Reading too deeply into these things since 1981

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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.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the film that originally piqued my interest in the process of adaptation. I first saw it in junior high. (This surprises me now, as there’s a good deal of profanity, some nudity, discussions of rape, and simulated masturbation, so we must have had a pretty inattentive substitute that day.) Toward the end of high school, I picked up the novel…and I was shocked by something the moment I started reading it: Chief Bromden was the narrator.

This is an experiment I’ve enjoyed repeating over the years. Whenever I meet somebody who’s only seen the film, I casually mention that the book is narrated by the Chief. Every time, to some degree, I’m met with disbelief and confusion. They go through that same, silent questioning that I went through way back then. Questioning which, I believe, is a testament to the strength of Milos Forman’s adaptation. Bromden narrating the source material doesn’t just land as a quirky surprise…it makes it immediately clear that the book must be a different kind of story entirely.

And it is. The shift in perspective narrows and sharpens the film’s focus, but it also sets into motion waves of less-perceptible effects. This ends up creating a welcome duplication of the original experience, familiar and just far enough removed that the film was able to take on a very deserved legacy of its own.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is probably my example of an ideal adaptation; instead of having one version that trumps (or attempts to trump) the other, we have two versions, existing in two different media, functioning together and also independently. A massive, important, gut-wrenching statement in print managed to become also a massive, important, gut-wrenching statement on film. They share a title, they share a roster of characters, and they arguably share a grander social statement, but the execution in each version is so perfectly tuned to its medium that they’re easy to keep separate. A single ray of light split into two similar but distinct images.

The story of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest doesn’t, on the surface, feel different between the book and the film. Randle Patrick McMurphy — a brash, charismatic criminal — feigns mental illness so that he can ride out his prison sentence with relative ease in an institution. It works, but he soon finds himself locked in a fateful (and ultimately fatal) struggle with Nurse Ratched, who rules with unchecked authority over her numb and defeated patients.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

The struggle between McMurphy and the Big Nurse (as Bromden calls her in the book) is what nearly anyone would talk about when asked to discuss the plot of either version. Rightly so, but its not the only plot Kesey set to the page, and it’s only one filter through which his novel explores the world. Forman — I’d say wisely — eschews everything that doesn’t tie directly into this plot, building continuously and without digression toward the showdown between these two giants. While that means that his film loses a lot of Kesey’s warped, cynical playfulness, it also results in a sharper work…one that has a single, specific, inevitable outcome. There aren’t other threads to wrap up or questions to answer; a story of many things finds what matters most to what it neeeds to say, and discards the rest. It’s a movie about its conclusion; no blinking, no distraction, and nowhere to hide. It knows what it’s doing, like McMurphy. And like McMurphy, it barrels forward anyway, knowing full well that it won’t find a happy ending.

The book takes its time. There are lighter, humorous interludes. It moseys along and takes every opportunity to enjoy (or, at least, linger upon) the view. It knows what has to happen as well, but it finds sober, voyeuristic pleasure in the low-stakes poker games and quiet interactions that its cinematic twin ignores. The novel and the film amount to two journeys past all of the same landmarks, but at a much different pace, with a very different tour guide.

Both approaches work, and they work equally well. This is because Kesey and Forman are both in command of their form. At no point does either version of the tale stray from its creator’s intentions. They’re equally potent. Equally memorable. Equally brutal. They’re different, but I think it would be very difficult to declare with any confidence that one is “better.”

Sweeping Bromden from the central role does more than shift the weight of the story. After all, the novel actually weaves three levels of narrative; by edging him out of the spotlight, we end up with the film’s (cold, deliberate) one. The novel features the McMurphy / Nurse Ratched power struggle, of course, but there’s also the story of Bromden’s tribe (an exploration of America’s treatment of its native population), and his intricate hallucinations of an oppressive social force that he calls The Combine.

All three of these are integral to what Kesey considers to be the story. Forman, by contrast, isn’t interested in Bromden’s background or his daydreams. Very little of either of those makes it into the film, because to Forman’s story, they’re irrelevant; the director obviously came away from Kesey’s book with a powerful message, but it didn’t have much to do with the plight of the American Indian. And so we don’t need Bromden in the central role…which has the logistical benefit of Forman not needing to maneuver the seemingly deaf/dumb Indian into every important scene; in the film, the character simply does not appear where he does not fit.

But with him out of the way, we lose, too, his unreliable narration.

Kesey had a great deal of morbid fun showing us the experience through Bromden’s eyes, eyes crucially warped by the specter of mental illness. Stripping Bromden of narrative detail meant that we lost much of the loopy charm (a sequence in which Santa Claus visits the ward and is forcibly committed [“They kept him with us six years before they discharged him, clean-shaven and skinny as a pole.”] is a cruel delight that could only possibly have a home in the book), but in the absence of an unreliable narrator, the central conflict of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object gains potency.

With Kubrick’s Lolita the source material lost a massive amount of its identity in the absence of an unreliable narrator, but that’s mainly because Kubrick failed to replace this crucial component of the novel with much else. Forman, on the other hand, knows exactly what to do in the absence of Bromden’s unreliable narration: he doubles down, hard, on the reality of the situation. Bromden’s fantastical narration made for some great (and chilling) reading, but Forman offers no distraction. No respite. This is real. This is happening. And you are going to have to endure every moment. Where Kesey dazzles, Forman refuses to blink.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Of course, Forman had a great reason to devote his attention exclusively to the novel’s central conflict: two incredible actors inhabiting the necessary roles. To distract from their performances — however artfully — would have been criminal. Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher are the two main reasons the film works as well as it does, and their roles in making this film a success — of any and every kind — cannot be overstated. Most literary adaptations would kill to have just one actor that perfectly inhabits a character; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next has two.

Both of them illustrate (if it still needs illustrating) why it’s far preferable for an actor to inhabit rather than simply resemble a character. Neither Nicholson nor Fletcher match Kesey’s physical descriptions at all, but it would take an extraordinarily warped perspective to conclude that this meant poor casting. In fact, Ratched’s physical appearance, almost entirely a creation of the film, is one of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest‘s most enduring visual touchpoints; her hair and wardrobe now serve as a convenient shorthand for a very specific type of character — always female, interestingly — and we see it in everything from the deliberate homage of Cloris Leachman in High Anxiety to the suggested similarities of Tilda Swinton in Moonrise Kingdom. Nurse Ratched’s physical appearance sticks with us long after the film is over. It’s a triumph of rendering the ordinary horrifying.

Nicholson plays McMurphy as an agent of calculated chaos. He rips into the meticulous order of the ward from the moment he’s uncuffed (literally that moment, as the first thing he does is whoop joyously…something that even this early in the film we know doesn’t happen often here). He sets about introducing himself to the other patients, interrupting their games, and making sure they know his name. He treats them — to their clear surprise — like human beings. That doesn’t mean that he treats them well, exactly, but that’s okay. He treats them the way he’d treat anyone else. And that in itself is enough to set the wheels in motion: the patients begin to suspect they might not be so different after all.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

By contrast, Fletcher inhabits Nurse Ratched as a looming wraith. She rules her ward not with an iron fist — a simplification that must have been tempting for both authors of the tale — but with perfect calm. With a smothering delicacy. With glares and implications. And she is — pardon the language — fucking terrifying.

She’s a villain perfectly secure in the knowledge that she can never be threatened, because she also has the final say in who wins. As Bromden observes in the book, you can probably beat her once, but you need to keep beating her forever. There’s no victory state for her hypothetical antagonist…just an endless series of wins and losses until, all at once, there are no more wins.

In the struggle between them McMurphy is the clear hero, but at no point is it reduced to a simple conflict between “good and evil.” McMurphy may be the more humane combatant, but he fleeces, cheats, and uses his fellow patients in service of his own ends…and saying nothing of the fact that he was imprisoned for statutory rape, which is something he even brags about. And Nurse Ratched, for all that is clearly wrong with her methods, is ultimately in her position for a reason: many of her patients do have legitimate mental health issues, and her ostensible concerns (medication, respect for the schedule, the dangers of McMurphy’s schemes) are sound.

Nurse Ratched may be doing a number on the confidence of the men in her ward, but she’s seen (in both the novel and the film) by the rest of the hospital as one of their most valuable members. We also see her at her worst, but to her supervisors and colleagues, she’s great at her job and a valued member of staff. Clearly she’s doing something that at least seems like good work, and it can’t all be illusory.

The complicated nature of the struggle is part of why it works so well. Nurse Ratched isn’t pure evil, which is why she’s so often able to stymie McMurphy; she makes fair points. Her intentions may be less noble than his, but her reasoning — she makes very sure — is solid and defensible. And McMurphy isn’t pure good, coming across as an obnoxious braggart while still serving, remarkably, as a savior. She’s a cruel angel of mercy, and he’s a selfish asshole who makes the ultimate sacrifice. such a balance is hard enough to achieve in writing; on screen, Nicholson and Fletcher each achieve the impossible.

Fletcher masterfully embodies the personable horror that is Nurse Ratched. Hers is the most natural portrayal of an unnatural terror that I have ever seen, and her flat expressions and piercing glares are positively withering. The film does such a great job of building the dread one feels when she just steps into a room that when she finally has reason to bare her teeth in anger, it’s genuinely scary.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Hers is a silent brutality…effortlessly chilling and immensely dangerous without displaying any emotion whatsoever. The moment emotion does come to the surface, it’s unbearable. We know exactly how she maintains order on her ward; keep everyone that close to breaking, and it doesn’t take much to finish the job.

In the book, we Bromden in a position to tell us all of this in as many words. In the film, Forman conveys all of the same things visually…hanging on her icy glare long enough for us to sense, innately, in our bones, how unbreakable, untouchable, undefeatable she is. She reduces patients to tears and dismay without so much as raising her voice. She fixes the aggressive and the docile with the same look, and they wither equally.

One interesting thing Forman does is forbid her, nearly always from sharing the frame with any of her patients. In passing, yes, there are times that she does share space…but when she does it’s with McMurphy, who is meant to be seen as toppling barriers anyway. The rest of the time she engages with them we cut from the patient to Nurse Ratched, and then back to the patient. She exists behind invisible boundaries that they dare not cross, and which she is perfectly happy to maintain her end. She does not share their space…and she does not allow them to share hers.

Forman emphasizes this silently, visually, gorgeously. The camera functions like the glass window of the nurses’ station; it invisibly isolates the patients from the one who is ostensibly there to help them. And, like that glass window, it’s McMurphy who eventually shatters it.

She is, however, framed frequently with other members of staff, in particular her three orderlies. The orderlies, in turn, are often framed with the patients, and this establishes — completely visually — the entire caste system of the ward.

The patients are on one end, the Big Nurse is on the other. The orderlies go where they’re needed in order to execute Nurse Ratched’s wishes, and she never needs to get her hands dirty. Bromden tells us all of that in the book. Forman doesn’t say a word.

