I’ll probably be accused of being too polite, but season two has been a big pile of fucking shit.
It got off to a legitimately good start with “Working My Way Back to You,” but everything else has been an insult to my intelligence at best, and a staple through the scrotum at worst.
Okay, granted, we’re not even a third of the way through the season, but the reason I’m not holding out hope is that the storylines have actually been decent…it’s the execution that’s so frustratingly flawed. Unlike season one, which almost never found a story worth telling, season two has already found several, and simply pissed them away.
“Take a Look at Me Now” was about Mrs. Ochmonek discovering the central premise of the show: the fact than an alien lives among them. That’s a major occurrence, but all ALF could think to do was stick her on a talk-show and make avocado jokes. Then, last week, ALF used Halloween as an excuse to mingle with humanity, face to face. That’s a great concept for tying the traditions of a popular holiday into the actual premise of the show, but all ALF could think to do with it was make an old man limbo.
So forgive me for not getting particularly excited over an episode about Lynn entering a beauty contest. Forgive me also for being surprised that it turned out to be a pretty darned good episode.
How in the world did season two take such good ideas and turn them into garbage, yet manage to elevate such a worthless premise to make it the best episode in weeks?
I know how, but it’ll be a while before we get there, so, play along.
Anyway, it opens with ALF watching TV. Speaking of which, is Polka Jamboree still on? We got an entire episode about ALF’s efforts to save that show, but it ended, oddly, without any kind of closure at all. ALF admitted he rigged the ratings, but David Leisure was still fired, so I guess it’s still on? Why am I asking this?
ALF is watching the Miss Universe pageant (or something similar), but he thinks it’s a United Nations meeting. That’s both a funny line and one of our rare acknowledgements that, hey, since our main character is from another culture, perhaps he could humorously misunderstand ours once in a while.
Willie comes in, and I notice he hasn’t worn his glasses many times this season. He still does wear them, now and then, which is why it’s odd. If he stopped completely, we could assume either he (or Max Wright) started wearing contacts instead. And that may still be the case, but you can’t have a character wearing glasses in a few scenes every episode, and then not in the other scenes. Either he needs them, or he doesn’t. If you’re hopping back and forth, it needs to be for some kind of plot-relevant reason. Otherwise it’s just confusing.
Of course, this is ALF, and all throughout this scene and the next, Willie is holding some circuit board or something with dangling wires. He never mentions it, and it never comes into play.
This isn’t a newspaper or a coffee mug. This isn’t the kind of prop a character can walk around the house carrying without comment. There has to be a reason for it…and there isn’t. This is such a strange show, sometimes. It seems to operate on this plane of reality that’s completely divorced from the one in which any human being has actually lived.
Lynn comes home, and she’s upset. Everyone asks her where Rick is, and she says he’s still at the dance.
What happened to Lizard? He was mentioned in one episode and appeared in another, making him the only boyfriend of Lynn’s that wasn’t immediately discarded between weeks. Instead, he was quickly discarded between weeks.
I wonder why they bothered having Lizard span two episodes if he was only going to span two episodes. It can’t even be a change due to actor availability, either; Rick doesn’t appear here at all…they just talk about him. Why bother keeping Lizard in Lynn’s life if it doesn’t change anything, and he’ll disappear after another episode anyway?
Oh well. I can’t be too upset, because Andrea Elson’s acting has never been better. It’s still not good, and will never be this show’s strong point, but she’s at her best when a sort of hollowness of mind is allowed to inform her line readings. Here, she gets to do that for a nice, long speech, and she gets to do it while being emotional, too.
It works pretty well. She fidgets with her sleeves anxiously as she relates the story (Rick asked if he could dance with Cindy Bennett, and when she said yes, he danced with Cindy all night), and it manages to be exactly the sort of thing a teenager would find catastrophic, and which an adult would recognize immediately as nothing really worth dwelling on. In short, she gets to be human.
And then — mercy of mercies — ALF does, too. Willie and Kate ask him to turn off the TV, but he refuses, because he’s watching something. Then they tell him that Lynn is upset…and he does turn it off. It’s a sweet little moment. It means nothing to the rest of the episode, but I like that ALF puts aside his own interests, for once, in favor of actually being part of this family. You know…that point of conflict that we’re always supposed to believe matters so much to ALF but which he’s made almost no effort to bring about?
Yeah, that. So it’s nice to see even some small granule of actual consideration on his part.
Lynn says that Cindy is gorgeous, so of course Rick would have ditched dumpy old her for the hot blonde cheerleader, and this leads to a really great Kate moment. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: thank Christ for Anne Schedeen. She tells Lynn that it’s not that she’s unattractive, it’s just that “these things happen all the time.”
