Reading too deeply into these things since 1981

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ALF, "Running Scared"

First off, apologies in advance for any typos; I’m writing this with a pretty high fever. I thought about skipping a week until I felt better, but since you guys put up with my self-indulgent smarty-pants rambling about Kubrick’s adaptation of Lolita, the least I can do in return is make fun of a puppet show for you.

In all seriousness, I had originally considered Fiction into Film to be the replacement series (at least for a while) after the ALF reviews ended. That may still happen, but you’ll get a few of them ahead of that time, since it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while and I finally have time to read again.

The end of this series is slowly creeping in on us, so while I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do next (I’m open to suggestions, by the boo), I will let you know how things are looking as we wind down.

For starters, “Running Scared” means that we’re down to the final 10 episodes of season 3. After that, obviously, I’ll do season 4. Then I’ll likely take a detour back to season one, with a few articles that will look at the major (and/or interesting) things cut from the syndicated versions of the episodes that I watched for these reviews.

Also, my DVD set apparently has an early, unaired version of the pilot that I’ll probably review for the purposes of comparing and contrasting. I say “apparently” because I can’t read German and I’m not sure where on the discs to look in order to find it…but if I have it, I’m reviewing it.

Then, if there’s any interest at all, I’ll host a live-stream of Project: ALF ahead of reviewing that. I figure that’ll make for a nice, communal way to celebrate the end of the series. And it’ll also prevent me from being the Only Person Ever Who Intentionally Watched Project: ALF.

So, there’s your peek into the future. As for the present? Well, we have “Running Scared,” which starts off great…and then ends somewhere else entirely.

I’ve found that I’ve said some variation of “This episode starts out very well…” a huge number of times. That either means that we should be happy that ALF so often hits the ground running, or frustrated that it so infrequently makes good on its own promise.

“Running Scared,” I will say right now, is immensely frustrating, because it feels like it’s a rewrite or two away from being a great episode. I’ve said things like that before, too, but here’s the reason “Running Scared” stands out as being especially frustrating: this is a story the show needed to tell.

We open with an unexpected, quiet pan over the living room, where we see that all of the furniture has been moved and towels are tossed all over the floor. Willie walks in from the kitchen in some galoshes, throws more towels down at his feet, and asks ALF to explain, again, please, what happened.

This is very, very good. See, ALF flooded the living room because he intended to freeze the water and create a skating rink. Maybe you find that funny on its own; I don’t have strong feelings either way. But what I love about it is the fact that we don’t see any of that. The cameras switch on not for the wacky antics, but for the aftermath.

In the first episode of this season (“Stop in the Name of Love”) the highlight was probably the scene in which we see Willie pulling banana peels out of the coffee maker. As I observed at the time, it’s funny because of the idea of ALF cramming them in there in the first place. Had we seen him doing it, it wouldn’t work; there’s nothing inherently funny about someone gumming up Willie’s percolater. Give us the germ of an idea (bananas + coffee maker), however, and the odds are high that we’ll visualize something funny on our own.

That’s what happens here, and it works, but it’s not all that happens here. When ALF replies to Willie, the way in which he delivers his lines compounds the joke very well. He suddenly becomes a little kid who is tired of having to apologize yet again for the same stupid thing he did, but knows he has to because somebody else is in charge, and he’s in deep shit.

It’s great. Giving us this episode’s “bananas in the coffee maker” equivalent would have been enough, but an ALF who is both irritated and apologetic provides an additional layer of comedy. I like it.

Max Wright, I’d love to report, is on point in this scene, but he’s really not. He’s okay, but we’ve seen him much better than this. His repeated calls for ALF to tell him, again, why the living fuck he did this are funny, but they’re funny because they’re funny in theory, rather than because he makes them funny.

Usually the problem with the cast is that they don’t know how to take sub-par material and make it funny. This time, sadly, the material is good and the acting doesn’t rise to it.

Before long Willie storms out of the house to buy a pump, and once he leaves the phone rings. It’s somebody asking forebodingly for Gordon Shumway, and, man, the Tanners really should have forbidden their secret space alien from placing and receiving phone calls, but they never did, because ba hoobie derby dee.

ALF, "Running Scared"

It’s some guy who says that he knows Shumway is an alien, and if he isn’t paid $3,000 by Friday, he’s going to turn ALF in to the authorities.

It’s creepy and all, yeah, but he’s obviously mistaken. Why does he think ALF is an alien? Hasn’t he been watching the show? I have, and I haven’t seen any evidence that he behaves in any more “alien” a way than any of the other characters. Weird. Huge continuity error here.

But seriously…yeah, this episode has my attention.

For all the bullshit ALF gets up to in the backyard, on top of the house, and sometimes all around Los Angeles…and in spite of there being neighborhood watches and nosy neighbors and a general idiotic carelessness on the part of all those who are cursed with the name Tanner, ALF has never really gotten himself into trouble. This is overdue. Since the first episode of season one we’ve been reminded of the fact that ALF can never, under any circumstances, get caught…while simultaneously watching both he and the family engage in moronic activities that should guarantee immediate capture. It’s about time ALF had to face a consequence like this. It is, as I’ve mentioned already, a story that needs to be told.

Sometimes, such as in “Alone Again Naturally” or “Someone to Watch Over Me,” he gets himself into a bind, but it’s never for long. Willie or someone is always there, within arm’s length of the situation, to quickly bail him out using shitty sitcom magic. There are no stakes, and aside from the odd cliffhanger deferring disappointment until the following week, no real sense of danger.

Not until now, at least.

For 66 consecutive episodes, this show has alternately ignored and dismantled its own premise. And all of that — without exaggeration, all of that — could be redeemed with just one episode that makes good on the promise. Placing ALF in real danger of exposure, as a result of his own / the family’s own carelessness, could redeem everything we’ve seen.

“I know this show seems stupid,” it would say, “but trust us. We know it, and we’re addressing it right now.”

It’s the show acknowledging the fact that these pieces have always been here, and taking the time, at last, to fit them together.

In short, I love this premise. “Running Scared” has me from this very first scene; it’s already funny, and it’s already interesting. Its central conflict is specific to the nature and situation of the main character, specific to the premise of the show, specific to the danger ALF is in with the Alien Task Force, and specific to the world we live in…after all, the guy on the phone hasn’t turned ALF in; he’s just shaking him down for some money. And why not? That’s the most identifiably human thing I’ve seen on this show in ages.

Granted, Mashy Magoo the Thanksgiving Hobo had the same idea, but he fell in love with ALF’s…whatever ALF has, before the Alien Task Force arrived. The idea of somebody finding a space alien and immediately thinking to profit from it is a believable one…and this time, the person with dollar signs in his eyes is going to see it through.

It’s good. Visually, too, the episode is keen to push its boundaries. We’ve only had two scenes so far (the slow living room pan and the extreme closeup on the blackmailer’s jaw) and they’ve both been uniquely shot. This isn’t standard sitcom stuff. As much as “ALF’s Special Christmas” wanted to convince me from the start that it was a Very Important Installment, “Running Scared” actually has me believing it. It’s showing me respect, it’s rewarding me for watching, and it’s hoping I come along for the ride; it isn’t dragging me along by the nostrils.

ALF even comments on the fact that Willie always pulls him out of a jam, acknowledging the shortcoming that’s robbed so many other episodes of their tension…but Willie’s not there. ALF looks around and sees the mess he made (WINK WINK), and realizes that he might not get the help he needs now.

Guys…I know we’ve only just made it to the intro credits, but this has the potential to be a really great episode. Surely it won’t let me down.


Right, guys?


ALF, "Running Scared"

The next morning Willie and Kate stumble into the living room. They talk about how ALF came into their room last night and apologized for everything he’s done wrong since he arrived three years ago…in alphabetical order. Obviously that’s something else that’s funnier to hear about than to actually witness firsthand, and, again, I like that. By ALF standards, this episode is showing remarkable restraint, and it’s better for it.

The most interesting thing about this scene is the reveal that ALF still hasn’t told the family. He’s convinced, apparently, that this will be the last straw, so in spite of ALF being in significantly more danger than he’s ever been before, it’s also the one time he can’t ask for help. Instead, he’s apologizing for all the other shit he’s pulled since he moved in, and that’s smart from a writing standpoint. It also echoes “Working My Way Back to You,” which was one of this series’ most pleasant surprises. So far “Running Scared” is a good episode channeling an even better one. I’m happy.

Then “Running Scared” gets a real laugh out of me, but I can’t really articulate why; all that happens is that Mr. Ochmonek shouts, “Hey, Tanners!” as he approaches the house. That’s happened at least a dozen times before, but something about it strikes me as funny this time. Maybe I’m just excited because the episode is already pretty good, so my favorite character showing up feels, for once, like a cherry on top rather than a reprieve.

He brings them a sign that was in their yard, which says that their house is for sale for $4,000. (ALF later explains, in a pretty good joke, that he tacked on the extra thousand because he felt the Tanners should get something out of it.)

Mr. Ochmonek was never portayed as the brightest bulb, but the fact that he really believes the Tanners would sell their home for four grand seems much too stupid for him, so I choose to believe that he’s just joking when he says he’ll buy it. Willie declines, and Mr. Ochmonek says he’ll pay $4,100, and Willie can have his lawnmower back…but that’s his final offer. Too stupid or not, that’s a good line.

Kate explains that someone must have made that sign as a prank. And, wow; how did it take these assholes so long to come up with that as an explanation for ALF’s nonsense? Seriously, it’s a good excuse, and not one that you need to explain any further. Kids are always doing idiotic, sometimes inexplicable, things just to be dicks.

Usually when ALF does some dumbass thing that they need to explain, they end up inventing some kind of explanation that is clearly a lie and just makes them look stupider. (This also, it’s worth noting, used to lead to some good Willie moments as he floundered on the spot, but the show put a stop to that as soon as it realized that it was actually being funny.)

So, yeah, when forced to provide an explanation for ALF’s antics, shrugging and saying, “I dunno, I guess some neighborhood kids did it” sure is the smarter approach.

