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ALF Reviews: Season Two, Reviewed

December 4th, 2014 | Posted by Philip J Reed in alf

ALF, "Hail to the Chief"

And, somehow feeling as though it went both way too fast and way too slow, season two is behind us. This puts us at the midpoint of the project, with season three’s 25 episodes, season four’s 24, and the Criterion Collection director’s cut release of Project: ALF still to come.

And…I’ll talk about the season itself shortly. For now, a few general reflections on the project itself.

The value that this series has had to me as a writer is immense. I have no idea what any of you get out of it as readers, and for that I almost feel guilty.

When I first chose ALF to cover, it was because of a few things. One: well, you voted for it. But even if you hadn’t, I probably would have covered it at some point, because two: it’s a show I remember liking as a kid that seems positively insane as of now.

The idea of a prime-time puppet show on American network television seems like a truly foreign idea, but it wasn’t. It happened. And, in spite of how bizarre that now seems, it was also extremely popular.

It’s not entirely without peer, though. The most obvious forerunner would be The Muppet Show, which similarly featured puppets interacting with humans, and post-ALF we’ve had things like Crank Yankers and Mystery Science Theater 3000. In both of those latter cases, however, the puppets were, by their very nature, part of the joke. What we were watching was deliberately absurd, and sticking an obvious puppet in the middle of the proceedings was a method of making that very clear to the viewer.

ALF hews more closely to — and is utterly indebted to — Jim Henson’s immortal creations. The fact that ALF is a puppet is never the joke. We’re meant to see him as a character in his own right, as well-rounded and loveable as any other classic sitcom creation. Archie Bunker, Ralph Kramden, Mary Richards, “Hawkeye” Pierce, ALF.

At least, that’s what Paul Fusco wanted, and, to some extent, what he must have believed. Which leads me to the third reason I’m glad to cover ALF: it’s supremely instructive from a writing standpoint.

ALF, "Somewhere Over the Rerun"

For a show that’s rightly remembered for its novelty value alone, ALF could not serve as a better case study when it comes to humor writing. Characterization, dialogue, world-building, social satire, emotional stakes, continuity, interpersonal relationships, evolving roles and conflicts…all of these things are woven into ALF‘s weekly routine, some of them by nature of it being a sitcom, others by deliberate choice.

And, I don’t need to tell you after 50 of these fucking reviews, they’re nearly always bungled spectacularly.

That alone would make ALF a good case study. The distance between what the show wishes to achieve and what it actually achieves leaves so much room for exploration…for consideration…for finding the loose ends and pieces that don’t fit together, and trying to figure out why that is.

But what makes it a great case study is the fact that, tantalizingly often, the show does accomplish what it sets out to do. The pieces do fit. The show, however briefly, works.

That’s an achievement, and it’s a fascinating one to me. Especially since (with very few exceptions) ALF getting something right amounts to nothing more than any decent sitcom achieves regularly: a good joke, and / or some competent storytelling.

On a decent sitcom, however, and certainly on the great ones, such achievements seem to happen effortlessly. The cameras are on, the cast reads their lines, and it’s as simple as that. It doesn’t smack of effort; it feels instead like we’re fortunate enough to watch talented people doing what comes easily.

On ALF, you can practically see the gears grinding. You can see the cast floundering, the writing working against itself, and the logistical incompetence pulsing in the background of every scene.

It makes the small triumphs (a funny line, a snatch of good acting) seem sweeter, in an illusory way, and it makes the massive failures that much more frustrating, because we see them coming. We see the smoke coming out of the machine. We see the parts falling off. And nobody working on this thing seems to want to fix it.

ALF, "Movin' Out"

And I love that, in a way. There are a wealth of titles that I love across all media that are riddled, to varying extents, with flaws. The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. Majora’s Mask. Every single Pink Floyd album. But those flaws exist in spite of artists working extraordinarily hard to correct them, account for them, and control them. The flaws don’t puncture the experience; they simply serve as (often unfortunate) reminders that human beings, fallible, imperfect, up against deadlines, dealing with personal issues, are driving themselves crazy (sometimes literally) to produce the best work they can.

For this reason, ALF is something of a godsend. If a work of art aspires to nothing, there’s very little we can learn from it; the team doesn’t care, but they didn’t try to achieve anything anyway. If a work of art aspires to something and the team tries hard to get it there, the flaws become harder to parse, to dissect, to examine, as our attention is drawn — rightly — to what is working, and to what we are feeling.