And when this visual restriction is shattered for good with the film’s climactic strangling, we feel a barrier being destroyed. McMurphy takes control of Nurse Ratched’s space at last…and we know, unquestionably, that this must be the last time it happens as well.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Though Forman’s take on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest feels like a pretty straight adaptation on the surface, there are a lot of significant alterations, nearly all of which benefit the film.

For instance, we don’t get the series of patient deaths that we do in the novel. There, at least three patients (Old Blastic, Rawler, and Cheswick…the latter two by suicide) die before the fateful ward party that takes Billy Bibbit and (indirectly) McMurphy, but in the film Billy is our first casualty, and it ends up having more weight in Forman’s telling as a result. The film doesn’t let show us patients dying, so when Billy cuts his throat we feel it all the more deeply; this wasn’t something that we thought could happen.

The death of Billy has more bite in the film, I’d argue, and that’s probably because it was unprecedented. Billy isn’t the next death…he’s the death. And when McMurphy reaches for Nurse Ratched’s throat, it’s not because it happened again, but because it happened at all.

And just as Billy’s death is repositioned as the death, McMurphy’s role becomes singular, too. In the novel, we get a few flashback featuring a patient known as Taber, who questioned Nurse Ratched’s authority and methods. Taber was, essentially, pulling the same duty as McMurphy. He needled the Big Nurse, refused to take his medication, and raised issues that the other patients were too docile or embarrassed to raise. Nurse Ratched, in return, made sure that he was embarrassed, abused, and eventually broken by electroshock therapy. Though he was discharged, he was not the same man. His story, relayed briefly by Chief Bromden in the book, is McMurphy’s entire arc in micro. A nice touch, but in comparison to the film this makes McMurphy less of a singular force. In the book he’s the latest in a line of disruptions, whereas in the film, he is the disruption.

Most interesting about this change is the fact that Forman includes Taber in the script. He’s played by an underutilized (but still very good) Christopher Lloyd, and he’s right there on the ward with McMurphy. What’s more, many of his lines from the book are given to McMurphy.

While it would have been easy to not include Taber at all, Forman wants us to see that what happened in the book did not happen in the movie. We don’t get to imagine that at some point in the past there was a Taber. Forman wrenches him out of the flashbacks and sits him down right where you can see him, all so you know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that McMurphy isn’t just offering another chance to the other patients; he’s offering the only chance they’ll ever have.

Probably the smartest major change, though, is Forman’s abandonment of the “Matriarchy” nonsense.

In most ways, Kesey’s novel has aged extraordinarily well. It’s gorgeously written, effectively harrowing, and socially sharp. Yet his seeming concerns about the Matriarchy read as preposterous — and more than a little embarrassing — today. The idea that men would be castrated (literally and figuratively) by an all-powerful Womanhood, to whom they’d sacrifice their autonomy, and which would hold all of the power and authority in the nation, reads even sillier today than it must have in 1962. Perhaps back then it was possible to see this as a cause for some concern; and, hey, for all I know One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest single-handedly prevented America from sliding helplessly into the tyrannical grip of unbridled femininity. I don’t and can’t know. Today, though, it’s patently absurd, and the belief that women hold (or are in danger of holding, or who would systematically destroy mankind once they managed to hold) absolute power requires a complete disconnect from anything even resembling reality.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

It’s tempting to handwave the book’s suggested misogyny as stemming from the diseased mind of Chief Bromden, but it manifests itself in too many facets (several of which have nothing to do with Bromden) to be entirely a product of his narration. It’s Bromden’s mother, it’s Nurse Ratched, it’s Harding’s wife, it’s Billy’s mother, it’s even the teenage girl McMurphy rapes. The Matriarchy — which is mentioned and cautioned against by name — is a very real threat in the world of novel, and it’s one that beats down each of the men. Forman, intelligently, ignores this entirely, and even announces as much at the beginning of the film when McMurphy is admitted. There we get a shot of patients from other wards looking upon him with curiosity…and they’re women. In the novel, the patients are exclusively male. Here, with one shot, Forman brushes aside the distasteful paranoia and lets us know something important: these things are horrible not because they’re happening to men, but because they’re happening to people. Gender doesn’t enter into it.

This is also reflected in the revised role of Dr. Spivey, who in the film is ineffectual, rather than henpecked. In the book he is present at all of the ward meetings, mainly to demonstrate the fact that he’s under the thumb of Nurse Ratched as well, even though he is technically her superior. In the film, he rarely leaves his office, meaning we get less of a sense that he’s under her (or anyone’s) control.

This is important, because this version of Dr. Spivey is not cowing in fear…yet he still fails to be of much use. He’s not rendered powerless by the Matriarchy; he’s simply not very good at his job.

If the film has a weakness (and I’d personally say it has a few), it’s the fact that it’s made up of big scene after big scene. As nice as it is to have the sharper focus of Forman’s vision and the inexorable march toward the climactic gut-punch, the novel’s quieter scenes are missed. Nearly every scene in the film is a confrontation, the build-up to a confrontation, or the aftermath of a confrontation. It’s exhausting; it can feel draining to watch…which, admittedly, is likely enough a deliberate way of getting us to feel some of what McMurphy must feel. But this comes at the expense of the feeling of misfit community that the book conjures up so wonderfully. Card games, small talk, a trip to the hospital library. Scenes that, sometimes, do little more than make the tiny universe of ward life feel more real…but that’s exactly why they’re missed. When we jump from big moment to big moment, that sense of gradual build is sacrificed in favor of something more like an emotional slideshow.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Much of these missing quiet moments are down to the reimagining of the character Harding, who in the novel serves repeatedly as McMurphy’s verbal sparring partner. That Harding is as intelligent as McMurphy is brash, and they form a begrudging respect for each other; each has what the other is too proud to admit he wants. Like McMurphy, the novel’s Harding is one of the least sick men on the ward, and most of his troubles (such as they are) seem to stem from worries about his wife’s sexuality, and suspicions about his own. Outside of McMurphy and Bromden, he’s the most important of Kesey’s patients, and it’s through him that most of the novel’s foreshadowing unfolds.

In the film, Harding is more helpless than intelligent, and Nicholson’s McMurphy, for whatever reason, can’t stand him.

It’s a major shift in dynamics from the book. Book Harding rises to McMurphy’s taunts…and the two settle into a kind of unexpected friendship. Film Harding shrinks before McMurphy’s taunts…and therefore never earns his respect. The book and the film, as a result, seem to form a pair of realities, each of which exploring the way in which Harding’s role changes, based upon two different, hypothetical reactions to McMurphy.

So far away from the often chummy banter the two share in the book, in the film McMurphy ruins his Monopoly game, spits a pill in his face, cuts in front of him in line for medication, teases him about his sexuality, kicks him out of the basketball game, and — the biggest slight of all — he introduces him as Mr. Harding before the fishing trip, whereas everyone else gets to be Dr. Cheswick, Dr. Taber, Dr. Scanlon (the famous Dr. Scanlon), and so on. In short, McMurphy treats Harding noticeably worse than he treats the other patients.

It’s an interesting change, as though Book McMurphy sees in him a source of valuable advice (and information), while Film McMurphy sees him as someone who needs to be knocked down a peg. This, I think, is due to the fact that Harding’s purpose in the novel is rendered redundant on film. In the book Harding had to relay information to the reader; he was the only character who could. Bromden can’t (ahem) speak and isn’t to be entirely trusted anyway, Nurse Ratched wouldn’t dare vocalize her intentions, McMurphy is new on the ward and learning things along with us…but Harding fit the role nicely. He was relatively sane, relatively reliable, relatively friendly, relatively talkative, and had been on the ward long enough to know which end was up. In the book, his was the most trustworthy voice.

In the film, however, there’s no need for him. Forman conveys with quiet visuals what Kesey detailed in meticulous text. The audience picks up on things by virtue of simply seeing them, and the film trusts them enough to fill in the blanks.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Forman also skimps decidedly on the foreshadowing. Whereas Kesey needed Harding to explain the nature of electroshock therapy or lobotomy, Forman doesn’t want him talking. When those moments hit, he wants them to hit both hard and unexpectedly. Just as the string of deaths was stripped from the film and Taber was stripped of his role as proto-McMurphy, Harding was stripped of his warnings. Forman didn’t want the audience to be told what was coming. The audience would know, because that’s how inevitability works, but somehow it’s scarier, more effective when it’s not spoken of aloud.

I’d argue that Forman’s rollout of horrors is handled more artfully than Kesey’s, but that’s just a matter of opinion, and even then I can’t say that I have a strong preference either way. What I do prefer is that Forman’s methods force us to side with McMurphy. In the novel, we know ahead of time what he’s getting himself into, and we have every right to question his intelligence (and, erm, sanity) when he pushes forward anyway. In the film we learn as he learns…which is as the punishments are lashed upon him. This makes us feel protective, feel angrier on his behalf, and see clearly the importance of his rebellion.

Forman’s unblinking lens (the precise opposite of an unreliable narrator) illustrates the toll this rebellion takes on McMurphy by refusing to cut away. The electroshock therapy scene makes for intensely difficult watching, simply because of how naked it feels. There’s no movie magic here; it’s a man on a gurney, acting out his pain. We don’t get any fake electricity sound effects, we don’t cut to black and leave the audience to imagine things, and we don’t have another character explain to us what the experience is like. Kesey’s depiction of the punishment is entirely internal, relayed through Bromden. Forman’s is entirely external, captured through a camera’s lens. Both of them in perfect keeping with the strengths of their format.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

This is McMurphy, writhing in agony, and we are not spared a second. Whatever the strength of his swagger after this scene, from this point on it’s impossible to not be aware of the effect it’s having on him. We’ve seen him at his most vulnerable. We’ve seen how doomed his rebellion really is. It’s something he’ll never reveal to the other patients…but we’ve already seen it.

Of course, the electroshock therapy scene is also where we learn that Chief Bromden is neither deaf nor dumb…a significant change considering that we know these things from the very start of the novel.

It’s yet another very interesting effect of sidelining Bromden. What was one of the very first things we learned in the book — one that shaped the way in which every event was reported to the reader — becomes a mid-film surprise. In both cases Bromden speaking represents a major evolution for the character, and is crucial evidence of the positive impact McMurphy is having on his fellow patients. But the film allows us to share McMurphy’s surprise, and his incredible series of reactions to the development.

At first he can’t bring himself to believe that the Chief thanked him for a stick of gum, so he does what any good scientist would do: he offers him another, to see if he can repeat the result. Nicholson’s performance throughout this entire scene is a thing of beauty, starting with the fact the he can’t decide if this is evidence that he’s helping Bromden, or going insane himself.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

When Bromden does speak again (“Ah, Juicy Fruit.”) it’s just after McMurphy loses hope, and looks away. At this point Nicholson leaps into a state of elation and laughter, as we likely do in the audience as well.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

And this quickly shifts into worry as he remembers where he is. “What are we doing in here, Chief?” he asks, immediately sobered.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Nicholson cycles through this series of emotions flawlessly…and they each feel as though they spring from the previous one naturally. It’s profoundly sad that when he realizes that he has a confidant in the Chief, he opens right up to him. It demonstrates how starved he is for somebody, anybody, that he can communicate with in a significant way.

