Sunday, August 31, 2014

In Memoriam

Of the many ways we could categorize the actors and actresses who were on Family Ties and are no longer living, here are a few: the grandparents; the guest stars who carried an episode; the scene stealers; the ones who were more voice than body; those who died too young and those who were older. Of course there is some overlap, and of course more than 30 years after the show began, there are more departed than I have room to mention here. Here are a few profiles and highlights:

The Grandparents

(Clockwise from top left: John Randolph, Anne Seymour, Dick Sargent, and Priscilla Morrill). Only Morrill, who played Elyse's mother, appeared in more than one episode, but the others turned in memorable performances, particularly Randolph as Steven's conservative father. He delivers both great smiles like the one above and a stinging rebuke of Steven's '60s ways. Seymour's long career stretched back to 1944 and included appearances on The Motorola Television Hour, The United States Steel Hour, and The Alcoa Hour - affiliations the character Alex would have no doubt admired. Sargent came out late in life, in 1991, just three years before his death from prostrate cancer.

The Guest Star

(Clockwise from top left: Jack Somack, River Phoenix, Brownie McGhee, and Mason Adams). If you're of a certain age, Phoenix is the one who stops you in your tracks; he shows up in that argyle sweater to tutor Alex in Advanced Non-Euclidean Geometry in season four. He's a 13 year-old math whiz, a graduate student already, and he falls for Jennifer only to discover that she, like, actually likes 13 year-old things and not attending tenure parties. Neither Phoenix nor Somack are given much to do in their roles - Somack plays a sweet small business owner and Alex's boss in season one - but they are fun to watch. In contrast, the show revolves around Adams and McGhee when they guest star in seasons five and six, respectively. McGhee was a blues musician with a long career who had started acting in the late '70s, and he plays a musician-turned-bus driver who Alex convinces to come out of retirement for a performance. Adams is one of Alex's economics professors; you may know him from Lou Grant. I'll write more about his performance when I post about recommended episodes, but for now I'll just say that the portrait he paints of higher ed in 1986 feels alternately eerily prescient and like a beautiful object lifted from a time capsule.

The Scene Stealers
(Left: Mary Jackson; below, Ron Karabatsos and Anne Ramsey). Jackson sells the Keatons a gun in season one after their home is robbed; (they decide to get rid of it by the end of the episode, which is titled charmingly, "Have Gun, Will Unravel"). Ramsey you might recognize from Goonies; she's yet another nanny/housekeeper candidate. She thought the advertised salary was a "misprint" and lambasts germs during her interview. Karabatsos is the plumber who lends his truck to Steven during the two-part "Birth of a Keaton" episode where Elyse goes into labor at PBS during a pledge drive - and a blizzard. He's a genial, bearish presence during all the stress.

More Voice than Body
We never see Bill in the season three episode where Alex and his friend James (played by Jeffrey Joseph, still very much alive!) work at a student help hotline, but we hear him loud and clear: he's looking for a reason to live. Alex and James are new to the hotline and scramble trying to help the suicidal Bill. There are a lot of moments like the one pictured, where they look at speakers, and it's a testament to the script and Sam Whipple's voice that we feel as captivated as Alex and James. Whipple actually shows up in the next episode, but his role is far more minor in the flesh than it is as the confused, vulnerable, but ultimately hopeful Bill. Whipple himself died of cancer at 41.

There are better images of Meg Wyllie in the season five episode where Alex meets with a psychiatrist to talk about the death of his friend, Greg. But we quickly learn that her power is in her voice. The lights come up behind that window and we simultaneously hear Wyllie's chirping, prodding voice saying, "I'll bet Alex knows the answer." We're in his memory of being seven years old with his teacher's voice repeating "Alex knows, Alex knows" separating him from his classmates socially, putting pressure on him to succeed. Wyllie's back is turned to us most of the time; she does so much with just her voice. Her scenes in this episode reminded me of The Geranium on the Windowsill Just Died But Teacher You Went Right On, published in 1971, around the time Alex would have been seven. (If I'm remembering correctly, Albert Cullum dedicates his book to "all those who died in the arms of compulsory education."Alex, of course, survived).

