So, some bad news has been brought to my attention. It turns out that the episodes of ALF that are on Hulu — the ones I’ve been watching — are the syndication cuts. At first this disappointed me, but then it made sense: they’re using the same edits that were mastered for the DVD releases, which themselves used syndication cuts because the budget did not allow them to dig back and remaster the originals.
What does this mean? Well, in syndication episodes typically run shorter, in order to make room for more commercials. In the pre-DVD age, this was extremely annoying. I remember catching syndicated episodes of The Simpsons that cut out my favorite scenes and jokes. In addition, the folks responsible for editing a show for syndication may or may not pay any attention to the story, and are simply cutting things to get it as short as it needs to be. In the case of shows like The Simpsons this can be problematic, because while you probably could cut the classic episodes down a bit and still leave the larger experience of watching them intact, hacking away a few seconds here and a few seconds there more or less at random makes for a pretty disappointing at-home experience, since so much of what gave the episode its “flavor” can be lost.
With ALF I can’t say that I’m worried that the minute or two that was cut from each of these episodes would have elevated the show to tolerability, but I’m still pretty disappointed that I don’t get to watch and review the original edits, which may only exist at this point in the form of audience VHS recordings from their original airings.
Interestingly enough, the first episode I reviewed after learning about this is “Mother and Child Reunion,” which opens with evidence of something missing.
The very first moments of the episode see ALF holding one of those toy claws…remember those? You hold the handle and can squeeze a trigger to make the claw close. I don’t know what it was supposed to be for…you could theoretically reach things with it, but it wasn’t particularly strong and you’d probably just end up breaking something. Regardless, we never see what ALF intended to do with it.
There are ingredients everywhere and we find out from a line of dialogue that they were making pasta. It seemed a little strange that this all happened before the episode started…as in seconds before…and sure enough under the end credits we see a clip of this scene that’s longer than we see here. Syndication spares us, for better or for worse, from the Alien ‘N’ Tanner Pasta-Making Family Fun Night.
Anyway there’s somebody at the door, and it turns out to be Kate’s mother, who, impressively, is only about five or six years older than Kate. They shut the door on her and run around the living room like idiots trying to conceal ALF, while Kate Sr. waits outside patiently like the guy from the Alien Task Force in episode one.
I predict this episode will be brilliant.
It’s actually not a bad setup. The appearance of Kate Sr. gives the show a chance to flesh out Kate’s character, as well as introduce another outside force to the group dynamic. Additionally, the fact that she’s staying with the family means that ALF’s primary complaint — his isolation — gets dialed up even further, as he’ll be restricted from even having full run of the house. Of course, now that I type that out I realize that that’s the exact conflict we had in “Strangers in the Night” and it sure as heck didn’t do anyone any good there.
Anyway, Kate Sr. exposits that she’s in town because she’s traveling with a friend to Hawaii, and they decided to stop in Los Angeles to see their daughters who, conveniently, both live in the same city. None of that explains why they wouldn’t have called first, but at least we now know, 13 episodes into the show, where the fucking thing is meant to be taking place.
Kate Sr. says she brought gifts, and ALF sticks his head through the window that connects to the kitchen and says, “GIFTS?!” Then Willie shouts, “NOOO!” and ALF ducks down and Willie has to pretend that he shouted, “NOOO!” for a reason other than the real reason he shouted, “NOOO!” and that’s the kind of episode this is going to be, I guess.
Brian gets a scarf and Lynn gets a sweater, because Kate Sr. thinks it’s too cold in the house for them. Kate Jr. says the kids are fine and to fuck off if she doesn’t like it, but Brian hobbles between them and simulates sadness so the dueling Kates agree to a ceasefire.
The interesting thing is that throughout this scene and the previous one, Willie has been wearing a jacket indoors. I can’t quite give this show enough credit to assume it’s a background joke meant to silently suggest that Kate does keep the house too cold…but there you go. Willie is wearing a jacket.
Kate Sr. and Kate Original Recipe snipe passively back and forth for a while because this is a sitcom and that’s the only thing you can have visiting mothers do with their daughters.
I’ve defended — and even praised — Paul Fusco’s puppeteering in the past, but there’s a joke here that fails to land due to his lousy performance. Kate Sr. leaves the room and ALF pops up through the kitchen window again. He asks if the fact that this woman is staying in the house will affect him in any way, and some very loose editing means we linger on him far too long after he asks the question, allowing everyone to guess the joke and undermining entirely what would have been a decent smash-cut.
