Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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ALF, "Like an Old Time Movie"

I think I first made this observation back in season one, and when I did I was just being a smartass. Here we are, though, ending season three, and it’s still held true: there can never be two good episodes of ALF in a row. We are coming off of a well-acted, well-scripted, well-observed story about toxic parents…watching ALF jack off to fantasies of being in a silent movie.

It’s really awful. And while its placement after “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow” makes it seem worse than it really is, I assure you, it’s still fucking terrible.

On the bright side, nothing happens in this dick-heap, so it should be really easy to write about.

It opens with the family getting ready to go to a wedding. Hey, cool! Whose wedding?

We never find out. How can the writers still avoid developing these people after three full years on the air?

Well, maybe we can do some deductive reasoning to figure it out. We know it’s not Kate Sr.’s wedding because she’s already married, and we know it’s not Jake’s because he turns up later. And they are the only two people who exist outside of this house, so I think it’s safe to conclude that this “wedding” is just an excuse to leave home before dropping a hot tip to the Alien Task Force.

Since they’re leaving and since he’s an asshole, ALF threatens to burn the place down with Brian’s chemistry set and Willie’s matchbox collection. Willie’s matchbox collection, folks. Another fucking hobby. It has to be deliberate at this point.

…right?

Please?

Anyway, ALF’s threat to destroy everything they own is met with a disinterested shrug. They’re probably used to being openly threatened by the naked rapist that they let live with them rent free, and this doesn’t even register. Willie gives him some movies to watch instead.

One of them is The Sheik, a silent film from 1921, and the other isn’t specified (though we can see from the box that it’s City Lights). According to Willie the latter stars “Chhahhhrl-ee Chhahhhplinn.” Slurring a name like Charlie Chaplin should be impossible, so hat’s off to you, Max. I underestimated your commitment to unintelligibility.

So Willie pops in one of the films and does his best Joker face, in the sad hope that Tim Burton is watching.

ALF, "Like an Old Time Movie"

ALF rightfully asks what the living fuck they’re doing giving him crusty old silent films. For once I’m on ALF’s side. He likes garbage TV; you don’t need to stock him up with this crap he doesn’t want to watch. Just leave him with a TV Guide and fresh batteries for the remote control; he’ll finger his prostate to My Mother the Car and you don’t have to go through this song and dance where you act all superior for appreciating silent-era Hollywood on a deeper level than a fucking space alien who’s never heard of this shit.

Whatever. Kate tells ALF to get fucked and they leave for the wedding.

Who is this episode for, anyway? ALF‘s target demographic of 8-year-old kids who don’t know better than to play Uncle Touchy? Something tells me they’re not huge fans of pre-talkie cinema. Jesus Christ, most adults around this time couldn’t have cared less about it. Why in the name of cock are we going to spend half an hour gently ribbing it through a hand puppet?

ALF, "Like an Old Time Movie"

After the credits ALF has a pointlessly short phone call with Willie. I honestly don’t even know why it happens. I guess Max Wright just demanded a scene, at some point, in which he wouldn’t have to share the room with the insane puppeteer.

Then ALF calls Jake. Since that kid just gave a bravura performance in a standout episode last week, ALFusco wants to make damned sure he knows his place, so he’s forced this week to help Moe’s talking bar-rag write a shitty silent film.

Yeah. Remember “A Little Bit of Soap”? For your sake, I hope not…but we’re doing that shit again.

In a way, “Like an Old Time Movie” makes more sense, because nobody’s actually producing ALF’s crap or paying him to write it. In another, more accurate, way, “Like an Old Time Movie” is a lot worse, because nothing he writes has any impact on the episode at all.

And it has no impact because…you guessed it, motherfuckers!

ALF, "Like an Old Time Movie"

It’s a fantasy episode!

Hooray!! Everybody’s favorite excuse to write a fuckton of bullshit that doesn’t even matter to the episode itself!

…Jesus Christ I’m sick of these fantasy episodes. If you want to do one a season, fine. Tell a few decent jokes and I won’t complain. But these are just…fuck. They’re awful. They somehow manage to take a show I can’t stand watching and make it worse.

And it doesn’t help that this one centers around ALF’s pitch session for a silent movie. Who fucking cares? With the Gilligan’s Island one, there was some fun in seeing the old actors back in character. With “Hail to the Chief” there was at least an opportunity to tell the kinds of jokes ALF didn’t usually get to tell. (It didn’t tell any of them; it just had ALF rap for a while…but still.) Here, I have no idea who this is even for.

Why wasn’t this squashed instantly in the writer’s room? “Wouldn’t it be funny if we parodied silent films by having ALF try to write one?” is the kind of thing that should have had people shouting “No!” ten times before the end of the sentence.

ALF, "Like an Old Time Movie"

…but here we are. Fuck dammit.

ALF dreamed he was in a silent movie. And that he was the star of the movie. This really blew his mind, the fact that he (some overfed, hairy-assed, child-raping space hobo) should be the star of a silent movie, but there he was!

He imagines that he’s some Arabian whatever, and that his harem is hanging around, waiting for him to come home and fuck them.

Lovely stuff. It’s always the highlight of any family sitcom to see the main character’s dreams of strange women dying to slide down his cock.

And just in case you didn’t think it was offputting enough to have your kids watching a show in which narrated sex-play is presented as a constructive use of one’s imagination, Jake interrupts his fantasy to tell him that his movie sucks dick. ALF explains to him about Sheiks and how they all have harems that they like to fuck constantly. So, there you go. ALF invites a teenage boy to his empty house, and enthuses to him about the wonders of polygamy.

How fucking gross is this show? Seriously, guys. I feel sick just watching this.

Anyway, even though this is a silent film, ALF speaks. His lips don’t move, but we hear his dialogue. At first I thought this was some kind of mistake (even though he just finished shotgunning silent films and loves silent films and is now writing a silent film, he doesn’t seem to know what the fuck a silent film is), but maybe that’s just the way The Sheik worked. I haven’t seen it, so I can’t say, and the more standard intertitles are used later, when ALF’s film is instead influenced by Charlie Chaplin.

So it’s more of an observation than a complaint. If that part of the fantasy is true to The Sheik and the later part of the fantasy is true to the works of Chaplin, then I’ll give ALF credit for attention to detail. (Even if it’s attention to detail nobody in the audience will recognize or appreciate or bother watching longer than the first commercial break.) But if it’s not, then I don’t know what the fuck the show was doing.

ALF, "Like an Old Time Movie"

So, yeah, ALF decides to do a Charlie Chaplin style comedy instead of All-Night Arabian Fuckapalooza, presumably because the show ran out of black and white stock footage of deserts.

Now he’s “The Little Scamp,” standing around begging for food. Willie comes along dressed as a cop and shakes a long black dildo around so it looks like he’s beating off on ALF’s shoulder.

ALF, "Like an Old Time Movie"

I’m not exaggerating even slightly. Look at that fucking screengrab.

LOOK AT IT

PRINT IT AND KISS IT YOU FUCKS

Could he possibly hold it more like a cock? What the fuck is this show?

ALF, "Like an Old Time Movie"

ALF tells Jake to take over on the typewriter, because writing sucks. It’s much more rewarding to take the scripts that other people have written and give yourself all the funny lines.

Jake asks if he’ll get to be in the movie, too, and ALF is unable to stop laughing long enough to tell the kid he won’t even get to be in season four.

ALF, "Like an Old Time Movie"

ALF continues spitballing his shitty movie with a scene for Lynn, who plays a blind girl that falls for him.

And I have to admit, that’s a good idea! Think of all the great stories that could come from a blind girl who develops feelings for ALF, not realizing that he’s an alien. Why, they’d both be social isolates in their own way, and they could forge a kind of relationship in which…

…wait. Didn’t we already do that?

Yes fuckdammit we already did that. What happened to Jodie anyway? We haven’t seen her all season. Has ALF really forgotten about her? It’s one thing if we imagine that they hang out and fingerfuck every so often and we just don’t see it, but this sequence seems to disprove that. How is it possible that ALF is having this fantasy of a blind girl being in love with him without realizing that that’s actually something that he’s already living through?

He’s forgotten completely about Jodie. He’s here dicking around writing silent vanity films and, somewhere, she’s ignored, devastated, and alone. That’s what you get for not being as fuckable as the teenage girl I secretly live with, you hideous blind bitch.

Guys, this episode is terrible. It’s nice that ALF recognizes the similarities between this fantasy and City Lights, but it’s fucking disorienting that ALF doesn’t recognize the similarities to itself.

ALF, "Like an Old Time Movie"

Anne Schedeen gets to still be pretty good, in spite of the fact that we don’t hear her line readings. Her look of confused disgust when ALF walks into her apartment with her blind daughter and crippled son is pretty perfect. In fact, it almost makes up for the ickiness of ALF using his dumbass movie to fulfill a fantasy of Kate being a miserable, penniless, broken old crone.

Oh, yeah. I guess I forgot to mention that Brian is in this. He plays the shoe-shine boy, and I have to admit that I’m impressed how well his shitty acting comes through even when we don’t hear a word he says.

ALF walks into the home of this poverty-ridden family of suffering invalids and demands dinner.

Have I mentioned how much I love this show IT IS SO GOOD

The fake audience of dead people goes wild, because ALF did something, and then Silent Kate serves the family a boiled shoe. This leads to the big punchline of the entire scene, in which he shouts at a blind girl and her crippled brother:

ALF, "Like an Old Time Movie"

Back in the Tanner house, ALF laughs until he shits again at how funny he is.

Jake tells him that it’s not even his joke; it was in a Charlie Chaplin movie. Was it really? I honestly don’t know.

Well, let me qualify that. Chaplin eats a shoe in The Gold Rush, but ALF was specifically praising his “You’re eating footwear” line…which I guess qualifies as a joke in the same way that “I am wearing a white shirt” qualifies as a joke. (Nota bene: I am wearing a white shirt.)

As far as I’m aware, the joke itself is not Chaplin’s, but it does, admittedly, lead to the only funny line in the episode: “Imitation is the sincerest form of plagiarism.”

Also, if you’re ever overcome with self-loathing and decide to watch this episode, compare the shoe-eating scene to the one in The Gold Rush. It’s a great way to compare two vastly different comic approaches to the same gag. On one side, you have Chaplin’s masterfully understated performance of inventive physical comedy. On the other side, ALF screams at poor people.

AND ALSO ALSO if this is indeed meant to be stolen from The Gold Rush, how does ALF even know about it? He watched City Lights. AND ALSO ALSO ALSO why in the name of shit is Jake deeply familiar with the works of The Little Tramp? Did he accidentally buy the collection thinking it was pornography?

ALF, "Like an Old Time Movie"

There’s a knock at the door, and Silent Kate tells ALF to hide under the table. His observation (“Some things never change.”) is actually decent. It’s one of those rare moments of subtle comedy that is improved by someone pointing it out, so, okay. That’s like, 1.5 laughs so far. About 20 times the amount of laughter I expected to get out of this episode.

Kate opens the door to find that John LaMotta and Liz Sheridan got roped into doing this catshit, too.

Mr. Ochmonek actually looks pretty dapper. Which at first I thought was pretty cool…until I thought more about it and realized it was disappointing. See, in response to my review of “My Back Pages,” Perfect Strangers enthusiast Casey said it was nice that in Willie’s dream sequence, they gave Mr. Ochmonek the kind of shirt he’d have been wearing back in the 60s.

And you know what? Yeah. That was actually a cool touch.

Mr. Ochmonek has the most clearly defined sense of fashion of any character on this show, and it’s one of ALF‘s most consistent character details. I’ve mentioned before that I could probably walk through a department store and pick out exactly the kind of outfits he’d like. For any other character, I’d have no clue at all.