Her daughter replies, “Great,” and that single word is the finest Lynn moment ever on this show. Which is fitting, because this is also the only good Lynn episode.
The joke compounds, however. Kate tries to make Lynn feel better by telling her that something similar happened to her when she was young. She explains that, many years ago, Kate was also at a dance, and met a really great guy. The night was a lot of fun and everything seemed wonderful, until the end of the evening, when she found out something terrible: the jerk had ditched his date to be with her instead.
Schedeen’s delivery on this is perfect, especially the silently dawning double realization that not only is this going to make her daughter feel worse, but that she’s too far into the story to stop.
Lynn even offers her a potentially face saving, “…and?” when the story is over, giving her mother a chance to actually pull a salvageable moral out of this, but the best Kate can do is, “And even though I kept dating him, I always felt that what he did was wrong.”
It’s great. Schedeen is on point here, and I’m glad, because for once the material deserves her talent.
Then Willie condescendingly tries to rephrase the story his wife attempted to convey “in her own special way.” Fuck you, Willie. Since when are you a god-damned master wordsmith? I don’t think I’ve had too much opportunity to say this since the middle of season one, but I’m bringing it back: WHY IS SHE WITH THIS GUY?
Sure, her story wasn’t very helpful, but she’s not an idiot, and here he is treating her like she’s some moronic goon he always needs to follow around and apologize for.
Then ALF himself stomps all over the joke by pointing out overtly that the story made Lynn feel worse when it was supposed to make her feel better, presumably for the benefit for anyone who was watching and fell asleep during the minute and a half that was already made clear.
You know, if the ceiling collapsed right now and killed only ALF and Willie, this show would get instantly better.
Lynn then asks her father if he would ask her out, if he were her age. I’ve never been a teenage girl (just a baby girl and an old woman) so I don’t know for sure if this is as creepy a question as it sounds. Is this the kind of thing a high school girl would ask her dad? I get that Lynn is upset and is looking for any kind of affirmation she can get, but is this really a question she would ask?
It’s Willie’s turn to be caught off guard, and we get what I’m sure is an unintentional reminder of the way he deals with having to speak before he thinks: he stutters and stammers and blurts. “Well…if I were your age…and you weren’t my daughter…and if I weren’t married…and…if I had a car back then…”
Again, I’m sure it’s not intentional, but I like the difference between the way Willie digs himself out of his ditches and the way Kate digs herself out of hers. One fumbles awkwardly, the other just keeps speaking, calmly and with total composure, so that someone who isn’t listening to her actual words won’t suspect anything’s wrong. Another very human trait for the most human person on the show.
The next scene is ALF and Brian trading Bouillabaseball cards. Actually, remember those ALF trading cards I haven’t opened yet? They come with a Bouillabaseball card. So, I guess that’s a pretty neat tie-in for fans, but if Bouillabaseball doesn’t come up again later in the series, I’m going to be very confused as to why this is the episode they attempted to merchandize.
Thinking on it, I’m a bit puzzled by Bouillabaseball. In “Working My Way Back to You,” ALF was teaching Brian to play Skleen Ball, which was baseball played with fish. Now they’re talking about Bouillabaseball, which is baseball played with fish. That was only six episodes ago. Maybe if the other sport was mentioned in season one instead, this would be fine. But why, in two episodes so close together, is the same sporting concept given two different names?
God damn it ALF.
The cards are yet another worthless piece of junk ALF salvaged from his planet instead of helping anybody else to safety. Brian asks if they came with gum, and, sure enough, they did. In two flavors: tabby and Persian.
Commenter [E]X (or whatever, he hasn’t commented in a while so I apologize if I got the punctuation wrong) asked a while back why there are cats on Melmac. It was a good question that I can’t fucking answer at all. Even more puzzling, though, is why there would be Persian cats on Melmac…what with Melmac not having a Persia.
The phone rings, and it’s revealed that ALF entered Lynn in the Miss Southland beauty pageant. Lynn doesn’t know this, until she conveniently walks into the room while everybody’s talking about it. She’s there to take out the trash, but ALF tells Brian to do it instead. When Brian refuses, ALF offers him a dollar. Then ALF turns to Lynn and says, “You owe him a dollar.”
It’s funny, and it leaps right into ALF’s dedication to grooming Lynn into a beauty queen…which is a plot I really feel like I should hate.
And yet, I don’t.
I think it’s because we actually have a lot of good lines sprinkled throughout. I’m recording a lot of them here, but it’s probably a fifth of what the episode actually has to offer. Or maybe I’m just grateful that we get an episode about Lynn being attractive that doesn’t end with a musical number called “You’re the One Whose Genitals I’d Like to Sniff.”