ALF, "Running Scared"

In the kitchen ALF records an audio diary: “Captain’s Log: Stardate 2525. Man, I’m still alive.” Set aside the idiotic idea that ALF is hiding something from the Tanners by loudly recording himself talking about it in the next room, because the line is a really well-integrated music reference. (“In the Year 2525″ by Zager and Evans, if you didn’t know…it’s a monumentally shitty song, but Futurama had some great fun with a parody version.)

It’s also more clever than nearly any of ALF’s other pop culture references; as he’s an alien, it really might be stardate 2525 to him. We have no idea, and the joke might be the coincidence of the song’s lyric mirroring his own situation rather than the simple flash of recognition upon which similar gags in this show often intend to coast.

So far, so good. Unfortunately, “Running Scared” is just building itself up to let us down.

Willie and Kate come in and see aluminum cans everywhere. Kate asks him what the fuck he’s doing drinking all that soda. He replies, “Currently, I’m recycling cans. In a short while, I’ll be recycling soda.” It’s…pretty funny actually.

For shit’s sake, “Running Scared,” stop tricking me into thinking you’re going to be good.

They confront him about the recycling and the FOR SALE sign, and he tries to dodge the issue of why he’s raising money by saying, “you never know when you’re going to have to pay off some extortionist.” Then he tries to cover it with a phony laugh, which Kate, as the only Tanner not to have suffered severe brain damage at some indeterminate point in the past, sees through.

Lynn comes in and says good morning, and Kate says, “Oh, no, not so far.” Schedeen’s delivery of the line is stellar.

ALF, "Running Scared"

ALF, cornered, has no choice but to explain himself. And, in a nice subversion, the family doesn’t believe him. They think he invented the blackmail story in order to hide whatever it is he really wants money for, with Willie taking care to use air quotes when referring to ALF’s “extortionist.”

It’s a nice way of evolving the story. Instead of ALF continuing to hide the problem, or the family learning about it here and taking some kind of action (either of which, admittedly, could still have made for a great episode), we get something even better. The family does learn about it, but thinks ALF just found a new way to be a pain in their asses…and ALF does break down reach out to them for help, only to find himself rebuffed.

We get to see multiple consequences pan out, in other words. ALF keeping schtum or the family rallying around him would each lead to their own kinds of stories, but fairly predictable ones. Instead ALF blabs and the family fails to rally, which helps “Running Scared” to feel like it’s actually jumped the rails. It’s no longer a safe and secure sitcom formula; some threat to the show’s homeostasis was introduced, and the chance to address it has been fumbled. ALF had only one way out of this mess, but he wasn’t able to reach for it. Then he was forced into reaching for it…and it slipped out of his grasp.

ALF, in a word, is fucked.

He tells the Tanners that the blackmailer said he’d call back with further instructions on making the payment, and that the guy called him a pinhead. It’s an exposition dump that isn’t that funny, but he also reveals to Brian that he stole all the money out of his piggy bank, and Benji’s bitchface finally gets some proper context.

ALF, "Running Scared"

Later on, ALF is waiting by the phone with Kettle Chips. I’m not sure if this qualifies as product placement, especially since we can’t see the label this time around, but in “We Are Family” we could pretty clearly see that that’s what he was eating in the tub. Since name-brand products are usually relabeled in this show, I wonder.

Also, they’re really fucking good if you’ve never had them. Even if the subliminal suggestion here is that they taste an awful lot like delicious cat meat.

Anyway, the phone rings, and he lets the answering machine get it. Pretty boring sentence, I know, but it’s actually one of the best ALF moments ever.

The recording says, “Hi, this is Gordon Shumway. I’m dead right now. Please leave your name, address, and extortion demands at the beep, and I’ll get back to you probably never. As I said, I’m dead.”

Funny writing, solid delivery, perfect use of the awkward phrasings and pauses of outgoing messages.

It’s just Willie calling though. He’s calling from work to say he’ll be late, and do cut to him in a non-descript office, but nobody else is there and nothing’s going on. So all of those secretaries and bosses and colleagues that we’ve seen in various other episodes weren’t worth inviting back on the show. In fact, empty space around Willie is a perfectly acceptable substitute for all of them, which provides some telling insight into ALF‘s approach to characterization.

He tells ALF to change the message to something less insane, and ALF does, using the new message to tell people to stop terrorizing him, and to wait for the beep.

It’s a good scene over all, even if the second answering machine gag isn’t as strong (or as unexpected) as the first, but what’s mainly interesting to me is that the blackmailer doesn’t call back with instructions like he said he would.

I’m genuinely curious as to why…and I’m not saying that because I’m playing coy or anything. I’ve seen the episode. I know what happens. I know how all this shit plays out. And I still have no idea why the blackmailer says he’ll call ALF back the next morning and then doesn’t.

ALF, "Running Scared"

ALF lives in the attic so fuck that bullshit last week when Kate read The Berenstain Bears to him in the laundry basket whatever who fucking cares fuck

Lynn comes up because she saw his light was still on, and she finds him hovering in fear around the window.

She believes his story, or is at least willing to indulge him, whereas the rest of the family won’t. It’s a sweet moment, and my favorite incarnation of Lynn. One we haven’t seen in ages, actually. For quite a while in season two, Lynn served as ALF’s sobering voice of reason. She took the time to talk with him when nobody else would, and, as a result, formed a bond with him that felt almost human. It was, while it lasted, the most reliably satisfying relationship in the show, and seeing it resurface here reminds me of how much I miss it.

“Running Scared” doesn’t manage to live up to its own premise, but even if I hated it I’d have to give it credit for revisiting a lot of the things I like best about this show.

ALF, "Running Scared"

She calms him down by saying that the guy said he’d call back, and he didn’t. At no point does she completely buy into his story, but she at least believes that he’s not lying to the family. He is scared; that much is obvious to her. It’s just a question of how much she believes or doesn’t believe in the specific conclusions he drew.

Something’s up, but the nature of that something isn’t what’s important to her right now. Her friend needs her, and that’s what she reacts to, even though she doesn’t (and can’t) have all the facts.

Andrea Elson is by no means the best actress, which is why scenes like this give me the sense that she’s a genuinely warm and caring human being. These moments come naturally to her. She doesn’t struggle with her lines the way she usually does. She doesn’t sound confused or robotic; she doesn’t flub her timing or work visibly hard to remember what she’s supposed to say next. Acting, in other words, doesn’t come naturally to her, whereas warmth does.

Even a screengrab gets it across. Look at the picture above and compare it to almost any other time you see her on this show. She’s at ease here because she’s able to channel something she understands: an innate, hopeful goodness.

She leaves him for the night, and as soon as she’s gone the phone rings, because of course it does. It’s the blackmailer again, saying that the Tanners are fucked if ALF doesn’t pay him the money. Then he laughs and hangs up.

ALF makes some joke to nobody. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going. And so do I!!” Which I’m positive isn’t funny, but I’m in pain just trying to work out what he or the writers thought it meant.

What’s really odd though isn’t the fact that he called ALF so much later than he promised to, but that he also promised to give him payment instructions…and he didn’t.

So what exactly was his plan here?

It’s more than just a slightly illogical stumble…it’s the precise, sad moment at which you realize “Running Scared” doesn’t actually know what it’s doing.

ALF, "Running Scared"

At…some time of night on…some day, somebody pounds on the door and Willie and Kate go to answer it. It’s a trio of slumming character actors representing Immigration Services. They’ve received a tip that Willie is harboring an illegal alien.

And that was a twist I didn’t see coming. And it’s a great one. I’m surprised the show took this long to come around to the space alien/illegal alien joke, but the fact that it did take so long makes it legitimately unexpected when it finally does happen. And I like the fact that this isn’t the punchline of the episode; we didn’t build to a pun…instead the pun served as an evolution of the plot. And, in a way, the conflict.

I like this. I really, truly, genuinely do.

I want to make that very clear before we tumble into the trench of bullshit before us.

Ready? Here goes…

See, I’m admittedly fuzzy on the timeline, but as near as I can tell, here’s what’s happened: the blackmailer calls ALF, and says he wants $3,000 otherwise he’ll turn him in. He says that he will call back the next morning with instructions, but he doesn’t. Instead he calls that night, scares ALF all over again, and hangs up. Now he’s turned him in.

But…why? You need to give your extortionee the time — or at least the ability — to pay you, otherwise you don’t stand to extort anything. It’s weird, and it casts a shadow of confusion over everything we’ve seen so far. And it’s not one that episode ever clears up, even when the full extent of the scheme is revealed. (Spoiler: it’s not really full at all.)

The immigration guys come in to search the house, but Willie demands to see a warrant. His whimpering when they immediately show him one is his lone bright spot in the episode.

I’m wondering, though, why the standard immigration officers travel in trios, when the Alien Task Force has been shown to operate in pairs at the most. Aren’t space aliens more dangerous? At least potentially? Sure, they might all be fat little fartbags like ALF, but the Alien Task Force doesn’t know that. (If they did know that, they wouldn’t have a reason to operate.)

The point is that whatever alien life exists or doesn’t exist, the Alien Task Force is hunting down a very unknown adversary…so why does it operate like an even more routine organization than Immigration Services in Southern California?

Willie stomps around the living room screaming that THEY ARE LOOKING FOR A HUMAN ILLEGAL ALIEN, to remind you that you’re watching a really fucking terrible show, even though this episode might have tricked you briefly into believing otherwise.

The main immigration guy asks Kate if they have a basement or an attic. She says they do have an attic, but they just fumigated it.

Of course, as we learned in “Isn’t it Romantic?” they also have a basement, which is (some fucking how, for some fucking reason) where all of the furniture from the motel they stayed at during their honeymoon is kept. But Kate doesn’t mention a basement, because the writers don’t remember that episode, and for the first time I envy them.

Kate offers the man a fan if he needs to check the attic, but he tells her that that won’t be necessary. Then he calls to his two colleagues: “He’s in the attic.”

It would be a great moment if it weren’t punctuated by Willie writhing around like somebody just jammed a thumbtack into his spine.

