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ALF Reviews: “Stairway to Heaven” (season 3, episode 2)

January 22nd, 2015 | Posted by Philip J Reed in alf

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

I have no idea what this episode’s supposed to be about, but judging from the title I’m going to guess that Willie finally finds the sweet release of death, only for ALF to build a stairway to heaven and drag him back down to this miserable, tortured existence.

It opens with an angle on the back yard that I don’t think we’ve ever seen before, and, as you can guess by now, I like it when the show does things like this. The reason is that it’s so easy to simply sit behind a camera and film a scene straight on, especially in a sitcom where there’s going to be more static dialogue than dynamic action. For a shot like this — unnecessary, unique, attention-grabbing — to exist, it’s because somebody, somewhere, decided that instead of just needing to shoot a scene, the scene needed to be shot like this.

That’s the kind of attention and care that I appreciate whenever I notice it…but, to be frank, I tend to notice it more in shitty sitcoms than I do in shows that are regularly inventive. Take Breaking Bad, for example. I could rattle off 20 times the camera work impressed me, but I’m sure another 80 of them slid right past me because the show was so well treated visually that great stuff slipped by without always drawing attention to itself. When a show establishes itself as being visually interesting, “it’s still visually interesting” won’t grab attention. By contrast, every fucking time the camera so much as moves in ALF I fall out of my chair because it’s so unexpected.

And consider what this angle does for the show: it expands its setting. Really, it does. It still looks like a set, but it looks like a set that was built to be this yard of this family in this city. I’ve never been to L.A., but the sunlight, the vegetation, the tiny yard that results from high land demand in a quiet part of the city…it convinces me. Whether or not the Tanners live in the same L.A. as anyone does in the real world is irrelevant, as long as we believe they live in some identifiable version of L.A.

It’s not just a fence and some AstroTurf; it’s the result of somebody thinking about what this particular family’s yard would look like. And I love that.

Everything we see here speaks a little more about the family — who they are — than almost any line of dialogue we’ve heard in the show yet. The limited space for a garden (forget the fact that ALF once ran a plantation back here…seriously, forget it). The collection of pots from plants long dead or relocated. The glasses of iced tea on a tiny table, with ancient little benches that don’t match. The fact that nobody put away the lawnmower…and the ancillary fact that Willie didn’t kick in the extra $30 for one that ran on fuel.

I could write a story about this screengrab that would be if not better than at least more interesting than any given episode of ALF. I’m not bragging; I’m merely trying to draw attention to how much can be achieved with a single frame of an episode when somebody — anybody — puts effort into it.

The opening scene itself is nothing great, but it’s promising enough, and there’s a little moment that makes me fall in love with Andrea Elson.

See, Willie announces (in a convincingly dad-like way) that he and Kate are going to compete against the reigning Tanner croquet champions, Brian and Lynn. The stage directions, I’m sure, instructed the two kids to do exactly what they do: one of those high fives that then continues with a second low five behind the back.

The stage directions, I’m also sure, didn’t outline what happens next. Brian doesn’t quite manage that behind the back bit, and it throws off the routine. Andrea Elson smiles, puts her arm around him, and pulls him close in a reassuring gesture. You know…like a sister who cares about her little brother.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

Benji Gregory looked foolish on the sound stage, and Brian Tanner looked foolish in the backyard. Andrea Elson and Lynn Tanner both cared enough about the little guy’s feelings, though, that this tiny improv is just lovely.

You know, the more I watch, the more I’m starting to believe that the sweet relationship Lynn forged with ALF over the past season was less due to the writing and more due to Elson herself. Moments like this make me feel as though she wants this show to work, and that kind of warm optimism carries over into her performance as Lynn.

I don’t know; it’s hard to say for sure. Either way, I’m glad to have her there. Anne Schedeen might have the talent in this sitcom family, but Andrea Elson has the heart.

Anyway, because we’re watching ALF this nice little scene ends with our titular dickbag intentionally shattering Willie’s shin with a croquet mallet.

Fuck you, that’s why.