That’s not Fusco’s fault though. What is Fusco’s fault is that when we do cut to ALF in the shed, shouting “Help!” into Willie’s ham radio, ALF’s just standing there with his mouth open. Fusco doesn’t sell the panic at all, and doesn’t even seem to be making any attempt to do so. It’s strange to me, as Fusco is typically very interested in “animating” ALF in ways that are nearly always the highlight of any given episode. Here he’s content to open the mouth and leave it at that.
It’s strange, and it’s disappointing. Fusco is far better than this, and he’s every bit as capable of selling ALF’s panic as much as Jim Henson* always sold Kermit’s. But instead of a puppet waving his arms around and shouting to the heavens, we have one standing behind a desk with his jaw hanging open. There’s no effort here whatsoever, which is odd because the puppetry is usually the only place I can find any effort.
Kate and Lynn come into the shed with dinner for ALF and tell him he needs to stay in there until Tuesday, when Kate Sr. leaves. Actually, they call it a garage…and I’m not sure if I confused myself at some point or if the characters really do alternate between calling this set a shed and a garage. If it’s the same thing, then does that mean this is what ALF crashed into in “Baby, You Can Drive My Car”? If so, why didn’t Willie give a crap about the ham radio against the wall that took him a solid decade to build and is the most important thing in his life except when it sometimes isn’t?
Anyway ALF doesn’t want to stay in the shed, Kate says tough titty, and Lynn is a terrible actress. Moving on.
The very next scene is…Tuesday morning. Wow…so we really blew right past that whole conflict, didn’t we? Kate puts a meal on the table, ALF walks into the room with a protest sign, and the fake audience of nobody that actually exists goes wild.
They herd ALF back into the kitchen because Kate Sr. is taking a shit and she’s almost done, in fact might already be wiping at that very moment, and he needs to get the eff outta there, stat.
I like that any time ALF needs to have a character out of the room they put them on the toilet. Not having to worry about coming up with any other reasons for them to be occupied really frees up the writing staff for snack time.
Kate Sr. comes out of the bathroom drying her hands, which is a bit strange as I usually do that before I walk around the house dripping bathroom water everywhere, but the much more disturbing thing is that she comes out wearing an apron. Who the hell wears an apron into the bathroom? And then she’s going to wear it into the kitchen? That’s disgusting, lady.
The phone rings and it’s Kate Sr.’s friend Estelle. They have an argument and Kate Sr. decides she’s not going to Hawaii after all and will just live with the Tanners forever and ever amen.
I’d like to take a moment here to point out that my constant referring to this character as Kate Sr. is more than just a hilarious joke that you really like…it’s because the episode never tells us who she is. Granted, she gets referred to as “mom” and “grandma,” both of which are accurate, but we don’t ever learn her name. Why not? We learn that her never-seen friend is named Estelle, and we have no reason to give a shit about that. So why don’t we learn Kate Sr.’s name?
It’s bizarre. This would also be a chance to find out what Kate’s maiden name is. Not that that’s crucial information or anything, but it’s a chance to do some character work, and make these people feel like people instead of stiff wind-up toys that recite pre-recorded sound-bites when you squeeze their bellies.
The problem isn’t that the writing staff isn’t telling me Kate’s maiden name…the problem is that the writing staff doesn’t know or care about anything like this, and therefore have no clue who their characters are. This particular example is a symptom rather than the problem, but even if you think I’m reading too deeply into this (since 1981!) the fact is that the show just introduced a new character without even caring what her name is, and that’s a pretty clear sign that something’s wrong.
Willie and Kate talk in bed for a while about what to do with Kate Sr., and while they do ALF climbs up from underneath the bed to pitch his own two cents in.
I know I’m always making jokes and exaggerating the sexual deviance of ALF, but in this case I’m just going to report to you what happens here. Are you ready? There is no embellishment whatsoever. This is the episode‘s idea of a joke…not mine.
ALF reveals that it’s cold in the shed, so he’s been sleeping under their bed for the past few nights. Willie asks him if he was under there Sunday night, because that’s the one night out of the year that he allowed himself to fuck his wife. (Okay, that was the ONLY EMBELLISHMENT.) ALF says that yes, he was, but don’t worry…he didn’t hear anything.
That’s…gross. I actually feel sick just writing about it. It’s the sort of joke you could do with Roger, for instance, because within the context of American Dad! it actually fits. It doesn’t make it any less disgusting, but it is at least in line with the rest of the show’s comic sensibilities.
Here it’s completely out of line. This was a family sitcom, and we just had a joke about somebody hiding under a bed listening to two people fuck. What the hell was ALF teaching kids? This would be like stumbling across an old episode of Sesame Street where Cookie Monster hides in the closet and watches Gordon plow Maria. Jesus Christ.
