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ALF Reviews: “On the Road Again” (Season 1, Episode 11)

December 26th, 2013 | Posted by Philip J Reed in alf

ALF, "On the Road Again"

The episode opens with ALF starting a motherfucking grease fire. Does it really even matter if I explain why that happens?

I know this is a sitcom. I know we need to suspend disbelief…and I’m happy to do that. Many of my favorite television programs have been absurdist works. Tim & Eric Awesome Show Great Job, Get a Life, The League of Gentlemen, Father Ted…the list goes on. That isn’t just a handful of shows I enjoy…that’s a list, as far as I’m concerned, of some of the best television ever made.

Of course realistic shows have at least as much potential to rocket up my list of favorites, as my undying love for the original Office will attest, but my point is that I have nothing against absurd shows. I’m willing to suspend disbelief as much as necessary — and more — in order to embrace what absurd programming has to offer.

But ALF doesn’t come off as absurd. I certainly wouldn’t argue that it comes off as realistic, either, but the problem is that it attempts to occupy some kind of hazy middle ground. Its premise is rife with absurdity, but once you get past the fact than an alien lives in the house, there’s nothing left. From then on, it might as well be realistic.

Aside from a few jokey comments here and there — an average of what seems like well less than one per episode — there’s nothing that separates ALF as a character from any number of wacky neighbors, annoying relatives or devious hobos. In Mork & Mindy, you knew you were watching a show about an alien even though Robin Williams looked as human as anyone else. Here, if you tuned into any given episode of ALF the odds are good that you’d only know he’s an alien because he doesn’t look human. His behavior, his words and his hare-brained schemes are too human.

That’s the problem. The problem isn’t that I can’t suspend disbelief for ALF…the problem is that ALF isn’t asking me to.

This can work, but in order for it to work the show needs to be in on the joke. In Get a Life the comedy came from the fact that insane characters and preposterous situations existed within a universe that felt exactly like and was structured exactly like a 1950s sitcom. The disparity between the concept and the execution enhanced the comedy rather than confused it.

I’d also point to The Venture Bros. here as perhaps the gold standard of tonal disparity; each episode opens with an action-packed credits sequence suggesting thrilling adventures, dangerous adversaries and last-minute escapes…but the episodes themselves are about the characters’ downtime. They might be dealing with mundane concerns in bizarre, impossible ways, but the fact remains that we’re always catching these characters when they’re not really up to much, and, again, that fuels the comedy. A quiet conversation between an employee and his boss about a deceased colleague isn’t funny on its own…but put the employee and his boss in rubber butterfly costumes and stick them in a treehouse, and the entire perspective changes.

I’m not angry that ALF is absurd…I’m angry that ALF doesn’t seem to know it’s absurd. An alien coming to Earth and doing nothing alien can be funny…but the show has to realize why it’s funny. Instead, it doesn’t. ALF just keeps starting fires and chasing cats and crashing cars and every episode does its best to hide the fact that ALF is an alien rather than embrace it. The show refuses to mine the richest comic vein it has at its disposal. It’s thoroughly disappointing, and it makes it even more ridiculous that Willie and Kate wouldn’t throw him out.

So, yes, he just started a grease fire in the kitchen. That’s the joke. What if he killed the kids?

An absurd show could make the callousness on display here — and letting ALF continue to live in this house is absolutely an act of callousness — a great joke. Instead it’s just an excuse for Willie and Kate to make silly faces while ALF consistently puts their lives and their children’s lives in jeopardy.

ALF, "On the Road Again"

After the opening credits we get another missed opportunity, as Willie says grace.

So, Willie’s religious? I’ve mentioned it before, but this would certainly be a great time to discuss the ways that somebody’s faith might be shaken — or at least need to evolve — upon encountering irrefutable proof of extra-terrestrial life. Why aren’t we privy, even in the form of a tossed-off joke, to how Willie’s managed to rectify his spirituality with the fact that he lives with a god-damned alien?

That’s the kind of story that would make far better use of this show’s central concept. Instead, though, the writers want to talk about a much more pressing concern: where the Tanners will go on their vacation.

They want to go to San Diego, but since they can’t let ALF be seen in public and also can’t leave him alone in the house unless they want to come home to a smoking crater, they decide not to go anywhere at all.

This is at least circling the idea that ALF is an alien, but a show like American Dad! handles things like that much more interestingly. By allowing Roger to adopt alternate personas, they not only allow him to get out of the house, but they throw the door wide open for new and unique plot possibilities. Here, yes, they are at least conscious of the fact that ALF is an alien (a far cry from the episode where they ran around town asking everybody if they’d seen the space-monster that lives in their laundry room), but “we can’t go anywhere” isn’t a very interesting place for that to lead.