The surprise of Bromden speaking is probably the most famous moment in this film, apart from — of course — the ending. And it succeeds because of how perfectly, and simply, it balances everything that’s happening in the entire story. The idea of actual vs. feigned mental illness, power rendering its victims helpless, the punishment that’s unfolding in the background and about to engulf them, the psychological retreat of the men, the fleeting smallness of triumph.

It’s an equally powerful moment in both media, but it plays differently in each. Which might actually be the best part about it; if you’ve already experienced it in one version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the other still has the capacity to surprise.

This commiseration with the Chief is perhaps the first sign of the toll McMurphy’s rebellion is taking on him, and the electroshock therapy that follows cements it. In the novel, that same toll is relayed in a much different way. There, McMurphy takes a short detour after the fishing trip to show the patients his childhood home. He doesn’t get out of the car…he just tells them stories. He seems to be the same person he always was, except that Chief Bromden catches a glimpse of his face in an expected splash of light, and he sees a tired and hurting man. Bromden sees then what their all-too-human savior is going through.

It’s one of the most significant and important moments in the entire novel…and Forman snips it. That’s not a problem in itself, since — as with most of his snips — it’s in aid of showing rather than telling, and it’s a change that suits the medium. The problem is that Forman doesn’t also snip the fishing trip. Its most important moment has been excised, but the outing is still here…a bloated, uncomfortably silly sequence robbed of its purpose, breaking the sense of suffocation and claustrophobia for no real narrative or artistic gain.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

It’s an unfortunate example of flab in an otherwise perfectly constructed film, one which thrives on (and is weakened by any distance from) the central conflict between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy.

The extraordinary tension between the two, even (or especially) when they are both completely silent, makes the film what it is. At no point in their scenes together does one get the sense that we are watching two actors give us a performance; this is real, cold, calculated abuse, and as the story progresses both Kesey and Forman do a great job of ratcheting up the pain, the desperation, and the stakes.

It begins with their very first meeting, a group therapy session on McMurphy’s first day. And we know something is wrong not because the characters tell us, but because they say nothing. Forman catches Nurse Ratched flicking her eyes to her new charge. McMurphy just sits back and observes. Neither of them have any concept of the struggle they’re already locked into, but they both know well enough to size each other up, and identify whatever weaknesses they can. Whether in the prison or the mental institution, they each know the threat that one person with power can wield.

When two actors work well together, it’s often referred to as chemistry. What Fletcher and Nicholson have is something more like toxicity. There’s a genuinely scary, deeply affecting darkness that runs between them from the beginning of the movie through the end. At no point do we or can we suspect that they will come to respect the other’s point of view. There will be no compromise. When it ends, only one of them can remain standing. They both know that, and neither would dare give up the fight.

Throughout everything — the fishing trip, the patients pretending the watch the World Series, the basketball games, the electroshock, the group therapy sessions — this is the conflict that looms. This is the knowledge that is never far from what we are watching unfold before us. Like McMurphy laughing when the Chief thanks him, any joy we feel on the ward is fleeting. We can chuckle at the funny parts and ponder the profound parts, but quickly, sadly, soberly, we remember where we are.

What are we doing in here, Chief?

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Several times throughout the course of the film it’s made clear that Nurse Ratched — for all her perceived good — cares more about demonstrating her power than she does about what’s right for the patients. One of these demonstrations comes in the electroshock therapy scene, and it’s more than just the fact that this method of “therapy” is being deployed as punishment.

She sends three patients, after all, for the treatment. Sending McMurphy makes sense; he smashed the window to the nurse’s office and punched one of her orderlies. Sending Bromden, too, makes sense; he participated in the ensuing brawl. But the third patient, poor Cheswick, did nothing. He was neither violent nor uncontrollable; he was voicing his concerns about cigarette rationing in a way that was indeed aggressive, but was by no means deserving — as she well knew — of severe punishment. What he needed was somebody to help him calm down, but she decided instead to us him to make a point: when you enable or support or befriend her enemy, you become her enemy.

A more significant example comes at the end of the film, when she finds Billy Bibbit the morning after the party, having lost his virginity and freed himself of his stutter. She breaks him down, threatening to tell his mother, refusing to give anything in the way of support even as he is dragged screaming down the hallway. She tells her orderlies to lock him in the doctor’s office, alone. Even if he didn’t commit suicide in there, it’d be difficult to find any kind of therapeutic value in her verbal abuse and threats toward the boy.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

When Billy takes his own life, a direct result of his treatment at the hands of the Big Nurse, McMurphy snaps. The rage building behind Nicholson’s eyes is a perfect (maybe the perfect) example of why he’s one of the best actors we’ve ever had. He isn’t Jack Nicholson. He’s R. P. McMurphy. An angry dog at the end of his chain, just before breaking free.

We know what’s coming, and Forman’s camera lingers, letting them share the same shot longer than he has before, McMurphy seething while Nurse Ratched must see him, but is unable to process it. She’s in crisis control mode, but it’s for a different crisis.

The camera holds steady until McMurphy breaks, and he takes her by the throat.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Now, Forman’s careful, deliberate shooting instantly and artfully shatters. His was a calm camera. His takes were long. His editing deceptively simple. Everything was carefully blocked and arranged. He was documenting, after all, a ward of order.

Until McMurphy gets both of his hands around order’s neck, and throttles it against the wall.

The camera can’t keep up. Patients keep getting in the way of the shot. There’s not a clear view of what’s happening, at least never for long, but we can feel it. We see it even when we can’t.

He beats her against the wall. He tackles her to the ground. He chokes her long enough that the life begins to leave her, and the camera is as shocked and unable to process all of this as the patients. It, too, seems to have still been reeling from Billy’s suicide. It only just barely manages to catch the next development. And it doesn’t get a chance to breathe until Nurse Ratched does too…as McMurphy is knocked unconscious from behind by one of the orderlies she — literally — could not live without.

In the end, McMurphy is removed from the ward. As in the novel, rumors spread of his escape. As in the novel, he returns after an extended absence. As in the novel, Nurse Ratched has had him lobotomized.

But there a few differences here, and significant ones. Bromden euthanizes him, in both cases so he will not serve as a barely-alive testament to Nurse Ratched’s incontestable authority, and escapes.

In the novel, this happens after McMurphy’s body has already been on the ward for a while, and has been examined and processed by the other patients. In the film, Forman returns McMurphy to his bed in the middle of the night, and Bromden is the only one to encounter him in this vegetative state.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

This means that in the novel, in a relative sense at least, Nurse Ratched got what she was after. McMurphy didn’t live long on the ward after his operation, but every minute that he was there registered as a triumph for her. He was a monument to her success.

In the film, she has no such monument. Bromden, heartbreakingly, tells McMurphy that he’s finally ready to escape…and then sees the scars. He’s too late. He hugs McMurphy, or what’s left of him, to his chest. And then he smothers his friend with a pillow.

None of the other patients see McMurphy before he’s killed. In fact, they don’t realize anything is happening until Bromden hurls the control panel through the window and escapes…his final gesture serving as a moment of conflicted triumph in both the book and the film, and the perfect ending to each.

But something happens as Bromden runs away in the film that can’t happen in the book: his fellow patients (Chewsick, Taber, Harding, et al.) watch him go. In the book, those people are all gone for various reasons. Largely, they’ve found the strength to leave the ward. And they do, before McMurphy’s body is ever returned. This is evidence, obviously, of the effect McMurphy had on them. The patients may have been committed voluntarily, but they still could not leave. Thanks to the acts and miracles of McMurphy, they finally do. They sign themselves out, and they don’t look back. Bromden remains because he’s not a voluntary patient…and by the time McMurphy returns, he’s one of the few on the ward who would recognize him.

This makes Bromden’s gesture that much more important in the film. The patients were strong enough to leave before this moment in the novel, but they were still not strong enough to leave in the film. In Forman’s vision, Bromden is the first one out, not the last. His final gesture is as important to the rest of the patients as anything McMurphy did for them, whereas in the novel it’s unlikely that any of them even find out it happened.

Though the Chief’s final decision plays out the same way in both versions, in the novel it’s mainly for him. In the film, it’s for everybody. It’s for everybody left. It’s a final chance for them to act on everything McMurphy had been trying to get them to act on all along.

In the novel, McMurphy succeeded…though he’d never know it. He did convince them that they were no more crazy than anybody on the streets. He did convince them that life was worth living, and that fear was not worth nurturing. He did convince them that there was more to being alive than safety and routine. None of them got the chance to thank him for it, but they all took it to heart…and they all signed themselves out.

In the film, if anyone succeeds, it’s Chief Bromden. The spirit of McMurphy lives on through him…a testament to a friendship deeper than either of them realized it was. It’s an incredible and enduring moment in cinema, and one rendered more important to the other characters by directorial decision, and the simple shifting of narrative perspective.

In the novel, the ending had to be more significant to Bromden, because it was Bromden’s story. In the film, the story belonged to McMurphy, and when he died the ending belonged to everybody.

That’s why it’s so surprising for those who start with the film to find out that Bromden is the novel’s narrator. It means that however similar the two tellings might be, the shift in perspective makes it an entirely different kind of story.

And that’s bound to be at least a little bit of the reaction; the welcome surprise that they’ll get to experience it anew, in a different format, all over again.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
(1962, Ken Kesey; 1975, Milos Forman)

Book or film? I genuinely can’t say. Each is a powerful, devastating, nearly-perfect work in its own right. I’d love to hear from somebody in the comments who does prefer one to the other, because I’m unable to view them as anything other than glorious equals. If I must choose for the sake of choosing, though, I’ll go with the book. It’s portable.
Worth reading the book? Definitely.
Worth watching the film? Definitely.
Is it the best possible adaptation? Yes. The casting and performances could not possibly be bettered, and a hypothetical smoothing out of its rougher edges wouldn’t necessarily make for a better film, nor would including a larger sample of the book’s content. It endures for a reason, and it’s hard to imagine a version working better than this already does.
Is it of merit in its own right? It does exactly what an adaptation should do; it preserves the integrity of the source material while making all changes necessary to suit the medium of film. It not only has merit in its own right; it is its own unforgettable, profound, haunting experience, which both enhances and stands entirely apart from the novel.

Old Muggins Here

July 25th, 2015 | Posted by Philip J Reed in Meta - (6 Comments)

Noiseless Chatter Incredimug

Have you ever wished you could support this site?

Of course not. But haven’t you wished for a way to consume hot liquids without drinking straight from the coffee maker?

Now I’ve got your attention.

For a small (and by no means expected or mandatory) contribution to the site, you’ll get an official Noiseless Chatter Incredimug as a way of saying thanks. And these things are…kinda awesome. Seriously; they’re pretty rockin’ quality.

