Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Tom and Judith and Geena and Daphne

Despite my previous posts' focus on serious political and social issues, Family Ties was very funny at times and, more to the point, concerned with never straying too far from comedy, from the attempt to be funny. What's fascinating to me is that, given just 20-odd minutes to tell a story, comedies like this persisted in trying to tackle difficult topics at all.

Take the story of Uncle Ned, played by probably the most famous guest actor on the series. We meet him in season one; it turns out he's on the run after embezzling 4.5 million dollars from the corporation where he was vice president. When he comes back to visit in season two, he has a drinking problem brought on by how his life has unraveled. He downs a bottle of vanilla extract and ends up hitting Alex. Not funny stuff.

Here's Uncle Ned calling AA. More on the character of the landline phone in a later post.

Yet even in these social issues with a capital-S episodes, there are lots of jokes, most of which land with at least some of the studio audience. But when Ned finally calls AA for help, and opens with, "Would you be interested in subscribing to the Columbus Express?" the studio audience doesn't laugh, and it's not supposed to. In that moment, the show performs the neat trick of holding a mirror up to some of its own comedic impulses.

Tom Hanks's character also has a purple problem, or rather, the whole episode does.
But then again, this aired in January 1984, just a few months before Purple Rain. 
Maybe purple was the zeitgeist. 

Other guest stars are enlisted for similarly serious parts, as when Judith Light plays the new production assistant who propositions Steven in season two.

Who's the boss? This happily married father of three.
Also, who knew PBS could be the site of such intrigue?  

Even Geena Davis's story arc as the beautiful-yet-inept housekeeper ends on a serious note when she quits the gig to focus on the personal problems she'd been running away from.

"Do you have any references?" Alex asks during the interview.
"No," she answers brightly. Hired!

The guest star whose role surprised me the most though was Daphne Zuniga, playing a classmate of Alex's. She's the smart girl who has had a crush on him from afar, and he asks her to the senior prom when the girl he really wants to take says no. But then that girl changes her mind, Alex has two dates to the prom who don't know about each other, etc., etc.

Glasses were just really big in 1984, OK?
I love you Daphne, but I'm really waiting for Tracy Pollan to show up.

What surprised me is that Alex chooses Rachel, Daphne's character, just because she's the kinder, smarter, and funnier of the two. I've been so conditioned to expect certain kinds of romantic narratives that I kept waiting for her to take off those glasses so he could recognize her beauty. Not only does Rachel keep her glasses on, never once taking them off, but also in a later episode she becomes valedictorian instead of Alex, and, after he overcomes a sexist and jealous reaction, their relationship survives. That's what we're to believe anyway, but we never see her again. Ah, the unpredictable life of a guest star.  

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