Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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Every week until the release of The Lost Worlds of Power, one author selected for inclusion will be given the floor. I’ve asked them to talk about themselves, their approach to the project, and anything else they’d like to say up front. I’ve also asked them to avoid spoilers, so have no fear of those. Anyway, week four: Samuel Clementine, author of “The California Raisins: The Grape Escape.”

Samuel ClementineEvery once in a while, a person will wake up and realize that if they died tomorrow, they would leave nothing behind. It was a realization that struck me around the same time Philip was conceiving the idea of Lost Worlds of Power, so it stood to reason the only way to break out of this existential funk was to write a novel about the California Raisins.

Before I began writing I wasn’t sure I’d have anything people were interested in hearing. The only thing I can recall writing was a short story entitled “The Farmer and His Wife Go to the City” back when I was in the first grade. I don’t recall the specifics, but I believe they all learned a very important lesson or something.

I decided to break my 15-year writing hiatus when Phil informed me of this project, but I had no idea what NES game had that certain allure that would make it any fun to write about. Philip suggested the unreleased California Raisins video game, California Raisins: The Grape Escape. My destiny became clear.

The California Raisins: The Grape EscapeI had recorded a playthrough of this particular game a while back, and it remained memorable to me as the most absurd game I’d experienced. It was made under the banner of Capcom, which is what initially enticed me to see just what this game had going for it. It might surprise you to learn that a game based on claymation food mascots from the late 1980s did not lend itself well to the technology, and spawned a rather poorly designed and absurd game that was forever stuck in my psyche from then on. The ending screen had the Raisins standing beside each other, with the word “Congraturaisins!” displayed as the credits rolled.

That single screen still makes me smirk every time I think about it. No matter what is happening in life, someone was paid to write down the word “Congraturaisins,” and considered that to be the pinnacle of a reward for successfully completing the challenges they designed for you.

This ending screen is forever with me, and it’s so absolutely silly and surreal that I can still barely believe it exists in this world. My goal while writing this story was to provide moments that would create the same feeling inside of the reader that I had upon being Congraturaised. I hope throughout this story you have a Congraturaisins moment as well!

The California Raisins: The Grape EscapeAs ridiculous as it will sound, I was actually really nervous writing this story. I thought it wouldn’t stand up to the other authors’ tales, and I’d create something that wouldn’t provide the reader with an enjoyable experience. As of now, I’m still not positive that people will enjoy it, but I know I’m satisfied with where it is, and I hope that you will be, too.

I’m looking forward to being included with the other authors in this project, and reading their interpretations of games long since forgotten. I want to give thanks to my fellow authors for going forward with this challenge to recreate a world from the days of the NES. I hope the story I’ve written will be able to stand up to the things they’ve put their hearts into as well.

I’d like to thank Philip and James for the likely arduous process of making sure each of these stories was done to perfection, and guaranteeing that the reader and writer would be able to connect on the perfect wavelength. Above all else, I’d like to thank anyone who reads these stories, because, what else are we writing for really? Thank you for seeing this project through, and keeping with us.

The California Raisins: The Grape EscapeI’d like to conclude by sharing a moment in my life that occurred not too long after I had finished writing. It was the night of the Super Bowl, and as you might be able to imagine coming from a man who wrote a short story about the adventures of anthropomorphic raisins, I wasn’t particularly interested in a football game.

As I was talking with my family members and playing a round of poker, my eyes wandered from the table, and I saw an ad on the TV for Radioshack or some other company struggling to survive the economies downturn. I noticed the gimmick of the ad was that a number of 80s icons were appearing, and I guess the appeal was that familiar characters still existed and thus we should all purchase a discount RC car at whatever Radioshack was still open nearest us.

raisins3Before I could turn my head back to see how awful the flop was, I noticed none other than the California Raisins present on the screen. I stopped what I was doing as I got extremely excited and tried to emphasize why this was so important to me. Before I was able to explain what a couple of claymation raisins did to trigger such urgent thoughts inside of me, I realized that to elaborate on my excitement I would need to explain to members of my nonimmediate family that I had written a story about a video game, a video game from the early 90s that was never released. A video game that was about the California Raisins.

