So, we’re here at last. “Do You Believe in Magic?” is the episode of ALF that I remember best, and not for positive reasons: this is the episode that convinced me, even as a stupid kid, that this show was a bit shit.
I didn’t have the most discerning tastes as a child. For every Pee-Wee’s Playhouse or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory that I fell in love with, I’m sure there were twenty films and television shows that I watched all the time, but which faded immediately from memory the moment they went away.
Memory is the grand curator, after all. It does a pretty good job of retaining that which is worth retaining, and letting the vast mediocre majority slip away.
I remember catching The Great Muppet Caper on television once when I was in high school. I hadn’t seen it for probably around ten years at that point. I was with my girlfriend. We watched a few minutes, and then flipped around during a commercial to see what else was on.
A little while later, after we tried some other things, she asked if I just wanted to watch the rest of that film. I said sure. Then she asked me to guess what part of the movie we’d see when we switched back. I had no idea, so I just said the first thing that came to mind. “The part where Miss Piggy is walking on the desk and falls into a trash can.”
Sure enough, that’s precisely where we were. I was even more shocked than she was.
My mind must have retained more of that film — a deeper knowledge of that film — than I’d realized…so much so that it could estimate very accurately the sequence of individual scenes, and how long it took to get through them.
I bring this up here because there’s one scene in “Do You Believe in Magic?” that I remembered, all through the years, very well. It’s probably the only scene in all of ALF that I can say I remember vividly. It comes later in the episode, and we’ll talk about it there, but I think it says a lot that I remembered so much of what happened in The Great Muppet Caper, but only one scene from ALF: the scene that made me realize that it wasn’t worth watching.
My mind retained that scene because, I assume, it was good justification for forgetting every other one. If I ever scanned my memory for thoughts of ALF and came up largely dry, what I remembered about that scene would explain why.
“Do You Believe in Magic?” opens with ALF attempting a magic trick that he saw on TV. Apparently the first step is to mash a bunch of messy food into somebody’s overturned sunhat. The second step is fuck you.
Brian helps him destroy Kate’s sunhat in this way, and then Kate walks in to see her sunhat being destroyed, and then ALF turns the sunhat over and revels that it’s been destroyed.
I hope you enjoyed this particular joke structure (something happens, continues to happen, and then stops happening because time is up), because it’s going to repeat for the next 22 minutes.
The idea of ALF exploring magic is not a bad one. He’s from space, so he may not understand that it’s all trickery and showmanship. It fits into the childlike wonder we too-rarely see from this character, but it can also be given a series-specific twist: he may see “magic” as a kind of technology unknown on Melmac. After all, when you own a personal spacecraft and travel to other planets for fun, something like food that disappears after you put it in a hat (or whatever the fuck was supposed to happen) probably seems like it’s within the realm of possibility. He may not understand how it works, but it’s not inherently absurd for him to assume that it could work.
Of course ALF is ALF and (ALF is ALF) so we’re not so much exploring the concept as we are giving a puppet an excuse to fuck everyone’s shit up.
I’m actually feeling really anxious about this episode.
I’m embarrassed just thinking about it. I know it’s going to be awful. In fact, “THIS EPISODE IS AWFUL” is the one thing my mind remembers most clearly about the entire show.
And here, now, I’m watching it again. And I feel…stupid.
I liked this crap? What was wrong with me?
After the credits we see ALF writing I WILL NOT PUT FOOD IN KATE’S HAT over and over on the refrigerator door.
Willie comes in, sees him defacing the kitchen, verifies that Kate didn’t ask him to do that, then shrugs and forgets about it. He’s reached that point in his life, I guess, when he’s finally resigned himself to living in alien puppet Hell.
He goes to the table and tells ALF that he has a gift for him. This makes sense, because ALF ruined Kate’s hat and vandalized the refrigerator, marking this as the best-behaved he’s ever been.