The family helps Willie into the house while ALF reflects on the fact that today he broke Willie’s windshield, then Willie’s power saw, and now he broke Willie. It’s the kind of thing that probably looks funnier written down than it played in the episode, maybe because there was no real reason for ALF to knowingly assault this man with a blunt instrument in the first place.

ALF then wonders what life would be like if he’d never come to Earth and accidentally conks himself on the head with the croquet mallet, so I guess I know exactly what kind of episode this is going to be. Lucky us. If it’s one thing we know ALF does so well by this point, it’s fucking fantasy sequences.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

The show proper opens interestingly enough, with ALF rubbing his head and entering the dining area. The Tanners are eating without him, and for a while it seems as though they’re just ignoring him to teach him a lesson. (A concept South Park had brilliant fun with in “The Death of Eric Cartman;” one of my personal favorites.) The family’s stilted, just-too-proper conversation seems to support this, so I was genuinely surprised when…

Well, wait. I don’t want to get to that just yet, because ALF actually has some pretty good lines(!) while he’s trying to get them to pay attention to him. He first tries to get their sympathy because he took a blow that could have knocked out Mike Tyson. “Alright,” he admits. “Cicely Tyson.” Then, as he grows more frustrated, he declares, “Well, excuse me for bleeding.”

I have to admit, ALF not being the center of attention is actually jarring, and in a very good way. This is not something we’re used to seeing, and it’s actually pretty funny to see him floundering like this. For better or worse, whenever he speaks, everyone in the scene usually snaps to attention. The spotlight — always — is on this guy, which both hampers development of any other characters and causes him to become grating and repetitious. To subvert that is to shake up the closest thing this show has to an identifiable formula, and I really like it.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

…but it’s not that. The episode is going in another direction, and we’ll get dragged along screaming behind it.

Of course, the fact that the plot doesn’t go that one way isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are thousands of ways this premise could play out, and I’d say all of them could at least potentially be worth exploring. But when we cut to Bob the Guardian Angel informing ALF that his wish has been granted, we know we’re firmly in fantasy land, and that feels like a cop out.

Bob is played by Joseph Maher, whom I was sure I’d seen in more things than I could possibly count. His IMDB page supports that suspicion, with roles in a massive number of shows, from MASH to Chicago Hope. They were always small parts, as far as I can tell, but he had a long career full of interesting detours. Most fascinating to me is something called Passages from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, which seems to be a very loose attempt to adapt the unadaptable. (“Unadaptable” is often used as an exaggeration, but being as Finnegans Wake is arguably unreadable I think it’s perfectly fair to use the word here.)

He shows up and explains that due to the Capra Amendment, everyone who wishes for a new life gets one. It’s name-dropping the director of It’s a Wonderful Life. Spinning a plotline out of that film was a bit of a tired premise even back when this episode aired, so “Stairway to Heaven” is not about to score any points for originality.

That’s especially true when you consider that ALF already dipped into that well last season, when Our Alien Savior talked a suicidal man named George out of jumping off a bridge on Christmas Eve.

This means that ALF himself is in a very unique position, as I’m not sure any other character in TV history has experienced this story from the perspective of both the guardian angel and the guy visited by the guardian angel. I guess ALF’s writers were uniquely disinterested in what they were doing.

Also, since there’s no Christmas episode this season, why wasn’t “Stairway to Heaven” just retooled to be one? It’s already leaning heavily on a common holiday trope. How odd that it’s attached to a croquet plot instead of a yuletide one.

Whatever. ALF doesn’t believe a word of this guardian angle shit, and tries to convince the Tanners to talk to him, but Bob says it’s useless, and advises him to look in the mirror.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

Seeing neither himself nor Bob reflected, ALF says, “Strange! I thought I broke that mirror.”

The fake audience of dead people doesn’t laugh, and I have no idea why. It’s a really good line. Genuinely funny and, I have to admit, clever. But because the laugh track doesn’t kick in, maybe we’re supposed to be worried that ALF’s been erased from existence or something. I have no idea.

