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ALF Reviews: “Border Song” (Season 1, Episode 17)

February 6th, 2014 | Posted by Philip J Reed in alf

Quick note: be sure to check out my awesome new banner on the ALF review archive page. Super fan Dylan Savageau did the art for me. And by that I mean he’s super and also a fan, not that he’s a super fan of mine. In fact I don’t even think he likes me.

ALF, "Border Song"

I think we should all take a moment to give thanks for a few things. For starters, after this episode I will only have to review seven more in season one. Rumor has it that season two sees an improvement in quality, and that would certainly be welcome. It’s also where I started watching as a kid, I think, so that should be interesting.

Secondly, let’s all give thanks that the Kate Sr. trilogy is over. Technically it was over last week, but since she appeared in some clips I wasn’t quite comfortable enough to assume she was gone. But now that I’ve seen “Border Song,” I can safely say she won’t be bothering us for a while. (20 minutes, anyway…but I’ll take what I can get.)

And finally, let’s express some very deep gratitude for the return of the One Good Writer. Yes, I was starting to wonder if I’d hallucinated him, because it feels like it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to compliment this show on a genuinely good line or gag. “Border Song,” however, hits the ground running as far as that goes.

It opens with ALF and Kate in the kitchen, and ALF tells her to add “manure” to her grocery list. She asks him why, and he says, “So you won’t forget it.”

That’s funny enough, but they actually build upon it for a second good joke: Kate asks him more directly why he needs manure, and he replies that it’s for his carrots. She says, “Use butter, like everyone else.”

God, I’ve missed you, OGW. Of course (does this really even need saying at this point?) the rest of “Border Song” isn’t quite up to the silly standard set by the opening scene. It has a few more moments of decency, and after the Kate Sr. trilogy it feels like a positive masterpiece, but this is still ALF. And it’s an episode about the alien befriending a young immigrant. So…you pretty much know it’s all going to come crashing down sooner rather than later.

ALF, "Border Song"

After the opening credits we join Willie, clumsily sounding his way through basic Spanish with the help of a book. He’s on the phone trying to reach a man named Fredo Mancilla, and he identifies himself as working for Social Services.

Wow! So now we finally know where Willie works. We still don’t know quite what his job is, but hey, it’s a start.

I have to admit, though, I was pretty surprised that Willie is a social worker. To be honest, I thought I was playing dumb for a while about what he did for a living. Sure, the show never told us, but I thought it would have been safe to conclude that he was some kind of engineer for the state. That seemed to be suggested by his interest in science and space, his twice-alluded-to crazy inventions, and the fact that he has no social skills whatsoever. But, here we are, watching Willie try to figure out what to do with a lost Mexican child. I have to admit, I did not see that coming.

I’m guessing that this job is meant to redeem Willie a bit for the audience. Instead of being this gawky authoritarian, we’re supposed to reconsider him as an empathetic hero by day, toiling at a low paying job because it allows him to make life a little better for those who need it most.

If he’s in social work, though, in Los Angeles of all places, how is it possible that he doesn’t know any Spanish? You’d think that would be a pretty crucial thing to know in that field. And did nobody at Social Services ever bother to learn Spanish? You’d think at least one of them might know at least a few basic words and phrases, but I guess not, because if that were the case I don’t know why they’d turn this kid over to Willie, who can’t speak a lick of it.

There’s a scene where his secretary or something complains about having to work late because of this kid, but in another bid to soften Willie, the writers have him stand up to her and insist that they stay as long as it takes to help him. That sounds great, right?

Well, it is, as long as you don’t pay attention to what he actually says: “He’s alone, he’s frightened, he doesn’t speak any English, and if I’m going to put him alone on a bus back to Mexico I want to make sure there’s going to be someone there to meet him.”

There’s no laughter. The show doesn’t consider this a dark joke. Willie’s noble goal is to stick a kid on a bus alone with no money, no food, and no knowledge of the language, hoping he gets deported safely and becomes somebody else’s problem. So much for empathy.

ALF, "Border Song"

Brian comes into the kitchen after harvesting ALF’s vegetables, a responsibility which fell to him because ALF is a puppet and can’t leave the seat.