ALF is an oddity in the middle. It aspires to much, but has a creative team that’s perfectly content to say “fuck it” and watch the wheels fall off.

Sure, I complain about the show and pick it apart, but it’s because there’s a benefit to doing so. It’s our chance to operate on a translucent cadaver. We can learn so much from a show that’s convinced it’s great and therefore puts forth no effort to actually be great.

That’s why, at this midway point, I’m more excited than exhausted. And I hope you are, as well. While I’ve had more people tell me to press on with ALF than I have had express disappointment that I’m doing so, those latter voices still make me feel bad. Perhaps it’s a question of balance, and I need to just dedicate myself to doing more, different kinds of writing here. In the coming year, I intend to do exactly that, so hopefully that will help.

But I’ll plow through the rest of ALF, because I’ve seen the positive effects it’s had on my writing already. The study of what so clearly doesn’t work makes it easier to see faint echoes in what I produce on my own, which means I can correct those issues much more quickly and organically. In short, the more time I spend with Willie Tanner, the less likely his mumbly brand of irritating horseshit is to sneak into something I’m writing.

ALF, "We Gotta Get Out of This Place"

As much as I give this show guff about its characters, season two did a very good — if equally inconsistent — job of trying to develop them.

I’d say there were five truly good episodes in season two, and the first three were all about individual members of the Tanner household. “Working My Way Back to You” was the first, and it centered on Kate. By the end of season one, Kate was deeply entrenched as the only Tanner who acted remotely human, so while a Kate episode could have easily coasted on what we already knew, “Working My Way Back to You” did something admirable and reversed the dynamic she has with ALF, showing us another side of both characters, and leading to one of the best episodes yet.

Then there was “Oh, Pretty Woman,” which centered on Lynn. While the beauty pageant setup skirts worryingly close to reminding us that “fuckable” has heretofore been her only consistent personality trait, it’s packed wall to wall with great lines, and we see a vulnerable, desperately hopeful side of the character that makes her seem a lot like the flesh and blood teenagers that actually occupy the world we know.

The third was “Night Train,” which took the single most problematic character in the entire show — which is certainly saying something — and gambled hard on him. Honestly, it’s something I never would have expected the show to pull off. It would have been enough of an achievement to portray Willie as anything we’re already supposed to believe he is (husband, father, son, brother, social worker, anything other than erectile dysfunction on legs really), but to position him in the center of an episode-long emotional journey that concludes with a renewed appreciation for himself…I would have said that’s guaranteed to fail.

And yet, it doesn’t. It works. It works so fucking well that it renders the lousy episodes that much more frustrating.

The two other good episodes in season two are also character-based, in the sense that they reprise the best characters from season one. “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” sees the long-overdue return of ALF’s blind friend Jodie, and “I’m Your Puppet” culminated in a surprise second session with Dr. Dykstra. Both of these episodes, as a kind of bonus, delve into who / what ALF is, with Jodie helping us to explore ALF the character, and Dr. Dykstra allowing us to explore ALF the television show.

Many of the really fuckin’ bad episodes attempt to develop character, too. “Take a Look at Me Now” shattered and rebuilt Mrs. Ochmonek, “Something’s Wrong With Me” was about the culmination of Kate Sr.’s Love Quest, “Isn’t It Romantic?” reenacted Willie and Kate’s honeymoon, and so on. And while none of these episodes were even watchable, I admire what they attempted to do: flesh out the world built, however shoddily, by season one.

ALF, "We Are Family"

I’m pretty sure it’s been unanimously declared ’round these parts that season two is as good as it gets. And while I’ll wait until I finish the next two to pass judgment, I can at least compare it against season one. Overall, sure, I’d say it’s better.

For starters, there were five good episodes in this batch, as compared to the previous season’s three. And the average season two episode certainly had better lines and gags, which is pretty important for a comedy show.

But that also might be the problem. Season one was certainly the shakier of the two, but, to give credit where it’s due, it also attempted a lot of really interesting things. Insane things, yes, but there’s a kind of thrill to watching a show shitty enough that it features an alien prank calling the president, singing about fucking a teenager, stealing cars, writing for soap operas, and staging an episode-long pastiche of Rear Window. These were terrible, terrible episodes, but I remember them better than most of season two simply because they were mad enough to stick with me. Much of season two, by contrast, is neither bad nor good enough to be remembered at all.

