Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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Phish, Junta (1989)

Have a cup of coffee and catch your breath.

Track List:

  • Fee
  • You Enjoy Myself
  • Esther
  • Golgi Apparatus
  • Foam
  • Dinner and a Movie
  • Divided Sky
  • David Bowie
  • Fluffhead
  • Fluff’s Travels
  • Contact

A while back I thought about doing a series where I’d reappraise each R.E.M. album in order. Not just “hey, this one reminds me of such-and-such…” but actually taking the time to listen critically to every song, in sequence, and see what I come up with when I need to actively discuss them rather than passively listen to them.

I still want to do that, and I’d be shocked if I don’t, but a few weeks ago another of my favorite bands, Phish, released a new album, which I’ve been listening to endlessly. It got me in the mood to listen to their older stuff, and that, in turn made me decide to start with this band instead.

A quick note about this series in general: every official release will be covered, in sequence, with a few exceptions. Archival releases, rarities albums, live albums, EPs, non-album singles, and compilations will not be covered. At least, not unless I have a good reason to cover them. For instance, I do want to cover Phish’s two “traditional” live albums, because they contain a lot of important songs to discuss that aren’t available in official, studio form.

It’ll be relatively rare that I have to break one of these rules for meaningful reasons, and I have them in place to keep me focused and not getting tripped up having to talk about the same song several times without having anything new to say. Also, I’ll be going with original releases rather than expanded bonus additions or anything like that. You know…until I decide to break that rule, too.

So, Junta. It’s Phish’s first studio album, and a good portion of fans will tell you that you shouldn’t really be listening to Phish’s studio albums. They’re a live band, and while they’ve certainly earned that reputation, the idea that you shouldn’t familiarize yourself with their studio output is, to be fair, bullshit.

You’ll never hear the sprawling, energetic sweep of a truly great jam come out of a formal recoding session, but if you’re looking for a sprawling, truly great jam, then you’re missing what the studio can offer: Focus. Precision. Clean audio.

Phish’s songs — on this album and elsewhere — do tend to fall into two main categories: the ones best live, and the ones best in the studio. The bigger and looser the composition, the more likely it’s going to be best as a live experience. The smaller and tighter the composition, the more likely it’s going to be a better studio track.

I think a lot of fans were disappointed by the fact that Phish’s early albums were basically collections of songs that would become — or already were — great fodder for concerts, whereas later they were more focused on crafting small, sometimes intimate tunes that would potentially bring raging live sets to a dead stop.

There’s a whole debate to be had there, and it would be an interesting one. Perhaps people would be more forgiving of their studio output if the tiny studio tunes stayed there. Instead, as Phish added more and more two-minute ballads and pop tunes to their catalogue, fans knew that appearances from “The Curtain (With),” “Stash,” “Run Like an Antelope,” and other heavy hitters would grow necessarily rarer.

But we’re getting somewhat ahead of ourselves. Here, in 1989, when Junta was a simple cassette tape poised to launch one hell of a musical career, we open with a love triangle involving a Buddhist weasel, a villainous chimpanzee, and a pox-stricken gospel singer. And it’s fucking adorable.

FEE

As a formal introduction to Phish, “Fee” does a pretty good job. It doesn’t give even a hint of their improvisational prowess, or the complexity of their compositional skills, but it does paint a great portrait of their sweetness, their sense of humor, and their musicianship. While none of the band members get to show off their particular skills, each of them plays an instrumental role in the song’s atmosphere, and that’s what reframes this silly fairytale as something worth taking seriously.

When people criticize Phish’s lyrics, they kind of miss the point. With only a few exceptions, their songs aren’t about what the words are saying, but how they make you feel when you hear them. This is also what made, and continues to make, Phish such an effective live band. Maybe you can’t make out the words from the back row, but at the same time, you always know what the song is saying.

“Fee” is a nice, gentle, sunny groove, with a reassuring chorus that means nothing. Its story is barely a story at all; it’s a tale of love and triumph that doesn’t include much of either. Characters are introduced, there’s a scuffle, and the song ends. But, damn, is it a perfect opener.

YOU ENJOY MYSELF

After that we move into Phish’s unofficial anthem, “You Enjoy Myself.” This one I’m not as inclined to be generous toward. The reason is that as much of a raging monster this song becomes in concert, on disc it’s…kinda worthless. The energy simply isn’t there, and while this is (chronologically) our first taste of Trey Anastasio’s incredible compositional talent — and this composition is incredible — it’s the kind of song that absolutely relies on the thrill of a live concert experience.

In fact, “You Enjoy Myself” feels here almost like An Elevator Music Tribute to Phish, and the absence of the song’s signature vocal jam doesn’t help matters. There’s really no reason to listen to this one instead of any given live performance (and we’ll come to one before long) as the mix is uninspired, the energy lacking all around, and the precision of the performance rendered redundant by just how many easily accessible live versions there are today.

When Junta was the only game in town, I’m sure this was great to have. But it’s been a long time since then, and unlike some of Anastasio’s other layered masterworks, the studio doesn’t so much provide a pristine listening experience as it does reveal the limitations of a band that hadn’t yet learned what to do without an audience.

ESTHER

Then we move on to “Esther,” which is probably one of my least favorite Phish songs overall. That’s not to say it’s one of their worst songs (it’s not even close…); it’s just that its length makes it stand out to me as a real drag.

On Junta it just sounds out of place. Its lyrics are still silly, but carry an air of self-importance that wears thin far too soon. In concert it’s even worse, as Trey tends to forget the lyrics regularly, and the lack of improvisation means that a live version with even a single flub is inferior to the already quite dull album version.

Musically, I admit, the song is quite good. It glides effortlessly through several movements, some of them pretty lovely, but, ultimately, it’s dragged down by the long, spoken-word narrative that’s been nailed to it. Phish has managed passive profundity over the course of its career, but they fall short when they reach for it. And there’s really no better definition of “reaching for it” than this aimless tale of an innocent little girl and her puppet finding themselves buffeted by the world around them.

It’s sort of a mix of the winding narrative of “Fee” with the compositional confidence of “You Enjoy Myself,” but it definitely amounts to less than the sum of its parts. I really wish we’d have gotten a studio version of “The Curtain (With)” or “Harry Hood” in order to showcase what the band could do with complicated material, or even “Slave to the Traffic Light,” which is gentle and gorgeous enough that the isolation of a studio could actually add a welcome chill to the song.

Instead, we got “Esther.” Oh well. You can’t win them all.

GOLGI APPARATUS

Next is “Golgi Apparatus,” an absolutely perfect live set-closer or encore. It’s a loud, deceptively complicated rocker with an irresistible refrain. (If there’s a man out there who can keep from joining in for that final “I SAW YOU!!” I don’t want to meet him.) Here, though, it’s pretty limp. This is another song that relies on live energy, and it doesn’t have much to offer otherwise.

It’s especially strange hearing this early, slow version, after listening over and over again to the screaming live renditions. This one feels almost like a lullaby, but it’s certainly not bad, and because it’s short, it doesn’t overstay its welcome.

It’s also our first exposure to Phish as pop-musicians. “Fee” is a bit long for radio, and in 1989 you were never going to catch anyone playing “You Enjoy Myself” or “Esther,” but the familiar verse / chorus / breakdown / chorus structure foreshadows the band’s later, more serious attempts at popular accessibility.

Jon Fishman on drums does get to cut impressively loose here, and that’s nice, but beyond that, there’s little to say. It’s gone almost as soon as it arrives, and that’s neither a particularly good nor bad thing. As much as I support the idea of taking studio Phish seriously, at least half of Junta provides a good argument that some of it is worth ignoring.

FOAM


And then there’s “Foam.” This is the first song we get that justifies its existence both in and out of the studio.

Of course, its success depends entirely upon how appealing the central groove is to you. Personally, I love it, and it’s a great, early showcase for Mike Gordon’s bass and Page McConnell’s piano. The disorienting, simple melody seems to crawl from instrument to instrument, pulling your attention along with it, working like a camera to guide your focus.

This is actually one of my favorites on Junta, because even though it absolutely thrives in the live setting, “Foam” is a great, bizarre, jazzy interlude on disc. It demonstrates what Phish can do, but it neither resorts to silliness or self-importance. Its lyrics might be utter nonsense, but that just helps to reinforce the idea that it’s not their content but rather their context that matters.

“Foam” is a lovely experiment in atmospheric development, and while it doesn’t cycle through different moods the way this album’s true masterpiece does, it’s a great, rare, dual showcase for Gordon and McConnell, and a performance that absolutely stands on its own merits. I really, really love “Foam.”

DINNER AND A MOVIE

“Dinner and a Movie,” by contrast, stands on no merits. It’s another pop-tune, but far less radio friendly than “Golgi Apparatus,” and as far as I can tell the only time it’s ever worth hearing is in any of Phish’s live shows with a horn section. In that capacity it functions well as a bouncy, brassy warmup. In any other, it’s…just kind of irritating.