Mr. O’s wardrobe was one of the first things I liked about him; it gave me the sense, consciously or not, that he was human…that on this show packed full of unbelievable assholes he could behave in some identifiable, understandable way. Even if the depths of his character didn’t go any further than the kinds of shirts he’d reach for when he came across a discount rack, it was (and is) something.

So what would he wear in the universe of a 1931 Chaplin film? Like the question of what he’d wear in the 1960s, there should be a pretty fun answer. Instead, the show gives us a prom tux, whatever. Fuck it, let’s just shoot this thing and go home.

And that just makes me sad. When ALF robs me of the joys of another Mr. Ochmonek outfit, you know it’s intent on pissing me off.

Anyway, they’re here so ALF can daydream about the evil Ochmoneks taking Kate’s life savings so that she can’t afford operations for her kids. Which, I admit, is perfectly in keeping with their real-life characters. Like all of the times they bought the Tanners gifts, loaned them cars, checked in to see if they needed a ride to work, invited them on all-expenses-paid vacations, dropped by to wish them luck at their new jobs, invited them to holiday dinners when the Tanners had nothing to eat, babysat their kids with no notice in the middle of the night, organized a neighborhood watch to protect everyone from a burglar, threw Kate a baby shower, and all that other really awful, selfish crap they keep trying to pull.

Those dastardly shits.

Anyway some library piano music plays while the actors wave their arms around silently, which pretty much sums up 90% of this fucking episode.

ALF, "Like an Old Time Movie"

Guys, I cannot express how much this episode sucks.

After the commercial Jake bitches about not being in the movie. Which accounts for almost all of his dialogue this week. He really wants to be in this imaginary silent film that will never be mentioned again.

He gives ALF an idea about having the blind girl sell the same flower over and over again by attaching a string to it, and this whole thing is really very riveting and I wish my mom aborted me.

Then Silent Mrs. Ochmonek comes back over and finds one of ALF’s hairs, so she calls in Officer Willie, who sees ALF under the table and makes a face. But he reports to Mrs. Ochmonek that there’s no “non-human” on the premises, so I guess this whole thing is the silent movie equivalent of the Alien Task Force. I have no idea. The fucking Alien Task Force barely registers as a threat in the “real” world of the show, so why I should give even half a shit about it in this jackass nonsense silent film is a question nobody could possibly answer.

ALF, "Like an Old Time Movie"

Mrs. Ochmonek leaves and Willie thinks about fucking Kate, so he lifts one leg and thrusts his boner at nothing. ALF wants to end the movie here, because, really, how can you top that image, but Jake tells him that it can’t be over; nothing’s been resolved. Not that I disagree with you, Jake, but if a lack of resolution ends this shit sooner I’m definitely casting my vote for lack of resolution.

So ALF writes a scene in which Silent Mr. Ochmonek comes over and thinks about fucking Kate, too. Silent ALF takes his picture and blah blah whatever. The idea is that he shakes Mr. O down for the operation money, which Mr. O pays because he doesn’t want to have his picture in the paper for getting it up over someone who’s not his wife.

It’d be a decently logical conclusion if it weren’t for the fact that Mr. O could in return reveal the existence of alien life, which one might argue would constitute bigger news.

ALF, "Like an Old Time Movie"

Officer Willie comes in and proposes to Kate and ALF wants to end the movie again, but Jake tells him there’s still a few minutes left in this dumbass episode, so we get a scene at the hospital instead.

In it, Lynn and Brian get operations so that they can see and walk respectively. Also, ALF gets some kind of operation that lets him talk in a silent movie. That latter part is actually decently funny, but fuck you if you think I’m going to bother explaining it. I’ve had more than enough of this shit; I don’t feel like dallying even for the relatively good stuff.

Then the family all hugs and grinds their junk on each other until it’s fucking finally time for the credits.

For all the talk of loose ends, it’s odd that Jake kept complaining throughout the episode that he wanted to be in ALF’s shitty movie, then the episode ends and he’s still not in it. It felt like some big setup for a scene in which he’s revealed to be a scummy hobo or something, but instead it’s like a running joke that never gets to the joke part.

There is one scene in which ALF tells Jake he can direct the film, so I guess that’s meant to be the tradeoff for Jake not appearing in it. But even so, this qualifies as a pretty half-assed episode, even by ALF standards. And that’s one hell of an achievement.

ALF, "Like an Old Time Movie"

In the short scene before the credits, ALF sits on the floor waiting for the Tanner women to come home and fuck him.

I’m done.

Countdown to Jake ceasing to exist: 1 episode
Countdown to Jim J. Bullock existing: 9 episodes (single digits, bitches!!)

MELMAC FACTS: At Melmacian weddings they threw “the bridal squid.” Was Melmac a really wet planet or something? An awful lot of their customs had to do with fish.

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.

They Live, 1988How do you ensure that your social satire is remembered and referenced for generations? You cast “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, and you let him shoot a shitload of aliens.

…that’s how the original draft of this Fiction into Film began. In the time between that draft and this one, we lost Piper to a heart attack, and my advice is no longer valid. Social satires will be forever poorer for it.

Casting a professional wrestler as a lead in your film is something that should probably be handled with caution. For every Andre the Giant in The Princess Bride there’s Hulk Hogan in Santa with Muscles. For every Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson there’s a Jesse “The Body” Ventura. Wrestlers act every time they step in front of a camera, but it’s a very specific kind of acting that rarely prepares them for a feature film, where they can’t rely on their gimmicks, the adrenaline of a crowd, or the suddenly-not-as-important fact that they do their own stunt work.

They Live enlists “Rowdy” Roddy Piper as its protagonist, a man who made his living as one of the WWF’s greatest heels, and you’d be forgiven for thinking of that as a misstep. He wasn’t meant to be liked. He wasn’t meant to be adored. He was a petty egotist who fought dirty and had nothing but contempt for any human being who wasn’t named “Rowdy” Roddy Piper. He was an ass — as far as his stage presence went — and the only joy he ever seemed to bring into people’s lives was when he found himself pinned at the end of a match. “Rowdy” Roddy Piper was a legend in his own mind, and a putz in everyone else’s.

And you know what? He was great at it.

They Live, 1988

This necessary approach to character development may be why Piper was able to successfully transition into They Live and other roles. Whereas somebody like Hulk Hogan fed on the goodwill he engendered with crowds (and mandatory paeans to patriotism and eating your veggies), Piper thrived on hatred. Hogan was allowed, and encouraged, to share in the joy he created. Piper was forced into a disconnect; he had to spit upon it. Hogan was a hero and an idol. Piper didn’t care if you lived or died.

In Hogan’s case, this didn’t require him to be or to become a good actor; he simply had to embody his own image. It’s why he appeared in numerous films and TV shows and cartoons and music videos, but always as some version of himself. He needed his blonde hair, his mustache, and his tear-away tanktop. He wasn’t a character; he was an idea.

Piper, by contrast, built a character. He had to understand how that worked. He had to know how to improvise in front of a crowd. He had to know how to shift and pivot around a change in somebody else’s approach, because shattering the illusion would be detrimental to his career. The moment he broke character — and, God forbid, smiled — he wouldn’t be the villain anymore. Or, at least, not as much of a villain. He couldn’t pass it off the way his contemporaries could. He wasn’t allowed to take part in the fun.

And so, consciously or not, he studied what worked and what didn’t. And even if you were not a wrestling fan — I never was — you benefited from it, from his starring turn here, in John Carpenter’s brilliant commentary on consumerist America, to his self-aware (and oddly poignant) recurring role in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. He knew how to make a character work…how to inhabit somebody that wasn’t himself…and how to portray somebody who refused to admit he was as downtrodden as he really was.

They Live casts piper as a nameless drifter (though the credits refer to him as “Nada,” the surname of his equivalent in the original short story) seeking work in a decaying America. His first lines are to an ineffectual clerk at a job center, as he explains that he was last employed in Denver, but couldn’t find work there after the banks started closing. (He’s in California now, which suggests just how difficult his search has been.)

That’s the opening to a 1988 film, and it would be just as appropriate opening one released in 2015. And just as suitable for 2015, Piper is told that there’s nothing they can do for him.

They Live, 1988

They Live is odd. It’s the sort of film that may actually play better now than it did upon release, if only because the nearly 30 years that have intervened have done nothing to soften, alleviate, or address the concerns on display. In 1988 it was a cynical, biting look at a bottomed-out America, which makes it even more painful to watch in 2015. If it was maddening then that we were there at all, how much more painful is it that we’re still there today?

Carpenter’s violent, brutal deconstruction of his own country’s willful blindness is a vision entirely his own, even if he does, technically, build the film around somebody else’s source material.

They Live is based on a 1963 short story by Ray Nelson: “Eight O’Clock in the Morning.” They share several of the same plot points (which we’ll discuss in turn), but are miles apart in terms of artistry. In fact, “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” becoming They Live is one of the most charitable processes of adaptation I’m aware of. A short, lifeless, didactic parable becomes a genre-hopping, hilarious, chilling punch to the gut. Carpenter didn’t just improve upon Nelson’s source material; he did him the favor of fleshing it out, expanding upon its shallow ideas, and — in short — making it worth experiencing.

To take a great story and turn it into a great film is a great (…ahem) thing, but aside from the obvious answer of money, it raises the question of why one would bother doing it. If something wonderful already exists in an accessible format, why recreate it?

The Live doesn’t face that problem. It takes a forgettable dash of mild sci-fi and spins it into a gritty, cynical yarn whose echoes still resonate throughout pop-culture today. Unless you visit this site (or have friends who really need to improve their taste in literature) you won’t hear “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” come up in many conversations. And yet They Live‘s flourishes are everywhere.

Those Shepard Fairey OBEY stickers you used to (and may still) see everywhere? They’re spreading the subliminal messages that Piper discovers in They Live. The X-Ray Specs from Bart vs. The Space Mutants that let you see which characters are actually aliens? Those are lifted directly from the sunglasses in They Live. And Duke Nukem’s “kick ass and chew bubblegum” line? That’s born of one of Piper’s improvisations that made it into They Live…and has since been co-opted by everything from Dazed and Confused to King of the Hill.

They Live, 1988

“Eight O’Clock in the Morning” is the insect preserved by They Live‘s amber. I’d recommend reading it not because it’s very good, but because it’s very short, and it serves as an insightful rough draft of what They Live would have been without the immense writing, acting, and editing talent behind it.

The story’s main plot is very similar to that of They Live. George Nada (the prototype for Piper’s character in the film) accidentally awakens “all the way” to the truth around him. He sees that the Earth is populated partially by Fascinators, reptilian creatures from outer space that secretly run the world. There’s little more to the story than that, and it’s impressively plagued with issues for something so short. For starters, it’s odd that the space creatures are referred to immediately as Fascinators. It’s the kind of name you can easily read into, but it smacks of cleverness for the sake of cleverness, and it makes Nelson’s intentions too clear. Since George would have no way of knowing what they’re called — and doesn’t invent the name himself — it sticks out early and oddly, and guides the reading of the story a bit too tightly.

It’s also amusing that George awakens “all the way” after a performance by a stage hypnotist. It’s a rather silly way to open what is an otherwise humorless, preachy slog, and Carpenter does well to build his film around a more universal sign of entertainment: the television.

Carpenter’s television is both master and liberator, serving a conflicted role in a conflicted film; for Carpenter, the medium is emphatically not the message…his characters are pulled in both directions by its gravity, toward slumber and toward awakening, toward slavery and toward freedom, toward ignorance and toward enlightenment.

