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ALF Reviews: “Working My Way Back to You” (season 2, episode 1)

May 1st, 2014 | Posted by Philip J Reed in alf

ALF, "Working My Way Back to You"

Well, that…was pretty much the quickest three weeks of my life. When I took a between-seasons break, I thought it would help me to recharge. And maybe it did. But when I finally sat down to actually put the ALF season two DVD into my computer, I didn’t want to press play. I could not believe the break was already over.

I sat and stared. The pain was still fresh. It was way too soon to go back.

But go back, my friends…I did.

First things first: thanks to you lovely (“lovely”) people, I will no longer be watching these episodes on Hulu. This means no more syndication edits. As far as I can tell, all of the episodes from this point forward will be in their as-broadcast glory. (“Glory.”) At some point I’ll post an article covering the deleted scenes from season one, so if you happen to know of anything specific that was missing, let me know and I’ll make sure I include it.

I think that about does it for the frontmatter, so…yeah.

Season two, I’ve heard tell, is supposed to represent a marked improvement over season one. Granted, that’s damning with some pretty fuckin’ faint praise, but here I am, typing out the review of the first episode, and I have to admit that that seems plausible.

“Working My Way Back to You” opens with a very good scene in which ALF teaches Brian to play Skleenball. No, that’s not what makes it good. In fact, at first it was just a continuation of ALF‘s frustrating adherence to non-logic: Skleenball, without any comment from the characters, doesn’t involve a ball. It’s just ALF and Brian flinging a can of sardines at each other. Hilarious.

But this is all setup for the moment when Kate walks into the room and asks who dumped the clean laundry on the floor. ALF pins the blame on Brian, since they needed the laundry baskets for goals. And here’s the first thing that makes me like “Working My Way Back to You”: it allows Kate to open the season by laying the smack down.

She doesn’t care if Brian was the one who dumped out the laundry…it’s ALF who’s being disrespectful. Because he’s ALF, he responds by flinging the sardine can into a painting on the wall, which comes crashing down. It’s here that she makes a face, pictured above, that gives me the horn.

Not because it’s sexy, but because already I believe that she’s seriously considering stabbing ALF to death in the living room…and, really, I don’t think any woman could ever do anything hotter than that.

She tells him that that painting was worth a thousand dollars, and that he’d better stop breaking ALL THE FUCKING shit ALL THE FUCKING time. ALF tells her that he promises to treat the house as if it were his own, and she tells him no: “Treat it as if it were my house.”

Steely, Schedeen.

ALF, "Working My Way Back to You"

She then goes into the kitchen, muttering about what a dickbag ALF is, which is pretty much what I do whenever I go into my kitchen, too. (Thanks for buying me these DVDs, guys!!!) She examines the hole in the painting, and as she does this ALF flings the sardine can through the window and rips a second hole in it.

You know, if this season gives us more exasperated Kate, I may actually end up liking it a good deal. The laugh track isn’t any more successful at convincing me that ALF’s antics are funny, but Anne Schedeen is absolutely sinking her teeth into this. Season two is wise to lead off with its strongest hitter.

The credits are the same as before. No changes there at all. I remember as a kid being impressed with myself that I was able to lip-read what Lynn (“ALF! I’m on the phone!”) and Brian (“Hi ALF!”) were saying to the camera, but to this day I still have no idea what Willie and Kate are saying. I know Kate must be expressing something to the effect of, “Go! Go! Out!” But since Willie doesn’t so much speak as he does allow vocal slime to dribble down his chin I don’t think I’ll ever figure that one out.

ALF, "Working My Way Back to You"

The episode proper begins with Willie dressed as Li’l Petey, the Gayest Gun in the West. He is moving ALF into the shed, as Kate’s banished him rightfully from the house.

Willie explains to ALF the importance of having rules, and how if you’re going to live with somebody else you need to respect those rules, or the arrangement can’t work, and HOLY FUCK are we really addressing several of my concerns with all of season one in the first five minutes of season two?

Yes. Yes, we are.

The show acknowledges that ALF’s destructive behavior might not be eminently adorable, he has to actually face some consequence for his actions, and he’s just been kicked out of the house. Top that off with some more general things in this episode, like Kate getting more of the spotlight and putting an increased focus on the logistics of living with an alien (which is one of the things that made “Going Out of My Head Over You” such an unexpected treat) and we’re really looking at a nice step up in quality.

It might be a bit early to talk about this in the review, but, whatever, spoilers: “Working My Way Back to You” is very good. By ALF standards, anyway, but that’s all I can offer you since I no longer remember anything else that’s ever been on television.

