A Disastrous Reunion Ruined ‘Alex Mack’

We live in an era of mass-marketed reunions, particularly on streaming platforms. HBO Max has been one of the main drivers of this, with high-profile reunions featuring the casts of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Friends, and Harry Potter all making big waves on the platform. There is usually a montage of highlights from the show, a lot of conversing between the cast members on the restored set of the production, behind-the-scenes tidbits, and tributes to any cast members who have passed away. These sorts of things have become routine.

August 20, 2021. I’m at AwesomeCon in Washington, D.C., a massive comic convention held annually in the nation’s capital. In front of me is a sampling of former Power Rangers from Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, the original kid’s TV franchise that dominated the eyeballs of many a 90s baby, myself included. I approach the mic, nervous. I admit to them that my inner 5-year-old is freaking out because I was talking to the Power Rangers. They delight in taking my question, as well as many others from the assembled fans. They reveal memories and trivia about the production of the 1995 big-screen Power Rangers movie, as well as funny anecdotes about crazy fan interactions. The cast is warm and inviting, and there is a sense of comradery between them despite the fact that not all of them appeared on the show at the same time.

This is what a reunion of a beloved 90s kid’s staple should look like.

For four years, I’ve been trying to tell a story. It centers on one YouTube video and how the act of watching it made me feel. And in those four years, I could have told this story a dozen different ways. It’s a story about nostalgia, disappointment, second-hand embarrassment, and the need to commodify every aspect of our childhoods. At first, I only told friends and loved ones: “You won’t believe this, I watched the craziest thing!” I even forced a few to watch it with me, responding with glee as they reacted with the same stunned shock that I did. Now, only upon passing its fourth anniversary am I comfortable committing my thoughts on it to print.

March 26, 2018. I’m not in a terribly great place in my life. I’m taking a break from grad school, unemployed, and living at home with my parents. The only thing that provides creative fulfillment is my freelance work for a local comedy website. I am in desperate need of something positive in my life.

The YouTube algorithm blesses me that day: why look, Will! It’s a reunion of The Secret World of Alex Mack! How about that? The series, which ran from 1994 to 1998, was a staple on late-90s Nickelodeon. It also happened to be a particular favorite of mine, as I have written and referenced it many times before. For those who are unaware, the show focuses on teenager Alex Mack (Larisa Oleynik) after she gets dumped with radioactive chemicals in an accident and gains superpowers.

Just a few months before this reunion was released, the entirety of the series had finally been released to DVD for the first time, allowing us die-hard fans the chance to see the final episodes in a way that wasn’t dependent on sketchy bootleg websites. Part of what made Alex Mack so unique in the kids’ TV landscape was that it had a definitive ending. Larisa Oleynik wanted to go to college so she turned down a massive salary to do another season of the show. Knowing that this gave them the rare opportunity to conclude Alex’s story, the showrunners went all out with a two-part finale called “Paradise Lost” and “Paradise Regained”. One of my fondest memories of childhood is watching it when it first aired live in 1998. The conclusion wraps up all the plot threads while still ending on an ambiguous note. It is incredibly satisfying and stands as one of the best finales to any show ever, especially now in a post-Game of Thrones world.

Once they heard I had the DVD set, friends my age who remembered the show specifically asked for me to bring it over, as they too wanted to take a stroll down memory lane with the classic series. It really reminded me of what made the show so special, and the resonance it had on an entire generation of 90s babies like me.

And then came the reunion.

Its timing was puzzling. After all, most reunions typically honor the anniversary of when a show started. This seemed to be commemorating the 20th anniversary of the show’s conclusion. It was coming off the heels of a major announcement about a reboot of fellow 90s Nickelodeon hit Clarissa Explains It All that ultimately never came to fruition. But it starts off pleasant enough with the cast reintroducing themselves to the camera. They look different now as a result of two decades passing, but they seem to be having fun.

The trouble starts almost immediately: it seems to be awkwardly held outside in an amphitheater in the middle of Universal Studios Hollywood. Typically, a presentation like this would happen as a panel at a convention. Because of this, the attendance seems positively paltry, which doesn’t do much to highlight the impact and legacy of the show.

Some of the cast is very visibly not there, and others who had relatively minor roles are. One of the hosts misidentifies the show as “The Secret LIFE of Alex Mack”. A microphone malfunctions during the first question. Star Darris Love, who played Alex’s best friend Ray, brags about how he “had all the lines” for the pilot episode “memorized” because “he had already auditioned for the show,” and refers to the showrunner as “the CEO and founder of Alex Mack.”

Next to Love is Natanya Ross, who played Alex’s close friend Robyn for the entirety of the show’s run, who is eventually revealed as one of the reunion’s ringleaders. After her is Jason Strickland, who is one of the more fascinating figures. He didn’t have that big of a role on the show, he played a crush that Alex had at school named Scott for the first two seasons or so, only appearing in 13 of the show’s 78 episodes.

Strickland’s appearance is more jarring given that several of the main cast members, including Michael Blakley, who played Alex’s father George, and most obviously Meredith Bishop, who played Alex’s big sister Annie, were not present. Bishop was an important fixture for most of the show’s run, and her leaving-for-college episode is one of the show’s emotional highlights. Blakley lasted the entirety of it, even having a memorable role in the series finale as the one who concocts an antidote to cure Alex of her powers.

