ALF Reviews: Season One, Reviewed

And so we’ve come to the end of ALF, season one. I have to admit, it was both better and worse than I remembered it being.

Watching this show again is a strange experience. It’s a bit like going out and recognizing somebody you haven’t seen since high school. You say, “It’s so nice to see you again!” because it is. There’s a comforting familiarity, but the more you talk and the more you catch up, the more you realize you don’t actually remember this person.

You know the name, of course. The kinds of clothes they wore or the shape of their face. But were they friendly? Were they an asshole? Were they smart? Were they funny?

You have no idea.

You can’t remember who their friends were, how you met, or if you had anything in common. The only thing you remember is that at some point in your life, this person was there, and while it may be nice to see them again, the fact is that that’s all they ever were to you: there.

That’s been my experience with ALF.

ALF, "Come Fly With Me"

I watched the show the same way I watched every show as a kid: religiously. I loved TV Guide. I loved the Preview Channel. I don’t know why. I memorized listings. I knew which nights would be worth rushing through homework and dinner, and which would not.

I grew up loving television so much that I almost hate it now. I got burned out on it at an early age. I don’t even have TV service, and haven’t for many years, preferring to catch up on the handful of quality shows on Hulu or Netflix instead.

So revisiting ALF should bring memories flooding back. Right? Playing old video games, watching the movies I loved growing up, finding a vintage Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle at a thrift shop…all of those things bridge the gap between the man I am today and the boy I was several dozen lifetimes ago.

Memories come back. Details. Scents and subtle sounds, as they say. Colors in the void.

But here I am, watching ALF, and I don’t remember jack shit.

ALF, "I've Got a New Attitude"

ALF was one of the shows I always wanted to get home in time to watch, but before this experiment, I could haven’t told you anything about the show. He came from Melmac, ate cats, loved the song “Help Me, Rhonda.” What else?

It’s odd. I didn’t remember any plot lines, and, aside from the episodes I’ve now reviewed here, I still don’t. I couldn’t tell you anything that’s yet to happen in this show, even though I watched it every time it was on.

I’m tempted to just conclude that there’s a clear, qualitative reason for this: it sucked. But honestly, all kidding aside, that can’t be it. I watched plenty of lousy shows growing up, and I could still tell you at least one plot line. That’s what TV shows are, right? Little stories about a group of characters reacting to some weekly situation.

I remember Tim getting his head stuck to a table in Home Improvement. I remember Stephanie driving a car through the kitchen in Full House. I remember the Perfect Strangers staking out the newspaper office overnight to find out who stole Dmitri the sheep.

None of those were particularly good shows, but I remember them.

I still couldn’t tell you a mother fucking thing about ALF.

ALF, "Strangers in the Night"

A large part of that, I think, is the fact that we don’t have a group of characters reacting to a weekly situation. We have ALF, who is less a character than an anthropomorphic Jay Leno monologue that lives in a laundry basket, and a weekly target for his ostensibly wacky shenanigans.

Most sitcoms — and certainly all of the good ones — have some amount of chemistry. The actors and characters bounce off each other in sometimes predictable but still entertaining ways.

ALF forcibly restricts this from happening. Instead of characters bouncing off of each other we have them maintaining a respectful distance so that nothing will get in the way of ALF’s comedy routine.

ALF, "Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?"

It’s bad writing, yes, but it’s also criminally disappointing. After all, for the millionth time, this is a show about a guy who came from space. There are so many things you can do with that; it’s a literally limitless concept. And yet it plays out in a more limited fashion than most sitcoms in general.

ALF takes up gambling. ALF sells makeup. ALF writes for a soap opera. Seeing how many episodes barely even acknowledge the fact that he’s not from this planet (and when they do it’s often for the purposes of a single throwaway gag) is a strange feeling. It’s like stumbling through a wormhole into a dimension in which the show MASH exists more or less as we know it…but the characters never mention the Korean War. Or like a version of Cheers in which nobody ever refers to the bar.

And those examples are settings. The settings of those show have more character than any of the actual characters have in ALF.

It’s clear to see why. When those shows were gestating, the creators had an idea: we’ll have this kind of show, with these kinds of characters, doing this kind of thing. That’s why even lousy shows are often memorable; they have a solid formula at their core. They know what they’re about, and while they may or may not be good at what they’re trying to do, they at least know what they’re trying to do.