They’re very sturdy, and I’ve been using mine for a few weeks. It’s a great little vessel, and if you’re ever feeling lonely the glorious golden visage of Mr. Fabiola (THAT IS THE NAME OF THE ROBOT) will be more than happy to listen to your problems.

It also features the URL of the site, in case you forget it or want to start some awkward conversations at work.

The cost is $18, and I apologize for that. It’s a solid, weighty mug, which I like…but it means that more than half of that cost is shipping. Speaking of which, that only applies to addresses within the continental U.S. If you live in another country (or those two states we don’t talk about) you might be out of luck for now. Sorry. If you really, really want one, and don’t mind paying way too much to ship a coffee mug to your house, get in touch and we’ll see what we can do.

For now, though? If you ever wanted to show your appreciation in a way that supports the site and nets you one fuck of a coffee mug (wine fits in it, too), you really can’t go wrong.

Honestly, thanks for reading. The fact that I have such a stellar audience means more to me than selling a mug ever could. But the more money this site brings in, the less time I have to spend freelancing, which means I can post here more often, so there’s that.

One thing’s for sure: you’ll never meet anyone else who has one. If you do, though, smash it so they have to buy another.

THE OFFICIAL NOISELESS CHATTER INCREDIMUG: $18 (includes shipping, continental US only
To buy click this thing below. All major credit cards accepted, I think. Ships within 2-3 days.

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

“Torn Between Two Lovers” is by no means a very good episode of ALF Hell, it wouldn’t be a very good episode of anything. It is, however, a pretty interesting one. More interesting than I’d have expected an episode about sitting around talking about a school dance to be, at least.

One of the interesting things is that there’s a subplot in this episode, which is pretty rare. Thinking back, I don’t know how many episodes actually more than one story unfolding in parallel. “Movin’ Out” was one; that had Willie’s new job and the impending sale of the house. “Fight Back” had Willie pursuing bureaucratic justice while ALF’s faction went for Melmacian street justice. And here we have whatever the fuck Lynn is doing, while ALF cleans the kitchen.

I didn’t say it was a good subplot, but it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Well…it ends, anyway.

The episode opens with the subplot, as we encounter ALF making hilarious puns about the names of cleaning products until the cold open is finished and the episode can finally begin.

He’s surrounded by all of these cleaning products because he’s helping — in an extraordinarily elastic sense of the term — to keep the house clean while Kate is away at detox. (Because damn, guys…how can a house stay presentable without a woman on 24-hour cleanup duty?)

And, no, the detox thing is not my joke…it’s ALF’s. Lynn clarifies that Kate’s actually away at a real estate seminar. So…she still works at that place she we’ve only heard about twice and haven’t seen for 11 weeks? Sorry Lynn, but I think ALF’s right. It’s far more likely she’s at detox.

Actually, does this “the family has to pitch in” subplot imply that nobody pitched in with the housework before this very moment? Even though Kate’s heavily pregnant and working a full-time job? And even though none of them have any social life or other obligations to speak of?

What a pack of assholes.

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

After the credits, some guy comes over and slips his tongue into Lynn. She calls him Danny, and…

…wait. Danny?

As in Danny Duckworth? From the first episode of this season?

I don’t want to go back and watch that one again (ever), so I’ll have to rely on IMDB for confirmation. And, yes, this is the same character. A character that we have neither seen nor heard about for 18 weeks. Wow…and I thought Kate’s occupation was a deep cut.

There’s no problem with bringing Danny back, in theory. In fact, I should like this, because it’s evidence that somebody, at some point, paid some degree of attention to some fucking thing that’s happened in this show. But Danny was a complete non-entity the first time around. Of all possible characters, why bring him back?

What’s your favorite Danny Duckworth quote? Do you remember anything he said or did? I sure don’t, and I’ve written more about ALF than anyone else will for the remainder of time. So while I like the idea that a character has come back for another episode, I’m not sure Danny Duckworth is the one that deserves the honor. And since it’s been almost an entire season since we’ve seen or heard anything about him, why not just invent a new boyfriend at this point?

That latter question is a good one, I think…especially since “Promises, Promises” (working title “Sexual Predation Follies”) aired a few weeks after that, and centered on Lynn’s involvement with three different guys: Patchouli, Eddie, and Randy.

“Lynn is still dating Danny” isn’t such a terrible thing to tell the audience, but telling them that so long after she started dating him, with no indication that he still existed within the universe of the show, and after we’ve seen her date at least three guys other than him, you have to wonder why they bothered. It really should have been a brand-new boyfriend for all it matters to the episode, let alone to the audience.

Danny tells her that he can’t take her to the spring dance tomorrow, because he has a family reunion, which is the sort of thing only sitcom characters have to deal with spur of the moment. Lynn is devastated by the news that the guy she hasn’t heard from for four and a half months (not counting reruns) won’t be around tomorrow, either.

She’s clearly disappointed, and Elson’s acting here is not that bad. At the risk of sounding rude (something I hope NEVER HAPPENS IN THESE REVIEWS), I think she’s good here because she doesn’t have many actual lines. She doesn’t have to say sad things, she simply has to seem sad as she closes the door behind him…and she’s good at that. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t think she’s much of an actress…but she definitely understands emotions, and when she gets to channel them, she’s not bad.

After she closes the door she sighs sadly. I actually like that part…but then, for some inexplicable reason, there’s a laugh from the audience.

And that’s just…odd. Normally I’d assume a joke was cut, but I’m watching the uncut episodes now so it’s not as though some careless syndication editor snipped a punchline and left the laughter. This is, I have to assume, exactly how the original episode aired.

Even stranger: ALF doesn’t have a studio audience, which means that somebody actively decided to paste laughter here.

There was no joke…she just closed the door and then started moping around on the verge of tears. Cue massive chuckle.

…what? Why would you trigger the laugh track for that? What the actual fuck was going through somebody’s mind?

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

Anyway who cares why we’re laughing at a young girl’s heartache because back in the kitchen ALF shrunk a sweater!!!!!!

Jesus Christ. Is every lousy sitcom required to do exactly this joke, with exactly this prop, at some point in its shitty life?

Lynn comes into the kitchen to repeat for us everything we just heard in the previous scene. It’s not a good sign when an episode can’t bring itself to get out of bed in the morning.

Willie asks if there’s anyone else she can take to the dance, because, let’s face it, Lynn, those pants have never been buttoned for long. ALF thinks he might be free, and says he’ll check his Week At-A-Glance.

But then he doesn’t move.

He just stares vacantly for a while as the fake audience yuks it up endlessly.

Did we really need to give ALF a glory hold for that? I didn’t even think it was a punchline…I figured he’d dig out a little book and read out some hilarious appointments or something.

I don’t know. I’ve given up on this show being funny…but is it too much to ask that it at least respects what a joke is?

Lynn and Willie talk briefly about how she’s feeling, and abandon it immediately when ALF starts talking about Melmacian courtship. Man, if that’s not the entire series in microcosm, I don’t know what is; some characters have to deal with something, but then have to ignore it completely because ALF’s started talking about life in St. Olaf.

They wait for ALF to finish his rudely interjected monologue, and then talk about whether or not Lynn and Danny are “going steady.”

There’s some confusion within the show about what qualifies as going steady, how you’d know, and so on…and I have to admit, I’ve always been pretty hazy on it too. I think the episode ends up defining it as something like “dating exclusively,” which makes sense, but that also seems a bit redundant. Maybe it’s just me, but if you’re dating someone, that’s supposed to be exclusive. If it’s not exclusive — and you’re just hanging out, having fun, having sex, or whatever — then you’re not dating that person. You’re just hanging out, having fun, having sex, or whatever.

But maybe I’m just misinterpreting the concept. I’ve always had a similar confusion about the phrase “hooking up,” and I can’t be alone because people use it to describe everything from something relatively small (making out) to something a bit larger (getting a joint punchcard at Planned Parenthood).

Phrases like these feel useless to me if they don’t actually mean something specific. If two people are using the same terms to mean different things, then I don’t know how those terms endure. Why do people keep using them? What’s the value in using them if they just create further confusion?

If you’re together, you’re together. If one of you cheats, then one of you cheated. It doesn’t matter if you were “going steady.” You were dating. If you want to run around with other people, don’t date.

Of course, the confusion behind this is at least somewhat factored into the episode; it’s not necessarily about the confusion, but it does acknowledge it, so basically I just want to complain about people having sex.

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

Later on we see Lynn tutoring Randy and…

Wait a minute. Randy is back, too? What the hell is this, a clip show?

So here’s one of the guys from “Promises, Promises” (working title: “Lynn’s Bucket of Wangs”). That makes at least three different episodes that are being directly referenced by this one out of the blue: “Promises, Promises,” “Stop in the Name of Love,” and “Changes.” What’s with the sudden surge of continuity? Again, I’m all for this in theory, but as we limp toward the end of season three are these things anyone in the audience is going to remember? Danny? Randy? Kate’s job?

I know I’ve complained about a complete lack of continuity before, but “Torn Between Two Lovers” shows that not all continuity is created equal. If we’re going to be bringing back characters, why not someone that people might actually care about? Lizard? Kate Sr.? Fucking hell, bring back Jodie and Dr. Dykstra. Whatever happened to those two? Did the show get finally wise to the fact that I was enjoying myself, and I got a big scoop of Randy instead?

Jesus Christ.

I will say, though, that I already like Randy more here than I liked him in “Promises, Promises.” There his only joke was that he’d almost invariably say “‘kay” when someone asked him a question. It was the kind of joke that wore out its welcome about two hours before it was introduced. Here he’s being tutored by Lynn, so he gets to struggle through vocabulary homework in a way that’s convincingly awkward. So awkward that it’s almost sad.

You get to feeling bad for poor Randy, because it’s his character’s job to seem like an idiot in a show packed wall to wall with the biggest fucking morons to ever walk the planet. As a result he doesn’t come across as comically dense so much as he seems to be mentally disabled.

Yes, ALF implicitly adds ridiculing the handicapped to its litany of dickitude it thinks we should find funny, but we’ll discuss that more in a bit.

Since he does get a little more to say — and he actually gets to interact with Lynn, as opposed to just sitting next to her — this definitely qualifies as the better of his two appearances. Of course, this being ALF, whose own audience is mentally disabled, the writers outright have Randy blurt, “I’m stupid!!”

You know. Just in case the only character trait he’s displayed in his entire time on screen wasn’t clue enough YOU IDIOTS.

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

Then Willie comes in, and Randy rises to greet him, which is a nicer character detail than this character deserves. I think that happened in “Promises, Promises,” too, but here it serves as a nice (albeit theoretical) contrast to Danny. We don’t know for a fact that Danny wouldn’t stand when Lynn’s father enters the room, but he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would think much of it. Randy’s a dolt, but he’s respectful and polite.