I would have to say those things to people that I wanted to respect me.

Instead of saying any of those things, I cleared my throat, and told them I would fold this hand.

–Samuel Clementine

ALF, "Somewhere Over the Rerun"

First things first: this episode’s title is actually “Somewhere Over the Rerun (aka The Ballad of Gilligan’s Island).” WordPress will only display a title of so many characters, though, so I skipped the parenthetical addendum. NOISELESS CHATTER TRIVIA

Second things second: I definitely remember this episode from when I was a kid, but watching it now makes me realize how little I remembered. I knew that ALF went to Gilligan’s Island…and that was about it. Considering the fact that he’s only there for around three or four scenes, I think that says a lot about how memorable ALF really is.

We open with ALF drilling holes into coconuts and speaking some vaguely Hawaiian gibberish. This is because he’s preparing himself for some event television: a rerun of Gilligan’s Island. ALF is obsessed with the show, which is the very first thing he and I have in common.

Well, I’m not obsessed with Gilligan’s Island. But as you probably noticed from a piece I wrote earlier this year about the passing of Russell Johnson, it was a show I absolutely adored growing up. And I still have a strong fondness for it. I probably always will. I’d say more, but we have a whole episode to go, and it’s a pretty awful one, so I need to save some Gilligan praise for later.

Anyway, as much as ALF claims to love Gilligan’s Island, I don’t know if the folks on the writing staff did. After all, why is ALF speaking pidgin Hawaiian (pidgiian?) in preparation for the show? I don’t remember much Polynesian dialogue on Gilligan’s Island. Do you?

In fact, taken in combination with ALF’s aloha shirt and leis, and it almost feels like this scene was originally written for an episode in which ALF gets obsessed with Hawaii Five-O.

I’m not kidding. I’m actually wondering if that’s what happened.

Anyway, I do like that ALF is so excited about watching a rerun. It plays into his alien origins nicely, with him so joyously gobbling up a long-cancelled sitcom that the rest of the world has stopped caring about. It’s pretty refreshing to see him catching up on something, too, as opposed to his usual full and complete knowledge of things he never should have encountered before.

Willie asks ALF if he’s overdoing it with this “Gilligan’s Island thing,” and I have a bad feeling I’ll be asking the episode that same question later.

There is a good line here, when Willie reminds ALF of the bamboo furniture he ordered in a fit of Gilligamania. ALF says he returned it, because “it wasn’t even real bamboo. It was that Nauga-boo.”

Fuck you. I laughed. And, yes, I’m fully aware that I singled out a similar line from “Keepin’ the Faith” for celebration. I’m apparently a sucker for a good Naugahyde joke.

The scene ends with ALF saying to Willie, “It’s people like you that drive quality programming off the air.” And if you can hear that without feeling that the line doubles as an admonishment from Paul Fusco to Max Wright, you’re a better man than I.

ALF, "Somewhere Oacver the Rerun"

Brian is ALF’s “little buddy” for the reruns, and I actually really like that. It’s about time we see these two bonding in some way. As busted up as Brian was about ALF leaving in “Help Me, Rhonda,” we haven’t seen much actual evidence of these two spending time together. We keep being told that they’re very close, but this might be the first instance of the show proving that they have any common ground at all.

It’s sweet that when we finally see them bond, it’s over some silly syndicated TV show. It’s believable for the recently-earthbound ALF and it’s believable for little Brian, who’s about the same age I was when I also fell in love with Gilligan’s Island.

Then I remember that ALF drilled holes in coconuts so that he could serve cocktails in them, and I realize this is just another example of America’s Favorite Space Rapist plying the boy with alcohol.

Lovely stuff.

