At the end of season one, I decided to do a character spotlight on Kate Tanner. It was an extremely easy decision, as Kate was the only Tanner with any character to spotlight. At the end of season two, the decision to spotlight Brian is just as easy, but for the opposite reason: he’s the only one still without character.
I alluded to this — vaguely — in my overall review of season two a couple of weeks ago. The three best episodes were all built around exploring one of the Tanners:
“Working My Way Back to You” – Kate
“Oh, Pretty Woman” – Lynn
“Night Train” – Willie
Notably absent is a similar episode about Brian. And I don’t mean absent from my list of favorites; I mean that one doesn’t actually exist.
The show’s relationship with Brian is an odd one. I knew that, but just how odd it was didn’t register with me until I was looking for screengrabs to use in this article. Unlike the other Tanners, Brian almost never gets a shot of his own. He’s always in frame with somebody else.
It’s an odd pattern, but, unfortunately for Benji Gregory, it makes sense. Brian doesn’t get the camera’s attention the way the rest of the cast does because he doesn’t do anything. Even when he’s sharing a frame it’s not because he’s toadying up like Smithers, tagging along like Butters, or scheming like Iago; he’s just there.
Brian went from being the potential heart of the show (see E.T. for the obvious template) to being a piece of furniture. Actually, that’s unfair; the furniture is featured far more prominently than he is.
And it’s fascinating to me for so, so many reasons.
It’s impossible for me to say why Brian became such a worthless (literally…in the sense that he has no value) character, but some thoughts do occur. On this blog a commenter whose name I can’t remember posited that they hired Benji Gregory because he was a cute kid…finding out too late that he was a lousy actor and were stuck with him.
I certainly can’t disprove that, and it makes enough sense, but that’s the truly weird part: they weren’t stuck with him. Whatever the reason Brian wasn’t working, they didn’t actually have to keep him around.
Television is littered with the transparent carcasses of abandoned characters. While soap operas in particular see characters come and go (and die and revive) all the time, sitcoms are by no means exempt from the practice. Chuck Cunningham, Richie’s older brother in Happy Days, is probably the most famous example. For a while he’s positioned as a main character. For a much longer while, he never existed. My own generation had a similar vanishing-sibling moment with Judy Winslow disappearing from Family Matters.
In both of those cases, it happened early on. These were characters who were built into the foundation of the show, but then, once the machine was running, they proved to be vestigial. The audience didn’t care about them, the stories didn’t require them, and the writers couldn’t think of anything to do with them. It can seem a little silly (and, if you’re in a particularly playful mood, sinister) that the members of someone’s immediate family can cease to be overnight and nobody asks questions, but if that one flash of logical impossibility occurs for the sake of making the show better as a whole, it’s easily worth the tradeoff.
Other times it happens later. The Brady Bunch infamously introduced Cousin Oliver to the show because the kids were running out of cuteness…but wisely abandoned him when the audience responded with a not-very-Brady “come the fuck on.” Then, down the line, the otherwise cynical Married…with Children aped the Cousin Oliver debacle while simultaneously failing to subvert it. Seven, like Oliver before him, was dropped with the sort of swiftness that resembles silent apology.
So Brian being tucked in at the end of season one and having what’s now a spare room claimed by ALF in season two isn’t out of bounds for the show. If anything, being erased from history would ironically be the most memorable thing Brian ever did.
And of course, you don’t have to make a character disappear in order to say goodbye to him. Great shows like The Office (both versions) and Breaking Bad crafted in-continuity farewells to characters for various reasons, from the death of an actor to a character having exhausted his or her utility.
And then we have examples like Gilligan’s Island and Red Dwarf, who recasted the same character, so that you might tune in next week to see a character you knew being played by an actor you didn’t.
I’m stepping back from ALF, I admit, but I’m doing so in order to make a point: the show is not stuck with Brian.
What’s frustrating is that it acts as though it is.
There are plenty of perfectly acceptable ways of shedding a character that isn’t working. I’ve listed some of them above, and I’m sure I’m missing one or two less common methods. If you begin a show expecting that a certain character will have a purpose that is proven not to exist as the show evolves, you can correct for that.
The really funny thing, though, is that it’s not as though Brian serves no purpose; it’s that the show was at first completely uninterested in exploring it, and later rendered it redundant by introducing Jake.
But I’ll get to that in a moment.
ALF, essentially, crippled itself right out of the gate by making the show not about the family, and not even about the title character, but about the zingers that the title character delivered to the family.
By now, thanks to the episodes listed above, we can rattle off a few character traits for 3/4 of the Tanners. Whether literally any of them will carry over into season three is anybody’s guess, but the fact that it took so long to catch even fleeting glimpses of character shows us that the writers — or, perhaps, just Paul Fusco — weren’t much interested in developing them.