Willie got him a magic kit, which is a bit like punishing your child for playing with knives by getting him a bandsaw, but who cares. This episode, perhaps moreso than any other — yes, I remember “Strangers in the Night” — isn’t an episode. It’s just a bunch of stuff that happens. Toward the (very) end there’s a whiff of plot, but it dissipates like the weak fart that it is and the credits roll.
Why is Willie buying him a magic kit? Because that’s what this scene is about. Why did ALF ruin the sunhat? Because that was what that scene was about. How do either of these scenes relate to the rest of the episode? Aside from the superficial fact that “magic” is involved, they don’t. So, have fun, kids.
There is a decent enough moment of quiet visual comedy when Willie tries to demonstrate a card trick to ALF. He tells him to pick a card, and ALF deliberates over his options interminably.
It’s the kind of non-joke Family Guy resorts to often, but I’m a big enough fan of awkward moments and stubborn toying with pace that I usually enjoy it. (Another MacFarlane creation, American Dad! has probably my favorite instance of this: Stan circling the mall looking for a parking space in a climactic moment of “Finances With Wolves.” I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: American Dad! is often brilliant television, and if you’ve only thought of it as a Family Guy clone, give it another shot.)
Unfortunately the absurdly-delayed-response-as-punchline thing happens again later, and not as any kind of callback, essentially underscoring the fact that even this episode in which nothing happens is still crammed with excessive padding.
There’s also a joke that seems like it should play more successfully than it actually does. Willie absent-mindedly says to ALF that he used to have a magic kit when he was ALF’s age…then corrects himself to saying when he was ALF’s height. It’s a good idea for a gag, but, for whatever reason, it falls pretty flat.
Maybe it’s due to Max Wright’s delivery of the line. Or maybe it’s just because it’s marooned in this lifeless shithole of an episode, where everything is far too desolate to amuse.
This entire scene goes on too long and doesn’t accomplish much, but we do at least get another nice moment out of it.
After Willie fails to impress ALF by guessing his card, he amazes the alien by pulling the Ace of Spades from behind ALF’s ear.
That’s a very cute moment, and ALF’s excitement over it is harmless fun. It’s a good, childlike detail, with this immediate, simple dazzle seeming more impressive to him than a much better, more intricate trick.
But that’s about it. By the time this long-ass scene is over we’re a third of the way through the episode, and all that’s happened is that ALF ruined a hat.
Later on ALF wheels a podium into the living room and introduces himself as ALF THE STUPEFYING. We’re in agreement on that, at least.
This is when we get the single most awful line in a show that often seems to be composed entirely of singularly awful lines. ALF says, “It’s showtime!” And Kate, who is watching TV, replies, “Actually, ALF, it’s HBO!!!!”
Not even Anne Schedeen could save that one. Fucking hell…Peter Sellers couldn’t have saved that one.
I have to assume she didn’t even try. Honestly, if you were handed material like that, would you?
Anyway, ALF’s first trick as The Great Dickholio is to smash a flower pot to pieces with his magic wand. Willie and Kate sit there like assholes and watch it happen.
Impressive stuff, truly.
It gets better.
In a way.
It gets better in the way that it doesn’t get any better, and instead gets so much goddamn worse.
Lynn comes in and asks for some money so she can go to the movies. Willie gives her a $10 bill, and ALF says he’ll make it disappear. Why anyone would agree to let him do this is beyond any explanation short of mass, instantaneous brain damage.
So they give him the money. Why the fuck not, right? He already proved that all his tricks result in destroying things, so why not give him actual United States currency for his next prop?
ALF puts the $10 bill in an envelope, and then starts to light a blowtorch. We linger on this shot for a while, and Kate gets some baffling ADR, saying, “Willie, he’s got a blowtorch!”
Does she really need to describe what we’re already seeing for us?
Better question: does she really need to describe what she’s seeing for the person seated between her and what she’s seeing?