Kate comes in to tell Brian to get ready for bed, and he joins ALF in the Gilligan’s Island quote-fest by forcing his way through history’s most tortured “Aye aye.” Then he stares at Anne Schedeen for a clearly confused several seconds before remembering that the script says that he’s also supposed to salute her.

Seriously, guys, that was painful to watch. I think it would have been less cruel to the young actor if they just had a stage-hand run out and kick him in the neck.

ALF, "Somewhere Over the Rerun"

Willie comes in and ALF complains to him that he’s only happy when Gilligan’s Island is on. Willie dismissively replies, “That’s four hours every day right there.” There are plenty of jokes at the expense of Gilligan’s Island, and ALF keeps comparing people and situations to that show, but while these things are supposed to be punchlines, all they really do is remind me of how much better Gilligan’s Island was than this.

Think about it. ALF today is in roughly the same position that Gilligan’s Island was then. A long-cancelled curio from a previous generation of television viewers, yet one that a great deal of people are still familiar with, albeit for the most part in passing.

But while you could theoretically have a character from a sitcom today get obsessed with ALF and find himself transported to the fictional Tanner house…what would he do? What would be the point?

There’s a reason that nobody remembers anything about ALF other than ALF. He came from Melmac, he eats cats…that’s about it. Yet it’s easy to rattle off characteristics of all seven castaways.

That’s why ALF can spend an episode on the uncharted desert isle; we remember it. We know those characters, because they were characters. They might have been cutouts and archetypes — and they certainly were — but they were consistent in their roles. A modern character can visit that particular setting and find comic potential, because it built up a rich and sustainable comic dynamic.

What would a sitcom character today do if he was transported into the world of ALF? Sit on the couch watching fake soap operas? Answer the phone when ALF’s bookie calls? The show never bothered to build a universe or flesh out its characters, so there’s nothing to do. The show was designed as ALF’s spotlight, and so that’s all it ever was. Anything else, the family included, is just set dressing.

Take any character from Gilligan’s Island and pop him or her into a fresh setting. Whether or not you’d find it funny is academic; the point is that you have an idea of how they’d act, and the kinds of things they’d do. Try it.

Mr. and Mrs. Howell find their reservation is lost at their favorite hotel, so they have to spend the night in a Holiday Inn. Gilligan and The Skipper are at a bank when a robbery takes place. Mary Ann and Ginger are auditioning for the same part in a commercial. All basic sitcom premises, but that’s what makes plug-and-play characters like this so enduring; they each may only do a few very specific things, but we enjoy can rely on those things. We know what to expect on the whole, so we find surprise and entertainment in the details of how things play out.

Now let’s try it with the ALF characters. Willie goes to the supermarket and can’t remember what kind of ice cream Kate wanted. Lynn and Kate Sr. are trapped in an elevator. Brian has a crush on the cute girl in his science class. Again, all basic sitcom premises, but do you know how any of these characters would act or react?

I sure as hell don’t, and I’ve been writing ambling screeds on this shit for like 30 weeks.

Two silly, high-concept sitcoms populated with cardboard characters, but Gilligan’s Island emphasized the characters, while ALF emphasizes the cardboard.

ALF, "Somewhere Over the Rerun"

ALF blabs on about Gilligan’s Island to Willie and Kate, which is really rude of him because Willie prefers to actively refuse sex with his wife, and ALF’s cramping his style by providing an actual reason for him not to be fucking her.

He’s relaying the plot of an episode of Gilligan’s Island, and Willie takes the wind out of his sails by predicting the ending: the visitor left at the end and didn’t take the castaways along. ALF is gobsmacked; he’d never noticed the pattern before.

And I really, really, really like this observation.

No, not that every episode of Gilligan’s Island ends the same way.* What I like is that ALF is genuinely surprised that Willie could have predicted what you and I would see a pretty safe guess.

I think I like this because when I was a kid, my father would do things like this. We’d be watching a movie, or a TV show, and he’d predict what was going to happen. He’d say, for instance, that the girl was going to fall in love with the hero. “But she hates him!” my little brother would say. “She doesn’t love him. She hates him!”