The Young  

(From top to bottom, left to right: Bridgette Andersen, Diana Bellamy, Bibi Besch, and Stephen Lee). The line between "young" and not, when it comes to death, can get subjective after a certain age, so to throw my subjective two cents in, I feel like anyone younger than 70 can count as "young." Andersen, who played kid-Mallory in a season one flashback, reportedly died of a drug overdose at age 21. (She's possibly best known for Savannah Smiles, a movie I loved as a kid). Besch (who plays Jennifer's steely high school principal in season six) was 56; Bellamy was 57 (she plays a warm, encouraging therapist who leads a group that Alex and his girlfriend Lauren attend). Both women died of cancer. Stephen Lee was Jennifer's aggrieved manager at Chicken Heaven, a fast food restaurant; Jennifer's friend and co-worker wreaks havoc, including spraying water all over the prep area and Lee, the boss. Lee died just a few weeks ago of a heart attack; he was 59.

The Older Ones

Doris Belack (left) had acting credits that included the film Tootsie and TV that ranged from The Patty Duke Show to Law & Order (she had a recurring role as a judge). On Family Ties she was Mallory's boss at a clothing store. Julie Harris (right) also had credits that went back to the 1940s; she played Mallory's older college classmate who Mallory discriminates against because of her age. (We'd call Harris's character "non-traditional" now, though demographically she's becoming far more traditional). 

John Ingle (below left) is the justice of the peace who nearly marries Mallory and Nick in season five. Alex rushes in to break up the wedding but interrupts another young couple by accident; they decide to listen to him anyway. Ingle delivers his best lines with gusto: "This is a first for me: two marriages wiped out with one objection. A nuptial double play." He shakes Alex's hand and says, "Congratulations." His screen career began relatively late, in the early '80s, but he worked prolifically until his death in 2012. 

Peter Schrum plays the real deal Santa Claus in season six; (Alex has a job playing Santa at the mall). Like Ingle, he began acting later in life and continued almost until his death in 2003.


Richard Kuss (left) plays a man whose wife has had a heart attack, and he's one of the people who befriends the Keatons when Steven suffers a heart attack himself and undergoes surgery in season seven. He had been acting since the 1950s.

Finally, season seven's "Get Me to the Living Room on Time," features Andy befriending a couple at a retirement home during a class visit. The couple (played by Douglas Seale and Marie Denn, below right) decide to marry in the Keatons' living room. In addition to screen work, Seale acted on the stage and did voice work; one of his last roles was to voice the Sultan in the movie Aladdin. Denn had appeared on The Brady Brunch, The Rockford Files, and other TV shows and movies. The wedding episode is full of great old actors, including Joshua Shelley (below left) as a jokey resident at the retirement home. After a career that began in the late 1940s, this was one of his last roles; he died the next year, in 1990.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Lobsters, Sculptures, and the Trouble with "Normal"

Nick Moore, played by Scott Valentine, becomes Mallory's boyfriend in season four of Family Ties, and their relationship lasts for the remainder of the series. Nick wears an earring and a leather jacket, drives a motorcycle, and greets everyone with an elongated, "Hey-yyy." He often gets dumb lines (which makes him a great match for how Mallory's character is often written), but he's a likable, talented sculptor and eventual art teacher, and he always treats Mallory well. But the way Family Ties treats him makes the show nearly unwatchable at times. 

Alex and Steven (and occasionally other family members) make fun of Nick's intelligence, joke that he's a criminal, and never become truly comfortable with him dating Mallory. In one episode, we learn that Nick lives with his aunt, and it's implied that they don't have much money; (we see the fridge, and it's nearly empty). In short, class, education, and appearance are all conflated, by the show and the characters, into a great big ball of ugly elitism, played for laughs. 

