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These are the days of miracle and wonder.

Some of you may remember my original site, which was located at phil-reed.com. I’m not hyperlinking that because 1) it hasn’t been there for years and 2) it seems to intermittently become a porn site.

It was…different. Like Noiseless Chatter in some ways, probably, but I was also blogging much more regularly about myself. I’d post writing and some other projects, but it was mainly a livejournal writ large. In short if you weren’t around for it, you didn’t miss much.

There was one feature, though, that came together right at the end of that site’s life, way back in 2007: a podcast.

(That’s a period-appropriate photo of in the header, by the way. Man, I look great when you can’t see me at all.)

Only two episodes were produced, and I lost the files at some point since then. In my mind, they were great. I’d think back on them and genuinely wish I’d kept doing them.

The concept, originally, was to have talented folks “perform” excerpts from novels. This proved pretty difficult for various reasons I would honestly only bore you to list here.

Ultimately, though, I came up with what I feel was a much better evolution of the idea: everyone would perform monologues written by me.

That would help in terms of having a consistent voice and artistic direction, as well as helping me tailor themes to each installment. I also wanted a hand-picked spacey soundtrack, with each monologue performed over either long instrumental passages or unsettling, jolting loops. I wanted comedy as dark as I could write it, which, looking back, was a bit cheap…or would have been, if the material hadn’t been elevated by the absolutely stellar roster of performers I brought together.

I remember wanting a very, very specific atmosphere for these…I wanted to create this little sonic universe for people to inhabit for half an hour at a time. In my mind, in the past, so long ago…I did that.

At least, I assumed I did. The files were gone, and my memory was all I had.

Friend of the website (and the webmaster) Austin Ross happened to have both podcasts after all this time, and he sent them to me today. I’ve uploaded them for your listening enjoyment. (Or…not.)

And, honestly? These have held up pretty damned well. If anything, they’re better and more cohesive than I remember them being. Of course, you might hate them. By all means, hate the hell out of them.

I remember the very last email I got while that site was still in operation; a school girl was asking for permission to perform the “Photographer” monologue I’d written. I don’t remember the context. I don’t know if it was part of larger show or simply as an audition piece. I definitely gave her my blessing. I wish I could have seen it. Being asked that question was easily one of the most flattering moments of my creative life.

These have me thinking about starting it up again properly. I have no idea how frequently I’d produce them, but is there any interest in a podcast that makes you want to kill yourself? LET ME KNOW.

(Seriously, though…let me know what you think.)

And does anyone want these in mp3 format? I can upload those, too. I have no idea what podcasts are.

Podcast #1: LOVE

Contents…

  • “Julia” – Medeski, Martin, Scofield and Wood / Fund Raising – James Lawless
  • “Assassination of the Sun” – The Flaming Lips
  • “Amnesia” – David Byrne / Overpopulation – Andrew Edmark
  • “Something for Rockets” – The Benevento Russo Duo / To Kiss a Girl Like That – James Bleeker
  • “Wot’s…Uh the Deal?” – Pink Floyd / Entrapment – Philip J Reed

All monologues written by Philip J Reed with improvisation by their respective performers.

Podcast #2: DEATH

Contents…

  • “I Know It’s True But I’m Sorry to Say” – Violent Femmes / John Lennon – Austin Ross
  • “Albert” – Phish / Never Told My Mother I Loved Her – Philip J Reed
  • “It’s a Bit of a Pain” – Faust
  • “Song For Guy” – Elton John / Choking – Jonathan Capps
  • “Golden Hours” – Brian Eno / Photographer – April Cowgill

All monologues written by Philip J Reed with improvisation by their respective performers.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

I have no idea what this episode’s supposed to be about, but judging from the title I’m going to guess that Willie finally finds the sweet release of death, only for ALF to build a stairway to heaven and drag him back down to this miserable, tortured existence.

It opens with an angle on the back yard that I don’t think we’ve ever seen before, and, as you can guess by now, I like it when the show does things like this. The reason is that it’s so easy to simply sit behind a camera and film a scene straight on, especially in a sitcom where there’s going to be more static dialogue than dynamic action. For a shot like this — unnecessary, unique, attention-grabbing — to exist, it’s because somebody, somewhere, decided that instead of just needing to shoot a scene, the scene needed to be shot like this.

That’s the kind of attention and care that I appreciate whenever I notice it…but, to be frank, I tend to notice it more in shitty sitcoms than I do in shows that are regularly inventive. Take Breaking Bad, for example. I could rattle off 20 times the camera work impressed me, but I’m sure another 80 of them slid right past me because the show was so well treated visually that great stuff slipped by without always drawing attention to itself. When a show establishes itself as being visually interesting, “it’s still visually interesting” won’t grab attention. By contrast, every fucking time the camera so much as moves in ALF I fall out of my chair because it’s so unexpected.

And consider what this angle does for the show: it expands its setting. Really, it does. It still looks like a set, but it looks like a set that was built to be this yard of this family in this city. I’ve never been to L.A., but the sunlight, the vegetation, the tiny yard that results from high land demand in a quiet part of the city…it convinces me. Whether or not the Tanners live in the same L.A. as anyone does in the real world is irrelevant, as long as we believe they live in some identifiable version of L.A.

It’s not just a fence and some AstroTurf; it’s the result of somebody thinking about what this particular family’s yard would look like. And I love that.

Everything we see here speaks a little more about the family — who they are — than almost any line of dialogue we’ve heard in the show yet. The limited space for a garden (forget the fact that ALF once ran a plantation back here…seriously, forget it). The collection of pots from plants long dead or relocated. The glasses of iced tea on a tiny table, with ancient little benches that don’t match. The fact that nobody put away the lawnmower…and the ancillary fact that Willie didn’t kick in the extra $30 for one that ran on fuel.

I could write a story about this screengrab that would be if not better than at least more interesting than any given episode of ALF. I’m not bragging; I’m merely trying to draw attention to how much can be achieved with a single frame of an episode when somebody — anybody — puts effort into it.

The opening scene itself is nothing great, but it’s promising enough, and there’s a little moment that makes me fall in love with Andrea Elson.