A better episode would make more of stuff like this. As it stands, I don’t even think it’s deliberate characterization. It’s accidental…which doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it does mean that “Torn Between Two Lovers” fails to address the most important things: the difference between the two lovers, and why Lynn would be torn.

What we need is more characterization of these two. Right now I have to infer that Danny would treat Willie differently than Randy treats him here, but if we had a scene of Danny and Willie interacting, we wouldn’t have to infer anything. We could more easily compare the two…recognize their differences…and put a little bit of stock in Lynn’s decision.

In “Torn Between Two Lovers,” Lynn does, in some sense, end up having to choose between Danny and Randy. Wouldn’t it be nice if you at home gave even half a shit about who she picked? And if we don’t care…why are we watching?

You know those terrible reality dating shows that all of your friends watch but you can’t stand? Those shows are still on the air — against all standards of good taste — because they do a good job of convincing the audience that a decision like this matters. It’s done through flashy editing and soundbites and a manipulative score; it’s a trick of making the packaging look so important that you lose sight of the fact that you have no reason to want what’s in it. Any such show that fails to make the decision feel important doesn’t last. (Or, more likely, doesn’t make it to air.) Which makes sense; if the show can’t bother to sustain the illusion that the romantic dabblings of total strangers are important enough to watch, then how could the audience?

“Torn Between Two Lovers,” in this respect, has an ace in the hole. Of course, it squanders it spectacularly.

See, in this case, none of the parties involved are total strangers. This episode shouldn’t have to work as hard to convince us that the decision is important, because we should already have some kind of feelings about these people. We should have already made some investment in them before this choice is even raised.

The problem, which I’m sure you smelled a mile off, is that this is ALF. While we may care to some extent about Lynn (the show’s last vestige of anything resembling humanity), we definitely don’t care or know about Danny or Randy.

We should know about them, because they were each important parts of their previous episodes…but what do we actually know? I’m tempted to conclude that Danny is the dickhole, but that’s only because my brain wants (desperately) to be able to shape this crap into some recognizable structure. And however charitable I am being toward the show by concluding that there’s some kind of contrast between the two characters, the episode’s ending doesn’t bear out that reading anyway.

“Torn Between Two Lovers” is giving us three characters who aren’t strangers, and tossing them into some romantic entanglement that should feels like it matters. But once the question is raised, we see clearly that they might as well be strangers. We’ve met them before, but that’s it; we don’t know anything about them.

Again, we should be dealing with two new suitors for Lynn, as both of these bozos were blank slates in their previous episodes anyway. The most disappointing thing is that “Torn Between Two Lovers” doesn’t develop them much further than that, even though the choice Lynn must make is central to the plot.

There’s some more accidental characterization of Randy that I like: he lapses back into saying “‘kay” when Willie asks him how he’s doing, and though I’m sure this is not deliberate, I like the idea that Randy finds it easier to open up to Lynn than to others. That’s kind of sweet, actually, and it’s the sort of thing I wish was deliberate…but the ending makes it clear that the writers had no fucking idea what this episode was about.

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

Willie tells Lynn that “Julie” called for her. And this is odd, because since when does Lynn have friends?

Yes, I’m exaggerating. In “Baby, You Can Drive My Car” she talked about some girl she was supposed to see The Pretenders with. And in “Changes” she mentioned a friend who was a cheerleader. That’s all I can remember, and we’ve never seen her interact with another girl around her own age. Only her mother, her grandmother, and Mrs. Ochmonek…which is really fucking strange.

Even terrible, terrible shows like Full House or Saved by the Bell showed their teenage characters having friends…many of whom we actually saw more than once. And do you know why that is? It’s because teenagers have friends.


All of them do.

Even the nerdiest kids find some kind of clique. NOT THAT I WOULD KNOW.

The point is that when you’re a teenager, you have some degree of a social life by default. If this girl* doesn’t, then we’re firmly in We Need to Talk About Lynn territory.

What kind of teenage girl on a sitcom never interacts with another girl her age? It’s so…odd. How are we almost four seasons into this shit and we still don’t know what she does with her downtime? (Apart from spending it with Willie’s rain gauge that she keeps in her closet.) It’s really odd…and it unflatteringly paints Lynn as a misfit. That’s some more accidental character development, I guess, but it’s not the welcome kind.

Randy discovers that Lynn isn’t going to the dance, and he says that he’s not going either…an observation he tries to spin into an invitation.

It’s the kind of thing even a naturally suave and charming young man would have trouble swinging, and Randy’s fumblings are convincingly awkward. In fact, I like this sequence a lot, because it feels like, deep down, this one-note character might be recognizably human after all.

Very deep down.

Very, very deep down…

It’s nice. And there’s a moment when Lynn hesitates to answer him…and Randy immediately backs down, defeated. It’s actually kind of painful to watch, because Randy plays it convincingly. We’ve all been there, bud. Exactly there. :(

Ultimately she agrees to go with him, and he’s so excited he walks away with the bowl of pretzels that was on the table. Then we get the episode’s best moment. (Who could have guessed that this honor would ever go to Randy?) He comes back to the door and hands her the pretzels. She thanks him. “They’re not from me,” he says.

And, I’m sorry, but as shitty as this episode is, that whole bit was very well-acted by sitcom standards.

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

She goes to the kitchen and tells ALF that she’s going to the dance with Randy. He replies that it’d better be a slow dance…which is a moderately clever joke but still comes off as incredibly mean. I don’t even like Randy and I want to kick this guy’s ass that.

The phone rings after Lynn leaves, and it’s Danny. ALF talks to him anyway, because fuck everything.

Danny says he’s free after all, but ALF tells him to keep it in his pants because Lynn has another date now.

Good thing this show has an alien in it. I certainly can’t imagine any of this magic happening on those lousy “all human” comedies.

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

ALF and Brian play Atari while Lynn gets ready. Can anyone make out what cartridge that is? I keep wanting to say it’s Demons to Diamonds, but I’m really just hoping someone else played Demons to Diamonds. (I loved Demons to Diamonds.)

Any guesses as to why the veins are bulging out of Benji Gregory’s hand and neck? Is he throttling that joystick like it’s Paul Fusco’s throat?

I know we joke about this kid not being a very good actor, but since the set of ALF was seething with hatred and idiotic tension I think we should all take a moment to appreciate the fact that he did not grow up to be a murmuring serial killer. I mean, I guess there’s still time for him to become one, but still. I wouldn’t have lasted this long.

Lynn comes into the living room to ask about her purse, and ALF says he hilariously destroyed it while doing laundry. The show cares even less about that particular development than I do, so we skip right along to ALF telling her that Danny called while she was in the shower.

She’s pissed because ALF told Danny that she was seeing Randy now, and she doesn’t know what to do. ALF suggests telling Randy that “your boyfriend’s back, and he’s gonna be in trouble. Hey na, hey na, your boyfriend’s back.”

Fuckin’ ALF has really taken a liking to reciting song lyrics and hoping they miraculously pass as jokes. “Suspicious Minds” has loads of Elvis ones, obviously. Then we got similar ones with “In the Year 2525″ (in “Running Scared,” where it admittedly did miraculously pass as a joke) and “I Can See Clearly Now” (in “Standing in the Shadows of Love”).

It’s supremely lazy, and I’m still reeling from the shock that Jake didn’t quote “Sunglass at Night” in the last episode. Maybe such stellar non-material is only allowed to go to ALF.

Lynn says she can’t believe this situation, and ALF says, “I know what you mean. I can’t believe Bruce Willis is a star, but there it is.”

And that is a joke that sure hasn’t aged well. Disagree? Compare Willis’s career trajectory to Paul Fusco’s and let me know how much room ALF has to talk.

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

Someone comes to the door, but it’s not Randy! It’s Danny, and you know he means business because he dug out his spring dance bolo.

Danny knows exactly what he’s doing; he’s showing up unannounced to catch Randy with his woman. Well, a lot of people’s woman, but that’s not important right now.

I like the idea of having the episode build to a “showdown” between two characters…but, again, we’ve only seen them each once before, way back at the beginning of the season, in different episodes, and we’ve never heard a peep about either of them since. It…kind of loses the impact, don’t you think? I really do wish they’d have invented new characters for this. Maybe then they’d feel obligated to develop them somewhat, instead of just settling for this guy from this episode versus that guy from that episode.

Part of me wonders if this was intended to air right after “Promises, Promises.” Someone in the comments brought up the fact that the scheduling of certain episodes was shuffled around for availability reasons, so it’s possible that this was intended to air then.

…however, Kate’s working as a Realtor, so that can’t be the case; this would have to air sometime after “Changes,” which came several weeks later. By that point, why bring back these characters? And all of this is irrelevant since “Torn Between Two Lovers” has to also air after “Promises, Promises,” in which Lynn is fucking other guys anyway.


Whatever. It’s kind of interesting, I guess, that both Danny Duckworth episodes have to do with Lynn planning to go out with one person and ending up with another. But by “interesting” I mean “fuck it, even I don’t care.”

They argue for a bit, and Danny tells her to blow Randy [off]. Sure enough the doorbell rings, and it’s our favorite pretzel thief. He’s all snazzed up, and he hands Lynn a 2-liter bottle of soda because he wasn’t sure if she liked candy.

…that probably works better in text than it worked on the screen, to be honest, but I did like that joke.

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

Randy’s clearly the nicer guy in this scene. He’s civil to Danny who is rude in return, but, to be fair, it’s easier for Randy to be civil; Lynn’s not his girlfriend. He’s just some putz who lucked into getting her to go to a dance with him. Danny is angry, yes, but he has a reason to be, and Randy does not.

As I mentioned earlier, I’d think that this was a clumsy way of demonstrating to us that Randy’s the nicer guy overall, and the guy Lynn is actually “with” is a schmuck, but the episode doesn’t work out that way, so who knows what the fuck is going on. Maybe the writers didn’t realize he was coming off as nicer than Danny at all. They certainly don’t treat him the way one might treat a character we’re supposed to like, so who knows.

ALF listens in from the kitchen, because it’s his name on this show, god damnit. Brian asks him if Randy’s mad, and ALF says, “He doesn’t know yet. The information has entered his head, and is now searching desperately for his brain.”

There’s a lot of humor at Randy’s expense in this episode, all of it in this vein, and until now, as I’m writing this, I wasn’t sure why the jokes were playing so poorly.

After all, Randy can be dumb; that’s fine. Make a list of all the great comedy characters who were a bit thick and you’ll be up all night before you even have to scratch your head. So why do the Randy jokes feel so nasty?

Well, here’s why. It’s because Randy doesn’t get to be an idiot. Instead, we’re told he’s an idiot.

See, when a character does something stupid, it can be funny. (Obviously.) But when one character insults another for being stupid, apropos of nothing, it feels cruel. Indeed, it often is; we’re not often meant to enjoy that kind of behavior. We’re meant to see it for what it is: pretty damned dickish.