Speaking of which, where’s the midget been? The absence of the One Good Writer was certainly felt, but the midget in the ALF suit has been quietly missing for a while. Come back, midget in the ALF suit!

There’s another good joke here when Kate refers to the brown lumps that ALF grew as looking like really good yams. Lynn corrects her and says they’re eggplants. ALF, annoyed, cries, “They’re corn!”

I like this. As a hobby of the week for ALF, having a vegetable garden is a pretty solid one. It gives him something to do, is something he could believably handle without leaving the property, and it ties into the fact that the Mexican boy’s father was a farmer. It’s not the most graceful way to combine two plots, but at least they are being combined.

It’s also a very Roger kind of thing to get obsessed with, and in fact there was actually an episode of American Dad! that saw Roger operating a plantation in the back yard, with children as his slaves. It’s just a coincidence,* I’m positive, but it’s a pretty fun one.

ALF complains that his veggies won’t grow because Bob Barker keeps digging them up. Bob Barker is the Ochmoneks’ dog, who was given that name simply so that the neighbors could have hilarious misunderstandings about it, such as this one. Eventually they clear it up and establish that it isn’t a world-famous game show host digging up the crops…it’s a Chihuahua.

A Chihuahua. Not that they’re overdoing it on the Mexican stuff, of course. The rest of the episode is very sensitive and careful to avoid stereotyping. That’s especially true of the scene in which the Mexican kid gets everyone drunk on tequila, teaches them how to properly roll burritos, and infects them all with his really lousy work ethic.

ALF, "Border Song"

As crappy as the writing in this exchange is, the scene does have an uncharacteristic degree of life to it. ALF suggests murdering the Chihuahua with a gardening claw, and then when Kate says no he suggests quicksand, and mimes the dog sinking into the ground.

It’s a nice bit of physical comedy and it allows for some of Fusco’s sillier puppeteering skills to come through. I like it. Of course, what it really does is remind me how infrequently we get physical comedy like this.

It’s bizarre, now that I think about it. ALF is a puppet. That should lead to a lot of creative possibilities that you couldn’t do with a human character. But so far we’ve only ever seen ALF doing things a human actor could do. He sits around, plays the piano, knocks shit over…at that point, why even have a puppet?

The ALF set was a legendary hotbed of frustration and stress, and that was largely due to the fact that the show was so complicated to shoot. In order to allow ALF to move around, the set was built with a series of trenches and trap doors, and the actors had to be careful not to fall into one and break their spine as they walked around delivering their own lines. What’s more, if any line was fumbled or a prop failed to function, everything had to be reset and the whole ordeal repeated. Due to this, episodes of ALF took something like ten times as long to shoot as the average sitcom.

But with that taken as a given, it’s even odder that all we ever see ALF do is sit in a chair and spout shitty jokes. If you’re going to put your actors and floor staff through hell, at least make it worth their while. Have them navigating these ridiculous conditions for a purpose…don’t just do it so that a puppet can sit at a table like any other actor could. What a waste of time.

It’s strange. Imagine The Muppets without physical comedy and puppet-only set-pieces. Sure, maybe they’d still be funny, but what would have been the point? Jim Henson didn’t spend a life designing and refining and working with these things so that they could sit around a dinner table…he explored the possibilities of his medium. Fusco, for some reason, resists doing anything with the puppet, and when we get a lively exception in a moment like this, that becomes positively maddening.

ALF, "Border Song"

Anyway, the phone rings, and it’s Willie. He tells ALF to put Kate on, and ALF delivers my favorite joke in the episode: “Hey Kate! I’m the King of France.”

You probably think I’m being sarcastic, but I really do like that. I’m disappointed that they cranked up the fake audience laughter so quickly after ALF delivers the line, because it really should hang there for a few seconds before the joke sets in, but that’s more the fault of the editors than the writers. I like this.

ALF then hangs up on Willie, and Max Wright makes the face you see above at the telephone / his career trajectory.

ALF, "Border Song"

The next scene begins with ALF sitting naked on the couch with Brian, drinking a beer. This was a great show for families, and it helped millions of children worldwide see that there was nothing wrong with the occasional game of Secret Tickles.