This is a really terrible episode. The lack of effort in this show has never been more prominent. At least with crap like “Strangers in the Night” and “We Are Family,” both of which were also disparate heaps of barely-connected nonsense, you can tell that somebody tried, however unsuccessfully, to fit the pieces together.
Here they didn’t even get that far. Things just happen, no matter what they are, and no effort is expended in giving them any kind of rational flow at all. As if to demonstrate this very fact, Willie then offers ALF matches to burn the money with.
Actually, he not only offers him matches, but he lights the envelope on fire himself, presumably because ALF is a puppet and Willie is a retard.
The money burns and that’s the joke.
This isn’t even ALF misunderstanding magic. This is ALF slapping the audience in the nuts.
Seriously. “Space alien buys into hokey bullshit with hilarious consequences” isn’t a great idea for an episode, but it’s certainly a valid one. That’s not what we saw there, though. That was Willie volunteering to set his own money on fire, and then doing so. And…being surprised that it was a bad idea?
I don’t know. What’s the joke?
If I’m walking down the street and I slip on a banana peel, that’s funny.
If I’m walking down the street and I decide to throw myself down onto the pavement for no reason, that’s scary and you should hustle your family away from me as quickly as possible.
The net result is the same, but a punchline without a setup is odd at best, and it makes it seem like the writers were so interested in making one specific thing (or a bunch of disconnected specific things) happen that they didn’t bother to wonder why it would happen.
But it gets still stupider, and it gets there fast.
The next day, Willie walks into the kitchen to find a sad ALF. ALF says he’s giving up magic, and Willie decides to cheer him up and encourage him, because if ALF quits setting money on fire it means Willie will have a harder time hiding those crack expenditures from his wife.
Anyway, he cheers him up. ALF concludes that “being no good at something is no reason to give up on it,” which could lead to a really, truly good episode in itself. (In fact, I could name a dozen good episodes of other shows based on that exact premise. I’m positive that you could, too.) But instead ALF just uses it as the setup to some joke at the expense of the ostensibly shitty programming on the FOX network.
But, hey, let’s indulge ALF (and ALF) and take a look at what garbage we could find on FOX in 1988, the same year that the no doubt rightfully snobbish “Do You Believe in Magic?” aired.
Married…with Children. It’s Gary Shandling’s Show. The Tracy Ullman Show. 21 Jump Street. Cops. America’s Most Wanted.
Throw another stone, ALF. I dare you.
The criticism is especially unfair, as FOX was still a fledgling network and was only broadcasting twice a week, but as you can see from the first three shows on that list, they definitely had some great programming already. It wasn’t all great, as the last three shows attest, but none of them were any less than competent, and all of them blow fuckin’ ALF out of the water.
It’s pretty annoying when a show that’s not any good in the first place tries to pick on shows that are. I’m thinking of the jokes at the expense of Breaking Bad and Bob’s Burgers (and other shows that don’t have alliterative Bs in their titles) on Family Guy. Instead of making fun of other viewing options, wouldn’t it be smarter to…I dunno…spend that time making your own show a little better?
So, whatever, back to this steaming pile of shit.
ALF asks Willie if he wants to see a trick. Since Willie never tires of seeing his life fall apart before his eyes, he agrees.
ALF asks for a handkerchief, and while digging it out we see that Willie wears suspenders.
Anyone surprised by that fact?
Didn’t think so. Moving on.
Aaaaand here’s the scene. The one I that remember. The one that stuck with me through so many years of not watching ALF. The only real detail that actually stuck with me.
Not his cat-eating. Not his home planet being Melmac. Not the fact that his real name was Gordon Shumway. No, those were just small things that I remembered about the show as a whole. When it comes down to anything that actually happened on this show, it’s just this.
This dumbass motherfucking watch scene.
ALF tells Willie he’ll need his wristwatch for the trick. To Willie’s credit, he hesitates. To his much more significant discredit, he gives ALF the watch anyway.