They Live, 1988

Television is a weapon, working for whomever is holding its signal at the time. By handling television this way, They Live at times feels of a critical piece with films like Network and Videodrome, similarly dark, comic meditations on what television does to us…and what we let it do to us. I’m unaware of any films that consider the sociopsychological role of stage hypnotism to the same successful effect.

The main problem with “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” though — and the main reason I’m keen to poke a little fun at it — is how seriously it takes itself. It’s very much a cautionary parable, and it’s hard to read much of it without assuming that the final line will be something like, “Don’t you see that this story applies to you, dear reader?”

Its message is also a dangerous one. George awakens, begins murdering strangers, ties up and verbally abuses his girlfriend, and goes on a suicide mission to the local TV station to expose the truth. It’s a story that positively begs for unreliable narration, or at least some ambiguity, but we don’t get any. We are assured throughout the text that George is correct; he really is the only sane human being, and the only one capable of exposing the truth. But how does George know that?

His behavior — like the narration that describes it — is too self-assured. Consider the early moment during which George encounters a homeless man in an alley:

George picked up a brick and smashed it down on the old drunk’s head with all his strength. For a moment the image blurred, then the blue-green blood oozed out of the face and the lizard fell, twitching and writhing. After a moment it was dead. […] George dragged the body into the shadows and searched it. There was a tiny radio in its pocket and a curiously shaped knife and fork in another. The tiny radio said something in an incomprehensible language.

We aren’t meant to doubt his actions; the third-person omniscient approach with its constant reassurance that George is correct prevents us from ever doing so. But removed from the narrative and appraised only on its content, “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” should be the tale of a man going dangerously insane. There’s enough in that short paragraph above to raise more narrative red flags than the whole of Lolita, but Nelson wants us simply to buy into it.

Faces flicker into different shapes. Without a word George caves in a stranger’s skull with a brick. Hey, it turns out it was a scary lizard man only George could see. It was carrying a radio broadcasting “in an incomprehensible language.” Being that almost all of the languages on Earth are incomprehensible to anyone, anywhere, at any given time, this should have been a clue to question George’s thought process. (It’s also interesting that George is in a social position to beat a homeless man, whereas in They Live Piper is the homeless man.)

Everything about that passage should be terrifying. Nelson agrees, but he thinks we should be terrified of the lizards. A reader paying any attention would instead be terrified of George.

For both Nelson and Carpenter, the world around these characters is one thing, while appearing to be another. But Carpenter has the good sense to let others in…to let each of the characters involved verify the truth in their own way. There’s no third-person presence repeating “Keep calm…” over the horrors; there’s an ugly truth that the characters would prefer not to face…but once they know the truth, there’s no going back.

In fact, one of the greatest — and most memorable — scenes in the film unfolds between Piper and Keith David (playing Piper’s fellow laborer Frank) in a filthy alleyway. The former has a pair of sunglasses that reveals the world as it truly is, and simply wants the latter to try them on. Frank’s refusal escalates quickly to violence, which itself builds to a protracted scene of mutual, relentless brutality. Piper’s request to Frank is nothing more than to try on the glasses…it’s as simple and benign as a request can be. But the lengths — and the desperation — that we will go to in order to avoid seeing the truth is explored here in a comically literal way.

They Live, 1988

Frank has a wife and children in Detroit. He’s laboring on a construction site in California, living in a shantytown and sending all of his money home. Like Piper’s own trek from Denver to the west coast, this is further evidence of how difficult things have gotten for honest, hardworking people. There’s no laziness on display in They Live. There’s no struggling character that could possibly try harder to elevate himself or herself. There’s simply a dead end, and they’re all stuck.

There is no chance of getting ahead…but Frank has to try. He knows he won’t succeed, but that doesn’t mean he can give up, or jeopardize what little opportunity he has. Putting on the glasses may reveal the truth, but revealing the truth will mean he no longer has the comfort of his illusion. He’ll no longer be able to believe that he’ll see his family again, or that his daily sacrifice will put them in a better position to get ahead. He’ll no longer be able to hide.

So he refuses. He fights. He bludgeons and topples and beats relentlessly against what Piper is trying to show him. The first time I saw this film, I actually suspected it would end here, with our hero being beaten to death by the closest thing he has to a friend, the lonesome death of the only man who knows the truth in a world that doesn’t want to hear it.

It doesn’t end there, and I’m glad, but part of me still feels like it’s a dark enough thought to be in tune with the rest of the film’s idea of comedy.

The brutal scene between Piper and Frank is our mid-film reminder of its star’s origins: it’s a chance for “Rowdy” Roddy Piper to do some fighting. And like the WWF, it’s theatrical, over the top, and absurdly full of false victories and fake-outs. Unlike the WWF, however, there’s something at stake. And as funny as the scene is, there’s a genuine sadness that runs through it.

There are no cheering (or booing) fans. There’s no play-by-play. There’s no ring. There’s a filthy alley, broken glass, splintered two-by-fours. There’s bleeding and bruising. There’s sweat. There’s wheezing. In their own way, each of them is fighting for their vision of the world…and in both cases, it’s a vision they don’t particularly want. Piper seeks change, Frank seeks stasis. And they’re both willing to beat to oblivion one of the only people that has ever showed them kindness. These are men who have almost nothing to lose; all they have left is what they believe in, and the moment someone tries to take that from them, they’ll fight to the death to keep it.

They Live, 1988

But there’s more to Piper’s casting in this film than his ability to pull off convincing fisticuffs. He plays the central role, remember, in a film about how what we think we see isn’t really what we see. And the man was a professional wrestler.

The discovery that wrestling is staged is right up there with learning the truth about Santa Claus for many children. It’s a confusing, maybe painful, rite of passage. And Piper, like countless other men and women in that field, was directly responsible for creating the illusion.

Wrestling was a series of characters waving their arms and legs around and pretending to injure and be injured by that. There was more to it, of course, but it was stagecraft. It was illusion. You were watching at home, or in the audience, and the participants made you see something that wasn’t actually happening.

Piper himself was a creation. He’s credited by that name in They Live and his other acting roles, but he was really Roderick Toombs. He put on a show as Piper, and then put on another show either in the ring or in films. He was an illusion several layers deep, and a man famous for sustaining it with caustic aplomb.

Piper playing the role of the only man aware that there is an illusion — and to fight tooth and nail to tear that illusion down — must have been cathartic to him. He made his career by hiding the truth, and arguably peaked in that career with this portrayal of a man who would — and does — die to bring it to light. It’s the kind of stunt casting that would have worked in theory with any professional wrestler, but Piper was the right choice. In addition to being an impressive actor in his own right, he had the willingness to look less than glamorous, the ability to play against type (a serious rarity for wrestlers-turned-actors), and also had what John Carpenter called “life written all over him.”

Piper wasn’t a pretty boy. He wasn’t a hero. He wasn’t even someone you could be sure was going to accomplish whatever the hell he thought he needed to accomplish. He was a guy you’d question, but also worry about. He was a man whose motives couldn’t possibly be pure, but who you wanted to trust anyway. He was a physical brute who seemed as helpless as a pussy cat. He was a casting choice that both raised and addressed what should have been the central question of Nelson’s story: just what the fuck is this guy doing?

They Live, 1988

The difference between Carpenter’s keen understanding of the material and Nelson’s dull bungling of it is best illustrated by a significant scene that both versions of the story share. In They Live it’s Piper taking refuge in the home of Cable 54 employee Holly Thompson (played just cagey enough by Meg Foster), while in “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” it’s Nada taking refuge in the home of his girlfriend Lil.

On the surface, both scenes fulfill the same need: they give the protagonist a safe space and a confidant, and we get a brief recap of the story in the main character’s own words. But Nelson’s execution is muddied, and upsetting. We’ll look at his first, and we’ll do it in a way that the story itself does not: we’ll look at it through the eyes of Lil.

Remember, only George Nada knows of the Fascinators. Only he can see them, and nobody else has any evidence (or suspicion) that they exist. When we read “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” we know he is correct in his actions…but what of the other characters in the story? What do they see? Well, let’s break free from the narration, and just list George’s actions in this scene.

Lil doesn’t know what her boyfriend knows, so all she sees is his behavior. Ready?

He shows up unannounced, in a panic. He steps into her apartment and switches her television off. He demands that she “wake up,” which she doesn’t understand, so he slaps her across the face. He then murders a man who comes to the apartment to see what the fuss is about. He does this by stabbing him in the neck with a knife. He drags the bleeding corpse into her living room, and she recognizes the man as her neighbor, Mr. Coney. George commands that she not scream, and that she tell him where Mr. Coney lived. Then he ties her up and gags her, and leaves to murder Mr. Coney’s family. (A slight cheat here, as she doesn’t see this happen, but based on what she’s seen already she can’t expect that he disappears to help them weed the garden.) When he returns he takes her car keys and leaves her bound and gagged in the room with the body of her dead friend.

And we’re supposed to like this guy, and view his actions as heroic. See now why the story screams for an unreliable narrator? As it stands, “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” unrolls a litany of horror underscored by a confusing reassurance that it’s nothing to worry about. You’d think it was some kind of attempt at thematic resonance (the subliminal messages of the Fascinators serve a similar purpose), but at best it’s a symptom of trying to say too much in too short a space, and at worst it’s very poor writing.

It’s problematic to say the least, which is why it’s good that Carpenter reconfigures it substantially. For starters, Holly is not Piper’s girlfriend…she’s a woman he apologetically carjacks when there’s no other way to escape the creatures that pursue him. From Holly’s perspective, much of this must be unfolding as it does for Lil. In her case, however, it’s a stranger. It’s not a trusted (and presumably loved) man who has suddenly become a lunatic; it’s a stranger who she immediately knows she must be careful and diplomatic with. She’s on her guard; no trust is betrayed. It’s a terrible situation, but there’s no pretending otherwise.

Carpenter’s lens allows Holly to show her discomfort in a way that Lil cannot. We see Holly on edge, and we know that Piper may be treating her in a necessary way, but certainly not in a heroic one. She gets to be a human being…and it helps (just a smidge) that Piper is actually interested in explaining to her the situation, rather than murdering her neighbors and piling the corpses around her living room.

They Live, 1988

After Piper’s equivalent raving, Holly doesn’t get bound and gagged while he steals her car, either, forgotten for the rest of the film as Lil is in the story. Instead, Holly patiently listens, and then summarizes the situation back to him: “Okay. You’re fighting the forces of evil that none of us can see without sunglasses.”

Nelson needs to reassure us that what George is doing is right. Carpenter keeps leaving room for us to suspect that what Piper is doing is wrong. Nelson wants us to believe him wholeheartedly. (One might say, obey.) Carpenter wants to keep us locked in an uncomfortable and anxious dance of moral ambiguity.

The confusion echoes through Piper’s performance, as he seems to teeter on the line between hapless putz and action hero without definitively falling into either category. His faltering, reluctant ascent to ass-kicking savior status gives the film some of its biggest laughs and memorable moments. Unlike George in the story — who takes to bashing skulls and slicing throats with disconcerting ease, and without provocation — Piper is forced into his armed rebellion.

He reveals in a corner store the fact that some of the customers have a very different appearance when he wears his sunglasses: “I take these glasses off, she looks like a regular person, doesn’t she? Put ’em back on…formaldehyde face!” This causes the creatures to swarm toward him, while relaying his physical description through their wristwatches. Almost immediately he is approached by creatures in police uniforms, and must do the unthinkable:

They Live, 1988

Shooting the cops doesn’t quite play as triumphant, and even if you manage to see it as such, it’s tinged with the knowledge that he’s even more, to put it diplomatically, fucked.

He takes two guns with him and flees into the nearest convenient building…which just happens to be a bank. The tableau thus created — the guns, the sunglasses, the American flag — is packed with heroic imagery, but Piper oozes awkward desperation. Whatever he’s stepped into, he’s not ready. He knows it. He also knows there’s no going back.