The one time they acknowledge this fact it’s so they have an excuse to give us a boring episode, and that’s insane. You are writing a show about an alien. If you’re doing that, you should be able to invent incredible storylines. I don’t understand why the ALF writing staff alternates between ignoring it completely and acknowledging it for the sake of avoiding writing anything interesting.

ALF, "On the Road Again"

I will give credit where credit is due, however: the set designers or the prop folks bothered to hang singed curtains in the kitchen, even though we don’t actually go into that room and can only glimpse them briefly behind Willie. That’s some downright uncommon attention to detail for this show, and I like that. Whoever bothered to add such a lovely touch to a terrible episode like this one, I hope you’ve moved on to productions more worthy of your enthusiasm.

Anyway the kids are disappointed that the family can’t go anywhere, but they don’t blame ALF. In fact, they reassure him that it’s not his fault. Even though, you know, it absolutely, unquestionably is his fault.

This is disappointing, too, because it’s another missed opportunity for a good story. Willie and Kate regularly get sick of ALF’s shenanigans, but Lynn and Brian stick up for him. Now that he’s taking away their vacation, though, wouldn’t it be nice to see what happens when the whole family is sick of him? How would he handle that? How would he win them back?

I’m not going to argue that it would be a very good episode — I’d be insane to argue that at this point — but it would at least be a good idea for an episode. Instead, there’s no conflict. Why is there no conflict?

The family decides that they can go camping, which will solve both problems: they won’t have to worry about anyone seeing ALF, and ALF will still be right at hand to ruin every moment of their lives.

Kate is disappointed that nobody else wants to stash ALF in a kennel, which would pretty much make her my soul mate if the writing was more consistent.

She then starts making a list of the things they will need, and we only barely hear “pork and beans” and “wolf repellent” before we fade into the next scene. There’s no laughter, so I think it’s safe to conclude that these are really the first two things the ALF writing staff thinks you take camping. They…don’t get out much.

ALF, "On the Road Again"

Willie is driving the RV they rented, and everyone apart from Kate sings that bottles-of-beer-on-the-wall song. There’s a decently funny moment when Brian asks his mother why she isn’t singing, and she replies that she doesn’t know the words. Her line is delivered with a perfectly calculated snip of bitchiness and I actually like that a lot. Every so often there’s a hint of characterization that happens in spite of the script. I cherish moments like those.

The audience barely laughs, though, so maybe I’m wrong to find it funny. I guess we’re only supposed to laugh when ALF traps four people in a burning house.

What’s weird watching this is how well ALF and Willie are getting along. I sort of remembered Willie as barely tolerating ALF, but so far in the run he’s been pretty supportive of the guy who keeps ruining his life. Of course, there have definitely been moments when Willie flips out, but watching them sing the song together is like watching two reunited college roommates. What a weird show. They aren’t even able to keep the central relationships consistent.

ALF, "On the Road Again"

They stop singing and Lynn says she’s going to write a letter to her boyfriend. I don’t know who that is, or why she’d want to write to him when she’s going camping and won’t be able to mail it until she gets back anyway. More confusing, though, is the fact that this never comes up in the episode again. It’s as though the writers felt the need to invent a reason for her to not be involved in the rest of the scene, but Brian and Kate aren’t involved either and they don’t get any excuse.

Couldn’t they have just had her put on some headphones or something? Why have her announce that she’s nonsensically writing a letter she can’t mail if it’s not going to have any bearing on anything? See what I mean about the show not being in on its own absurdity? It isn’t even aware of the things it’s making its characters do.

ALF asks Willie if he can take the wheel, but Willie declines for the reason that ALF doesn’t know how to drive. Last week’s entire episode hinged upon the fact that ALF could somehow drive, admittedly not very well, but still. I would be fine with it if Willie’s justification was based on the events of “Baby, You Can Drive My Car,” but they aren’t. They don’t even remember it.

This is reinforced by the fact that ALF defends his driving abilities by saying, “I drove through the cosmos, didn’t I?” Why wouldn’t he have said “I drove a Ferrari last week, remember? It’s why your family is dirt poor now and your great grandkids will be working to pay off your debt.”

Easy, because that didn’t happen. This is a new episode and those events occurred in total isolation from everything we’re about to see. It’s really bizarre, especially since these episodes are back to back. Again, I’m not a huge continuity guy or anything, but they could get the same point across if they’d just rewritten the line slightly so that instead of ALF drawing a parallel between driving this motor vehicle and flying a space-ship ten episodes ago, he could draw a parallel between driving this motor vehicle and driving the motor vehicle that he just drove last week.