ALF sticks the watch into a little pouch, then goes apeshit and smashes it a bunch of times with a hammer. Then he gives it back to Willie, and it’s broken.
No pretense whatsoever. No twist.
ALF busts up a bunch of shit, asks for one more piece of shit to bust up, and he busts up that shit.
I remember watching this with my family when I was a kid. I remember my mother watching this scene, and not laughing but asking, confounded, “Why would he give him the watch?”
My mother, with all due respect, was not the kind of woman to question things. She’d watch or listen to something, and either like it or not like it. Hers was a superficial enjoyment, and there’s, of course, nothing wrong with that.
Plot holes never bothered her. Cliches never bothered her. She questioned nothing, and accepted whatever the television told her.
So for her to openly wonder what the fuck logic this show was operating on…that said a lot. And, I silently agreed. Something was definitely wrong.
Sure, asking a show about a space alien puppet to adhere to logic is unreasonable…except that, really, it’s not. It doesn’t have to — and can’t — adhere to our logic, but it needs to have a certain internal logic that drives what happens.
Some shows are deliberately realistic. Something like M*A*S*H* comes immediately to mind, or All in the Family. Those are shows that operate on something very similar to our own reality. If Archie Bunker twitched his nose and turned Edith into a chicken, or something, we’d call foul…not because it isn’t realistic, but because it isn’t true to the specific reality of that show’s universe. Watch Bewitched, though, or I Dream of Jeannie, and something like that happens every week. It’s no more realistic there than it would be at the 4077, but it’s true to those realities.
The Twilight Zone is a great example of this. The aliens of “To Serve Man” wouldn’t make any sense in the world of “Living Doll,” which operates on an entirely different plane of reality from “A Stop at Willoughby.” We are willing to accept any number of twists and cheats and fantastical developments that wouldn’t work in the world we occupy, but we need them to make sense within the context of the world the characters occupy. If they bled over or were constantly reversed, they wouldn’t work. Instead, they need to remain true to the little universes themselves.
We aren’t pulled out of entertainment, in other words, because something impossible happens. We’re pulled out because something incompatible happens.
ALF has every right to set its own rules. But it doesn’t have the right to change them on the fly. Get a Life could change them on the fly, but that’s because changing on the fly was one of its rules in the first place. The same way Aqua Teen Hunger Force can kill whomever it wants for whatever silly reason and bring them back the next week, while The Venture Bros. would have to explain why that character is back, and fit the reversal into its continuing serialization.
So what are ALF‘s rules?
To be honest, I don’t think the show knows. It’s alternately absurd and grounded. Sappy and crude. Creepy and cute. Funny and fuckawful. But usually the fluctuations are within a certain, acceptable tolerance. ALF hasn’t defined itself as a protean, evolving sitcom experience…it’s rather a loose, ropey, weekly experiment that all too often fails to put forth the effort to make itself interesting.
But the one thing that’s been at least vaguely consistent is this: ALF is an alien, and the Tanners are humans.
That changes — abrasively, jarringly so — when Willie ceases to think, act, or react like a human. He’s never been much of a character, but his behavior in this episode demolishes any connection he could possibly have to the human race. The one thing we thought we knew about him is that he at least thought and acted in a roughly, recognizably human way.
“Do You Believe in Magic?” dashes that, breaking the only tenuous piece of internal logic this show has ever had.
And the worst part is that it doesn’t even do it for the sake of a joke. Not unless you consider “Here, Willie, I broke the watch that you gave me to break” a joke.
The next day — because, yes, this horse is still shitting — Willie wakes up with a rabbit on his chest. He looks at it for a while to the great amusement of the laughing dead people, and then he and Kate head out to the garage.
They ask ALF where the rabbits came from, and ALF says “Father Rabbit jazzed in Mother Rabbit’s rabbit cooter.” Willie replies that he knows damn well about rabbit cooter.
