And so it begins. Welcome to my episode-by-episode revisiting of the entire series of puppet-based hijinx known as ALF. This episode actually surprised me in a lot of ways, not least because they bothered to show us ALF’s arrival and first night with the Tanner* family.
It’s not that I’m surprised because I don’t think it’s a story worth telling…I’m just surprised because the “origin story” in the first episode is a relatively recent phenomenon. There are exceptions — and this is obviously one — but going back in TV history just a decade or so will surround you with shows that don’t really have much of an ongoing story. Sitcoms in particular are designed to be hopped into and out of as you please, with zero to little knowledge of the characters required.
ALF is by no means being innovative by opening with a “here’s how they came together” episode, but it is at least in the minority for its time. I kind of like that.
Anyway, the episode opens with Willie Tanner and his wife Kate in the shed, playing with some dials that apparently do something that may or may not be the cause of a space ship crashing into the roof.
I don’t really know what Willie was meant to be doing in the first place, and I have even less of a guess as to what Kate was doing there with him. Is this some kind of advanced ham radio thing? I have no idea, but the space ship falls slowly enough — take that, gravity! — that the Tanner children come rushing into the shed in a panic to ask what’s very slowly tumbling from the sky.
There’s a crash and we get a shot of ALF unconscious against the hatch of his ship.
I found it funny, but the studio audience didn’t. I guess we were supposed to care about this, and worry about his health, but since the show is named after him and it’s followed by a credits sequence that shows him alive and well I can’t really say that it generates suspense.
Actually, here’s a question: was there a studio audience? All the puppetry and midgets in full-body suits suggests not, I guess, but who knows. Maybe they staged as much as they could for an audience. Either way, ALF’s dead and nobody cares.
We then get a credits sequence with a theme tune (no lyrics, sadly) that I remember surprisingly well. The credits involve ALF running around the house with a camera, so that he can record footage of naked Kate for later batin’.
I realize now how little I remember about these characters, even though I’ve probably seen every episode of the show. I guess they just weren’t that well-developed. I remember ALF, of course. And I remember Willie’s strained line deliveries that made it sound like every word was going to be his last before he died of a heart attack, but I don’t know anything about the daughter talking on the phone in the closet, the son who hugs ALF, or the wife with the glorious wet tatas.
Anyway the credits end with a genuinely nice effect of ALF fogging up the camera lens with his breath. I like this, because it’s an actual piece of puppetry magic. It’s not as great as Kermit riding a bike or anything, but I do like it when you see something like this as a grown up and think, “Huh. That must have taken some thought.”
I probably won’t be saying that much throughout these reviews.
The credits of a healthy ALF scrapping around the Tanner home end, and we see a cold-cocked ALF being laid out on the coffee table like a corpse. I’ve never experienced such tonal whiplash in the space of a single credits sequence before.
Everybody wonders what this creature is, even though it obviously crashed a space ship into their shed while they all watched it happen, which should pretty much establish beyond the shadow of a doubt that it’s an alien. Willie finally says “It’s an ALF,” and Kate asks him what that means.
Willie then does something that I absolutely can’t stand, though it happens all the time on television: he replies to her question by simply repeating, “An ALF.” Then he has to dance around it verbally for a bit before he reveals that it stands for Alien Life Form.
The reason I hate this isn’t because it’s not realistic…it’s because it is realistic. I hate it when people use some phrase or terminology you don’t know, and when you ask them to explain they just repeat it. I know they do it on purpose. They do it on purpose because they want to make you feel stupider while they explain something to you that you never could have known in the first place. Willie you piece of shit.
Seriously, though, I really hate that. If you’re ever in a situation in which somebody asks you to explain what you mean, actually take a second and explain it. Don’t be a dick and just repeat the same fucking thing again. Especially if there’s a concussed alien in your living room and you really should focus on that instead of making yourself erect with how superior your vocabulary is to your wife’s and kids’.
There’s a really weird moment then when ALF wakes up and we see the Tanner family through a fish-eye lens. Does that imply that this is how ALF sees everything? And if he’s opening his eyes, shouldn’t they see that? They keep discussing him like he’s dead, but he’s obviously looking at them at this point.
The fish-eye lens suggests at least a small attempt at visual artistry. Similarly, there was a nice diagonal angle on the family from above when ALF crashed earlier. It’s the sort of thing I expect we won’t see much of as the series goes in, since they would have had to crank out an episode for each week after this point, and would probably have had to rely on the standard sitcom blocking of the time. For now though, it’s a nice peek into what the ALF crew would have done had they had more time for each episode.