ALF, "On the Road Again"

Anyway, ALF wrenches control of the steering wheel away from Willie, which I guess is the joke because the audience of dead people goes nuts. I said it a few weeks ago but I’ll say it again here: I’m grateful for the laugh track. Without it I’d never now that ALF repeatedly attempting to murder four innocent people was supposed to be funny.

Nobody says anything to ALF about what he just did. The scene ends after the RV almost collides with another driver. Wouldn’t it have been hilarious if they hit that guy and killed him? Man, I’m cracking up just thinking about it.

What a wonderful lesson for kids watching this show at home! It’s so funny to violently yank the steering wheel while somebody’s driving along at 60 miles per hour.

How does nobody pull over and bawl ALF out for this shit? Again, this is beyond suspending disbelief. A show like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia would definitely have a character do this, but even then there’d probably be some consequence. Granted, it could be a warped sort of consequence that sees the gang okay but some innocent people injured, but It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is aware of the fact that this is wrong. It plays with our expectations and, whether you like the show or not, it’s at least clear that the show is aware of what it is doing.

Here it’s just ALF showing all the kids at home a really funny prank they can try for themselves. God damn this show.

ALF, "On the Road Again"

In the next scene the RV is stuck somewhere, and I thought maybe it was because ALF drove it into a ditch or something, but, no. Again, no consequence. They made it to the campground just fine, but they’re stuck inside because it’s raining.

Here’s another example of where a small rewrite would have made a world of difference. Instead of the rain, why not have it so that ALF hit a tree? Or drove over something that pierced the tire? The family is still stuck in that case, the story can still progress exactly as it does, but you tie some elements of your plot together so that it’s not just a mess of moments that occur in sequence but have little to no bearing on each other.

It would also give Willie’s upcoming tantrum a lot more justification, but who cares about that, right? How is this show this lousy? Really, I’m not asking for spoilers here, but does it actually get any better?

Anyway, they’re all stuck in the RV so Willie suggests a game. They can’t play Scrabble because ALF ate all the pieces, though. Hilarious. I don’t understand why the only way they want to show us that ALF is an alien is by having him eat things that aren’t meant to be eaten. There’s really nothing else you can have this guy do?

Willie suggests charades instead, and there’s another funny line when Lynn says that she doesn’t like charades, because she always feels like everybody’s watching her.

It’s funnier in isolation than it is in the larger context of the episode and the show, though, because I honestly don’t know if Lynn is just saying something silly, or if she’s supposed to be some kind of bimbo.

Also, does anyone say bimbo anymore? Honest question. I remember hurting myself laughing when Harvey Keitel called Ed Norton a bimbo in Moonrise Kingdom just because I hadn’t heard that word in what felt like decades. And also because it was Harvey Keitel calling Ed Norton a bimbo. Now that’s comedy.

ALF, "On the Road Again"

Willie eventually gets upset because ALF keeps screaming unreasonable demands at him and blaming him for the shitty trip, even though it’s been repeatedly established that ALF is the reason for the shitty trip. Willie loses his temper, but, ultimately, his point is that ALF should be more considerate, which seems pretty reasonable to me. So, of course, what happens is that ALF storms off into the rain and sad music plays and the camera zooms in on Willie as though he’s the villain.

Again: this show has no idea what it’s doing.

After the commercial the family is displeased at Willie for no reason. Seriously, all that happened is that ALF stood up and left of his own volition, in a fit of self-righteous indignation, and Willie said, “Okay, you can leave if you’d like to, and that might be a good idea since you keep trying to kill us.”

I have to admit, I never expected to take Willie’s side on anything, ever, but here we are. Even Kate is angry at him, which means she can’t even be consistently characterized within a single episode. Is it really that hard to pick a direction and stick with it? Why even have five main characters if you’re not going to give them reliable traits at any point? Why not just have one character who does whatever the fuck the script needs him to do at that point? It’s better than having five that revert to being blank slates at the beginning of every scene.

ALF, "On the Road Again"

Willie is guilted into going out to find ALF, who we see has stumbled upon a filthy shack somewhere. He peers inside and sees nobody, so he opens the door and steps inside. When he does, we see the midget again! Yay!

It’s been a few episodes since we’ve seen the midget. I’m always excited to see him, even if I can’t decide if the job of slipping into an ALF suit and shuffling from one side of the set to the other every few weeks is a great job or a demeaning one.

Anyway, ALF dicks around in the shack for a while, and then some manly hunters come home.