There also isn’t a single mention of the late Louan Gideon, who played the show’s unforgettable overarching villain Danielle Atron, or Alex’s dad’s boss and owner of the nefarious chemical plant responsible for the GC-161 substance that granted Alex her superpowers. She constantly popped up on 90s TV shows, including Saved by the Bell, Beverly Hills 90210, 3rd Rock from the Sun and even a memorable appearance on an episode of Seinfeld called “The Millennium”.

Seated next to him is Dorian Lopinto, who played Alex’s mom Barbara for the entirety of the show’s run, who has no patience for his antics. She sticks her tongue out when he denies going to clubs that served alcohol, and rolls her eyes at a lot of his self-indulgent answers. At one point towards the end, Strickland appears to fall on top of her.

Up next is John Marzilli, who played Atron’s menacing head of security, Vince. A little boy who Marzilli claims is “my son…and my manager” awkwardly stands behind him as his father/client complains about, among other things, not loving working with kids and contract negotiations with Nickelodeon from decades ago. At one point, Jason Strickland motions to Marzilli with his hands for him to “wrap it up.”

The MVP of the whole proceeding seems to be John Nielsen, who played Dave, the goofy truck driver responsible for the accident that granted Alex her powers. He seems the most earnest of the ensemble, offering some of the warmest reflections on the show while still touting his post-Alex Mack accomplishments in writing and as an actor on stage and screen. As Dave, he exuded weird-uncle or goofy-older brother energy depending on the situation.

At one point on the show, he did have a roommate who was a chimpanzee. Now, he looks, talks, and acts like the dad you’d want coaching your kid’s little league team.

The next segment of the show sets out to establish how well the cast got along. Mostly, this involves recounting weird anecdotes about parties where you get the sense that everyone is holding back on what really went down at them. The goal here is simple: to establish that the show and its cast weren’t just something different, but something special in the TV landscape extra deserving of a big reboot to put the show back in the public consciousness. “We were all good friends,” Natanya Ross says at one point. “And you don’t see that a lot on casts of shows like ours. You hear all these horror stories about how everyone hated and everyone was just separate, and that wasn’t us.” They’re pouring it on thick, just like they’re about to in pleading for a reboot.

So then the question has to be asked: “Would you reprise your role or the show?” It starts off with Oleynik, who is clearly not prepared for the question and eventually needs a subsequent addendum after she admits “the question threw me off.” If anything, it would be asked as the very last question with a little bit of tongue-in-cheek. The question’s deliberate nature feels desperate: “Look at us. We’re all here now, together again. Wouldn’t it be nice to see more of us, coming soon to a streaming platform near you?” This becomes even more apparent when the showrunners, one of whom is now a higher-up at Amazon Studios, are eventually brought up on stage. By this point, things like “I would be overjoyed to do [a reboot], if there’s anyone in the audience listening right now, we’re very interested in that, thank you,” have already been said.

By this point, Love has left his seat abruptly for some unknown reason, but can be seen walking across the stage in the camera view for a few minutes during other people’s questions. When he sits back down in his place after having already been skipped, he is stammering with energy. “I would not just reprise the role, I would reprise the show,” he confidently tells the audience.

Only one question from the audience gets asked, from a long-haired guy draped in Nickelodeon apparel. Is he a plant from Nickelodeon? The world may never know. Instead of any of the obvious questions like favorite episode or memory, he asks if they kept anything. A camera operator then comes on stage to model “the official Alex Mack hat.”

The presentation’s two “hosts” (who are both doing the bare minimum as the whole thing has gone completely off the rails at this point) are thanked by Love. He refers to All That, the hugely popular kid’s sketch show also on Nickelodeon at the same time Alex Mack was airing, as “All of That”. Several audience members shout the correct title. There’s an awkward group photo with the small crowd of people in attendance.

Once it was over, an existential gloom overcame me. It felt so of its moment in history: this is what happens when you take something that was sweet, wholesome, pure, and good in the 90s and bring it into 2018. It just felt so sleazy; its exploitative, desperate machinations feel distinctly Trump era; it reeked of late-stage capitalism. But for me, pop-culture-obsessed and with a special, significant bond with Alex Mack in particular, for the first time in my life, I actually begged the question: “Is pop culture actually worth it?” The reunion hurt me to my core, and I didn’t get out of this existential funk for a few days.

Reflecting on the Alex Mack reunion now, it is still shocking how bad it is, especially in comparison to these newer reunions that have been released. But the show is still there. My memories of it haven’t changed. These reunions have become a way to check in with the stars that used to mean so much, but we’ve moved on, and so have they. One of the most jarring aspects of the Alex Mack reunion is the lack of questions from the audience. I compare that to the enthusiasm of some of the original Power Rangers in taking fan questions, including my own, at AwesomeCon. The success that many of these reunions have had is evidence that, at the end of the day, they need to be for the fans. In contrast, the Alex Mack reunion proves that when your intentions aren’t in the best places, it’s so transparent to see.

The Secret World of Alex Mack itself ends on an ambiguous note: does Alex take the antidote her father concocted, losing her powers forever? Your guess is as good as mine, but there’s been almost a quarter-century now of silence on the matter. Maybe that’s why the memories of watching that final episode when I was 7 resonated as a nostalgic touchstone: it wasn’t a goodbye so much as “we’ll see what happens, and maybe we’ll check in again someday.”

Maybe that inner 7-year-old still holds out hope to see a continuation, but I’m fine not seeing the show rebooted or continued, at least not right now. As it stands, I had my own journey with this chaotic reunion that came into my life four years ago and never really left. That feels like more than enough story for right now.