Here we are; the penultimate episode of ALF, season one. And here’s a quick little vocabulary lesson for everyone who thinks “penultimate” means “best” or “platonic ideal of” or some shit: it doesn’t. It means “the one with a bigass cockroach monster.” You uneducated bastards.
Let me get this out of the way right now: “La Cuckaracha” has a lot of problems. Okay? Keep that in mind, because I’m going to have quite a few nice things to say about this one, and I wouldn’t want you to get confused.
“La Cuckaracha” is flawed. At times, deeply so. And yet, God help me, this episode is fun.
In fact, I think I’d stick it alongside “For Your Eyes Only” and “Going Out of My Head Over You,” forming the trilogy of ALF season one episodes that are worth watching. Of course, we still have one left, so it’s possible that it will actually be a quadrilogy, but considering the fact that both of those other episodes were followed immediately by piles of steaming shit, I’m not optimistic.
One thing that I unreservedly love about this episode is that its premise follows both naturally and creatively from the fact that ALF is an alien. The show so rarely acknowledges this for anything other than a passing gag embedded in an otherwise unremarkable plotline that I feel the need to point it out whenever it does happen.
And when it does happen, the episode has a high likelihood of being good. All three episodes in the Not Bad Trilogy hinge on that fact, and wouldn’t be possible without that fact. And while there are other* episodes that rely heavily on it as well, most of them do not. And most of them are garbage. So the moment there is a plot tailored to take advantage of ALF’s extra-terrestrial origins, my ears perk up, and at the very least I end up appreciating the effort.
This episode even begins with a reminder of the fact that ALF IS NOT A FUCKING HUMAN by having him whip out a “slime ball” at the dinner table for dessert. Oddly enough, this scene was also in “Try to Remember,” making it yet another memory of ALF that the Tanner family had before it even happened.
What’s more, ALF says he found the slime ball while cleaning out his space ship. Why he didn’t already do this before they loaned the vessel out to a stranger for a week — or before he stripped the fucking thing down, removed all the plumbing, and reassembled it piece by piece — is something that no amount of creative commenting can rectify. (Prove me wrong, readers.)
So, yeah, like I said, this episode has its problems, and small logical inconsistencies like this are the least of them…but it has something to do with what ALF is, and that’s a huge step forward.
There’s not really a cold open in this episode. There is, but it’s pretty clearly just a single scene that has the credits shat into the middle. This isn’t a problem, but I want to point it out because the fact that the episode proper picks up about one frame after the cold open ends works to its advantage. “La Cuckaracha” feels like a version of ALF designed for the stage, and while it doesn’t take place in real time, the lack of too many “breaks” in the action gives it an interesting, theatrical personality that helps it to stand out, whether or not that was in any way deliberate.
Anyway, the bag containing ALF’s slime ball also contained a cockroach that stowed away when ALF fled Melmac. We don’t see it as it falls to the floor, but from the verbal descriptions it seems very much like an Earth cockroach, except for the fact that it has blue eyes. (A trait which has no bearing on the episode except that ALF gets to make a Frank Sinatra joke later on. Thank God for that, right?)
Kate, understandably, wants to kill it. Willie, also understandably, wants to capture it unharmed, as it’s a unique specimen from a planet no longer in existence and might be worth studying. I can definitely imagine strong arguments on either end, but I’m going to side with Kate on this because fuck Willie.
Willie stands there describing the elaborate trap he’s going to make in order to catch it, and while he’s jacking off over his plans for the roach snatch, Kate grabs a can of pesticide and sprays it.
The camera holds on this image for a good long while, which I found funny. The sheer amount of empty time filled by Kate spraying poison onto an unseen alien bug made me laugh…but the fake audience did not join me, so maybe it wasn’t a joke and was just some unintentionally lousy pacing. Who knows. I laughed, though, so I’m going to count it. It’s also yet another example of Kate being the only not-totally-worthless-all-the-motherfucking-time Tanner, so forgive me for enjoying what I evidently was not meant to.
When she finally stops spraying it, they notice that the roach is gone. She starts looking for it, but Willie tells her to calm down, and this time I can’t imagine a strong argument for that perspective because there is now a pissed off space monster going apeshit somewhere in the place that they prepare their food.