This song is actually one that comes from The Dude of Life, a friend of (and early contributor to) the band. The fact that “Dinner and a Movie” is his representation on Junta is puzzling, as certainly most of his other songs from the time (“Halley’s Comet,” “I Didn’t Know,” “Suzy Greenburg”) would have been far more welcome inclusions.

At the very least, it’s interesting to hear “Dinner and a Movie” roll through its several short movements, as it seems like Phish is trying to figure out how many distinct ways this song can be annoying.

DIVIDED SKY

And yet I would listen to “Dinner and a Movie” ten thousand times if it meant I could hear “Divided Sky” after every one. “Divided Sky” is — and may always be — the band’s singular, most enduring compositional masterpiece. And while live versions indeed have greater energy and sharper spikes of experimentation, the version here on Junta is just absolutely fantastic.

In fact, I very rarely dig Junta out. When I do, it’s because I’m dying to hear this. While it’s still one of Phish’s most popular live songs, the studio version really allows the musicianship and complexity to shine, as well as the song’s inspirations to come through. Frank Zappa is a pretty clear one — particularly on the early section in which the song’s melody is played backward and then reversed to play properly, as a musical palindrome — and I can’t be the only one who hears Duane Allman in Trey’s first major solo.

The studio also allows Phish to flesh out the song in ways that it couldn’t on stage. The opening sweep is performed on an acoustic guitar, while for most of the piece Trey plays an electric. Live this would have required some pre-planned and clunky instrument swapping. Here, it’s just part of the experience. The twinkling bells in the opening also add a nice, heavenly flourish, rooting this song firmly in the big, blue sky, where it belongs.

I cannot say enough good about “Divided Sky.” It’s one of the single most impressive songs I’ve ever heard, and I can’t imagine I’ll ever get tired to listening to it. The moods range from curiosity to trepidation to swirling triumph, and every movement feeds naturally from the one that came before and into the one that follows. Once the band swings into the final, long, glorious stretch, heralded by the chunky pound of Page’s keys and Trey’s prolonged, electric shriek, we ride along into absolute musical bliss.

It’s a perfect showcase for every member of the band, and functions as an absolutely brilliant, incredible achievement. Enough cannot be said about what a perfect listening experience “Divided Sky” constitutes, and it single-handedly justifies all of Junta‘s flat missteps for me.

DAVID BOWIE

“David Bowie” doesn’t reach anywhere near the highs of “Divided Sky,” and its inclusion here is a bit puzzling to me. While I certainly prefer it to, say, “Esther” or “Dinner and a Movie,” I at least understand what the band was hoping to achieve with those.

In this case, though, “David Bowie” is a jam vehicle, and little more. The composed sections don’t do much other than provide a framework for experimentation, and very little experimentation happens here in this studio version. There’s some screaming and moaning and a bit of impressive guitar work, but it’s all just there, and none of it helps the song to earn its pudgy running time.

A clean version of “David Bowie” is self-defeating. It’s a song that’s designed to reach dark, uncharted, filthy places, so a studio version that jogs in place seems particularly pointless to me. It’s far too repetitive and dull, absolutely killing the momentum established by “Divided Sky.”

They can’t all be winners, but the studio version of “David Bowie” is a pretty clear loser.

FLUFFHEAD

We do get another big triumph before the end, though. “Fluffhead” and “Fluff’s Travels” are actually the same song. They’re both fully composed, but “Fluffhead” contains the “song” portion of the song, while “Fluff’s Travels” is a complex suite that builds out of it, containing several miniature songs of its own.

“Fluffhead” has a catchy, camp-fire singalong feel to it, and it’s very effective in that regard. Its silliness feels like a shared hallucination, and in the studio the acoustic melody makes it downright intimate.

Live “Fluffhead” is always a treat, as, like “Divided Sky,” you may know exactly what you’ll be getting for the next ten minutes or so, but you also know that not a single second of that will be dull. The real meat, however, is here:

FLUFF’S TRAVELS

It’s a little odd that “Fluffhead” is separated into two songs on the disc (and on the original cassette) since the split is both unnatural and unnecessary. In fact, on a later remastering the two are joined into a single track, which makes much more sense. (And makes its appearance during a shuffle much more welcome.)

While it doesn’t reach the same level of achievement as “Divided Sky,” I would say that “Fluffhead” / “Fluff’s Travels” proves the band’s abilities just as well. From a harmless, jaunty singalong through some dark, deep, unnerving territories and then back up again for a rousing climax, “Fluffhead” / “Fluff’s Travels” achieves what “Esther” does not: cohesion. The music and lyrics compliment each other and enhance the experience, rather than hamstring one another.

“Esther” may unquestionably have the “better” tale to tell, but “Fluffhead” / “Fluff’s Travels” is a far more rewarding journey, with a tiny, confrontational tune called “Clod” embedded in the latter, making for a nice, abrasive bonus along the way. “Clod” also serves as a great reminder of words being less important than atmosphere, as the deliberately nonsensical lyrics feel not only urgent, but downright threatening.

We finish “Fluff’s Travels” on a rousing major-key celebration, which feels very much like a welcome capper to the long, imperfect, musical journey that is Junta.

CONTACT

Which makes “Contact” the de facto encore, and it’s a great one. It’s a hilarious, simple love letter to road safety and / or the ramblings of a disturbed, slickly crooning simpleton.

It’s also our first exposure to bassist Mike Gordon’s songwriting, which always has a strong (sometimes too strong) comic bent. Here, it’s kept in check by how downright infectious “Contact” is. It’s the kind of song that isn’t likely to impress the first time you hear it, but you’ll catch yourself singing it later, dig it out for another spin later still, and eventually finding yourself in love.

It’s the orphan puppy at the end of the album, and while it’s a bit mangy and obviously unintelligent…can you really resist those eyes?

Really?

With that, we come to the end of Junta. It’s probably, overall, my least favorite Phish album. Or maybe the next one is. That’s not to say that the quality of the songs themselves is low, but rather the specific studio performances captured here aren’t as much worth hearing as those of later tunes would be.

“Fee,” “Foam,” “Divided Sky” and “Contact” all represent must-hear experiences, though, so it can’t be written off completely. It’s just that Phish didn’t quite yet know what to do with its time in the studio.

Stick around, though. We’re going to learn together.

ALF, "Hail to the Chief"

When I started this review series, I tried not to look at plot summaries. I saw a few, because that’s what happens when you use the internet for anything ever, but I more or less forgot them quickly. A few specific plots, however, stuck in my head, either because they sounded monumentally stupid, or because some other folks warned me about them.

As I mentioned in last week’s review, three of those episodes come right in a row, starting now. This is the Trilogy of Terror, and I’m worried about every one of these.

“Hail to the Chief” gets the party started with a fantasy episode about ALF running for president. I’m already not a fan of fantasy episodes of good shows, so tossing an even less consequential plot than usual into this garbage factory isn’t exactly promising.

I don’t know. As much as I love Futurama and The Simpsons, the Anthologies of Interest (and its less-structured relatives) and the Treehouses of Horror just don’t do much for me.

It’s not that I hate them. The good ones make me laugh. The lousy ones are over with quickly enough. So, really, I’m not complaining…I’m just not the kind of guy that gets excited about fiction within fiction. I tune in to shows I enjoy so that I can spend some time with those characters, in that setting. Scrambling up the characters and swapping out the setting, therefore, leaves me a bit less engaged.

I guess the thing is that I’m not interested in the question of “What if Alan Partridge was actually a medieval knight? And his catchphrases would all be slightly altered to be period-appropriate puns. Wouldn’t that be funny?”

Well, maybe. Maybe not.

The point is that I found the character funny already, which is why I’m tuning in, so the question of whether or not I’d care an this alternate version of the character that I’ll never see again is kind of moot.

Then again, ALF sucks. Alternate versions of these characters may well lead to something fun, and, surely enough, “Hail to the Chief” opens quite nicely.

It starts with the camera following Willie from the kitchen door over to the table, where it comes to a rest as Willie sits down. I think every single time the camera does something interesting on this show, I take note. It means somebody cared.

There’s no reason the camera couldn’t have been stationary, with Willie stepping into frame and then sitting down. In fact, that’s pretty much always how things happen on this show, and that’s okay.

It’s unnecessary movement, but unnecessary movement is charming. Somebody’s fiddling with the language of the medium, and I like that. It’s not a visual highlight or anything — though such unexpected camera behavior has been in the past, as in “La Cuckaracha” — but it’s nice. It’s something somebody tried, and that’s why it stands out. Somebody tried.

Anyway, ALF is filling out a voter registration form, which causes him to muse on the concept of the pencil. This is also nice, because it makes sense that something we’d see as mundane might actually be pretty fascinating to an alien visitor. Willie’s not an alien, but he is a nerd, so when ALF brings up the question, he excitedly replies that he’s heard many theories about where pencils came from.