Kate calls ALF an idiot for signing Lynn up without permission. He says he didn’t ask Lynn because he was afraid she’d say no, to which Lynn replies, “You were right.”
Then ALF calls out to Kate, “See? I’m not an idiot.”
This stuff is not half bad, guys. It’s really not. And it gets funnier when Lynn agrees to enter, because the grand prize is a car. She asks ALF what kind of car, and he says, “I’ll give you a hint: It’s spelled with a Z.” Overjoyed, she leaves, and Kate asks more directly what kind of car it is. ALF says, “Used. That’s spelled with a Z, isn’t it?”
I know I say this every time I compliment ALF, but I really don’t mean it to be insulting: these jokes aren’t great. Even the ones I like aren’t great. But that’s okay, because like The Muppet Show before it, a lot of fun can be had simply from the infectious silliness. While The Muppet Show unquestionably stumbled across brilliant material, even the hollow, punny stuff was enjoyable because we want to laugh. We like these guys. We like these actors. We like these situations. The goodwill earned by the great stuff carries us through the lesser material, evening out the valleys and elevating the experience as a whole.
This is what ALF should be at its worst. Something that’s not great…but is at least competent. When that’s the low watermark, we tend to excuse it. It may be forgettable, but it’s part of a show we enjoy, so no harm done.
Instead, though, this sort of thing is the highlight of the show. It’s nothing more than harmless wordplay and vaguely snappy dialogue, but it still manages to seem like a lost episode of Fawlty Towers when you compare it to the rest of the shit they churn out on a weekly basis.
The woman who runs the pageant comes over, and we get some passable social commentary about how the Miss Southland winners go on to become hostesses. “Not waitresses,” she makes clear. “Hostesses.”
ALF apparently submitted a photo of Lynn from her Sweet Sixteen party, and she complains that that was back when she had braces. I remember there was an episode in season one in which the show gave us a few lines explaining why Lynn no longer had braces, which I’m certain was done because Andrea Elson no longer had braces, but why are we reminding the audience that she used to have braces so long ago that it really doesn’t matter? It’s a bizarre time to drop in a reminder like that, and it’s not for any real reason.
But, whatever. The woman leaves and Willie agrees that there’s nothing to lose by letting Lynn enter the pageant. Then ALF pops up through the plot window and corrects him: there’s nothing to lose apart from the $200 entry fee.
Willie says, seething, “I guess you know what my reaction’s going to be,” to which ALF replies, “Yeah, but I don’t think I’d care to hear it.”
Now that’s an act break!
In the shed, ALF is making Lynn practice her clog dancing routine. Why did he say her talent was clog dancing? ALF explains, “Well, it isn’t singing.”
This episode doesn’t make any effort to soften his dickishness…and yet, for some reason, it doesn’t bother me as much. Maybe because I’m actually laughing. Things feel less cruel when you are actually having fun with it. I guess I just accidentally justified bullying, though, so ignore me.
Lynn complains that they aren’t making any progress with the routine, and ALF replies, “Sure we are. A week ago you didn’t even know what clog dancing was. Now we’re both sick to death of it.”
FUCKERS THIS IS NOT BAD
Lynn comes into the living room, ready for the pageant. She looks like Peggy Bundy, but the fake digital audience isn’t activated, so I guess it’s not a joke. She is actually supposed to look great, as far as I can tell.
For my money, she looks way better normally. Yeah, she’s usually lazing around in a sweatshirt, trying not to die of anxiety as she waits to say her line for the week, but she’s got a sort of neutral prettiness, and it works for her.
In fact, to keep up the Married With Children train of thought, I’ve referred a few times to Lynn being funny when she’s allowed to be a family-friendly Kelly Bundy. Less sexualized, more naive. And the “gussied up” Lynn here (new dress, new hair, makeup) contrasts nicely with the “gussied up” Kelly we saw so often (cleavage, legs, leather).
Each of those characters has a neutrally attractive setting, but when enhancing their attractiveness for plot purposes, they pull in very different directions. I like that.
Again, it’s nothing intentional, but it’s something that happens when the writers know what the fuck they’re doing.
Everyone compliments Lynn, but ALF is quiet. Kate asks why he’s not saying anything, and Willie replies, “Please, Kate. Don’t spoil the moment.”
Did even Willie get a good line? I can count the number of episodes in which that happened on one truly mangled hand.
ALF tells the family to pose for a picture, and there’s a joke that reaches well beyond this show’s usual abilities: Willie, Brian, Kate and Lynn smile for the camera, ALF counts to three…and then keeps counting.