This show so rarely has a solid punchline like this that I’m baffled as to why they didn’t give it a laugh. Maybe laughs are only for truly clever things, like ALF beating Willie half to death with a croquet mallet in the yard.

ALF tells Bob that the poor Tanners must be miserable without him, and we cut to Willie gushing about how perfect their lives are, which is timed perfectly and manages to be funnier than it strictly should be. The family then proceeds to revel in how much extra money they have and how happy they are, culminating with Kate swooning over “this big house with no aliens living in it.”

It’s such an absurdly specific line that I couldn’t help but laugh, and though it goes on too long I also like ALF laying into Bob for that one, arguing “You made them say that!”

Ultimately Bob tells ALF to stop fucking around; he’s going to take him…somewhere else.

And that’s very intriguing to me. After all, if you’re going to show ALF (and the audience) what the world is like without its favorite intergalactic sex pest, I’d think you’d be pretty much limited to the fucking living room. So when Bob says they’re taking a trip, my ears perk up.

What’s Bob going to show us? How different Willie’s workplace is? We didn’t know anything about it to begin with, so that’s out.

How differently Brian and Lynn act at school? Again, what are they like at school? We have no idea. We’ve never even met their friends, so there aren’t any conclusions we can draw.

How much different Kate’s daily routine becomes? We didn’t know what it was when ALF was around, so how would we pick up on anything different when he’s not? Maybe she sucks up fewer shitballs with the Dustbuster. Aside from that? Who knows.

A reality-manipulating premise like this can be a lot of fun, but only if there’s a reality to manipulate. That, of course, is where ALF falls down. Instead of getting excited about all the silly things we are about to see, we instead concentrate on how little room for fun there is to be had.

Indeed, “Stairway to Heaven” validates those concerns. It’s the clearest example yet that ALF limited its own potential by not giving a shit about anything but ALF.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

Before they can leave, the doorbell rings. It’s Brian’s friends. (“Brian has friends?!” exclaim both ALF and I in unison.) Bob explains that he couldn’t have friends when ALF was here, because they’d never be allowed to come over. It’s a more palatable but less honest way of saying “The writers never gave two shits about this kid, and it was easier to pretend he didn’t exist than to give him any peers.”

The non-existent anonymous neighborhood kids disappear into the back yard to see Brian’s new pool slide. ALF comments that the yard isn’t big enough for a pool, and Bob says that the Tanners bought the Ochmoneks’ house and demolished it.

Which means…

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

Oh, good. It’s nice to see that Willie and Co. still treat the Ochmoneks like the scum of the Earth, even in this Perfect World fantasy.

Yep, the Ochmoneks live in the servants’ quarters and dote on these assholes all day. I guess it’s only fair, since the Tanners were kind enough to destroy their house for the sake of installing a swimming pool.

I’ll never understand the way this show treats the Ochmoneks. They’re nosy and a bit uncouth, but they’ve never been anything but nice to the Tanners, many times overly so. Again, if the joke was that Willie was such a prick that he couldn’t overcome his totally unfounded hatred (see, as ever, Homer and Flanders), that would be fine, because it would demonstrate some amount of self-awareness on the part of the writing staff.

Instead, there is none. We are supposed to hate them…and I honestly have no idea why. What a terrible fucking show.

Speaking of which…

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

Angel Bob takes ALF to see what his life is like without the Tanners. Because the world doesn’t and never did exist outside of the living room set, we’re taken to a cosmetics factory, because fuuuuuuuuuuuuck youuuuuuuuuuuu.

There’s a sign in the establishing shot that I can’t quite read. I was hoping against hope that it said Terry Faith Cosmetics, just to provide some amount of continuity with that otherwise completely disposable episode, but nope. Angel Bob informs us that it’s Cosmique Cosmetics.

These two run out the clock by talking back and forth in non-humorous circles about the boss of Cosmique Cosmetics, drawing it out long and painfully enough that you know what the big reveal is going to be far before Angel Bob takes them into the boss’s office…

…at which point the boss has his back turned to the camera and they still shit out vague, repetitive nuggets of nothing about who the boss might be.