See, Willie announces (in a convincingly dad-like way) that he and Kate are going to compete against the reigning Tanner croquet champions, Brian and Lynn. The stage directions, I’m sure, instructed the two kids to do exactly what they do: one of those high fives that then continues with a second low five behind the back.

The stage directions, I’m also sure, didn’t outline what happens next. Brian doesn’t quite manage that behind the back bit, and it throws off the routine. Andrea Elson smiles, puts her arm around him, and pulls him close in a reassuring gesture. You know…like a sister who cares about her little brother.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

Benji Gregory looked foolish on the sound stage, and Brian Tanner looked foolish in the backyard. Andrea Elson and Lynn Tanner both cared enough about the little guy’s feelings, though, that this tiny improv is just lovely.

You know, the more I watch, the more I’m starting to believe that the sweet relationship Lynn forged with ALF over the past season was less due to the writing and more due to Elson herself. Moments like this make me feel as though she wants this show to work, and that kind of warm optimism carries over into her performance as Lynn.

I don’t know; it’s hard to say for sure. Either way, I’m glad to have her there. Anne Schedeen might have the talent in this sitcom family, but Andrea Elson has the heart.

Anyway, because we’re watching ALF this nice little scene ends with our titular dickbag intentionally shattering Willie’s shin with a croquet mallet.

Fuck you, that’s why.

The family helps Willie into the house while ALF reflects on the fact that today he broke Willie’s windshield, then Willie’s power saw, and now he broke Willie. It’s the kind of thing that probably looks funnier written down than it played in the episode, maybe because there was no real reason for ALF to knowingly assault this man with a blunt instrument in the first place.

ALF then wonders what life would be like if he’d never come to Earth and accidentally conks himself on the head with the croquet mallet, so I guess I know exactly what kind of episode this is going to be. Lucky us. If it’s one thing we know ALF does so well by this point, it’s fucking fantasy sequences.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

The show proper opens interestingly enough, with ALF rubbing his head and entering the dining area. The Tanners are eating without him, and for a while it seems as though they’re just ignoring him to teach him a lesson. (A concept South Park had brilliant fun with in “The Death of Eric Cartman;” one of my personal favorites.) The family’s stilted, just-too-proper conversation seems to support this, so I was genuinely surprised when…

Well, wait. I don’t want to get to that just yet, because ALF actually has some pretty good lines(!) while he’s trying to get them to pay attention to him. He first tries to get their sympathy because he took a blow that could have knocked out Mike Tyson. “Alright,” he admits. “Cicely Tyson.” Then, as he grows more frustrated, he declares, “Well, excuse me for bleeding.”

I have to admit, ALF not being the center of attention is actually jarring, and in a very good way. This is not something we’re used to seeing, and it’s actually pretty funny to see him floundering like this. For better or worse, whenever he speaks, everyone in the scene usually snaps to attention. The spotlight — always — is on this guy, which both hampers development of any other characters and causes him to become grating and repetitious. To subvert that is to shake up the closest thing this show has to an identifiable formula, and I really like it.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

…but it’s not that. The episode is going in another direction, and we’ll get dragged along screaming behind it.

Of course, the fact that the plot doesn’t go that one way isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are thousands of ways this premise could play out, and I’d say all of them could at least potentially be worth exploring. But when we cut to Bob the Guardian Angel informing ALF that his wish has been granted, we know we’re firmly in fantasy land, and that feels like a cop out.

Bob is played by Joseph Maher, whom I was sure I’d seen in more things than I could possibly count. His IMDB page supports that suspicion, with roles in a massive number of shows, from MASH to Chicago Hope. They were always small parts, as far as I can tell, but he had a long career full of interesting detours. Most fascinating to me is something called Passages from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which seems to be a very loose attempt to adapt the unadaptable. (“Unadaptable” is often used as an exaggeration, but being as Finnegans Wake is arguably unreadable I think it’s perfectly fair to use the word here.)

He shows up and explains that due to the Capra Amendment, everyone who wishes for a new life gets one. It’s name-dropping the director of It’s a Wonderful Life. Spinning a plotline out of that film was a bit of a tired premise even back when this episode aired, so “Stairway to Heaven” is not about to score any points for originality.

That’s especially true when you consider that ALF already dipped into that well last season, when Our Alien Savior talked a suicidal man named George out of jumping off a bridge on Christmas Eve.

This means that ALF himself is in a very unique position, as I’m not sure any other character in TV history has experienced this story from the perspective of both the guardian angel and the guy visited by the guardian angel. I guess ALF’s writers were uniquely disinterested in what they were doing.

Also, since there’s no Christmas episode this season, why wasn’t “Stairway to Heaven” just retooled to be one? It’s already leaning heavily on a common holiday trope. How odd that it’s attached to a croquet plot instead of a yuletide one.

Whatever. ALF doesn’t believe a word of this guardian angle shit, and tries to convince the Tanners to talk to him, but Bob says it’s useless, and advises him to look in the mirror.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

Seeing neither himself nor Bob reflected, ALF says, “Strange! I thought I broke that mirror.”

The fake audience of dead people doesn’t laugh, and I have no idea why. It’s a really good line. Genuinely funny and, I have to admit, clever. But because the laugh track doesn’t kick in, maybe we’re supposed to be worried that ALF’s been erased from existence or something. I have no idea.

This show so rarely has a solid punchline like this that I’m baffled as to why they didn’t give it a laugh. Maybe laughs are only for truly clever things, like ALF beating Willie half to death with a croquet mallet in the yard.

ALF tells Bob that the poor Tanners must be miserable without him, and we cut to Willie gushing about how perfect their lives are, which is timed perfectly and manages to be funnier than it strictly should be. The family then proceeds to revel in how much extra money they have and how happy they are, culminating with Kate swooning over “this big house with no aliens living in it.”

It’s such an absurdly specific line that I couldn’t help but laugh, and though it goes on too long I also like ALF laying into Bob for that one, arguing “You made them say that!”

Ultimately Bob tells ALF to stop fucking around; he’s going to take him…somewhere else.

And that’s very intriguing to me. After all, if you’re going to show ALF (and the audience) what the world is like without its favorite intergalactic sex pest, I’d think you’d be pretty much limited to the fucking living room. So when Bob says they’re taking a trip, my ears perk up.