The wackadoo approach to season one plotting was fun. I hated the episodes, but I can guarantee I’ll be making jokes about ALF threatening President Reagan on the Air Force One shitterphone for the rest of this series, while I doubt I’ll ever feel compelled to remind you of Kate Sr.’s wedding. And sure, it’s stupid that they introduce Mr. O’s cousin Oliver to pop up whenever they need someone of the same species to squeeze Lynn’s boobies, but it’s not the same kind of stupid as ALF stealing a riding mower and implicitly wreaking tame havoc all over Los Angeles.

The one shining exception to this — and you know what I’m going to say before I say it — is “ALF’s Special Christmas.”

ALF, "ALF's Special Christmas"

I mean come on. Just look at this shit.

This pandering, obnoxious, insulting kick in the emotional nutsuck not only hearkens back to the worst impulses of season one, but it surpasses them in every conceivable way. Its self-importance is suffocating from the very first frames, with the higher film quality, new title card, and super-sized running time all promising that you aren’t watching ALF; you are watching a major television event.

As much as I hated it, it’s memorable for that reason alone. It’s a prime example of an episode falling apart as we watch, straining beyond its own abilities to reach something it should have never bothered with, and splitting open to spill its innards everywhere for the world to see.

This is the kind of bad episode that circles back around to being worth watching. Not because it’s good, but because when you have a space alien saving Christmas from suicidal black Santas and ineffectual gynecologists, you do sort of have to watch. You won’t come away from it feeling the warmth that Paul Fusco intended, but you’ll talk about it, laugh about it, and years later probably even reflect upon it.

ALF, "Something's Wrong With Me"

But that, sadly, is a bonkers exception to the forgettable norm. While season two is overall better, it rises from “bad” to simply “bland.” Of the two, there’s a kind of honor to the former. You’ll remember everyone who flips you the bird, but almost nobody who politely nods. It’s improved, but not enough to really count.

Looking back on the season as a whole is frustrating, because it hit both higher highs and lower lows than season one did…yet it didn’t do either consistently enough to carve out an identity for itself.

It did, however, do a respectable job of trying to find humanity in the hollow, braindead caricatures we met in season one. It failed as often as it succeeded, but the impulse was sound. Al Jean and Mike Reiss ran the show this time around, and their mission seemed to be to actually introduce us to the characters that we ostensibly “met” last season.

It’s not their fault that they inherited a world of lost causes. It is, however, to their great credit that they managed to redeem any of them, however temporarily.

With that, we have a few more bonus features before we move on to season three. And there, I get the feeling, I’ll find myself longing for these heady days of forgettable weekly blandness.

Roll on, season three.

ALF, "We're So Sorry, Uncle Albert"

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15 Responses

  • Sarah Portland says:

    OMG, super-shitty week. Thank you, benevolent blog gods, for providing good content when I needed it most.

  • FelixSH says:

    I certainly get a lot out of your reviews (besides good laughs, mean). I still like the show, but now it is more despite its flaws, not because of its quality. I already knew that Brian was sort of a non-entity, but I never realized how much that is true. I bought into the “Ochmoneks are awful” nonsense from the show, which you clearly showed to be nonsense (and I also never realized that they are actually some of the better characters of the show). Lynn was always someone I liked, but my points of view on Kate and Willie drastically changed. That Willie is an awful person never got threw to me.
    —–
    I could go on, but you get the idea. Your reviews brought a lot of interesting stuff to my attention, they made me understand the show way better than before. Learning new stuff is always cool, so thanks for the work you put into this posts.
    —–
    Somewhere in there you mentioned Majoras Mask as a flawed game. Just as an idea, I would be very interested in a post about that game, if you find time for that at some point.

    • Philip J Reed says:

      I’m long overdue for an essay on Majora’s Mask. It’s my favorite game, full stop.

      Spoiler: the flaws are copious, but technical. I sometimes feel like I’m the only person in the world who _likes_ the three-day-reset mechanic. As much as people complaint that it would be a better game without it, they don’t realize that it would be an entirely different game without it, one without the stakes, the atmosphere, the brooding, inexorable hopelessness that _defines_ the game.

      I’m shutting up now. Because…I actually want to write this damned thing at some point.