Eventually an end is put to this daring experiment in anti-suspense, and we see who it is!

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

Oh mercy me! I never would have guessed it would turn out to be ALF, even though the entire reason Angel Bob brought ALF here was to show him what he was doing with his life without the Tanners.

So we get another unintentional nod to “Keepin’ the Faith” (or, rather, another unintentional reminder that the writers have no recollection of anything they’ve already done) when we have ALF selling makeup over the phone.

Yep. If you thought an idea like that was a waste of an episode in a show about a space alien, then you’re bound to throw up your hands in defeat when you see that it was actually a waste of two episodes!

This, honestly, could have been okay. It could have worked. Let’s say, for instance, that this was Terry Faith Cosmetics. In reality, back in that bukake happy episode, ALF was some lowly salesman working for the company. Here, maybe Angel Bob is showing him that he owns the company. That could be pretty cool…seeing old events from the show through a new filter, and illustrating how different ALF’s lot in life is by a simple flash of contrast.

Not that ALF’s makeup salesman days need to be revisited for any reason, but I think the idea could be sound. Explore old plot details with the twist that ALF is now the man on top. Instead of writing for that shitty soap opera, maybe he’s acting in it. Instead of burning the hotel down, he’s the manager kicking the Tanners out for fucking with the toaster. Again, the lack of anything interesting in this show’s history means none of those specific ideas sound very appealing, but it could at least be an interesting concept.

Certainly more interesting than blindly robbing “Keepin’ the Faith” and “ALF’s Special Christmas” in one fell swoop with nobody involved even realizing it.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

We get some long, pointless explanation of how rich ALF is, and then he calls in two of his assistants who sit on his desk and cross their legs. The audience laughs uproariously at the absurd thought that ALF would be sexually harassing adults for once.

Then Angel Bob goes into an even longer explanation of how ALF got the job. I’ll skip over most of the names-of-celebrities-substituting-for-jokes and just say that instead of crashing into the Tanners’ garage, he crashed into the makeup department at Bloomingdales. His radiator fluid leaked into some bottles (we’ve all been there, right??) and it turned out to be the most popular fragrance in the history of whatever who cares.

ALF wonders how he’s able to operate in public without the Alien Task Force jamming needles up his urethra. Angel Bob explains that ALF paid off the national debt with his fortunes, so the president called them off. How ALF managed to amass those fortunes without the Alien Task Force jamming needles up his urethra remains unaddressed.

I do have one thing nice to say about this scene: ParallALF is referred to by his assistants as “Mr. Shumway.” This might seem odd if you remember the fact that he doesn’t like his name, and prefers to be called ALF. However, since Willie is the one who gave him that name in the first place, and he’s never met Willie in this reality, he’s stuck with being Gordon Shumway.

I don’t know if this was intentional, and I slightly doubt it. But that doesn’t matter; accidentally or not, it’s a nice — unaddressed — nod to the show’s continuity.

Regardless, I kind of love the fact that the Tanners, as little as Paul Fusco is interested in acknowledging them whenever ALF pops up somewhere else, are inextricably woven into the character. He wouldn’t even have his name if not for them, and I find that hilarious. Neither party can truly be free of the other.

Anyway, ALF pops a boner and says, “Yeah, this is better than humping Willie’s leg while he sleeps, I’ll take this life plz.”

It’s easy to see how limited ALF is. Take better shows, and frame a plot around the “what if?” that comes from two main characters having never met. What if Felix Unger never met Oscar Madison? What if Radar never met Henry Blake? What if Homer never met Marge? What if Gilligan never met the Skipper? What if Billy Quizboy never met Pete White? So many ideas come from those simple what-ifs, and, indeed, many shows have toyed with it.

Here, the “what if” is ALF having never met the Tanners. And because none of the characters involved in that scenario have anything like personalities, hopes, dreams, defining traits, fears, secrets, ambitions, worries, or anything else that actual people have, the answer is “I dunno, maybe ALF has a lot of money.”