What’s Bob going to show us? How different Willie’s workplace is? We didn’t know anything about it to begin with, so that’s out.

How differently Brian and Lynn act at school? Again, what are they like at school? We have no idea. We’ve never even met their friends, so there aren’t any conclusions we can draw.

How much different Kate’s daily routine becomes? We didn’t know what it was when ALF was around, so how would we pick up on anything different when he’s not? Maybe she sucks up fewer shitballs with the Dustbuster. Aside from that? Who knows.

A reality-manipulating premise like this can be a lot of fun, but only if there’s a reality to manipulate. That, of course, is where ALF falls down. Instead of getting excited about all the silly things we are about to see, we instead concentrate on how little room for fun there is to be had.

Indeed, “Stairway to Heaven” validates those concerns. It’s the clearest example yet that ALF limited its own potential by not giving a shit about anything but ALF.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

Before they can leave, the doorbell rings. It’s Brian’s friends. (“Brian has friends?!” exclaim both ALF and I in unison.) Bob explains that he couldn’t have friends when ALF was here, because they’d never be allowed to come over. It’s a more palatable but less honest way of saying “The writers never gave two shits about this kid, and it was easier to pretend he didn’t exist than to give him any peers.”

The non-existent anonymous neighborhood kids disappear into the back yard to see Brian’s new pool slide. ALF comments that the yard isn’t big enough for a pool, and Bob says that the Tanners bought the Ochmoneks’ house and demolished it.

Which means…

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

Oh, good. It’s nice to see that Willie and Co. still treat the Ochmoneks like the scum of the Earth, even in this Perfect World fantasy.

Yep, the Ochmoneks live in the servants’ quarters and dote on these assholes all day. I guess it’s only fair, since the Tanners were kind enough to destroy their house for the sake of installing a swimming pool.

I’ll never understand the way this show treats the Ochmoneks. They’re nosy and a bit uncouth, but they’ve never been anything but nice to the Tanners, many times overly so. Again, if the joke was that Willie was such a prick that he couldn’t overcome his totally unfounded hatred (see, as ever, Homer and Flanders), that would be fine, because it would demonstrate some amount of self-awareness on the part of the writing staff.

Instead, there is none. We are supposed to hate them…and I honestly have no idea why. What a terrible fucking show.

Speaking of which…

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

Angel Bob takes ALF to see what his life is like without the Tanners. Because the world doesn’t and never did exist outside of the living room set, we’re taken to a cosmetics factory, because fuuuuuuuuuuuuck youuuuuuuuuuuu.

There’s a sign in the establishing shot that I can’t quite read. I was hoping against hope that it said Terry Faith Cosmetics, just to provide some amount of continuity with that otherwise completely disposable episode, but nope. Angel Bob informs us that it’s Cosmique Cosmetics.

These two run out the clock by talking back and forth in non-humorous circles about the boss of Cosmique Cosmetics, drawing it out long and painfully enough that you know what the big reveal is going to be far before Angel Bob takes them into the boss’s office…

…at which point the boss has his back turned to the camera and they still shit out vague, repetitive nuggets of nothing about who the boss might be.

Eventually an end is put to this daring experiment in anti-suspense, and we see who it is!

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

Oh mercy me! I never would have guessed it would turn out to be ALF, even though the entire reason Angel Bob brought ALF here was to show him what he was doing with his life without the Tanners.

So we get another unintentional nod to “Keepin’ the Faith” (or, rather, another unintentional reminder that the writers have no recollection of anything they’ve already done) when we have ALF selling makeup over the phone.

Yep. If you thought an idea like that was a waste of an episode in a show about a space alien, then you’re bound to throw up your hands in defeat when you see that it was actually a waste of two episodes!

This, honestly, could have been okay. It could have worked. Let’s say, for instance, that this was Terry Faith Cosmetics. In reality, back in that bukake happy episode, ALF was some lowly salesman working for the company. Here, maybe Angel Bob is showing him that he owns the company. That could be pretty cool…seeing old events from the show through a new filter, and illustrating how different ALF’s lot in life is by a simple flash of contrast.

Not that ALF’s makeup salesman days need to be revisited for any reason, but I think the idea could be sound. Explore old plot details with the twist that ALF is now the man on top. Instead of writing for that shitty soap opera, maybe he’s acting in it. Instead of burning the hotel down, he’s the manager kicking the Tanners out for fucking with the toaster. Again, the lack of anything interesting in this show’s history means none of those specific ideas sound very appealing, but it could at least be an interesting concept.

Certainly more interesting than blindly robbing “Keepin’ the Faith” and “ALF’s Special Christmas” in one fell swoop with nobody involved even realizing it.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

We get some long, pointless explanation of how rich ALF is, and then he calls in two of his assistants who sit on his desk and cross their legs. The audience laughs uproariously at the absurd thought that ALF would be sexually harassing adults for once.

Then Angel Bob goes into an even longer explanation of how ALF got the job. I’ll skip over most of the names-of-celebrities-substituting-for-jokes and just say that instead of crashing into the Tanners’ garage, he crashed into the makeup department at Bloomingdales. His radiator fluid leaked into some bottles (we’ve all been there, right??) and it turned out to be the most popular fragrance in the history of whatever who cares.

ALF wonders how he’s able to operate in public without the Alien Task Force jamming needles up his urethra. Angel Bob explains that ALF paid off the national debt with his fortunes, so the president called them off. How ALF managed to amass those fortunes without the Alien Task Force jamming needles up his urethra remains unaddressed.

I do have one thing nice to say about this scene: ParallALF is referred to by his assistants as “Mr. Shumway.” This might seem odd if you remember the fact that he doesn’t like his name, and prefers to be called ALF. However, since Willie is the one who gave him that name in the first place, and he’s never met Willie in this reality, he’s stuck with being Gordon Shumway.

I don’t know if this was intentional, and I slightly doubt it. But that doesn’t matter; accidentally or not, it’s a nice — unaddressed — nod to the show’s continuity.

Regardless, I kind of love the fact that the Tanners, as little as Paul Fusco is interested in acknowledging them whenever ALF pops up somewhere else, are inextricably woven into the character. He wouldn’t even have his name if not for them, and I find that hilarious. Neither party can truly be free of the other.