It gets worse, too. After the conversation, ALF climbs back under the bed. Willie and Kate jump up and down on the mattress in order to crush him to death — if I have anything to say about it — and ALF thinks they’re having sex again, so he encouragingly shouts, “Go for it Willie!”
The audience of nobody loudly applauds Paul Fusco’s rapier wit.
ALF sits alone in the dark kitchen, mumbling to himself somehow without moving his mouth, making this officially Fusco’s laziest episode ever. When he can’t even be bothered to operate the fucking mouth you know he’s given up.
There is some nice blocking here, though, as you can see Kate Sr. through the window, walking around the living room yawning before she comes to the kitchen. It makes things feel a little more “alive” than they would have if the scene started with her opening the door, and it’s nice that they’re using the window between the two rooms for something other than having ALF pop up and spout bullshit through it.
She sees ALF and is immediately worried and terrified, which is great, because that’s the opposite reaction the Tanners had to ALF in the pilot, and it’s nice to see that the writers realize that the basic reaction humans might have to meeting an alien wouldn’t be to invite it to move in.
Of course she’s not entirely exempt from stupidity, as she concludes that ALF must be something Willie made, because Willie is always making crazy things. For starters, how could Willie make a creature? Is he a mad scientist? ALF isn’t a robot…he’s flesh and blood. She even touches him to make sure. Does she really think a dipshit like Willie is able to synthesize life? That doesn’t make any sense at all.
Secondly, since when is Willie always making crazy things? We saw his mousetrap a few episodes ago, and that was indeed crazy, but more because it was a pile of shit and less because it convinced anyone that he was capable of creating living breathing aliens with his own two hands. I wish Willie was always making crazy things…that sounds like it would lead to some much better plots than we’ve been getting. Why can’t I watch an episode where Willie makes a battlebot that goes apeshit?
The next morning ALF is throwing some cookware around in the kitchen for no reason. Kate Sr. comes in and realizes that the monster she saw last night wasn’t a dream, and then Willie and Kate Jr. enter from the laundry room because that’s the only other direction from which they can enter the scene, and not because there was any reason for them to be hiding in there.
Nobody is worried for long about the fact that someone now knows ALF lives in the house, and when he and Kate Sr. start to bicker it’s clear that she’s mainly concerned that ALF eats people food and gets to sit at the table…not that he’s a hitherto unknown species from a distant world.
It’s absurd. Imagine going over to your friend’s place for breakfast, and a unicorn comes into the kitchen and sits at the table. Is your main concern going to be that unicorns shouldn’t be eating in the house? Why is everybody on this show quietly psychotic?
ALF issues an ultimatum: either Kate Sr. goes, or he goes. This doesn’t seem like a wise gambit for ALF, because if he goes, he’s fucked. If she goes, she’s pissed off with no reason not to turn him in, and he’s fucked. But the episode’s almost over and the writers don’t want Kate Sr. around next week any more than we do, so I guess he had no choice but to say this.
There’s a long, meandering stream of bullshit that ends with Kate Sr. and Kate Jr. mending fences and agreeing to be less intolerably bitchy to each other, which sounds nice but probably means nothing since there’s no chance of us ever seeing this woman again. Kate Sr. demonstrates her newfound decency by allowing Kate Jr. to make pancakes however the fuck she wants.
Damn, that’s good TV.
There’s a little scene before the credits with Kate Sr. giving Brian a hat that’s too big for him. ALF makes a joke and does his obnoxious, “HA! Ha-haha!” laugh, slapping the arm of the couch as he does so. Then Kate Sr. reveals that she’s knit a muzzle for ALF as well, and she sticks it on his worthless face and does the laughing couch-slap thing herself, which I guess means they bonded, and I wish they both were dead.
This was an absolutely terrible episode, and yet I can’t hate it completely, because it put this in my head and it stayed there the entire time I spent writing this review. That’s the best I’ve ever felt after an episode of ALF, and for that, I doff my cap.
MELMAC FACTS: Melmac’s civilization was apparently “millions of years ahead” of Earth’s. And yet they still haven’t discovered comedy.
* Reader / commenter / supervillain Sarah Portland has actually talked to me a bit about some of Henson’s specific techniques that she’s noticed Fusco employing, and while I was fascinated by it I’m not nearly as intelligent as she is, so I’ll leave it to her to explain in the comments below. Suffice it to say, Fusco’s good. So good she had to check to see if he ever worked with Henson’s crew in the past. He didn’t, but the fact that she had to check is one hell of a fine compliment.