Willie, you fucking dolt.
ALF goes into the living room to order some donuts — a running gag in this episode that isn’t very funny but isn’t offensively awful, either, so, again, PROGRESS — and then he pops up through the window and beckons for Willie to follow him.
He didn’t want to upset Kate, which is why he’s telling Willie in secret, but he found the roach: it’s now a foot long and apparently terrifying.
We don’t get to see it because ALF blew its budget on carving a treacherous network of death-trenches into the floor of every set, but that’s okay; we can rely on Max Wright and Paul Fusco, master thespians, to silently convey the horror for us.
Kate, once again the closest thing to an actual person anywhere on the planet, decides to hustle the kids THE FUCK AWAY FROM THIS.
Willie, once again Willie, tells her not to bother.
He killed it, he says. With the same spray that Kate used, he says. You know…the spray that made it grow 11 inches in about 30 seconds. This isn’t like the more or less understandable logical leap of ALF only now cleaning out his space ship after 24 weeks, because poking holes in that relies on us remembering what it’s been through in that time, which I probably only do because I write novels about every God damned episode of this shit.
This spray thing, however, doesn’t make any sense at all. Willie saw that this didn’t work, and he saw it just a couple of minutes ago. Granted, he doesn’t make the connection between the spray and the growth until the next scene, but at the very least he knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that it did not kill the roach, so declaring victory is downright idiotic.
It’s all just an excuse for the roach to grow again, but surely they could have handled it differently. For instance maybe the roach knocked the can over and waded through the pesticide or something. Or maybe Willie was outside of the room when Kate sprayed it, building that trap of his perhaps, so that he didn’t actually see what she used on it. As it stands, it doesn’t make any sense.
I am amused by the fact that Max Wright enters the scene holding the can upside down, and then has to quickly turn it right-side up when he raises it triumphantly. It’s pretty clearly not a joke; it’s Max Wright holding a prop the wrong way and nobody telling him, making him look like an idiot when he realizes it halfway through his line.
Brian mentions that they named the roach Rodney, which ruffles Willie’s feathers because that’s his brother’s name. Firstly, that’s interesting, because I think this is the first we’ve ever heard of Willie’s family. Or, wait, maybe I’m wrong. He mumbled some kind of bullshit about them in “Oh, Tannerbaum” and how they always used to have a real tree, but I think this might be the first specific detail about them.
Secondly, why is Willie upset that his kid named a cockroach after his brother? Willie himself named a hamster after his wife’s dead dad, so get off your high horse, pal.
Thirdly…is Rodney the character that Jim J. Bullock plays when he joins the cast in the final season? I don’t know much about that except that he plays a relative of Willie’s, and it would be a hell of a boon for ALF‘s continuity if they turned this tossed-off comment in season one into a full-fledged character in season four. I guess we’ll wait and see. Or Dan_the_Shpydar can just tell me in the comments.
Anyway, Kate takes the kids and leaves Willie’s sorry ass…but unfortunately not for good. ALF and Willie panic because ALF called an exterminator, and that exterminator is almost certainly going to use a similar spray on the bug, which they now realize is what’s making it grow. So, yeah, that’s a bad thing, but does this actually prove that Willie Tanner is more worthless than the naked alien that lives in a laundry basket? Both Kate and ALF took steps to deal with the problem in some way…Willie just repeated the shit he already knew didn’t work and made the problem worse.
WILLIE IS THE NEW ALF
ALF hides in the kitchen and Willie confiscates the spray from the exterminator, who arrives quickly enough that the writers don’t have to come up with any dialogue between ALF and Willie lest they inadvertently characterize one of them.
There is a pretty good gag though when the exterminator picks up a magazine to kill the roach with, and Willie instead hands him a phone book.
That’s good. That’s funny. And it’s probably worth pointing out at this point that “La Cuckaracha” is credited to Jerry Stahl, who seems to be your unanimous pick for the identity of the One Good Writer. As I’ve explained before the fact that a particular writer is credited for an episode doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she had all that much to do with it, but I thought it was worth pointing out.
