With four seasons and four Tanners, I thought I’d use the break between seasons to spotlight them one by one. I’d go over what makes them tick, their function within the show as a whole, and their relationships with the other characters.
Here I am, however, at the end of season one, and we still don’t have any characters.
The closest thing we do have is Kate Tanner, which is disappointing because it doesn’t leave me with much of a choice…but is also kind of nice, because I like Kate.
Part of me wants to give all of the credit for this to Anne Schedeen, the actress who plays the character. And, certainly, I can (and will) give her a great deal of it. But I do have to give some credit to the writers as well. That may come as a surprise to folks who have been reading these articles for the last 26 weeks, but it’s true. Kate Tanner is the closest thing ALF has to a character, and that’s at least partially due to the efforts of the writing staff.
Don’t worry, though; I don’t mean it as much of a compliment. I only mean that Kate seems to be the only Tanner that they even tried to characterize.
The writing for Kate was not any better than it was for anyone else, but it was certainly more comprehensive. Consider the fact that, so far, Kate’s the only one with sustained relationships to any secondary character. I’m referring specifically to her mother, Dorothy, but who I insist we all keep calling Kate Sr.
We’ve met Willie’s boss and secretary, and then never saw them again. Lynn had a boyfriend for about two scenes. Brian was tormented by some geeky kid who had to go now, because his planet needed him. None of these people ever came back, and they never came back because they weren’t actually characters. They were temporary complications…something injected into the formula to help it stumble through another week. They were disposable.
With Kate Sr. we not only got a recurring character, but some passive insight into Kate as well.
I hasten to add that I’m not arguing that Kate Sr. is a good character or even that it’s nice to have her around…but she exists, and that says a lot. After all, who we are as people is something measured by the relationships we have with others. Kate is the only one of the central family that has relationships with others. Willie, Lynn and Brian all seem incapable of forming not only long-term bonds, but any bonds that last longer than 22 minutes.
I griped during the Kate Sr. trilogy that we didn’t learn anything specific about the mother-daughter relationship these two shared, and that’s true. However, with the benefit of hindsight, I’m happy that we learned that there is a relationship; however hollow and cliched it might be, it’s something, and that helps to make Kate seem human.
It’s also interesting to me that the writers bothered to flesh out Kate’s family tree to the extent that they did. Not only do we meet her mother, but we find out her maiden name, we find out the name of her father, we know he’s dead, we meet her mother’s new boyfriend, and we hear second-hand about the tormented relationship between Dorothy and her old roommate Estelle. (That Estelle!!)
That, I think, is pretty clearly a lot of material. And it looks like even more when we compare it to what we know about Willie’s family. Which is…uh…
He has a brother named Rodney, which we learned a whopping two episodes ago. And his family used to have a real Christmas tree.
Granted, the writers on this show are fucking terrible, but they at least make an attempt with Kate to weave a bit of backstory. With Willie we get a series of disposable hobbies that we’re always meant to believe are important to him, even though none of them ever gets mentioned again.
With Lynn we don’t even know if the boyfriend that’s been mentioned several times is the guy we saw in “Don’t It Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?” We don’t know because the writers don’t know either. They might still be together, and they might not. It doesn’t matter, because Lynn isn’t a human being.
And neither is Brian, whose role in most of these episodes is to sit quietly in the background and refrain from wetting himself.
On top of that, the “Jump” episode feels like it should be about Willie — and it technically is — but aside from another obsession-of-the-week, we don’t learn anything about him. On the other hand, we learn a lot about Kate: she was a bit wild, she was seemingly popular with the boys, she ran with the bulls in Pamplona, she had a work of fiction published, and she served as an enthusiastic vessel for Joe Namath’s sperm.
Again, that’s a lot of information. And, again, it comes at the expense of the other characters. In what’s supposed to be Willie’s episode, the most interesting moments come when we learn about Kate, who gets substantially less screen time in the episode than her husband does.
This is why I can tell you all of these things about Kate, but I’d just have to refer to Willie as “the dad,” Brian and Lynn as “the kids,” and the Ochmoneks as “the neighbors.” (Though, funnily enough, we ended the season with more background on Mr. O than we ever got about Willie.)