They Live, 1988

It’s here, in this very moment, that he coins the film’s most famous phrase. Unable to explain to onlookers what he’s actually doing there, how he got there, or what he could possibly do next, he haltingly declares:

I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.

It’s nonsensical, but perfect. It says everything while saying nothing. It’s a perfectly structured dash of macho action movie palaver, however it lets its own absurdity bleed through. Piper’s character is not an action star, but he’s suddenly the star of an action film. All he can do is do his best.

We get further quips like this throughout…ones that work very well in context, the decidedly clunky attempts of a man to fill his own big boots.

“Life’s a bitch. And she’s back in heat.”

“Mamma don’t like tattle tales.”

“You look like your head fell in the cheese dip back in 1957.”

“Ain’t love grand?”

But it culminates, shockingly, in an emotional scene between Piper and Frank. In a hotel room they discuss what they’ve seen, and what to do about it, but Piper seems lost in thought. Frank contributes to the conversation, but it’s unclear whether or not Piper hears much of what he says.

They Live, 1988

He shares with Frank the most backstory we ever get out of him: a single, inebriated speech about the abuse he suffered at the hand of his father. He tells the story of a time his father took out a shaving razor and attempted to saw through young Piper’s throat, “like he was sawing down a little tree.” (Presumably George in the original text would see this as a very inspirational story.) He tells Frank about how he screamed and cried for his father’s mercy, and Piper’s far from dull to the pain this many years later.

It’s all in buildup to one more macho threat, which also suggests a crucial moment of growth for Piper. While the story is about his father, he ends it with a threat to the aliens: “I got news for them. There’s gonna be hell to pay. Because I ain’t daddy’s little boy no more.”

It’s a difficult moment to pull off in a sci-fi action horror comedy, this moment of quiet, human vulnerability, but I’d actually argue that this is Piper’s strongest scene in the film. For a man who was never known for subtlety, he gives this speech incredible depth and sadness. It feels real. It feels honest. And it takes his unpracticed heroism and explains it by, suddenly, revealing depth of character.

To Nelson, triumph is a brick to the head. To Carpenter, it’s a broken man taking control, for the first time, of his destiny.

But no true 80s action hero is complete without a sexy love interest, and it’s here that poor Piper makes a bad choice.

After he forces Holly to take him home and explains the situation to her, she breaks a bottle over his head, hurls him through a plate glass window, and calls the police.

They Live, 1988

Ain’t love grand?

But Piper knows as well as we do that all romantic subplots have their hiccups, and they never end halfway through the film. Which is why he’s so happy to see her at a meeting of resistance members as They Live nears its climax. He concludes from this that she’s seen the truth…that he did his part in opening her eyes. He sees that he’s saved her, and that they can now work together to dismount the alien ruling class.

In short, he’s a bit dim. She’s a mole. And he doesn’t even second guess things when she says she assumed she’d killed him.

The creatures storm the meeting and murder almost every resistance member outright. Piper and Frank survive the onslaught, but Piper is convinced that he needs to go back for Holly, blind to the fact that she’s been directly responsible for having him nearly killed twice now.

It’s a sweet impulse completely overshadowed by its foolishness, and once they do find Holly, she wastes little time in putting her gun to Frank’s head and murdering him.

They Live, 1988

The entire end of the film is tonally chaotic, in the best imaginable way. The action, the comedy, the sci-fi, and the social satire all jostle for primacy, but it works. In “Eight O’Clock in the Morning,” George simply strolls into a TV studio, shoots everybody, and imitates the Fascinators for the viewers at home: “Wake up. Wake up. See us as we are and kill us!”

It’s an underwhelming solution compared to Carpenter’s, which sees Piper and Frank stumbling into an underground gala event, at which the aliens and their (willing) human accomplices celebrate the fall of the resistance. It’s “backstage at the show,” as one character puts it, and we get to tour it along with our heroes.

Nelson was concerned at this point mainly with wrapping up his story, but Carpenter is concerned instead with deepening it. And it’s a trick Carpenter pulls off with the return of a minor character played by George “Buck” Flower…another nameless drifter who lived in the same shantytown as our heroes. Only now, he’s found prosperity.

They Live, 1988

The two nameless drifters (Piper and Flower) meeting up at this moment, after an entire film apart, suggest parallel adventures, with each of them stumbling upon the same truths, but processing them in decidedly different ways. Whereas Piper’s character is horrified and disgusted to see that we’ve been used and manipulated by an outside force, Flower’s chooses to hitch his wagon to that force, and help them in exchange for being helped himself. “We all sell out every day,” he explains. “Might as well be on the winning team.”

Flower’s character isn’t alone. At the resistance meeting it was made very clear what the biggest threat to an uprising was: humans choosing to side with their own conquerors. “They sell out. Promotions, bank accounts, new houses, cars.” And then the six words that explain everything: “We’ll do anything to be rich.”

What’s really impressive is how Carpenter spins this into both an obviously negative thing, and also the reason Piper and Frank get a foothold at all. Humans want money and status, but they also want to show those things off…and when Flower’s character takes them on a tour “backstage,” he’s doing so in order to impress them. That’s the only reason they get within shooting distance of humanity’s salvation.

Before the fireworks at the TV station — and the shorting out of the device that hides the true identity of the aliens — Flower’s character ducks out. He vanishes from the action through the escape functionality built into his wristwatch, and it’s possible to conclude that he survives. It’s important, I think, because he’s not necessarily a bad guy. Like Piper and Frank, Flower had nothing. He was in an identical situation, and he was doing anything he could think to do in order to survive. Piper hiked from Denver to California for the barest hope of a job. Frank sent every dollar he made back to a family he’d never see again. Flower exchanged his pride for a life of financial security…and you can’t really blame a guy who hasn’t had a roof over his head or a good meal as long as he can remember.

We can identify with Flower, which is the scariest thing. Our conquerors don’t have to come with bullets and billy clubs. They just need to give us what we want. We’ll stop fighting the moment we think being conquered is a good deal. And I’m glad that Flower (potentially) survives the film; it keeps the morality nice and muddy, where it needs to be.

But, ultimately, Piper destroys the signal. He, Holly, and Frank all die, and the true faces of the aliens are revealed to the world at large. “Eight O’Clock in the Morning” sees George dying at this moment as well: “George did not live to see the victory that finally came. He died of a heart attack at exactly eight o’clock.” We’re then assured that he had universal success and we can all go out for frosty chocolate milkshakes.

They Live

Piper’s death is one we can only hope has the same result. We don’t know what happens after the aliens are revealed. They could be defeated…or they could make the same offers that won over people like Flower. The illusion may be shattered, but unlike in Nelson’s story, the power of the conqueror is rooted more deeply than that. A new day will dawn, but won’t we sell out on that day, too? Won’t most of us still want to be on the winning team?

I originally wanted to cover They Live for this series because I think it’s an incredibly inventive adaptation. It doesn’t so much re-tell a story as it does inject life into an idea that didn’t initially reach its own potential.

The unexpected and unfortunate death of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper is going to make this seem like at least a little bit of a tribute, and that’s okay, but if you haven’t seen They Live, don’t conclude that the only reason to watch it is to pay homage to the man.

It’s an important, influential, intermittently brilliant piece of brutal social commentary. And it’s a damned good movie as well.

It’s too late to cast “Rowdy” Roddy Piper in your movie and let him shoot a shitload of aliens, but don’t worry. Somebody already did it for you.

They Live, 1988

They Live
(1963, Ray Nelson [as “Eight O’Clock in the Morning”]; 1988, John Carpenter)

Book or film? Film
Worth reading the story? It’s the kind of story that loses nothing by simply having it summarized to you so…no.
Worth watching the film? Oh come on. Just look at this and tell me it’s not worth watching.
Is it the best possible adaptation? Even better than the story deserved. It’s an adaptation that isn’t worried about remaining true to the source material, and a perfect example of why that’s not just okay; it’s often beneficial all around.
Is it of merit in its own right? Definitely. It’s a deceptively clever bit of pulp that does a great job of threading its own world through the one we know. It takes a painfully wimpy story and a painfully macho genre and blends them both into a work of art.

ALF, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow"

There’s a reason that most sitcoms either rarely attempt emotional episodes, or make sure to undercut them when they do. To put it flatly, emotion is a tricky beast. Shows that traffic in it (see just about any daytime drama) become easy punchlines, and shows that don’t run the risk of annoying or alienating their fans when they make an attempt at seriousness.

Comedies are problematic when it comes to emotional content. People tune in to them not only because they like to laugh, but because they like to laugh with that particular show’s characters, tone, and comic sensibilities. When you hijack an audience’s regularly scheduled sitcom to present A Very Special message about drug addiction, date rape, or divorce…and when you put that Very Special Message in the mouths of the very actors we expected to make us laugh…it feels like a kind of betrayal. The messages and emotion are almost necessarily ham-fisted, because they so clearly don’t belong in a multi-camera sitcom with a live studio audience, a peppy theme song, and a wacky neighbor.

That’s not to say “serious” episodes can’t work, but it is to say that there’s no definite recipe for success, and thousands of examples of quite varied failure.

Some comedies decided to weave emotion into their stories from the start. In the case of M*A*S*H, for instance, dramatic moments actually suited the context of the show rather than distracted from it; it took place in a hospital camp during wartime, after all. We didn’t need, necessarily, to see the darker side of war, but when it reared its head it was impossible to dismiss as being out of place.

Another emotionally successful comedy is Futurama, and it’s no coincidence that that show’s most memorably devastating moments came at the end of an episode, rather than at the beginning or during. Seymour waiting, the destruction of Fry’s cosmic confession to Leela, the flashback of Hermes saving a defective Bender from the scrapheap…all of these things happen at the end of an episode. Until the curtain falls, you are watching a standard half-hour of the show. As a result, the emotion punctuates the story, rather than overpowers it.

But those are successful exceptions. Most of the time sitcoms swap out their standard approaches for something entirely different. And, most of the time, it’s a fucking disaster.

ALF takes an enormous gamble with “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow.” (As with the Gilligan’s Island episode, I’ve had to truncate the title for the WordPress headline.) It unapologetically goes the ham-fisted route. You may have tuned in expecting off-the-wall alien hijinx, but instead you’re getting a straight-faced examination of a minor character’s strained relationship with his mother.

The fact that it works is a miracle. Of all the sitcoms that have attempted drama over the years, ALF would be the last one I’d expect to be successful. And yet here we are.

I’m every bit as shocked as you.

We’ll get to why it works later on. For now, we’ll focus on the opening sequence, which is quite good. It’s punchy, it’s funny, and it reveals the central conflict of the episode in a clever way. It’s a good start to an episode that, by and large, lives up to its promise.

“Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow” begins with the Tanners finishing dinner. Kate brings out some pie as Willie compliments her on the meatloaf. She corrects him; it was Salisbury steak. ALF says to Willie, “Great. Meatloaf with an attitude.”

I can’t decide if I actually like the line or not, but the delivery is funny enough that it saves it from just being more Kate bashing. (The deliveries of many other lines in this episode save them, thankfully, from the same fate.)

Then there’s a knock at the door and Jake’s voice, and Willie calls out “Door’s open, Jake!” in a happier tone than I think I’ve ever heard this character speak before.

ALF, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow"

You know how I’ve floated the idea that early drafts of these scripts established a kind of bond between Willie and Jake? Well, moments like this really reinforce that thought for me, especially since Willie tells Jake he’s glad to see him, because “We haven’t seen you around here for quite a while.” It turns out to have just been a few days…which wouldn’t be long enough to register with someone if they were just neighbors. Friends may visit regularly, yes. But neighbors? Nah.