Anyway, ALF pops a boner and says, “Yeah, this is better than humping Willie’s leg while he sleeps, I’ll take this life plz.”

It’s easy to see how limited ALF is. Take better shows, and frame a plot around the “what if?” that comes from two main characters having never met. What if Felix Unger never met Oscar Madison? What if Radar never met Henry Blake? What if Homer never met Marge? What if Gilligan never met the Skipper? What if Billy Quizboy never met Pete White? So many ideas come from those simple what-ifs, and, indeed, many shows have toyed with it.

Here, the “what if” is ALF having never met the Tanners. And because none of the characters involved in that scenario have anything like personalities, hopes, dreams, defining traits, fears, secrets, ambitions, worries, or anything else that actual people have, the answer is “I dunno, maybe ALF has a lot of money.”

It’s not a failure of imagination in itself…it’s a reflection of the failure of imagination in all 51 of the preceding episodes.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

Angel Bob snaps his fingers and they go to Heaven or some shit. I guess they need to stop there so that Bob can fill out the necessary paperwork for ALF’s new life, which I’m willing to allow as a logistical necessity, but why did anyone think that a good idea for a scene in a fantasy episode — in which the characters can go literally anywhere and do literally anything — would be watching an elderly man slowly peck things out on a typewriter?

ALF is on hand to keep the audience rolling in the aisles, which he does by name-dropping more celebrities for no reason — hello, Sheena Easton and Kelly LeBrock! — and incessantly quoting songs (he’s seen clouds from “both sides now,” tee hee, and he later yells at Michael Landon to “get offa my cloud!” in an unwelcome combination of both kinds of non-jokes).

Then he’s informed that he won’t remember the Tanners in his new life, and he gets all weepy eyed because he’ll miss them. Which is a pretty odd development in an episode that opened with him clubbing the family patriarch senseless.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

Bob agrees to take ALF down to see the Tanners one last time.

Things sure are different! Willie smokes a much more legal kind of pipe, Kate plays chess, Brian plays golf, and Lynn plays the bassoon. A real one…not “the purple bassoon” she got a reputation for playing in high school.

There’s a lot of hammy nonsense with their too-formal speech and shit like that, and Willie tells a joke to Kate that I think only exists because they could count on Max Wright’s strained delivery to pad the episode out by another six minutes, and then ALF concludes that the Tanners are boring without him.

Anyway Mrs. Ochmonek burps.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

Fortunately ALF awakens from this nightmare in which everyone is happy and he’s not the center of attention. Whew! I was getting worried that somebody might learn something.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

If you look at that screengrab and don’t immediately conclude that it turns into an extended Wizard of Oz pastiche you’re a fucking idiot.

ALF recites a bunch of lines from that film instead of any of the horse shit his own writers might come up with while Willie does to most awkward half-squat in television history.

Then, because the episode isn’t quite over, ALF recites a bunch of euphemisms for being dead, such as buying the box condo, and taking a dirt nap. When he’s done he smashes a glass of water on the floor as a big fuck you to the family.

Thanks for watching!!

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

The short scene before the credits actually has a pretty clever idea: ALF calls Bloomingdales and tries to sell them on the idea of his radiator fluid perfume. It’s a perfectly okay way to end an otherwise kind of craptastic episode. After all, he already saw how rich he can get off of this stuff, so even though it’s a dumbass idea it’s not — in his mind — without precedent. I like it.

It’s funny enough, and would have been a great way to end the episode, except that — totally out of character for this show — it gets funnier.

We hear Kate scream as she’s getting ready for date night with Willie, and then she steps back out into the living room.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

I’m sure the writers thought that the sight gag of blue ink everywhere was the big reason this ending worked, but you and I, dear reader, know a lot better. We know it works because Anne Schedeen burns fucking holes through that puppet.

ALF might have been a big pile of shit, but in terms of pure hatred from a sitcom mother, it’s got a clear monopoly.

So, yeah. For such an “out there” episode, it sure didn’t stray very far from its weekly norm. I think it says a lot that the show opened it up for the kind of plotline that would allow the writers to do anything…and they decided to put ALF in a suit and call it a day.

Sometimes I wonder if ALF is some brilliant experiment in self-parodic anti-comedy. I wonder it while I’m eating lunch.

Alone.

MELMAC FACTS: On Melmac croquet was called Mucksucking, and it was the most popular sport. It was played similarly to the way we play it on Earth, but it required four newlywed couples and Bob Eubanks. (That’s a Newlywed Game reference, I know, but commuting to Melmac must have been hell on that guy.)

"All This and Gargantua-2," The Venture Bros.

At the end of last season we had “The Devil’s Grip,” an oddly quiet episode that felt strangely out of place when stacked up against the previous season finales of The Venture Bros.. This show typically likes to go out with a bang…whether that’s in the form of a wedding, the accidental deaths of its title characters, or all out war. “The Devil’s Grip,” by seeming contrast, went out with a firm handshake and some well wishes.

It was, to be honest, odd. Perhaps even disappointing, as its place at the very end of the season made it feel like a weaker entry than it really was. Then again, after season four’s finale — the incredible “Operation P.R.O.M.” — there wasn’t really anything The Venture Bros. could do to top itself.

Not until now, anyway, with “All This and Gargantua-2.”

See, “The Devil’s Grip” was never intended as a season finale. It fell that way due to budget and time running out sooner than anticipated. No story concepts, as far as I saw, were leaked, but creators Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer both made it clear that they had a more traditional finale in mind…and just didn’t get to make it.

“All This and Gargantua-2″ aired last night as a one-off special, but its original role as the “proper” ending of season five is clear, especially since its outcome rests on the ray shield Dr. Venture was building in the season five premiere.

The greatest thing about The Venture Bros. is how effectively it manages to evolve its themes rather than abandon or resolve them. It’s an ongoing narrative sleight of hand that at times can feel tiresome — particularly in terms of undone deaths and shifting organizational allegiances — but what it manages to do is make every episode feel like some kind of impressive thematic bookend. Every time the credits roll we don’t just reflect back on the chapter we’ve just seen, but on all of the chapters that came before. What all of the characters have said and done to get us here, exactly here, at this moment.