Willie comes home and shoos ALF into the kitchen, because he brought the Mexican boy back with him. When the kid walks through the door the fake audience that doesn’t exist is so moved that they vocalize their pity.

What a depressing job it must have been to edit audience reactions into ALF. It was up to you to pretend somebody gave a shit about what was happening on this worthless show.

ALF, "Border Song"

The boy is introduced as Luis Mancilla, and of course there has to be a joke about how fuckable Lynn is. Yes, the ALF writers’ room must have been such a pleasant, welcoming environment.

I also love that in any given screengrab from this show, every character looks miserable. Just putting that out there.

Then there’s this really weird conversation about Lynn’s school photo. She says it makes her look like “the village idiot,” but Kate says it doesn’t, and the whole thing just goes on and out without building to any sort of punchline, so they’re obviously just padding things out at this point. I’ll never get tired of pointing out how much the writers need to reach for something to tell a story about, and then when they have it they can’t think of anything to do with it.

Luis goes to the bathroom and Willie tells the family that he felt so bad for the kid that he had to take him home. So Willie is not only a social worker in LA that doesn’t know any Spanish, but he also doesn’t see anything wrong with taking lost children home without telling anybody. I’m pretty sure ALF is a show about a family of undiagnosed psychopaths.

ALF, "Border Song"

Anyway, because it’s this show, ALF pops up in the kitchen window, spills beer everywhere, and then licks it up.

Oh well. It was nice to hear from the One Good Writer again, however briefly.

That night Luis gets up to flee the Tanner house, instantly making him the most intelligent character this show has ever given us. It’s a little odd, though, that for all his overwhelming compassion toward the boy, Willie not only made him sleep on the couch, but didn’t give him any bed clothes. Poor Luis had to sleep in a buttoned workshirt, jeans, and even his sneakers. Awesome social work, Willie.

Instead of leaving through the door that he’s sleeping literally four feet away from, Luis winds through the house to the back door that he somehow knew was there, and exits through ALF’s vegetable garden.

Of course, since it’s a garden Luis immediately starts toiling in it, because he’s Mexican. Then when he needs some tools he knocks a whole bunch of shit over, because he’s clumsy and Mexican.

ALF, "Border Song"

ALF hears the disturbance and assumes it’s Bob Barker, so he comes out with the intention of beating the small animal to death. Have I mentioned what a fantastic show this was for families?

Luis sees him and is understandably terrified, but ALF calms him down by speaking to him in Spanish. He introduces himself, says that he’s friendly, and explains that he came from space. I assume he’s not worried about disclosing this fact to a stranger because despite it being established in the first episode as top secret information that nobody could be told under any circumstance, Luis is Mexican and nobody will ever care what he says.

ALF then puts Luis to work in his garden, which is how they bond. Obviously.

ALF, "Border Song"

The next day at work Willie is bitching out his secretary again, and then his boss comes in. I spent a lot of time trying to remember where I’ve seen this guy before, and I finally realized he played the doctor on Get a Life. Looking him up on IMDB I see that his name is Earl Boen, and not only has he had an awesome career (and played a shit-ton of doctors), but he voiced LeChuck in the Secret of Monkey Island video games. This guy is officially awesome.

Boen is actually really good here. He doesn’t get to do much, but he hates Willie and delivers his lines without making funny faces for the camera, so by the standards of this show that should qualify him for an Emmy. This might be the first ALF character that I’ve ever wanted to see again.

Anyway, Willie gets in trouble for taking a kid home with him last night without telling anyone. You’d think that would be a major strike against Willie keeping his job since it’s, you know, a pretty heinous crime and everything. But instead he’s just told not to do it again. In the world of ALF, every arm of the government operates on the honor system.

ALF, "Border Song"

Willie comes home that night with news that he’s located Luis’s father. However he’s also uncovered some additional facts: his father lives in Riverside, not Mexico, and he works at a carpet factory. Fredo Mancilla has been worried sick about Luis, who, it is revealed, can speak English perfectly well.

It turns out he just wanted to go back to Mexico so he could have a better life, and it sure is interesting to see that Sean Hannity got his start writing for ALF.