ALF says, “How about the shortest one?” Willie, deflated, replies, “The stationery store.”

This is nice, because ALF gets to be a dick without being too much of one (being disinterested in long theories about the evolution of the pencil is something we can sympathize with), Willie gets to be excitable and disappointed in fast succession, and a show-opening warmup gag flows naturally from the DNA of both characters. That’s a great start, so it’s a shame that it’s all downhill from here.

Then Willie reminds him that he can’t vote, so filling out that form is fucking stupid, at which point ALF launches into an elaborate plan that would allow him to vote, which hinges upon him marrying Lynn.

You know, I didn’t mention it in that review, but “Night Train” also had a joke about ALF saying he’d marry Lynn. Maybe that was the original idea for a heartwarming series finale, instead of the one we actually got, with ALF getting hauled off screaming to an underground vivisection facility.

ALF, "Hail to the Chief"

It’s the night of the presidential debate, and ALF has hidden all the effective satire. Lynn is going to the mall, even though this is the first election she’ll be able to vote in.* She’s heading to the mall with her friend Julie, because Lizard got a job at the new Wiener On A Stick place.

Why is Lizard working at Wiener On A Stick? This guy successfully performs brain surgery on dying animals. Won’t some vet hire him? He really needs to work a shitty fast-food job in the mall? This dude’s got a skillset. Why are they treating him like any other high school dipshit?

Also, Lizard being a more or less consistent boyfriend for Lynn in season two makes “Oh, Pretty Woman” even more odd. Why was she at the dance with Rick? Did they really write her a new boyfriend just for one episode? Was that script left over from season one, and they never bothered to fix the guy’s name?

Willie comes home, announcing that he found Lizard’s wiener delicious. Kate’s mad, but it’s not Willie’s fault; he called to tell her he’d be eating dinner at the mall. By the way, ladies, if your husband calls to say he’d rather eat dinner at the mall than with you and your children, you’re about to be served divorce papers. Just sayin’.

Willie asks ALF why he never writes down his phone messages, to which ALF replies, “They’re hardly quotable.” That’s actually funny.

Then Brian says, “Hey! The presidential debate’s starting!” which is the final proof anyone should need that the staff had absolutely no clue how to write lines for an eight-year-old boy.

ALF, "Hail to the Chief"

We see the candidates: Senator Hossenfeffer and Congressman Peal, two assholes we’ll never see again even though one of them is destined to become the leader of the free world. There’s also a John McLaughlin cameo for all the ladies watching at home.

It’s odd to me that they’d go for a fictional president. Usually when a show does that, it’s because that particular fictional universe requires it. Think The West Wing. It’s a clue that the world we’re watching is very much like the one we occupy, and may even see events unfold that are similar to the ones we’ve seen, but they’re not the same. Things can, and often do, turn out differently. It’s a chance to see reality through a distorted lens, and an easy way to distort that lens is to swap out the one person that the entire world knows by name: the President of the United States of America.

Here, though, I’m not sure what’s going on. We’ve already seen (or…heard) Ronald “Win One on the Crapper” Reagan, so for a while we were in actual America…and now we’re in bizarro America.

Even stranger is the fact that this episode aired nowhere near a presidential election. It aired in 1987…exactly midway through Reagan’s second term. There wouldn’t be another presidential election until 1989, when George Bush I ran against (and defeated) Michael Dukakis.

So, what year is it in the ALF universe? Is this taking place in 1989? Was Reagan impeached in this fictional wonderland that actually sounds really awesome now? Ugh, who knows. TV shows air their Halloween episodes around Halloween and their Christmas episodes around Christmas. Surely it can’t be too much to ask that they air their election day episodes in a fucking election year.

One of the candidates — I don’t care who — says, “As Joe Biden once said, we have nothing to fear but fear itself.” The fake audience laughs at the misquote, but it’s really strange to watch this while Diamond Joe is the real-world Vice President. It still doesn’t make it a good joke, but it does make it one that, all at once, could play today without any alteration. In fact, it may be even funnier today, albeit for a different reason. It seems slightly prescient.

I’m not familiar enough with Biden’s history to know what kind of figure he cut in late-80s American politics, so somebody do please fill me in. I know how this joke plays right now, but I’m genuinely curious to know how it played in 1987.

Paul Fusco launches into his soap-boxing bullshit, just like he did with the power of imagination and / or pig-headedness in “Weird Science.” This time, he’s fixing the world’s problems, through the brown bathmat he wears on his hand.

ALF decisively declares the way to balance a budget (“Spend less than you make.”) and achieve world peace (by telling both sides to kiss and make up).

In the later years of M*A*S*H*, Alan Alda began using his role as “Hawkeye” Pierce to rattle off thinly-veiled commentary on the state of the world, but M*A*S*H* was a legitimately great show, Alda a legitimately intelligent man, and “Hawkeye” a legitimately nuanced character.

I think I can leave it to you to figure out why this similar impulse isn’t working for ALF.

ALF, "Hail to the Chief"

That night ALF walks into the master bedroom and announces that he can see Kate’s tits through her bedclothes.

Some other stuff happens but it’s just aimless, vaguely political bullshit intended to kill time before the big fantasy sequence.

There’s a joke about ALF telling them not to lock the door, because he might have some more questions to ask later, and then Willie runs cartoonishly over to the door and makes a big, exaggerated fuss about trying to lock it. It’s fucking awful.

In the comments for last week’s review, FelixSH pointed out that Willie always looks like he’s on the verge of falling asleep. I thought that was funny, but then moments like this remind me that he’s no better when he’s flailing around like an imbecile. Max Wright has two settings as an actor, and neither of them are anything like human.

On his way to bed Willie mumbles, “At least Mr. Ed stayed in the barn at night,” which is indeed true. To my knowledge Mr. Ed never hid under the mattress to listen to Wilbur fuck.

Willie gets into bed and Kate is already asleep. She’s not even pretending in order to keep Willie’s oily tendrils off of her; she’s really sleeping, and we enter a dream sequence to prove it.

ALF, "Hail to the Chief"

Obviously the dream is Kate and ALF running against each other for president, because obviously the dream is Kate and ALF running against each other for president.

John McLaughlin is there, which makes sense. When you have a guest star so well-known for his comic timing, you make sure to use him as much as possible.

Johnny “The Bod” McLaughlin asks ALF about the environment, at which point ALF starts rapping.

ALF, "Hail to the Chief"

You think I’m fucking with you?

I am not fucking with you.

My solution to pollution will help your constitution, so send a contribution, and start the revolution, n’huh n’huh.

Kate, speaking for everyone who has ever lived, tells him to knock it the fuck off. John McLaughlin replies, “Quiet. Rap-Master ALF is on a roll.” Which strikes me as something that must have been said at least once a week to silence the One Good Writer.

ALF, "Hail to the Chief"

ALF then gives McLaughlin a Wiener On A Stick. I was picturing a corndog of some kind, but apparently a Wiener On A Stick is just an uncooked Oscar Mayer frank on a wooden skewer. Yum.

His real “solution to pollution” is to catch all the factory smoke in big balloons, and yeah, it’s dumb, but it’s a dream sequence so whatever.

But then, just like that, the dream is over.

ALF, "Hail to the Chief"

Kate wakes up mumbling, “ALF, ALF.” He replies, “That’s my name! Ask me again and I’ll tell you the same!”

Then the same exact thing happens immediately.

This seems almost like it was supposed to be a catchphrase, so I don’t know. Maybe he says it in every episode from now on.

Funnily enough, I haven’t heard much in the way of his other catchphrases. “Ha! I kill me!” and “Yo!” come to mind, but I think he also said, “No problem!” or some shit, too. Maybe these were just things the marketing department used to sell dolls, because he certainly doesn’t seem be saying this stuff very often in the show.

ALF asks Kate why the moderator on TV didn’t ask any of the tough questions, such as “Are you going to be a good president, or a bad president?” Kate asks what kind of question that is, and ALF says, “Well, if he says a bad president, I’m not going to vote for him.”

I laughed at that…but the laugh track didn’t. I actually thought it was one of the better jokes in this episode, but I guess it wasn’t a joke at all. That’s one good thing about a laugh track: you can always tell when the writers aren’t trying to be funny.

Here, I guess, they weren’t. Was this supposed to be some touching moment of insightful innocence? If so, let me be the first to say fucking fuck you.

ALF, "Hail to the Chief"

Kate goes to sleep again, and this time ALF is the moderator, I guess because she couldn’t dream up any more jokes about ALF being a candidate.

It’s here that Kate reveals her full name: Katherine Daphne Halligan-Tanner. You know, way back in the middle of season one (“I’ve Got a New Attitude”), I made this smartass remark:

We can have an episode with ALF and Willie trapped together in a car and learn literally nothing about them from anything that they say, but strap Willie to a rocket and fire him at the moon and have ALF travel through time to save him and that’ll be the scene in which we learn that Brian’s middle name is Frank.