The episode that both engages with this the most and comes closest to acknowledging it is probably "Mr. Right," from season four, early in Mallory and Nick's relationship. Nick joins the Keatons for dinner at a restaurant but doesn't understand that he's supposed to select a lobster from the tank; instead he sets them all free. Nicks sees that he's upsetting the family and not fitting in, and he asks Alex for help: "I'm always getting in trouble around your parents. I mean, it really upsets Mallory, and I don't want to put her through it anymore.... I gotta be more acceptable to your parents, but I don't know how."

The Keatons take home the lobsters that Nick freed;
Alex catches one that "tried to make a break for it."

Nick gets "in trouble" for an unlikely accident and an honest mistake, but the show doesn't acknowledge that not everyone eats lobster or would know how to act at a restaurant that serves them. Basic familiarity differences, and the class issues that surround this particular kind of difference, are not addressed; the Keatons act like eating lobster is everyone's normal. Normal is also invoked in Alex's advice to Nick: "If you want to fit in here at all, you have to learn how to make normal conversation, okay? No more monosyllabic grunts….See, you got to know things. You got to read the newspaper. You got to get a job. You have got to change, Nick."

So Nick cuts his hair, puts on a suit, stops making art, and gets a job at a shoe store, but the only people who like this version of him more are Alex and Steven; Mallory hates it.

Steven, seeing how unhappy Mallory is, convinces Nick to go back to the way he was. His whole speech is played for laughs; the shoe store manager thinks Steven and Nick are lovers.

Yes, that's Alan Blumenfeld again!
Steven says, "Whatever our problems are, we can work them out. Our relationship has to be based on mutual trust and respect. I love what you tried to do for me. But it was wrong, Nick. Don't change for me." The studio audience laughs and laughs.

That misunderstood-for-gay speech is unfunny now, very 1985, and false to boot; (it's not until the penultimate episode - more on that later - that Steven tries to work out his problems with Nick). The blatant linking of respectability to job status, attire, and conversational skills also feels uncomfortably outdated. (I'd love to read something on the evolution of the leather-jacket-wearing TV boyfriend and social class, if anyone has any recommendations).

The episode does nod at how boring "respectability" can be, as when Nick puts people to sleep with his discussion of the differences between rubber and leather soles, or how civic-mindedness is absurd when taken to its limits, as when Nick engages Steven in conversation by wondering, "Scientists say the earth is going to self-destruct in two billion years. Now, what can we as citizens do?"

The show and the characters do grow to respect Nick's art more, though Alex really only appreciates the sculptures when he sees how much money Nick makes selling them. And while the action literally stops when Elyse picks up a guitar, Nick's art is never treated with such reverence.  

The parents occasionally recognize what they have in common with Nick; more than once, Elyse says that Nick reminds her of Steven when he was young. "You know, it's funny," she says near the end of one episode. "If we were in college right now, we'd be more likely to be friends with Nick than with Alex."

"Well, we'd never get to meet someone like Alex," Steven replies. "Unless we were working for him."

As for Alex, he helps Nick pass an English test and get his GED (in part by associating the parts of speech with the parts of a motorcycle).

Now Nick can get his dream job teaching art to kids at the YMCA. But, as with so many character advancements on sitcoms, Alex's investment and Nick's diploma and job don't change the central jokes about Nick's abilities; the next season, we see Nick reading The Little Engine that Could with Andy, and it's the latter who's presented as the better reader. Like the shoe store moment, it's painfully unfunny.

In season six the show introduces us to Nick's estranged dad (the great Dan Hedaya), a used car salesman who left the family when Nick was 11, and the two reconcile. But in the end, the show seems most interested in a reconciliation with a different father figure. In the penultimate episode of the series, Nick stays with the Keatons while his apartment is being painted. He's in Steven's way, and Steven reacts rudely. Later, he apologizes: "I realize I've made things pretty unpleasant for you these last few days."

"Years," Nick corrects him. There's no studio audience laughter this time.

Isn't this a great shirt? 