ALF has no idea what it’s trying to do. It’s superficially a show about a family that lives with an alien. (Or, I guess, an alien that lives with a family.) But season one has been a weekly collision of incompatible intentions and overlapping confusions. Whereas MASH was probably conceived with certain specific, defining characteristics in mind (field hospital, gallows humor, absurdity of war, moral compass, inevitability, human stakes), ALF‘s list of defining characteristics was much shorter (a puppet, and whatever the puppet does that week).

Something like that won’t necessarily lead to a bad show, but it’s safe to say that the lack of direct focus would itself have to be a defining characteristic…a part of the show’s DNA, rather than an unfortunate byproduct of a production staff that wished it were dead.

That’s what’s frustrating about ALF: all that wasted potential. This show could have been good…but it also could have been a gloriously tone-deaf misfire. Instead it settled for a kind of intermittently competent blandness. In a word, it allowed itself to become forgettable.

I don’t think it’s coincidental that the three best episodes of season one are illustrative of richer directions this show could have taken.

ALF, "For Your Eyes Only"

“For Your Eyes Only” explored the emotional side of what ALF’s been through. His planet is gone, everyone he’s ever known is dead, and he’s confined to a single home on an unfamiliar world, unable to make friends. Now, yes, I’m admittedly a big sap when it comes to comedies that allow themselves to explore emotional territory and delve into the psychologies of their characters, but even if we disregard that, there’s still a lot of potential in the premise. ALF desperate for companionship, for acceptance, for respect…all of that could lead to infinitely funnier situations than the guy he lives with going skydiving, or his fat neighbor burying a slab of spoiled beef. This was the first episode to pose the question of who ALF is. There should have been a lot more of that, since ALF’s extraterrestrial origin is about the only unique thing the show has to offer.

ALF, "Going Out of My Head Over You"

“Going Out of My Head Over You” explored the logistics of living with a space alien. From simple things such as lying about where some hair on the couch came from to much larger inconveniences, like being unable to bring friends home, and getting driven batty by the creature’s strange quirks and habits, this too is a fruitful vein to mine for comedy. If “For Your Eyes Only” made us feel even slightly what ALF was going through, “Going Out of My Head Over You” shifts perspective and allows us to see the situation through Willie’s eyes. As it turns out, neither side is happy. ALF may be confined to the house, but because he’s there the family can’t have much of a social life either. ALF may think it’s unfair that he can’t eat the cat, but it’s the family that has to keep a close eye on him every hour of the day to prevent him from eating the cat. The central relationship of this show — ALF and Willie — is therefore defined by a sort of logistical stalemate. Each side wants it his way, neither side can have it his way, and both of them are too stubborn to meet in the middle. There are myriad ways to explore that theme satisfyingly (see any given episode of The Odd Couple), and while “Going Out of My Head Over You” absolutely does that — and also puts an unexpectedly sweet button on it — it’s an exception to the rule, suggesting a version of ALF that not only knew what it wanted to do, but knew how to do it.

ALF, "La Cuckaracha"

Finally, there’s “La Cuckaracha,” which explored the comic potential inherent in the simple absurdity of the show’s setup. By embracing the nonsense and — shocker! — having fun with it in the process, “La Cuckaracha” was one of ALF‘s most satisfying episodes. The two examples mentioned above pull the show into emotional and logistical territory, either of which, as we’ve seen, can work well. “La Cuckaracha” explores another area entirely, and proves that even if the writers and actors had no interest in treading relatively serious ground on a regular basis, they had another option available to them for a great sitcom: the complete dismissal of reality and characterization in favor of infective chaos. That would have been a great way to turn ALF into a memorable show, while also playing to its low-budget cheesiness and workshop-level acting quality. You can take the show seriously or not take the show seriously. Either way, it can work. The one thing that doesn’t work is taking it just seriously enough that you manage to fail on a regular basis. And that, unfortunately, is the ALF we got.

ALF, "It Isn't Easy...Bein' Green"

I have heard a few times that season two is better. Maybe it is. We’ll find out soon enough, but either way, I’m looking forward to it. Writing this series has been tremendously instructive to me as a writer. It’s one thing to watch ALF and say “this sucks.” It’s another to sit down and pull it apart, scene by scene, to figure out what’s working and what is not.