ALF, "Running Scared"

The immigration guys go up to the attic, and while they’re gone the Tanners find a note from ALF. It’s a goodbye note, his fifty-eight by my count. In his letter he explains that he’d rather be turned into creamed chip beef than have the Tanners go to prison on his behalf. Of course, the exact opposite was the case in “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” but the writers don’t remember that episode, and for the second time I envy them.

The note also says that he took the car, and he promises to leave it on Highway 71, “just outside” Edwards Air Force Base.

One, maybe I’ve asked this before, but who in shit’s name taught ALF to drive? He’s not allowed to leave the house; when would he ever need to know how to operate a motor vehicle? Ugh, who fucking cares.

Two, Edwards Air Force Base is a real place. It’s around two hours from the center of LA by car, so, geographically, that checks out. However I wasn’t able to find a Highway 71 that ran anywhere near it. That could just be me, and I admittedly didn’t drill exhaustively through maps of the region, but if there isn’t really a Highway 71 near there, I’ll be pretty disappointed. After all, they went through the trouble of giving us an identifiable real-world location to cling to, but made up a supporting detail that could have just as easily been gotten right.

There’s a reason I’m digressing into a discussion of Edwards Air Force Base, and it’s not because I’m a picky fuckball. (I totally am, tho.) When Brian asks why ALF is heading that way, Lynn explains to him that that’s where the Alien Task Force is.

So hot damn…we have some more information about this idiotic organization. Here, again, is confirmation that they don’t operate in secret, as a teenage girl knows exactly where to find them. Bums know how to reach them by phone. Rewards for tips that lead to the capture of an alien are offered publicly. Oh, and if they see a crashed UFO on your roof they’ll ask if they can come in, but if you say no they’ll have to leave. So yeah, the Alien Task Force operates openly…which again raises the question of how that could be possible in a world that shuns and ridicules people who believe in aliens. (Poor Mrs. Ochmonek was driven insane by this very fact in “Take a Look at Me Now,” and I was in turn driven insane by having to review it.)

But, whatever, we’ve been through that before. The real meat here is the fact that the Alien Task Force is a one-location thing. They don’t have offices all over the country; there’s a singular, fixed address. What luck that ALF crash landed a couple of hours away from them and not, say, in Portland, Maine. They’d really be fucked, then.

Seriously, if you’re only going to patrol one city looking for aliens, you might as well not even bother. I wasn’t able to find the total number of cities in the world (for understandable reasons) but estimates peg it at around 3,000. So even if you knew that an alien would land in a city, there’s a 3000:1 chance that it’ll be the same city you chose to patrol. Of course, we don’t know that an alien won’t land in, say, a town. Or a village. Or a desert, or a forest, or the ocean. On top of that, we aren’t even sure aliens exist, so my completely reliable math says that even if the Alien Task Force operated with a 100% coverage rate of its chosen city, their chances of finding so much as a strand of ALF’s pubic hair are about six hundred thousand zillion to one.

So, yeah, your tax dollars at work.

Fucking Alien Task Force. You want to kill ALF! Why aren’t you the coolest thing in this show?!

ALF, "Running Scared"

Then we see ALF on his way to Edwards AFB. I wish he was listening to some music, though, because instead we have to sit through him amusing himself (he’s certainly not amusing us) with a series of monologues about what he might say to the Alien Task Force. If you think they’re anything but padded bullshit, you’ve not been watching ALF.

Then we go back to the Tanners, and, man, there’s really no winning with this dumbass show, is there? Cutting from the Tanners to the alien sucks, and cutting away from the alien and back to the Tanners again sucks. There’s really nowhere this show can go. Maybe if they cut away to Jake masturbating at his Knotty Peek machine I’d at least give them points for variety.

The main immigration guy explains to Willie how he found out they have an (illegal) alien: a name turned up on a mailing list, and their computers flagged it when it wasn’t tied to a social security number.

Now, I like about 25% of that, which is a pretty good amount for this show. ALF does indeed subscribe to magazines, and he orders all kinds of shit through the mail, so I’m happy that that’s how he was spotted. But I also know that the lack of a social security number thing is bunk. No computers anywhere are tracking that, and certainly no flags would go off if a social security number couldn’t be scraped up.

How many John Browns exist in the country? Are computers working ’round the clock to make sure that each of their subscriptions to TV Guide are linked to the correct social security number? Computers won’t be sorting through them to see who does and doesn’t have a social security number, and confirm that each is linked correctly to the right identity. And also, why would any publisher or mail order company do this on behalf of Immigration Services? I don’t think Fingerhut gives a shit who is buying their junk, and it certainly wouldn’t be cost-effective to perform rigorous background checks on every customer even if they did.

Additionally I get enough junk mail made out to Phlippi J Reed that I’m pretty sure they don’t try to deport people on the received end of clerical errors.

Willie, the fucking idiot, doesn’t ask whose name was on a mailing list…he instead asks who ratted them out, which is moronic even by the moronic standards of ALF & The Fuckass Morons, and acts essentially as a confession that he is indeed harboring an illegal alien.

But the main immigration guy ignores this obvious confirmation and instead calls him a pinhead, which conclusively proves to Willie that he’s the blackmailer. That rings massively false to me, because I refuse to believe that Willie is called a pinhead by any less than 90% of the population he regularly interacts with.

He apologizes to the immigration guy, but says he’ll have to ask him and Darryl and Darryl to leave, which is a reference to Newhart. Man, was this show dying to get Bob Newhart to guest star or something? Thank Christ Bob never sunk anywhere near that low. Can you imagine him playing second banana to fucking ALF?

Thank God we were spared the episode in which ALF becomes a telephone psychic while Bob Newhart plays the guy who stands quietly to the side while the puppet gets all the jokes.

ALF, "Running Scared"

Mr. Ochmonek comes over to find out what all the commotion was. Yes, in the middle of the night Mr. Ochmonek gets up and heads over to check on the Tanners, who regularly wish illness and death upon him, just to make sure they’re alright. Remind me again who the bad neighbors are.

Willie explains it was immigration, and Mr. Ochmonek offers to help. He says his cousin’s a lawyer. “Call this number,” he says, handing Willie a card, “and ask for inmate 24601.” I love you, John LaMotta. I don’t know why you’re even in this shitty ass shitshow for shits, but I’m so glad you are. So, yes, that was a legitimately funny line, but at its core he’s offering a family favor to Willie the moment he finds out he’s in trouble. Remind me, again, who the bad neighbors are.

They ask Mr. Ochmonek if they can borrow his car, and he asks, “Again?” This could have been a callback to “Fight Back” a few weeks ago, but instead they’re referring to a time off-camera that somebody had filled Willie’s gas tank with malted milkballs. So, of course, but he loans them the car yet again, without any kind of explanation of what they need it for or when they’ll be back. Remind me…again…who the bad neighbors are.

Willie and Kate grab his keys and leave without so much as a thank you, and the scene ends with Mr. Ochmonek standing in their open doorway, so I guess he’s also about to babysit their kids.


ALF, "Running Scared"

Then ALF is in a barn.

Hey, why not.

He’s hollering about needing to use the phone because he ran out of gas, trying to get someone’s attention.

Normally I’d complain about this behavior, but since he’s on his way to turn himself in anyway, I guess it makes sense that he wouldn’t feel the need to be as cautious. Then again, if this fucking monstrosity knocked on a door in rural America in the middle of the night, the odds of him being shot to death on the spot are 100%. He’s even got on a red hoodie…and, no joke, Willie finds him because he leaves a trail of candy wrappers. I can’t confirm for sure that they were Skittles.

Willie stumbles in and finds ALF. Thanks to the candy wrappers I’m not concerned with how he found him, but I call bullshit on the fact that he was somehow only 40 seconds behind the alien who left hours earlier.

They talk for a while and Willie says that instead of running off, ALF should have come to them. ALF reminds him that he did, and they didn’t believe he was in trouble. So, yeah, they’re all assholes.

ALF, "Running Scared"

Then a farmer comes in and ALF hides. Willie picks up a pitchfork to stab this elderly man to death in the middle of the night, like the truly stellar social worker he definitely is.

After they decide not to engage in a rural California pitchforking to the death, Willie tells the man that he ran out of gas, and the farmer offers to give him some for $20. It’s actually funnier than it sounds, but not enough to warrant me typing this shit out.

When the farmer leaves ALF and Willie discuss how to get the cars home, then ALF says goodbye to the cow and tells it to watch its cholesterol.

That was the punchline of the entire episode. “Running Scared,” everyone.

This is where we end up after the blackmail plot, the great Lynn scene, and the alien/alien confusion?

God dammit. This is what I get for getting my hopes up. ALF giving life advice to a cow.

ALF, "Running Scared"

In the short scene before the credits Willie announces to us all that the main immigration guy is in deep shit for shaking down illegal immigrants. Evidently he’s been blackmailing them for a while now, so I can see why he’s fired. Why the family is no longer under legitimate investigation for housing illegal immigrants, though, is conveniently not addressed. I guess once the blackmailers are out of the picture, Immigration Services reverts to the honor system embraced by the Alien Task Force.

It’s strange; if the guy’s been dismissed for shaking down illegal immigrants, what did Willie do? Tell them that he was being shaken down for harboring illegal immigrants? Probably not, of course, but how could he escape any kind of followup visit, at least to close the file?

Whatever. Everything’s back to shitty normal.

ALF thanks Willie for saving his life.

Nobody thanks Mr. Ochmonek for coming over, offering his help, loaning them the car, and babysitting their fucking kids, all without explanation, for allowing that rescue to happen.

Hey, Tanners! FUCK YOU

I don’t know. I’m sure I’m reading too much into it, but the whole final scene feels like Willie is just saying, “Don’t worry, everyone. We’ll never have to deal with a plot like that again. Next week we’ll be back to ALF eating train sets and shitting them all over the rug, just the way we like it.”

“Running Scared,” again, was a story that needed to be told. But mother of Christ it did not need to be told like this.

MELMAC FACTS: The Alien Task Force operates out of, or at least rents a loft at, Edwards Air Force Base.