What they were interested in was the stream of hilarious gobbledygook that could come out of ALF.
Which, oddly, causes the show to play like some kind of vanity piece for a stand-up comedian. You know the kind of show I mean; one that takes the comedian’s stage persona, craps it onto a sound stage, and figures that whatever schtick made him famous in the first place will carry the production on its own. Minimal effort, at best, is invested in translating it to a new medium.
It’s actually difficult for me to come up with a recognizable example of this. I’m sure you can name plenty of shows starring ex-standups, but the ones we remember, such as Seinfeld, The Drew Carey Show, or Roseanne, are remembered because they emphatically did not fall into that trap.
They built worlds that were populated with interesting (and rich) characters that had lives and objectives of their own. Perhaps most importantly, the “star” of each show almost never got the biggest laugh of the episode, or even most of the laughs. Other stand-up transplant shows — and there have been literal hundreds — took away the microphone and replaced it with some paper-thin supporting characters to deliver his monologues to, and that was that.
Do you remember The Jeff Foxworthy Show? That’s why.
ALF was not a stand-up comedian. Shit, ALF doesn’t even exist. And yet the show is constructed as though he does, and was. People will tune in every week, the writing staff believes, because they already love ALF. They’re familiar with his schtick, so that’s all we’ll give him.
Consequently, every episode is an excuse to get the alien tapdancing on stage, and if that means nobody else gets to do jack shit, then so be it.
In fairness, I certainly didn’t remember anything about the Tanners. That almost proves the worth of that mindset; if ALF is the only one anyone gives a shit about, why bother with the rest of these bozos? Of course, the reason nobody gave a shit about the rest of these bozos is that the writing staff never gave us a reason. Our appreciation for — and enjoyment of — any given character is not innate; it’s something an audience develops because a show earns it.
ALF, surprising no-one, has that backward.
The Tanners are only sounding boards for ALF’s non-existent stand up comedy hits. If ALF wants to make jokes about somebody being nerdy, he’s got Willie. If ALF wants to make jokes about someone being bitchy, he’s got Kate. If ALF wants to make jokes about sexually assaulting underaged girls, he’s got Lynn.
This is also why — in spite of us being reminded frequently that it’s crucial to keep ALF secret — he keeps meeting people.
Like, all the fuckin’ time.
He needs to keep meeting them, otherwise they’d have no business in this show. Again, it’s not a show about ALF…it’s a show about the things ALF says to people, and the self-congratulatory pre-recorded laughter of dead idiots that love him for it.
So, back to Brian. It’s not difficult to see why having a young boy around would provide comic fodder for ALF to play off of. And the show certainly realizes that, because as soon as it gave up on Brian it brought in another little boy to replace him.
Brian’s tragedy isn’t that he doesn’t fit into the show. Brian’s tragedy is that the show refuses to either do anything with him or write him out. And so he’s stuck in this bizarre, almost painful purgatory, where we have to watch him dress in silly costumes, sit quietly in the corner, and do nothing else.
His character arc is roughly that of a soggy paper towel’s. He ends season two no better off than he opened season one, and with one exception — which I’ll get to in a moment — nobody on the writing staff has even tried to give him something to do.
The boy-and-his-alien trope should be right at home here. Indeed, it’s the very first thing that comes to mind with a concept like ALF‘s. I’d even be very tempted to assume that’s why Brian was created to begin with.
Yet that suspicion falls at the first hurdle, as there are no boy/alien storylines to bear it out.
A few token gestures toward bonding (Brian laughs at ALF’s jokes, sits next to him while he watches Gilligan’s Island, and is ostensibly sad when he almost leaves) are all we get. As far as seeing them grow into any kind of relationship — at all — we get nothing. It’s not a boy and his alien…it’s a boy, and it’s an alien.
Judging by what we see rather than what we’re told we should be seeing, neither cares if the other lives or dies.
This was almost made up for toward the end of season one, back in “Aspara Gonna Hate” or whatever that shitty episode was called. For the first time, Brian had a plot, and steps — it seemed — were being made to flesh him out. We paid a visit to his school, gave him an antagonist, and had ALF spin some bullshit about a magical tooth he’d never mentioned before and hasn’t mentioned since.
It seemed, briefly, like Brian was being woven back into the show that nearly forgot he existed.
I know “Pennsylvania 6-5000” must come to mind as an earlier example for some of you, but as much as that might sound like a Brian episode, the kid hardly did anything. He took the fall for ALF’s terroristic threats to national security, and was commended for threatening to blow up the Commander in Chief, but even there, as everywhere, he was just set dressing.
Things happened around him. Not to or because of him.
So the Asparagus Follies was it. The high point for this character was dancing around and singing some awful song about veggies that make your pee smell.