And now, look. We need to have a dream sequence that gets revised as a second dream sequence in an episode about ALF running for president to find out that Kate’s middle name is Daphne.

Fuck.

Anyway, ALF tricks her because he asks if her plans to deal with unemployment will help his brother get a job, then when she says yes he reveals that he has no brother** and starts calling her a liar.

They bicker for a bit about whether or not she’s a liar, because even Kate’s dreams are padded for time. When she wakes up she sees ALF putting her jewelry on.

ALF, "Hail to the Chief"

This episode is fucking terrible.

In fairness, there is a funny moment here. Willie wakes up and asks what’s going on, and ALF says, “Go back to sleep, Willie. This doesn’t concern you.”

Whatever. I laughed. Anything that has Paul Fusco reminding Max Wright that he’s worthless gets a pass in my book.

Kate goes back to sleep so we can have a third God damned dream sequence. Jesus Christ, ALF, commit to the fantasy or just fucking forget it already.

ALF, "Hail to the Chief"

This time, ALF is Kate’s image consultant, and, man, that really is my nightmare. ALF having total control over Kate’s character. That’s downright bone-chilling.

Anyway, the Tanners show up to congratulate Kate on her debate.

Willie says: “You were great, honey!”
Lynn says: “Yeah, mom! You were terrific!”
Brian says: “…neat!”

Again, no laughter, so I guess her son’s crippling autism haunts her dreams.

Why is Kate running for president the only consistent thing in these sequences? Wouldn’t it be better if ALF were the one running, and maybe Kate’s role keeps changing? You know, she’s terrified of him getting elected, so in each dream she’s the opponent, the moderator, the image consultant, whomever else, each time trying to make ALF fail and look like an idiot in front of the voting public, who only end up loving him more? Make it spiral out of control as she tries to reveal him for the idiot he is, unintentionally securing his win every time?

Man, that sounds like a much funnier episode than ALF wearing silly costumes.

Then we cut to another dream within the third dream, because why the fuck not.

ALF, "Hail to the Chief"

Post-image consultation, Kate’s dressed like some loose secretary from the 1920s and goes by the name Sigourney Tanner.

I’m sorry but…come on. Was this the show’s way of punishing Anne Schedeen for making the rest of the cast look bad? I actually feel embarrassed for her. She’s the one human being who found something to work with in this shitheap of a show, and this is what she gets? She did not deserve this.

ALF, "Hail to the Chief"

She wakes up again because Jesus Christ this episode is awful. I do think you could organize each of these screengrabs of her waking up in order and come away with a pretty good illustration of a woman sliding quickly into a state of abject misery, though.

Anyway, while she’s awake ALF says he’s going to run for president, so they could sell shit like this in stores.

And then we get another fucking, fucking, fucking dream.

ALF, "Hail to the Chief"

Hey, look, ALF is president. I hope you think that’s a funny enough joke on its own, because it certainly doesn’t go anywhere from here.

Most interesting to me are the pictures behind him. The one on the left is probably his family, so I wish we could see it better, but the one on the right is a photo from the dream sequence we saw in “Help Me, Rhonda,” since that’s the only time they ever built a Melmac set.

The more I think about this, the stranger it gets. How is a photograph of one character’s dream appearing in the background of a different character’s dream? Man, I thought Inception was complicated.

ALF, "Hail to the Chief"

Kate comes in, having been defeated by ALF, which means her dreams circled all the way back around to the idea of running against him. You know how I always say these scripts feel like first drafts? This is why I always say these scripts feel like first drafts.

ALF offers her popcorn, which he popped “over the Eternal Flame,” and I’m glad, because I was getting really worried the episode would end before we got a joke about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Kate presses him about what he’s done for the country, and special guest star Paul Fusco discusses through ALF how he was able to solve homelessness and unemployment in one fell swoop: he built houses for each of the homeless people, and everyone’s employed because they’re building those houses. #fusco2016

There’s a bunch more crap about what a great leader ALF is, and then I guess somebody on staff drew this…

ALF, "Hail to the Chief"

…so they put it on the screen as a static image for a while with no punchline.

How nice of this show to produce its own fan-art. It really saves the audience the trouble of ever having to give a crap.

Kate wakes up again. Why not.

Seriously, as many times as she falls asleep and wakes up, it’s less an episode flowing from beginning to end than one that just keeps giving up and starting over.

ALF, "Hail to the Chief"

She and ALF talk for a bit about how she dreamed he was president, and he was right about everything, and really good at finding logical solutions to complicated problems, and also she’s not sure if there’s a man out there named Paul Fusco, but if there is she’s sure he has a great body, a peerless sense of humor, and genitals that taste like heaven.

Then she pats his hand and they agree that a country that adored ALF would be a truly beautiful thing, I guess, and the audience claps because, hey, that’s right, ALF is just a big bowl of frosted applesauce. He’s a true national treasure, and anyone who doesn’t appreciate that hates freedom.

ALF, "Hail to the Chief"

The short scene before the credits is really short. In fact, that picture is basically it. Kate is snoozing on ALF’s lap, and while that’s an incredibly cute image, it’s tempered somewhat by the knowledge of how many times ALF has raped this lady.

Whatever. It’s over. It was fucking terrible, and yet, somehow, not quite as bad as I feared.

It was oversimplistic and uninspired and offensively didactic, but at least it stopped short of ending with ALF turning to the camera and saying, “Hey kids, we all had a lot of fun this week laughing at politics. But you know what’s no laughing matter? The democratic process. Be sure to register to vote, even though major elections won’t be held for another two years. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to shit some cat bones. HA!!”

In last week’s comments, FelixSH said that he thought “Hail to the Chief” was their attempt to do with the ALF / Kate dynamic what “Night Train” did with ALF and Willie. Sure enough, the ending scene here with Kate sleeping on him does kind of support that notion enough that I’m willing to buy it…but man, they will never top the ALF / Kate magic of “Working My Way Back to You,” will they?

That should have been left as the final word on their relationship; a kind of passive aggressive stalemate that also represents a comfortable stasis. That was good. Kate dreaming of ALF running for president, and then dreaming that he’s not, and then dreaming that he’s still not, and then dreaming that he did run and was elected…yeah, it doesn’t lead to the ending this episode thought it earned.

Instead of dreaming that ALF was awesome, what if she dreamed that ALF was a piece of shit, damaging the country, and…no, wait. Forget that. Ditch the entire pointless presidential bullshit and just have Kate experience a nightmare about ALF accidentally killing Willie or something. Something that bothers her…but then the next day ALF does something really nice for someone and she realizes she likes him and it was just a stupid dream.

I don’t know. That probably wouldn’t be a great episode, but it’s hard to think of anything that wouldn’t improve “Hail to the Chief” as it stands.

It’s over, though. And next week…

…oh, fuck. Why did I have to go and remind myself of what comes next week?

It’s “ALF’s Special Christmas.” And it’s a motherfucking hour long. May God have mercy and split this into two shorter episodes on the DVD. …please.

Melmac Facts: On Melmac ALF was a registered Democat, which was both a political party and a doo-wop group. Also, if they didn’t understand something on Melmac, they broke it.


—–
* This puts Lynn’s age at 18, so even though she’s still a teenager, I guess we can take solace in the fact that ALF is no longer trying to diddle an underage girl. Now he’s the socially acceptable kind of sex pest. In researching voting ages, I did discover that some states allow 17 year olds to register to vote as long as they’ll turn 18 by or on election day, but California isn’t one of those states, so Lynn is officially 18.

** This doesn’t go in the Melmac Facts because this is just Kate’s dream. I wouldn’t take it as definitive proof that ALF doesn’t have a brother just yet. Look at me. All givin’ shits.

ALF, "Isn't it Romantic?"

“Isn’t it Romantic?” represents something of a breather. At least, I assume it does. The reason I say that is that the next three episodes…well, I have reason to worry significantly about each of them. I won’t get into why (that might be spoiler territory), but it suffices to say that I think we’re in for a very problematic trilogy.

So, since this is just a “regular” episode, I guess I should be happy to have this half-hour of normalcy before all hell breaks loose. Then again, a half-hour of normalcy by ALF standards is a big pile of shit, and that’s exactly what we get here.

This show really can’t manage two good episodes in a row, can it? Every single time it manages to give us a solid installment, it’s immediately followed up with fucking garbage. To wit:

“For Your Eyes Only” > “Help Me, Rhonda”
“Going Out of My Head Over You” > “Lookin’ Through the Windows”
“La Cuckaracha” > “Come Fly With Me”
“Working My Way Back to You” > “The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island”
“Oh, Pretty Woman” > “Something’s Wrong with Me”
“Night Train” > “Isn’t it Romantic?”

I don’t know. I guess it’s better to spread out the good ones than to lump them all together, but all this does is make me feel like an idiot when I enjoy an episode and hope the show might be getting good.