It’s almost as though the writers find Kate the most interesting as well. Sure, they may not have found many things for her to do on camera, but when it comes time to pencil in some pre-ALF history, it almost always gets latched onto Kate.
And here’s where Anne Schedeen herself comes in; I think the gravity of Kate’s character, the fact that it manages to attract and accumulate a level of detail that the others do not, is down to Schedeen’s performance. Whether the writers consciously realized it or not, she’s by far the strongest of the regular actors, and that makes her a more appealing target for their efforts. They might not be good efforts, but she’s clearly on the receiving end of most of them.
While I don’t know that Schedeen would be a standout in a solid cast on another show, she’s absolutely the standout here, simply because she acts. Max Wright hams it up and chokes his way through basic English vocabulary, Andrea Elson delivers all of her lines like they’re being drip-fed through a tube, and Benji Gregory scratches his armpit and looks around the set for a clock. Schedeen, for whatever reason, decided to care, at least a little bit. And that’s what made me like Kate Tanner from episode one.
To Schedeen, her character amounted to more than the words that were printed on the cue cards. She managed to find a kind of quiet frustration at the heart of the character…something that worked just fine at first, and then actually seemed natural when we learned more about her past.
Kate’s fuse is short and her tolerance for dickassery low, and that’s certainly okay. But doesn’t it feel more real when you realize that she was once adventurous and creative, fawned over by professional football players, and is now married to an ineffectual, ambitionless dweeb and is trapped in a house with a space alien who keeps trying to rape her kids?
Of course her patience is thin. Why wouldn’t it be? Kate Tanner lives a textbook life of disappointment. The arcs of many fictional characters see them climbing the ladder toward their goals. The arcs of others see them falling further away. Kate’s is one of stagnation. She had a lot. Now she seems to have little. This isn’t a valley between two peaks…this is her life. Whatever it was before, and whatever it could have been, is irrelevant. She’s something else now. And she’s right to be disappointed by what that is.
The writers aren’t aware of this. Schedeen might not have been aware of it, either. But the fact is that by embodying a character instead of reading some lines and cashing her check, she leaves Kate Tanner open to interpretations like these. She feels more realistic, because it feels like there’s something going on inside of her.
I like that. Schedeen feels like a kindred spirit, in a way. Locked into a four-season contract with ALF, clearly aware that it’s shit, but determined to give it her best anyway. I can understand that mindset, and I respect it.
The writers seem to have picked up on this simmering anger that Schedeen brings to Kate, because every so often they play up the iciness. However, when they do it, it feels like they want us to dislike her…or at least get annoyed by her.
In actuality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, we like her more, because it’s always preferable to watch an actor acting than to watch three knuckleheads who are not.
I don’t know. Maybe, in real life, I would hate Kate Tanner. But this isn’t real life, and if Schedeen is playing an aggravating character, I’m happy to spend time with her anyway, because she’s putting forth effort. It’s the closest thing to artistry any aspect of ALF delivers, and I like it. With Kate, I’m not seeing somebody fumble through the twenty-one hour recording session; I’m seeing the hard work of an actress elevating her material to a level it truly doesn’t deserve.
At first, I thought I liked her just because she called ALF on his bullshit. And certainly that’s part of it…but by now we’ve seen all of the Tanners call ALF, at various points, on his bullshit, and Kate is the only one who felt like she was doing it for a reason other than the fact that the script told her to.
It’s because of the gentleness of her anger. The active repression of what she really wants to say. Whereas Max Wright can spit and stammer his way through venomous hatred, Anne Schedeen sits politely on the couch, looks ALF in the eye, and calmly states that she will punch his heart out if he doesn’t cut the sheep dip.
Compared to the rest of these bozos, Anne Schedeen looks like Christoph Waltz in the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds. Unimposing, open, soft-spoken…yet delivering threats that you hope you never have to see realized, and which you will do anything in your power to avoid.
Kate Tanner isn’t a character. I don’t want to oversell it. Whatever Schedeen brings to the thankless role, it can only go so far. Television characters are collaborative efforts, and if the writers aren’t pulling their weight, it’s just an actress doing her best to keep us from realizing how much is missing.
But she does a great job of it, and because of that she’s the closest thing season one has to a character. For that, I salute her.
Just three more seasons, Anne.
We can do this.