OK folks, here's my plan now that I've finished the series: I'm going to write one more post about how U.S. presidents are portrayed on the show; I'm going to give you that in memoriam post I know you've been dying to read (sorry, couldn't resist the pun); I might write something about Michael J. Fox staying on the show even after the crazy amazing success of Back to the Future; and I'll definitely end with recommendations for further reading - and for watching the show itself. For all the reasons I've written about and more, this isn't a show I'd recommend most people watch in its entirety, the way I did, but there are some great nuggets I'll point you toward. If there's any other aspect of the show you want me to cover, let me know, but do it soon: to paraphrase Rod Stewart, with the quarter system, by late September I'll be needed back at school :)


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Still Working on that Solid Rock of Brotherhood

Well, I've finally done it - no, I haven't quite finished re-watching Family Ties, but I have arrived at the last season's two-part Very Special Episode "All in the Neighborhood" where the Keatons rediscover racism. The VSE was TV centered around one issue, and like any sitcom episode, viewers got closure at the end - the difference being, the VSE offered closure about something complex, like racism. Emily Nussbaum wrote a great piece about the phenomenon of the nearly-vanished VSE and "All in the Neighborhood" when it aired as a rerun on Nickelodeon in 2003; 11 years later, it's all worth revisiting.

Gus, played by the great John Hancock.
I guess I like images of characters on landlines, huh?

First, the gist: Gus Thompson works with Steven at PBS. (We've met Gus before in previous episodes; more on that in a bit). The Thompsons - Gus, wife Maya, and son-home-from-Harvard Michael - decide to move into the house across the street from the Keatons. The Thompsons start receiving threatening mail and phone calls; the Keatons call a neighborhood meeting, which quickly turns sour when a neighbor says that his family is going to move because property values are sure to go down now that a black family has arrived in the neighborhood; other neighbors seem likely to follow suit. Faced with such animosity, Maya and Michael want to move; Gus doesn't want to cede literal or moral ground to the bigots. Then their home is broken into, trashed, and vandalized.

As Nussbaum notes, the Thompsons' home is graffitied "rather politely."
The misspelling is turned into a joke.

During the clean up, Michael's mind is changed about moving as he reflects on a picture of his parents at the March on Washington and what Dr. King would do in their situation. "You and your friends fought long and hard to win us certain basic rights," Michael tells his parents. "And now it's my turn to fight for them."

Keith Amos is the son, Michael

The episode ends with other white neighbors arriving to help clean up - property concerns kept them silent, but violence shames them into action - and with Steven altering the offensive graffiti.

"You could have this man arrested for defacing your property," Alex tells Gus.

Nussbaum notes:

     for a flashing moment, the episode threatens a critique from within: the Keatons
     are called on the carpet for their smugly self-congratulatory white liberalism. But
     as always in the V.S.E., the conflict quickly dissolves.
She is describing the scene where Steven and Elyse go over to the Thompsons to apologize for the neighborhood meeting. "And even though it didn't work out here," Maya says, "we still appreciate everything you did for us."

"Oh yes" Gus adds, "especially the part where you encouraged us to move into this bastion of racial equality."

Rosalind Cash plays Maya

Steven and Elyse worry that the Thompsons blame them for the racism they encountered; they tell them no, and Maya reassures Elyse that they're "so pure of heart that it never occurs to you that others aren't," and it's clear that we're supposed to share this view. Really? These seasoned '60s activists are that innocent?

While I agree with Nussbaum that the "critique from within" is short-lived, I think she overlooks a few other moments in the episode that have resonance. For example, Alex calls Gus to warn him that Steven and Elyse are headed over after the meeting. "They've been singing some of those white protest songs," Gus reports to his family. "Let's make a run for it," Michael responds, and his parents nod, but they don't get very far before the doorbell rings. "I work with the guy," Gus sighs. "You two save yourselves." Here the audience is let in on how these black characters feel about white characters' "self-congratulatory white liberalism," and because the interaction takes place away from the white characters, no reassurances to them mitigate it.