This one opens with Willie watching Casablanca. He’s crying, and, well, of course he is. He’s lived an entire life in a sitcom so devoid of anything like human beings that when he encounters some piece of media that handles them well, his entire worldview falls apart.

There could be something made of the fact that Willie is watching a romantic movie alone, especially considering the plot of the episode that follows, but nothing is. Apart from “La Cuckaracha” and maybe another one or two episodes, the cold opens are totally unrelated to the main storylines. So much so that I wouldn’t doubt that they shot a bunch of them up front without any regard to which episodes they’d end up stitched to.

All of this is fine, but it does make for a few bizarre coincidences, where it feels like nobody on the show realized that the cold open could have resonated thematically with what was to come. Two pieces of the puzzle are sitting right next to each other, but nobody cared enough to put them together.

Anyway, “Night Train” is over which means ALF is back to being a dickcheese on legs. He walks in, spills popcorn everywhere, and switches Casablanca over to some Godzilla movie. Willie chides him not because ALF has no respect for anybody else who lives in this house, but because scary movies give ALF nightmares.

That much…I kind of like. Not Willie’s specific reaction, but the implication. This is another of those rare times that ALF gets to be a child. He wants to watch scary movies, he’s drawn to watching scary movies, but when he does, he’s terrified. We had a similar joke about ALF watching Aliens a few weeks ago, and way back in episode two a midget dressed like him skulked around the house trying to watch Psycho. I’m sure this is all coincidental — again, nobody’s bothering to fit the pieces together — but it’s a nice accidental character trait.

Then ALF sees a giant stop-motion penis on the TV and runs away screaming.

ALF, "Isn't it Romantic?"

…what the hell is that? Did the writers not know what Godzilla even is? I’ll give you a clue: he’s not a fuckin’ brontosaurus.

I understand that they might not have wanted to license actual footage from a Godzilla movie just for this quick cutaway, but in that case, why show us the TV at all? Can’t we just hear Godzilla roar and then have ALF run out of the room? It wouldn’t have been funnier than this, but it certainly would have felt less stupid.

This is like pretending ALF is watching King Kong, then showing us a giant octopus. It’s a totally different animal, you shits.

Nobody on this show cares. I’m convinced. Three times a season the One Good Writer breaks into the office, leaves a completed script behind, and vanishes into the night. That’s the only plausible explanation.

The episode proper begins with Willie heading out to see a play alone. Kate’s staying behind so that ALF doesn’t wreck the house, which Willie fails to interpret as code for “I’m going get plowed by Mr. Ochmonek.”

They talk for a bit about how ALF needs to learn how to behave himself sometime. You know. Like in those nine or ten episodes where that already happened. Willie tries to convince Kate to come, but can you really decide to go to a major play in Los Angeles last minute, without a ticket? I mean, I guess you could find a scalper, but shouldn’t this conversation have happened weeks or months ago, when Willie bought his own ticket?

This would have made a lot more sense if Willie was going to a movie instead. You don’t need to buy tickets for those in advance, so that would have been the smarter setup.

But it’s not a movie. It’s a play, only so that Willie can say it’s called Cats and ALF can make a funny face.

ALF, "Isn't it Romantic?"

So Willie leaves and ALF sits at the kitchen table throwing drinking glasses at Brian.

He’s trying to teach him to juggle, I guess, by throwing them at the kid. Brian manages to catch them, which is nice, and then Kate comes in and puts a stop to the horse shit. But what kind of joke was this?

Seriously. Step back from the fiction of the show, and think about the reality of what’s happening on stage. Benji Gregory could have gotten injured, very easily.

ALF isn’t a guy in a suit looking out through the eyes. He’s a puppet being operated by some schmoe beneath the floor boards. To be blindly pitching glassware at a fucking eight year old kid is beyond negligent; it’s fucking cruel.

What if a glass hit the kid in the face? What if he failed to catch it and it shattered on the countertop, and a big jagged shard hit him in the eye? What an irresponsible, despicable thing to do for the sake of a shitty joke.

For a while I was able to console myself with the assumption that the props were actually clear plastic, but when Kate gathers them up you can very clearly hear the clinking of glass. So either ALF had a truly fantastic foley artist (…erm, yeah), or the fuckbags who made this show really did just throw glass at a little boy.

ALF, "Isn't it Romantic?"

Lynn comes home from her date with Lizard, and Brian’s disappointed because it’s his bed time and he doesn’t get to hear how many knuckles.

So, yeah, Lynn is still with Lizard. Which is odd, because in “Oh, Pretty Woman,” which came immediately after the episode in which we met Lizard, she was upset that a guy named Rick ditched her for a prettier girl.

Professional ALF review commenter Mark Moore posited that “Lizard” could just be Rick’s nickname, which, fair enough, but “Some Enchanted Evening” told us that Lizard’s real name is Eric.

So…it’s got to be a different guy, right? I guess I could conceivably imagine a guy named Eric being called Rick, but I’ve never actually encountered that. Rick is usually short for Richard. And even if that guy at the dance was Lizard after all, why would he have two nicknames? Do we really need to keep straight the fact that Eric / Rick / Lizard are all the same guy that we’ve seen a whopping once ever?

I don’t know. I think Rick and Lizard are two different people, which makes it pretty hard to feel sympathy for Lynn getting ditched at the dance when she was ditching her boyfriend to be there with some other guy in the first place.

Anyway, after a long night of Lizzing out, Lynn pours herself a good, stiff drink in the form of two fingers of apple juice.

ALF, "Isn't it Romantic?"

Damn, girl, go easy. You got school in the morning!

Since Kate is out of the room getting Brian ready for bed,* ALF casually alludes to the fact that Willie and Kate aren’t doing well as a couple. And by “casually alludes to the fact that Willie and Kate aren’t doing well as a couple,” I mean he explicitly tells Lynn that they’re getting divorced.

She says that’s bullshit. He says fuck you. She says Fuck me? Fuck me? Fuck you, pal. Then they fuck each other and Lynn finishes her apple juice.

I don’t know. It’s just a lot of time-wasting, but I like this conversation because we get to see Andrea Elson reading cue cards while she waits for ALF to finish talking.

ALF, "Isn't it Romantic?"

Man, for a show that took 100 hours per episode or whatever to film, this crap isn’t any more professional than what any community theater could throw together in 20 minutes.

In the next scene ALF is being nice, so he cooks Willie and Kate a fancy dinner, just like in that other episode where this exact thing happened.

ALF, "Isn't it Romantic?"

It’s kind of weird, because the events of “Working My Way Back to You” are mentioned by Kate in “Isn’t it Romantic?” She refers to ALF blowing up the kitchen, which was indeed the climax of that much, much better episode. So while ALF is spoiling us with an incredibly rare acknowledgement of any kind of internal continuity, we’re also meant to forget that episode, because the joke here is that all the food ALF cooks is horrible, when that episode established that he’s the best chef in the family.

I really don’t care if ALF’s particular degree of culinary expertise isn’t consistent from episode to episode, but why bother reminding us of the episode that revealed him as a master chef if they don’t want us to remember that he’s a master chef?

There is one funny moment, though, when he makes Willie and Kate cover their eyes before entering the room, which causes Willie to talk into the doorjamb and hurt his arm. I find it more entertaining than I probably should that Paul Fusco just commanded Max Wright to walk into a wall for the sake of his personal entertainment.

So, yeah. ALF makes a whole buncha gross shit for them to eat, and he holds up a clearly empty bottle that we’re supposed to believe is champagne that he ruined by sticking a worm in it. I guess they didn’t want to fill the bottle with liquid because ALF is just a puppet, and it would therefore be all too easy for him to spill some on the table or the floor.

Which makes perfect sense, until you remember that the crew thought that having the puppet hurl glass at an eight year old in the previous scene was just fine.

The production staff on this show valued Benji Gregory’s safety less than they valued a cheap tablecloth. Let that sink in.

ALF, "Isn't it Romantic?"

While they talk, Willie and Kate argue about whether Lynn is old enough to get fingered in a ski lodge hot tub instead of under a blanket while they watch movies with her family.

So, I guess that’s the whole problem. Lizard invited her on a ski trip, which might have been nice to hear about earlier than this, and this manufactured obstacle proves ALF unwittingly right. He thought Willie going to plays alone was proof that they were having marital problems. Really, though, they just have fun in shifts so that one of them can stay behind and keep ALF from destroying the few features of the house that he hasn’t destroyed already.

Whatever. They fight and storm out of the room. Seriously, what happened to the graceful storytelling of last week? What a piece of crap this one is.

ALF comes into Lynn’s…

ALF, "Isn't it Romantic?"

…bedroom.

He tells her to call 911, because Willie and Kate have been fighting all night, which he knows because he spends all of his nights under their bed hoping to hear them passionlessly hump.

HAVE I MENTIONED THAT THIS IS A GREAT SHOW FOR FAMILIES

Can anyone tell me who’s on that poster behind Lynn? Not that I think the writers gave any thought to what she’d listen to…I’m just curious.

