Long-time followers of this series (and this blog (…and me…)) know that shit happens. I’ll forget to schedule a post, I’ll run out of time to write something, I’ll get sidetracked by another project. The ALF Reviews series is something I really do try hard to keep up with, whether or not it looks that way on your end. I try…so hard.
“Promises, Promises” represents a significant first, then. It didn’t go live last week when it was supposed to, but time, for once, wasn’t the issue. I had all of my screengrabs, all of my notes, and the only thing I had to do was sit down and write about it.
The problem was that “Promises, Promises” was such a shitty, insulting, disturbing, disgusting piece of television that I couldn’t write about it. I needed a break from it. I honestly had to step away for a few days and forget how utterly miserable it made me feel. That’s the first time I’ve had to do that with an episode of ALF. And as you know how little I already enjoy episodes of ALF, this should be telling you something.
“Promises, Promises” is a wreck beyond all comprehension. I’ve come out of television shows feeling despair before (hello, “Ozymandias“), but this is a fucking sitcom. Its worst crime should be that it isn’t funny. That’s also a fairly regular crime for ALF, so I’m almost immune to it. Weeks pass and I look back on some reviews and wonder why I didn’t tear certain episodes an even larger ass hole…but the reason is that I’m used to this show sucking. I don’t think I’ve softened over time…I think I’ve just realized that certain aspects of the show aren’t worth bothering with.
Oh, “Promises, Promises.” How ever did you manage to give me too much to bother with?
I honestly can’t promise you that I’ll do this one justice. I’ll try, certainly…but articulating my feelings about this episode isn’t going to be easy.
Either way…enough stalling. Let’s talk about the episode.
One good thing: after the two-parter we just finished, we’re back to standalone stories. Until next week, at least, when we start another two-parter. For fuck’s sake, ALF. Give me something to be happy about, will you?
Actually, ALF does. The episode opens with the family playing Scrabble; I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I like it when the family does family things. It’s not often that this show remembers that these people are supposed to be related, and, you know, should probably interact now and again. So when it does remember, and when it has the characters saying more than “Gordon Shumway is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful extra-terrestrial being I’ve ever known in my life,” I start paying attention. Sometimes it’s even worth it.
Here, I confess, it is.
ALF plays a word and earns two triple word scores, using all of his letters in the process. Brian, savvier than he’s ever been (not to mention more talkative), dismisses the unfamiliar word as being Melmackian. ALF asks, “So?”
Big whoop, right? ALF played an imaginary word and now we’ll get some interstellar standup about about how things are so much different on Soviet Melmac.
But…no! The word ALF plays is “quidnunc.” My spell check doesn’t believe me, but it’s a real word. I couldn’t begin to tell you where I learned that (probably a Word-of-the-Day calendar, because, honestly, where the fuck else would it be?) but I was all ready to lay into ALF for not knowing that this was actually a word.
The joke works on a lot of levels. Well, a few levels. But anything more than one level is a lot for ALF.
First, it’s the word itself, which is silly. It means one who enjoys gossip. Not a very common word and certainly one that’s bound to win you a Scrabble game of your own. The fact that ALF of all characters played this word is a pretty good joke in itself.
The second level is the family’s reaction. They haven’t heard the word before, but based on ALF’s historical behavior, they call alien shenanigans. We only spend 25 minutes per week with this guy…but they see him every waking minute of the day. If we think he launches into Melmackian nonsense a bit too often, you can imagine how sick of it they must be. It makes sense that by this point, after so much time has passed, they’d be quick to call him on his bullshit and shut it down.
The real punchline comes, though, with the third level of comedy: everyone is surprised, ALF included, when Willie finds it in the dictionary. It really was a Melmackian term, ALF says. He was just trying to be a dick. He had no idea the English language had the same word. (The meaning, at least, is different: there it meant “one who wears meat.”)
My favorite level of comedy here, I’m sure, is unintentional. After ALF admits it’s not an English word (or foreign word that’s been adopted into regular English usage), it’s as good as out of play. That’s how Scrabble works.