The improvement could easily be down to the break. Between seasons, writers not only have the chance to recharge their batteries, but they have the opportunity to reflect upon the previous season (or seasons) as well. This means that they know their characters a little better, the know the strengths and limitations of their cast, and — dare I say it? — might have had time to consider their own shortcomings as well, and put more of an effort into crafting something worth watching.

Granted, “Working My Way Back to You” might be an outlier. And considering that next week sees ALF traveling to Gilligan’s Island, that’s probably a safe bet. For now, however, it sure is nice to live in the fantasy. It’s like Grandpa Joe says when the final Golden Ticket is found, and Charlie loses his chance to tour the factory. “Let him sleep. Let him have one last dream.”

This scene even builds to a nice joke, when ALF realizes how serious this punishment is. He asks if he can save everyone the time and, instead of learning how to behave, just suck up to Kate for a while. That says a lot about ALF’s character, and it’s funny enough on its own. The capper comes when Willie tells him that he agrees with Kate’s decision* so ALF would have to suck up to both of them.

ALF replies, “I’ll remember that…handsome.”

Guys: there have been two scenes in this episode so far, and I’ve actually liked them both.

ALF, "Working My Way Back to You"

That night, Kate wakes up and yells for Willie: all of the furniture is missing. They check the shed, of course, and we see that ALF’s taken it. He dances around singing “Stop in the Name of Love,” and though I’d have a hard time telling you why, this is a lot better than the equivalent “Old Time Rock and Roll” garbage in season one. Maybe because it’s more than just a sight gag here; it’s a way of moving the plot along. Or maybe it’s just that Lady Schedeen’s lovely bitchface gets more attention from me than the singing puppet does.

They tell ALF to replace all of the furniture, tonight, and, man, this really is a great Kate episode. It’s nice to finally delve into the nature of the relationship she has with ALF. Prior to this, she’s just been the wife and mother of the other characters who have relationships with ALF. As much as she was the clear MVP of season one, she didn’t really get much to do, because this is The ALF Show, and they didn’t have an established dynamic.

It might be long overdue, but I have to give “Working My Way Back to You” credit for finding one.

ALF, "Working My Way Back to You"

ALF asks if he can have a minute to explain himself, and Kate allows it…but also starts immediately timing it on her wrist watch, counting down the seconds. It’s a perfect moment that grants her a gesture of both compromise and authority, and I love her exasperation when ALF wastes half of his minute dicking around and teasing Willie about where to sit.

Look at that face. Somebody please turn that into a meme that bitches out Republicans.

Anyway, Kate and Willie turn to leave, and ALF desperately asks if he can strike a deal: he wants one week back in the house to prove that he can be on his best behavior.

Kate — heavenly, perfect, wonderful, fed-up Kate — turns around and asks what happens if ALF fucks the fuck up during that week. I really, truly cannot emphasize enough how happy I am to see human beings in this show reacting like human beings in real life. And, what’s more, it leads to another great punchline: ALF replies, “Then Willie and I will move out here for good.”

Aaaaand scene. It took a while to get the actual plot rolling, but the setup was actually quite good. I don’t mind pacing issues (and not introducing the plot of the episode until seconds before act two begins is certainly a pacing issue) as long as I’m enjoying the ride. And I am. I’m just finding it really hard not to expect the ride to collapse and kill me the moment I surrender myself to enjoying it.

ALF, "Working My Way Back to You"

After the commercial break we get an establishing shot with a subtitle: DAY 1.

…and I’m impressed. Honestly. I like the idea that we’re going to chart the passing of the week this way. This should be a very good method of ratcheting up the stakes as the episode progresses. On top of that, we’ll have clear indications of the passage of time…unlike, well, most other episodes, in which I still have absolutely no clue how much time was meant to have elapsed.

Willie and Kate wake up and see that the furniture is not only back, but the house is spotless. Willie gushes about how the house is cleaner than it’s ever been, and then we see ALF in a shirt and bowtie, announcing that he cooked breakfast.

ALF, "Working My Way Back to You"

He’s affecting an air of formality in his speech, as well, and Anne Schedeen gets another grand slam. While Willie is excited to eat his meal, Kate remains standing. She picks up an empty mug and toys with it idly, asking if the entire week is going to be full of this “sir” and “ma’am” garbage.

And I really, really like that. She sees this for what it is: an act. Busting up a thousand dollar painting was some ol’ bullshit, but acting like a butler is no less bullshitty. Schedeen sells the reluctance…and yet she also manages to sell a small amount of softening, as she tells him that she does appreciate the effort.