Fiction into Film is a series devoted to page-to-screen adaptations. The process of translating prose to the visual medium is a tricky and only intermittently successful one, but even the fumbles provide a great platform for understanding stories, and why they affect us the way they do.

Lolita, Stanley KubrickIt’s mandatory in any discussion of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s masterpiece to mention that the film’s very trailer asked, “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?”

The implication was an obvious one; Nabokov’s original novel was incredibly popular, and its cultural reputation preceded it.

Its reputation helped to sell the book, but not to engender any kind of understanding. As far as anyone knew, Lolita was a filthy book. Just god-awful, stomach churning stuff. It was page after page of vivid depravity, a blast of societal rot so potent that merely walking past a copy of it was enough to damn your soul for all eternity.

“How did they…?” was a question that was wise to ask, but it was being asked for the wrong reason. What the purposefully inflammatory trailer was asking was something like “How could such filth make it onto a movie screen?” What it should have been asking is, “How could such inventive, complex prose translate to a coherent visual experience?”

Because Lolita, against all odds, is anything but pornographic. There’s sexual content — much of which is indeed disturbing — but pornography aims to titillate. To arouse and satisfy desire. To provide in convenient form an experience you can’t as easily find on your own.

So imagine the surprise of those who picked up the book expecting to be immersed in a world of filth, finding instead a dazzling, gorgeous, intricate array of prose that elevated even its darkest moments of filth to high poetry.

Yes, as a novel, Lolita is about a young girl who is chronically victimized by a sexual predator. As a novel, however, Lolita is also about the English language, and how we use it. And as a novel, Lolita is a comic road-caper through inner conflict made manifest.

In short, as a novel, Lolita is a perfect example of why asking what a story is “about” is tremendously unhelpful.

Lolita, if it is “about” anything, is about the experience of reading it. It takes a sensational, taboo germ of an idea, and then buries it deep within mountains of complicated, contradictory, confused narration.

And it’s glorious.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

Nabokov was an immensely playful author, and though it’s no doubt the ostensible subject matter of Lolita that got people talking about him, it’s still the perfect introduction to who he was as an artist.

The entire book functions as both a series of cruel jokes on the characters, and at least a couple of additional jokes at the expense of the readers. Those who came in expecting raunch and smut were met with the oblique musings and passionate defenses of a traveling literary scholar, who made digressions so lengthy and frequently that it was impossible to know when, if ever, he’d get to the sex. And those who came in expecting exactly that kind of narrative trickery and linguistic playfulness were cursed with a book they couldn’t dare be caught reading in public. (I, for one, will vouch for the awkwardness of reading Lolita on a stuck train.)

Conveying that aspect of the book — its defining aspect, I’d argue — in a film would be difficult at best. In fiction, a talented writer can say one thing while artfully revealing something contradictory. Film has a tougher job of it; whereas the unreliable narrator at the heart of Lolita provides readers with an obviously flawed perspective (for which a careful reader is always attempting to compensate), director Stanley Kubrick has only a camera’s lens. There is no accepted equivalent of unreliable narration in film; they audience accepts what they see.

What films can do is get an audience to reconsider what they’ve seen, but it’s something that happens after the fact, and not during. Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window pieces together the details of a murder, but while his reliability is of the utmost (rightful) importance to the other characters in the film, it’s not as important to us watching at home; we can see everything he sees, and we can follow our own trains of thought. We may care about what happens to Stewart, or how seriously he’s taken by those around him, but he doesn’t have dominion over what we think. The character tells us something, but his perspective isn’t the one through which we actually see the story unfold. We’ll side with our own eyes every time.

In fiction, however, that’s not the case. Unreliable narration is a thrilling, circling game of cat and mouse between the reader and the author, with the narrator as phantom intermediary. Here, we don’t have a camera’s lens. There is no imagery we can freeze-frame in order to prove a character wrong. We are told what we are told, and once we begin to doubt its reliability we begin a separate, synchronous journey alongside the narration itself. We are reading one thing, and understanding another.

Half (or less) of the story is written; the rest of us unspools within us…a significant difference from film, which is unspooled before us.

Kubrick’s Lolita, however, isn’t interested in doing that. It doesn’t play with our perceptions, or really try to. In a way this is smart, because even a genuine talent like Kubrick shouldn’t be trusted to carve in cement what Nabokov weaves with vanishing clouds.

On the other hand, however, it means that Lolita the film attempts only to reconstruct the events of Lolita the novel, and not the atmosphere, the trickery, the intellectual puzzle. And when the events are stripped of their literary trappings and satisfying opacity, we aren’t left with much.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

Let’s start with a great byproduct of that unfortunate fact, though: in both film versions (this one and Adrian Lyne’s 1997 adaptation, which I’ll probably cover at some point as well), much of the empty space is turned over to playwright Clare Quilty, a figure from the novel that originally served as more of a presence (and arguable scapegoat) than a character.

The need for actual, intelligible, filmable material to bridge the gaps between Nabokov’s setpieces meant that Quilty, brilliantly, ascended to third-lead status. This was both befitting of his third-wheel role in the book, and a perfect (deliberate or not) twist of the knife for poor Humbert, who gets his sad, personal history adapted for the big screen only to find his textual nemesis getting the meatier part.

In Kubrick’s Lolita, Quilty is played by incomparable scene-stealer Peter Sellers, and that’s the biggest and best joke on Humbert in the film. The very first scene — chronologically the last — sees Humbert, loaded gun in hand, confronting a dazed and hungover Quilty in the latter’s home. This sequence bookends the entire film, and looks an awful lot like a moment of triumph (or at least vengeance) for our protagonist…how it actually plays out, however, is much different.

Humbert has the gun, and the presence of mind, and the full knowledge of what’s happening, but it’s Quilty who holds the upper hand. What’s most impressive is how he manages it: it’s not through power, but through sheer showmanship. An icon of the stage in the universe of Lolita, Quilty knows how to command attention, and hold sway over an audience. Humbert comes to his home to murder him, but Quilty is used to critics coming to his plays to crucify him; he’s prepared for it.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

He ultimately doesn’t survive the encounter, but he still emerges the victor. Throughout the ordeal, it is Humbert on the ropes, and not the technically helpless Quilty. Humbert is constantly interrupted, ignored, and deliberately misinterpreted. He enters the mansion with an itchy trigger finger, and Quilty impressively waylays him into a game of Ping-Pong instead. (Tellingly, Quilty serves.)

When Humbert finally does force Quilty to process what he’s saying, it’s by handing him a sheet of paper and forcing the chatty playwright to read it out loud. But it’s a Pyrrhic victory, as Quilty reads these words — composed in earnest, painful, heart-rending seriousness — with the silly voice of a cartoon cowboy. Humbert abandons this idea as well, and snatches the paper away. Point: Quilty.

Even in death he one-ups Humbert; the fatal encounter with Quilty both opens and closes the film, providing the character with a long, interesting, humorously dramatic death scene. Humbert’s death occurs off-camera, at some point in the future that the film doesn’t even bother to capture. It’s reported with a sentence on a slide. It’s an offhand dismissal of the man who is trying desperately to assert control over his own story, cinematic salt in the deepest wound.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

Throughout his scenes, Quilty charms. He entertains. He takes on various personas as he pursues the same underage object of Humbert’s affections, and we in the audience perk up whenever we see him…just as little Lolita herself does.

The film has significant issues with pacing, which we’ll get to later on, and Quilty’s scenes — as great as they are — function more as impressive improvisations than they do as pieces of a greater, cohesive whole. They’re emblematic of Kubrick’s struggle to make the story work on screen (something else we’ll discuss later), and what feels like a lack of confidence in his ability to do so, but it’s impossible to stay mad at them. They’re brilliant blemishes; pieces that don’t fit into this particular puzzle, but which are beautiful in their own right.

While Quilty may have been the right character to explore, Kubrick can’t think of much new to do with him apart from point the camera and watch The Peter Sellers Show. It’s exactly the kind of artless Hail Mary that I want to hate…but I can’t, because Sellers is, simply, a delight. He wins me over in a way that such a speed-bump shouldn’t be able to. (Of course, the idea pointing the camera and letting Sellers run wild was integrated far more effectively, organically, and rewardingly in Kubrick’s next film, Dr. Strangelove.)

In the novel, Humbert is a charming monster, seducing his readers with his one truly sexy feature: his mastery of the English language. He manipulates us, demands that we identify with him, insists that he win us over. But in the movie of his life, it’s Quilty who comes out on top.

Quilty is more charming. He wins Lolita’s heart. He sees greater success in the arts that Humbert ever does. The audience is bound to laugh with him more than it laughs with Humbert. While Humbert struggles to conjure up sympathy for the devil, he has it siphoned right out of him by a superior devil.

Of course, the problem with this, at least in terms of bringing the novel to the screen, is that this buys into Humbert’s vision of Quilty…and of everything.

One of my favorite things about the novel is how hazy (wink wink) the characters are. We know how Humbert would like for us to view them, but we don’t know much beyond that. Everything we get is filtered through our obsessive, controlling, demanding narrator. He paints Quilty one way, Charlotte another, and himself a third. Our experience is his experience, because it must be; he does not allow us to draw our own conclusions, nor does he trust us to do so. If we did that, after all…why, wouldn’t we just see him as another pedophile? Yes, it’s far better not to leave the thinking to us.

On film, however, we need to commit to a vision. For a novel like Lolita, that’s problematic. Did Quilty really look like Peter Sellers? Could he possibly have been as funny, or as quick-witted? Was he really even stalking Humbert at all? The film gives us no reason to doubt any of this, while the novel gives us reason to doubt everything.