And my father would say, every time, “Wanna bet?”

My little brother always bet. And my little brother always lost. He owed my father something like five hundred thousand imaginary dollars by the time we weren’t a family anymore, and all debts were quietly forgiven.

But predictions like that were easy for my father, simply because he’d lived long enough. He’d encountered enough storytelling by way of television, film, books, and even songs. (He had matured in the age of the rock opera.) Eventually you start to recognize the shorthand. The foreshadowing. The patterns, as ALF put it.

I’ve gotten to that point, too. But I use it not as an opportunity to predict the fictional future; I free myself to let my eyes wander. To focus on details in the set design, the descriptive passages, the barely audible pump of the bass guitar. If I know where the story is heading and I trust the captain to steer the ship, I can focus instead on enjoying the ride.

Sorry. I literally just finished reading A Prayer for Owen Meany (which, incidentally, seems to support the notion that foreknowledge need not rob a story of its magic) and I’m feeling kind of emotional and introspective.

ANYWAY BACK TO ALF MEETS GILLIGAN.

ALF, "Somewhere Over the Rerun"

So, yeah, the next morning ALF floods the fucking yard. Willie walks right into the enormous, obvious, very clear, totally massive, in no way obscured or in any sense difficult to see mudpit because everyone involved with this show is a moron.

We even see Kate come out to find out what these two dicktards are doing now, and it takes her a long enough time to walk around the shed that the pit should have been visible to Willie long before it was even possible for him to fall into it and aaaaaarrrrghghhgh what happened after last week I really thought season two was going to be good but they TRICKED ME

Why didn’t this scene take place at night? ALF could have left Willie and Kate’s bedroom to go dig his Gilligan lagoon (Gilligoon) right then. Willie could hear the disturbance, and fall into the pit because it’s too dark to see. Or because he didn’t pick up his glasses when he got out of bed. That would make at least some kind of sense.

Why am I still talking about this. I’m done talking about this.

ALF, "Somewhere Over the Rerun"

Lynn needs something to do this week, so she brings ALF a glass of lemonade and then promptly ceases to exist. Of course, this scene takes place at night, making me even more confused about why they set the previous scene in the daytime. Falling into pits is something someone might do at night. Bringing someone a glass of lemonade is something that someone might do during the day.

I’m so mad I could spit.

ALF yaks for another million Christfucking years about how rad Gilligan’s Island is, then realizes the episode is halfway over and it still hasn’t gotten to the moneyshot, so he leans against a tree and drifts into one of this show’s reliably brilliant dream sequences.

Great.

ALF, "Somewhere Over the Rerun"

ALF wakes up on Gilligan’s Island, where he finds incredibly old Bob Denver and incredibly old Alan Hale engaging in incredibly old comedy.

His excitement blinds him to the fact that it’s actually really sad that these two dopes are in their mid-70s and still doing nothing but slapping each other with their hats, but I guess this lagoon is better than the one he left behind, where Max Wright was inadvertently inventing the wet dress-shirt contest.

Okay, I’ll admit, seeing these two back in character is kind of nice. They even do a good job of recreating their particular kind of physical comedy…but it still feels flat.

It really does make me sad. It’s like when Michael Palin and John Cleese reprised the dead parrot skit on Saturday Night Live in the early 2000s or whatever. It almost doesn’t matter how well they fit into their old shoes…it’s just sad that it’s been so long and they’re still trying to wear them.

You watch stuff like that and it’s hard to focus on anything but how sorry you feel.

ALF, "Somewhere Over the Rerun"

We get another short Gilliginterlude, with the Skipper’s hat being knocked into the water. ALF howls with laughter, which alerts these two to the fact that there’s an alien hiding in their shitterbush.

