In the days leading up to Halloween, Primetimer is plumbing the depths of television's past to come up with the scariest TV episodes we've ever seen. And we're not just talking the usual suspects for horror — Buffy, The X-Files, The Twilight Zone — we're talking about shows that weren't usually out to frighten their fans. Because sometimes TV can get really weird. And unsettling. And straight-up terrifying.
When I was a kid, Family Ties was such a beloved show in my home that I got to stay up past my bedtime to watch it. The episode where Alex (Michael J. Fox) attempts a ballet routine made my dad laugh so hard that his reaction would become a family legend. I even once assumed Skippy peanut butter was named after the Keatons' next-door neighbor of the same name.
So I wasn't prepared at the time for my response to "A, My Name Is Alex", the hour-long, fifth-season episode that first aired in 1987. Though it won an Emmy for its script and is now considered one of the greatest episodes in TV history, it gave eight year-old me a nightmare. After that, it stuck with me for decades as an example of unexpectedly scary TV.
The episode's story blurred as I got older, but the nightmare stayed clear: I was in a dark room, screaming for people to let me out. I knew someone could hear me, but I couldn't see them. I was terrified because they didn't care that I was in trouble.
Now that I've rewatched "A, My Name is Alex," I understand exactly why this happened.
The episode follows Alex through the aftermath of his friend Greg's death. In the first half, he denies he's even upset, making jokes about how well-attended the funeral was and how his eulogy referenced Greg's net worth. (Alex, of course, is the money-loving, capitalism-worshipping Republican in his otherwise liberal family.) Soon enough, however, he starts seeing Greg everywhere and realizes he's filled with survivor's remorse.
This leads to the second half, which takes the form of a therapy session. Alex talks about Greg, his family, his childhood, and his own fear that he'll never again feel protected. This section is shot more like a televised play than a traditional sitcom: We see Michael J. Fox on an empty stage, with simple set pieces emerging from the darkness as he steps into a memory from his past. His therapist is just an off-stage voice, which means the camera stays focused on Fox for each breakdown and breakthrough.
And it's honestly scary! Not in the ghost-shouting-boo way, but in the way where a comforting family sitcom takes a sudden, nihilistic turn. There's a soul-sickness in Alex's predicament, and the episode forces us to confront it. We can't take refuge in the homey set (which has vanished) or the familiar rhythms of set-ups and punchlines (which have been replaced by something more elliptical). We can't even find solace in other, happier characters when they appear like visions out of Alex's imagination. We know we're not seeing Mallory and Jen and Scotty, but Alex's perceptions of them. We're watching phantoms that point us back to his pain.
This narrative strategy is unsettling even when we expect it (like in Twin Peaks or the most menacing episodes of Fargo). It's even more disorienting in a hugs-and-lessons show like Family Ties, because it's so unexpected.
That explains why my nightmare had its trapped-in-a-dark-room setting. But I realize now that the content of my dream was much more personal. It arose from the scene where Alex revisits his second-grade teacher. He remembers how she used to call on him all the time in class, telling the other students they should try to reach his level of excellence. In 1987, I was in second grade myself, and my own second-grade teacher was doing the same thing to me. There were even times she would tell kids with questions to leave her alone and go ask me for help. Eventually, nobody would talk to me, and kids started laughing with relief when I got a question wrong. Just like Alex, I was miserable, but just like Alex, I was afraid to stop getting good grades.
So, it's no wonder it gave me a nightmare: "A, My Name Is Alex" was staging my own traumas, and I wasn't old enough to cope.
Thankfully my parents moved me to a different school for third grade, and I was able to flourish there. But for decades, that episode of Family Ties lurched around my memory like an out-of-focus beast.
I'm glad I rewatched it as an adult. I'm glad I can appreciate it now for its incredible writing and lead performance (Fox won an Emmy for this season, almost certainly because of this episode). I'm glad I can feel moved -- not frightened -- by the just-right depiction of grief and the perfect articulation of what happens to kids who are expected to be adults in the classroom. Watching "A, My Name is Alex" this time, I cried more than once, and that welcome emotional wallop more than makes up for my long-ago bad dream.
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Mark Blankenship is a critic and reporter who has contributed to The New York Times, Variety, and many others. Tweet him at @IAmBlankenship.