But Willie looks it up in the dictionary anyway, because it was challenged rather than dismissed. I don’t think this is deliberate characterization, but it’s good characterization all the same. Of course Willie’s going to consult a reference book even when he doesn’t have to. Those are the rules, and he’s a fucking dork. (I mean that with love this time, Willie; I’d have done the exact same thing.)
“Promises, Promises” is off to a good start. If only the episode had ended right here.
Obviously, it doesn’t, and the incoming cascade of shit is heralded by Lynn entering the living room and telling Brian that his hamster has developed a foot fetish and is currently masturbating inside one of her shoes. He runs off to masturbate into the other, and then we get an exchange that has me conflicted.
See, the episode is about Lynn dating. Fine. But what we set up here — again, probably not deliberately — is a much better episode on that topic than what we actually get.
Lynn is waiting for her date to arrive, and Willie assumes she’s going to see Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and get some pizza. But Lynn corrects him: they’re seeing The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and they’re going to have sushi.
The way her parents recoil just enough, and in silence, drives home very well the idea that Lynn is growing up. Something has changed, and lots of other things are about to as well. The daughter they knew is now a choice of movie and dinner closer to the door.
It’s good. At least it would be, if this was what the episode was actually trying to tell us.
Then Willie says, “Say hi to Patchouli for us.”
At least, that’s what I think he said. Max Wright took elocution lessons from a jammed blender, so it sounds more like “FffsaahyaaAAit-pp-zhjewly ffhhurruss.” Patchouli is my best guess.
It turns out, though, that she’s seeing a guy named Eddie, and her parents get upset because they’ve never met Eddie. I got news for you, Tanners, you’ve never met most of the guys Lynn’s been with. And if this one’s springing for sushi, I’d encourage her to keep him around for a while.
Lynn doing the prime time equivalent of hopping into bed with anyone who asks has been an aspect of her character since before she was a character, so I don’t know why hearing the name “Eddie” makes these idiots freak out the way they do. She’s not with Patchouli anymore — whoever that was — but so what? She’s not with Lizard, or Duckworth, or Chunk, or Sneezy, or Zits, or Pimple, or Rash anymore either. Surely the mention of a new boyfriend isn’t anywhere near enough to set them off like this. She’s always with someone new. Wouldn’t they be going apeshit every three or four days?
Lynn’s evolution as a character has been probably the most satisfying thing to witness through these episodes, so it’s disappointing now that the show is flip-flopping with her. Sweeping away all of that pesky character growth that made her interesting, we’re back at the blank teenage girl we met in season one. And that’s all the evidence we need that the show itself wasn’t aware the character’s growth. It was a happy accident, and now, knowingly or not, we’re going to squash it like a bug.
She was all over town with guys, then she was with Lizard for a while, then she was getting married, then she wasn’t, and then she was over that by the end of the episode, and now she’s…who knows?
I sure don’t. And that’s damned disappointing, because with the exception of a few fumbles along the way, I honestly had a feeling I knew what to expect of Lynn Tanner. The joke’s on me, I guess; every week the writers just do with her whatever they feel like doing, and I’m the schmoe who thinks he sees a character arc in the way the pieces fall.
Anyway, I haven’t talked about Eddie himself. He comes in to get Lynn and he’s some greasy foreign guy with his shirt unbuttoned down to his navel. He speaks with a comedy accent and man, I am absolutely convinced this will be brilliant television. Aren’t you?
Beverly Archer is the credited writer on this. As you might remember, she appeared in “Someone to Watch Over Me” last season (another two parter…fucking fucking fuck, ALF), and we heard her voice in “Breaking Up is Hard to Do.” She’s…well, she’s good.
Aside from what we’ve seen of her in this show, she played Iola on Mama’s Family and Gunny on Major Dad. She’s had too many other roles to list, but those are the shows I remember her from personally. They were by no means very good shows, but Archer put in solid performances every week. She’s one of those actors that seems to have a natural talent when it comes to elevating average material, and she has an impressive sense of how to “inhabit” a character, rather than just dress up like them and say their lines.
I have no idea how much Archer had to do with “Promises, Promises,” but maybe this is proof that she was born to deliver comedy rather than write it.
