Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.
For most of its seven-season run on NBC, Family Ties wasn’t really considered one of the network’s prestige shows, not when it was shadowed on the schedule by the likes of Hill Street Blues and Cheers. After a slow start that was typical of the network’s shows that launched at the beginning of the nineteen-eighties (NBC was still recovering from a string of years defined by true debacles), Family Ties grew to be an enormous hit, twice finishing second to only powerhouse The Cosby Show in the year-end Nielsen ratings. Emmy voters completely ignored the show in its first year, but the building popularity of Family Ties edged it into the mix with an Outstanding Comedy Series nomination for its second season. There was a lighting nomination that year, too, but nothing else. For the third season, the show repeated in the top comedy category, and Michael J. Fox got his first nod for playing Alex P. Keaton, the Reagan-youth son of suburbanized hippie parents (Meredith Baxter and Michael Gross). Reflecting the original conception of the series that kept the kids as an afterthought while focusing on the conflicting impulses of the parents as they aged out of nineteen-sixties idealism into nineteen-eighties consumer culture, Fox competed in the category for supporting actors. By then, the focus of the show had already shifted decisively to center Alex. In following seasons, Fox earned multiple nominations in the lead category for the role, winning three years in a row. Fox’s second year as a victor was also the only year Family Ties won in any other categories, largely because the creators came up with an episode far outside the cozy sitcom norm designed to give the actor an especially juicy dramatic showcase.
Gary David Goldberg, the creator of Family Ties, says he came up with the idea of the episode “A, My Name Is Alex” while dealing with the grief he felt when his parents died. Those feelings of loss are fictionalized and transferred to Alex, who’s distraught over the death of his dear childhood friend, the never-previously seen or mentioned Greg McCormick (Brian McNamara). The first half of the hour-long episode proceeds more or less the same as any other episode of Family Ties, albeit with an uncommonly dark situation driving the banter about culture clashes smacked around like a badminton birdie in the Keaton kitchen. Alex’s family questions where Alex needed to note his deceased friend’s net worth during the eulogy, that sort of thing. Then the plot takes a sharp turn into heavier emotions when it’s revealed that Greg died in a car crash while running an errand he’d asked Alex to join him on, meaning Alex has developed a punishing case of Survivor’s Guilt. He breaks down in front of his parents, and they pledge to get him professional help in dealing with the emotional burden.
At this point, “A, My Name Is Alex” has already crossed into the land of very special episodes, territory Family Ties toured with some regularity. The very specialness increases exponentially in the second half of the episode, which is staged with minimal set dressings against a black background, like a production of Our Town. Alex speaks with a therapist, offstage and unseen, recounting his pain over Greg’s death and all manner of challenges throughout his childhood and when relating to his family members. As flashbacks play out behind him, Fox gets up and saunters into them, playing Alex as an elementary school–aged child or simply interacting with emotional openness with his sister Mallory (Justine Bateman) that is unlike their usual slightly combative conversations. There is still a steady stream of jokes, but they intermingle with dramatic elements and story structure that wouldn’t be entirely out of place on the later HBO series In Treatment.
Thirty-five years later, television programs routinely smudge the border between comedy and drama and are nearly as likely to employ deconstructive narrative approaches. Through that modern lens, “A, My Name Is Alex” might look fairly mundane, maybe even a little hokey and ham-fisted. When it aired, though, it was striking in its deviation from standard television storytelling. Emphasizing its daring, the second half of the episode originally aired with no commercial interruptions, an essentially unheard of choice for a non-news programming on a major broadcast network.
Goldberg is officially credited as cowriter on the episode, alongside Alan Uger (who, in addition to dozens of episodes of Family Ties, helped write Blazing Saddles), but he was consistent in citing it as a true group effort in the writers’ room. It feels like the product of a group of seasoned television professionals who are boosting each other up with the encouragement that this high wire is safe to walk upon, that the exhilaration of crossing it is worth the risk. Goldberg and Uger were giving Emmys for the teleplay, but it really is one of those episodes that feels like it works because of every last person who touched it.
Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.