I’m grateful that I chose ALF for this project. At this point, I can hardly believe that I even posed the question of what to review. ALF just feels…correct.

It’s a show that does enough right that I get to look forward to a stray laugh or great episode, even at its lowest moments. It’s a show that does enough wrong that it’s always finding new ways to fail itself and its audience, meaning it stays pretty steady in its lousiness without growing tedious. And it’s a show that’s quirky enough that I’m surprised nobody’s given it this treatment before.

ALF, "Keepin' the Faith"

ALF is a show everybody seems to remember and everybody seems to have watched…and yet so few people seem to like it. I’d ask, “Well, why did we all watch it then?” but the fact is that I’m still watching it now.

There really is something addictive about it. We weren’t just dumb children who liked looking at a puppet; the show really is seductive in its unintentional stupidity.

I cheated slightly above; there is one specific moment I remember watching as a kid. ALF asks Willie for his wristwatch so that he can do a magic trick. Willie hands it to him, and ALF sticks the watch in a sock and smashes it with a hammer. The watch, of course, is destroyed.

My mother, watching with me, said, “Why did he give him the watch?”

And yet she was right there with me, watching this garbage every week. My brother was there, too. And my father.

And millions of others all over the world.

Not one of them could justify Willie handing ALF that watch. But all of them tuned in the following week, and the week after that.

ALF is not a good show, but like a fire at a carnival it’s a spectacular tragedy. You know the memory will fade and you know it’s healthier to just turn away…but you don’t.

At least, I didn’t.

And I won’t.

Roll on, season two.

ALF, "Baby, You Can Drive My Car"

14 thoughts on “ALF Reviews: Season One, Reviewed”

  1. I blame the puppet, man. I think the reason why this show is both memorable and forgettable is because of that damn puppet. We recall it distinctly because the puppetry was so damn good (at times you forget that he’s actually a puppet, and not some short, furry dude. Good job during those times, show). We forget everything else because there’s nothing else to recall. The rest of the family are all cardboard cut-outs. Honestly, there are only two things that I remember about this show that did not include ALF himself: the Asparagus song (though nothing else in that episode), and at one time, Lynn dates a guy named Lloyd who pronounces both L’s in his name (La-loyd), and Kate asks why he does that. I don’t even recall Lynn’s answer. Just that Lynn dated a guy named La-loyd. The Ockmoneks are more memorable than the Tanners because they’re caricatures of the annoying, goofy next-door neighbors. But we like them more because they seem more three-dimensional. Like Kimmie Gibbler on Full House. The writers want the main characters to be more nuanced than the goofy neighbor people, but then don’t bother to give the main characters anything to go on, which is just lazy writing. Billy Superstar chronicled that each FH Tanner gets three character traits, but the ALF Tanners don’t even get THAT many, which is sad as hell.
    My other issue with the puppet is that of the Straight Man. Sonja Monzano of Sesame Street said that the initial feeling of working with a puppet is to compete with it. But in reality, the human plays the Straight Man to the puppet’s antics. This works best when one forgets that the counterpart is a puppet, and just goes with it. Max Wright is set up to be a good Straight Man. Sometimes the puppet is good enough that you forget that Paul Fusco has his hand up it’s ass. But the formula still fails. Though I can’t put my finger on the exact reason, I think it may be that the Straight Man gets no good lines whatsoever. The Straight Man and the Gag Man have to be balanced, and Willie is so one dimensional that most of the time he fails to fully register on screen.
    Again, this is really just more instances of ways that this show could have been successful and wasn’t. It seems like such a waste of potential.

    1. I think the straight man has to have at least some dignity – like Krusty says about getting hit in the face with a pie. Willie is, as you said, so bland and non-existent, but he’s also so strange and weird that we don’t find ALF’s mocking of him or “getting one over him” to be funny, at all. The lack of the defining characteristic of these characters (ESPECIALLY Willie) is the problem with the show.

      The Simpsons turned their stereotyped side-characters (and by GOD are they initially stereotypes) into 22 Short Films About Springfield. We have had entire episodes dedicated to things like Principal Skinner and Patty having a relationship. I doubt even in twelve more seasons would we ever have a whole episode about the therapist, the blind lady and Kate Sr starting a business together, and finding it in the least bit satisfying, because they’ll still just be the therapist, the blind lady and Kate Sr.