Somewhere in the hatchet-happy revision process, I’m convinced that we lost scenes of Willie and Jake finding unlikely friends in each other. Two isolates in a world they don’t particularly like, two nerds in their own ways, two people in search of a family and friends that understand them. Echoes of it survive in scenes like this. I sure wish we could have seen the whole thing.

Usually in these reviews I list every line that made me laugh, but already I’m having to leave a lot out in the interest of time. (The brief discussion of Mr. Ochmonek’s dislike of dried fennel — he prefers it fresh — is such a lovely, specific, genuinely funny flourish, for example.) That’s because in most episodes, so little works that it’s easy to be comprehensive. In this episode, nearly all of it works, and I actually have to be selective. It’s…a good feeling, I admit.

Jake explains his absence by saying, dismissively, that somebody’s been staying with them lately. He doesn’t make eye contact. He doesn’t want to tell the whole story. Kate, oblivious, sees that he’s not going to continue, so she asks, “A relative?”

Jake’s reply is instinctive. He says, “Sort of.”

It’s the classic response of somebody who doesn’t want to talk, but is forced into saying something.

When he explains, “It’s my mother,” it both works as a joke and as a punch to the gut.

On its own, this moment might not have meant much. In light of what’s to come, it’s the perfect introduction to a tonally distinct episode. It’s both funny and effective emotionally…two things that never come easily to this show.

The scene continues with the family discussing that Jake’s never mentioned his mother before…and there’s a great unspoken moment when the kid has no idea how to respond and nearly walks out of the house. Willie stops him (again, suggesting a kind of bond between them) and I love the fact that we don’t end with the shock of “It’s my mother.” The show allows that moment to play in its quietly sad way, and also to function as a laugh-line in a larger, ongoing sequence.

In other words, the introduction of this episode’s emotional component doesn’t bring it to a dead halt, which, I believe, is why it succeeds. The emotion doesn’t overshadow the comedy; they coexist. “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow” might not try as frequently to make us laugh, but it still does try. And the emotional content gives the jokes more room to breathe, making them seem funnier than they typically are.

I’m surprised at how effectively this episode played on my feelings. I’m even more surprised at how often it made me laugh.

ALF, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow"

After the opening credits, Willie verbally spars with ALF and licks his lips while eyeballing the alien’s naked, rippling chest.

Once again Willie and Kate are sitting on the couch, facing different directions, reading different things, in total silence, not touching each other. For crying out loud, there was more overt affection between Al and Peg Bundy. If at any point ALF had something to say about the stagnation of this marriage, I’d look at things like this as interesting, subtle ways of reinforcing the theme. Instead it’s just two actors who can’t be bothered to pretend they know each other, let alone act like they’re in a healthy and happy marriage.

Want to know why I believe the Ochmoneks are in love while I’ll never believe the Tanners are? The Ochmoneks touch. One laughs when the other makes a joke. They do things together. They do things for each other. They have date nights. They look each other in the eye. And, as we learn here in an offhand comment from ALF, they have a sex life. How much of that applies to the Tanners? None of it that I’m aware of.

Are Willie and Kate in love? We’re told they are. But if we go only by what we see, I’d never draw that conclusion. Roommates, maybe. Spouses? Impossible.

After the opening titles we see the most surprising thing about the episode: writing credits for Paul Fusco and Lisa A. Bannick.

Fusco, as you know, is the egomaniacal supervillain that began ALF as a legal way to torment and slowly murder Max Wright. He’s also, to be fair, an impressive and genuinely talented puppeteer, but his strengths have never had anything to do with writing or characterization.

Bannick’s previous writing credits on this show include “Wedding Bell Blues,” “Prime Time,” “Hail to the Chief,” “Tonight, Tonight,” and “Baby Love,” which reads like an incomplete list of the worst ALF episodes recited from memory.

Together, somehow, they both have their names on this uncommonly strong episode, which plays to the unexpected strengths of a problematic supporting character and fleshes out his backstory. This is incredible. It’s the ALF equivalent of walking on water.

ALF, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow"

Mrs. Ochmonek comes over to introduce Jake’s mother. I’ll get to her in a bit, but, first, let’s talk about the other thing we get introduced to: this episode’s approach to the Ochmoneks.

Normally, I’m baffled. Jack LaMotta and Liz Sheridan do the best they can with their characters. LaMotta is especially funny with his limited screentime (and ALF-quality gags), but what makes them stand out is the fact that they’re actually acting. They don’t just turn up, recite their lines, and walk off the set. That describes almost everybody else’s approach to this show, but LaMotta and Sheridan at least try. And I love them for it. I love them far (far, far…) more than I love any of the Tanners, which is what’s so baffling. Aren’t I supposed to hate these guys?

The show never quite got a handle on how to make us like the family we’re supposed to like and dislike the family we’re supposed to dislike. Even if we ignore the fact that LaMotta and Sheridan are clearly better actors, the show doesn’t accurately characterize either family, at all. The Ochmoneks are regularly doing nice things for the Tanners, nearly always spur-of-the-moment, and never receiving any kind of appreciation in return. On the flipside, the Tanners are consistently rude, condescending assbags. We’re about to enter the final season, and nobody involved with the show has realized any of this yet.

But this episode does what’s only been done maybe twice before: it positions the Ochmoneks as the right kind of irritating neighbor, and it does so from the start. Here, Mrs. Ochmonek introduces Jake’s mother to the Tanners and, after letting her gaze linger too long on Kate’s belly, explains, “She’s pregnant.”

The Ochmoneks aren’t cartoon characters, and they’re not assholes. They are (or should be) people who don’t really think before they speak. They’re not bad, they’re just uncouth. A little dim. Unaware of the fact that the way they live their lives isn’t the way that everybody else lives theirs.

And that can be annoying. In fact, in reality, that is annoying, and it probably describes pretty well the kind of people you yourself avoid whenever possible.

The Tanners don’t need to sit around making fun of Mr. Ochmonek’s war injury or Mrs. Ochmonek’s saggy tits. They just need to try to be civil and find themselves up against unintentional rudeness. That’s how you convince me that I’d be annoyed by the Ochmoneks; you emphasize their lack of self-awareness. You don’t tell me they’re fat and old and assume I’ll agree with you that yeah, the world would be a better place without them, and it’s right to treat them like scum.

Anyway, it’s a promising indication of the way the rest of the episode will pan out, and that just won’t do, so Willie reminds us that we’re watching ALF by making a funny face.

ALF, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow"

Kate suggests that they should all get together while Jake’s mother is in town, and Mrs. Ochmonek immediately volunteers her to make dinner for them tomorrow night. Jake’s mother says she doesn’t have to go through any trouble on her account, but Mrs. Ochmonek says, “Oh, pish. Kate doesn’t mind. Do you, Kate?”

All of which is rude without intending to be rude, and which fences Kate into hosting a gathering that she doesn’t especially care to host. It develops the story, builds character, and sets up the next plot point without feeling forced.

See how much better this shit is when somebody thinks before writing it?

Jake’s mother thanks the Tanners for all they’ve done for Jake. I’d love to make a snarky comment here, but, yeah…they actually have been pretty nice to him. They first met the kid, remember, the day he decided to burgle their house, and he’s been relentlessly trying to fingerfuck their daughter ever since. But he’s a welcome presence in their house; Willie seems to like him, ALF hardly rapes him at all, and he knows Brian’s name. The kid’s a miracle worker.

When he was introduced in “The Boy Next Door,” he stole Willie’s telescope. Later on ALF confronted him about it and taught him that “Repairing is cool, but stealing’s for fools.” Then he rapped a little bit about the importance of finishing your veggies, and always recycling to the extreme. I bring up Jake’s thievery here because it does, as we’ll see, qualify as a continuity error. I also bring it up, though, as evidence that continuity errors are worth having if they lead to a far better episode than the one it’s contradicting.

I’ll explain that later on. For now, Jake’s mother leaves and Willie sees that ALF has been watching and gleefully masturbating throughout the entire scene.

ALF, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow"

You may still be wondering why I don’t hate this one, but don’t worry; we’re coming to that now.

The Ochmoneks, Jake’s mother, and Jake are all dining with the Tanners, and as soon as Jake finishes (and his uncle asks for seconds) he says he’s full and they should probably get going.

Josh Blake isn’t a stellar actor or anything, but he does a good job in this episode, and specifically in this scene. His discomfort registers, probably because the kid has never been ill-at-ease in the Tanners’ house before. Whenever we’ve see him here he’s been one of the family. In fact he’s more than that, because people actually seem like him and enjoy his company. If Jake is uneasy it’s because something’s wrong, and that’s clear even if we’re kept in the dark as to what.

Jake’s mother also registers as a significant difference. She’s an unfamiliar presence, introduced at the same time we start seeing Jake behave strangely. And not only have we not seen her before; we’ve not heard about her before, either.

At least, I can’t remember hearing about her. Maybe a bigger fan of the show (Kim? Furienna?) will be aware of some reference I’ve forgotten, but, for me, she appears out of literally nowhere, and this episode answers a question I never thought to ask: why doesn’t Jake live with her?

ALF, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow"

In “The Boy Next Door” we found out that he was moving in with the Ochmoneks (his aunt and uncle) because his father went to jail. His mother’s status, to my knowledge, was never mentioned. I didn’t bring it up then, and probably didn’t even notice it. This is a TV show, after all, and while watching you fill in many gaps for yourself. Stories have to be brief, and not all details can be covered. You allow that. It’s part of the price of enjoying your favorite programs on a weekly basis.

Jake’s mother was one of those missing details, and “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow” has fun with that fact: the Tanners and ALF all concluded, independently, that Jake’s mother was dead.

It’s a joke that shouldn’t play as well as it actually does, because that is a pretty shitty thing to say to a kid, but it’s just meta enough that it works. Whether we knew it or not, we all did the same thing.

Jake’s here because his father is in jail? His mother must be dead. Like the Tanners, we didn’t come to this conclusion consciously or rationally…but in the absence of any other explanation, we conclude silently, passively, that she does not exist.

This episode (whose title I’m already sick of typing) takes the previous lack of an explanation and spins it into a pretty good story of its own…and its resolution is one that especially stings when you realize that Jake is more comfortable with people assuming she’s dead than knowing the truth.

ALF, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow"

Then we get even more fun had with the previous lack of an explanation. When Lynn brings ALF his supper, he theorizes that the woman is an impostor. It’s actually Jake’s father, he says, masquerading as a woman in order to avoid his prison sentence.

It’s stupid enough that it circles around to being funny again, but ultimately it serves a narrative purpose as well: ALF is convinced that something isn’t right, and so he’s attentive to things that the others might overlook. This conversation even leads to one of the show’s better puns, as he quotes a famous Melmacian deli owner: “Something is awry.”

Not sure how well that works in print, to be honest, but I liked it. And Andrea Elson responds with what seems like genuine laughter and — let’s be honest here — a fucking adorable smile, so it’s worth it for that alone.

ALF, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow"

Back at the table, the Ochmoneks are being the right kind of Ochmoneks. Misunderstanding Willie’s vague comments about ALF to Lynn, Mr. O assumes there’s a problem with the Tanners’ attic. He starts to tell the story of how he used to have an infestation of pigeons: “The place looked like it was stucco’d!”

His wife manages to shut him up, but this is great. It’s convincing. It’s the kind of thing someone might say, thinking he’s telling a funny story, without realizing how disgusting it is, and how the context of a dinner party precludes him from saying anything like that. Again, it’s a lack of self-awareness, which should be Mr. Ochmonek’s distinguishing comic feature. Why? Because this is what works.