Kate gets to be grateful for the nice things he’s doing, and also gets to make it clear that she knows it’s a put on. Either the writing got much better, or Anne — the show’s eternally unfired secret weapon — got even better. Whatever the case, I’m liking this new ALF.

Actually, that’s how he refers to himself in the episode: “the new ALF.”

Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I find it hard not to see “Working My Way Back to You” as a bit of meta-commentary on the part of the show: season one sucked dick, and here we are opening season two with a plot about ALF proving he can be good…

…while the episode itself seems to be trying to prove that ALF can be good.

Both the show and the central character were garbage. “Working My Way Back to You” is a redemption story for both ALF and ALF. Of course, it remains to be seen what happens with the rest of the season, but this is a pretty promising start.

Willie blabs a bit about how the house and the food look so much better than when his hideous mutant slagheap of a wife was in charge, and I guess that’s the one good thing that comes from never sleeping with your spouse: they can’t exactly cut you off for saying horseshit like this.

ALF, "Working My Way Back to You"

Mr. Ochmonek shows up — at the back door for…some…reason… — and ALF scampers off to hide before Willie even tells him to. This prompts Lynn to talk about how much better “the new ALF” is…and Kate visibly stews.

This is brilliant. It really is. This is not just a fruitful avenue of characterization for the show to explore (with its single best character, no less), but we’re getting a fun twist on it, too. Kate getting pissed enough to issue ALF an ultimatum was very human, and very well-handled. But now that ALF’s curbed his bad behavior, she’s clearly envious of the positive attention he’s getting.

God help me: I. Like. This.

Mr. Ochmonek asks Willie who painted the fence, because it looks great. The family is caught off guard, and Lynn saves the moment by announcing, “Happy birthday, dad!”

He then wishes Willie a happy birthday, and asks how old he is, to which Willie mindlessly replies, “I’ll be forty-five in August.”

And that, friends, is the single biggest laugh** ALF has given me to date.

ALF, "Working My Way Back to You"

That night, Willie gushes to Kate about the throbbing loveboner he has for the new ALF. ALF embroidered the bathroom towels. ALF got the cranberry stain out of Willie’s pajamas. ALF swallows.

This is when Kate finally pops…but in another nice twist, it’s not ALF she’s frustrated with; it’s Willie and the kids. They’re the ones making her feel inadequate; ALF’s just being good.

It’s a nice moment but, I admit, it doesn’t quite go anywhere. Her concerns are well-founded, but they disappear, ALF starts cleaning the window, and then I guess the big joke is that Willie doesn’t get to have sex with the woman he’s so clearly repulsed by anyway. ha ha.

It’s a pretty lousy punchline, but it’s one of surprisingly few lousy punchlines in the entire episode, and that represents one hell of a step forward.

Speaking of one hell of a step forward…

ALF, "Working My Way Back to You"

Suddenly we’re at Day 7.

…yeah. So much for ratcheting up the tension.

If I were still reviewing syndication edits, I’d assume pretty confidently that a few “shorter” days were cut out. But, nope. This is the full episode.

I’m not complaining, really, since I do still like this one, but the day-by-day format could have brought so much more to the episode than it did. Especially since just about everything was crammed into day one.

Why not spread it out? No additional material, just a few subtitles and wardrobe changes so that breakfast happens on day one, the house cleaning on day two, Mr. O dropping by on day three, and so on.

The fact that everything happened in one day is making me think that the “DAY X” caption idea came up in the editing suite rather than the writers’ room. It was an approach that occurred to the production staff too late to really do anything with, so they provided an illusion of that framing device instead of actually implementing it.

The last time this happened was “Strangers in the Night,” which sucked ass. But that episode’s editing-suite-magic was of the Hail Mary variety. They had a bunch of stupid little moments and vignettes without any kind of plot to tie them together, so an ALF voiceover was slapped overtop in a doomed attempt to provide some sort of throughline.

Here, the episode doesn’t need such a flourish; it was doing pretty well on its own. Which means that the captions were actually an attempt to take something good and make it a little bit better. Compare that to the “not good enough is good enough” philosophy that drove so much of season one, and you’ll see why “Working My Way Back to You” is so intriguing.

ALF, "Working My Way Back to You"

Day 7 does give us another twist on the episode’s concept, and it’s just as good as the others. While I expected they were building Kate up to a massive breakdown — effectively having ALF beat her at her own game — it turns out here, at the end of the week, that the entire family is fed up with “the new ALF.”

Brian’s sick of taking leftover quiche to school, Lynn’s bored of always drinking Perrier, and Willie…well, we’ll come back to Willie.

There’s a really wonderful moment of silent beauty when an irritated Kate pointedly decides to not eat the breakfast ALF made for her: she’ll have an orange instead. She sits down and starts peeling it onto the table, at which point ALF materializes at her side and brushes the peel into a small dust pan.

