New Jersey’s Great Pop Culture Moments Vol.65: Family Ties – The Keatons DO A.C!

“Look at this Dad, fortunes won and lost, hearts broken, lives ruined, 
free drinks…this is what America is all about!” – Alex P. Keaton

The Keaton’s trip to Atlantic City didn’t quite reach the levels of hilarity that The Griswald’s Vegas Vacation did, but this trip took place 13 years before that and still it was still a lot of fun.

I watched Family Ties religiously as a kid and now I’m getting a chance to view some of my favorites all over again thanks to Netflix who offers every season streaming. Let’s look back at Family Ties Season 3 opener “The Gambler” that originally aired on September 20th, 1984. The episode saw The Keaton family make their way from Ohio to Atlantic City in order for Elyse to give a speech at an architect’s convention. Elyse’s speech gets tossed aside when a new she gets caught up in a new past time.


Alex has developed a new gambling system called “The Alex Keaton Blackjack System” and he claims it’s “the work of a genius.” He’s pushing his parents to use the system (which he printed out in little booklets for them) at the tables once they get to the casino. Stuffy Elyse has no interest in gambling and she even tells her husband Steven that gambling is like throwing money away.

Elyse was more interested in the tourist aspect of Atlantic City rather than the abundant gambling opportunities. She explained to Alex that A.C is “the most exciting place on the east coast. It’s so rich in history, the old hotels, the beaches, the boardwalk.” “Gambling, mom don’t forget gambling!” Alex replied.

They get down to the hotel and Alex finally convinces his mom to go down to the casino and take a shot at some blackjack. Before they head down, Jennifer asks if they can order some room service. What was odd about the writing in this part of the episode is that although Elyse tells Mallory that maybe they will all get tickets to go see Tom Jones, right afterward she tells Jennifer that she can’t order room service because it’s too expensive. Was Elyse already beginning her descent into the dark underbelly of America’s Playground? The blonde bleeding heart mom was refusing her youngest (at that point) and hungriest child a meal, but she was all geared up to shell out wads of cash for Tom Jones? Where were her priorities? “What’s New Pussycast” or “What’s Wrong With My Malnourished Child?” It didn’t take long until the flashy and vibrant allure of Atlantic City broke Elyse’s will. Once she started winning she grew mystified. She was overcome by temptation and she kept winning. How could she quit now?

One of the reasons that I appreciated Family Ties was because its humor was smarter than many other shows of its time. It was amusing to see Elyse develop into a degenerate gambler because she is the last character you’d expect that to happen to. The fact that her son egged her on with a full methodized gambling plan laid out for her was quintessential Alex Keaton. At one point during Elyse’s blackjack binge, she tells Steven that she wants to move down to A.C and the kids can go to school “right here in the casino.” “They can learn the 3 R’s reading, writing and roulette!” Steven added sarcastically. Ah that’s good shit. They don’t make shows like this anymore. As much as I loved the humor in the show, naturally, the resolution was cheesy, as most sitcoms were back then. Ultimately, Elyse wins back all the money she wound up losing (and then some) and decides to give it to a midnight Church mission.

“OK, OK, let’s not panic here. I don’t think any pledge made at 3:30 in the morning 
is legally binding in the state of New Jersey…” – Alex P. Keaton

While the episode focused on what became a serious gambling addiction, Atlantic City has risen from some dark times and emerged as a much more family friendly trip than Las Vegas. If your young kids really want to complete their collection of cards advertising strip clubs or coupons for escort services, just bring ’em to Vegas! The streets aren’t littered with them! Of course I’m being facetious, but you won’t see any of that stuff on the A.C boardwalk or outside of its casinos. There may be a lot of weirdos on the A.C boardwalk, but that’s typical of most boardwalks worth walking.

Jersey girls should heed this episode as a warning. I know so many of you have this overwhelming desire to go to AC and gamble. Take it from Elyse Keaton and cash out while you are ahead so you can feed your starving children.

*Trivia Alert – In this episode, Elyse sticks Mallory with the task of presenting her speech. Later, Mallory comes back with a woman from the convention who has a question for Elyse about the relative advantages of wind power over solar power. That line hit me because it sounded like some kind of weird premonition on the part of the writers. Atlantic City opened the first coastal wind farm in the U.S about 20 years later in 2005 consisting of five huge wind turbines. WEIRD RIGHT?