes. From the introduction of a “best friend” that had never been seen on the show before to the forced artiness of the Our Town-like set design, “‘A’ My Name Is Alex” seems the epitome of the “very special episode” gone awry: a frivolous little family sitcom taking itself way too seriously. So what’s changed over the past 20-plus years? How did a TV episode that was once held up as an example the medium at its finest become thick, juicy snark-bait? Did the times change, or did we?
I remember watching “‘A’ My Name Is Alex” when it aired, and I remember liking it. I would’ve been 16 at the time, nearing the end of my Family Ties-watching years. I became a senior in high school that fall, and was too busy to watch much TV of any kind (outside of Cheers, Moonlighting, Letterman, Saturday Night Live, and late-night repeats of WKRP and Barney Miller, which all remained staples). But prior to that, I’d been a faithful viewer of NBC’s Thursday-night block, including Family Ties, which was the one show in the bunch most relevant to my actual life, given that it had to do with school, relationships, politics, and the varying meanings of “success” in the go-go ’80s.
Family Ties hasn’t held up all that well. The show now seems pleasant but bland, prizing one-liners over any deeper exploration of its various ’80s culture clashes. Fox stayed stellar throughout the series’ run, playing a Reagan-era yuppie-in-training, in pursuit of success even if it came at the expense of his kid sisters—fashion-conscious Mallory (Justine Bateman) and tomboyish Jennifer (Tina Yothers)—or to the consternation of his committed leftist parents, Elyse (Meredith Baxter-Birney) and Steven (Michael Gross). And Family Ties can still be fleetingly funny even today, especially whenever the writers wring dry, absurdist humor out the conflict between Alex’s chilly brilliance and his dad’s easily flustered liberalism. But like most sitcoms of the era, the characters grew broader year by year, and when the writers ran out of stories to tell with the original cast, they added family members, boyfriends, girlfriends, and “old friends of the family” to give the characters someone new to push against.
“‘A’ My Name Is Alex” starts out very much in the latter-day Family Ties vein. These were “the Andy years,” when the Keatons had a new, young child to toddle into one or two scenes each episode and look adorable. (Andy, played by Brian Bonsall, effectively took on the role that used to be played by Jennifer, who became less cute as Yothers moved into her teens.) The series’ relentless jokiness is in full evidence too. When the episode opens, we learn that at Greg’s funeral, Alex gave a eulogy in which he charted his dead friend’s net worth and projected earnings, while Mallory remarked that corpse shouldn’t have been dressed in brown and gray. (“I wouldn’t be caught dead in those colors.” Ha ha.) Later, Alex has a conversation with a monk about religion, and when his parents come home, Stephen asks the monk, “Is that your donkey out there?” And Steven’s not kidding. In the reality of Family Ties, the monk really did ride a donkey over to the Keaton home.
But then Alex begins to see Greg’s ghost around the house, and the episode gradually becomes more dramatic. Alex flashes back to the day that Greg asked him to help him move—the day when Alex said he was too busy, and Greg had his wreck. Ghost Greg tries to encourage Alex to keep living, but Alex’s guilt is too staggering. He has a full-on breakdown in front of his sister and his parents, sobbing, “Why am I alive!?”
In his mini-history of ’80s sitcoms for this site, Todd VanDerWerff charts how the form lost its way a little, less than a decade after hits like All In The Family, M*A*S*H*, Barney Miller, and The Mary Tyler Moore Show set a new, seemingly permanent standard of television artistry. What started in the late ’70s as a return to “fun”—shadowing the movie business’ shift from malaise-soaked American art films to blockbuster thrill-rides—became a general dumbing-down, to the extent that even attempts to address topics as serious as pedophilia or rape on TV came couched in scripts full of catchphrases and slapstick. “The networks definitely chased the Cosby/Family Ties ideal into the ground,” VanDerWerff writes. “The sitcom writers still banging around the industry were primarily trained in writing shows about workplaces or intense social issues. Having them do shows about cute kids who spoke in adorable malapropisms was often a bad fit.”
Back then, cartoonist Peter Bagge was drawing the magazine-format comic Neat Stuff, in which he introduced his signature character Buddy Bradley, along with a handful of other recurring characters, including Chet and Bunny Leeway, a young married couple suffering through life in a middle-class suburb (as Bagge himself was doing with his wife at the time). In the 1986 story “Life’s A Bitch And Then You Die,” Chet and Bunny spend a Thursday night on the couch watching NBC, like nearly everyone else with a TV was doing back then:
Chet: Well, The Cosby Show was as preachy and phony as ever. What’s on now?
Bunny: Family Ties. Don’t you have the Thursday-night lineup memorized by now?
Chet: Michael J. Fox is pretty funny on this show, but he always turns into a wimpy sap at the end.
TV: “Sure, I’ll act sensitive, but it’ll cost ya!”
Bunny: That’s what happens to the people we like on every show!
Chet: Yeah, that’s right! The “obnoxious” characters at least have the nerve to say what they think, but the “nice” characters always grind ’em down and make ’em give in at the end!
