Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
Header

Splatoon
Just a few minutes ago (as I begin writing this) the first of three hour-long, free demos for Splatoon has ended. In a way, it’s odd to require everyone to participate in a demo at the same time (and god knows I’ve read enough grumbling about it elsewhere) but since Splatoon is a competitive shooter, it makes sense. It wouldn’t be much fun, or much of a sales pitch, if someone downloaded the demo just to sit around waiting around for other participants.

It’s also true, though, that Nintendo used this as a pre-release stress test. It was a good marketing move to turn a server test into an interactive commercial, and they might get a sale out of me now that they wouldn’t have gotten before.

But here’s what this Splatoon trial really accomplished: it reminded me that I miss Events.

That’s captial-E Events. In a world where everything is available at the push of a button, we start to lose a sense of importance. We can have so many things at the instant we want them…but at the cost of a reduced value. When it’s always there, and it’s always accessible to anyone who wants it, what is it really worth?

At a very young age (well, before I could drive) I fell in love with attending live concerts. Woodstock ’94 was actually my first concert, period, and it served, I’d say, as a pretty incredible introduction. It was several days long, there was some great music, there was camping, food, vendors…it was a great time. I remember much of it well. It wasn’t a patch on the original festival, I’m sure, but for some little kid discovering live music for the first time, especially in the early 90s, you can’t have asked for much more.

After that I’d see everything I could. Growing up in New Jersey sucked, for sure, but I was within easy commuting distance of Philadelphia, New York, and D.C. Between those cities — and New Jersey’s own venues — I was able to see almost anyone who was touring at all.

And it was great. When the artists — whomever they were, whether or not you even knew their names — put on a great show, it felt that much more special for the fact that it was temporary. Fleeting. You spent your time, money, and effort to get there, and so did everyone around you. You’re there for a purpose…a common experience. You share with a room or a field or a stadium full of people something that would only happen once. Right then, right there, and then never exactly the same way again.

It was yours, and it was theirs. You were in it together. At some concerts I’ve made friends. At others I didn’t talk to anyone I didn’t already know. But the experience was communal. A wave of applause, gasps, sighs…the artists creating — creating — something there for you.

You could have stayed home. Most people, obviously, do. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if you choose to make that journey, you get to witness something that will never happen again: that one particular Event.

Concerts still exist, and the reason I bring them up is the fact that they’re still popular. They’re still happening. They’re still one way to keep Event experiences alive, while film events and television events and video game events leak early, or immediately. While we can dial up almost anything we like on YouTube (or less-savory equivalents.) While we can torrent the complete works of almost anyone you’d care to name.

And that’s not, in itself, a problem. It’s magical, to be sure. But, again, it’s magic at a cost.

I remember reading a Bob Dylan biography years ago, in which the author struggled to describe to us the sound of some bootleg tapes he personally obtained. There was something lovely about that…an attempt on the part of the writer to reach the reader and convey the accomplishment of a musician. I was several degrees removed from whatever that song was that the biographer was describing, but I was rapt. I tried to layer it in my mind. I tried to hear it, impossibly, through text.

Today? I could type the name of whatever song it is into Google. I’ll be taken to a streaming version I can listen to right now, a dozen covers of it by amateur musicians, a legal opportunity to purchase it as an mp3 or a ringtone, and an illegal opportunity to download it along with another hundred Dylan bootlegs I never knew existed.

Today I’ll know what it sounds like, easily. Which is nice. I’d have died for that opportunity years ago. But it also robs the listening experience of being Eventful.

I remember when I was very young. Word got around that somebody on my block could beat the original Mega Man. I was skeptical. That game was tough as nails, and I was convinced no human being could finish it without cheating. I wasn’t alone in my suspicion.

So my friends and I got together, and we walked over to this kid’s house. We sat in his living room, eyes glued to the television set, watching him as he tried, over and over and over again, for hours, to beat Dr. Wily and save the world. When he succeeded, the thrill in that room was incredible. It was emotional. There was screaming and there was laughter. You’d have thought we’d liberated Ireland.

In retrospect, I’m sure his Mega Man skills were nothing impressive. He finished the game, which was more than we could have done, but today I can watch any number of people anywhere in the world playing the game perfectly. I could see somebody finish it in 20 minutes without dying. And I have. But it didn’t move me. I didn’t care as much. It was something to watch. It was cleaner, more structurally perfect, more accessible.

But it wasn’t an Event.

Splatoon turned gaming, for an hour, back into an event. “If you want to play,” it said, “we’d love to have you. Here’s when you can come over.”

I don’t know who I played with. I don’t know if I’ll ever meet them, and I’d be surprised if I ever did. (And if I did, it’s not as though I’d know it.) But like all the people I never interacted with at the concerts I attended, they shared an experience with me.