The better Randy jokes (the 2-liter soda here, the bowl of pretzels earlier) come from Randy getting to do something dumb. The worse Randy jokes (every time ALF opens his fuckin’ mouth) are characters repeatedly telling us what a worthless moron he is. What sounds funnier to you: someone accidentally doing something silly, or someone getting insults shouted at him because he’s less intelligent than the shouter?

We like stupid characters. We must, otherwise they wouldn’t be in every comedy ever made. But we want to laugh at their stupidity without feeling complicit in it. We laugh when they slip on banana peels because we find it humorous; we find it harder to laugh when some asshole steps up and chews them out at length for being stupid enough to have slipped on that banana peel.

We want to laugh at stupid characters…we don’t want to make fun of them. Why would we? That’s just…mean.

Some shows — Fawlty Towers comes immediately to mind — do play up the insult comedy. In Basil’s case, he did bully poor Manuel, who was trying his best. But Manuel wasn’t dumb; he may not have been the brightest bulb, but unquestionably most of his sillier behavior was due to communication issues beyond his control. When Basil insulted him it was funny because it functioned on another level: anything Manuel did wrong could be traced back to Basil. Basil, that is to say, was causing his own problems. Manuel was just trying to help…and was punished regularly for it.

It probably wouldn’t have been funny if Manuel had actually been an idiot. It certainly wouldn’t have been clever. It would have been easier to write, sure, but so what? Manuel getting yelled at for being shitty at his job isn’t comedy. Basil relentlessly scapegoating a day laborer is.

But there’s another reason these kinds of assholish comments from ALF don’t work: they muddy the water.

Clearly the show wants us to like ALF. That’s fine; we’ve been through why that’s insane many times over, but, by this point, we just need to accept it. ALF is supposed to be clever and charming, gorgeous, the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful Melmacian we’ve ever known in our lives.


But in this scene, we’re also supposed to see Danny’s behavior as dickish. And it is; the show is correct. Danny is being an asshole to Randy, and we know that because Lynn — again, the closest thing to a human being ALF has anymore — calls him out for it.

Unfortunately, his dickish behavior is indistinguishable from ALF’s. We’re supposed to hate Danny because we’re supposed to hate Danny, and supposed to love ALF because we’re supposed to love ALF. What’s the difference between them, then? “Torn Between Two Lovers” tells us the answer, whether it means to or not: nothing.

The writers have painted themselves into a corner. They wanted us to fall in love with one character in spite of the fact that he’s raging asshole, so when it’s time to introduce a character we’re supposed to dislike for the same behavior, we’re in a tonal trainwreck. We’re meant to love one and hate the other for behaving in the exact same way.

If the writers cared, I bet they’d wish they’d given ALF a character trait other than “cunt.”

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

ALF and Brian watch from the kitchen, and Brian asks why they’re fighting over Lynn anyway, since she’s not all that hot. You see, Brian is quite discriminating in his incest fantasies.

Lynn comes in for a few seconds to get her thoughts together. Of course on this show that means that she sits quietly while ALF does an irrelevant comedy routine. This one is about “time-freezing phasers,” which Brian mentions they saw on Star Trek.

Now, I don’t know the first thing about Star Trek, so I had no idea whether or not time-freezing phasers existed. To find out, I turned to our resident expert, Sarah Portland:

No. There was an episode where time appeared to be frozen, but in that case, Kirk was just sped way up so everyone appeared to be frozen. Just to be extra-thorough, I skimmed through the synopses of TOS, TAS, the first five films, and the first two seasons of TNG. While there are certainly plenty of BS time travel plots in Star Trek, none of them involve phasers, which are self-defense weapons.

Not sure why I even asked. I should have known something was fishy when Brian was allowed to speak.

Anyway, Lynn stumbles upon a resolution to this non-plot that I actually kind of like: she realizes this whole mess is her fault. (I know, I know…but bear with me.)

She returns to the living room where she finds two forgettable nobodies from previous episodes circling each other with their fists raised, which is something no human beings have ever actually done. Lots of cartoon characters have, though, and I think that says it all.

She tells them that if they want to fight, they each only get one punch. Randy says that that’s all he needs, and so she invites him to hit her.

See, she’s the one who caused the problem, so if they really think it’s worth beating someone up, then she invites them to beat her up. Obviously they don’t, but I like that little twist. Lynn didn’t do anything knowingly wrong, and I think that’s important to take note of, but she did do the thing that set this whole mess into motion: she agreed to go to the dance with Randy. As friends, yes, but that was still the catalyst for this whole kerfuffle.

Her point is decently made. These two are fighting over nothing…but it’s a nothing that she herself created. Clearly neither of them are going to crack her in the jaw, and it makes them realize instead how stupid the whole thing is.

Granted, realizing how stupid the whole thing is is not the best way to end an episode of a sitcom, but I’ll take what I can get, and Lynn’s gesture at least shows that some thought was put into resolving this premise.

She decides to go with Randy, because he asked her and she accepted, and it wouldn’t be right to break it off. And she tells Danny that if they want to be more serious they can be more serious, and they can have a long talk about it.

Hey, remember the episode in which we met Danny? She had dived right into (almost) marrying some guy in a planetarium. Now she needs a ratified document outlining the terms and conditions of her relationships. Change of heart or what? I’d call it character growth, but I’m approximately fifteen zillion percent sure that nobody involved with the show even remembers that Lynn was almost married.

The really odd thing about this resolution, though, is that Randy really did seem like the better guy. He was nicer to her and her family. He was humble when he asked her out. He brought her gifts. All we saw of Danny was that he shipped out unexpectedly the night before the dance, then stormed into her house to kick the teeth out of the guy she tutored.

He was kind of an asshole…but that’s who she went with. The entire episode seems to be building toward Lynn making the decision to leave him because of the ass he revealed himself to be. Maybe she’d end up with Randy (idiot with a good heart isn’t the worst stock character to hitch your wagon to), or maybe she’d realize they’re both impulsive dickwads who just initiated a fucking brawl in her living room. But, either way, the episode seems to be built around the idea that Lynn is with a schmuck…

…until it isn’t, and it’s actually about expressing your feelings and making sure you know what going steady means, and still going to the dance with that poor guy who actually seems to care about you so that it hurts him twice as hard when you move on forever.

So I don’t really know what this episode was about. Randy seemed like the nicer guy (and the better match; Lynn herself isn’t getting into Mensa anytime soon), but ultimately she just goes to the dance with him out of obligation. Danny seemed like a dicktard, but she stays with him because…he’s hotter? I guess? Is he? I don’t even know if she thinks so.

Basically two people we’ve met once before but still know nothing about get into a fight that doesn’t matter and Lynn resolves the episode by saying that nothing has to change, even though she strung Randy along and her boyfriend revealed himself to be a violent, jealous assbag.

I hate this fucking show.

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

In the short scene before the credits Anne Schedeen returns from her vacation, visibly traumatized by being back on the set of ALF.

MELMAC FACTS: The three stages of courtship on Melmac: exchange left socks, trade belly button lint, spit in each other’s soup. (“Ours was a polite society” my dick.)

* Of course, we’re assuming that Lynn is a teenager in this episode. She could be in her 20s for all we know. But the point is that she’s either in high school or college, and in either case she’d have to work to not make friends.

The Simpsons, "The PTA Disbands"

In my spare time (I HAVE SO MUCH OF IT) I am preparing a study regarding The Simpsons. I’ll share it here when it’s done, but, for now, I need your help with a little background data.

I’ve prepared a very quick 10-question survey that I’d like you to answer if you’ve ever seen The Simpsons.

Seriously; it should be damned quick. If it’s going slowly, it’s because you’re driving yourself insane trying to be comprehensive…so don’t do that. Say what comes to mind, give it a little bit of thought at most, and submit.

Again, just to be clear, this is not the study itself. This is information that I’ll need before I can actually begin. Share away on social media, and direct your Simpsons fan friends here to help.

I will be taking responses until August 1.

Get your answers in! The more you can tell me the better, but all responses are helpful. Do not, however, submit multiple responses yourself.

Please take a few minutes to help out and share your opinion. Thank you!

ALF, "Superstition"

Someone on Twitter was excited to see me get around to reviewing “Superstition.” At first I couldn’t tell if that was because he loved it or hated it. In fact, I still don’t know. But I will say this much: I can understand completely why somebody would have fond memories of watching this one as a child.

I have no memory of it. By this point in the show’s life, I definitely wasn’t watching regularly. As a result, I’m pretty sure I missed out on this one. And though the episode is by no means a masterpiece, I’m perfectly happy to concede that missing it was my loss.

This is probably an episode I’d have liked a lot as a kid. Even as an adult, there’s a sense of grounded silliness that I really enjoy. It’s fun without being nonsensical. Imaginative without being insane. It’s a decent idea elevated by its execution…and how often do we get to say that while watching ALF?

“Superstition” starts off with ALF attempting to do something nice for the family for once. He’s cooking them a delicious meal of junebug scallopini. “Hence the crackling noise,” Kate says, in a line that’s by no means necessary — what with the fact that we can hear it ourselves — but is still somehow…kind of funny. I can’t really explain why; her comment doesn’t feel like it should enhance the joke in any way, but, somehow, it does.

So the family retches for a while before ALF reveals that that’s not all he’s cooking; he has Brian’s history textbook in the oven. Why? Because “Someone accidentally knocked it into his fishtank…Willie.

Willie fires back that he did no such thing, and ALF says he knows that; he never said Willie did it. And it’s a really, truly funny moment. It got a real laugh at me, probably because it’s not actually a joke. It’s just this small little emphasis that ALF places on Willie’s name…and that’s that. There’s no punchline, and it doesn’t need one. It’s a joke of the performance, one that’s left to live or die on the capabilities of the actors, and I like that. It shows a level of respect this show doesn’t usually have for its talent or its audience.

Anyway, they open the oven and the textbook is not only dry, but it’s burnt to a crisp. ALF panics, because there’s a Melmacian superstition about destroying a history book. Set aside a few niggles — such as the fact that ALF should have kept a much closer eye on the baking book if destroying it was so bad, and the fact that he should know by now that HUMAN BEINGS DO NOT EAT BUGS — because, for once, they’re worth overlooking. “Superstition” might have the kind of plot that unravels the more you think about it, but it’s also one of those rare episodes in which it’s worth turning off your mind for a half hour and just enjoying the ride.

Of course, I won’t be doing that. Ahem.

Lynn asks ALF if the superstition is something like what humans say, about getting bad luck from opening umbrellas indoors. My heart goes out to Andrea Elson on this one. She tries hard…so hard…to pronounce “an umbrella indoors” without sounding like she needs a breathalyzer, but she can’t. And trying it myself, I can’t do much better. It’s an unexpectedly tricky phrase to get through without being exceptionally carefuly, and it’s not totally her fault that she trips over it.

ALF says it’s worse than bad umbrella luck, though. He says it’s “Bad luck like jilting a mafia princess.”