And so while (honorary) Dr. Venture works to fix the ray shield, we aren’t just being reminded of the season premiere. His desperate need for validation from his son stretches back far further than that. It’s never been so clearly articulated (both verbally and non-verbally) before, but it feels like the natural evolution of everything these two characters have been through together. The ray shield ties the event into a larger narrative, but Dr. Venture’s fear that he could very likely die right here and right now without Dean’s respect ties it into a larger theme…one that the show — entering its sixth season — is still managing to explore in fascinating, affecting, tragic ways.

It’s also a laugh riot. “All This and Gargantua-2″ is a celebration of everything The Venture Bros. has been, and can be, and that’s reflected in both the amount of characters who (shockingly well) manage to share screen time, but also in the writing, which pivots from sharp to heartbreaking to hilarious in ways that even The Simpsons didn’t manage in its prime.

I’ll probably need to explain that one, but I’m happy to do so. Though The Simpsons obviously managed sharp / hilarious without breaking a sweat, the show veering into heartbreaking territory always felt like a gear shift. At its best it was a smooth one, but its moments of sadness stand out in part because they were exceptions to the weekly norm. The Venture Bros., by contrast, has a deep and necessary through-line of tragedy. In fact, there may not be a scene in the show’s entire run that can’t be stripped down to a dark and hopeless core.

But I don’t mean to elevate The Venture Bros. over The Simpsons and declare it superior. What I do mean to do is spotlight just how unique a show like this is, and just how privileged we should feel for being able to watch it unfold before us.

The plot is absolutely conducive to a double-sized episode; Jonas Venture Jr. has finished Gargantua-2, the space station he’s been building for the past couple of seasons, and is now opening it to the public as a kind of gambling resort. The comedy writes itself — a cute “only spies play baccarat” gag is the kind of perfect moment only The Venture Bros. could make work so well and then abandon so neatly — and the stakes (ahem) are clearly high having so many important characters in what we know is going to become hostile territory, but the episode doesn’t rest on comedy or tension, whereas nearly any other show would have.

Instead it weaves the comedy and tension into a long-form, multi-directional character piece, and it does so gorgeously.

Some of it is the kind of thing we’ve seen before, like Brock taunting his victims and Hank playing hero, but much of it reveals new and interesting angles for these characters. Billy and his mother in particular look set to become a very welcome comic pairing, and Jonas Jr. and General Treister bonding over a certain serious affliction develops into the unexpected emotional highlight of the episode. There’s a great unexplored history between Col. Gentleman and robot-kind that resolves itself when you might not even be paying attention, and some genuinely worrying thinning of the Council of 13.

It’s the kind of thing few shows have the chops to pull off, as “All This and Gargantua-2″ sets up an epic space battle, but bets its chips on character development and interaction. And it’s exactly the type of episode that makes the sometimes frustrating back-and-forth of the show’s overall narrative feel not only acceptable, but necessary. Whatever it took to get these characters into this situation, with that resolution, it was worth it.

There’s also a welcome bit of meta-awareness that becomes actual, in-universe complication: Phantom Limb, at one point in the story, isn’t sure if he’s been double crossed or triple crossed. The audience is often left wondering which side is which side, whether it’s the OSI, SPHINX, the Guild, or, now, the Guild Resistance. When backstabbing characters themselves begin to lose track of whose back is being stabbed by whom, that’s an interesting development indeed, and a reminder that Publick and Hammer are both fully aware of the kinds of tricks they’ve been pulling…which is a necessary condition for resolving it in some way that justifies all the confusion.

With “All This and Gargantua-2,” The Venture Bros. remains one of American television’s most pleasant surprises. And as we move on to season six — whenever we move on to season six — we can rest assured that there is still plenty of ground to cover with these characters.

Oh, and if you watched the episode, be sure that you’ve also watched the online-exclusive epilogue here. Some big things may have happened aboard Gargantua-2, but there was a lot unfolding on Earth as well.

As above, so below. Go, Team Venture.

ALF, "Stop in the Name of Love"

Well, I’ll say this up front: for all the concern I had about season three sucking Melmackian anus, it sure opens well. (Much like Melmackian anus.)

No, seriously.

For those of you who don’t know or are tuning in late, folks ’round these parts have let me know that a pretty substantial drop-off in quality comes after season two. Being as I didn’t even like season two, that worried me. And while I’m by no means about to write off any worry about ALF‘s final 50 installments, it sure is nice to open this worrisome season with a mild chuckle, and not, say, a lump of cold poison.

It begins with Willie and ALF at the table, serving themselves dinner. Kate is bringing out dishes and Lynn returns home shortly, so I’m pretty sure we can conclude from this that the Tanners have finally sold Brian to the gypsies.

ALF is annoying Willie, which is nothing new, but what’s nice about it is the way in which ALF is being annoying: he’s rhyming everything Willie says.

This approach is a welcome one. Not only is it one we haven’t seen before on ALF, but it’s one we haven’t seen before anywhere. At least not that I can remember. Usually when characters are childishly annoying each other in some verbal way it’s because they repeat everything the other person says verbatim, endlessly reply, “I know you are, but what am I?” or some kind of garbage like that that ends up annoying the audience more than it does any of the characters.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, in one instance Willie says, “I asked you twice to stop doing that,” and ALF replies (in carefully moderated meter), “What? We’re just having a pre-dinner chat.”

None of it is gut-busting by any means, but ALF taking the time to compose his replies in rhyme means that the writing staff took the time to do the same thing. That, as we all know, is pretty uncommon.

It also means that the comic spotlight is shared. (Also, yeah, pretty damned uncommon.) Instead of Willie standing quietly in the corner with his hands in his pockets while ALF recites ostensibly humorous Melmac Facts or brags about fingering Willie’s unconscious wife, Willie gets to play a part in the escalating joke. It’s an unwitting part, but that just makes it funnier.

On top of that, it makes it feel more natural. For such an obviously constructed conceit — who, really, is skilled enough to rhyme everything they hear with a coherent response? — it plays out very believably. This is where the show’s age actually helps it; ALF’s been on Earth long enough, and therefore been trapped in the house long enough, that he’s bored, and needs to find creative diversions to keep himself from going mad.