We get too many jokes about Eddie from the start, and they’re all…bizarre. He has no last name, for one. Or he used to, but got rid of it when he didn’t see a purpose to having one. Ha ha. He’s been to graduate school and he taught history for a while, which means he’s hella old. Oh, and he met Lynn at the mall when he was signing books…but no, he’s not a writer. He’s a substitute novelist who signs books for other authors if they can’t make it. Also, he drinks diet soda! Through this scene ALF is mocking him by singing circus songs in the kitchen — which somehow Eddie can’t hear though everyone else does — and Jesus Christ, how many quirks do we need to pile on this guy we’ll never see again? Pick a fucking joke and be done with it.
Anyway, while Eddie talks he touches Lynn’s hair, which might as well be aggressive fingerbanging for the way Willie reacts.
Look at him. He looks like he just realized he left gay hobo pornography on the dashboard of his car.
All this shit with Eddie is bad enough in the first place — by which I mean it’s simply not funny — but it also undoes what I thought was the nice moment earlier. Sushi? The Unbearable Lightness of Being? Lynn growing up?
Nah, fuck that. She’s just trying to get this substitute author to dip his quill.
This in itself could have still led to a good episode…but I’ll get to that momentarily, when the point is better illustrated. For now, let me just say that for all the potential shown up-front, this becomes probably the worst episode of the series so far.
You got lucky, “ALF’s Special Christmas.”
Anne Schedeen, surprising no-one, is the best thing about this sequence several times over. She gets her first great moment in when she offers Eddie a soda, and then asks Lynn to help her.
“Help you get one soda?” Lynn asks, and the glare she gets in return is a thing of steely perfection.
Honestly, as lousy as this episode is overall, I’m surprised they didn’t have her say, “Yes, help me get one soda,” or some other annoying way of explaining the joke…but they didn’t. The camera holds on Schedeen long enough for it to be both funny and realistic when Lynn’s better judgment kicks in, and she goes to help her mother.
Then, in the kitchen, there’s a lousy moment even Schedeen can’t save (having to deliberately lower her volume as she insists she’s not overreacting), but she still gets another great delivery in. After she gets the soda she closes the refrigerator door just slightly too hard, cramming her tongue into her cheek to keep from saying something she shouldn’t. Then she approaches the table and says, “Let me get right to the point. He’s too old for you.”
All of that happens in just a few seconds…I don’t want to make the moment seem larger than it really is, but it’s certainly the strongest performance in the episode. Granted, that’s saying exactly nothing, but it’s always nice to see Anne Schedeen proving that she at least tries to salvage this garbage.
Then Willie comes in and says basically the same thing, only through the mouth of a man who sounds like a malfunctioning drive-through speaker. He does refer to Lynn as “barely eighteen,” though, even though that’s clearly wrong. It comes into play in a bit (in the worst possible way…), but “The Boy Next Door” revealed that the already-18 Lynn was getting ready to celebrate her birthday…presumably her 19th. Now, about a year after that, she’s “barely 18.”
And if that suggests to you “barely legal,” good. You’d have been an excellent fit for the ALF writing staff.
We get a ONE WEEK LATER caption, which I have to admit I didn’t expect. This time Lynn is getting ready for her date with Joe Piscopo.
While this character — whose name is Randy — doesn’t actually succeed in making me miss Eddie, he brings me damned close. His big joke is that he always says, “‘Kay.” You know…instead of anything else, ever. Is it a rule that all truly shitty sitcoms need one of these characters? Ones that exist to make repeated, irritating punchlines out of words like “Huh,” “Whatever,” and “Whoa”?
I actually feel bad for this guy. I mean, he certainly gives no indication that he’s a good actor, but even the most useless idiot deserves material better than this.
Willie invites him in and he says ‘kay. Kate asks him how he is, and he says ‘kay. Lynn says it’s time to go, and he says ‘kay. If you’re a big fan of hearing one word said several times, Randy is the character for you.
There’s a better attempt at comedy when Willie tries to make smalltalk with this meatheaded football guy. It’s not great, but Max Wright flounders around on this side of believability while Randy shifts his weight back and forth between his legs and refuses to sit down. It’s convincingly awkward, and while the writing isn’t any better, the tension is successful enough that it becomes funny.