Of course, it’s also worth pointing out that the last episode for which he received an on-screen credit was “Don’t It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?” which was basically a 21-minute music video about ALF wanting to squirt alien gooze into a teenager, so either way it’s pretty inconclusive.
Anyway, the exterminator goes into the bedroom and sees the enormous cockroach, and then runs out of the house screaming and flailing like Daffy Duck. It’s shit.
On the way out he has to do this unnatural thing where he takes the spray back from Willie, and it’s another one of those really awkward things that isn’t a joke and should have been sorted out in rehearsal, but this is ALF and I’m pretty sure we’re watching the rehearsal.
It’s followed by another good moment, though, as Willie peeks into the bedroom to see the cockroach himself, and emerges shaking. ALF asks him how big it is, and Willie replies, “That depends. Do you measure to the shoulders or the head?”
That’s a funny enough line on its own, but it’s also an act break, which is heralded by some suspenseful music swelling up. And I like that. The fact that the action hasn’t left the two main rooms of the house — which for all intents and purposes are connected — leads to a sense of claustrophobia. The unseen threat is also an asset to the episode, making the whole thing feel not only like a stage play but like a comedy of reaction. It’s nice, and it’s in large part effective.
In many ways, it feels like a pastiche of the sci-fi horror genre — B-movies with giant animals from space, specifically — but the episode unfortunately doesn’t wholly commit. Unlike “Lookin’ Through the Windows,” which did at least sustain its Rear Window parody through the end, “La Cuckaracha” hits upon a recognizable trope or sense of danger…but then pulls back and just lets it be an episode of ALF for a while. It’s a shame because a stronger commitment to the gag would have helped this one out a lot, and would have made its lesser moments more forgivable, simply due to the novelty of the experiment. Instead, “La Cuckaracha” comes off like a half-measure, and that’s disappointing.
ALF and Willie go into the shed to gather up some chemicals, and then ALF hides because Mr. Ochmonek comes in with the spray that the exterminator apparently dropped when he fled the Tanner house.
It’s…weird. First of all, giving us this short scene in the shed breaks the feeling of isolation and danger that came from trapping ALF and Willie in the house. It’s not necessary; we could have opened the next act with Willie coming back into the house with an armful of chemicals, having already collected them. Transporting both characters to the shed just makes it ridiculous that they don’t stay there while they formulate their plan. Why not stay out of harm’s way? They’re both openly terrified that the cockroach is going to eat them, so if they’re going to the shed for any reason, why don’t they stay there until they have a definitive plan for killing the thing? It’s even stranger to set the scene here as there’s no reason for Mr. Ochmonek to come looking for Willie in the shed. Sure, he could have tried the front door first, but, still, why have this crap taking place in the shed at all?
Secondly, the exterminator dropped the spray after leaving the house? The show already gave us a good reason for Willie to be in possession of the tank; he confiscated it, and the exterminator panicked and fled. That’s a reason for the tank to still be on the Tanner property right there, but instead they made the exterminator clumsily take it back on the way out…only to then drop it off camera so it could still be there. If they wanted Willie to end up with the spray, why didn’t they just let him keep it in the first place?
It’s shit like this that really makes me wonder if I’m right about these scripts being first drafts. Cutting literally one stage direction earlier would have made this entire explanation of why Mr. Ochmonek is returning the tank to Willie unnecessary. But they do at least manage to turn it into a secondary plot-point: before returning the tank, Mr. Ochmonek took it upon himself to spray the Tanner home with a shitload of the pesticide.
Again, it’s another excuse to get the cockroach to grow. And, again, it’s another application of pesticide that could have been handled much more gracefully than this clunky nonsense.
Willie puts on his jacket because he’s going to buy as much boric acid as he can in a last-ditch attempt to kill the thing. But ALF can’t come, and he’s afraid of being left alone, so he asks Willie to give him a hug, in case they never see each other again.
It’s…actually really cute. And a little sad. Willie has to leave to get the boric acid, and ALF can’t come because somebody might see him. For reasons totally organic to the situation, these two have to separate, leaving one of them locked inside with the very danger they’ve been trying to avoid. The hug has meaning. It’s a gag, but it isn’t just a gag.