Earlier he complimented Kate on the meal, and asked his wife why she said Kate was a lousy cook. Lack of self-awareness again. And it’s still funny.

He asks for more chicken in a moment, but Kate isn’t sure there’s any left. “If not,” he says, “I’ll take a burger.”

And later on, when the Ochmoneks are leaving, Mrs. O thanks Kate by saying, “Several items were simply delicious, Kate.”

These are exaggerated moments, but not by sitcom standards. In reality, it’s some folks who mean no harm but just happen to be bad company. That’s the right way to do these two, and I love it. It’s the only sustained example of handling these characters correctly that I can remember.

Things get uncomfortable when Kate asks Jake’s mother how long she’ll be in town. Jake keeps replying for her that it won’t be long, she’d love to stay, she needs to get back to New York.

Mrs. Ochmonek tells Jake gently that he’s being rude, and should let his mother speak for herself. Jake then tries to explain (convincingly flustered) that he didn’t mean to be rude, and Mr. Ochmonek says, “Cork it, huh Jake?”

It’s a well acted moment all around. It really is. People are being people, and Mr. O being harsh after his wife’s more tactful warning wasn’t effective is a surprisingly good example of escalating tension. I’m not watching a bunch of actors who will never work again pretending to eat dinner; I’m watching human beings interact in a humorous setting.

Amazing what a difference that makes.

ALF, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow"

Anyway, as all good TV episodes do, this one takes a turn when its main character needs to dump massive ass.

ALF sneaks out of the attic in order to hit the shitter, and when he does he sees Jake’s mother stealing some of Kate’s jewelry. The fact that ALF can’t actually confront her over this is a nice, natural reason that the story doesn’t end here.

It’s not contrived or falsely complicated. There aren’t any fake outs or accusations resulting in them going through her purse and not finding it.

ALF sees it happen, and her actions are unmistakably theft, but he can’t do anything about it. She has to get away with Kate’s brooch, for perfectly organic reasons.

Structurally speaking, it’s not bad. This is one of the (very) rare episodes that I don’t find myself having to make exceptions for.

Afterwards, the party winds down and ALF tells the Tanners what he saw.

ALF, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow"

This morning, one of my old professors shared an article on Facebook about why it’s nobody else’s business what a woman chooses to wear on her feet. I should like to submit this screengrab of Lynn as my counter argument.

This is one of ALF’s two big scenes in the episode. While I do usually complain about the plot screeching to a halt so that the space alien can do a little song and dance, both of his major interruptions this week actually develop the plot. In itself, that’s good…but even if that weren’t the case, the fact of the matter is that people were tuning in to watch the puppet say and do silly things. A (relatively) dramatic episode about the strained relationship between a supporting character and his never-before-and-never-again-seen mother probably wouldn’t have thrilled most of the viewers, so popping the title character up from behind the couch now and again was probably not a bad idea.

If anything, the fact that I like these scenes proves that there’s no specific formula for what works and what doesn’t. The same thing that annoys me in one episode can entertain me in the next, so long as the writing is good enough. Give me something to enjoy, and I’ll focus on that. Give me nothing, and my mind starts to wander.

Anyway, ALF engages in some pretty decent verbal shenanigans as he breaks the news. As soon as Willie starts yelling at him for waltzing into the living room without the all-clear, ALF does his best to redeem the moment: “Ahhh…Willie! You’re probably wondering why I’ve gathered you all here…”

And when Kate tells him he’s in trouble and not to change the subject, he reflexively answers, “I’m not trying to change the subject.” Then, after a beat, “Okay, I am. But this is really, really good.”

…I fucking like this.

Ultimately Kate goes to check on the brooch and finds out that it’s indeed gone. It’s been in her family for generations, just like everything else they own, apparently, which nobody ever mentions until ALF is caught manipulating his prostate with something for a laugh.

Since nobody apart from ALF saw the theft, Jake’s mother can’t be confronted directly. ALF says that he’ll speak to Jake about it instead. A sitcommy development that is raised in a decidedly natural, non-sitcommy way. Again, people: this is not that hard. YOU ARE DOING IT RIGHT NOW I DON’T WANT ANY MORE EXCUSES

ALF, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow"

The confrontation between the two manages to feel both realistic and (for the most part) funny. ALF isn’t comfortable bringing up what happened — clearly he knows it will be painful to Jake — so he stalls, trying to get Jake to “go first.” Which obviously doesn’t work, as Jake isn’t the one who called this meeting.

ALF tries to drop hints rather than come right out with it. He says he doesn’t know how to broach the subject. He thanks Jake for stealing some time to talk with him. He doesn’t, after all, want to rob Jake of any time with his mother.

It’s nothing fantastic, but it’s a fun bit of labored wordplay, in which the fact that it’s labored is the joke.

This sort of thing would play just as well on the radio, because it’s built around what people are saying and not saying. Which in turn frees both Fusco and Blake up to perform like human beings rather than flailing clowns. ALF barely makes eye contact, and fiddles with the bedspread as he talks. Jake sits awkwardly, wary of volunteering anything, and only really engages after ALF mentions his mother. It’s here that the boy stands up and says, defensively fragile, “What about my mother?” It’s clear that he knew something like this was coming, but he wanted to be wrong.

ALF, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow"

ALF tells him that he saw her steal from Kate’s jewelry box, and the look of disappointment on Josh Blake’s face is great. He’s acting. I believe in what he’s feeling right now, and it’s heartbreaking. It’s here that the point of the episode crystallizes. Jake knows about his mother’s behavior already. It’s what he was hoping to avoid anyone else finding out by keeping her squirreled away. And he wanted to believe that she wouldn’t do such a thing to the family that’s been so kind to him…but she did it anyway.

She’s his mother. And he loves her, but he can’t stand her behavior. It’s a sentiment that hits extremely close to home for me, and I’ll be honest and say that that’s, in large part, why I appreciate the episode.

“Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow” isn’t great television. That’s not why it resonates with me. By ALF standards, sure, it’s downright revelatory. It’s far better than the show’s baseline, which is pretty well represented by the episode in which ALF sings about wanting to finish in Lynn’s butt.

It resonates with me because I understand this. Of course, ALF has mined my emotional past for plotlines before, and that didn’t do it any favors. “Tequila” is a good example of taking a subject I should have been on board with, and botching it so spectacularly that I instead came away insulted. This one doesn’t do anything more than say, “Hey. I understand.” Sometimes that’s all you need to hear.

“Tequila” took the approach of preachy, sledgehammer nonsense. In it, ALF appeared to Kate’s soused friend as the Sobriety Goblin or whatever and scared her straight forever and ever amen. I grew up with an alcoholic, and even if the episode ended up being hilarious I’d have had trouble enjoying a conclusion in which the world is set to rights by a sassy puppet.

Here, ALF doesn’t pretend to be The Ghost of Shoplifting Past or anything. He doesn’t solve any problems. (Unless you count getting Kate’s brooch back, but that’s more of a symptom than a problem.) In fact, the main conflict of the episode hasn’t even been overtly raised yet. “Tequila” couldn’t possibly win me over, because its moral was something like “We can fix this.” And any readers out there who were also raised by alcoholics know that isn’t true. It’s an insulting suggestion to victims everywhere, the idea that a problem as serious as alcoholism still exists because you didn’t say or do the right thing to fix it. There’s nothing wrong with making light of a serious issue (in fact, that’s often a healthy way to process it), but there’s something astoundingly wrong with presenting it as being so easily resolved.

“Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow” doesn’t see Jake’s mother fixing a thing. We don’t end with a letter from New York thanking the Tanners for solving everything. She leaves, and life goes on. The bad things keep happening, because sometimes, despite your best intentions, despite all of your efforts, despite how much you need things to change, you can’t stop them. No, not even with a magical space puppet.

I remember wondering as a kid — and I still wonder today — what it’s like to watch those Very Special Episodes if you’ve experienced exactly the topic they’re covering. I guess I have, in some way, my own answer…but I’m curious on a wider scale.

How does that uncomfortable episode of A Different World play if you’ve been the victim of sexual assault? Is it helpful? Is it condescending? It opens a dialogue, but does it do so in the right way? Does it guide the conversation, or just make people more embarrassed to bring it up?

If you were molested as a kid, can you sit through the episode of Diff’rent Strokes in which Arnold’s friend gets diddled by the guy who runs the bicycle shop? Are you glad that people talk about the subject, or do you wish it was raised in a forum that wasn’t overrun with catch-phrases and pat resolutions?

These are rhetorical questions. I don’t expect anyone to answer (though, if you’d like to, remember that you can use a false name and email address below; you can remain completely anonymous).

I remember watching episodes like that growing up and wondering why they bothered. They weren’t as funny. They made me feel guilty to watch, because there I was thinking I was unhappy while sitcom characters endured terrible things that I (thankfully) never had to. Who was I to be sad? But did these episodes make real-life victims less sad? Or did they result in unhelpful discomfort all around? If the episodes weren’t for people who hadn’t been through these things, and they weren’t for people who had, who the hell were we making this crap for? And why?

ALF, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow"

This episode, though, gets me. It works, as far as I’m concerned. It raises a tricky issue, and leaves it. It doesn’t try to diminish or sanitize the fallout.

Granted, a woman stealing a brooch isn’t as “significant” as alcoholism, sexual violence, or your friend Dudley getting raped by Gordon Jump. But attempting to grow up under (and out of) the shadow of a broken home, of damaging parents, of a family you try really fucking hard to love but who will never change…of people you know you’ll have to leave behind if you’re ever going to save yourself, however selfish or cowardly or unnatural that might feel…of leaving behind all of your friends, your school, your entire world because your very family won’t let you become a better person…that’s heavy stuff. And as someone who’s been there, and as someone who struggles almost every day to push forward, I promise you it’s difficult. Difficult to talk about, difficult to write about, and difficult to carry with you.

Jake’s reactions here are both pained and painful. After he opens up about his mother’s problem, he promises ALF he’ll get the brooch back…and the exchange between these two gets uncomfortably realistic. First, he says he’ll steal it back when she’s sleeping. (ALF replies, “Who are you people? The Capones?”) He tells Jake to talk it out with her instead.

Great sitcom advice. Often terrible real-world advice.

And Jake calls him on it. He tells ALF, bluntly, that he’s been through this. Again and again and again. Yes, he’s a little kid on some dumbass puppet show, but that doesn’t mean he can get through to his mother. It doesn’t mean he can pull the world together in 22 minutes plus commercials. It doesn’t mean that this problem is going to go away next week. He can’t fix her. He has to live with this.

He’s tried. He’s tried hard. He’s done his best for her, to help her. When she came out to visit, he hoped she was going to tell him that she’d gotten better, and turned herself around. Because then, maybe, he could go back home.

But she hasn’t done any of that. Nothing has changed. He’s stuck here, living with an aunt and uncle that he doesn’t particularly like, longing for the New York he grew up in, being reminded in the worst possible way that he’s never going to be able to go back. Through the decisions his parents made, and continue to make, he ended up having to leave if he ever wanted to make something of himself. And now he’s stuck somewhere he doesn’t want to be. His frustration comes through in what’s easily some of the best acting this show’s ever had. (And, I’m positive, ever will have.)

At last, after all of this, Jake says, “I’ve had this fight with my mother a million times.” Then he takes a breath and admits, defeated, “I give up on her.”

And most shows — including many shows better than ALF — would see to it that this conflict is resolved by the end of the episode.

Jake, in some way, will give his mother a second chance, and he’ll be glad he did. He has to. That’s the way these shows work.

But that doesn’t happen.