ALF tries to rope Lynn into helping him reunite Willie and Kate. And, you know what? I like that this is becoming an ALF / Lynn story. I don’t like the story itself, or how it’s told, but I like that this is a perfectly realistic reason for two characters to work together…something we haven’t seen since “For Your Eyes Only.”

It works because they each have an investment in keeping Willie and Kate together. Lynn doesn’t want her parents to separate, and ALF needs a place to live / rape things. Again, this makes perfect sense.

But, well…didn’t Willie and Kate used to have another child? I can’t remember his name. Byron or something. He was kind of worthless, but you’d think if he’d ever be a natural fit for a plotline it would be this one.

Were the writers just hoping the kid would die in the glass throwing scene?

Actually, I guess not, since there was a little exchange afterward with Kate shuttling him out of the kitchen. Maybe when she said she was going to put him to sleep, she meant that in kind of an Al Pacino way.

ALF decides they’ll re-recreate the Tanner honeymoon, which will get them back together, because Melmac. Lynn tells him they went to Niagara Falls, and then the two of them work tirelessly to recreate that famous location detail for detail in their living room:

ALF, "Isn't it Romantic?"

Marvelous.

Okay, I get that they recreated the hotel rather than the actual falls…but then why bother telling us Willie and Kate went to Niagara Falls? Why not just say they went to…I dunno. Miami, or something. Some place that sounds nice, but doesn’t call to mind very specific images that we’d then expect to see recreated.

If you’re trying to create the illusion that you’re in Manhattan, we expect a view of the Statue of Liberty. If you’re trying to create the illusion that you’re in Paris, we expect a view of the Eiffel Tower. If you’re trying to create the illusion that you’re in Colorado, we expect a view of a bunch of kids getting shot by a madman.

It’s silly, sure, but those are kind of the only reasons to set scenes like this in those places; they contain these sorts of cross-cultural landmarks. When the landmarks are not there** it just feels like the writers didn’t give this any thought.

Why invent the idea that they went to Niagara Falls if the “recreation” isn’t going to take the specific image of that area into account at all? This could literally be any hotel anywhere in the world instead. Why pick a location that you can’t, or won’t, do anything with?

Willie and Kate come home, separately, from wherever they were. And…come to think of it, where was Kate? Willie was probably at work, but what does Kate do all day? This would have been a great opportunity to tell us how Kate spends her downtime*** aside from wetvac-ing alien shit out of the carpet.

ALF, "Isn't it Romantic?"

Oh, okay. Brian is still alive, and he’s dressed as a bellhop, which makes the fake audience of dead people laugh, because they know that’s the closest this kid will ever get to being involved in comedy.

The fact that this is all they had Brian do in this elaborate scheme ties into why I think one of the next three episodes is going to be problematic…but that’s a story for another day.

ALF, "Isn't it Romantic?"

Lynn is dressed as a maid, and she welcomes the Tanners to Niagara Falls.

I really, really, really love Anne Schedeen’s face here. Willie is playing along and seems to think it’s cute, and I’m pretty sure the idea is that Kate is in a similar state of mind, but I like to think of faces like this representing a bleeding-through of Schedeen’s frustrations with the show itself. Even when she’s given the chance to express something other than seething hatred, it still manages to come through.

ALF, "Isn't it Romantic?"

God. Look how miserable this kid is. I know I’ve observed before that in almost any given screenshot from this show, the cast looks like they’re quietly inventorying all the ways they could possibly kill themselves, but I keep bringing it up because it keeps holding true.

At least Andrea Elson manages to smile here. Benji Gregory, growing up on the set of ALF, never learned how to do that.

I’m also realizing that my website is by far the largest collection of ALF screenshots on the web.

Now I’ve forgotten how to smile, too.

ALF, "Isn't it Romantic?"

Then ALF goes ballistic and starts licking Kate’s clitoris.

No…he’s actually trying to carry her over the threshold, because Melmac or whatever, but even so, Willie’s just standing there while an alien beats his face repeatedly against his wife’s crotch BECAUSE THIS IS A GREAT FAMILY SHOW FOR FAMILIES

Kate’s even shouting at ALF to stop doing it, but he ignores her, holds onto her hips, and keeps forcibly mashing her vagina against his face.

Yet another great thing to normalize for kids. Hey, little tykes! If you’re fiddling around with somebody’s private parts and they tell you to stop…don’t! You’re just being funny! Dig in!!

Jesus Christ. How rapey is this fucking show?

ALF, "Isn't it Romantic?"

Anyway, when ALF grows tired of nose-fucking Willie’s wife, he shows them the room. He redecorated it to look exactly like their old hotel room, which he was able to do because for some reason they had the furniture in the basement, and yes, that’s bullshit, but jesus christ who cares ALF just raped this lady.

Kate notices the glowing HOTEL sign out the window and asks where he got it. He says he found their HAPPY NOEL sign in the basement and modified that. Believe it or not, the fact that there’s no T in HAPPY NOEL isn’t the stupidest thing about this.

No, the stupidest thing about this is that Willie gets angry at him, because he bought that sign for Lynn on her first Christmas.

Seriously, come on. Who gets a fucking baby a gigantic neon sign for Christmas? She’s not even a year old, so not only will she not be able to read it, but she won’t know what the fuck it means when this asshole tries to explain it to her. Also, staring directly into massive neon tubing cannot be good for an infant’s eyes. And what if she tried putting her mouth on it, or even touching it? She’d be shocked and / or burned horribly.

None of this is the joke, by the way.

We just hear that ALF desecrated Lynn’s first Christmas gift and we’re supposed to feel like he did something hilariously uncouth. Frankly if I was in somebody’s basement and saw a gigantic HAPPY NOEL sign, the very last fucking thing I’d think was that it was the first gift he gave to his newborn daughter. He might as well have gotten her a box of nails.

ALF, "Isn't it Romantic?"

In the epilogue to “Night Train,” I believed Willie and Kate were in love.

Why?

Because in just a few lines, and with only one half of the conversation audible, there was a sense of honest relief that everything was okay. I’m glad we heard Schedeen’s side of the conversation, because if we’d heard Max Wright’s it may have been markedly less effective.

Here, even though the entire episode is about the fact that they’re in love, I don’t believe it.

Maybe it’s because these two lack chemistry. Schedeen’s a pretty solid actress, so I believe her when she’s frustrated, I believe her when she’s happy, and I believe her when she says she’s glad she married Willie. But when they’re in the room together, I don’t believe it. And I really do have to blame Max Wright.

Schedeen found a person inside of her character, and so when she acts and reacts, that’s what we see. Max Wright has no interest in doing anything but slurring his lines in the laziest way possible, which not only means we never see the “person” inside of Willie Tanner, but it makes it impossible for the person inside of Kate Tanner to connect with him. There’s simply nothing there. He leaves her hanging.

Strand Willie in the woods and Kate can gush all she likes about how much she loves him. Put him in the same room, though, and it rings false, because Wright’s not holding up his end of the deal.

This is probably also why Kate’s scenes with her mother are so lousy; without chemistry, it doesn’t matter how hard one actress is trying. We need everybody to try, and ALF fails to inspire its cast to do so.

Anyway, enough of that shit. Willie remembers that on their honeymoon the water pipes exploded just as they were about to kiss, so of course ALF appears in the window and ejaculates all over them with a garden hose.

ALF, "Isn't it Romantic?"

The fake audience applauds this brilliant climax, wherein Willie said, “Ahhha suuure do hhope AHHLF d-…doesn’t spray-us with a gahhardennhose…” and then ALF sprays them with a garden hose.

It’s bad enough to have a laugh track yukking it up every time you make a shitty joke, but how egotistical do you have to be to make that fake audience applaud them?

Whatever. The hose shorts out the neon sign and ruins the bedroom, then the firefighters come and blast Willie with a firehose. All of this happens off camera, of course, and in the next scene we see Willie and Kate thanking ALF for doing something so sweet.

Of course.

ALF, "Isn't it Romantic?"

The episode ends with Willie sick on the couch and ALF tries to kiss him and holy God do I hate this show for the love of Christ my god

Melmac Facts: ALF refers to the destruction of Melmac as a “nuclear booboo.” That doesn’t necessarily rule out war, as even if that fateful nuke was detonated deliberately, that in itself could be reasonably be referred to as a “mistake.” Melmac had a National Rag on the Martians Day. (But…what nation? And didn’t ALF say before that Martians were extinct?) On Melmac, playing Tug of War with a cat takes your mind off your troubles, but doesn’t solve anything, and the best way to get a couple back together is to recreate the happiest moment of their marriage. Duke of the Mist is the hotel where Willie and Kate shared their honeymoon, and they checked in on July 11, 1967. Willie has an Uncle Ned. Either Willie or Kate has an Aunt Agnes. ALF had a Grandpa Satchel who used to say “Don’t look back; something might be broken.”