We're also invited to laugh at Steven and Elyse when the Thompsons first discuss the possibility of moving in and want to know the racial makeup of the neighborhood. Gus expresses concern that there are no black families there, and Steven says, "I want you to know this neighborhood is not like that. We've lived here 15 years and there's never been one racial incident." The studio audience laughs, and then Alex adds, "That's a pretty impressive record for a one-race neighborhood."

But this a Very Special Episode, and a sitcom, and so there are limits to its examinations. When Jennifer asks why they live in an all-white neighborhood, Elyse says that it didn't used to be; when they moved in it wasn't, and that was one of the things the family appreciated about it. No one notes that the Keatons possibly contributed to the racial change, that their presence helped make it that much whiter.

These two sing "Blowin' in the Wind" to the annoyance of everyone around them.

So what does this particular VSE have to offer us 11 years after Nussbuam's article and 25 years after it aired? For one, TV shows still try to mix humor with critique when discussing racism, but now we're much more likely to find that mix in a comedy news show than a sitcom - and we're more likely to see a figure like Jon Stewart as a font of insight and guidance about these issues than we ever were Michael Gross or Meredith Baxter-Birney. But if we're "waiting" for Stewart to "give Fox News the takedown," does that mean that when his 10 minute monologue is over, we'll feel that we've achieved a resolution? And will that resolution feel more or less tidy than the ending of "All in the Neighborhood"? Regarding Stewart's piece about coverage of the Michael Brown shooting, a friend of mine wrote in an email, "He really showed them, now back to his delightful interview with the star of Guardians of the Galaxy." To be fair, Stewart's guest that night was more substantial, but Sudeep's point is still valid: like the VSE, our comedy sources dip into the difficult and damning issues of our time only to leap back to lighter fare; the difference now is that we look to our comedies for news, too.

This Family Ties episode also relates to the Ferguson, MO, story in the ways Gus is made palatable to white audiences. Gus and Alex share musical tastes: they both love polka and Lawrence Welk, and Alex is particularly upset to see that Gus's Welk records have been destroyed in the vandalism. It can't be a writerly accident that Gus's affinities align with those of the white man who happens to be the most popular character on the show. The actor John Hancock was a large man; for viewers unfamiliar with Gus from earlier episodes, polka and Welk offer reassurance that this large black man is not dangerous. Jelani Cobb wrote of such signs of reassurance in a recent piece for The New Yorker about Michael Brown:

     I was once a linebacker-sized eighteen-year-old, too. What I knew then, what
     black people have been required to know, is that there are few things more
     dangerous than the perception that one is a danger….I sometimes let slip that
     I’m a professor or that I’m scarcely even familiar with the rules of football, minor
     biographical facts that stand in for a broader, unspoken statement of
     reassurance: there is no danger here.

The difference of course is that Cobb is a real person who has chosen which biographical facts to share (even if, having shared them, he feels "a sense of having compromised"). Gus isn't given enough of a story for us to know if he's emphasizing minor biographical facts to better fit in with the Keatons; his likes are attached to him with no sense of agency.

Gus is given so little agency, in fact, that even though he's been around since season two, he has a whole new family for "All in the Neighborhood"! Here they are in the season three episode where the PBS station has a pledge drive:

Not only is the son played by a different actor, but also in season three he has a different name - Bill - and the daughter, Judy? Well, she's totally gone by season seven. (The actress who plays his wife is seen so quickly that she doesn't get a name or a credit). I've written about the show's continuity issues before, so it's not like these casting irregularities surprise me. But they add to the impression that Gus is underdeveloped and the actor John Hancock underused.

And this underutilizing is doubly sad because Hancock died of a heart attack only three years later, in 1992. I've been checking guest actors' bios on imdb because I want to write an in memoriam post about some of the ones who have died, and I've tried not to be biased in favor of the old by assuming that they're the only ones who could have died in the past 25-plus years. But I was shocked to discover that all three of the main guest actors in "All in the Neighborhood" have died: Hancock in '92; Rosalind Cash of cancer in 1995, and Keith Amos of chronic asthma in 1998. The parent actors were only in their 50s; the son, in his 30s. It's so obvious, but it still bears saying: there's so much they never got to experience, on TV and in life, and so much they were spared seeing unchanged.