Humbert, especially, seems to be taken laughably seriously. When I picture the “actual” Humbert Humbert from the novel, I picture somebody who looks quite a bit like Nabokov: some nebbishy, aged introvert whose reflection in the mirror doesn’t at all match what anybody else sees. He dotes on himself with a romance and lust that seems to exceed even that which he feels for Lolita…the young girl whose inescapable beauty and allure require him to write this novel-long defense of his behavior in the first place. He’s careful about how he presents himself…too careful, in fact, which is our cue to start wondering about the truth.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

In this film, Humbert is played by James Mason…a casting choice of which I’m sure the novel’s protagonist would approve. In Lyne’s later film, he was played by Jeremy Irons. In both cases, he’s portrayed exactly as he tries to convince us he really is in the book. He’s gorgeous. Suave. Effortlessly charming and naturally attractive. In the book we may well picture somebody like James Mason when Humbert is describing himself, but once we peer through the cracks in his narration it’s unlikely that we’d continue to see any kind of Hollywood heart-throb.

In film, however, we don’t have the luxury of disbelief. We can’t have Humbert look like James Mason in some scenes and Steve Buscemi in others. Visually, such shapeshifting would confuse rather than enhance. Textually, there’s no difficulty whatsoever, and there’s the added bonus of each reader pegging the necessity of a real Humbert hiding in the shadows at his or her own pace.

If a film did attempt such a switch, we’d be tied to noticing it when the film demands we notice it. In the book, readers can recognize Humbert as a fraud to any number of degrees at any point in the story. There’s a sense of achievement the first time you manage to peer through the blinds…or pull the curtain back to reveal who’s really speaking. And it’s achievement because we did it…unlike in a film, in which the director will have done it. We won’t have earned it ourselves; we will instead have simply waited long enough for somebody to give it to us.

Mason, it has to be said, does some intermittently fantastic work in this film, but his very casting marks a permanent disconnect between it and its source material. Film Humbert isn’t Book Humbert; he’s who Book Humbert wishes he could be.

Taken on his own merits, the Masonic Humbert gets in a few great moments, and periodically manages to help us forget that he’s embodying a sexual predator’s self-important daydream. He’s especially great in the aforementioned confrontation with Quilty, in which his deadpan seriousness boils quietly to rage as he’s unable to get Quilty to focus on his own impending execution.

Mason is also able to handle Humbert’s innate dickishness in a way that impressively transforms it into cleverness. The best example of this is probably when Charlotte tells him that she has good news, and he guesses that their irritating neighbors the Farlows have been arrested. The success of the line is due entirely to its delivery; it brings a very specific kind of life to the line, and it does manage to sell Humbert, for an instant, as two different kinds of people at once. (Something that’s reflected in the fact that his surname is also Humbert…an important detail with which the book has tremendous fun, but which the film, unless I missed something, acknowledges in only a single scene.)

In a very small number of cases, this duplicity is handled quite well, illustrated perfectly with a scene of personal celebration in which Mason sips Scotch in the bathtub after his new wife is killed by an inattentive driver. The Farlows come over and conclude that the scene is one of despair, misinterpreting entirely the significance of the handgun on the counter…with which he intended to murder Charlotte before fate did a cleaner job of it.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

In this short — but perfect — scene in the bathroom, the neighbors he hates believe themselves to be his friends. They find him spending a carefree afternoon in the home that he no longer has to share with his wife, but see him to be despondent and in need of support. Humbert is a man who feels no guilt about the plan he’s formulating to rape the orphaned daughter of the woman he decided to kill in cold blood…and the Farlows are trying to help him feel better about himself. The film could use more scenes along these lines, and it’s sadly low on them.

Kubrick, as director, doesn’t seem to know exactly how to bring the story to life. With comparatively little that “happens” the in the book (and littler still that can be shown in traditional movie theaters), he feels stuck. While the man was no stranger to chatty films, he often struggles to make this one feel alive, opting too frequently to shoot it like a play staged for public television.

In only a few sequences (the confrontation with Quilty, the school dance, the pan down from Charlotte falling on the bedroom floor to Humbert preparing to poison her in the kitchen) do we see evidence of Kubrick’s visual artistry. And while that doesn’t make for a bad film, a workman’s approach to such daring, nimble source material feels almost disrespectful, like a documentary about the Beatles that only uses library music.

Two shots in particular stand out, however. Firstly, there’s our introduction to Sue Lyon as the title character (more on whom in a moment).

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

The shot is perfectly framed, scored with the playful “Ya Ya” that marries Lolita’s ostensible innocence to a hopeful, lingering melody that flits just around her like Humbert’s gaze. It’s the single most recognizable image from the film, which says a lot when it doesn’t feature James Mason, Peter Sellers, or Shelly Winters. It’s just the girl, sunbathing in her mother’s garden.

It’s a loaded image, in several ways, but it’s not clear whether we’re supposed to be appreciating the view with Humbert (for different reasons, hopefully) or worrying on behalf of Lolita, as we all know where this story is heading. One thing is for certain, though: we’re not supposed to share in Charlotte’s obliviousness.

It’s such a perfect and immortal shot that Adrian Lyne borrowed it for his own later version of Lolita. There, however, for the purposes of contrast, we were meant to see her as Humbert does. That’s why we watch the sprinklers her get gradually wetter in a translucent frock, as she scrunches and spreads her toes, the camera tracing, lovingly, her every curve.

If that sounds creepier than Kubrick’s version, that’s because it is…but it is also worth pointing out that Kubrick cast an unknown, somewhat ordinary young girl as his female lead; any sexual longing that the audience felt for this Lolita would have been there well before the book or the film arrived. Lyne, on the other hand, cast minor sex symbol Dominique Swain, which made the lust felt for that version of Lolita a little too relateable. But that’s a story for another time.

The other perfect shot is technically two shots, and it’s something I didn’t notice until this most recent viewing. In bed with Charlotte, Humbert has some trouble rising to his husbandly duties…until he spies a photograph of Lolita on the nightstand.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

It’s the most overtly sexual connection between he and the girl made by the film, but that’s not why it works; it’s merely the setup to Kubrick’s visual punchline, which comes when Charlotte tells him that Lolita won’t be coming back from camp; the little terror is being shipped directly to a boarding school.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

He rolls over, and Charlotte, who has just unknowingly emasculated him, is on top. He’s gone from considering a photograph of the girl to considering the loaded handgun. His darkening mood is absurd, but palpable, and he stews gradually in this position. This moment lays the groundwork for the fight they will soon have that leaves her dead in the street, and her daughter in the possession of the man who intends to rape her.

It’s a punchline, like I said. But god damn is it a dark joke.

As good as Mason and (especially) Sellers are, and in spite of a lack of ambition in Kubrick’s direction, two figures emerge as the real stars: Shelly Winters, and Sue Lyon.

Lyon owns the film. That’s her innocently tonguing a lollipop on the poster. That’s her in the movie’s most indelible shot. Hell, that’s her that the film is named after. (Technically the character’s name is Dolores; Lolita is a nickname that, since the novel, has come to see usage in line with the story’s reputation.)

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

She was a perfect find. I genuinely cannot imagine a human being better inhabiting such a strange part. Strong and helpless at the same time. Youthful and mature. Trusting and suspicious. Innocent and worldly.

Kubrick did say at one point that if he’d realized how limited he’d be by the restrictions of the time, he never would have adapted Lolita in the first place. But, for all of its flaws, I’m glad he did, as I honestly don’t think any young actor could inhabit the role as convincingly, effectively, and masterfully as Lyon did. (Though in 2010, Chloe Moretz demonstrated a disarmingly impressive mastery of a not-wholly-dissimilar character in Kick-Ass.)

She plays Lolita recognizably; she’s like any little girl would be with complete control over her own development, enshrouded in the trappings of youth while dabbling in as much or as little adulthood as she pleases…always able to retreat back to childhood when she likes, but never willing to do so when she’s asked.

Lolita, in the film, is powerful. In her own way, she’s admirable. She maintains a true sense of identity throughout the movie. She believes in herself. She’s resourceful and strong enough to break out of a situation that really should have had her trapped. And, at the end, she finds something very much like love, starting a family with a man named Richard Schiller who appears to care for her and treat her in a way that no other male (of any age) had before. And this is a happiness she achieves after being held captive and victimized by not one but two pedophiles.

Through all of that, she remained herself.

Of course, this is true of the book, too…right?

Well…kind of. Again, the book is told from Humbert’s perspective, so the “real” Lolita gets little or no screentime, so to speak. We can infer an awful lot, but it’s always in spite of the narration, and I don’t think we can identify any conclusive character traits about her. Book Humbert wants us to see him as the victim, so of course he hammers hard the idea that she seduced him. But Movie Humbert is just along for the ride; we see things unfold at the same rate and in the same way that he does. His Lolita is real, in a way that the novel’s could never (and would never want to) be.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

There also remains the major, though easily missed, change of Lolita’s fate.

The book makes it clear (in an absurdly playful way) that Lolita (Dolores Haze, Mrs. Richard F. Schiller) died in childbirth. The single scene we get of her with her husband is similar on both the page and the screen, but the page doesn’t allow it to stick. Like Humbert, and Quilty, and Charlotte, Lolita does not make it out alive. Her happiness — or the nearest equivalent she’ll ever know — is snatched from her on what should have been a time of celebration: childbirth…which also happens to occur on Christmas Day. Ouch.

The film offers no such cruel termination for her. We see Quilty get shot. We see the aftermath of the accident that killed Charlotte. We get flat, textual assurance that Humbert died behind bars and is no longer prowling the streets, wiggling his fingers at your daughter.

But Lolita?

We don’t know.

We see her at home. Her first real home. We see her in a far healthier relationship with a man who comes off as a bit uneducated, but is clearly polite. They don’t have much, but they’re together. A new life for her, with a new life inside of her.

And the movie leaves it there. It doesn’t promise us that Lolita lived happily ever after. (To be frank, how could it?) But it lets us believe. It keeps hope alive. It condones the idea that, after everything she’s been through, things might turn out for her in a way that they turned out for nobody else.

That’s a remarkable difference, and it’s one that lands, mainly due to how likeable Sue Lyon is. Once Lolita has a face — a real face, this face — it’s hard to condemn her to the same fate as her textual counterpart. To treat the character that way in print is a dark narrative gag. But a person, of flesh and blood, that’s come this far, that’s so close to having what she might actually need…to treat her the same way would be unconscionable.