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* Do parents really have to get eight-year-old kids ready for bed? I mean, maybe check on them to make sure they brushed their teeth and didn’t just run the water, sure, but actual supervision? Brian seems a bit old for that, but then again I don’t have experience raising kids of my own. I hate mine and make a point to never see them.

** I’ve used this example before, but only because I really love it. In Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums there’s a scene in which the Statue of Liberty should be clearly visible…but due to some careful blocking, the landmark is completely obscured by one of the characters. It’s there…we feel it…we expect it…but the fact that it’s artistically withheld becomes a kind of joke in itself. Anderson shot the scene on location, presumably because he thought something would be lost if the statue wasn’t really there. What I’m trying to say is that you don’t always need to do something overt with the recognizable landmarks of your setting, just that if you’re not going to show them at all, there needs to be some reason for that. Otherwise, all we’re going to do is wonder why you chose that setting in the first place.

*** Though, why was she gone at all while Willie was at work? Wasn’t the fact that one of them had to keep an eye on ALF at all times kind of the premise of this episode?

The Fault in Our Stars

I saw The Fault in Our Stars a couple of weeks ago. Somebody asked me to go, so I did, knowing nothing about it. The film was a manipulative mess, but I’m pretty sure any cancer movie has to be at least somewhat manipulative. And while it seemed to work for most people — I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever heard such a large crowd of people sobbing that heavily before — I came out of it thinking, “Well, that was fuckin’ awful.” (People don’t ask me to go to the movies often.)

But the movie’s got an 8.5 out of 10 rating on IMDB, and an 80% “fresh” rating from Rotten Tomatoes, so it can’t just be an exceptional room of blubbering idiots that enjoyed this thing. In fact, seeing what a positive reception it’s gotten more or less across the board has made me think more critically about the film, and why I’d argue it doesn’t quite work.

1) CANCER IS TOO PRETTY

The Fault in Our Stars is a romance about two young characters who fall in love while dying of cancer. I don’t know their names, and I’m not going to look them up. Again, this is a recipe for audience manipulation, but I guess you can’t blame the movie for that. It’s kind of baked into the idea of any character with cancer. My problem is that everybody with cancer in this movie is beautiful.

I don’t have cancer. I’ve never died of cancer. Fortunately I’ve also never known anyone who has died of cancer. And yet I feel reasonably sure that the slow, painful, withering death from inside wouldn’t leave a corpse that looks like it belongs on the cover of Teen Vogue.

This is more than a logical inconsistency. That much I’d be okay with. This is downright cruel.

Why do these cancer patients have to look gorgeous? Wouldn’t that just make actual people suffering from cancer feel worse that they haven’t maintained their looks? The main guy in this movie had some kind of cancer that took his leg, which is very fortunate because they just need to keep him in long pants the whole time and his cancer hinders the audience in no way from fawning over his loveliness. The main girl wheels around an oxygen tank which, yeah, that’s not innately attractive, but they went out of their way to cast somebody who manages to look cute even with a tube up her nose. You can’t tell me they didn’t search long and hard for that; it’s not exactly a luxury everybody has.

This would have been a great story to tell with actors who aren’t conventionally attractive. Or, dare I say it, actors who aren’t attractive and look like they are dying.

After all, what’s the point of the cancer? To tug on the heartstrings, and that’s it. Two hot young people falling in love and porking for a while isn’t a touching story. It’s just what happens, and the fact that one or both of them may die soon is eclipsed by the fact that these are two hot young people porking, so it’s pretty hard to feel sorry for them. Fuck, that’s pretty much living the dream.

A much better story would have been about two young people who can’t rely on their looks because they’re at death’s door, having lost their sense of self-worth and their confidence, finding love with each other. Actual love that isn’t predicated on mere sexual attraction, that is, which might as well be what happened here.

One of the minor characters has eyeball cancer and so he loses his eyeballs, which conveniently allows him to wear sunglasses for the rest of the movie, and, once again, the cancer is out of sight and the character gets to look perfect. God forbid dying people don’t look dashing.

Why is a movie about kids dying of cancer so eager to hide the cancer?

It’s telling that the one character in the film who has an “unattractive” form of cancer is treated as a punch-line. He’s the leader of a support group, and it’s funny because he had to have a testicle removed. The sexy cancer kids all laugh at him, and we never get a sense that we aren’t supposed to be laughing along.

What an idiot! Why didn’t he get the smokin’ hot kind of cancer like the rest of us?

This movie sucks.

2) STUPIDITY AS INSPIRATION

There’s a scene in this movie wherein the main cancer girl is told she can’t do something, but then she does it. Hooray, everybody’s inspired now.

…or, almost everybody. I wasn’t inspired at all. I was actually kind of horrified, because they picked a pretty disastrous thing to have her overcome.

What would you expect a scene like this to be? Maybe she spends the night in a hospital, and the next day the nurse hands some documents over to her mother to sign, because the cancer girl is too weak to sign them. But the cancer girl protests and then takes the pen and signs them and makes a sassy face at the nurse. (Who is obviously black and fat.)

You’ve seen shitty things like that in movies before, but there’s at least a kind of logic to it. The “weak” character is seen as weaker than he or she really is, and the fact that the weak character is dismissed on account of that weakness is what inspires him / her to overcome it. Cool, right?

Sure. But in this movie, that scene is massively problematic. For one, it takes place in the Anne Frank house.

Just let that sink in, please. This movie about sexy cancer kids sets their inspiring scene in the Anne Frank house.

…fuck.

But anyway, they are heading up to the attic to see where some uglier kid actually endured some really awful shit, and the main cancer girl has trouble climbing the stairs. She has a serious and clear shortness of breath. The crowd of people waits behind her because she can barely move as she lugs her oxygen tank up one step at a time.

Then she gets to the final ladder, and people tell her not to climb, because she’s pretty clearly going to fucking die. But she ignores them all and lugs the oxygen tank up into the attic and everybody claps.

This is a tremendously irresponsible scene. For starters, the cancer girl’s doctor explicitly told her she wasn’t well enough to make the trip overseas in the first place. She ignores this professional medical opinion that’s cost her family hundreds of thousands of dollars, with her family’s idiotic support.

Then, when she’s there, her body is giving her every sign that what she’s doing is stupid. She’s not proving some fat nurse wrong…she’s trying to prove her body wrong. Her body. Remember, that thing that’s dying? Like, right now? She won’t even let anyone hold the oxygen tank for her as she literally collapses against walls.

Is this really the thing to frame as an inspirational moment? You might as well have had her jump out of a window and walk away feeling proud that she didn’t break her spine. The fact that you survived doesn’t mean that what you just did wasn’t inordinately stupid.

Oh well. At least it leads to a crowd of people happily applauding in the attic of the Anne Frank house and FUCK I JUST REALIZED HOW AWFUL THAT IS CHRIST.

This movie sucks.

3) MISOGYNY / ASSHOLERY

So that kid with the eyeball cancer? He has a girlfriend at the start of the movie, and then she breaks up with him. Man, that poor kid with eyeball cancer! Can you imagine anyone with a worse life?

Yes. His girlfriend. The movie doesn’t seem to realize that, though.

Early in the film they’re declaring their love for each other, but then the eyeball cancer advances to the point that the eyeball cancer doctor has to take his eyeballs out in order to get rid of the eyeball cancer. After this, his girlfriend leaves him, because she can’t handle being with a man who can’t see.

Is that kind of shallow and shitty?

Well…yeah. Sure. Of course. But what’s the alternative? If she really doesn’t love him anymore, what good does it do either of them to stay together? She told the truth. She didn’t sleep with someone else or lie about going to live with her dad or some shit…she told him what the actual problem was, even though it would make her sound superficial and like kind of a bitch. There’s an admirable bit of self-awareness there.

To me there is, anyway. The movie seems to think that this makes her a villain. The big moment of triumph in this plot thread is that the main cancer guy and the main cancer girl and the eyeball cancer guy all go to this girl’s house and throw eggs at her car. Her mom comes out to tell them to stop, the main cancer guy tells her to go fuck herself, and they keep throwing eggs at the car.

Why? Get a life, you assholes. You’re dying and you’re spending whatever hours you have left throwing eggs at the car of some girl who did nothing but exercise her right to end a relationship she was no longer happy in? If this is really eyeball cancer man’s idea of closure, then can you blame her for leaving him?

It’s very much worth noting that we hear his side of the story…and never hers. She vanishes from the film and everything we’re told about the breakup comes from him. If we’d heard her badmouthing him or making fun of him to her friends then maybe we’d see her as a bitch deserving an eggy car. As it stands, though, it’s just some girl who wanted to move on and this pack of assholes who won’t let her.

It’s problematic that, by default, we are expected to take the man’s side, even though we have no reason to believe the girl did anything out of line. It’s even more problematic that when we meet the girl, the guy is grabbing her and squeezing her tits in the parking lot. The main cancer girl even comments that she must be in pain with the way he’s groping her. And the movie sees this as a joke.