TV: “Alex, you must learn to respect other people’s feelings.”
Bunny: Like right now Alex’s mother is giving him the weekly “speech.” I hate Meredith Baxter-Birney. Remember Bridget Loves Bernie? What a nightmare that show was!
Chet: Y’know, we don’t have to watch TV every night.
Bunny: Yes we do. We have to watch in order to remind ourselves of what garbage the rest of the world likes, and how much smarter we are than everybody else.
Chet: Yeah, I guess it is kinda fun to put down. Oh joy, Hill Street Blues is on. Let’s see how many “faulty digestive tract” jokes they make in this episode. Right hon?
As is Bagge’s wont, he’s making fun of the Leeways (and thus himself) as much as he’s sympathizing with them. But the couple’s world-weariness in understandable. I was about 10 years younger than the Leeways in 1986, so I bought what Family Ties was selling without questioning it too much. Only when I got a little older would I stumble across Family Ties repeats in syndication and cringe.
And yet, something funny happened as I was watching “‘A’ My Name Is Alex.” I’d braced myself for the worst, but when the big therapy scene began—that half-hour stage play appended to the end of a 20-minute sitcom—I found it much better than I’d expected. I probably would’ve laughed derisively at it when I was 20. Perhaps I would’ve groaned at it at 30. But at 40, I experienced the episode more like I did at 16: as a heartfelt, occasionally clever attempt by the Family Ties creators to break the mold a little, while still trying to be funny and to talk about the issues important to them.
Maybe people remember “‘A’ My Name Is Alex” as being more issue-driven than it actually is; maybe that’s one reason it gets a bad rap. But Alex’s friend Greg didn’t commit suicide, die of a drug overdose, or get killed by a drunk driver. He was involved in an ordinary, arbitrary accident, and the episode is primarily about how someone with a life as planned out as Alex’s deals with the revelation that everything can change overnight, for no good reason. The episode is about the essence of Alex, and it weaves his family members in throughout, using the open set of the therapy scenes as a way to move around freely through time and location. For example, when Alex talks about how much he’s always loved being in the kitchen with his mother—“Walking in there was like walking into a hug,” he explains—he turns around and his mother is there, listening to an 8-year-old Alex complain about how President Nixon’s getting railroaded in the Watergate scandal.
Later, Alex remembers his dad teaching him to play catch, so that he’d fit in better with the other kids. (“I learned algebra all in one day,” Alex boasts. “But now you’re starting school, you have to learn to play catch,” Steven jokes.) Steven wants to talk about the Indians, but Alex prefers the Orioles, because they’re in better shape financially. Then they toss the ball around and Alex drops it, but Steven is quick to reassure him. “You’re trying; that’s all that counts.” The therapist asks Alex if his father’s blind encouragement marks him as weak, but Alex says no, even though he knows that his dad’s philosophy of life differs wildly from his own.
Then the conversation comes around to Alex’s sisters. First up is Mallory, who’s untroubled by Greg’s death because she knows he’ll be coming back in another life. (“Read Shirley MacLaine,” she advises Alex, throwing out a reference that fewer and fewer people will get each year.) Jennifer, meanwhile, flops down on her bed like a teenager, though she’s the kind of teenager who reads Kierkegaard while listening to Van Halen. Alex talks about how Jen’s room always smells a little like cheap perfume, because she once spilled a bottle that Alex bought her. The associations of smell and memory remind Alex of mittens drying on a radiator in elementary school, which reminds him of the day he met Greg, who became his first real friend.
There’s a lot of chatter in “‘A’ My Name Is Alex” about the crushing pressure of being Alex P. Keaton. He talks about how he admires Mallory’s simplistic, upbeat approach to the world, because from the moment he entered school, he’s had teachers holding him up as a model student, and effectively isolating him from his peers. Greg, on the other hand, gave Alex permission to tap into his “dude” side, as they rocked out together to Steppenwolf and The Doors. So what becomes of Alex now? What does he take away from Greg’s death? He admits to his therapist that he believes in God, if only because the world is as full of miracles as it is pain. But he doesn’t believe in a “mean, angry God,” or “a groovy God like Mallory’s.” He believes in a God that’s a lot like his parents: eternally patient and encouraging. In the end, Alex resolves to be a better person, to justify his faith in his family and his family’s faith in him.
It’s pretty narcissistic for Alex to use the death of his best friend—not to mention the lives of his family members—as an opportunity for self-improvement. But that doesn’t disturb me much, because Alex has these revelations in therapy, where he’s supposed to be talking about himself. Besides, roughly every fifth episode of Family Ties culminates in a moment where Alex resolves to become more generous and grateful. (Just as roughly every fifth episode of Family Ties is a one-hour special or a two-parter.) I’m more bothered by the usual Family Ties folderol: the sappy theme song that every family sitcom would ape over the next decade; the way nobody in the Keatons looks or acts like they’re actually related to each other; the gags that intrude clumsily on the reality of nearly every moment; and the way the show tries to seem smart by having Alex drop a reference to Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” only to reveal that nobody involved with the show seems to have read past the story’s title. (That is, unless Alex really does mean to compare his family’s kitchen to a haven for suicidal alcoholics.)