It says a lot about the performance of Sue Lyon that such a significant departure from (and altered morality of) the original novel feels not like a betrayal, but an evolution.

The real star of the film, though?

That’s Shelly Winters, who is only in half the film, but gives us such a strong idea of what a great movie Lolita could have been.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

As Charlotte Haze, Winters acts very similarly to what we likely pictured in the book. She’s an older (of course, in this story that word is very relative), doting, lonesome widow with a daughter she can’t control. So far, so similar.

In the book, however, she’s a comic character, submerged always under Humbert’s prose (and, once, under the water at Hourglass Lake). He paints her in ridiculous colors. He wishes for us to point at her, and to laugh. His narrative treatment of her is itself a form of abuse…and that’s a fact acknowledged when she stumbles upon his journal and reads exactly what he’s been saying about her…a revelation that immediately precedes her death.

In the book she plays a memorable role, but is essentially an obstacle for Humbert to overcome. In the film, she’s devastating.

It’s impossible to laugh at Charlotte in the movie. Winters inhabits the aging, desperate woman who lost her happiness so long ago so perfectly, so identifiably, that watching her struggle to court the man with designs on her daughter is just heartbreaking.

Her need to feel loved is perfectly real, perfectly flawed. She’s every bit the comic character Humbert in the book wanted us to imagine, but when we actually see her, she becomes immensely sympathetic.

Does she not deserve happiness as well? Of course she does…and yet, this is where she looks for it. With Humbert, and (at some point before Humbert’s arrival), with Quilty. In short, with both of the men who would later rape her daughter.

She’s blind to everything that happens around her, but it’s a willful, protective blindness; watching this film one gets the sense that the moment she opens her eyes she will die of despair.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

Her late-night attempt to seduce Humbert is particularly difficult to watch. He clearly has no interest in her. He’s rude and dismissive. But she doesn’t give up. She tries to get him to drink with her. She dances embarrassingly for him in the vain hope that he will join her. She won’t allow herself to see what’s actually happening, to accept his disinterest, because she doesn’t understand why somebody would be disinterested. If she were to accept that — accept the fact that she’s past her prime, that she’s an old woman, that nobody could love her without having ulterior motives — what reason would she have to go on?

There’s a scene in the film in which she speaks of her late husband. Mr. Haze, Lolita’s father. They were in love. They were a family. But illness took him away, and now this is where she’s left. For an all-too-brief stretch of her life, she was happy. And then this happiness was taken from her, and every day since has been a doomed and devastating attempt to believe that she could find it again.

Winters is incredible in the film, and it says a lot that when she dies at the halfway point, the film does, too.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

Her death, adapted from the novel, is a painfully fitting one; once she discovers her new husband’s sexual longing for her daughter, she flees the house…and is killed by a car as soon as she steps into the street. Her sudden, unexpected death coming at just the right time for Humbert, and the worst possible time for her. It came, after all, right after she realized her foolishness, the danger she’d placed her daughter in, the fact that the man she loved at no point loved her back.

She died, that is to say, without being allowed to believe that she was happy. She had to watch the bottom fall out first. Hers was not a peaceful death.

In the book, this moment also marks the rough halfway point, with Humbert taking Lolita on the road and the plot moving forward from there. But while the text can get away with the meandering, seemingly aimless back half of the tale on the grounds that the more rigidly structured front half was still pretty damned meandering and aimless, the film lacks Nabokov’s prose. Robbed of that, and with Kubrick at his visual dullest, the film grinds to a halt.

Winters brought a kind of sad enthusiasm to her role, but I think what really carries the first half of the film is the structure. As in Nabokov’s original, there’s a complete story introduced and told in the first half. The second half sees the barriers collapse, the restraints come off, the open road spreading out before them (and us). But Kubrick doesn’t seem to be as interested in exploring the world of infinite possibility. He’s not nearly as thrilled as Nabokov is by the idea that the story has essentially ended…while we still have half the runtime left to go.

Nabokov saw this as an excuse to let his imagination, his creativity, and his playfulness run rampant…unfettering his artistry at the precise moment Humbert Humbert unfetters his libido. Kubrick, by contrast, isn’t sure what to do. The second half of the film is markedly weaker, because it’s little more than a series of scenes that are required to transport us to the ending. The fact that the entire thing lasts more than two and a half hours suggests an unfortunate aversion to efficiency as well.

Mounting a film version of Lolita was clearly a difficult task, as even one of the most talented directors who ever lived struggled with it…but Shelly Winters gives us a sense of how it could have worked: turn it into a story about Charlotte, featuring Humbert and Lolita, rather than leaving it as a story about Humbert and Lolita, featuring Charlotte.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

Charlotte’s arc is classically tragic, and Winters gives the most memorable performance in the film. She, ironically, is what Humbert was in the book; delusional. Film Charlotte sees something other than Shelly Winters when she looks in the mirror, I’m sure. But we know better, and the inevitability of her realization, which hits us with every ounce of the pain she’s forced to process, is downright painful to endure.

Of course, a film about Charlotte wouldn’t be Lolita…but that’s okay. The book still exists, in all of its twisted beauty. In terms of filmability, though, both adaptations have fallen at that same hurdle; once Charlotte is gone, the movie feels like it’s been robbed of its central, most dangerous, and certainly most identifiable conflict.

Nabokov didn’t want audiences to identify. (He’d probably have been quite worried if they had.) He could keep going without Charlotte, because the convenience of her death was just one more reason for Humbert to laugh at her and to expect us to join in. It was a plot point. It was thematic. And the novel, like the rest of the world, got along just fine without her.

But in a film, it’s not only too abrupt; it’s too soon. There’s mileage in that character…in her relationship with her daughter. In her lost history. In her desperate scramble to be loved. You can still tell much of the story of Lolita, but you could improve it by re-centering it, letting the action rise and fall (and ultimately conclude) within the first half of the source material. Because that, after all, is what can be filmed. That, specifically that, is the one aspect of this notoriously difficult book that translates to the screen.

And, what’s more, it translated well. In the same way that the opaque, difficult text enshrouded readers who expected forbidden titillation, the sad story of a hurting housewife could have stood between audiences and their unnatural interest in her daughter’s sex life.

Kubrick would later demonstrate that very mindset with his adaptation of The Shining; by stripping away almost all of the paranormal content that didn’t also tie to the cabin fever concept, he created a leaner, smarter, more haunting compliment to Stephen King’s original. Of course, King was never Nabokov, and you’d be hard-pressed to identify any of Stephen King’s novels that wouldn’t be improved by substantial editing, but the comparison remains. In both cases, Kubrick adapted a novel that was swollen with material that could only work as text. In only one of those cases, though, did he re-center the focus, and deliver the story in a way that was enhanced by the cinematic medium, rather than hamstrung by it.

There’s an imaginary version of Kubrick’s Lolita that qualifies as a masterpiece, and we definitely catch glimpses of it here. Shelly Winters knew exactly what it looked like. The same basic story, with an equivalent — though importantly different — subversion…one that plays to the strengths of this medium, and one that would be more fondly remembered because of it.

How do you make a movie of Lolita? It’s not really that hard…you just have to know when to stop.

Lolita, Stanley Kubrick

(1955, Vladimir Nabokov; 1963, Stanley Kubrick)

Book or film? Book.
Worth reading the book? Absolutely. It’s one of the best and most impressive in the language.
Worth watching the film? Yes, to a lesser extent, if only for Sellers and Winters.
Is it the best possible adaptation? No. Pacing issues and a too-trusting approach to the novel’s narration hold it back.
Is it of merit in its own right? Half of it certainly is.


June 27th, 2015 | Posted by Philip J Reed in Meta - (1 Comments)

Rachael Ray Wuz Here
Just a quick update. A reader asked me if there’s anything I could do about an ad he keeps getting on this site. It’s a video, he says, that autoplays and he can’t find a way to shut it off.

The answer is yes, I can do something about it. However it’s a bit more complicated than it might seem.

On this page there should be two ads. I don’t intend to add more — I think that’s plenty — but I don’t determine their content. The ads are served by Google, and are specific to your own browsing history. Obviously this doesn’t imply that you’re getting obnoxious ads because you’re searching for obnoxious things; it just means that if you search for, say, computer repair, you’ll get ads related (however tangentially) to computer repair, and some of those might be obnoxious.

The reason I bring this up is as follows: your browsing history is different from mine. So if you contact me about an ad in which a CGI dog screams profanities at you and your children, the odds are very good that I’ll have no idea what you’re talking about, and therefore I can’t help you.

When you do encounter an ad here that you dislike, I want to help. But no matter how specific your description of the ad is, what I need from you is the target URL.

The target URL, basically, is where the ad would take you if you clicked on it. With that information, I should be able to block the offending ad without a problem.

You don’t actually need to click the ad to get me that information. You should be able to hover over it and see where it points. Or you may be able to right-click the ad and copy the destination URL that way.

Either way, however you manage to get that information, contact me (my email address is on the About page) and let me know the URL of the offending ad.

Without the URL…I’m afraid there isn’t anything I can do. I apologize for that; it’s just that the nature of Google’s ad service only allows me to take action in one very specific way.

Anyway, keep an eye out, and let me know if you do encounter an ad that interferes with your experience here. Don’t feel like you’re stuck with them, or that you have to put up with whatever happens to load for you that day.

Say the word, and I’ll get it taken care of.

ALF, "Baby Love"

Well, I had an extra week to think up something interesting to say about “Baby Love,” and I’ll warn you right up front that I’ve probably failed. Bad episodes of ALF are a common occurrence, but usually they’re slapped together nonsense (“Strangers in the Night,” “We Are Family”), batshit nonsense (“A Little Bit of Soap,” “Hail to the Chief”), or solid ideas that nevertheless are reduced to nonsense (“Wild Thing,” “Hide Away”).

But, every so often, you get one that’s just…there. It’s an episode. It happens. And then it’s over.

And that’s “Baby Love.”

It opens with Willie and Kate discussing baby names. He proposes Cameron for a boy, or Melissa for a girl, because he’s a big fan of both Full House and Clarissa Explains it All.