Kate says that superstitions are silly, right before ALF’s junebug scallopini catches fire. So…that was actually a pretty efficient way to kick off the episode. We set up the problem, ALF outlines — vaguely — the consequences he’s about to face, and then we have an illustration of those consequences coming to pass. Of course, the scallopini was also left unattended on the stove, which leaves open the idea that ALF’s bad luck could well be coincidental. That’s everything we need to know to enjoy the episode…and it was pretty funny, taboot.

But my favorite thing?

This Melmacian superstition makes sense.

Not, you know, logical sense…but cultural sense. With most Melmacian customs, the show just pulls out some cockamamie nonsense and hopes you find it funny. Sometimes, admittedly, it is…but it’s no less cockamamie for it. (The word of the day is “cockamamie.” Scream whenever you hear me say it!)

Here, though? I can understand it. After all, we have a saying that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Granted, that’s more of a maxim than a superstition, but it takes the same form: if you do this, that will happen. Broken down to its core components and taken literally, it’s not miles away from a superstition.

For Melmac’s version, it’s taken a step further. Instead of history as a concept, we have a symbol of history: the textbook. On Earth, if you don’t learn from history, you are doomed. On Melmac, if you destroy the thing meant to teach you history, you are doomed.

It’s a clever enough twist on an idea we know well, and I like that the episode doesn’t go so far with the connection that it takes the joy of discovering it away from us. It takes a familiar concept, alters it just enough to make it feel foreign, and leave it to us to bridge the gap.

It’s also a very welcome change when some aspect of Melmacian culture causes us to see own own traditions and assumptions in a new way. You know…something that any sci-fi book, movie, or TV show worth its salt does on a regular basis. Invented cultures and societies are great filters through which to view our own culture and society…it’s one of the things science fiction — even the lousy science fiction — is best known for. It’s how it earned its artistic credibility.

ALF, by contrast, usually resorts to its “On Soviet Melmac…” jokes for the sake of being silly, which is fine. I no longer expect it to make grand or impressive statements that go beyond inflicting bodily harm on Max Wright. But now, here, at last, we have some aspect of Melmacian culture that comments on Earth culture as well…


Shit. I like this, guys.

ALF, "Superstition"

After the credits Brian says, “My history book is history!” He is then loaded into a crate and removed from the set, the production crew secure in the knowledge that they’ve met his contractually-obligated appearance for the week.

ALF is convinced that the fire was due to his bad luck. After all, destroying a history book means “seven years of bad luck, followed by seven years of really bad luck.” The fact that he feels guilty about this — however silly the premise might be — is one of the best things about “Superstition.” After all, the fucker takes a powerdrill to Willie’s dick on a weekly basis, so it’s nice to see at least a little bit of remorse.

Later on we hear him fall down the attic stairs as Willie builds a crib for whomever’s kid is growing inside of Kate. ALF IS HAVING BAD LUCK.

Jake comes over and integrates himself deeply into the plot, so we can be truly baffled when he returns to his home planet in another few episodes. His role here is an important one; while Willie and Kate (and, in a more friendly way, Lynn) dismiss ALF’s concerns, Jake is willing to listen to him relay all of the shit he’s been going through since he triggered the curse. While I’m all for ignoring ALF, I’m even more for shutting him the fuck up, so this week I’m siding with Jake.

Jake poses the kind of question that makes no sense in real life, but plenty in sitcoms: can’t we stop it? And Willie, you dumb fuck, why didn’t you ask this in the first place? Yes, the superstition thing is clearly bullshit, but you’ve lived with ALF for three years at this point; bullshit is just another word for daily routine. Figure out what dumbass thing you need to do to end the episode, and jut fucking do it.

Jake’s question causes ALF to bring up the bibliocide ritual that they’d hold on Melmac to break the curse. Thank god Jake came over and asked that question, otherwise this might have been a two-parter. The ritual had to take place under the green light of a full moon, and the cursed textbook destroyer would “ask atonement” from a bunch of people wearing meat. Can you really “ask atonement?” I think you just atone for something; you either do it, or you don’t. You can ask forgiveness, of course, but that’s because forgiveness is external; it comes from somebody else. Blah, who cares. I’m listening to a dishrag talk about breaking curses on a fictional planet and I’m worrying about verb agreement.

Jake and ALF go into the kitchen, where there’s a big crash. I guess ALF’s bad luck resulted in something getting very unexpectedly rammed up his ass, because we hear him say to Jake, “Remove…it slowly.” This is an oddly saucy episode, considering it’s about a textbook getting ruined. Earlier we even had ALF say “gosh darned” in a way that was clearly meant to bring “God damned” to mind…something that ALF even comments upon. (“Ours was a polite society.”)

I’m not complaining (though the fewer times I have to imagine Jake pulling something slowly out of ALF’s anus the better), I just find it interesting that such a benign plot led to some more risque jokes.

Hearing the rectal shenanigans unfolding in his kitchen, Willie says the best line he’s had in ages: “Lynn, never have aliens.”

ALF, "Superstition"

Later on, ALF locks himself inside of Brian’s sex crate. Willie and Lynn come in to find him all bandaged and bruised from the injuries he sustained while locking himself inside. He repeats the “gosh darned” joke from before, and it’s maybe the only time on this show that repeating a joke really does make it funnier, probably because it’s played differently the second time. Lynn cuts off his “Ours was a polite society” with a curt, “We know.” And like Kate’s line about the crackling junebugs earlier, I don’t know why this works…but it does. With “Superstition,” all of the individual parts are just working together…moving in tandem and not against each other. The episode works, in this case, not because any of the individual parts are better, but because they all seem to be working toward something.

ALF tells them that he intends to stay in the crate for 14 years, until the curse runs out, but Lynn tells him that they have an idea: if he does something that, by Earth custom, is meant to bring good luck, maybe he can cancel it out.

And…you know, all this talk about luck makes me wonder why we don’t get any jokes about Lucky. Where is Lucky? I remember that cat being a major part of the show, but I guess I was wrong; it feels like he’s hardly been around since the first few episodes. I wonder why I remember his name at all.

Anyway, ALF thinks that Lynn’s idea is far-fetched, so Willie reminds him that the alternative is 14 years in captivity. ALF concedes, “Maybe your idea is more nearly-fetched than I thought,” which is a pretty good line.

You know when I complain about stories in this show having nothing to do with the fact that ALF is an alien? This is what I’m always hoping for instead.

“Superstition” is a good example of how to take ideas that could have been done on any sitcom (somebody’s possession getting ruined, a silly superstition, a run of bad luck) and give it a show-specific twist. Again, ALF is a show about a fucking space alien; the twists should come frequently and easily. Instead the identity of the central character is nearly always irrelevant to what happens to him, because of him, and around him…and that’s frustrating.

The reason I hated “A Little Bit of Soap,” “Prime Time,” “Keepin’ the Faith,” and others like those wasn’t that they were built on lousy ideas…it’s that they were built on lousy ideas that could have been done anywhere else, on any other show, without any alteration. There’s a wall-to-wall blandness that makes even the rare good lines and moments feel immaterial; you’re not laughing so much as you are wondering why you’re watching a show that’s only intermittently any good, and which never seems to know what it’s about.

Here, this feels like an ALF plot. It’s not that we can’t imagine this happening to Uncle Jesse, or Balki, or Gilligan, or Marcia Brady…it’s that we can’t imagine this happening to them in this particular way.

The way “Superstition” pans out has has something to do with who ALF is, his background, his culture. It’s silly…but at least it’s his.

Anyway, to cancel out his bad luck, Lynn gives ALF some salt to throw over his shoulder. He throws the entire shaker and hits Dick in the willie.

ALF, "Superstition"

Realizing that there are many more jokes to be made about negative superstitions than positive ones, Lynn brainlessly suggests that ALF do some traditionally unlucky things to cancel out his bad luck. Somehow that makes sense to her, but try as I might I can’t see any possible way that that’s meant to work. Maybe she’s just hoping that ALF’s bad luck will compound so severely that he will die and she’ll be able to go to college.

She tells him to break a mirror, which he does. Then Willie tells him to walk underneath a ladder, but he immediately steps on broken glass…and gets salt in the wound from the shaker he threw earlier. By ALF standards, that was pretty masterful buildup. By the standards of any other show, of course, it’s not even worth mentioning, since it’s little more than evidence that the writers remembered more than two lines back in their own script. But don’t take this away from us.

Then Willie goes to get him a bandage and falls down the stairs. And even by ALF standards, that was shit.

ALF, "Superstition"

Later on Lynn is applying an ice pack to her father’s head, which reminds me of when he fell down in the kitchen in “Suspicious Minds” and she was the only one who came to help him. Man, she really is the only Tanner who gives half a shit about anyone other than herself, isn’t she?

Then Brian comes home, and we see that it’s pretty dark when he comes through the door, so what was this kid doing all night? Wandering the neighborhood unsupervised? I guess I shouldn’t worry too much about it; they do live in the famously safe L.A. But I do find it more than a little funny that his family is treating him the same way the writers do, shoving him out of sight and not caring at all what does or doesn’t happen to him.

Brian sees his father sprawled out on the couch and asks what happened. ALF replies, “WILLIE’S DEAD.”

It’s the funniest thing in the whole episode. Shit, it might be the funniest thing in the entire series. I’d gladly watch a half hour loop of ALF proclaiming Willie’s death. It’s probably be my new favorite episode.

ALF explains that the curse can spread to others, and he’s convinced that that’s what’s happening. Then the TV explodes and Willie makes some funny faces.

ALF, "Superstition"

After the commercial break, Jake fixes the TV. It was just a short in the plug, but I’m impressed both by Jake’s electronic acumen and his ability to retain a consistent character trait. Seriously, with all of the hobbies and passions of Willie’s that have been introduced over the past three years, how many of them have we heard about more than once? The ham radio, I guess, so that’s one out of sixty-eight. You’d think that due to the sheer number of hobbies this asshole keeps accumulating the writers would have at least accidentally tripped over the same one a few times, but no.

Jake, on the other hand, was introduced to us as having a preternatural knack for fixing things and, sure enough, he still does. This means that he somehow managed to remain the same character from one episode to another, which isn’t an easy feat in this show, and also that he’d make a great addition to your team the next time you play Maniac Mansion.

When the TV is fixed, ALF turns on some kind of call-in psychiatry program. There’s a good line when Jake asks if they guy is any good, and ALF replies, “He’s on channel 129. You be the judge.”

Very interesting to me is the fact that this joke has aged well. Back when “Superstition” aired, there were far fewer channels than we have now…yet that line, unchanged, would still work today. You’d think that when the number of channels has inflated so substantially, we’d have to do some adjusting in our minds for the joke to make sense…but we don’t. As written, it’s just as funny now as it was then.

I don’t think it’s a matter of foresight so much as it is a matter of the fact that for all of the new channels, most of it still is crap, and no matter what your tastes in television you’d have a hard time filling 129 channels with anything worth watching. Whatever the reason, I find it interesting that a punchline so specific holds up well today. Especially on a show where most of the punchlines weren’t any good to begin with.