Friday, August 22, 2014

Remembering the Locals

This is my mother. Isn't she cute? 35 years ago today, she was giving birth to her third and final child - me. In thanks for that, and in honor of her recent visit, I thought I'd showcase her here. (Thanks to you too, Dad).

If you're interested in the painting, you should contact The Hub.
Maybe it's still for sale. 

We had a great visit, and I learned new things about her. I'd already known that she got her first job, at the newspapers in Sturgis, SD, by pestering them until they'd hire a 16 year-old farm girl. (In the late 1950s, Sturgis had a one-sheeter called the Black Hills Press and a paper called the Sturgis Tribune, both of which were produced at the same place). But I hadn't known that she'd been assigned the Locals - the section that recounted the goings-on of residents - or that such a section had even existed. The job consisted of calling people up and asking things like, "What did you do last weekend?" and then typing, "Last weekend Mrs. Smith visited her sister in Rapid City."

Isn't that cool? I love community news like that, and I hope there are still some small papers or radio stations where you can find it. In 2009, on a trip to Devil's Tower in eastern Wyoming, I found a radio program that announced a missing collie and a man's birthday party, complete with date, time, address, and invitation. "Everyone is welcome," the announcer said. I hope that program is still airing.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

"The Okies of the Great Recession"

I finished The Grapes of Wrath and the next day when I bought a copy of Harper's, I found this story about retirement-age adults who live in RVs and travel the country following seasonal work. Jessica Bruder writes:

    They call themselves workampers, travelers, nomads, and gypsies, while
    history-minded commentators have labeled them the Okies of the Great
    Recession. More bluntly, they are geriatric migrant labor, meeting demands
    for seasonal work in an increasingly fragmented, temp-driven marketplace.
    And whatever you call them, they're part of a demographic that in the past
    several years has grown with alarming speed: downwardly mobile older

I highly recommend reading this piece; if you're like me and had no idea about this group of people, you'll find it informative, frequently mind-boggling, and yet also an expected extension of economic and social trends. Just as the Joads find community in some places and (when there is work) hard work for little pay almost everywhere, the people Bruder interviews create communities at RV camps yet work long, exhausting days at Amazon warehouses and other sites. But one difference is that there are no Jim Casys in the 2014 story, no workers on strike.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Only an Onscreen Ending

No discussion of Family Ties would be complete without looking at Tracy Pollan, the actress who played Alex's girlfriend, Ellen Reed, in season four, and who would marry Michael J. Fox a few years later. I do remember the character of Ellen from when I originally watched the show as a kid, but I had imagined that her goodbye was much more emotional than it seems now. For one thing, although the whole second episode of season five is devoted to Ellen's absence, we don't actually see Ellen leave; we join the story after she's already accepted a dance scholarship in Paris, and we see the aftermath with Alex trying to date again. And we don't get any flashbacks in that episode, either, or montages of Alex and Ellen's relationship. It's an interesting choice, especially since we saw a montage when they first got together, and the show has already begun the process of using clip shows, or flashback-based episodes. (The first use of the clip episode was with Ellen, actually, near the end of season four - the family sits around in the living room telling her stories about Alex's past antics - two episodes' worth, in fact. Maybe I'll write more about the use of the clip show later, but for now I'll just say that it's a shock of self-awareness - this family remembers its own past and sees connections between seemingly disparate events! - that goes beyond mere attention to continuity. Too bad it feels only like an easy way to deliver new episodes and pointless, narratively).