He gives up on her, and he gives up not because sitcoms work that way (they emphatically do not), but because, sometimes, however painful, however unfortunate, however absolutely fucking awful that feels, you need to give up on someone you love.

You try to help, and nothing changes. You find yourself hindered by who they are, by how they wish to live their lives. It’s a toxic relationship, and you don’t have the ability to change that. There are few images sadder than that of a young boy locking his mother out of his life, but this episode, incredibly, understands that that’s exactly what needs to happen sometimes.

The right answer isn’t always the one that makes you, or anyone, happy. Jake tells us her that he’s given up on her, but his very presence here in L.A. proves that he actually gave up on her a long time ago. All this conversation does is reinforce his decision, and it suggests that he’s made the right one.

And ALF, like everybody else Jake will admit this to (I promise), says, “How could you give up on your own mother?”

And Jake tells him to back the fuck off.

He promised to get the brooch back, which is all he can do, and he storms off.

How could you give up on your own mother?

The question that hurts the most, because the person asking will have already decided that you can’t answer it.

ALF, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow"

Jake confronts her in the next scene, which is also the episode’s last. One thing I really, really like about “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow” is the length of its scenes. There are only a few in the entire episode, and it gives the cast a chance to breathe. Its moments are long, dialogue-driven, and largely human. It feels like a stage play at times, in much the same way that “Night Train” did…which was to its credit as well.

A commenter a while back suggested that I seem to like episodes better when they have an emotional component. I don’t think s/he is wrong, but it might not be exactly that; I think I like episodes better when they let the characters act like people. Often, that’s in order to explore some kind of emotion, sure. But not always. “Superstition” is a good example of a very enjoyable episode without any emotional content…but with a lot of human content. And this episode, like “Funeral for a Friend” before it, is an example of one that balances both. I think, ultimately, I just like episodes that don’t insult my intelligence. Whether that’s because it makes me laugh or because I can identify, I’m happy.

Here we have the big conclusion of an emotional episode, and it still manages a few good laughs. As Jake confronts his mother, for instance, he notices that the initials on her suitcase aren’t her own. She covers by saying, “I won it!” and pulls it out of his view, in a really impressive bit of comic acting for this show. It’s a gag, but it’s also a punch in the gut for poor Jake. It’s equal parts joke and characterization.

I looked up Randee Heller — who plays Jake’s mother — to see what else she’s been in, and it’s a lot. Nothing I recognize her from personally, but evidently she was in a bunch of episodes of Mad Men, which I hear somebody somewhere probably liked a little bit. So, yeah, I’m sure she knows her way around a script.

Before Jake can confront her, she tells him that she knows school is almost out for the summer (nice real-world timing, as this episode falls at almost the very end of the TV season), and invites him to come back to New York with her tomorrow.

He doesn’t answer. He’d rather talk about what happened during dinner at the Tanners’ house.

This serves as a nice — though probably unintentional — echo of his conversation with ALF. In each case, neither party really wants to bring up the problem and talk about it. His mother here says that all that happened is that they ate roast chicken. He says, “After that.” She says that they had coffee. Frustrated, he says, “Before that.” She continues to play dumb and even turns it around on him with a sarcastic remark about enjoying this “trip down Memory Lane.”

All while she sees how frustrated her son is getting. Blake is on point here, demonstrating better acting chops than nearly anyone he’s shared the stage with on this stupid show, and is even better than even Anne Schedeen has been lately. It’s legitimately painful to see him here, forced into an uncomfortable conversation with his mother, who is trying to make him feel crazy for accusing her.

When he talked about this to ALF, he was criticized for giving up on his mother. When he talks about it with his mother, he is criticized for inventing nonsense. Jake is in a no-win situation. He’s in this alone, and that’s the most painful thing about it.

Ten years ago, I left New Jersey. I left my job. I left my friends. I left the only world I’d known, and it was the most difficult and painful thing I’ve ever had to do.

But that’s the important thing: I had to do it. It was the only choice I had. The only right one, at least.

I didn’t want to leave. I especially didn’t want to abandon my family. But in a small town, in a small state, in a small world, you may need, at some point, to take drastic measures to distance yourself from your circumstances.

I come from a family in which substance abuse (alcohol I’ve mentioned before; it’s also the most benign example), violence, theft, manipulation, and emotional abuse and manipulation are common. If I were not related to them by blood, I would be able to dismiss much of my family as being, simply, bad people. The kinds of people you’re warned against getting too close to. The kinds of people you should never, ever let make your decisions for you.

But because I am related by blood, the narrative necessarily shifts…and I become the villain.

How could you give up on your mother?

The answer is simple: because you have to. Because you’ve done everything in your power to help. Because you can have these same arguments a million times and nothing will change. Because no matter how much you do, you aren’t that other person. They make their own decisions. And if they continue to make the ones that tear themselves down, and you with them, you need to make a difficult choice. The choice that has a right answer, but has no happy ones.

I started fresh, and it wasn’t easy. It still isn’t easy. There’s not a Mother’s Day, a Father’s Day, a Christmas, a Thanksgiving, an Easter, or even a Fourth of July that goes by without me feeling acutely aware of just what I do not have. What I cannot have. And it’s a pain that doesn’t soften over time. The holidays last year were as difficult as they ever were. This year they will be difficult still, and the year after that. And the best part? That I can’t actually open up to anyone about it. That’s one thing this episode gets exactly right about Jake’s predicament, deliberately or not. He tries to talk about it — twice — and he’s the villain. Twice. Because he did the only thing he could do to become a better person.

I know how this kid feels. I know he isn’t happy. He makes perfectly clear how much he’d like to go back to New York with a mother that turned her life around, but that’s not what’s happening here. He can’t pretend it is. Getting out of that house was probably the smartest decision of his life, and it’s one he’s doomed to regret forever.

Ha ha.

She reacts angrily to his accusation. She lists all the reasons that she couldn’t possibly have taken the brooch. But he knows the truth. He’s not trying to upset her; he’s only trying to return an object of sentimental value to his friends. Instead he gets excuses, delivered sharply, designed to hurt him for even asking about it.

He shakes his head and says, “Nothing’s changed, has it, ma?”

This is the fight they’ve had a million times. He knows. He wants to help. He doesn’t want this to be his life. And she turns it back on him. She knowingly hurts him more than he’d ever want to hurt her.

“Yeah, something’s changed,” she tells him. “You got a mouth.”

ALF, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow"

When she finally admits she took the brooch, and gives it back while insulting its quality, you can see how much it hurts him. He knew she took it, was fully confident of that fact, and yet you can tell that he was hoping — against all reason — that he was incorrect. That she’d somehow prove or demonstrate that she didn’t take it. That she’s not the woman he had to leave last year. That he was wrong and things could be okay.

That’s what he wants. He doesn’t want the brooch back. He wants to find out that all the crap he’s been feeling, and going through, and struggling against was his own fault. He wants to be wrong. He wants this to be something he can fix. Nobody else is fixing it, so all he wants, the only thing he wants in his life, is to be at fault so that he can make things better. So that he can make everything bad go away.

As painful as all of this has been, and continues to be, for him, the fact is that he would rather be at fault. He doesn’t want it to be his mother. The last thing he wants is for it to be his mother. He doesn’t want to give up on her. She’s an adult. She raised him. He’s a stupid kid still learning as he goes. Why can’t he be wrong? Is that so much to ask? That the adult can be an adult and the kid can be a kid? Why is this so hard?

It’s unfair. It’s unnatural. It’s not the way things are supposed to be. Jake, through no fault of his own, is forced to be an outlier. The kid at Christmas without a family. The kid whose phone won’t ring on his birthday. The kid who, one day, is going to fall in love with a girl and have to share all of this with her, and is going to have to deal with the way she looks at him when she finds out that he cut his family out of his life.

How could you give up on your mother?

All he wants is to be wrong.

All he wants is to see his mother again and realize he was wrong.

All he wants it to find out that this was all a big mistake and he’s the idiot and everything can go back to the way it’s supposed to be.

…but he finds out the opposite. And it’s devastating.

She tries to guilt him into coming home. She says that that would help her get better. Jake — smarter than most would be in this situation, I am sure — knows better. He doesn’t go home. To his own mother, to everybody, he’s the villain.

He has to be the villain. It’s the right choice to be the villain.

But that doesn’t mean it feels any better.

ALF, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow"

She leaves, and ALF pops up to say he’s been watching and solemnly masturbating throughout the entire scene.

Now that he’s witnessed the way Jake’s mother behaves and interacts with him, he understands Jake’s perspective a little more. He tells a few jokes about how shitty Kate’s cooking is and how shitty Kate’s brooch looks and how shitty Kate is at everything that shitty lady does in her shitty life, and that seems to cheer Jake up a little bit, but I like to see this small moment of emotional uplift as coming because someone now understands what Jake has to deal with every day of his life. It means a lot to know that someone, anyone, is on your side.

This is why I write. It’s how I handle things. Whether it’s fiction or essays or reviews or venom spat at decades-old sitcoms, writing is how I express myself. The internet has helped tremendously with that. Every once in a while I’ll get a comment or an email thanking me for something I wrote. It’s often something I’d forgotten I wrote. Somebody was having a bad day, found some old article of mine, and felt better after reading it. Someone took the time to say thanks…which is a larger gesture than it actually sounds like.

I write because it helps me, but if it helps anyone else, at any point, to any degree, that means everything to me. For that moment, I’m able to forget that I’m a villain. I’m able to forget how much I can’t express. The places I can’t return to. The faces I’ll never see again.

The friends I’ve lost and the opportunities I’ve left behind.

The people I’ve hurt.

The doors I’ve had to close, one by one.

There are things you can’t talk about. Not only because they’re too painful, but because nobody will understand. And so we connect with each others the only way we really can: indirectly.

It means a lot to me to know that anybody reads these things. It means more than I can even express to know that anyone enjoys them. Because while I had to leave a lot of things behind, this reminds me of the other things I’ve found instead. I write. I invest myself deeply in the work that I do. I try my damnedest to raise money for charity. All things I enjoy, but all things that are, emotionally, necessary for me. If I wasn’t able to make certain people happy, I’ve found some small ways to do it for others.

I end this episode feeling very close to Jake. I want to hug the kid, to be honest. Because he’s not a bad guy. He’s someone who has to deal with bigger issues than he should at his age. If he’s a prick now and then, we now know why. We understand.

And we can hopefully forget the fact that he was introduced to us as a thief as well. That muddies the water here if we remember it. If he moved to L.A. to get away from his mother’s behavior — which I do buy — it’s impossible to rectify that with the fact that he was immediately willing to do the same things upon starting his own life. Sure, we could see this as character growth (he went from stealing from the Tanners to returning their stolen belongings) but I can promise you that the last thing you do in a situation like that is slide willingly into the very behavior you left to avoid.

“Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow” recontextualizes “The Boy Next Door,” and in many ways overwrites it. Which I’m happy with, because while the episode gave us an unexpectedly valuable actor, it was also kind of shit.

This is the Jake I prefer. We don’t need windows into his soul like this every week; we only need one. Every time we see him from now on, we’ll understand a little better where he’s coming from.

And that’s fantastic.

…then again, Jake disappears forever in two more episodes. So THERE’S THAT.

Leave it to mother fucking ALF to cap off one of its best episodes, and probably its most affecting, by kicking the central character out the door and never speaking of him again.

Why — why — is it that even when I like this show I have to be reminded of how much I hate it?

ALF, "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow"

In the short scene before the credits Willie silently flashes back to all the shit he saw in Vietnam.

We find out that Jake’s mother left…and took Mr. Ochmonek’s coin collection with her. A joke, yes, but also one that assures us that we aren’t watching “Tequila.” Things aren’t better for Jake’s mother. Things aren’t better between Jake and his mother. Things aren’t better at all. People have problems, and problems — as much as we’d like them to — don’t always go away.