  • RaikoLives says:

    Phillip. Phil. Mr Reed. PJ. Our little Philadelphia Cheese Steak. Know that, for generations to come, when children are instructed on the horror that was ALF, and on the legend of The Fuscoe (who was battled only by The One Good Writer) your tireless efforts to show to the world these articles and criticisms will have been well worth it. When the world is no longer forced to watch a furry, alien pedophile ravage the family of a Californian social worker, but can safely tune out to catch reruns of Gilligan’s Island (or Laverne and Shirley) then your mighty struggle, lost hair and dead brain cells will have been worth it. Your sacrifice shall be remembered. Fight on! Dear brother. Wage war upon the Tanners and The Beast! Use your quill to cast out the stench of the Fuscoe and let each of us breath safely once more!

    Of course, at the same time, there’s only 49 more times you’ll get to see Kate taking a shower in the opening, so there IS a downside.

  • Mark Moore says:

    Out of curiosity, how many times this season has Brian’s replacement, Jake, shown up?

  • Jeff says:

    Hello. I recognize that I am one of the “latter voices,” and I feel bad about making you feel bad, so I figured I owed you an explanation. However, as I wrote it, I realized it might be hurtful to those cheering you on. People are really digging this project, so the proper course is to ignore my voice. So I won’t even offer it!
    ——-
    Just know I think you are a genius of humor and prose.

  • TaneZense says:

    I hope that your style of reviewing this series doesn’t drop in quality anytime soon, because I had a blast reading every single one of your paragraphs, from Episode 1 to this, the quality of your commentary has remained consistently good throughout. I of course was one of the many people that saw ALF when it was novel, even though because I live in Argentina, I don’t know if it was still airing in North America by the time we were seeing it, the point is, ALF was always a curiosity to me and my friends, we remember seeing it, but we didn’t remember anything about it, we remember the alien with the grouchy voice (Just to clarify, ALF sounds like the cookie monster in the Latin American dub) and the fact that Wily was pathetic (By the way, You can notice the guy who does Wily’s Latin American voice tries to imitate Wright’s stuttering, it’s kinda hilarious actually), but we didn’t remember what the Alien did, who Wily was, or why was he such a laughing-stock. Now that I’ve read your reviews and saw a few episodes myself, I can definitely see why the series never left any sort of impact on me or my friends.

    Also, I didn’t know that Majora’s Mask was your favourite game, I would have guessed Megaman 2 or something along those lines. I can see why, it’s definitely my favourite 3D Zelda game, and I honestly can’t find any flaws in that game that aren’t because of the limitations of the console itself, or just subjective. I would love to see some sort of review in here.

    • Philip J Reed says:

      This is a massively flattering comment, so thank you!

      I have heard the Cookie Monster voice! It was in a youtube clip someone left in a comment here. I’ve also heard the German voice, which is shockingly gentle and makes ALF sound as docile as Winnie the Pooh. At some point I do want to do a brief article on the way ALF sounds between regions, as I think it’s fascinating, and probably says something about 1) the culture doing the dubbing and 2) the level of success the show enjoyed.

      Mega Man 2 would have been a damned good guess. But Majora’s Mask…well, don’t worry. I’ll definitely be writing something about it within the next two weeks for another outlet, and I’ll make sure it gets syndicated in some way here.

      Thanks for reading!

      • TaneZense says:

        I actually felt the same way when I heard Alf’s original voice (You know, Paul Fusco’s voice), I guess because I was so used to the grouchy voice of the Latin American Dub, which is weird because I don’t think there was much of a difference if you want to talk about every other character, at least as far as I remember, everyone on the Latin American dub sounded pretty similar to the original version, and I think it would be easier to imitate Fusco’s voice rather than go and try to give the character a completely different tone.

  • Mark Moore says:

    AVGN recently reviewed the “ALF” game for Sega Master System:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TCcB0iUvU_Y

  • kim says:

    sorry for not reading your reviews for a long time, but like you, with the holiday season and what not, your reviews kind of went to the back burner and kind of forgot about it, but I’m back to enjoy your writing! another well written review on the season as a whole. i agree with you that ALF is certainly a oddity of a sitcom show, it tried to so hard to be good and yet failed so awfully to do so at the same time and i can agree with you some what that ALF is a good case study of what does and does not work in a sitcom and I can agree with you on season two fleshed out the characters a hell of a lot more then season one did. glad that you thought season two was better then season one overall, but not sure I agree with you on most the episode being blend. to me, i found more episodes in season two memorable then season one, not to say a lot of episodes in season one didn’t stick out to me as well. anyway, glad to hear you are continuing with these reviews and i hope you make it to the very end because i would consider it a great accomplishment if someone like you actually managed to review all of ALF. even the most die-hard fans have not done that yet!



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