I like when ALF is childlike, and this sort of behavior fits that to a T. There’s also an unexpectedly good moment of Max Wright acting when he complains to Kate: “He’s rhyming the last word of everything I say. Go ahead, ALF. He’s been doing it all day.” The look on his face after he realizes that he’s done it to himself is actually quite funny. We’re starting off, at least, in strong territory.

Lynn comes in through the front door with — it must be said — some very fetching curly hair. Not that it matters, but it’s a good look for her, so, yeah, add me on Facebook Andrea Elson.

Kate senses that Lynn and her boyfriend had a fight, so she goes to check on her daughter. I hope she also checks on which boyfriend this is. I can’t keep them straight.

ALF, "Stop in the Name of Love"

Hey, the new intro! This one I remember, though I guess not as well as I remembered the previous one, as I was shocked to see how many clips from previous episodes are in it. They’re all brief so it’s not as though the intro runs too long, but it sure does seem like an unnecessarily large amount of them.

In the previous intro, ALF runs around the house with a camcorder, and we see all of it through that camera’s lens. Here, ALF is showing the family a VHS of old clips from the show while wearing a suit that I’m pretty sure he borrowed from David Byrne.

Each cast member gets a credit over a shot of them laughing in that obnoxiously phony sitcom way, except for Benji Gregory, who appropriately gets his credit over a shot of him face-palming.

I don’t know if it was intentional that the previous intro led into this one in a thematic sense; ALF goes from recording the family to showing clips of the family, after all. But either way it makes no sense, unless ALF somehow recorded everything that happened in those episodes from the precise angles from which we viewed it happening.

Actually, that makes for a hell of a theory. Perhaps the entire run of ALF is some long-form exercise in found footage horror. We can look back and laugh at the alien hijinx, but our enjoyment must be tainted by the knowledge that these VHS cassettes were retrieved from the crime scene after the Ochmoneks noticed some very suspicious odors coming from the house…

Oh, and the theme song has been re-recorded so that it sounds…jazzier, I guess? I don’t know…it was never great to begin with, but now it sounds like they tried to record a smokey, brassy version for people to listen to while they have sex.

If you try that, let me know how it goes.

ALF, "Stop in the Name of Love"

After the credits we’re back in welcome territory: Tanner family game night. Lynn’s not present, but it’s so rare that we see these people act anything like a family that I’ll take stuff like this every time.

They’re playing some store-brand version of Trivial Pursuit, and there’s actually a nice character joke when Willie gets to choose between the topics of science and sports. ALF says, “He’ll take science.”

That’s funny enough, and then Willie bristles at ALF’s interruption. ALF asks him who won the previous year’s Superbowl, and Willie, defeated, says, “I’ll take science.”

That is the kind of joke you can make when you have well-defined characters and understandable relationships between them. It’s funny several times before you even get to the punchline. While ALF by no means has those characters or relationships, moments like this are a lovely glance of what the show could be if it put forth the effort: competent.

ALF, "Stop in the Name of Love"

Lynn comes in with the mail, and she’s still upset. She’s also wearing a UCLA sweatshirt, and I’m hoping that’s a quiet way of resolving the question left by the end of “Varsity Drag.” She couldn’t go to Amherst, but it looks like she’s still continuing her education. I like that thought was given to that detail even though we’re not given an answer explicitly.

Willie invites her to join the game, and Kate helpfully adds, “Take ALF’s place.”

Guys…I’ve enjoyed every minute of season three so far and I feel the need to remove myself from the gene pool.

Lynn declines and goes to her room. Kate explains that she’s still sad about her breakup from Lloyd.

So…fine. I’m okay with that. But what was it with making Lizard the main boyfriend last season? We even met him on camera…which is something we’ve never done with any of the other ones. Why did they bother casting him if he had nothing to do with that episode (it was the one where Willie’s boss loses a Halloween limbo competition, if you need me to remind you of what fucking garbage that was) and wasn’t going to appear again? I wonder if he was the remnant of some abandoned arc.

ALF, "Stop in the Name of Love"

There’s a book in the mail for ALF, and Willie gets pissed that he ordered one. I don’t know why; isn’t this the first unauthorized expense that’s less than four figures? He should be jumping for joy.

From this angle we can see that the game is called “Tri-Trivia,” which I guess is a visual pun because it certainly doesn’t work as any other kind. Much funnier is the title of the book: Shelly Winters’ Guide to True Love. I have no idea why I laughed at that…but I did anyway, making me the perfect audience for both this joke and all of Family Guy.

ALF, "Stop in the Name of Love"

Later on ALF tries to cheer up Lynn, and he does get her to open up about what happened. This is a relief, because it’s also where the episode turns to shit.

She tells him about Lloyd (who pronounces both Ls in his name, which fails to get funnier all 652 times we’re reminded of it), and she’s upset that he broke up with her. They were going to get married at the planetarium, and he was going to name a comet after her.

SO YEAH THAT CLEARS UP EVERYTHING

Fucking ex-fucking-scuse me? How long has she been with Lloyd? We don’t find out, but I think we should. Lynn might do the family-friendly equivalent of “getting around,” but marriage isn’t something we’ve ever been led to believe she had in mind.

This is why keeping Lizard as the boyfriend would work. No, we didn’t know much about their relationship, but we’d at least know that they’ve been together long enough that this topic could have come up.

Lizard also had an interest in the sciences (medical science, but still), which would have at least somewhat justified the ODD FUCKING DETAIL that Lynn is sad she won’t be getting married in a planetarium. Then again the audience doesn’t laugh, so I guess we’re not even supposed to find it strange in any way.

I don’t know about you guys, but I never pictured this being something Lynn Tanner would get excited about. Literally never has she expressed even a passing interest in any kind of science, so I guess Lloyd was some kind of amateur astronomer? Who knows.

It’s just strange. Specific details like this can reveal character, but when they’re so far out of left field, all they do is befuddle and pull you out of the show.

Let’s say that Lynn instead revealed that she and Lloyd were to be married in whatever stadium the LA Kings play. (Does hockey even take place in a stadium? I’ll take science, too.) It’d be silly, but “this character you never met before likes a major local sports team” isn’t a stretch for the imagination. Hearing he’s going to be getting married in a planetarium to a girl who has never given a particle of shit about that before and will be discovering comets in his spare time…that’s just too much. The audience takes a step back and clears their head of all the good jokes (and, to be honest, character work) from the earlier scenes, because they’ve just been reminded that they’re watching a heap of shit.