ALF, "On the Road Again"

You can tell they’re manly because they wash their Oreo cookies down with Jack Daniel’s.

ALF hides from them while they stand around bickering about a rabbit that one of them scared off before the other could shoot it. It has no bearing on anything but they make sure to discuss it as long as necessary to pad out the episode. When they’re absolutely sure that the episode will hit a full 20 minutes, one of them heads over to the bed and sits on it.

ALF groans, because I guess he was under there. The hunters cock their rifles, and I shut the episode off and go to bed, secure in the assumption that ALF was shot to death and I don’t have to review any more of this shit.

…no. I don’t. :( I’m in this for the long-haul. You fucks.

ALF, "On the Road Again"

They pull the blankets back and we ALF hiding beneath the highest bed in the history of indoor furniture. Look at how much room is under there! He shouldn’t have groaned when that guy sat on the bed; it’s roomier under there than it is in most people’s apartments.

Our alien hero whimpers and tries to get the hunters to refrain from killing him by acting pitiful. He could always say, “Don’t shoot me, bro,” since it’s not like he has much to lose at this point, and keeping his alienism a secret wouldn’t be of much benefit to anyone if he was dead, but that’s okay. He can communicate through whimpers if he wants.

What’s not okay is that one of the hunters assumes he’s a dog. This happened in “Looking for Lucky” as well, and ALF doesn’t look any more like a dog now than he did then.

And — take a shot, readers — here’s yet another example of where a small rewrite would have helped the episode immensely. Remember all that shit about how it was raining so hard nobody could leave the RV? Well, I guess it cleared up by now, but all you’d have to do is have ALF slip and fall in some mud. That would justify the rain as a plot device, and would also go some way toward making it possible for him to be mistaken for an animal. If he’s covered in mud, there could at least be some confusion over whether or not he’s a dog. Now, though, when he’s so clearly not a dog, it just makes the rest of the world look like idiots.

The fat one goes out to get his chainsaw so they can eat ALF, and then ALF comes out from under the bed and starts talking to the skinny one. This is just more confusing; if he’s willing to talk to one of them, why wouldn’t he have been willing to talk to both of them?

Maybe the idea is that ALF was more scared of the fat one, but that didn’t really come across on screen. They’re just two moronic hunters with no distinguishing characteristics beyond their respective weights.

Anyway, ALF tells the skinny one to “get even with” his friend. Get even for what? Who knows. Nobody cares.

The skinny one agrees. Why? Who knows. Nobody cares.

ALF, "On the Road Again"

The fat guy comes back with the chainsaw, and then Willie comes in, too. ALF goes back to whimpering to get Willie’s attention for some reason, even though he was just talking a second ago, one of the guys already knows he speaks English, and now the only man who can rescue him is here looking for him.

I don’t know. None of this makes any sense. Willie does notice ALF, though, because if he didn’t this episode would be a two-parter, and the fact that it isn’t is the first small mercy the writing staff has ever afforded me.

ALF, "On the Road Again"

Whatever. The point is that Willie found him and they’re reunited. Nobody bothers to ask how he found him, so I’ll just assume that he found him by following the trail of families slain by ALF’s antics.

The hunters still want to eat the dog, though, so they rev up the chainsaw and Willie gives them $50 each to let ALF go. He also hems and haws for a bit because this is a lot of money to him, but the fact remains that this is the smallest amount of money he’s ever had to lay out for ALF’s misbehavior, by a factor of several thousand.

Then they let ALF go. Hooray.

Jesus Christ, for an episode about an alien being trapped in a torture house by two rednecks, this sure is boring.

ALF, "On the Road Again"

Nevermind my earlier question; I’ve decided that the job of wearing the ALF suit is demeaning.

Anyway, these two boobs sit down in the woods and argue for a moment about the correct direction back to the RV. They eventually decide which way to go and the episode ends. Good shit, right there. We don’t even find out which direction was correct…the episode just comes to a dead stop. What was the point of this? Was “On the Road Again” twenty seconds too short?

ALF, "On the Road Again"

Back at the house ALF shows vacation slides to the family, and the big punchline is that after Willie rescued him, ALF set the RV on fire and destroyed it. Hilarious. So I guess that’s one more major expense for the Tanner family, but none of them seem even slightly bothered by it and they all enjoy reliving the great memories they shared with the alien dick-hole that won’t move out of the house.

This episode was terrible.

It ends with a reprise of still frames from the pilot episode, which has happened in about two or three other episodes, even though I didn’t mention it then. It’s weird. Some episodes end with long repeated scenes from the episode, others have their own still frames, and last week there were clips punctuated with still frames.