It was somehow all downhill from there.
And, frankly, that’s also when Brian’s mercy killing should have come.
We ended the first season with one lone misfire for the character. The ideas for season two are being spitballed. None of them involve Brian. Several of them involve his replacement, Jake. This is the time to ship him off to Aunt Bonnie, to whom we will never refer again.
But that doesn’t happen. We still have Brian here, in the house, in every episode. This implies that they might have a reason for him being there, but fifty episodes into this shit and it’s clear that they really don’t.
Twice in season two it seems like we just might get some last minute attempts to do something with the kid, but each time it’s just a tease.
First, it’s “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog,” which opens on Brian enamored with a stray dog, and then spends irrelevant twenty minutes reminding us that Anne Ramsey was not very attractive. Then there’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” in which Brian is tormented by a bully and then promptly disappears from his own narrative. Even the conclusion to this plot is delivered by Lynn, while Brian is literally nowhere to be found.
If they don’t want the kid around, why oh why are they keeping the kid around?
At this point, it’s becoming irritating. There are problems with Jake as a character, but he’s superior to Brian in what’s probably the most important way: if he has nothing to do with the story, he doesn’t need to make an appearance.
That means we aren’t subjected to Jake dressing up like a bellhop or impersonating Ted Koppel. He’s not great by any means, but at least he can disappear when the story doesn’t need him.
It honestly seems cruel to keep Brian around while Jake takes away his role and macks on his sister, but the writers may not even realize that. It’s Brian’s portion of the opening credits, remember, that features an embarrassing shot of the set’s lighting rig; and I think it was Sarah Portland here who observed that this was emblematic of how little they cared about the kid as a whole.
Seeing him cursed to amble through this world he no longer occupies, I can’t disagree. It says a lot when the most memorable thing about him this season was the abject horror I felt when I realized they had a puppet blindly pitching glass at him from across the room.
It’s probably also worth mentioning how almost every time we see this kid, he looks fucking miserable.
Benji Gregory’s not a good enough actor to be doing that deliberately, as some sort of improvised character tic. He just sincerely hates being a part of ALF.
This show often reminds me of Jim Henson’s various productions. Specifically, it reminds me just how much better they are. In this case, I remember reading a long time ago about children visiting the sets on shooting days. In the case of Sesame Street this may have been because they were actually going to be featured in a segment, but with The Muppet Show it was just a treat for the kids.
Apparently between takes the Muppeteers would often pick up a Muppet and interact one on one with the young visitors. The interesting thing was that the kids would always focus on the Muppet, and speak to it as though it was alive. The fact that Jim Henson, Richard Hunt, Frank Oz, Jerry Nelson, Dave Goelz, or whomever else was clearly visible, lips moving, hand(s) operating the Muppet meant nothing; the experience of interacting with this character was magical, and the kids adored it.
Looking at Benji Gregory’s face in any given episode, I can only imagine that the experience of getting to interact with ALF was leagues removed from doing so with Kermit, The Count, Cookie Monster, or Gonzo.
It’s sad. Brian Tanner is living every little boy’s dream — in a situational sense — but he’s stuck with writers who aren’t capable of bringing that out…or even giving him any identifiable, let alone memorable, traits.
I’m pretty sure that, depending on the week, I’ve argued that the heart of this show should either be the relationship between ALF and Willie or between ALF and Brian. And, honestly, I can’t decide which it should be. But the fact that they haven’t even tried to explore the myriad possibilities of the latter pairing is a glaring, almost obnoxious waste of potential.
Brian should be captivated by this creature. He should be fawning over him. ALF, in return, should be bonding with him, seeing a new world through fresh eyes.
Either ALF or Brian could serve as the sidekick, depending upon the plot. ALF has more experience and knowledge than Brian does, but Brian’s been on Earth much longer and has a better understanding of its customs and mores.
ALF should be dazzling Brian, regaling him with stories (both real and fabricated) of his life on another fucking planet.
And yet, Brian doesn’t care. He takes no more interest than anybody else does, because ALF isn’t an alien. He’s a hacky standup comic that’s been given a platform upon which to parade his ego.
There’s a long list of crimes of which ALF is guilty, but failing to either take advantage of this ready-made character or to put it out of its misery is one of the worst. It’s beyond incompetent; it’s narratively unethical.
We’ll see what season three (and…uh…season four…) have to say, but right now I feel confident writing Brian off. If they didn’t find a reason for him to exist in the first 50 episodes, I can’t imagine they’ll make up for it in the next 50.
And that’s sad. ALF is a show that needs more characters. More actual characters, that is; not just people who show up and recite some shitty dialogue.
For them to put a bullet in this kid before even trying to do anything with him…well, that’s just cruel.