That’s why careful writing is so important. It’s not just about making the script as good as possible…it’s about not losing your audience along the way.

ALF, "Stop in the Name of Love"

ALF asks Lynn if there’s any other guy she has her eye on, and she tells him about Danny Duckworth, a baseball player. She then pulls out a yearbook to show him his picture, which is a little odd, as I figured ALF must have already seen him every afternoon on Duck Tales.

Lynn, whose solemn duty in this scene seems to be to remind us that the show we’re watching isn’t very good, complains that she can’t call Danny because then he’ll know how she feels.

Remember, since nobody else does, that literally 10 seconds ago she was crying in bed because the man she was going to marry broke up with her.

Again, this is why careful writing is crucial. You can’t have someone be so important to a character that a breakup shatters their entire worldview and have them be so unimportant that they’re forgotten immediately when the plot decides to go somewhere else.

ALF can handle characterization. Really, it can. Which is what makes it frustrating that it simply doesn’t care.

ALF, "Stop in the Name of Love"

We cut to Willie pulling bananas out of the coffee maker with forceps. Kate asks, “Why would he even try making banana coffee?”

And that moment right there tells me definitively that it’s much funnier when we don’t see ALF get up to his shenanigans. Knowing this happened is funny; seeing him stuff the bananas into the machine in the first place would just be a waste of time…something the show commonly doesn’t realize.

Typically we do see ALF perpetrating his nonsense, often set to jaunty library music, and that’s a shame because this kind of joke is much funnier when we cut right to the result rather than watch it gradually unfold. In the latter case we know what’s coming and we’re just waiting for the damned show to catch up with us. In the former case we see something and then need to piece together what happened…which is always going to be funnier in the imagination than it could ever be on camera.

I remember the show developing toward the end of season one a nice mastery of the visual punchline. Season two, as far as I can remember, didn’t feature much of that kind of comedy. I’m hoping season three reintroduces it, because it’s something ALF does fairly well.

There’s another nice visual gag (even better because it goes unmentioned) when ALF comes in to give Willie his electric razor, which is clogged up with ALF’s hair. The visual gag is a single Band-Aid affixed to the fur on ALF’s jaw…one more example (like the UCLA sweatshirt) of somebody on the staff giving thought to things beyond the bare minimum requirement of getting the show to air.

ALF, "Stop in the Name of Love"

The next scene has some excellent framing. It’s still just Lynn’s bedroom, but the unexpected angle makes it feel so much more real than the static, square blocking we usually get. This feels like a more dynamic angle, and it gives the scene some nice visual heft.

We also see an AMHERST pennant on Lynn’s wall, which is one hell of a sad detail that belongs in a much, much better show than this.

ALF is prepping Lynn for the date he made for her. She’s upset, though, because ALF didn’t call Danny Duckworth…he called Donnie Duckworth, the geekiest kid in school!

Oh noes!!

Of course, we’ve all been there. Kids in high schools and colleges all across America are familiar with the feeling of accidentally being set up with the wrong Duckworth. What’s odd is that Lynn goes through with this anyway, somehow believing that it’s nicer of her to bitch everyone out about it and make the poor kid feel like an idiot on their date than to call him and say, “You’re very nice, but I’m sorry.”

That’s not the Lynn I knew. Of course, character fluctuates on this show like all get out, so for all I know next week we’ll be back to one whose motives I can understand. I sure as shit hope so.

ALF, "Stop in the Name of Love"

There’s a knock at the door, and what the hell was Lynn worried about? This guy’s a total babe! Even Willie pops an appreciative dad boner.

However the guy explains that Donnie Duckworth got so nervous about the date that he couldn’t come, so this is Danny Duckworth taking his place.

And what, pardon my French, the cocksucking bullshit is even happening here?

Recap: Lynn was getting married to Lloyd in a planetarium, but secretly (I guess) wanted to be porked by Danny Duckworth, so ALF tries to call him but gets the wrong Duckworth, which makes Lynn upset but she keeps the date anyway, and then the wrong Duckworth worries himself sick and the right Duckworth comes instead.

Why all that shit about the wrong Duckworth then? If the entire episode was Lynn being pissed off and this was the grand reveal at the end, fine. Instead it was just treading water, because we’re not even to the halfway point. Would it just have been too short if we didn’t have all that Duckworth / Duckworth horse shit a moment ago? For fuck’s sake, ALF, just air another commercial in that case.

Danny Duckworth then suggests a drive-in movie, and Willie immediately hands over the keys to his own car. Willie, of course, makes it easy for strange boys to violate his teenage daughter.

Seriously…I’m a pretty liberal guy, but what kind of fuckass dad is this?

Anyway, take a moment to try to guess what we cut to next.

ALF, "Stop in the Name of Love"

If you said “a scene of ALF passionately masturbating to ‘Walk Like an Egyptian’ in Willie car,” you’re correct.

This is such a terrible, cheap complication that I honestly don’t even know if I have the energy to discuss it. Every ounce of baffled hatred that flooded your mind when you saw that screen grab says it more eloquently than I ever could.

…BUT COME ON NOW IN WHAT FUCKING WAY IS THIS NOT THE DUMBEST GOD DAMNED THING MY GOD

So Davey Duckworth and Lynn come out to the car and ALF says, “Hide like an Egyptian!!” and the audience laughs because that is definitely a thing ALF said.

ALF, "Stop in the Name of Love"

At the drive-in they’re watching some unedited stock footage of a school bus driving down the street. Then Lynn explains that the movie is Death Wish 11. You know, if you couldn’t find footage that seemed even vaguely like it belonged in a Death Wish film, don’t show us the fucking screen.

I don’t know. Maybe Death Wish 11 is about Charles Bronson giving up vigilantism when he realizes he can make more money by driving slow children to school. Either that or this show sucks. IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO KNOW

Declan Duckworth keeps asking Lynn if she wants different kinds of food (stopping, thankfully, before he gets to offering her a big sausage), which makes ALF salivate behind them and, for some reason, pull a pair of novelty chattering teeth out from beneath the seat.