It’s not a failure of imagination in itself…it’s a reflection of the failure of imagination in all 51 of the preceding episodes.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

Angel Bob snaps his fingers and they go to Heaven or some shit. I guess they need to stop there so that Bob can fill out the necessary paperwork for ALF’s new life, which I’m willing to allow as a logistical necessity, but why did anyone think that a good idea for a scene in a fantasy episode — in which the characters can go literally anywhere and do literally anything — would be watching an elderly man slowly peck things out on a typewriter?

ALF is on hand to keep the audience rolling in the aisles, which he does by name-dropping more celebrities for no reason — hello, Sheena Easton and Kelly LeBrock! — and incessantly quoting songs (he’s seen clouds from “both sides now,” tee hee, and he later yells at Michael Landon to “get offa my cloud!” in an unwelcome combination of both kinds of non-jokes).

Then he’s informed that he won’t remember the Tanners in his new life, and he gets all weepy eyed because he’ll miss them. Which is a pretty odd development in an episode that opened with him clubbing the family patriarch senseless.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

Bob agrees to take ALF down to see the Tanners one last time.

Things sure are different! Willie smokes a much more legal kind of pipe, Kate plays chess, Brian plays golf, and Lynn plays the bassoon. A real one…not “the purple bassoon” she got a reputation for playing in high school.

There’s a lot of hammy nonsense with their too-formal speech and shit like that, and Willie tells a joke to Kate that I think only exists because they could count on Max Wright’s strained delivery to pad the episode out by another six minutes, and then ALF concludes that the Tanners are boring without him.

Anyway Mrs. Ochmonek burps.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

Fortunately ALF awakens from this nightmare in which everyone is happy and he’s not the center of attention. Whew! I was getting worried that somebody might learn something.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

If you look at that screengrab and don’t immediately conclude that it turns into an extended Wizard of Oz pastiche you’re a fucking idiot.

ALF recites a bunch of lines from that film instead of any of the horse shit his own writers might come up with while Willie does to most awkward half-squat in television history.

Then, because the episode isn’t quite over, ALF recites a bunch of euphemisms for being dead, such as buying the box condo, and taking a dirt nap. When he’s done he smashes a glass of water on the floor as a big fuck you to the family.

Thanks for watching!!

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

The short scene before the credits actually has a pretty clever idea: ALF calls Bloomingdales and tries to sell them on the idea of his radiator fluid perfume. It’s a perfectly okay way to end an otherwise kind of craptastic episode. After all, he already saw how rich he can get off of this stuff, so even though it’s a dumbass idea it’s not — in his mind — without precedent. I like it.

It’s funny enough, and would have been a great way to end the episode, except that — totally out of character for this show — it gets funnier.

We hear Kate scream as she’s getting ready for date night with Willie, and then she steps back out into the living room.

ALF, "Stairway to Heaven"

I’m sure the writers thought that the sight gag of blue ink everywhere was the big reason this ending worked, but you and I, dear reader, know a lot better. We know it works because Anne Schedeen burns fucking holes through that puppet.

ALF might have been a big pile of shit, but in terms of pure hatred from a sitcom mother, it’s got a clear monopoly.

So, yeah. For such an “out there” episode, it sure didn’t stray very far from its weekly norm. I think it says a lot that the show opened it up for the kind of plotline that would allow the writers to do anything…and they decided to put ALF in a suit and call it a day.

Sometimes I wonder if ALF is some brilliant experiment in self-parodic anti-comedy. I wonder it while I’m eating lunch.

Alone.

MELMAC FACTS: On Melmac croquet was called Mucksucking, and it was the most popular sport. It was played similarly to the way we play it on Earth, but it required four newlywed couples and Bob Eubanks. (That’s a Newlywed Game reference, I know, but commuting to Melmac must have been hell on that guy.)