What I don’t understand, though, is why Willie and Kate like him. While I clearly don’t give a shit about this guy, it’s essential that I point out that Lynn’s parents approve of him. That’s fine; I don’t mind that on its own. But when taken into account with Eddie, I’m not sure what the difference is. Both of these assholes seem like bad fits for her, and both of these assholes seem like guys that no parent should be thrilled with. It’s odd, and we never get a reason that Willie and Kate like him. If they think he’s better than Eddie, that’s fine. But they seem to think he’s good for their daughter on his own merits…and what are those, exactly?
So far this episode seems like it could turn into a set of revealing little one-acts about Lynn’s bad romantic decisions, but that’s shot dead when the Tanners actually like this one.
Again, why? Maybe Lynn thinks he’s hot, and maybe Kate remembers what it was like to be plowed by a man who, at some point in his life, had a muscle. But what the hell does Willie see in this guy?
That other episode would have been a good one. At least potentially. Cartoons like Eddie and Randy can serve a purpose there; they need to be exaggerated, because we’ll only see them for a few minutes before moving on to the next batch. What ultimately matters is that we get a mosaic of Lynn’s current proclivities, so that we can either learn more about her through them, or so that we can see her come to terms with them and move beyond.
But, no, we don’t get that. As much as it seems like we might.
Nor do we get another potentially great idea, about Lynn discovering who she is. (At least in some small way, and even if the discovery is only temporary.)
I’m picturing something along the lines of Chekhov’s The Darling. It’s one of my favorite short stories, and I recommend you read it if you have the interest. (In fact, read anything of Chekhov’s. None of it could possibly be a waste of your time.)
Here, we’d see Lynn with one guy. Eddie, say. Eddie likes sushi and cerebral films, so Lynn likes them as well. Patchouli or whomever the fuck came before him liked pizza and cartoons. When she was with Patchouli, she liked pizza and cartoons. Then she moves on to Randy, who likes beer and football. Now Lynn likes beer and football.
The episodic format is easy to compare to a series of short stories. Serialized programs like Better Call Saul can afford to span novels, but concentrated, clear tales — ideally with some kind of identifiable statement or observation about the characters — work well in 24-minute chunks. The Darling spins its titular character through a series of relationships. She bends and shapes herself to better complement her current suitor, who inevitably moves on in his life without her. At the end, she’s left alone. In my creative writing class, somebody asked Stephen Dunn (whom I was incredibly fortunate to have as an instructor, twice) what the moral was.
“Don’t be a darling,” he said flatly.
Lynn doesn’t need to come to such a despairing end, but she could still go through this kind of accelerated romantic whirlwind, after which she’s left constantly disappointed and dissatisfied. Why? Because she’s a darling. And she can realize that fact, maybe in a heart-to-heart with ALF, and decide to be herself for a while.
…yeah we’re not going to get anything good. Instead we cut to ALF watching Aliens who the fuck cares when.
ALF’s seen this before. In “Night Train” we learned that he had nightmares from watching it. I won’t take that as a problem (his reactions to what’s happening on-screen could well be due to the fact that this is the first time he’s actually watching it, and not cowering in terror), but I will take as a problem the fact that they say Aliens when they meant Alien. He’s yelling, after all, at Sigourney Weaver, telling her not to go back for the cat.
“This is no time for a snack!” he shouts, in what will sadly be the highlight of the entire episode. It’s a perfectly okay line, but she doesn’t “go back for the cat” in Aliens. She leaves the cat home in that film. Toward the end, she does go back for Newt, and that sequence plays a similar role to the cat one in the first film, but Alien is when she goes back for the cat.
Going back for the cat does seem like a bad idea when you see it happen, but, ultimately, it might be what allowed her to survive. But that’s a discussion for a whole other time.
Right now we’re watching a very different alien, though one that’s just as terrifying. This full-body ALF thing is really fucking creepy to me. Don’t give me this shit. Give me the midget or give me death.
Look at this. It looks fucking terrible. How on Earth does ALF manage to look more like a puppet when you can see his entire body?
GIVE ME MIDGET
Anyway, Lynn comes home and ALF sees that she’s actually been railing the old guy all night. ALF pops up in the window making funny faces, because WHO FUCKING CARES IF ANYONE SEES HIM ANY MORE FUCK OFF
Then Lynn comes inside, and there’s some really odd foley. It took me a few times to realize that we were hearing Eddie start up his car and drive away. It sounds more like we’re hearing Mr. Ochmonek in the next yard playing the washboard.