Why did Willie have those in his car in the first place? What kind of shit was Max Wright getting up to when he left the house? (Don’t Google it to find out.)

Anyway Lynn hears the teeth, and Dennis Duckworth does not, presumably because he’s watching a riveting sequence in which Charles Bronson extends that little blinking stop sign before he lets some kids off.

ALF, "Stop in the Name of Love"

She looks back and sees that fucking shit.

It makes her shriek, but Darren Duckworth chalks it, I guess, up to a thrilling four-way intersection sequence in the film.

ALF, "Stop in the Name of Love"

She then tells him that she needs popcorn now, is absolutely dying for it, which we know is a ploy to get him out of the car while she talks to ALF, but she delivers the lie in a way that makes it seem more like she’s sweating and vibrating from the force with which she’s spraying diarrhea down the legs of her jeans.

ALF and Lynn bitch at each other for a while and then we cut back to the house, where Brian serves the purpose of notifying two of the important cast members that the two other important cast members are together at the drive-in.

Willie panics because without the car he can’t go and retrieve ALF, but then Mr. Ochmonek comes over, dressed as Kyle from South Park.

ALF, "Stop in the Name of Love"

I hope this isn’t his new look, because he definitely seemed more like a Hawaiian shirt guy than a flannel guy to me.

It’s not a great scene, but it helps establish Mr. Ochmonek as the right kind of annoying to the Tanners: the kind that doesn’t realize it. Willie immediately asks him if he can borrow his car, but Mr. O feels insulted that they didn’t ask him about his hunting trip.

Out of obligation, Kate asks. Then Mr. Ochmonek starts reciting everything that happened to him, in detail, over the last week.

In the process he flops down on the couch and puts his feet on the table, with Kate diving twice to move something out of the way. I like this, because this would be annoying, especially in a high stress situation. It’s not just the Tanners telling us what a lousy piece of human garbage he is…we get to watch him winding them up. And because he doesn’t realize he’s doing it, he doesn’t come off looking like a jerk.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I absolutely love having John LaMotta on this show. For such a thankless role, he sure plays it perfectly.

ALF, "Stop in the Name of Love"

Damon Duckworth returns with a bucket of Golden Popcorn, which I think means he peed in it. He puts his arm around Lynn while holding it, because if there’s anything that gets a girl going it’s when you precipitously dangle greasy, hot food near her face.

This of course makes ALF pop up and eat the corn, ho ho ho, but it also causes Darrell Duckworth to look into the back seat like three times, making it very clear he would have seen ALF. In fact, there’s no way he wouldn’t have, since ALF is right in the open back there. Each time Lynn ostensibly “stops” him from looking, but whoever plays Derrick Duckworth didn’t read that part of the script because he keeps looking all the way back, so I guess we just have to conclude that he has terrible cataracts.

Lynn convinces Dagwood Duckworth to leave for some soda and then she talks to ALF again.

ALF, "Stop in the Name of Love"

She’s angry that he ruined her date, but he says it’s not a date, it’s an oil painting, because he’s disappointed that he isn’t getting a front-row seat to any sloppy teenage fucking.

Lynn reiterates that she doesn’t want to tell Duncan Duckworth that she likes him, because that’s what she did with Lloyd, and “Look what happened.”

So, to put this all in perspective for you, Lynn and Lloyd were serious enough to plan a wedding and pick a venue, but not serious enough that they could openly admit to “liking” each other.

Just want to leave that there as a reminder of the importance of second drafts.

Dexter “Diamond” Duckworth gets back with the sodas and Lynn decides to reveal her feelings after all. The two like-birds tell each other how super hot they are. The poor guy barely gets a knuckle deep, though, before they see this at the window:

ALF, "Stop in the Name of Love"

Man, that outright killed a boner I didn’t even have. I can only imagine what it must feel like for these two.

Willie makes some excuse about needing a blanket in the back seat. Lynn confirms it’s in the back seat. Dylan Duckworth still has no suspicion at all about anything in the back seat.

In easily the stupidest fucking part of anything, Willie stuffs ALF into a sack and carries him away.

ALF, "Stop in the Name of Love"

I mean, look at that. He’s in plain sight of the other cars. To them it can’t look like anything other than an old man who pulled up, reached into somebody else’s car, stuffed a body into a sack, and immediately high-tailed it out of there.

If that was the joke, fine. But it’s not. The joke is that ALF asks Willie if they can stop at the concession stand.

Meanwhile, everybody in those other cars just actively witnessed an abduction and have no reaction to it whatsoever.

Welcome back, ALF.

ALF, "Stop in the Name of Love"

In the short scene before the credits ALF and Brian have their own drive-in* in the garage, which ends with ALF violently using him as a sex doll.

I’ll be honest, this episode was pretty fucking bad, but it still wasn’t a total catastrophe. It started very strong, at least. Beyond that I guess it was just dropping turd after turd. But considering how low my expectations were for season three, I am still coming away with a mild sense of relief.

At this point, the episodes that follow could go either way. Some nice care and attention (and performances) are easily found in the opening of “Stop in the Name of Love,” but the rest of the episode implies that the show still doesn’t know how to sustain a good idea.

We’ll see what happens. Either way, I’ll be here…whatever that’s duckworth.

MELMAC FACTS: Jupiter was known to Melmackians as “The Dairy Planet,” a phrase printed on the license plates of Jupitonians. On Melmac (and in the rest of the civilized universe) bowling was known as Talaquoits, and the balls were replaced by melons. ALF was engaged to a woman named Ruby for 58 years. He met Rhonda at a pet bake the day after Ruby dumped him. He was nervous about asking Rhonda out, so he waited 17 years to do it. The day after he did (and she said yes) Melmac exploded. I have to admit it’s nice to have this unseen backstory fleshed out a little more each time; it’s about the only thing the writers paid careful attention to.

—–
* ALF says that the movie they’re watching is The Return of the Son of the Creature from the Big Black Bog, which is way too similar to a skit from Mr. Show for my liking. Of course, Mr. Show came way later, so I’m not blaming ALF. But if I ever find out that The Return of the Curse of the Creature’s Ghost is based on a stolen joke from this fucking travesty, the universe will no longer make any sense to me.

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