On The 12th Day of Christmas: Family Ties-“A Keaton Christmas Carol”

It was not the first show to adapt A Christmas Carol to fit its characters and certainly won’t be the last. However, it does hold a place in many’s hearts as the first time they’d ever see. At least, I can speak for myself. And it was a revelation!

Well, Maybe Not Revelation, But I Did Like It

The plot itself is nothing earth-shattering, and it even squashes the story together–even omitting one ghost, present–mainly due to lack of time in the half hour sitcom format of the 1980s. That said, it packs a lot of plot (and substance) in a short time. We open on the Keaton family, minus its most famous member–Michael J. Fox’s epitome of Reagan-era Young Republican-ism, Alex P.– as they joyously trim the tree. When Alex does make his grand entrance, as you can guess, he’s not exactly blessed with the Christmas spirit.

Oh, Hi Reverend!

After belittling his kin as much as he can and refusing to take part in presents or the yearly Keaton Family staged photo, he storms to his room, and after yelling at carolers (including a reverend) to get off his lawn, he goes to sleep and I’m pretty sure I did not imagine him literally saying “bah humbug” as he dives under the sheet. The youngest, Tina Yothers’ underrated Jennifer, plays the role of Ghost of Christmas Past. After Alex confirms she’s not pranking him when his hand goes through her {wait, was he about to hit his younger sister?! that’s some dark stage directions}, she reveals to him a past where between venerating Richard Nixon and doing his parents’ taxes, seven-year-old Alex still loved Christmas. In fact, the yearly staged Christmas photo was his idea.

You Will Be Visited By Thr…Two, Make That Two Ghosts!

Mallory skips ahead to Ghost of Christmas Future and shows him a life where a destitute Steven and Elyse do others’ laundry to survive in a house that has become a den of squalor, Mallory is pregnant, and a hoarse-voiced (oh yeah, forgot to mention, Alex neglected to buy her cough syrup back in real life) 40-year-old Jennifer farms dirt. A wealthy Alex, complete in the most grotesque bald wig ever, comes by to lord it over his destitute family, and by this time APK is very much on board with the Scrooge life-change.

Even Back Door Little Joe

What the Alex P. Keaton life-change entails is where this episode goes from fun Christmas episode to unforgettable holiday classic. The bewildered Keatons wake up to a mysteriously missing Alex, who quickly breezes in with a Santa costume, beard, and sack of “presents.” However, since this is 1984 and the only place open on Christmas morning is a 7-11, dad gets a cup of coffee {7-11 coffee is a pretty awesome treat, though}, a TV Guide for mom, beef jerky for Mallory, and of course a six-pack of cough syrup for Jennifer–oh, and hair gel for himself. After a speech that still makes my three-sizes-too-snarky heart melt about the importance of telling your loved ones how you feel, he insists they recreate the Christmas photo correctly, which they do just in time for the signature 1980s sitcom freeze, end credits, and song.

Fa La La La

Why this Christmas Carol recreation still pops over 35 years later, even if it’s forced to rush, has everything to do with why Family Ties was one of the best programs of its time. Alex could have been written as a caricature, a slave to a bunch of too-too-clever writers’ jokes about a rigid, button-down son rebelling against his hippie-dippy parents. However, the show knew what good sitcoms from Taxi and Barney Miller to Parks & Recreation and Superstore get right–that as much as “situation” is a part of the genre’s name, it’s from richly drawn characters and their quirks from which you get the strongest comedy. We relate to the situations, but we are moved to care about the people experiencing them. When Alex is pulled away from his past Christmas, it’s genuinely moving–you can sense the absolute sadness in realizing what he lost, and what he can never come back to.

Lights Please!

Not to go all Linus Van Pelt, but the holidays are a mix of misplaced expectations and hopeful futures, of judgment and angst and joy and song, of wanton indulgence and selfless charity, of religious reverence and secular cheer. It’s a day for reflection, celebrations, regret, and (ideally) acceptance. Ultimately, like most things, Christmas (or any of the December holidays) is what we make of it. Finding at least one day to show our love for those we care about, even if we often fail to appreciate, is as good a meaning of Christmas as being thankful for all that we’ve received or thinking of others or remembering it’s good to be nice, or even I have a machine gun, ho-ho-ho!

Memorable Quotes

7-Year-Old Alex: “I started on your tax returns, but I can’t do much until you get your W-2’s. I don’t want a repeat of what happened last year.”
Elyse: “I’m sorry about that Alex, that was our fault”
7-Year-Old Alex: “Yeah, but I’m the one who’s sweating out the audit.”

Alex: “That was beautiful. That was… that was really beautiful. Can we go back there later?”
Ghost of Christmas Past/Jennifer: “I’m sorry. You can’t go home again. {after a beat} Welp, here we are, home again.”

Ghost of Christmas Future/Mallory: “The Keaton Family fell upon hard times, Alex.”
Alex: “All of us?”
Ghost of Christmas Future/Mallory:” Oh, you’re OK. You live in New York now. You’re a very wealthy man.”
Alex: “What a shame about the family! Wait, just how wealthy am I?”

Alex: “Oh, no, what happened to me?”
Ghost of Christmas Future/Mallory: “You lost your spirit”
Alex: “Forget the spirit, what about my hair?!”

Alex: “Mallory’s not pregnant”
Mallory & Elyse: “WHAT?!”
Alex: “I said ‘Mallory’s not president.’ But, hey, in this country, she could be!”

Alex: “I just want all of you to know that, uh, you’re the most important people in the world to me. And I know I don’t show it sometimes, but I love you all very much. Merry Christmas.”
All: “Merry Christmas, Alex!”

And that sentiment is as good a place as any to end our 12 Days of Great Christmas Episodes. Thanks for reading and have the best rest of 2020 (and beyond)!

Watch Family Ties‘ “A Keaton Christmas Carol” (Season 2, Episode 9) here.

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