That’s funny, but it gets even funnier when Kate deliberately peels off some more…and sets it right on the table again.

Anyway, the family is so sick of candyass Gordon that they figure they’ll leave the house until sundown, and come home to the real ALF. But Willie dallies as they leave, because he actually does prefer this ALF.

He asks the alien if he’d mind cooking duck a l’orange for dinner before he reverts back to his true self, because Kate can never get it right and she’s hideous and he hates her and hopefully she will die. ALF agrees, and it’s actually kind of cute to see these two conspiring like this.

Oddly enough, we do get one more establishing shot with a caption. It says ONE MINUTE LEFT, and that’s actually really funny to me.

ALF, "Working My Way Back to You"

Then we get another one of those unexpected camera angles, as ALF checks on the duck. Wow, even the visual approach of this show has improved. Granted, this is just one scene in one episode, but when so few of these uncommon angles occurred throughout the whole first season (a couple in the pilot, the smoking TV in “Weird Science,” and the cockroach POV in “La Cuckaracha” come to mind, but not much else does), seeing one here, so soon, and for no reason except for the chance to inject a little visual variety into the show…yeah, I’m kind of looking forward to season two now.

Unfortunately ALF notices that the gas is on, but he forgot to light the oven. You know what happens next.

ALF, "Working My Way Back to You"

For the first time ever, ALF’s destruction of the house is narratively justified.

Also, after ALF remembers to light the oven, we cut to the angle you see above. It’s nice, because we really do know what’s coming, and Lucky’s sitting on the window ledge. Just enough time passes for the lack of activity to start being funny…and then Lucky hops down and walks away just before the explosion.

There’s a somewhat noticeable cut that proves that Lucky hopping down and the explosion come from two different takes, but I’m okay with that because, once again, this shows actual effort going into making the show funnier. Lucky didn’t have to be there. We didn’t have to see him hop away before the blast. But having that happen turns this moment into something more than just the explosion. Someone, somewhere, said “The explosion is nice, but how about a little of this…?” And someone else, miraculously, said, “Yes. That does sound good. Let’s do a little more work so we can have that.”

While the obvious edit here and the last-minute implementation of the captions earlier allow us to see the seams, those seams are evidence of a kind of craftsmanship we simply weren’t getting before. I’m noticing these little technical or structural niggles and I’m seeing them not as problems, but as the growing pains of a show that’s attempting to finally realize its potential.

Or maybe I’m just going insane please jesus let me not be going insane

ALF, "Working My Way Back to You"

The family returns home to find the house a wreck, with Mr. Ochmonek waiting for them in the living room. He tells them that the firemen had to chop their way in, so he hung around to make sure nobody would sneak in and steal their stuff. Wow, the Tanners were right in “Come Fly With Me.” This guy’s such an asshole!

Anyway, Mr. O leaves, and ALF feels bad about what happened. He says he’s going to turn himself in to the Alien Task Force, which is good, because if he doesn’t do that the entire agency would represent a preposterous waste of taxpayer money. The family convinces him not to, though, and they all pitch in to clean up the house together. It sounds sappier than it really is. While the episode doesn’t end on a huge laugh or anything, this is definitely one of the cleanest, most organic resolutions the show has had yet.

There’s a little scene before the credits, as usual, and it involves glow in the dark flamingos, but FUCK THAT, because look what is in the credits:

ALF, "Working My Way Back to You"

Wow.

Just…

Oh, wow.

That just might explain the huge leap in quality. Granted, Hulu minimizes episodes during the credits, which made it easier for me to overlook things like this. Maybe Jean and Reiss came aboard in late season one, but I kind of doubt it.

This definitely feels like a different show, and it’s certainly plausible that if anyone could successfully polish the turd of season one, it would be these two, who would go on to serve as showrunners during the glory years of The Simpsons.

I honestly had no idea I’d see these guys working on ALF. I was genuinely shocked. This justifies, I feel, my endless carping about the laziness of the writers; once you get some actual, driven talent into the room, the quality of the show as a whole improves astronomically.

Jean and Reiss were some of the best showrunners The Simpsons ever had. And like the other great Simpsons showrunners, they parlayed that experience into launching their own much-loved but short-lived passion project.

For Jean and Reiss, it was The Critic. For David Mirkin, it was Get a Life. For Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein, it was Mission Hill. Three brilliant shows that never hit the level of cultural saturation that The Simpsons hit, but which stand as testaments to the genuine talents of those showrunners. Their tenure during the best years of The Simpsons was not coincidental; they were working hard to make it what it was. And though they all made it something different — particular sensibilities which were later on firmer display in their next projects — they all made sure that it achieved consistent greatness.