Is this great old tech or what?
This lack of flashbacks and montages is doubly surprising because without them the show relies uncharacteristically on audience memory. For example, at the campus snack shop juke box, Alex selects the Billy Vera & The Beaters song "At This Moment," which played during the school dance where Alex and Ellen first kissed. But the show doesn't replay that scene, and it doesn't have Alex remark on his choice - "This was our song," or the like - perhaps simply trusting that viewers would remember the earlier, pivotal scene, which took place 25 episodes before. (Or perhaps recent summer episodes reminded viewers; the Ellen's-gone episode, "Starting Over," was only episode two of a new season). The show rarely seems to expect us to remember anything about the characters beyond the most important biographical details or relationships, so if it was expecting viewers to remember Alex and Ellen's song, that would indicate a storyline that was unusually popular and therefore memorable.

Another example of a makeover, btw.
Mallory and Jennifer helped Alex look "hip" for a date.
My own memory of this storyline does suggest that it was notable, but then my memory seems to have given it an extra gloss of romance, probably influenced by Pollan and Fox's real-life romance. For example, I remembered the scene where Alex sits at the kitchen table and writes Ellen a letter, but again, I'd remembered it as being more emotional, a plea to return to Ohio that went unanswered or denied. But that's not the case at all; he's telling her that he's moving on and he wishes her well. He considers several joke closings - "Your pal," "Your son" - before choosing "Love." Alex is not over her yet - that date, with Sharon (played by Haviland Morris, who would have been familiar from 1984's Sixteen Candles) did not go well, mostly because he kept trying to get her to order her food, look, and smell like Ellen. But ultimately he accepts that Ellen is gone.

Spraying your ex-girlfriend's perfume on your date? A no-no.
Although the love story didn't end the way I remembered it, there's a lot to like about the ending. The show gives Ellen a good reason for leaving, a reason that fits with her character as an artist. When we meet her, we learn that she's a painter, and in later episodes we see her as a dancer, too. I might write a post specifically about how art is represented on the show - Elyse is a singer; Nick is a sculptor, etc. - but for now I'll just say that I think it's cool that Ellen pursues her art, which she was shown to be committed to, even if it takes her away from her serious boyfriend. She's not gone from the picture because of some other possible reason - her rich father doesn't fall sick, for example. Characters leave to tend to sick relatives all the time, but that kind of reason would have been inorganic to her character.

I also like that she's gone, period. Don't get me wrong; I love the character, Tracy Pollan is great, and the chemistry between her and Michael J. Fox is so good that I find it hard to believe that they didn't actually become romantically involved until they reunited on the set of Bright Lights, Big City. (I recommend reading that New York Times story about Tracy Pollan's guest appearance on Spin City; in addition to the Fox-Pollan information, it's worth reading to catch the before-he-was-famous reference to Michael Pollan). What I mean is, I like that the writers didn't make Ellen stick around just for the sake of Alex having a girlfriend or transform her into the kind of person who would stay in spite of a scholarship offer because she is loyal to him, can't bear to leave him, etc. Of course, Pollan herself may have had other commitments, which could explain why the character was written off the show, but whatever the reason, I like the way the writers handled it.

George Eliot has this great passage in Middlemarch where she writes that we don't often discuss how people - well, she's focused on men, but I'm expanding the range for my purposes - find their vocations, even though arriving at work we're passionate about that can make an impact on the world requires "industrious thought and patient renunciation of small desires" in the same way that arriving at love does. But instead, Eliot writes, it's love that is the focus of our narrative energies: "We are not afraid of telling over and over again how a man comes to fall in love with a woman and be wedded to her, or else be fatally parted from her." Onscreen, vocation wins out over romance for Ellen, which feels like a triumph, writing and gender-wise; offscreen, acting and love could co-exist. This impulse to recount a love story seems like it would be particularly pronounced with two people like Pollan and Fox, who met in what turned out to be breakout work for both of them and are still together more than 26 years later. We love love stories, and we admire love stories that last.

I once read an interview with Kate Hudson where she talked about how fun it was to watch movies like Overboard to see her mom, Goldie Hawn, and Kurt Russell when they were young. I hope that Fox and Pollan's four children get a similar kick out of seeing their parents on Family Ties, a show that ended up as a home movie of sorts, offering the earliest images of them together.