ALF confronts her about getting plowed by one no-good miscreant instead of another.
Again, why was Randy the superior choice? I get that Eddie’s supposed to be some oily, grabby creep, but why is a vacant numbskull any better? Especially unanimously so?
It’s here that the episode — which has had a few seconds of actual decency — really bursts into flames.
Lynn admits that for the past week, she’s not been seeing Randy. She’s been tutoring him, and then sneaking off to let the substitute author finger through her manuscript.
And that, along with everything that comes from it, is what I hate.
For a family show, this is a pretty awful thing to normalize. I’ve joked before about ALF and other characters acting inappropriately with the kids, but I figured on some level it had to be unintentional. The writing staff must have begun and ended with Tobias Funke if all of it was unintentional, but this episode brings it to the fore. It knows what it’s talking about. It knows what it’s suggesting. And it’s treating it as…well, not as what it should be treated as.
“Promises, Promises” plays off of this reveal as though Lynn told her parents a fib. Which is true, of course. But more true is the fact that her parents didn’t want their teenage daughter to let an older man take sexual advantage of her. She’s letting him anyway, and she’d rather not tell them.
The way it’s normalized as though it’s a standard sitcom beat for a “barely eighteen” (as in, “barely not a victim of statutory rape”) teenager to be fondled and groped by a slavering lech is abhorrent. You can do plots like this, but then the plot has to be about this. It can’t be about the fact that ALF knows a secret and Lynn told a lie. That’s bullshit. The plot is that the Tanners, for fucking once, tried to protect their daughter, and she’s being sexually manipulated by a predator.
If you think I’m reaching when I say that they’re treating this like a standard sitcom beat, never fear; the episode makes it overtly clear that that’s what it’s doing. Specifically, it equates this to a secret ALF is keeping, too: he broke Kate’s porcelain ballerina by dropping it into the toilet.
Equivalency, there. The unseen destruction of a never-before-mentioned knickknack obviously doesn’t rise to meet the gravity of what’s happening with Lynn; instead, it trivializes it. The girl that we’ve watched grow for about three years (during most of which she was somehow 18) is in a tremendously worrying relationship with a creep that I’m pretty sure any rational human being would want to punch in the neck when they found out what he was doing to her.
But, hey, it’s just comedy! This kind of stuff happens all the time. See? ALF dropped a ballerina at some point. What’s the problem?
This scene contains what should probably have been a moment I really enjoyed. ALF mimes the ballerina slipping down the crapper, and Lynn mimes the same gesture back, as though in confirmation. Then both of them, in silent commiseration, mime it back and forth for a while. It’s adorable out of context. In context it’s a massively tone-deaf reminder that this episode is discussing something potentially very horrible — by no means anything kids at home should see as normal or excusable — and yet has no idea that it’s not inherently funny.
Seriously, this bothers me. I know Lynn doesn’t end up naked in the trunk of his car, but the fact that the episode raises the issue and then treats it like a standard sitcom plot is hugely problematic. Lynn at no point faces any danger, and doesn’t even really have to face the milder consequence of lying about it. It’s dismissed by the episode and all of the characters within it…the conflict becomes the fact that ALF inadvertently snitched on her, and her subsequent anger toward him.
You know that infamous episode of Diff’rent Strokes in which Arnold and his pal get molested by Gordon Jump? It was terrible, yes, but it was a Very Special Episode, and it acted like one. It knew it had to be one if it was going to have little kids getting fondled by a bicycle repairman. And while I won’t go to bat for the quality of that episode, I will say that it’s a damn sight better than it would have been if the writers had played it for laughs, and had Arnold and his buddy shrug it off like they did with every other conflict of the week. Can you imagine a version of that episode in which Arnold’s chum is mad at him for ratting out the pedophile, and the actual sexual assault is just a background detail we don’t need to pay attention to?
ALF can. ALF thinks that would be hilarious.
Why aren’t you laughing?