None of them created the show, but they all managed to elevate it. In short, I know these guys.

And, fucking hell, they’ve got chops.

I’m positively stoked to see if Jean and Reiss can work that same magic on ALF.

—–
* Willie’s spinelessness here was a little off-putting at first (it is kind of shitty to blame “the other parent,” so to speak), but it ties into the episode later with the duck a l’orange stuff, so I’m willing to take it.

** The continuity’s a little fucked, here, since Willie celebrated his 45th birthday in “Jump.” But this is more evidence of the fact that when the writing is good, you’re far more willing to let slips like this pass.

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9 Responses

  • Wilkins says:

    Another great review! I feel like I’m taking a college course on television production and writing from a passionate professor who’s using ALF as a case study.

  • ERK says:

    Great review! It was a bit strange seeing so much praise from you towards an episode of ALF, but it was justified. Season 2 does have a handful of well done (for Alf) episodes, now that I think about it. I never noticed Al Jean and Michael Reiss worked on Alf, which is a great find. I looked into it further and they’re gone by season 3. Oh well, at least it’s nice to know that they did all they could to make season 2 as watchable as possible.

    But don’t get too comfortable with this idea that Alf keeps up that level of writing for the whole season. There’s some real stinkers, like the Gilligan’s Island one coming up next. I only saw that one once and hoped I never saw it again haha.

    I’m very happy to see you have the uncut boxset now. Here’s all the parts of this episode you would have missed if you were still watching the syndicated version:
    ◾Intro Shortened
    ◾a scene where ALF sings “Stop in the Name of Love” in the garage is shortened and generic music is used
    ◾ALF mentions that he scraped all the gum off from under the kitchen table
    ◾ALF washes the bedroom windows as Kate and Willie try to go to sleep
    ◾ALF mentions Kate having the “Nancy Reagan” look and she calls him “ALF Lauren”
    ◾ALF acts like he has trouble remembering how the kitchen blew up
    ◾ALF plays “Stop in the Name of Love” again in the garage after the lights are off

    • Philip J Reed says:

      You know, for the purposes of this review series, I’m glad they’re gone by season three, because I know some serious bullcrap that comes later on and I’d hate to have to pin any of that on them.

      I’ve been looking forward to the Gilligan’s Island one since I started this. I remember it from when I was a kid. I remember nothing ABOUT it…but I remember that it existed, which is…something?

      And thanks! I’ll be posting a short thank-you piece this weekend for those who donated to the cause. You’re absolutely encouraged to keep posting the would-have-been edits, as it’s fascinating to me. In this case, it doesn’t seem like the edited version would have done the episode much of a disservice, and I’m happy for that. It seems like just a few small trims, so it’s nice to know that those who catch this in syndication are still seeing something worth watching!

  • Dan_the_Shpydar says:

    Ahh, the ALF reviews return, and my withdrawal shakes can end. Another great one, Phil. :)
    .
    By the way, this past Sunday on a new episode of Robot Chicken, ALF was heavily featured in an Alien parody. Here’s the first clip, you must check it out:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5vNclwCze38
    .
    He actually returned twice more in the episode, in short little parodies of both Alien 3 and Alien Resurrection (where he was rightly confused as to why Winona Rider was there). Comedy gold.
    .
    Also, props for the mention of the under-appreciated and overlooked Mission Hill. Great show. Interestingly enough, when American Dad started, I immediately thought about how much Steve Smith reminded me of the little brother from Mission Hill.

    • Jeff says:

      So much funnier than the actual show! “Does anybody have any bactine?” If the actual show had material like that, I’d watch it instead of just reading how shitty it is. (Not to trivialize these great reviews in any way.)

    • Carter says:

      Never thought of that connection between Mission Hill and American Dad, but now I’ll never be able to not think of it.

  • Mark Moore says:

    Well, this is a heck of a lot better. I actually remember the ending with the kitchen explosion – but barely the rest of the episode.

  • kim says:

    great review. glad that you liked this episode as much as I did. mostly because yeah,this episode finally takes a logical stand point of a unruly alien living with a family, the tanners finally had enough of ALF’s shit and he has to shape up or ship out. ALF is much better character here, he actually tries to be good and nice and feels bad about blowing up the kitchen and yeah, kate dishes out an extra case of mean in this episode, but it’s understandable as her tolerance for ALF is at it wits end. this episode proved what ALF really could be if everyone working on the show tried real hard and yeah, I agree jean and reiss should of worked on more episodes of ALF.



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