It’s always different, and I don’t know why. It’s like they can’t decide what to do with their end credits, so they keep trying new things. And if they run out of time, they just slap on the same credits from the pilot. It’s so slapdash.

But I don’t know why I’d expect anything else at this point. Oh well. At least next week is the Christmas episode.

That’s sure to be good.

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15 Responses

  • Sarah Portland says:

    Here’s the thing about those kitchen curtains: while I also award points to the production guy who thought of that, I’m awarding a slap upside the head to the writers who didn’t do anything with it. Those curtains are hanging over the kitchen sink, which means that ALF clearly carried a pan to the sink to try to put out the fire. Okay, some promise there. Quite a large number of people are aware of the fact that you put out a fire with water… unless it’s a grease fire. In that case, one would dump a bunch of baking soda on the flames to smother them, or else cut of the oxygen by dropping a lid on the pan. Now, most the vast majority of the things that I remember about this show (the opening credits and theme music, the way ALF’s hair bobs when he walks, ALL of the words to the asparagus song) have nothing to do with it’s shitty handling of things, so I can’t say for sure that they didn’t cover that, but… as an alien, ALF would probably not be privy to that information. Did he try to put the fire out with water, only to have it become worse? My guess is no. My guess is that he tried to cover it up until smoke poured from the kitchen and someone noticed, then he ran through the smoke (hair bob) and finally yelled “Fire!”
    That, to me, is what the singed kitchen curtains represent: a school project that only earns a C+ grade. “Well, Jimmy, you did the work, and you turned it in on time. But you brought up some interesting ideas that you never expanded upon, ideas that, if explored, would have earned you an A. But you never took those ideas anywhere, and the most interesting parts of your project only got “also ran” status. I think you need to spend more time exploring your ideas before you start your project.”
    ALF is, at best, a C+ show.

  • Justin says:

    Oh boy, only six shopping days left until the ALF Christmas special!

  • iratgamer says:

    My biggest concern is, is the RV a puppet or CGI?

    • Philip J Reed says:

      Oh you. :-*

      …also fuck yo guys. I never watched Sabrina as a kid…I didn’t know wtf that cat was. hahaha

      • Jeff says:

        You never watched it as a kid? Seriously? I assumed all the shows from the party were your childhood favorites. Funny thing is, the only show from the party I’d ever seen before was Lassie! (Although I have caught a few ALF episodes on YouTube, prompted by your writeups.)
        .
        Now please–PLEASE–don’t tell me you didn’t watch Major Dad. Because that I could not take.

        • Philip J Reed says:

          I think I was slightly too old for Sabrina when it came out. Maybe I’m misremembering, though. I definitely did see it a few times, as it had Melissa Joan Hart and Caroline Rhea, which at some point constituted two-thirds of my fantasy threesome. But I don’t know that I ever watched a full episode, and I certainly didn’t watch it regularly.

          Major Dad I know I watched all the fucking time. And I couldn’t begin to tell you why. Maybe it was on before or after something I really liked. At least, I hope it was.

    • Sarah Portland says:

      It’s a midget in an RV costume.

  • Mark Moore says:

    Maybe the rednecks were drunk when they thought ALF was a dog?

  • kim says:

    I actually liked this episode better, of course it not great, but it’s a little better then the other episodes. let me clarify a few things for you, willie gets upset because the one chance they had for a vacation gets ruined by rain and the stuck being bored inside the RV and ALF complaining about it kind of tips willie over the edge. everyone is mad at willie later because they willie was a little to harsh on ALF, but really he kind of deserved it for complaining too much. if i remember correctly the two hunters guys do think ALF is a dog, but then one of them said he’s not a dog, then one of them said he looks like an anteater. so really they no clue what ALF is, they just think he some kind of animal. then ALF tells the skinny hunter to get even with the fat one because the fat one treats the skinny poorly. also I think ALF was hoping they be so busy arguing with each other that he have chance to escape.
    I admit some elements could of worked a lot better in this episode, like ALF just getting lost the woods instead of breaking into a hunters log cabin, but they had keep it the confines of a half hour episode, so I guess they made do with things to keep the episode short.

  • Outsider65 says:

    Maybe the reason on one acknowledges the fact ALF is a terrifying monstrosity is the same reason normal people can’t see magical stuff in Harry Potter: they do see it, but their mind rationalizes it into something they can understand to keep them from going mad. (Okay no, it’s just bad writing.)

    Also, is ALF humping Willie’s leg in that second to last screencap?

  • Vivian says:

    I’ll never understand the ALF universe, with people being so moronic that they actually think he’s a dog. What dogs do you know that have phallic noses?



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