That’s a punchline. This guy is squeezing his girlfriend’s breasts so hard that she’s in physical pain in public, and that’s supposed to be funny. Yet when she leaves him because she admittedly was not mature enough to be in a relationship with somebody who has a disability, she becomes the villain.

That’s an extraordinary double-standard. Casual sexual abuse is fine. Leaving a man because you no longer love him is not.

This movie sucks.

4) THE MAIN CANCER GUY IS A SHIT

I hate the main cancer guy. Mainly I hate how taken everyone is by his depth and intelligence. He’s not smart; he’s some dumb, pretentious teen. Which is fine…there are plenty of dumb pretentious teens out there. Hell, I’ve been one for 30 years. The problem is that everyone else reacts to him like he’s Confucius H. Christ.

He’s not smart; he’s just annoying. His “thing,” I guess, is to walk around with an unlit cigarette in his mouth, so that somebody can ask him why he’s smoking when he has cancer, and he can point out that it isn’t lit, and then explain that what he’s really doing is putting the symbol of his own death between his lips but not giving it the power to kill him or some kind of fuck you man just fucking, fuck you.

The film treats this like it’s some kind of incredible insight and wisdom. All it does is remind me of Orr from Catch-22, who walked around with crab apples in his cheeks and rubber balls in his hands. He also gave ridiculous explanations as to why he did this. But — surprise, surprise — nobody in that book saw it as insightful or wise. They just kicked his ass for being annoying.

This guy needs his ass kicked. In addition to driving like an idiot — something else the film treats as a punchline, because I guess it’s funny that one asshole that’s dying is also endangering the lives of everyone else on the road? — and being passively domineering to just about everyone he meets…which the film sees as charm, of course…he even makes his friends throw a funeral for him while he’s still alive.

See, he wants to hear them talk about how awesome he is. And they do. And then he’s like, “Yeah, I am pretty awesome.” And then they’re all, “Yeah, I know, I just talked for a while about how awesome you were and I only wish I said you were even awesomer, because you are.”

There’s no irony here at all. I can imagine a film doing some kind of shit like this, but wouldn’t it be more meaningful if the friends decided to host the living-funeral so that they could say all the things they want to say to him before he goes? It loses a lot of meaning when dickball here just tells them to do it.

The whole character of the main cancer guy is problematic. This is exactly the kind of guy that your dying high school cancer daughter should be kept away from at all costs…and yet, she isn’t. Not only that, but everyone’s life is enriched by the fact that she isn’t, because he’s magical cancer Jesus Batman.

But, see, it’s also really sad because cancer took his leg. Which, well, I guess you really can’t tell because he’s wearing long pants and walking without a limp, but, trust us, it’s like, super tragic.

This movie sucks.

5) THE FUCKING AUTHOR

I guess it’s worth pointing out that I didn’t read the book this movie is based on. Maybe the book is great. Maybe it’s more nuanced and less fucking stupid all the damn time. So when I say “THE FUCKING AUTHOR” I don’t mean the author of the book…I mean the author in the movie.

He’s played by Willem Dafoe, who is literally the only watchable thing in the whole terrible film. The character he plays, though, is lousy.

He’s this alcoholic author that the main cancer girl loves, because he wrote some shitty book that ends in the middle of a sentence which is so profound you guys he’s a literary marvel. This hollow bullshit gimmick drives the Kancer Kidzz nuts, so they write to him, and then they go visit him, which is why they end up at the Anne Frank house, because this movie is a pile of shit and I guess he’s Anne Frank’s ghost’s neighbor.

That’s all fine and good. But Cancer Jack and Cancer Jill go to visit him so they can ask what happens to the shitty characters in that shitty book after that shitty ending.

And he…oh yes…he has the audacity to say that the book is the book, and anything they’d like to know about the characters is in there.

The movie and the characters both treat this as an affront of the highest order. Really, though, you won’t find many authors worth their salt who are going to verbally regale unwanted visitors with The Further Adventures of That Character From That Thing What I Wrote.

I can’t imagine tracking Thomas Pynchon down to ask him what happened to Oedipa after the estate auction.

Actually, yes I can. He’d punch me in the dick.

I don’t know. I get frustrated when authors are portrayed this way. That isn’t how writing works, and we’re not rude for being unable or unwilling to answer questions like that. We don’t walk around with a kind of literary Toon Town in our heads. We write when we have something to say, and then we obsess over finding the perfect way to say it.

By the time a manuscript of any length leaves our hands, we’re exhausted. We’re beat. Why? Because we put everything we had into that work. Everything. So, no, some unexpected visitors from a foreign country trivializing the work we did by asking nonsensical questions that seek to turn characters we cared about into adventure-seriel archetypes probably aren’t going to be indulged in their idiocy. In fact, they probably do need to learn how to read more closely if they’re finishing books and having to track down authors because they can’t comprehend anything they just fucking read.

Willem Dasalinger even shows up at the man cancer guy’s funeral to atone for being a big ol’ meany head and offers to tell the cancer girl whatever she wants to know about the characters, but she tells him to fuck off and drives away, because what kind of asshole is he to fly halfway around the world to give her an answer to her dumbass question?

You go girl! Speed away and make him look like an idiot.

This movie sucks.

Futurama, "Parasites Lost"

I’ve had this idea for a while…an intermittent series of (likely) short posts, wherein I either crowdsource an answer to something I’ve never understood, or open up something to debate.

This is always the one that I’ve wanted to open with…probably because it just seems so simple, and yet I have no answer of my own.

In one of my favorite episodes of Futurama (“Parasites Lost,” season three), Fry is feeling a little low. Leela runs off on him, and a waitress appears, offering to freshen his beverage.

Odd lines in Futurama aren’t anything unique…but re-watching episodes multiple times usually lets them resolve into jokes I simply didn’t understand the first time. (Or second. Or third…) They may or may not be funny, but I at least get a sense of what the show was doing.

The beverage looks a lot like coffee, and Fry accepts her offer for a refill because he needs something to settle his stomach. But it’s not coffee.

For a long time, I thought she identified the drink as “nocotina.” The closest I ever came to assigning that any meaning was deciding it could have been some futuristic liquid nicotine. But that was a bit of a stretch, at the very least.

Here, taking a screenshot with the closed captioning on, I see that she’s actually saying “Narcotina.” Which, as Hermes might say, just raises further questions.

The word is capitalized in the subtitle, which may not mean anything, but may also mean that it was capitalized in the original script. (Assuming that’s what they worked from for the DVDs, of course…and that’s certainly not always a safe assumption.) Is it a brand name? Was this some kind of product that was meant to recur throughout the world of Futurama, like Slurm or Bachelor Chow, but found itself relegated to this throwaway line?

The thing is, if they just wanted to give Fry a chance to dwell on his discomfort (emotional and physical), she could have refilled his coffee. Granted, coffee refills aren’t inherently funny…but then again, this mystery beverage doesn’t have a joke attached, either.

Or does it? In the glory days of Futurama, just about everything had a joke attached. Lines were very carefully chosen…or at least seemed to be. If this line was genuinely meaningless, why not call it coffee? Or if it’s supposed to just be some futuristic spin on coffee, why not call it something that sells the relationship more clearly?

I guess the visual of the coffee pot and the liquid sells it well enough, but at that point, what’s the joke? That something that looks like coffee isn’t coffee? Instead it’s…some other thing I don’t understand?

“Narcotina” works better than my original mishearing, for sure. It shares a root with “narcotic,” which could lend itself to a joke, but I’m not sure it does. You could pull out a decent gag at the expense of Coca-Cola’s original list of ingredients, but this isn’t a carbonated beverage; it’s something served in a coffee pot. If that’s what they were going for, they ham-strung the association.

It’s odd the way these little unanswered questions stick with you. “Parasites Lost” is a truly excellent episode of television…which makes small moments like this, the ones that don’t quite gibe, stand out. When everything’s moving along perfectly, the slightest imperfection (perceived or actual) is thrown into sharp relief.

Throughout the episode, Professor Farnsworth babbles about bodily functions and organs and things along those lines, and I have no idea if anything he’s saying is accurate. Then again, he’s also engaging in a microscopic gunfight with a bunch of intestinal worms, so realism clearly isn’t what I’m craving here.

It’s just that when Farnsworth says these things that may as well (to my uneducated ears) be meaningless, they at least make sense. If he says that they’re headed toward a certain part of the body to do such and such, then that’s fine. It doesn’t matter if the terminology is made up…it’s a character explaining what he’s about to do.

Here, with the Narcotina, we have some terminology that’s made up…but it doesn’t seem to explain anything.

“Freshen your coffee?” might be a waste of a line, but it wouldn’t trip anybody up to hear it.

“Freshen your Narcotina?” sticks with me. An unsolvable koan.

So there you go. This [week's / month's / year's] Pop Question. What the fuck is Narcotina?

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