And what they would have done is make everyone’s face hilarious with a fish-eye lens.
ALF wakes up and there’s actually a pretty funny exchange. He chastises Willie because his driveway needs more light and Willie apologizes and says he knows but he hasn’t had enough time to take care of that. I’m sure you’re laughing just reading about it. (I really did like it though. Why won’t you believe me?)
It’s here that I’m a little thrown by ALF’s voice. I guess Paul Fusco — the puppeteer and creator of the character — needed a little more time to settle into the voice as we remember it. This sounds a lot deeper than I remember it being, more like a kid trying to sound like a grownup than any actual character in its own right.
Anyway the Tanner adults don’t want ALF in the house and ALF — whose ability to speak English doesn’t seem to be of all that much interest to anyone — says he’ll leave if they can fix his space ship. Then he asks if he can eat their cat, and they say no. He disappears into the kitchen, the cat runs away, and ALF says, “He’s a fast one, I’ll give him that.” The audience applauds. Of course they do.
ALF awakens the next morning spent from a long night of fucking Willie’s wife.
No, actually she sees ALF and screams, and then he screams, and then they’re screaming together, which you have to see to believe because seriously, that like never happens!
Willie comes in from the bathroom to ask his wife what sex feels like, and ALF follows Willie back in to watch him shave.
Where was Willie all night that ALF could just sleep in his bed without anyone knowing? Where did they want ALF to sleep? And wouldn’t they want to keep an eye on him? He already wants to eat their cat. What if he killed their kids?
Who am I kidding. Nobody cares.
Willie tells ALF to keep his distance while he’s in the house, and to try to act considerate. ALF immediately picks up some shaving cream and shoots it everywhere.
I’m not even sure if that was meant to look accidental. I have a feeling this exact situation is going to play out a lot as we go on. ALF is told not to do something, ALF immediately does that thing, the audience applauds.
Willie strips naked in front of the alien, because that’s a wise thing to do with a creature you’ve never seen before and in the first episode of a family sitcom.
ALF pretends not to admire Willie’s willie. Seriously, ALF sure likes looking at naked people. He and I might have some common ground after all.
Willie tells ALF not to go near the window, because their neighbor Mrs. Ochmonek is very nosy. ALF immediately runs to the window and starts making silly faces while Willie washes his legs and genitals.
It’s a stupid scene that involves Mrs. and Mr. Ochmonek being lamely rude to each other, but it at least held my attention because I couldn’t place where I’d seen Mrs. Ochmonek before. After a while I realized it’s the woman who played Jerry’s mom on Seinfeld. And then I realized I wouldn’t have anything to say about that observation, but I’d make it anyway.
Willie comes out of the shower and asks ALF for something he can dry himself off with, so ALF runs over to the toilet paper holder and unspools the entire roll. This isn’t because he’s still learning Earth customs; he’s just a dick.
In the next scene, Willie is on a ladder attempting to fix ALF’s space ship. So, wait. They left the space ship on the roof all night? They’re so worried about ALF going near the windows because their neighbor might peep, but the space ship just sits out in the open for even passing drivers to see?
ALF isn’t helping Willie, despite the fact that he’s the only entity in the house that has any experience with the machine and none of them think that might be valuable during the repair process, so he goes inside to watch Sesame Street with the boy Brian.
This I actually kind of like, too. By acknowledging the Muppets, ALF is tipping its hat toward some real-world inspiration. Elsewhere in the episode the characters reference Harry and the Hendersons, E.T., and Mork and Mindy, all of which were obvious inspirations as well. I think that’s actually pretty cool.
What’s not cool is the way ALF touches Brian:
Jesus that’s off-putting.
ALF’s bad-touching is preceded by him plying the boy with alcohol.
Not kidding. He gives Brian a beer, and Kate walks over to tell ALF that’s wrong. She doesn’t have anything to say about the overt molestation though.
Isn’t this the worst possible thing to normalize in a family sitcom? It’s terrible.
ALF pets and squeezes the boy while he begs her to let him stay, and I know it doesn’t look that bad in the screen shot, but in moition I swear to Christ it’s the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been watching television outside of The Top 50 Funniest Rapes on TruTV. ALF’s a sicko.
