Liz Tells Frank What Happened In the “Family Ties” episode “A, My Name Is Alex”

Dear Frank,

Let’s establish something right up front — I never watched Family Ties as a kid and have no real knowledge of the show aside from the bare-bones premise (hippie parents have an ultra-conservative son!). But it’s a family sitcom from the 1980s; I feel comfortable about my ability to wade through it. And you’ve mentioned a couple of times that you wanted to know what happened in this one fifth season episode, which has always struck me as strange, so here we go!

“My Name is Alex” is a two-parter (that you can watch on YouTube), and starts off with a pretty funny scene between this kid Andy and his babysitter, who’s explaining that Michael J. Fox (it is IMPOSSIBLE for me to think of him otherwise) and his parents are at a funeral for MJF’s friend Greg, which leads to her having to explain death to a toddler. (It’s funnier than it sounds, Frank, I promise.)

Then the rest of the family gets home, and start talking about the funeral (this is all pretty en media res — nice stuff). MJF is dealing with the fact that he should have been in the car that killed Greg by going totally upbeat and manic; it’s actually kind of an incredible performance, because you can tell how close he is to breaking apart and aren’t I supposed to be watching a sitcom from the 1980s? Jesus.

Then the family clears out of the kitchen, leaving MJF alone with a hallucination of Dead Greg. “You’re dead!” MJF says. “That’s no reason we can’t be friends,” Greg replies. Greg and MJF re-enact the moment when Greg asked MJF to accompany him on the errand that would lead to his death, to which MJF said no; Greg exits to go drive his CAR OF DEATH THAT KILLED HIM. And that’s the first act of the first episode! Comedy jokes!

We’re back, and Alex (they say his name so much! It’s easier to type Alex than MJF! I’m going with it) is talking to a monk who miiiiiiiiight be played by Christopher Meloni? He looks like Christopher Meloni, but it probably isn’t because he looks like Christopher Meloni in the 2000s, and I don’t think Christopher Meloni is immortal. Anyways, Alex is considering monkhood as a solution to the existential crisis he’s on the verge of thanks to Dead Greg’s death, but is a bit held up on the “no girls” thing and it doesn’t work out.

Later, Alex is studying in the kitchen when Dead Greg shows up again demanding a sandwich. They talk about how Greg is dead and Alex is still alive and how Alex was supposed to be in the CAR OF DEATH but skipped out because he was lazy. “Why am I alive? Why am I alive?” he starts sobbing to his parents and holy shit, Frank, this shit’s getting real.

Um, wait, I take it back. This shit’s getting surreal. We’re now somewhere that’s supposed to be a therapist’s office, with the added layer of flashbacks taking place in different parts of the set, with which Alex interacts directly. Frank, because you are educated and wise, you probably know the fancy term for what’s happening; the only thing on the tip of my tongue is “artsy-fartsy theater stuff.”

The first big flashback is to when Alex was seven, which was in the year 1974, so Alex is sad that his president is getting impeached and his mom is telling him that she wishes he’d be a normal kid. (Lady, maybe not doing things like buying him a Richard Nixon lunchbox — artfully placed on the kitchen table — will help in that arena.)

And then, still in this weird black box environment, there’s a strange scene with Mallory, Alex’s sister, about how Mallory is a superficial fashion freak and also reincarnation. “No one ever dies, Alex, don’t be silly.”

The unseen therapist interrupts the scene to ask Alex “Why is it so hard to be you?” and Alex walks towards the camera and says “You know!” and that is the end of Part One! WHAT THE FUCK AM I WATCHING, FRANK?

At the beginning of Part Two… Aw, fuck, it’s just the end of Part One again! Damn it. But we quickly get back to our black box arthouse experiment about why it’s hard to be Alex — because, we’ve just learned, he’s a nerrrrrrrrrrrrrd and didn’t like the pressure that resulted from it as a kid. He also didn’t like playing catch. WE ARE LEARNING SO MUCH ABOUT ALEX IT IS BLOWING MY MIND. (In fairness, this two-parter did give us prior warning when it was titled “My Name is Alex.”)

Wait, what? This blonde chick who’s supposed to be Alex’s OTHER sister just showed up? Oh, huh, I guess there is a blonde girl in the credits. Tina Yothers! I’ve heard that name before! (This is the first time she’s shown up in this entire two-parter, if my confusion didn’t make that clear.) Anyways, Alex talks at her for a while about life or whatever. There’s a lot of “talking at” in this.

Okay, and now Alex is talking with Dead Greg, though this time in a flashback to the second grade, when Dead Greg and Alex first met and Dead Greg invited him out to play in the snow. The moral I guess we’re learning is that living your life like a major Republican nerd isn’t the way to live your life fully?

Now we’re just kind of in full monologue mode about fate and the power of home and I dunno, whatever else is on Alex’s mind that I’m not following terribly well right now, because we’re back to another flashback to Alex’s childhood, and then another friend drops by, and Alex is rocking out to “Born to Be Wild” to show his wild side, because apparently he has a wild side? But that transitions to Alex once again freaking out about Dead Greg being dead.

Eventually, Alex monologues to a place where he’s ready to accept Dead Greg’s death as well as the fact that he needs to take more time to “smell the roses” as well as worship capitalism and embrace therapy. THE END.

This was a really cool experiment, don’t get me wrong: There’s some very clever writing and staging as the various flashbacks cross over upon each other, and Michael J. Fox is acting the shit out of it. The sheer fact of its existence is really impressive, frankly — I can’t think of another show that devoted almost two full episodes to dramatizing a character’s therapy session.

It maaaaaaaaaaybe coulda been one episode, though. Just saying.

Love,
Liz

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About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller, based in Los Angeles, is a writer for the screen and the web, her work including G4's Attack of the Show and the tech blog GigaOM. She also co-hosts the podcast Timey Wimey TV, contributes to the video curation site Here's Some Awesome, and tells her friend Frank about stuff at Liz Tells Frank.

Posted on November 24, 2010, in All the Spoilers, TV and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. This was a fantastic episode that stepped far out of the sitcom norm. Sure, other series have had the token “very special episode” in which the characters must deal with the death of a loved one. However this emotional two-parter was unique in its deep exploration of the psyche and the “God” question. Like you, I feel these scenes full of such strong emotion may represent MJF’s best acting of his career.

    Having said that, I have a major correction to point out here. You mentioned that you don’t have real knowledge of the show so I can understand the confusion, but you missed an important detail. The “other” sister – the blonde played by Tina Yothers – did not just suddenly “show up” in the episode. She was in the opening scene of the first part, explaining death to their younger brother. She was not simply a baby-sitter. I hope this clears up your confusion. I strongly recommend watching the episode a second time, if you haven’t already.

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