The screen grab above says everything about the relationship between these soon-to-be parents of three. Even when she’s heavy with his oily seed, Willie sits apart from his wife, reading from a separate book, even though they’re ostensibly studying up on the same subject.

Man, the love between these two is just incredible. Can we all just pretend the new baby is Mr. Ochmonek’s kid?

Anyway, I guess “Baby Love” is at least somewhat relieving because it reminds us that Kate is still pregnant after all. Good. I was afraid ALF put a stop to that by demonstrating how Houdini died.

It’s damned odd that this is only the second episode in which her pregnancy is so much as mentioned, and the previous one was seven weeks ago. That’s a long time for pre-DVD viewers to keep something like that in mind, especially when the show’s never been much for inter-episode continuity.

Granted, a pregnancy is a pretty major thing, and maybe the show expects us to trust that it won’t just disappear, but that’s exactly why I’d expect it to have at least been mentioned in the intervening weeks. When Lucy Ricardo was pregnant, it wasn’t introduced and forgotten; it changed the kinds of stories the show told, the kinds of jokes it made, and the nature of the setpieces. While I Love Lucy could have coasted on the novelty of a television character just being pregnant — genuinely groundbreaking stuff at the time — the show treated its audience with respect, and wove it into the viewing experience.

It’s not too much then to hope that ALF could at least remember this development. While it would have been nice for the show to begin exploring new angles, centering on different characters, or just making a decent joke about it here and there, I’d settle for it to at least make clear to me that it hasn’t forgotten the fetus developing on set.

Weirdly, though, it doesn’t. It introduced a major change in (ahem) “Changes,” and then went back to business as usual…which is bizarre. Have you ever known a pregnant woman who could go seven weeks without mentioning it? I sure as shit haven’t. And if I did meet somebody like that in real life, I’d probably conclude that she was waiting for an appointment to open up at the abortion clinic.

Also, didn’t ALF move into the attic? What’s with all this change that we never hear of again? I guess he might have and we just haven’t had call to visit him there, but then why bother moving him at all? He might as well have stayed in the laundry room for all the difference it’s made, especially if we’re never going to refer to it again.

Whatever. ALF proposes Rin Tin Tanner for a boy, and Spuds for a girl, because this character, like its puppeteer, can only communicate in references to things other people created.


ALF, "Baby Love"

After the credits there’s a scene in which Willie makes coffee, and it’s just as much fun to watch as you’d expect. What a shame this show was cancelled after only four seasons. The world was truly robbed of a creative bounty.

Once that riveting sequence of electric percolation is over, we move the action (well, I say “action”) to the dinner table. Kate talks in detail about her recent ultrasound, and this is indeed more like it, and what we should have been hearing about for the past six weeks. You know what pregnant women are always thinking about? The little human being squirming around in their swollen bodies. It’s not an afterthought. It can’t be an afterthought.

Sure enough, ALF gets pissed off because he has to listen to seven weeks’ worth of bottled-up baby blather. He’s never happy when the attention is removed from him for even a second, because you might miss some of his hilarious antics, like that time last week when he fell asleep in the shed and dreamed of a guy who wasn’t Elvis.

Brian asks if they’ll be able to tell the new baby about ALF, which is pretty much the dumbest fucking thing this kid’s ever said. Does Brian have brain damage? Maybe building the nursery dislodged all the mold spores in his bedroom ceiling.

Of course you have to tell the new kid about ALF. What’s the alternative? Pretend he doesn’t exist so the baby goes insane?

Lynn makes a good point — even if she bizarrely over-enunciates it, like she’s trying to hide the fact that she sat on a thumbtack — that for the baby, ALF will just be a part of life. There won’t be anything weird or new or “alien” about him, because the baby will know him from day one; ALF will always just be a part of the world in his eyes…no more or less worthy of comment than anything else.

It’s a fascinating idea and one that could lead to both interesting consideration a fun avenue for comedy…or it would be, if any of these assholes actually reacted to ALF like he was different in any way. Instead they treat him like the show does: a guy who sits around being allegedly hilarious while they cater to his every whim.

It’s like they were all born with ALF. In fact, it would be the only possible explanation for why they just accept the fact that this sentient fungus is controlling their lives.

ALF, "Baby Love"

Some neighbors come over and gush about Kate’s pregnancy while making hideous faces.

Women, am I right?!

The Non-Ochmonek is Mrs. Litwack, which is a name we’ve heard before but I don’t think I’ve ever had a reason to mention it in any of these actual reviews. I know at some point I thought it was nice that the name recurred, but I didn’t expect to ever meet the person so…whoops.

Mrs. Litwack makes up some cockamamie story about wanting to sell her house, with the intention of getting Kate abandon her dinner to leave her family alone with Mrs. Ochmonek.

So, yeah, Kate still works at the real estate agency…something else that hasn’t been mentioned since it was introduced seven weeks ago. ALF may never treat its audience like it has any intelligence whatsoever, but it sure does bank on it having a great memory.

Once Kate leaves to take care of this clearly fake idiotic bullshit, Mrs. Ochmonek tells Willie what the deal is: they want to throw Kate a surprise baby shower on Saturday, and she mentions inviting all of Kate’s old college friends. How in fuckblazes Mrs. Ochmonek knows any of Kate’s college friends — let alone knows how to get in touch with any of them — is a question I’m sure we’ll never get an answer to, so I’ll focus instead on the possibility of seeing her hallucinating alcoholic chum from “Tequila” again.

That might be interesting, in addition to a desperately needed shred of continuity, if Betty Gumble’s sobered up for this visit but accidentally sees ALF again and realizes that the plot to the last episode she was in was really fucking dumb.

ALF, "Baby Love"

Brian asks “What’s a surprise baby shower?” with a face that would go better with the question “What the fuck do you mean the new baby gets my college fund?”

Brian’s bitchface is now officially my favorite thing about this show. Benji Gregory’s chronic boredom turned to abject rage at some point this season, and I’ll never stop being in love with that.

We’re watching ALF disintegrate around us, folks. We’re approaching the Event Horizon.

ALF, "Baby Love"

All of a sudden it’s Saturday, so I guess this episode wants to get itself over with. I sure as hell can’t blame it.

Mrs. Ochmonek and Mrs. Litwack bicker for a bit about the proper way to hang streamers, and they more or less keep it up for the rest of the episode. I guess this confirms the rumor that “Baby Love” was actually a backdoor pilot for Ochmonek and Litwack: Party Poopin’!

Unsurprisingly, the party is full of people we’ve never seen before and will never see again. So much for seeing Kate reunite with Ol’ Rummy. Or, you know…anyone else we’ve been told was a friend of hers from college.

I actually wish it was a deliberate running gag that every season Kate is reunited with her old college friends, and each time it’s a completely different group of people.

ALF, "Baby Love"

One of the ladies brought her own baby, and as soon as she arrives she asks if there’s somewhere she can lay it down. The Tanners decide to stash it in their new nursery, unsupervised, which shows what wonderful parents they are and will continue to be.

Of course the lady whose baby it is is perfectly happy to ditch it, and to not so much as check on it in a few minutes when there’s a stranger’s voice and the sound of commotion in that very room, so at least they’re all equally horrible.

In the nursery ALF is dancing around with a rattle singing vaguely Native American nonsense.

Why? Who cares. The fake audience of dead people loves it, so get off your high horse!

ALF, "Baby Love"

He hides while they drop off the baby, and after they leave he comes out to accidentally kill it.

One thing I do like about this scene — and the only thing I like about the entire fucking episode — is how happy the baby is when ALF is talking to it. It’s…really adorable. And I say that as somebody who abhors children of all ages, races, and creeds.

To watch the baby coo and reach out to the living, talking stuffed animal beside his crib is infinitely preferable to watching the stuffed animal directly. I have no idea what’s actually going through the kid’s mind, but its reactions are ridiculously cute.

Anyway, ALF starts sneezing all over it like an asshole. The baby is infected with the Melmacian grippe and does not live to see its first birthday.

ALF, "Baby Love"

After the commercial break, everyone at the surprise baby shower stares at each other, wondering who is violently sneezing and screaming in the nursery with the unattended baby. But, like gun control, it’s one of those questions that really isn’t worth doing anything about.

Lynn finally gets up to go check on the kid, proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that her body harbors the last remaining shred of humanity in the entire fucking ALF universe. Kate follows her; conspicuously absent from the investigation squad is whomever the fuck this kid’s mother is. Like any great mom, she’s aware of the fact that any issues an unattended baby may be having will eventually go away if you ignore them long enough.

Guys, this episode is horrible. It really is a whole lotta nothin’. Having an alien learn about and react to the human birthing process definitely warrants an episode of its own, but why bother if you’re just going to have him sneeze and be jealous? That isn’t “alien” at all. It’s the same thing you can do — and often do do — on any given shitty sitcom already. Why is this even happening? Why does “Baby Love” exist? Shit…why does ALF exist?

ALF, "Baby Love"

Later on ALF is hiding in Jake’s room. It’s a concept that could — with the right care and attention — fuel a decent episode of its own. It wouldn’t be anything original, or even creative, but a half-hour’s worth of Odd Couple exchanges between ALF and Jake could be funny or cute enough to be worth watching.

Of course, we’re getting this with something like three seconds left in the episode, so you can guess exactly how much care and attention went into it.

It’s also strange for another reason, as the main joke seems to be that ALF doesn’t feel comfortable in Jake’s room, because he prefers living in a messy environment. That’s standard Oscar/Felix stuff, so I’d have no problem with it, but the fact is that Jake’s room is a shithole. You can’t have an Oscar/Felix relationship between two Oscars.

I think this is the first time we’ve seen Jake’s room, which means it would have been built and designed specifically for this episode. So why (always that question…WHY) didn’t the set designers and the writers communicate in any way? ALF messing up the room is part of the gag, but it doesn’t register because it’s not in any way distinguishable from the mess that’s already there.

Could that be part of the joke?

Yes. In a sitcom that paid attention to what it was doing, of course it could.