ALF, "Superstition"

ALF calls in to what looks like David Cross hosting the pre-taped call-in show. It’s actually something called Video Couch, which is coincidentally the name of the most boring porn site I ever signed up for.

The guy who plays the TV shrink is named David Wohl. I looked him up and he’s definitely been in loads of things I’ve seen, but always as some guest character, and never as anybody I can remember. But what’s really interesting to me is his performance. He plays this character with a kind of subtle weariness that we definitely don’t often see in this live-action cartoon show.

I almost wonder if he had any idea what ALF was; he’s obviously acting on his own, without the…ahem…benefit of working directly with master thespians Paul Fusco, Max Wright, or Benji Gregory, which means he is solely responsible for setting the tone of his scene. And…I like his tone. He doesn’t choose to play this character as either a sitcom psychiatrist (“Very eeeeeenteresting, Mr. Shumway. And, zell me, how long haff you been haffing these dreams of your mutter?”) or as the exaggerated local-access jackass we’ve seen on this show before (“Take a Look at Me Now”). He’s just…a guy. A guy who doesn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about his job of helping his callers, but who is doing it anyway and is at least more interested in giving them advice than cracking wise and running around the studio with his pants around his ankles.

The Video Couch sequence isn’t particularly clever — it’s just a way to get an outside character to tell ALF that it’s okay if he wants to do his phony baloney whatever-the-fuck ceremony nobody will remember next week — but it’s welcome, because it feels we get to a couple of minutes in another show entirely…one that still isn’t very good, but one that at least isn’t beating us over the head with shitty jokes and grating performances.

David Wohl doesn’t make me laugh here, but if I had the choice between spending the rest of the episode smoking cigarettes in silence with him or returning to the ALF set to see how that mess pans out, there would be no choice at all.

ALF, "Superstition"

This brief detour into less obnoxious television ends with one of the studio lights crashing down and almost killing David Wohl so that there will be no danger of someone acting like a human being in this show again. It’s not much of a punchline, especially since it undercuts the possibility (which should be probability) that ALF isn’t really cursed. Yes, bad things are happening to him and around him, but we should definitely have the option of seeing it as a little bit of coincidence and a lot of confirmation bias; ALF expects bad things to happen, and convinces others that bad things will happen, so that when the “bad luck” manifests, that’s what the characters latch onto. Instead ALF is supernaturally able to transmit bad juju through the phone lines and affect the lighting rig of some local access shrink we’ll never see again? Fuck that.

Willie comes into the living room with a rag wrapped around his hand. Jake asks what happened, and Willie tells him that he cut himself while swabbing out his crack pipe. This causes ALF to raise again the importance of doing the atonement ritual, but Willie, desperately sucking residue from his fingers, tells him to fuck off.

In order to aid his cause, ALF outright threatens the safety of Willie’s unborn baby. After all, does Willie think his kid can survive 14 years of this bullshit? Man, I’m sure glad that ALF now considers inflicting grievous bodily harm upon a toddler to be an acceptable method of resolving plots. I predict wonderful things for this show once the baby is born.

Willie agrees to do the ritual, but ALF reminds them that it needs to be performed under green moonlight, so they’re fucked. ALF, you cunt, why did you just threaten Willie’s stammering, nearsighted fetus if your dumbass plan wouldn’t work anyway?

Jake resolves the green moonlight issue by suggesting they all wear green sunglasses under regular moonlight. This raises an interesting question, actually; if the color of light is important to the ritual…whose light?

Wearing tinted glasses doesn’t actually change the color of the light, does it? Well, sure it does. Kind of.

For the person wearing it, it does. And since “color” itself is dependent upon perception, what of the colorblind? Or the blind? If filtering the perception of one is a valid solution, are those who can’t perceive green at all unable to participate in the ceremony? And what if one set of sunglasses actually makes the light look more bluish than green, or…?

ALF, "Superstition"

Blah whatever who am I kidding. It’s all just an excuse to get the cast looking even sillier.

I do like a few things about this scene, actually. Specifically, I love that Willie left his meat in its packaging. That’s a perfect little character detail that I buy completely. (Of course, if he could get away with that, why in fuck’s name wouldn’t everyone follow his lead? Surely the warm trickle of salmonella down their shorts can’t be that welcome.) Even better, though: the side-effect of the Oscar Mayer cold cuts resembling military epaulettes. That takes a funny character detail and turns it into an additional visual joke. That’s very welcome, and remarkably clever for this show.

There’s also a fun line when Jake, with steaks hanging down his chest, asks Lynn how he looks. She replies, “A-1.”

…fuck you. I liked it.

ALF then tells everyone at the ceremony to pour gravy into their hair. They complain, and he calms them down by explaining that that part is optional; he was just trying to make it fun.

“Superstition” does a pretty great job of walking the fine line between stupid and clever.

ALF, "Superstition"

Then ALF does something pretty new and innovative for this show: he remembers Brian.

Oh yeah, that kid! The one whose textbook kicked off this whole mess. How could we forget?

Well, pretty easily actually.

After ALF asks in the voice of Paul Fusco where the hell that kid is, when he says on the set at six o’ clock he means on the set at six o’clock, Brian stumbles into view and asks his mother, “Is my hot dog on straight?” So if you’ve been wondering where that massively popular catch-phrase, now you know. Say it the next time you walk into a room and you’ll be the life of the party!

ALF dicks around like a dicking dick instead of performing the ceremony. Mr. Ochmonek then does what he could have done at any point during the past three seasons, but these fuckholes never worried about: he comes into the back yard while they’re all doing stupid alien shit.

ALF, "Superstition"

The tableau he encounters is pretty funny, though, I admit. Even if Lynn looks like she just inhaled a bumble bee.

ALF hides under the table. Mr. Ochmonek asks Jake why he’s wearing his sunglasses at night, and I can feel the restraint of the writers when he doesn’t reply, “So I can, so I can.”

Honestly, how they managed to avoid not making that joke, I’ll never know. Not that they make any other joke in its place…Jake just says he wants to wear them. Ha ha?

They tell Mr. Ochmonek that they’re having a barbeque, and are thawing their meats with body heat. It’s pretty fucking dumb, but it leads to maybe the best Willie / Mr. O exchange ever. Willie says, “Trevor…haven’t you ever wanted to let your hair down and slap on a flank-steak?” Mr. O pauses, then concedes, “I’ve always thought about it.”

It’s funny…and it’s a moment well-handled by both actors, but since most of their exchanges take the form of Mr. Ochmonek buying the Tanners gifts while Willie punches him repeatedly in the testicles, calling it the “best ever” feels a massive understatement.

ALF, "Superstition"

Mr. Ochmonek leaves and the family tries to get ALF to perform the fucking ceremony already. Instead he makes them do the Hokey Pokey until Willie is on the verge of shredding him with his bare hands in a red haze of crack withdrawal.

At last, ALF reads from the sacred text. “Sorry about the book,” he says.

And it’s over.

It’s funny…it really is…but there’s more to the scene than the punchline.

The fact that that’s it…that all of the buildup and ceremony was for that…is legitimately funny, and the frustration of Max Wright and Anne Schedeen is felt very clearly here. Notice I don’t say Willie and Kate. No…I think it runs a little deeper than that.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the actors are channeling their real world frustrations in this scene. After all, the 20-odd-hour recording time for an episode of ALF must have a pretty similar high-effort / low-payoff ratio for them as this ceremony had for Willie and Kate. Deliberate comment on the inner workings of the show or not, this scene allows them to react to exactly that imbalance. It allows them to vent — or at least to display — the frustrations that they feel when ALF — like ALF — takes so long to accomplish so little. And when it’s over, there’s not even a sense of satisfaction. So little was accomplished that all they can do is go home and wait for the next disaster.

Am I reading into this? Almost certainly. “I’m Your Puppet” showed that the series isn’t totally averse to meta-commentary, but that doesn’t mean “Superstition” wants to accomplish the same thing. But whether or not the script had meta-commentary in mind, Wright and Schedeen almost certainly did. The frustration and seething anger on display here is the best acting we’ve gotten from either of them in quite a while. In short, they’re channeling something…that much is clear. And if I had to bet on what it was, I’d feel pretty comfortable doing so.

ALF, "Superstition"

Mr. Ochmonek comes back…not to join in the barbeque but to take their picture.

Why? His wife is out, and she’ll never believe this horse shit unless he has a photo to prove it.

I fucking love you, Mr. Ochmonek.

Then he leaves and so does the family, abandoning ALF alone in the yard while he loudly sings the Hokey Pokey to himself. Since Mr. Ochmonek already dropped by twice, unannounced, within the past three minutes, the Tanners must be getting pretty comfortable with the idea that somebody could find and murder their alien. Pretty…pretty comfortable.

The episode ends with a short melody that combines the ALF theme with the Hokey Pokey, and, jesus, just the fact that I’m typing an observation like that makes me wish I had the guts to kill myself.

ALF, "Superstition"

In the short scene before the credits ALF dumps a shitload of potato chips on Jake.

This episode wasn’t great, but it was definitely good. In fact, it’s probably one of the most solid episodes yet. Its quality wasn’t sky-high…but it was even. For the purposes of comparison, think of something like “Alone Again, Naturally.” That episode, I’d argue, had higher highs, but it also had far lower lows. “Superstition” hits (and holds) a level above competency but below greatness. Its sturdiness, however, and the fact that it sits so comfortably at that level, is an achievement in itself.

It was a nice, sustained riff on a clever idea. And while it could have been done much better, it deserves a pat on the back for not sliding back into laziness and stupidity.

I don’t know if this will scratch my list of best episodes, which I’m going to do at some point to remind everyone that I’m not a totally miserable bastard, but it wouldn’t miss out by much.

“Superstition” does a few things very well, and that’s nice, but its biggest achievement is the fact that it does almost nothing poorly. It’s one of those rare episodes of ALF that takes full advantage of its possibilities, and makes effective use of every scene.

I liked this one. It wasn’t great, but I liked it anyway. In fact, talk to me again at the end of this project, and I have a feeling it will have grown on me.

Of course, I’m sure everything from the first three seasons will look better once Jim J. Bullock joins the cast.

Gosh darnit, ALF.

MELMAC FACTS: On Melmac it was bad luck to destroy a history book. They were “a polite society.” Melmacian culture valued books highly. The society’s motto was “Are You Going to Finish That Sandwich?” The curse of destroying a history book can be broken through a “bibliocide ritual,” which I already talked about above and don’t want to type out again. Melmac’s moon was green under certain atmospheric conditions, or when someone threw up on it, and the planet’s High Priest also worked as a butcher. All Melmacian rituals required the wearing of meat, unless they took place on a Friday in which case the participants wore fish. At weddings the preacher would say, “You’re hitched. Go for it, babe.”

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