They seem only mildly phased by his appearance, but that’s fine because they’ve had two decades’ worth of weekly encounters with angry natives, crazy explorers, voodoo curses, evil robots, and the Harlem Globetrotters. Baby Bigfoot here would scarcely rate a mention in anyone’s journal by this point.

ALF, "Somewhere Over the Rerun"

Mary Ann happens along and…

…my god.

Dawn Wells looks great. I mean, she’s aged, sure. But it looks like Bob Denver and Alan Hale aged about 50 years, and she’s somehow aged 10. She’s still lovely. Even today, in 2014. Think about that.

I remember reading or hearing at some point that Tina Louise** was pretty upset that Mary Ann got so much more fan mail than Ginger did, considering the fact that Ginger was supposed to be the irresistible sexpot.

But, well, here you go. This is why the Mary Anns will always win against the Gingers: sexiness fades. It has to. At a certain point you either stop trying to be sexy, or your attempts to stay sexy become embarrassing. (See Mae West’s later years. Or…don’t.)

Mary Ann never tried to be sexy. She was naturally attractive, but it was in a kind of wholesome, adorable way, and that’s what she embraced. That kind of beauty sticks around forever.

In any given nightclub, Ginger would get the attention. But run into a happily married man, and the odds are good he found a Mary Ann.

ALF, "Somewhere Over the Rerun"

They invite ALF back for lunch, and we see that Pier 1 delivers. Either that or as much as ALF is obsessed with Gilligan’s Island, he sure didn’t pay any attention to what the set looked like.

We also see the recently deceased Russell Johnson. His incredible voice is unaffected (can’t you just hear it in your mind?), but he’s clearly aged as well. And I don’t know…it’s just so sad seeing old people trying to re-inhabit the characters that made them famous in their youth. Again, this gang is doing a good job, but that only serves to emphasize the physical toll the years have taken.

Also, of the castaways pictured here, only Dawn Wells is still with us. She and Tina Louise are the only two surviving cast members.

There. I hope you feel as old as I do.

This kind of thing has become more common over the years, but ALF might be the earliest example of which I’m aware. I’m speaking of the reunions of one show’s cast in an episode of something else. Here we have a Gilligan’s Island reunion on ALF. I also remember a Night Court reunion on 30 Rock. Futurama had a Star Trek reunion episode. Family Guy has never had an original idea and so it just stole Futurama‘s and did the same thing with The Next Generation. The Seinfeld cast reunited for Curb Your Enthusiasm. Party Down reunited for Children’s Hospital.

But all of these examples are much more recent. Was fucking ALF the progenitor of this kind of reunion episode? What other ones are there?

ALF, "Somewhere Over the Rerun"

Anyway, ALF learns that after 23 years, the castaways are sick of each other’s shit. The professor doesn’t like that he has to keep looking out for everyone else, and they all resent him for taking away their coconut cream pies as a way of regulating their blood sugar. Everyone’s bored of The Skipper’s navy stories, and they’re upset at Gilligan for always fouling up their escape plans.

Nobody seems to have any complaints about Mary Ann.

Frankly, I wouldn’t either.

ALF, "Somewhere Over the Rerun"

ALF is distraught that the beloved cast of his favorite show that he never mentioned before and will never speak of again actually hate each other, but the real nightmare is this: the episode isn’t over yet.

LOL NO

The real nightmare is that The Skipper hands him a shovel and tells him to fill in the lagoon.

Obviously this is just a dream, but the writers should have come up with a better reason for ALF to fill in the lagoon than the fact that the castaways want to build a miniature golf course. Yes, I know this is supposed to mirror what Willie is making him do in real life, but in that case it’s the perfectly valid punishment of making him unfuck the yard. Here, it’s nonsensical. If they wanted a miniature golf course, why not just clear some brush? How does filling in a lagoon make any sense at all?

Whatever. The castaways leave him there with his shovel to go watch their favorite show: The Adventures of the Tanner Family.