Instead: you’re watching ALF.

So, yes, this whole situation sucks dick, but it does give us this episode’s only good line: ALF, upon insisting that he’s going to bunk with Jake now, asks, “Which side of the bed do you want?”

I guess you can see just how great the rest of the episode is when that qualifies as the high-water mark.

ALF, "Baby Love"

After the party Willie and Brian put the food away. Brian asks why sliced meats are called cold cuts, which is a perfectly innocent question that he for some reason delivers with the expression of a man dunking the Big Lebowski’s head in a toilet bowl.

Willie hems and haws as though he’s building up to a big punchline…but he’s not. He just eventually says, “I don’t know. I don’t know nothing.”

It’s just a waste of time. There’s not even an anti-joke here. He’s just asked a question he doesn’t know the answer to, which no doubt happens to real life dads every day. And, hey, fine. Real life dads don’t need to know this shit.

Is it too much to ask that a sitcom dad, though, has some kind of reply? You know…considering that he has an entire staff of writers cashing paychecks for the specific reason that he will always have some kind of reply?

If Willie just shrugs, why the fuck are we watching him? Brian might as well have asked the cat.

There is a decent moment that Brian gets here. Jake comes in and is unable to rat ALF out, because he promised he wouldn’t, so he tells Willie that something is missing. He says Willie should try to guess what it is, and Jake will tell him whether he’s hot or cold.

Willie makes a dismissive gesture and starts to walk away, because somebody is trying to interact with him and he hates that.

But Brian, as soon as he’s informed that something is missing, guesses “ALF.” It’s not that bad, and Brian shows some unexpectedly good timing with his delivery.

I’m liking this kind of joke. Kate had one (“Say hi to ALF for me…”) in “Fight Back,” and it was good there, too. It’s a better runner than season three’s other innovation: characters grabbing Lynn by the back of the head and grinding her face into a plate of mashed potatoes.

ALF, "Baby Love"

Willie wedges himself into the door of Jake’s room and shouts, “Come home with me this instant!”

The episode doesn’t acknowledge it, but what must that look and sound like to the Ochmoneks? Really now, what could possibly be creepier than catching Max Wright skulking around your house, attempting to seduce your children?

He sits and talks to ALF for a while and ALF sneezes some more. Because ALF is so allergic to babies, you see, that he can’t even hear about babies without sneezing. That’s also why we can no longer use the word “peanut” in schools.

Willie tells him that his sneezing is psychosomatic, and ALF asks if that’s the name of the food processor at the Bates Motel. I hope you enjoyed the single most labored joke in TVhistory.

Willie explains that “hhitt maahy meanyou thinnnk that this bahyyy-bee is goingto take-yhourr place!!ALF never acknowledges it, but this man’s line deliveries have me convinced that the character lives every day of his life plagues by delirium tremens.

Anyway, they have some longass conversation in which Willie tries to convince ALF that they all love him, even Kate the haggy castrating ice-bitch shrew-nag from hell. They pretty much just babble like this forever, like it’s just another conversation on another day, which shows that the characters gave no more thought to this situation than the writers. This withered old pederast is hanging out with a space alien in his teenage neighbor’s bedroom for fuck’s sake.

ALF, "Baby Love"

Mrs. Ochmonek does eventually come to the door and asks Willie what the fuck he’s doing in there secretly rooting through her nephew’s underwear drawer.

Willie says he’s looking for his cat. She buys that and leaves him alone, just as you would in this situation I’m sure.

Then she closes the door and leaves, and he says, “Have a nice day!!” as though she’s been a raging bitch to him or something. Asshole, you’re lucky she didn’t call the cops. Why do you have to be such a dick to them all the time?

ALF says to Willie that they should go home and burp the baby. Willie tells him the baby’s not born yet, so ALF says, “Then let’s just go home and burp!”

What an ending.

What does that even mean? Why is the thought of ALF burping inherently funny? Why is it so funny that it gets to be the punchline of the entire episode?

I don’t even fucking know what I watched. I guess ALF’s imaginary burp is as fitting an ending as anything else could have been. Willie could turn into a lobster before my eyes and it wouldn’t make any less sense.

In the short scene before the credits…

ALF, "Baby Love"

Oh, fuck you.

ALF lives in the attic now, you fucking dumbass piece of shit show.

Just fucking fuck you Christ my God, you cunting ass bullshit piece of garbage show.

MELMAC FACTS: On Melmac they used baby powder instead of non-dairy creamer on their tacos. YOU CUNTING ASS BULLSHIT PIECE OF GARBAGE SHOW

ALF, "Weird Science"

A guest submission today from Justin B. Justin commented a few weeks back about having some insight from Bernie Brillstein, and I’ve asked him to expand his thoughts into a full post. I hope you enjoy. This also buys me another week to figure out how to make “Baby Love” interesting, so I’m not complaining…


ALF has always fascinated me, though the reasons for that fascination have varied quite a bit. As a child, I was naturally amused by ALF’s catchphrases and tendency to eat the family pets. Later, upon reevaluating the show in college and as an adult, what I found interesting was just how truly terrible the show was and always wondered why it was so bad.

There are so many shows from that era which hold up and continue to be just as funny today. There’s a reason why The Golden Girls, Fresh Prince and Seinfeld are consistently some of the most valuable syndication properties – the humor holds up. ALF on the other hand is truly a lazy show. Other than the fact he ate cats and was from outer space, I think most viewers would be hard pressed to think of anything else memorable about it.

Certainly nothing about the supporting characters (truly a set of people nobody cared about developing), the plots (unoriginal recycled material from previous sitcoms), or the production quality (it was made for like seventeen dollars; insert obvious joke about Max Wright getting paid in crack and hobos). Just about the only impressive thing was the puppetry involved in bringing the main character to life. Max Wright claimed in an interview years later that he once saw ALF blush. It really was a very emotive little puppet.

Later, once I moved to LA and got involved in the industry, I was lucky enough to spend a bit of time with Bernie Brillstein, who packaged the show and helped sell it to NBC. He was credited as an Executive Producer on the series. Prior to ALF, his career was legendary managing many luminaries and developing classic shows like Saturday Night Live, The Muppet Show and NewsRadio. In film, he did Ghostbusters, The Blues Brothers and many more. One of the things I had to ask him about was ALF, which was brought to him by Paul Fusco in 1984.

When Fusco pitched the idea, ALF (the character) was basically a Don Rickles puppet. The fact he was an alien was secondary. Fusco’s humor was “as mean and nasty as humanly possible.” Brillstein found the idea hysterical and very different from what Henson was doing with the Muppets, which he’d also helped sell. Since Paul Fusco had zero writing or showrunning experience, Tom Patchett was brought in to serve as Executive Producer, as he’d executive produced The Bob Newhart Show, along with Brillstein’s Buffalo Bill, as a way to lend some experience to the project.

They went to NBC in Burbank to pitch the series and upon explaining their idea were met with a lot of blank stares. Bernie Brillstein kicked Fusco under the table, who pulled out ALF from a garbage bag. The puppet proceeded to sneeze and wipe it off on Brandon Tartikoff’s suit jacket, then verbally attack everybody in the room. Show sold.

In trying to understand what the show became, the crucial aspect of the above pitch was that ALF was basically an insult comedian. Never was it about the family and how they relate to an alien house guest, but rather in Fusco’s mind the Tanners were simply a vehicle for ALF to offend, insult and injure.

Watching the show today it is impossible not to take note of Max Wright’s performance. It is beyond over the top. He’s one of the stagiest actors I’ve ever seen, especially as Willie. To be fair, he’s playing a straight man and delivering the world’s most boring dialogue to a puppet. It’s not an easy task and there’s only so much you can do.

Having said that, the early reviews of the series praise Wright’s performance. After all, it was the quality of his work landed him the role, without even having to audition. He had been in Buffalo Bill, where Tom Patchett had worked with him, in addition to an award-winning performance as Nazi doctor Josef Mengle and in Fosse’s classic All That Jazz. He’s even Tony Award-nominated for his role in Ivanov. The biggest problem for me is the lack of any substance to these characters. We know nothing about them and they serve no purpose in the show except to get ALF to his next punchline. It’s even worse with Lynn and Brian.

Naturally I asked Bernie Brillstein about all of this and he admitted that ALF is quite literally the worst casting he’s ever overseen. It simply did not work. There was no chemistry between the leads, the kids were not particularly good and by season four everybody hated each other with a burning passion.

Adding to this was the fact that an objectively funny script would come out on a Monday and by Friday, Fusco would have the writers take any funny lines the family had and move them to ALF, leaving everybody else with dreadful expository dialogue. It pissed everybody off, from the series regulars to the guest actors. Character actor Dean Cameron, who starred on three episodes later in the show’s run, echoed this in an interview he recently gave: “The scripts were really funny on Monday. By the time tape day comes around, ALF has all the good lines and the rest of the script is horrible. It was bumming me out after a couple of weeks. Imagine what it was like working on the thing for [four] years. Imagine.” Adding to this was the fact it took 20-25 hours to shoot a single episode.

There’s a legendary story which I’ve heard from two different people and was even discussed briefly on Howard Stern: By the end of season four, tensions were so high that Max Wright had a serious meltdown on the set. Who knows if it was chemically induced or not, but he began physically attacking the ALF puppet and screaming “PUT US ON STICKS! WE’RE ALL PUPPETS HERE!” Truly, truly a great moment.

The whole thing got so heated that it was agreed between the producers that should the series get a fifth season order the Tanners would be completely written out of the show. ALF would be taken to the “Alien Task Force” headquarters and the show was to become a McHale’s Navy– or Hogan’s Heroes-type comedy, set on a military base.

I’ll leave you with this gem of a Benji Gregory interview. It’s not my normal practice to mock twelve-year-old kids, but Gregory can hardly string a sentence together. Why in the world he was cast on a major NBC show is beyond me. I’ve always wondered if he was secretly a good little child actor and they just didn’t know what to do with him. That, thankfully, appears not to be the case. He had zero charm, except perhaps he could scratch his armpit on cue.

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