Fortunately the alien is here to solve everything. He tells Luis to go live with his dad and shut the fuck up about wanting to be happier. These sage words inspire the boy, and he agrees to stay in America. He also promises to visit ALF sometime.

I won’t be holding my breath.

ALF, "Border Song"

That was a pretty awful episode, but the final little scene before the credits does end things on a high note. Willie walks in on ALF playing video games, and asks what game it is. When he’s told it’s Space Invaders, he asks, “What do they do? Crash into your garage? Eat all your food? Dig up your yard?” And ALF replies, “You’re in a mood!”

It’s…actually really funny. This episode had a good four or five genuine laughs, which I’m pretty sure doubles the total number of genuine laughs I’ve had all season. Yeah, there’s some other crap in this scene about ALF ruining the gardening tools and the fact that he cultivates earthworms now, but this video game joke — filtering our “idea” of aliens through the eyes of an actual alien — is funny, and there’s even an additional joke about their mindless attack patterns being “exactly why the Martians are extinct.”

There’s potential in this show. There really is. There’s a talented puppeteer, a ripe central premise, good jokes sprinkled here in there, and limitless possibilities.

Instead of leaning on any of those things, though, the show is content to introduce and dispose of new characters weekly, inventing pointless conflicts that fizzle out because that’s easier than writing a real resolution. I’m still not convinced that anyone in the family is a character, and the laziness of the writing staff carries loud and clear through the bored performances of the actors.

ALF is the kind of show that nobody remembers for what it was, but everyone remembers for what they would have liked it to be. From what I’ve heard, season two narrows that gap somewhat. But we’re not out of the woods yet.

—-
* ALF does at one point suggest planting cotton, but I’m sure that wasn’t a deliberate slavery joke.

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23 Responses

  • Jeff says:

    This episode could also have been called “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.” You see, Luis has brown eyes, because he’s Mexican. But he’s also blue about his life. So it really works. At the same time, they came up with ANOTHER REALLY GREAT title for this show and used that one for another equally appropriate episode! One good writer? A whole slew of ’em, I’d say! This intricate weave of ideas throughout the fabric of season one, as groundbreaking as it is ingenious, paved the way for shows like Breaking Bad down the road. Thanks, ALF.
    .
    Oh, and awesome banner indeed. Great work, guys!

  • Tim M says:

    I like how you can actually find some bright spots in these dismal episodes. As much as I enjoy Mystery Science Theater and RiffTrax, it’s good to be able to highlight what is actually good (as well as why the bad things are so bad).

    I’ve only actually seen one episode of Alf (“Jump”), from a DVD set I got at a tag sale and planted in my former roommate’s room, hoping he’d believe it was his. He still has no idea it was me. But as punishment, I did still have to watch “Jump”, and was it ever cheap, cheesy, and joyless.

    • Philip J Reed says:

      Thanks! I do try to give credit where it’s due, that way this doesn’t turn into a carnival of unwarranted negativity. :) As much as I enjoyed your anecdote about the DVD set, I have to admit I feel bad that the only episode you got to see was Jump. I hope my review of that one did at least a little bit to ease the pain.

  • Sarah Portland says:

    Dear Paul,
    Have you ever visited the set of Sesame Street? No? It’s obvious. Somehow, they manage to have puppet-human interactions without cutting holes in the floor. The puppeteers sit on skateboards. You should look it up. It’s fascinating, and if you implemented such a thing, your Worker’s Comp claims would probably disappear.
    Love,
    Somebody who actually knows some shit about puppets on television, but who isn’t even a puppeteer

    Once again, I am underwhelmed with this show’s use of potential. They could have used Willie’s social worker mentality of wanting to help others in need as a springboard for why he helped ALF, an illegal alien. It would explain why he works for the government, but seems to have little love for it, as he realizes what a broken system it is, and how ALF would be treated within it.
    But I’m gonna give more props to those prop guys, as they managed to place said school photo in a frame on Willie’s desk. I suppose they might claim that that was fro a previous year, but the props guys have so far seemed to be way more Right On Top of That, Rose than anyone else on this show.