I’m going to make it perfectly clear that this isn’t a joke, and this is actually something that ALF is literally doing: the episode of The Tanner Family is called “Brian Takes a Bath.” Yes, if I were to make up a title, that’s precisely the one I would have invented. But in this case, the show did it for me.

So, yeah. “Brian Takes a Bath.” And of course ALF rushes over to see that.

ALF, "Somewhere Over the Rerun"

The Tanner Family show isn’t quite a comedy, and I like that. It’s just the Tanners sitting around, enjoying a meatloaf dinner and being a family. It makes sense that the castaways would see this and fantasize, as they indeed do, for the life they left behind.

It’s supposed to have the same effect on ALF, but that makes a lot less sense to me. I understand that they’re going for a “grass is always greener” kind of moral here, but in that case he should have a reason to want to go back other than “these guys are making me do the same chore those guys wanted me to do.”

ALF, "Somewhere Over the Rerun"

Then Willie starts talking to ALF through the TV and is it some kind of rule that the second episode of every season has to be a big pile of shit?

Willie twists the knife by reminding ALF that Gilligan’s Island was supposed to be such an awesome place, but now that he’s been there for like four minutes he realizes it’s worse than Auschwitz.

Anyway, that’s it. Really, that’s it.

ALF, "Somewhere Over the Rerun"

ALF wakes up and Willie tells him to get back to work and ALF says he hates this place and the episode is over fuck you

…well, okay. There’s a short scene before the credits and ALF gushes about how much he loves this place, even though he said exactly the opposite in the scene right before this. But it’s okay because it’s setup for a big joke where ALF says he likes Bonanza now and there’s a stage coach in the back yard and NOW the episode is over fuck you

Oh, and I was really expecting for there to be a big punchline at the end where the castaways sit around complaining that yet another visitor left them behind, what with there being about ten zillion fucking jokes about how that always happened in Gilligan’s Island BUT THE EPISODE IS OVER FUCK YOU

_____
* Which isn’t quite true, anyway, but even if it was, ALF is in no position to throw stones.

** Is the fact that the two daughters in Bob’s Burgers are named Tina and Louise a reference to Gilligan’s Island? It feels unlikely to be a coincidence, but I really don’t know.

Every week until the release of The Lost Worlds of Power, one author selected for inclusion will be given the floor. I’ve asked them to talk about themselves, their approach to the project, and anything else they’d like to say up front. I’ve also asked them to avoid spoilers, so have no fear of those. Anyway, week three: Matthew McKinley, author of “California Games.”

Matthew McKinleyHello, my name is Matthew. I’m a 6’2″, 29-year-old Caucasian male and my favorite color is light green. By day I work with digital libraries and archives, making sure all sorts of important digital stuff doesn’t just go poof, and by night I play various stringed instruments and watch far too much Netflix.

I heard about this bizarre challenge via the electronic annals of the Gamelogical Society (recently re-transmogrified to The A.V. Club Games) and, over the course of 24 hours, mentally steeled myself for the task of writing a submission.

I’ve always loved words but have roughly the attention span and self-discipline of a toadstool, so I’d never written anything over a page. Here, then, was a tightrope: write something substantial enough to sustain for ~50 pages, in the style of a series whose many incoherent entries may as well have been written past deadline on the red-eye back from a three-week bender in Bangkok.

Sly trickster that I am, I immediately browsed Wikipedia’s complete list of NES games (all hail Internet, destroyer of wonder!) looking for a weird game that I could turn in to something even weirder. At various points I considered stranding A Boy and his Blob in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, having the street-toughs of River City Ransom spontaneously burst into song ala West Side Story, or casting the eponymous Lolo (of The Adventures of fame) as a hard-boiled detective.

California GamesI finally went with something a little more sedate due to that old chestnut of “write what you know.” I’ve been living in the laid-back, seaside Southern California burgh of Costa Mesa for about three years at this point. Being remarkably similar to the bucolic setting of many of its events, I figured picking California Games would at least let me putz around my environs when in need of inspiration.

