This episode opens with Jennifer explaining to the youngest Keaton son that Alex’s friend, Greg has died and that everyone else is at the funeral. So right from the beginning, it’s a downer. It’s not quite what I’d expect from Family Ties, but here we go.
Soon the rest of the Keaton’s arrive home and Alex is busy cracking jokes. He says how great the funeral was, which is important because “the dead have an image problem.” But we quickly learn that these jokes are all a thinly veiled coping mechanism for Alex’s guilt. Alex would have been in the car accident with his friend, except that he was too selfish to help move a piano. Incidentally, this selfishness turned out to be a lifesaver.
Apparently, Alex and Greg were so close that Alex delivered Greg’s eulogy. (That’s so interesting because I don’t remember ever hearing about Greg before.) Soon Alex begins hallucinating that Greg is back in ghost form. (Not only is he grieving, but he also stayed up all night writing that eulogy and hasn’t slept.)
Now, I would assume you might call a priest in a time like this, but Alex invites a monk into his home. I wouldn’t know where to find a monk if I tried. Are there monasteries just hanging out in suburban America and you can call them up and request that a monk come and sit with you? That appears to be the case here.
But Alex decides he doesn’t really want to be a monk (he’s not ready to give up the ladies) and soon he’s back to hallucinating conversations with Greg. He even makes him a sandwich. But when Mallory finds him talking to himself in the kitchen, he has a total meltdown. Michael J. Fox is such a good actor. He’s truly phenomenal and deserved so much better than the crappy writing on The Michael J. Fox Show. He makes this episode incredibly powerful when it could have easily been overwrought and clunky.
But that’s when things turn into experimental theater. And it’s like kind of weird for a family sitcom, even with Michael J. Fox’s exceptional skill. Actually, it’s like super weird. He’s just sitting in an arm chair in front of a free-hanging window talking straight to the camera (on off screen psychologist).
And then things kind of turn into a really depressing “Carousel of Progress.” Little vignettes with Alex’s friends and family pop up behind him and he jumps into the scenes. This is not to say that the writing is bad– the two-part episode won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series–but rather that the change in the storytelling method is just as jarring (if not more so) than the subject matter itself.
Although bizarre at first, I think that the change in narrative style works in this episode’s favor and keeps it from falling into trite “very special episode” pitfalls. It’s obvious that the Family Ties writers knew they could get away with this with Michael J. Fox carrying the show, so instead of an after-school special we get an emotional tour de force on grief and self-actualization.
“A, My Name is Alex” is best described as Family Ties re-imagining itself as a different kind of show for 1 random hour, which is kinda cool in it’s own right. Ultimately, Alex has to decide what he believes and what feels right to him about his place in the world now that he is alive and his friend isn’t. I feel like I cannot reiterate enough how terrible this episode could have been if carried out by a less capable cast. But luckily we have (national treasure) Michael J. Fox. And for Fox’s exceptional skill reason alone, this episode is totally worth the watch.
Very Special Lesson: Grief can cause us to lose our way or it can be an opportunity to find ourselves more deeply than we had before.