    • RaikoLives says:

      That, of course, implies that they knew Willie was a Social Worker when the wrote the first (few) episodes. They may well have, but the “Gordon Shumway” stuff tells me that they didn’t have a clue who these people were before they wrote the episodes.

      I actually don’t know what is worse – Them NOT having a clue who these characters are/what they do and making it up on the fly, OR them KNOWING all these details and just ignoring them and not telling us. I guess I would be more willing to “excuse” the former if this were a low-budget, independent channel or something, but this is on actual TV. Or was, anyway.

      • Philip J Reed says:

        I do get the feeling that they didn’t know this stuff going into it, and speaking as a writer that does feel bothersome. I get the sense that if they did know what Willie’s job was, for instance, they wouldn’t have given him a general label like “civil servant” earlier in the season. Something like that reeks of postponing the moment when you have to finally make a decision, and considering how many of these episodes feel like first drafts I can’t imagine they did much planning ahead of time. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can only go by what they show me!

        • Sarah Portland says:

          You know, every now and again, a writer will get to writing, and something else will take over completely, and the character will reveal something about his- or herself that was previously unknown, and it will fit and make sense and be completely brilliant, and the writer is left asking “Where did that come from?”

          I don’t believe that ever happened on this show.

          • Philip J Reed says:

            Unrelated: I’m really looking forward to your take on next week’s episode.
            Related: I’m really looking forward to your take on the episode after that.

  • Wilkins says:

    I’m finally all caught up. It’s nice to have another funny TV show review blog to read after Full House Reviewed (RIP). And hey, look on the bright side: It took Billy Superstar almost 4 years to do Full House, but it will only take you less than 2 to get through ALF.

    I actually have more of a connecton to ALF than to Full House: ALF was the first sitcom I ever watched as a little kid (I’m talking really little, like 3 or 4 years old). I had an ALF doll, ALF pajamas, ALF hat, ALF books, ALF bank, ALF on my birthday cake (no ALF pogs, though). I guess I was really into the whole ALF thing. Which is strange, because I also found ALF himself to be terrifying. Still kinda do, actually. *shudder*

    Anyway, I like how you dig deep into each episode and critique them scene-by-scene, analyzing just why exactly they’re bad or (on rare occasions) good. Looking forward to joining you the rest of the way on your journey through ALF-dom.

    • Philip J Reed says:

      Thanks for the kind words, and I’m glad you’ll be sticking around! I hope you enjoy the trip.

      Don’t worry…I loved ALF when I was a kid too. Consider this your support group.

  • FelixSH says:

    Some things that seem to be changed:

    1) Willy wanted to bring the boy to the bus, but for some reason he took the wrong route and ended up at home without realizing it. So he put the boy into the car and then forgot completely about him, I guess.
    2) There is a part of the second scene at work that is missing. After Willys boss is gone, his secretary, whose name is Mrs. Wine, called an old lover who knows a lot of people. With his help, Willy finds the father of the boy. I guess they wanted to flesh the secretary and the boss out a bit to reuse them in later episodes, but we never see Willy at work again.

  • Mark Moore says:

    I’m surprised that there wasn’t a scene of a drunken ALF in a sombrero, lassoing a six-pack, and insisting on being called Loco Lopez.

  • kim says:

    when I rewatched this episode recently, I found it be pretty bad in stereotyping mexicans, assuming mexcian childern always cross the border without their parents and they all know how to work a garden. I know it is just a sign of the times during the 80s, but today a found a little tasteless.
    the reason why the ALF puppet seems to so little in the series is because they did not have a big budget to work with like jim henson did, matter of fact they could not keep the midget guy because the couldn’t afford to paid him anymore, so that is the reason we no longer see the ALF suit. also the ALF puppet was actually pretty frigail, there were mechanisms inside the head that control the eyes and ears to make them move, so yeah ALF couldn’t be flailed around like kermit the frog in fear something might break. I can give fusco some credit there for trying to make his puppet more life like, but in turn kind of scarfices moveability.

  • Daniel N Bishop says:

    I’m sorry but I can’t believe you don’t remember Earl Bohen as Dr. Silberman on the Terminator movies. That’s like his most famous role.



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