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7 Responses

  • Stephen says:

    There is a behind the scenes video of the taping of the Heaven sequence. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQJRvMhKWsA Apparently it took over 2 hours. And the dry ice/fog used was making it super difficult for Paul and the other puppeteers to breathe so it looks like oxygen masks were supplied. As you can see they even gave the ol’ ALFer one at one point. In the final cut you can hear it in ALF’s voice how it was hard to breathe, especially when he says “I’m seeing those from both sides now.” There’s also another video posted by the same user of this video, from an episode in season 4. I think ALF had gone to live with Willie’s brother Neal or something. He’s in a few episodes in S4 and it’s a continuing arc. Not sure how these people got a hold of those tapes. Someone who worked on the show might have put them on ebay awhile back.

    Didn’t Kate say that she just felt the urge to see something break at the end of ALF’s dream sequence?

    • The thing that strikes me is Fusco laughing about how other people down working in the dry ice are breathing their lungs out like he is. Did he just not realize how utterly miserable every other human being in that production was or did he just get off on making other people miserable?

      Points for him being down there himself, but if it’s going to cause half a dozen people misery just so you don’t see the back of Fusco’s head, maybe frame the scene differently or don’t use cheap effects that will kill your staff.

  • Brandon Lake says:

    I would have been happier if the other life the angle showed alf had him living with the Ochmoneks in some small apartment after living with alf drained them so dry they were forced to sell the tanners their home and move someplace cheaper.

  • Sarah Portland says:

    *reads first few paragraphs of review* “Oh, God. “Angel Bob”? That’s slightly terrifying… fuck, dude. I wish Angel Bob would eat ALF… no, then we’d get stuck with a Weeping Angel that has Paul Fusco’s voice. Screw that.”

    “Here, the “what if” is ALF having never met the Tanners. And because none of the characters involved in that scenario have anything like personalities, hopes, dreams, defining traits, fears, secrets, ambitions, worries, or anything else that actual people have, the answer is “I dunno, maybe ALF has a lot of money.””
    No, writers. What you meant to write was “ALF discovers that the Tanners are better off without him, but that he is now in the hands of the Alien Task Force, receiving all kinds of daily anal probes and whatnot. ALF realizes that he actually has it pretty good with the Tanners, and feels crappy about how he treats them and their property, and requests to go back to them, determined to do right by them this time.”
    THAT is how one executes the Capra Amendment correctly.

  • kim says:

    yeah, I have mixed feelings about this episode, I like the concept and idea behind it, but I think it was not executed that good. giving ALF an alternate reality of just being rich and famous by selling cosmetics does show how limited the show really is, but again, I think it mostly to blame on the writers and the budget. it does make me wonder of the writers did have better ideas, but considered whether in it in their budget or not to do those things.either way what we got was kind the simplest way they could do this story.
    plus the show kind of got the idea behind the “what if” scenero wrong, the alternate reality life is suppose to be worse then the life the person previous had to make the person appreciate that life even more. but no, the show gets it backwards, ALF’s alternate life ends up being better then the life he had with the tanners and the only reason ALF wants his old life back because he thinks the tanners would be disgustingly boring without him.
    also the screencap of brian with a golf club just made me think of something, what kind of kid plays golf?! shouldn’t a kid at his age be into playing video games, had a lot of toys and hanging out with his friends a lot, not playing the most boring sport ever created in existence. I guess the writers figured just make him look fancy and that he plays golf a lot because that is what rich people do!

  • FelixSH says:

    Man, this post is full of great shots.

    Is Brian (or, more interestingly, Benji) smiling in the one with Lynn? Like, genuinly? That hasn’t happened since…dunno, the pilot?
    I always liked Lynn. Maybe it’s because Elyson is a nice person and brings that into her role as Lynn.

    The one where Brian is holding the golf club encapsulates everything we need to know about Willie. Just look at him, with the smug face he is making. The pipe isn’t helping either, and I can’t help but thinking that he should have traded the glasses for a monocel.

    The last shot is great too. I bet Schedeen was super-pissed that she had all this blue garbage on her (additionally to be on the show at all), and put all her hatred into that look.

  • Mark Moore says:

    Sounds like an episode-long version of that “ALF in government custody” scene – with a bunch of non-existent characters that don’t matter.



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