It also has a great punchline as they separate and ALF says, “Now tell me that you love me.” It’s a strong moment, given more heft by the fact that there’s an actual element of risk to what’s happening…and that’s something that this show could really use a lot more of.
As soon as Willie leaves, the cockroach begins to skitter around, stalking ALF.
Yes, the cockroach puppet (what we see of it, which is never much at a time) looks awful. However it also seems like it’s supposed to look awful. I’m sure there were budgetary reasons that we couldn’t see a massive monster space roach running around, but “La Cuckaracha” is using that to its advantage: it’s having fun.
This is where the episode takes its main turn into solid B-movie horror territory, and it’s also the best part. It’s safe to say that the cockroach isn’t scary, but the atmosphere is at least tense, and there’s a feeling — at last — that the folks working on this show are enjoying themselves. That’s evidenced in the moment when the cockroach pushes open the kitchen door and shoves a bunch of shit off the end-table. It doesn’t do that because it’s scary…it does that because it’s fun. It’s a nice touch, and I don’t need to believe in the existence of the cockroach in order to enjoy it. I only need to invest in the situation, and I do…because, at last, it’s a pleasure to do so.
ALF flees to the bedroom and attempts to phone for help, but the cockroach kicks down the door and he then must flee to Willie and Kate’s bathroom. There’s some impressive understanding of visual grammar here as ALF backs slowly through the small room, leaving himself with less and less room to evade the monster, and the camera holds tight focus on him the entire time.
It emphasizes not only the claustrophobia, but the impending end of the episode. This is it. The hero was trapped before, but now he’s even more trapped. Earlier, there was no exit. Now there’s no room at all. He’s fenced himself in, and the tight camerawork underscores that quite nicely.
There’s even neat little nod to the pilot when ALF finds himself next to the toilet. He considers it for a moment, and says, “Hmm…no-one ever told me where these things lead…”
He doesn’t attempt to escape through the shitter, but I like this. This bathroom was pretty much his first experience of life on Earth, and now, trapped, he’s worried that it might be his last.
The cockroach hacks through the door with its roachcock, managing to evoke The Shining without ALF screaming “There’s Johnny!!!” or something. It’s admirable restraint for this show.
We then get a POV shot from the roach as it closes in on a terrified ALF:
He has just enough time to try to fight it off with a plunger, but it doesn’t work. He then grabs some perfume and sprays it around hoping to buy himself some time…but the scene ends.
The next thing we see is Willie returning home with the boric acid, and he finds ALF sitting on the living room floor. He says, “What did you do??” and then we cut to this:
…and it’s really funny. This is like the cut to the smoking television in “Weird Science.” The timing is perfect, and it’s starting to seem like this silent, visual punchline is something that ALF might come to do very well.
It turns out the perfume killed it. Willie says that he got that perfume for Kate on her birthday, and ALF asks, “Why? Did you have a roach problem then, too?” EVEN ALF’S DICKITUDE IS FUNNY GUYS
This one…wasn’t half bad. I actually quite liked it, with a few reservations. I wish they committed more to the stylistic experiment than they did, because what we’re left with doesn’t lean enough into the curve to be as memorable as it should be, but by ALF standards it’s positively stellar.
There’s a short epilogue about ALF bringing a Venus Fly Trap into the house…which is actually from Venus. It eats a pencil and that’s that, ho ho ho, but the fact is that the bulk of this episode was pretty damned good, so who cares about the pointless closing gag?
In a way I wish that this were the season finale, because it would be great — and reassuring — to end on a high note. But we still have one episode left.
I have a bad feeling about this.
MELMAC FACTS: On Melmac, cockroaches have blue eyes. Melmac also had a Detroit, which produced a lot of good R&B groups. Melmac’s Detroit was infested with Jaffies, blood-sucking maggots that take the shape of their host, and it became known as Jaffytown.
* These would be the pilot, “Help Me, Rhonda,” and “Wild Thing.” That’s a grand total of six episodes (by my count) out of 24 that have anything to do with the identity of the show’s title character.