Now, I hadn’t played this game in close to two decades and was pretty awful at it when I did. A quick and questionably legal session of the game on the Nestopia emulator proved that my skills had not improved in the interim. Lacking any sort of competitive nature and somewhat less than a passing interest in most coordinated physical activity, I’ve never been big into fighting/racing/sports games. RPGs and clever puzzlers/platformers are more my speed.

California GamesIf you’re still reading my rambling diatribe, you may be asking yourself, “Why would this person, that I now know so well, pick a video game with absolutely no plot or discernible characters and one that he cannot successfully play, like even a little bit, as a basis for his first rather rushed attempt at novelization?”

A perfectly valid albeit surprisingly lengthy and detailed question that comes with a complete set of three interlocking answers (batteries not included).

The short answer: challenge. Or: stubbornness.

The medium answer: Writing an honest-to-god “book” has always been a dream of mine, but I was discouraged by the casual brilliance of the many fiction authors I’ve read and loved. So what could be more tremendously, blessedly freeing than setting out to write a story that my audience expected, no, wanted to be hilariously cheesy and bad?

California GamesThe great irony here being that I somehow ended up with something kind of clever and endearing. I shot for the stars but mis-calibrated and rocketed right to the moon. Wait, no, that’s probably overselling a story that features a roving band of burnout mimes as a plot-point.

Anyway, the long answer: I deliberately chose a plotless game that I did not have much experience with so that I could graft on my invented little world without getting too bogged down in details. I wanted my story and the world it inhabited to be instantly identifiable to the average middle schooler reading these sort of books in the late 80s.

To that end, I took inspiration from the hazy suburban bliss found throughout such classics as E.T., The Goonies, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids and Thrashin’. Though our hero never loses sight of his quest, he always finds time to shoot the breeze and just generally hang out with his friends, classmates and goofy Uncle Z (every good 80s family comedy needs a zany uncle).

I also wanted to evoke the pace-quickening, guitar-squealing raditude of 80s NES T.V. commercials and day-glo advertisements screaming at you from the pages of Nintendo Power. So I infused this low-stakes environment with a ridiculously high-stakes story involving a magical talisman, a Native American shaman and fulfilling a prophecy to save the world — or at least this small, sun-kissed section of it.

California GamesAnd since no respectable mass market product of that era is complete without a surplus of references to keep it hip for 6 months and dated soon after that, I shoehorned in some pop songs and more than a few allusions to other NES games. Try to catch ’em all!

Anyway, I hope you have as much fun reading my entry as I had writing it, though I hope it takes you significantly less time. I’d like to send a thank you to Philip J Reed for being the real blood, sweat and tears behind this operation, and a meek wave to the other authors in the collection, all of whom must be nearly as esoteric as I am to commit so wholeheartedly to such a silly scenario.

I am eager to dive in to the whole mad enchilada. Happy reading!

–Matthew McKinley

ALF Reviews: The German Box

May 4th, 2014 | Posted by Philip J Reed in alf | Meta - (15 Comments)

Die komplette Serie, DieA few weeks ago, when I finished my reviews of season one, I opened the floor to donations to buy the ALF Complete Set of German Funfun. The reason was that this set, as far as I could tell, was the only one that contained uncut episodes, and I thought it might be a little more fair to the show to review those versions moving forward.

Of course, I didn’t actually expect there to be much interest, but there were four brave little toasters who pitched in:
– Casey Roberson
– Eric Lemoine
– Alessandro Arzilli
– Kevin Loy

A fifth asked if he could send me a donation through the post. Nothing’s come through yet, but if it does I’ll be sure to thank him as well.

Between those four, nearly the entire cost of the box set was covered. I was happy to pitch in the rest, and, as you saw from my review of “Working My Way Back to You,” it did indeed arrive in time for me to cover season two.

So, as a way of saying thanks, I figured I’d do a little mini-review of the physical contents themselves. I don’t know if there are any bonus features, but if there are I’ll cover them at some point. The episodes, of course, will be covered in sequence SO DON’T RUSH ME.