But that was the way of the ’80s. It was a conflicted time for pop culture in general—as our Steven Hyden explained so well in his essay on Huey Lewis & The News’ Sports—and for TV in particular. I wrote a little about what it was like to be a teenager in the ’80s in a piece I wrote for my Popless column on hearing R.E.M.’s Reckoning album for the first time:
Maybe it’s because I was young and clueless myself at the time, but when I was growing up in the ’80s, the decade seemed somehow… softer than what had gone before. I’d heard all about the libertine, activist atmosphere of the ’60s and ’70s, and when I looked around at the decade I was stuck in—the decade of AIDS and “Just Say No”—I felt like I’d been cheated. As the ’80s progressed, popular music grew increasingly synthesized and frivolous, movies aimed more and more for spectacle and low comedy, and few seemed interested in delving too deeply into politics. Consider the difference between Saturday Night Live in the ’70s and ’80s. When the show started, it was the hippest thing on TV, alternating druggie surrealism with wise-ass satire, operating under the presumption that its audience knew and cared about what was going on in the world. But watch any given installment of Weekend Update in the mid-’80s and the height of subversion is Tim Kazurinsky saying “orgasm.” Still, there were signs of life that flashed intermittently throughout the decade. The corner video store stocked films by David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, and the Coen brothers. The local comic-book shop occasionally had a copy of Weirdo or Love & Rockets stashed on a dusty, inaccessible shelf. And while the musical heroes of the ’60s and ’70s—even the early punk legends—were making records ever-more indebted to the lead-footed sound popularized by producers Trevor Horn and Arthur Baker, we received periodic dispatches from Minneapolis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and elsewhere, from bands trying to carve out their own niche, away from the bombast and bluster.
The more I gained access to the premium pop, the less I bothered with the schlock. But I can’t pretend that schlock never resonated. Our family didn’t have cable when I was growing up, and we didn’t get a VCR until fall of 1985, so while other teenagers were watching actual R-rated comedies, I was watching the Michael J. Fox/Nancy McKeon TV movies High School U.S.A. and Poison Ivy, which were like feature-length sitcoms: G-rated versions of Fast Times At Ridgemont High and Meatballs. And they were fine for what they were. They were amiable, sweet, and suitably evocative of the pangs of adolescent romance. Teenflicks with training wheels.
As an actor, Fox also fell into that “just as good as it needs to be” category. He’s been one of our best TV actors over the past three decades, with crack comic timing and a natural charm perfectly suited for the small screen. But I wouldn’t call him a great actor-actor, as was made fairly obvious when he tried to transition into dramatic movie roles in the late ’80s. (I love Casualties Of War, but more in spite of Fox than because of him.) Even in “‘A’ My Name Is Alex,” Fox’s performance is fine until he really has to bring the emotion, as in Alex’s big sob-fest in front of his therapist. Then Fox hits a wall.
Still, even in that breakdown scene, there are grace notes. The way the camera pulls back and circles to reveal Alex’s family and friends—each of whom represent a part of who he’s become as a man—isn’t brilliant necessarily, but it’s artful. Throughout, director Will Mackenzie makes some strong choices with Uger and Goldberg’s script, easing the transitions between the past and the present with little more than a lighting cue or a line-reading. The script too features some well-observed pieces of writing, like Alex’s speech about the smell of perfume in Jennifer’s room, and his observation that he was always better than Mallory at winning their mom’s sympathy because he knew how to pretend to be sick or hurt just enough to be plausible. (“I know how to do this thing selectively,” he boasts.)
Maybe I still respond to “‘A’ My Name Is Alex” because Uger and Goldberg are like Alex: They know how to be just clever enough to impress. Or maybe it’s because in 1987, I was like Alex: pushed to achieve, and skilled at faking my way through social and academic interactions to make myself look smart. I watch “‘A’ My Name Is Alex” and not only do I see myself at 16, I also see my fond memories of goofing off and watching television, and I see the strengths and weaknesses of ’80s popular culture, all bound up in a fragile package that part of me feels obliged to protect. Because, y’know, it’s not like the Family Ties writers were under any obligation to try so hard. All they had to do was fill their timeslot with something slick and reasonably amusing. They chose to try to connect with their audience on a deeper level. And under the conditions and context of the times, they succeeded.
Not that I’m grading on a curve, mind you. I fully acknowledge that much of this episode is either trite or corny, and if I were making a list of the best television of all time, “‘A’ My Name Is Alex” would be buried by the hours and hours of great TV that preceded it and that came later. But I do think that Goldberg and company deserve respect for trying to do something different: exploring big issues in a format that’s blatantly artificial. Because even more than “What is the meaning of life?,” the real question this episode raises is, “What is the meaning of television?”
Next time, on A Very Special Episode… Leave It To Beaver, “The Last Day Of School”