Things are still as they are.

It’s another day, and though that brings with it no promise of change, it’s also the most reassuring thought we have. The sun, as they say, will come up tomorrow.

Thanks for seeing it in with me. It means more than I can tell you.

Countdown to Jake ceasing to exist: 2 episodes
Countdown to Jim J. Bullock existing: 10 episodes

MELMAC FACTS: We learn that Jake’s mother is an Ochmonek “by marriage,” which means his father is the brother of either Trevor or Raquel.

The First Fallout

August 17th, 2015 | Posted by Philip J Reed in personal | video games - (1 Comments)

Not the First FalloutTo date, only three games have ever sold me a console. The first was Metroid Prime, which convinced me the moment I played it on a store’s display that I absolutely needed a Game Cube. The most recent was the announcement of Persona 5 a couple of months ago, which resulted in me breaking down and buying a PS4.

In the middle there was Fallout 3, which sold me an XBox 360 based entirely on the strength of its trailer. A trailer that, as far as I’m concerned, represents a masterclass in games marketing:

Watch it if you haven’t already. It’s more than just a commercial…it’s an introduction to a universe, one hilarious and horrifying, foreign and recognizable, insane and mundane in equal measure. Was I foolish to buy a console based on a video whose centerpiece was a live action dark comedy sketch? Of course. I definitely was. But I gambled, because if the game was even a fraction as clever and interesting as I hoped it would be, it would have been worth it. (Spoiler: it was unquestionably worth it.) (Double spoiler: the animated sequences seem to presage the recent mobile game Fallout Shelter! Pretty neat!)

Now Fallout 4 is coming, and I’m thrilled. And it’s had me reflecting on my Fallout experiences past. I’ll write up some of them, maybe, at some point. And when Fallout 4 gets here I’ll probably never shut the fuck up about it.

But one of my strongest, deepest memories comes from the first Fallout game I’d ever experienced…one released long before Fallout 3.

And it wasn’t Fallout 2. Or Fallout Tactics. Or the Fallout game you see pictured above. No, this predates that as well.

Years ago, there was a game called Fallout, which was entirely text-based. You could only play it online. Indeed, that was the draw and not a limitation.

Back then (1995 or so) you were pretty limited in what you could do on the internet, and unless you wanted to wait for days on end (not an exaggeration, at least not with my connection) most of what you could do was text-based. Music and films and glorious pornography were still available for download (legally and otherwise), but you’d better hope your phone didn’t ring before Thursday if you actually wanted the file to download properly.

Fallout was a discovery I made, but I can’t remember how. I passed it on to a few of my friends, and for a while we played regularly. It was a post-apocalyptic RPG, similar to what the proper Fallout series would become in tone. In fact, the first time I saw the version of Fallout pictured above, I thought it was a cheap ripoff. I didn’t play it; I was just appalled that somebody would so directly plagiarize (right down to the title!) a game I knew so well.

Obviously it’s now clear that similarities were coincidental, even if there were more than a few of them. But at the time I felt somehow wronged, like I’d witnessed a crime I couldn’t report.

Anyway, when I introduced my friends to Fallout they’d play for a while, get bored of it, and move on. Which is what I did as well. But one of my friends, Dave, took to it more enthusiastically than the others.

I don’t know why. I couldn’t begin to explain what the appeal was for him. He was an amateur survivalist, so maybe he saw it as a chance to flex his muscles in that regard. He told me a story once of a time he ran away from home. He packed a survival guide that his parents were dumb enough to give him, took all their pots and pans, took the shower curtain, and hiked deep into the Pine Barrens. He walked for most of the night, having to shed bags and belongings as he grew more tired. Eventually he went home, but was unable to find any of the stuff he left behind on the way out. His parents needed to buy all new cookware.

He and I played Fallout a lot. There were many players online at a time, and you could communicate with each other either publicly or privately. He and I worked together to gather up good gear and get a lay of the land. It worked well. His character’s name was Superfrog, and mine was Banner. I can’t really explain either.

I seem to recall the game taking place in New York, but I could be wrong about that. I do remember that an early-game gathering point was Reagan Square, and whenever you died you’d respawn near that landmark. I saw it a lot, I think.

It was a safe area, and you could barter and talk without much worry. When you felt ready, you could venture out to other areas (including a difficult one based on Army of Darkness, which I never saw because I probably maxed out at around level 15, and one that housed an extraordinarily powerful enemy named after Clint Eastwood’s Pale Rider) and hope you came back alive. I remember my weapon of choice was the Translucent Blade, which, in my imagination, looked great. I found a few weapons that were stronger, but I kept going back to the Translucent Blade, because none of the others looked as cool in my own mind. Even in a game that was entirely text-based, looks mattered.

One night I logged off after having played, I’m sure, far too long in one day. The next day I logged back in, and Superfrog was already there. He was also joined by a second character Dave created, called Holyfrog. This one was a healer. There may have been a third. Dave had essentially built his own party in several windows. And they were all something like level 50.

He’d been playing, without a break, all night.

Somewhere around that time, I said some foolish, and probably rude, thing about one of the other players. His character was named Benj. I never knew if it should be pronounced Benge or Ben Jay. But because I impugned his manhood he teleported me to his location — a restroom in one of the game’s restaurants — and pounded the crap out of me. Every time I escaped (I typed “unlock door” “open door” and “w” an awful lot in the course of those few minutes) he’d zap me right back. It was hopeless. He killed me.

I respawned at Regan Square and tried to find my corpse to regain all my gear. He was waiting, and killed me again. I wasn’t getting any of it back. And I stopped playing Fallout not long after that. (Maybe…20 seconds after that.)

But it was fun while it lasted. For Dave, it lasted the better part of a year.

He became obsessed with the game. It was all he ever talked about. He found some other high-level players and took down Pale Rider. He was so proud he emailed me the log of that session, as though it were a photo of himself standing next to the bass he just caught.

He loved Fallout. And it got to be pretty scary.

He stopped going to high school. He stopped sleeping. His younger sister emailed me or IM’d me at some point to ask me to come over and get him out of the house; he didn’t do anything but play Fallout anymore and it was driving her insane. I was in love with that girl, and I’m sure I harbored plenty of fantasies about her contacting me and inviting me over, but the circumstances were not exactly what I was hoping for.

He’d eat, but he wouldn’t talk to his family. He just wanted to finish quickly and get back to Fallout. He ran out of sick days at school, and dropped out. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. Eventually he got his GED, which is good. But at the time he was exclusively studying Fallout, which was bad.

Christmas came and went. His family had to force him (physically force him) into the car to go with them to pick out a Christmas tree. He sat with his arms crossed, grumbling for the entire ride, and refused to get out of the car once they got there. He waited in the cold car with no heat, willing them to hurry up and pick a fucking tree so he could go home and play Fallout some more.

At some point, he stopped. I don’t know why. Maybe his parents had him lobotomized. I honestly don’t know, and we don’t keep in touch so there’s no way I can find out. But for such a stupid game, some text-based nonsense that was little more than an accumulation of pop-cultural debris and mindless grinding, it was the closest thing to outright obsession I’d ever witnessed.

His family hated Fallout. If they knew that I was the one who introduced him to it, they probably hated me for that, too. For them, like for me, that whole period must seem now like an odd waking nightmare. Nobody talks about Fallout — that Fallout — anymore. Hell, nobody talked about it then, either. It was some niche little curio stashed away on the fledgling internet, when word of mouth was still about the only way anyone found out about anything. Dave was singularly obsessed with something most people didn’t know — and will never know — even existed.

And it’s odd. Because every time I hear about Fallout now — the major, popular Fallout — my mind thinks back to that black text on a white screen. Reagan Square swarming with newbies. The imaginary heft of a Translucent Blade in my hands. Benj summoning me repeatedly to the bathroom for an asskicking. Being introduced to Holyfrog and Crazyfrog or whatever he was called as the earliest manifestations of Dave’s eventual madness.

I always need to recalibrate my thoughts. Someone mentions Fallout, and as much time as I’ve spent with the proper games, I don’t picture Ghouls and Super Mutants. I don’t picture Deathclaws and Radscorpions. I don’t think about Vaults or the Wasteland.

I think about a game that I’m reasonably convinced none of you knew existed before this post. I can barely find information about it online, and I couldn’t even find a screenshot to use with this article. What little space it occupied in the cultural memory has been almost completely overwritten by the far superior, true Fallout series.

But for me? That can never happen. I remember the original too much. I remember the way it affected someone I actually knew, in a world I actually occupied.

They say Fallout 4 will have around 400 hours of content.

That’s nothing. You could probably play through that game without even having to drop out of school. It’ll never be a patch on the original.

Shh. (Also, Speak Up!)

August 12th, 2015 | Posted by Philip J Reed in Meta - (13 Comments)

Bjork, "It's Oh So Quiet"
This is a fairly-late notification that I’ll be taking the week off from posting. It shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise; I do this all the time for no reason at all. But this time I have SEVERAL REASONS AT ALL

I spent too much time on Fiction into Film. This past weekend I set aside a lot of time to write, and instead of just making notes for the next installment of Fiction into Film, I wrote the whole damned thing. It won’t post until later this month, and it still needs at least one more good edit, but once I started writing it I couldn’t stop. I can honestly say that Fiction into Film is already my favorite series that I’ve done here, and I sincerely hope you’re enjoying it. Please let me know your feedback, and any suggestions for films to cover. So far I’ve done Lolita and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. In a couple of weeks they’ll be joined by They Live, and I already know some interesting adaptations I’ll be covering after that. I’m hoping that you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoy writing them.

This week’s ALF deserves it. Remember way back in season two when I took an extra week to write about “Night Train”? Well, shocking the hell out of me, the next episode of ALF deserves the same consideration. It’s…an interesting one, and I hope you’ll understand that the delay is in aid of giving it its fairest due.

It’s been a year since Robin Williams took his life. …and I keep seeing reminders of that fact pop up. It brings back a wealth of emotions, which is probably a good thing, as his death opened a dialogue that I believe strongly needs to stay open. It does, however, prevent me from wanting to write the kinds of silly things I usually post here. I will, however, gladly link you to two pieces that I posted that week: Reflections on Robin Williams’ Passing, and the The Voices of Depression. I wrote the first one, and readers here wrote the second. If I had to single out the most important thing that’s ever been on this site, it’d be that one.

Something big is brewing. Stay tuned for some major news…news that will explain where much of my effort has been going lately. While it’s still too early to say much, I feel obligated to spill at least a few beans. I will be launching a new book series very soon…and it’s something you can all be involved in. It’s a series of physical(!), professional texts that combine art criticism, philosophy, and memoir…and it’s going to be authored by a very select group of incredible writers. More information to come, but if you’ve ever wanted to learn why films, novels, songs, and other works of art affect us they way they do, I can promise you’ll find no better (and no more profound) reading material on the subject. Stay tuned. You’ll be as much a part of this as I will.

Not a reason, but come on. So I wanted to embed the music video for Bjork’s “It’s Oh So Quiet,” which I haven’t seen since it was new, but even her official youtube account only has it in garbage quality. I mean, look at that crap…it looks like somebody fed it through a dog. What a shame; it’s one of the most gorgeous music videos I’ve ever seen. Does there really exist no version better than what was used to line somebody’s birdcage? It seems almost disrespectful to host it in this shape.

Anyway, thanks for understanding. Let me know in the comments below if you have any thoughts on the above. Seriously; I love you guys, and I love reading what you have to say about the nonsense I get up to here.

Also, let me know what your favorite cookie is. If I ever bake something in my life, it’ll be for you.

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