ALF
The box itself is just a cardboard slip that houses copies of the individual season releases. These are standard-width cases, and there’s a nice little hinge in there that lets you flip through the four DVDs that each case contains.

Why is it that crappy shows make these much more convenient packaging decisions? As much as I love those super deluxe mega awesome rockem-sockem collector’s releases of the things I actually enjoy, I sure do hate having to fold things out and dig through envelopes and packing bonuses to get to the fucking disc.

Speaking of which, I know the individual season releases here in the States are much thicker than this. Does anyone have one of those? Do they come with booklets or something?

For some reason, every single picture of ALF that they chose to use is terrifying.

Seriously, the puppet isn’t scary. So why is every photo of it the stuff of nightmare?

ALF

Here’s the DVD for season two. It’s the only one I’ve done anything with so far, but eventually I’ll have to circle back around to season one to review the scenes cut from syndication.

This picture of ALF makes him look like he’s seriously beefed up. That’s a terrifying prospect for reasons I’d prefer not to put into words.

Additionally, each of the season boxes contains one of these:
ALF
It’s nothing special, just a little foldout card that lists the episodes and a brief description of each. At least, I assume it does; I can’t read this scary Melmacian script.

I also notice that at least one of the episode titles is not a straight translation. “We’re So Sorry, Uncle Albert” is truncated here to what I’m sure translates as just “Uncle Albert.” Maybe at some point I’ll pump these into a translator (or ask commenter Marleen, our German correspondent) so that I can find out if other changes were made from the original titles. Maybe certain puns or song titles wouldn’t work with a straight translation into German. Either way I’m a nerd and I am curious so get out of my way.

ALF

The cover for season three makes it look like he’s beckoning me into the back of a van.

ALF

The cover for season four definitely looks a bit stupid, but it’s the least terrifying, so I’ll take it. The funny thing comes when you flip that one over:
ALF
Man, does ALF not look like even he’s fed up with this show? Such a stench of defeat wafting off of that puppet there.

There’s not much to say about the backs of the cases because I can’t read them, but I will point out because I’m a pedantic shit that the pictures on each do not reflect the actual contents of that season and I’m really sad that I know that.

Each season is spread across four discs, and something about the images they chose really bothers me. For every disc they use a different promotional shot of one of the characters. But each time, it’s ALF, Willie, Brian and Lynn.

Granted, I know there are only four discs in each season, but they couldn’t cycle Kate into at least one set? Or even use a shot of both her and Willie together or something? I can’t exactly say why, but this rubs me the wrong way. Of course, if I had it my way I’d exclusively use pictures of Kate, Mr. Ochmonek, the little girl that wanted to kill ALF and the scampering midget, so what do I know.

ALF

The bottom of the box helpfully identifies exactly how much of my life I’ll waste watching this shit. 2,394 minutes.

That makes me sad, thinking about how much I could do with 2,394 minutes. Then I realize that I wouldn’t actually do any of it, so whatever.

It also lists 101 episodes. I’m only aware of 99, plus the Project ALF movie, which I don’t believe is included here. Maybe there are some episode-length featurettes or something. We’ll find out.

Anyway, as an additional thanks to those who donated to the cause, I have a gift.
ALF

Courtesy of reader / tormentor Jon Wahlgren, I’ve come into the possession of five sealed packs of ALF trading cards. If any of you four generous donators would like one, shoot me a message with your mailing address. Each of them comes with a stick of gum, which I’m positive is delicious.

I’ll keep the fifth pack and review that at some point. Or if (FOR SOME REASON) you are entitled to a pack of cards and don’t want them, I’ll keep those to review as well.

Anyway, thanks, everyone. Casey, Eric, Alessandro and Kevin especially, but a sincere thanks to everyone else who reads these, makes funnier jokes in the comments than I do, and occasionally calls me an asshole.

I love you all.

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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