What is the plot of this episode? Honestly, it’s almost over, and I couldn’t begin to tell you.
Yes, something happens shortly (thank shitting Christ), but right now, at this point, how would you summarize what we’ve seen so far?
ALF smashes some shit, then there are rabbits?
Fuck this show.
We then see Brian in a box, waiting to be sawed in half. ALF does so, and disposes of the body by tossing it over the fence into the Ochmoneks’ yard.
Anyway, ALF bought all these animals and this equipment because he thought he was going to be a great magician, but then realized he’d never be one, because he remembered that nothing in this show carries over from one week to the next. Wasn’t Kate pregnant? Didn’t ALF move into the attic? Who fucking knows anymore.
So ALF feels sad that he’s a waste of dick hair, and Willie and Kate try to cheer him up and encourage him all over again. You know, just like you would do for somebody who broke a bunch of your things, set your paycheck on fire, and endangered the life of your son.
Then they leave and ALF stands around in the garage watching the rabbits fuck.
Later on, Brian comes back and mopes because he didn’t get to be part of any of ALF’s tricks. To shut him up ALF sticks him in a box. Brian says that ALF is supposed to spin it around three times, but ALF doesn’t do that because he’s a dishrag with Paul Fusco’s hand inside of it.
Then he closes the curtain, opens it again, and Brian’s gone.
Well, that was easy. Now just do that to everyone except Kate, Mr. Ochmonek, and that murderous little girl from the animal shelter and this show will finally be worth watching.
At some point ALF tries the trick again, and there’s a rabbit in there for some reason. Needless to say he assumes Brian is the rabbit, and a mountain of comedy ensues. (Well, as long as by “mountain of comedy” you mean two lame jokes about rabbits eating vegetables and one about them having long ears.)
ALF runs into the house and tells the Tanners that their kid’s gone. No, not Lynn…the other one. Whatever his name is. He is yours, right?
Willie and Kate then call all the neighbors I guess, one by one, and ask them, “Hey, where the fuck is our son?”
Look at Anne Schedeen’s face in the above screencap. She’s finally past the point of giving even the smallest of shits. “Do You Believe in Magic?” has officially killed the last shred of humanity in this show.
ALF dumps a snake in the house, and the snake hides in Lynn’s gym bag, and Willie and Kate check under the bed to see if Brian is playing Cave Dwellers (presumably his favorite Miles O’Keeffe film). All of this happens in around four seconds of screentime, so while they sure took their time introducing any kind of plot, they also can’t wait to be free of it.
I will say something to the episode’s unintentional credit: it’s hilarious that the most significant thing Brian’s ever done on this show is disappear.
Then the kid comes back. It’s not even the next scene…it’s the same scene. He just walks into the house to get a drink.
What a perfect conclusion to whatever the fuck it is that happened.
It turns out he was hiding in the car so that ALF would think he was a good magician. Ta-da! It’s the amazing disappearing shit that anyone could possibly give.
Then ALF hands Willie some flowers and the episode is over.
In the short scene before the credits, ALF brings Willie and Kate breakfast, and stands naked next to their bed, watching them eat it.
I have to say that re-watching ALF has made me realize, with some truly welcome exceptions, how dull and charmless it is. With that in mind, I honestly expected to finally make it through “Do You Believe in Magic?” and conclude that it’s no worse than usual.
But you know what?
To say that “Do You Believe in Magic?” is representative of ALF‘s baseline idiocy is an insult that the series doesn’t actually deserve. As bizarre, forgettable, and sometimes unwatchable as this show is, it’s always — always — better than this shit.
And frankly I can’t think of a better episode to walk away from. I might have had some pretty crappy taste as a child, but “Do You Believe in Magic?” cured me of that right then and there.
For that, I appreciate it.
And only for that.
MELMAC FACTS: ALF is 3’2″. Brian has a snake named Captain EO. I’m never going to watch this episode again.