Anyway there’s a knock at the door, and everyone runs around panicking. It’s some guy in a military uniform who patiently stands outside while they look out the windows at him and worry loudly about what to do for around ten minutes. He doesn’t even knock again. He’s just standing there waiting to deliver his lines. How long do you think you’d stand unmoving at a door after knocking? If it’s anything less than a day and a half you’ve got this guy beat.
They finally open the door after hiding ALF by asking him to step four inches to his left. Fortunately the military guy never thinks to turn his head, and their ruse is successful.
He introduces himself as being from the Alien Task Force, so now you finally know what the ATF does all day. He says he’s received reports that the Tanners are housing an alien, and then he describes ALF’s appearance.
Isn’t it a little odd that a government agent just went to a civilian’s house and blurted out the fact that alien life existed? Earlier in the episode Willie wasn’t sure that aliens were real, but now this guy not only knows they exist but he knows what they look like.
I just find that really strange. It would sort of be like a government agent knocking on your door right now. You open it and he says there’s an escaped leprechaun in town and gives you a description, and wants to know if you’re hiding it. Wouldn’t that be the single most bizarre thing you’ve ever been through? You’d think he was mentally ill.
He asks Kate if they are harboring an alien and she says no, so he leaves. Good to know that the Alien Task Force operates on the honor system. Seriously, he never comes back. Problem raised and solved in the course of one line. Again, so much for tension.
And wait a minute…doesn’t the Alien Task Force guy see the space ship on the roof either? Why am I the only person in the world WHO CAN LOOK UP?
Anyway, the episode’s over. It might as well be. Willie took a shower and Kate answered the door; where else could this story possibly have gone?
ALF wanders into the shed and uses Willie’s ham radio to place a distress call. He tries to reach some of his old Melmac-mates, but they don’t respond. That’s fine. In fact, I like that. But then some sad music comes on and he talks about how much he misses them and how much he likes his new family and how much he totally came inside the wife last night.
It’s a little weird that ALF is bearing his soul over the radio when he already knows nobody can hear him. It would be like you placing a call to somebody, and you profess your undying love for them over the recorded message that says you dialed wrong and to hang up and try again. ALF’s speech is a lot less moving when you realize he’s just an idiot.
The Tanners stand silently behind him and listen in on his literally one-sided conversation. They’re moved by his sincerity, even though all he did so far was wreck their shed, climb into bed with Kate, throw toilet paper everywhere and grope Brian, but then he mentions wanting to eat the cat again and they make angry faces.
Well, kinda. There’s still a short scene underneath the end credits that shows ALF telling jokes at the dinner table. Everyone in the family goes ga-ga over them, except for Kate who scowls humorlessly. I get the feeling I’m supposed to see Kate as some kind of fun-hating shrew, but honestly I’m on her side. Fuck this guy.
Everyone has apparently adjusted to the fact that they live with an alien now and always will, because they start discussing the logistics of Lynn’s pajama party next week. Did I mention Lynn yet? She’s the teenage daughter. And she’s having teenaged friends over.
ALF volunteers to dress up like a woman and everybody agrees that’s fine because now he’ll be forcing himself sexually on some other people’s kids for a change, and that’s something they’d like to encourage.
So, overall, this actually wasn’t that bad. It wasn’t great, and I probably wouldn’t even call it any good, but part of me wants to acknowledge that the setup is sound: an alien moves in. That’s not ground-breaking stuff, but it’s a solid premise for comedy.
The problem is that the episode doesn’t deliver on that promise or any of its inherent possibilities. It’s only been 21 minutes or so and the writers can’t think of anything for ALF to do but make a mess, so that’s discouraging considering we still have another 98 episodes to go. The potential conflict with the government would also be great, if the ATF didn’t just take your word for it that you’re not harboring sentient creatures from outer space.
I don’t remember the government thing coming into play much, but I was a kid the last time I saw this so who knows. Maybe it becomes positively riveting.
Or maybe ALF just chases the cat around and peeps on people in the shower.
I’m not a betting man, but if I were I know where my money would lie.
MELMAC FACTS: In this episode we learn that ALF comes from Melmac, that it had a purple sun, and that it exploded. It was also made of a substance called melmac. No idea if we’ll get many more Melmac facts in the future, but just in case, here’s where I’ll put them. You know. In case you ever want to write a paper about it.
* Yes, the Tanner family. At first I thought that Full House preceded this show, and ALF, knowingly or not, burgled the name. But no…this particular Tanner family predates Danny and his horde of imbeciles by a year. I knew this series of reviews would be educational.