      But I guess comparing it to The Simpsons is a lot like comparing it to M*A*S*H – pretty unfair since they’re two of the greatest television shows ever made and ALF is… Well, it’s ALF.

      1. Is the Simpsons one of the greatest shows ever? Maybe at one time but it’s had twice as many mediocre seasons now as great ones. I don’t know anyone who still watches it – even the older episodes, which are no doubt dated now.

  2. “There really is something addictive about it.”

    That’s probably the most true statement about ALF that I’ve read from you yet. It’s not a good show, it’s rarely funny, it’s not even interesting…but it IS addictive. Once I started watching it, it was like I couldn’t stop.

    Not once did I watch an episode and really enjoy it, but I was addicted to seeing what dull storyline was coming next, how Willie would weirdly say his lines, how they’d waste Brian’s character, what silly shirt they’d have Trevor wear next, and what atrocious thing Alf would do next to the people he supposedly cared about. The fact that Willie or Kate never stabbed Alf in the neck with a kitchen knife at any point in this series is complete bullshit. No human being on earth would be able to endure all the things Alf put that family through without one of them, at some point, deciding that he needed to die a horrible death.

    1. This show isn’t bad, it’s colossally fucking horrible. Fortunately, I have a healthy disdain for puppets, and since this show came out when I was already a young adult I was never tempted to watch it. (Although to be honest I’ve watched a few online since Phil started posting these reviews.) Your comment here gives me the best insight as to why anyone watched it, ever.
      And yet this whole review process works for me precisely because Phil did used to like it. Normally I wouldn’t even bother reading a dissection of a shitty TV show, but there’s something about Phil’s hope against hope that some kernel of non-suckiness will come along that makes it all the more hilarious when he is disappointed and tears the show a new asshole. It’s hard to shake our old self, forged during innocent and happier times.
      Bring on Season 2, and let’s give pig-snouted martian motherfucker the vivisection he deserves!

    2. It’s rarely funny. Can’t agree with that. It is often funny. The storylines are dated / poor (especially in season one) but the show has many funny lines and wisecracks from ALF.

  3. Where is the normal link to this review? I only found it on the recent chatter section. I’m sure eventually it won’t be there anymore so how would i normally get to this review?

    1. At the top of the page, there’s a heading marked ALF, second from the left. Clicking on that will give you the episode list. The ones that Phil has already done are highlighted, with the latest falling last on that list.

    2. Yeah, I suck. I forgot to add that to the ALF archive page. Thanks for pointing that out! It’s there now.

  4. you pretty much summed up perfectly as the person you once knew back in the day but you don’t remember much about them. for me, yeah, I remember a lot of key moments in ALF over the years, but there was also a lot of things I don’t remember. it was not until I bought the DVD set and rewatched it that everything was fresh in my mind again and there ended being a lot of things I noticed in the show that I had not noticed before. I admit ALF is not a very good sitcom, but it’s not the worse either, I think it just on the fence between good and bad.
    and I’ll admit probably what made the show was memorable was ALF himself, the look of ALF was unique and the skill of pupperty was unique, but unfortantly that is all it had going for it,after watching the tanners more closely, they are kind of bull and blend compared to ALF. I think one the big problems is that it is so focused on ALF being the star the rest of the cast becomes uninteresting and you are right on that is show was confused on what it was trying to be, an alien trying to deal with human situations or humans trying to deal with alien situations? but even despite all the flaws this show had, it is still one the shows that I hold dear to my heart because it one of those shows that was at least enjoyable enough to be watchable.

  5. Whats ou described between the Benji and Mrs. Ochmonek screengrabs is eerily similar to my own life, except I wasnt discriminating at all about the content and watched TV while doing homework and eating. But now I barely watch an hour a week, and that’s usually Simpsons and Bob’s Burgers.

    I have been increasingly impressed by your critical eye toward television and writing, and have been reading other stuff on the site. While I could quibble here or there about the analysis, you’re just really good at it and a really good/funny/engaging writer and I’ve really enjoyed this. Look forward to following you more.

  6. For some reason, my fondest memory of Alf is the talking toaster. It has stuck with me since I was a kid. For one, why does anyone need a talking toaster? And for two, WHY CAN’T I HAVE A TALKING TOASTER?!

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