Alex P. Keaton: The Dark Side

Family Ties

For the majority of Americans, the 1980s was a renaissance; a New Wave that rinsed away the stagnant counter-cultural miasma of the late-1960s through the mid-1970s or thereabouts like an MX missile armed with Scrubbing Bubbles™.

Long gone were the platform shoes, the tie-died sleeping bags and the Peter Frampton hairstyles of the hippy “glam” era. Arriving on the porch were the pastel sweater vests, the starkly upturned collars, and the khaki pants that said, “grab a shave, hippie!” as America’s “moral majority” embraced Ronald Reagan – electing, then re-electing him with his promise of the prosperity that God would trickle down upon the young, faithful and upwardly-mobile.

That faithful clamored for a new hero to represent their new “it’s hip to be square” ethic. From 1982 to 1989, on a little show called “Family Ties,” on a little TV network called NBC, that hero was called Alex P. Keaton.

Intelligent and highly motivated, few would question how a son so bright could be born to Steve and Elyse Keaton, a thoughtful, educated middle-class couple. But few would believe that two flower children from the drug-fueled 60s with vague ties to radical militants in the pot-smoking-black-power-anti-imperialism era would give birth to and introduce into their Utopian world a young individual so conservative, so reactionary and so extreme in his nationalist views, his belief in the free market and his distain for the lower classes formerly championed by the Barney Millers of the previous decade that he would keep a picture of Richard Nixon at his bedside..

This Young Republican fearlessly rejected the romanticized victim-hood of the ‘One Day at a Time’ formula, stood up against the ingrained pathos of ‘Good Times’ and said, “Hey America, I am white, I am conservative and I am not afraid to wear a tie to high-school.” And America lapped it up like overweight poodles for seven long years.

Teenager’s political views often contrast with those of their parents. Call it teenage rebellion, bluster, defiance, hubris, feeling ones oats, call it what you will, but up until the premier episode where Alex’s date wants to take him to a restricted social club, it was the parents who were stodgy GOP supporters and the children who were strident leftists.

The Keatons turned that model upside down every Thursday night; it seemed natural for the times and in-step with the zeitgeist. And for a half-hour a week, American audiences forgot that they themselves were unpopular, badly dressed and afraid of the unknown.

They called it popular entertainment. But was it actually something much darker? Something more sinister and extreme?

Glen Butterman always considered himself a centrist. He’s never had any problems with the views of Alex Keaton or his parents or even the apathy of his sister Mallory. He always found himself rooting for a compromise between these factions by the end of each show, while admiring Alex as a freckle-faced quasi-teen who was sharp-witted and sincere. But when he installed DSL at Tina Yother’s apartment one hazy autumn afternoon before dusk, he unearthed three episodes of Family Ties – believed to be destroyed – that tell a much different story.

These “lost’ episodes shine a glaring spotlight on the more controversial views of Alex P. Keaton and his brown-shirt cohort Skippy. Viewing the episodes over a bottle of White Zinfandel, it’s easy to see why series creator Gary David Goldberg told these episodes to “Sit, Ubu, Sit.” But after reading this exclusive report, you’ll learn that Ubu is no longer a good dog. (Actually, the real Ubu is dead – but he’s being used here as a metaphor for the lost episodes. – ed)

One episode, entitled “Farmingville,” finds hundreds of Mexican day laborers migrating to the Keaton’s quaint Ohio suburb, wanting nothing more that to make an honest dollar to send home to their impoverished families. Unfortunately for them, the sight of young Mexican men crowding the streets around the nearby Home Depot sends young Alex into a blind white rage. Then, after young Jennifer is allegedly “solicited for sex” by a group of the workers, he decides to take action.

He begins contacting anti-immigration organizations from as far off as Texas and Los Angeles to organize a resistance. While addressing a living room full of skinheads, hard hats, and Reform Party delegates, he finds the role as activist leader intoxicating as he’d neatly cuff the sleeves of his Oxford shirt and raise his voice in anger against what he termed the “browning of America” to cheers and chants of the (then) popular song Der Kommisar.

“I’m not a racist,” said Keaton at this rally, “I have equal contempt for anybody who makes less than $50,000 a year.”

In the episode titled “Apples and Oranges” from 1986, Alex tries to buy a birthday cake at his local supermarket only to find a picket line, which he crosses – to the heckles of striking, sunburned cashiers and stock clerks.

During the B-story where Mallory needs money to take mandolin lessons, Alex explains to guest star Wallace Shawn how the negative image he has of his father working for a non-profit organization gave birth to a boiling hatred of immigrants, “welfare leeches” and anyone who expressed support for the downtrodden.

In the final scene Alex enlists Mallory’s boyfriend Nick and his friend Skippy to drive down to the picket line with baseball bats and assault the protesters.

The most disturbing footage, however, was from an episode with no title, no credits and the suspicious absence of Elyse and baby Andrew. The cold opening is from the POV of a security camera as Dr. Barry Van Driesen, a surgeon at a woman’s health clinic where he performed abortions, is gunned down in the parking lot. The unknown assailant then flees in a 1982 Delorean. The B-Story involves Jennifer and her best friend who believes she is pregnant with Satan’s child. Everyone is taken aback as Alex insists on performing an exorcism.

Had these episodes aired, the public would no doubt become far less enamored with Alex. Or maybe not. It’s hard to tell these days.

But what happened to this man who was destined to such greatness? Did he perhaps learn one too many lessons about himself after one too many “very special” Family Ties? Or did the tide turn in his favor to such a degree that he felt his mission was accomplished and he quietly retired from public view. In any case, the impact of Alex P. Keaton on the American psyche cannot be underestimated.

Former television personality Dennis Miller sites Keaton’s ability to cut through the pretension and rhetoric of the cultural elite with a pithy rejoinder as a guiding beacon in his own then-nascent stand-up career. “When I first saw Keaton,” said Miller, “I felt like Kristy McNichol jonesin’ for a smoke at a Dick Butkis ‘Rich Man Poor Man’ reunion. I remember thinking, ‘this guy’s so frank he makes Lee Van Cleef look like Ernest Borgnine.’”

MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson was similarly moved. “You know how gay men ‘find themselves’ while watching an old Barbara Streisand movie and how her brassy self-confidence in say ‘Funny Girl’ inspires some to stand up for who they are? I’m not sure, but I imagine it’s very similar to the time I saw the episode where Alex falls asleep while writing a term paper and dreams it’s 1776 at the signing of the Declaration if Independence.”

It’s nearly impossible for the average person to accept their heroes as they really are, warts and all. Just as it’s nearly impossible to watch the movie Doc Hollywood in it’s entirety. Perhaps the more benign image of A.P.K. should be the one we preserve, for if the masses were to learn that the emperor has new jackboots it would precipitate class warfare on such a scale that the major networks would transform into 24-hour propaganda machines for the military industrial complex. And if that happens, what’ll we do … without us?

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