Now that in itself is funny, but not totally beyond ALF‘s scope. What really sells it is the visual punch: we’re on ALF as he counts one and two, then we snap to the family for three, because that’s when we’d expect the flash. It doesn’t come, so we linger on the family through four, five, six…
A joke like that requires an understanding of film grammar that I have to assume somebody on staff possesses…somebody who isn’t often allowed to speak in meetings.
Normally ALF would linger too long in one place or the other. The fact that the cut comes on “three” establishes, though, that somebody not only knows why the joke is funny, but that the comedy can be enhanced by playing with the audience’s natural expectation.
When we see ALF start to count, we don’t consciously think, “He’ll reach three, we’ll see the family, the flashbulb will go off, and then the family will be at ease.” And yet, we do think that on some level, a level we don’t even know exists until the reality doesn’t match our prediction and we feel the hollow of unfulfilled expectation. A hollow that’s easily (and, arguably, cheaply) filled with laughter.
Like so much of “Working My Way Back to You,” this is a moment that would have been funny enough of its own, but which bears the stamp of somebody who put forth the effort to make it even funnier.
This is an episode about Lynn in a beauty contest, remember. The fact that somebody chose to invest that effort into this is downright heroic.
They head off to the pageant, leaving Brian alone with his rapist alien babysitter. I actually like this short scene, though, which opens with ALF emptily shoving a toy car off the table.
Why not? Because it’s funny. He’s ALF the passively petulant child, which is something I wish we’d see more of. The best part: it isn’t commented upon. It just happens. Even more rare than the writers giving Willie a good line is the writers giving their audience credit.
There’s also a nice, cute moment with ALF misunderstanding the concept of Hide and Seek, but explaining it here would take too much work and would also suck the life out of the gag. Suffice it to say that while it’s obvious padding, it’s very good padding, and in almost any other episode it would have been a runaway highlight. Here it’s just killing time, which speaks to how surprisingly strong “Oh, Pretty Woman” manages to be.
The episode ends with Lynn coming home upset. She placed last in the pageant, so ALF and Willie cheer her up. It’s nothing phenomenal, and it’s at least slightly abrupt, but as endings go it’s certainly fair, especially when you compare it to Brian being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for threatening to destroy the Earth with nuclear weapons.
What I’d rather talk about here is what “Oh, Pretty Woman” manages to prove.
A few times I’ve referred wistfully to the show ALF could have been. In fact, in my overall of review of season one, I cited three episodes that illustrated the directions this series could have taken to become legitimately great: “For Your Eyes Only,” “Going Out of My Head Over You,” and “La Cuckaracha.” While they were each very different episodes, my central argument remained the same: they should lean in to their core concept, and build plots around the fact that ALF is an alien, rather than cast him in a role that could have been occupied by any kind of character.
Yet, here, “Oh, Pretty Woman” demonstrates that that’s not the only path to success. You don’t have to be groundbreaking…you just have to be funny.
Here ALF’s extra-terrestrial origin offers nothing but a few offhand gags. The storyline itself does nothing with it, and he doesn’t even attend the beauty pageant. (We don’t get to see any of it, either.) The plot is less of a plot than it is a theme, and the writers explore that theme for as many jokes as they can get out of it.
And they’re actually good. This version of ALF might have been ultimately forgettable, but it would at least have been fun while it lasted.
I’ve complained about cardboard characters and ropey plots and disregard for logic, but “Oh, Pretty Woman” reminds me that while those things can be irritating, the most important thing is the quality of the writing. If you’re laughing, you’re not picking nits.
And “Oh, Pretty Woman” made me laugh. As much as I’d love ALF to be a show that did something interesting with its own premise, this reminds me that I’d be perfectly happy for the show to just have a little fun along the way.
Is that, really, so much to ask?
MELMAC FACTS: Not many Melmac Facts so far this season, but “Oh, Pretty Woman” has a lot, so…enjoy. In Melmacian beauty contests, for instance, the judges wore swimsuits and the contestants sat in the audience. Then there’s Bouillabaseball, which is like baseball except that they use fish parts instead of balls. Also, fish guts are sold at the concession stands. In Alpha-Centauri, they have world peace (even though it’s not a world?) so they wish for shoes instead. ALF’s grandmother once said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say to somebody, don’t say anything at all,” and then she never spoke to him again. Grandma Shumway also used to warn Melmacians that the planet was going to blow up, which might have helped her to survive the blast if ALF hadn’t had her committed. ALF’s orange fur is the result of a permanent dye job. Aaaaand, finally, on Melmac they count to 21 before taking a photo. Nearly all of these either served as or led to a solid punchline, which is damned welcome at this stage in the season.