Randy comes over at some point, and the Tanners thought Lynn was with him, so ALF volunteers that the elderly guy they forbade her to see is spraying semen into her. Lynn comes home and gets grounded, at which point she sarcastically thanks ALF, repeatedly, for ruining her life.
Personally, I don’t think interrupting her late-night fuck sessions with an elderly man qualifies as life-ruining, especially in comparison to the fact that he prevented her from going away to college, burned her house down, murdered her great uncle, and god knows what else, but whatever.
It actually got really hard to watch at this point, because this was where it became obvious that the Very Special Issue is Lynn being mad at ALF for finking.
And that’s played straight. Because, hey, why not? Don’t young girls have a right to privacy? Some old man wants to manipulate them into an unbalanced relationship of sexual subservience, and you need to go tell mom and dad on them?
This is…gross. Not least of which because it suggests an entire room full of writers who don’t think this is gross.
That screengrab right there?
That comes about one minute after Lynn is caught engaging in carnal relations with a sex pest.
Just want to point that out, because I could understand if you saw something like that as totally fucking irrelevant and tasteless.
You want to get ALF into some Mexican garb and have him sing a song? Well, fine, but you’ll need a reason.
Anyone got any ideas? What’s that? Lynn is effectively raped? That’s what I was thinking, too! Hilarious! Let’s definitely go with that.
This is a weird episode, and it really is uncomfortable to watch. It took me three days to get through this one, and then when I sat down to write about it…I couldn’t. I stopped. I stepped away and said, “No.” I just…couldn’t do this one, guys.
It gets even worse when we see Willie and Kate in the kitchen, laughing and being silly about the whole thing, reinforcing the idea that the real problem is her unwillingness to forgive ALF.
Kate — this girl’s mother, remember — even says it wasn’t a big deal; Lynn just told a lie.
Very true to life, that. It’s just like the mother of a teenage girl to be flippant when she finds out that her daughter’s been diddled by a guy several decades older than her.
Kate was the one who very rightly told Lynn on no uncertain terms that she was not to see this man…presumably because she was afraid he’d do exactly what she now knows he did. And now that her nightmare has been made reality, Kate seems to think a good chuckle at the breakfast table marks the last time anyone ever needs to bring it up.
What the fuck weird ass parallel universe horse shit am I watching here? And it gets odder.
And, yes, somehow, more repulsive.
Kate brings up the fact that she didn’t tell her parents that she was dating Willie for six months. One might wish to point out the fact that he’s also not 35 fucking years her senior, but it doesn’t end there: Willie was apparently dating Kate’s sister at the time as well.
ALF and the audience of dead people seem to think that’s funny, especially since we learn that Kate’s sister isn’t very attractive. Willie was poking a piggie! Hilarious stuff! How many ways is it possible to simultaneously sexualize and demean women in a single episode? ALF doesn’t know, but it’s determined to find out.
No thanks. I don’t want to be part of this sex festival.
Lynn is then threatened with further punishment if she doesn’t make amends with the naked alien who lives in the hamper, which is when Lynn blurts out that ALF destroyed Kate’s porcelain ballerina.
In response, Kate does this:
So remember when I observed how absurd it was that the destruction of a heretofore unmentioned knickknack would be treated with the same gravity as the sexual assault of one of the show’s main characters? I was wrong. It’s actually, apparently, much more severe.
Benji Gregory is then tasked with the unenviable duty of pretending to cry over ALF’s impending departure. Yes, Lynn won’t be nice to him anymore, so he’s fixing his space ship and leaving.
That’s the end of the series guys. BYE
…of course fucking not. “Promises, Promises” being the last time we see ALF’s miserable ass would actually count as some kind of redeeming quality, so we can’t have that.
This whole sequence of ALF getting ready to leave is played for embarrassing sincerity.
Just like the broken ballerina is more devastating to Kate (by several orders of magnitude) than her daughter’s safety and innocence, it’s sadder to Fusco et. al. that ALF might leave than it is that Lynn had to go through any of this crap.
In the short scene before the credits ALF and Willie rebuild Kate’s ballerina, undoing the damage. They can’t undo the damage to Lynn, but who cares about her anyway?
Next week ALF meets a magical Thanksgiving hobo. God, I never thought I’d look forward to that.