Splatoon was new. It was unique to everyone there. Nobody had prior experience with the weapons or the stages. Nobody had time to strategize. For everybody involved, it was a process of live, communal discovery. And that’s something that I haven’t felt in a long time, and probably ever in terms of online gaming.

Whatever happened, happened. If you were there, you know. If you weren’t, you don’t. And if you attended one of the other two demonstrations, then you know something I don’t. Every experience was valuable, simply because it was fleeting.

I know that this was a one-off (well, three-off) Event, but I would love it if this kind of thing became more common. Once a month, at a certain time, you could log in and play the game with some twist that isn’t announced beforehand. Maybe a new weapon or stage, but it doesn’t have to be anything that substantial. The twist could be that all of the paint is the same color, and you don’t know whose is whose. Or that everyone moves at half speed. Or that every thirty seconds, everyone dies and respawns somewhere else, turning the game into a challenge of orientation as much as it is one of survival.

Those are just ideas, and I wouldn’t say any of them are very good. But I do know that for one hour (which felt, but was not, far shorter) a game I didn’t care much about in a genre I’m still not interested in became a magical experience. What’s more, it was magical because I didn’t get to experience it on my own terms.

In a world of instant gratification, restrictiveness really does feel like a big step forward.

ALF, "Alone Again, Naturally"

So, here’s an odd one. “Alone Again, Naturally” has me conflicted. To be totally honest, I’m not sure I’ll even know how I feel about it until I finish this review. (How’s that for incentive to keep reading?!)

In most cases, it’s pretty basic, forgettable, baseline dumbassery. In other cases, it’s awful. But in other cases still, it’s really well-done.

It’s a patchwork episode, to be sure. It feels as though there was the germ of a great idea here (indeed, I’ll argue that there was), but not much thought went into building a sturdy episode around it.

As it stands…I don’t really know what I think. But I’m glad I watched it, and that’s a definite first for season three.

It opens with Willie and Kate coming home from grocery shopping, while ALF bitches about how long it took them. So, yeah, forgive me for not immediately throwing my arms around this one.

He starts grabbing food out of the shopping bags and eating it because he can’t wait for them to unpack. It’s pretty tiring to endure ALF in screaming-asshole mode, but it leads to a nicely chosen detail: Kate gets him to shut up and back off by handing him a copy of the National Inquisitor. (I hope to God its tagline is “Ignore Me.”)

Kate has gotten in the habit of picking up this magazine when she goes shopping, because it keeps ALF quiet for 30 minutes at a time. And I love this.

I fully believe that ALF would like this magazine. Heck, I remember when I was growing up and I worked at a campground. I’d pick up a copy of Weekly World News on my way to work whenever I had to run the shop during the night hours. I mainly bought it for the awesome (and massive) crossword puzzle, but I’d be lying if I said I never read the articles. It was silly, mindless fun, and while I don’t fault anyone who thinks that magazines like that are a waste of trees, I enjoyed it, and it helped pass some quiet hours. I can see exactly why ALF would find it similarly useful.

What’s more, he’s from space. He’s probably seen some pretty unbelievable stuff. “Reality” on earth may seem pretty mundane for him, so this should be a nice escape. It’s fictional, but it’s also a collection of fantastic tales that may speak to him of a much more exciting world outside the Tanner house. Accurate or not, it’s a way to do a little mental traveling.

It also fits in with his predilection for cultural “junk food,” such as radio call-in shows and reruns of Gilligan’s Island. ALF likes garbage, and that works perfectly. Why wouldn’t he? He’s a space alien. It’s enough of a stretch to think that he’d understand Earthling entertainment at all…let alone be able to tell high entertainment from low. (And, I might add, it would be even more of a stretch for him to buy into such a hazy distinction.)

Then we hear him bellow in the other room, and Willie and Kate open the door to see the funniest thing ever on this show.

ALF, "Alone Again, Naturally"

Seriously.

I had to pause the episode because I laughing so hard. That’s never happened before with this show, at least not that I can remember.

Of course I think I was supposed to feel sad or concerned or something, but seeing a lifeless ALF on the floor next to the couch has made this entire review series worthwhile. (It also reminds me of a great sequence in “Homer vs. the 18th Amendment,” in which news of prohibition causes the residents of Springfield to faint, and I really want someone to edit this in.)

The credits then begin, ensuring that this is a cliffhanger. “Why is ALF laying on the floor?” being just slightly more gripping a question than “Why am I watching this?”

During the opening sequence, I happen to notice that the credited writer for this episode is Paul Fusco.

Oh boy.

Yeah…this, more than maybe any other episode so far, represents Paul Fusco’s artistic vision.

I don’t want to give away the ending or anything…but the fact that I’m conflicted at all after a Paul Fusco episode has got to be a compliment in itself.

ALF, "Alone Again, Naturally"

After the credits ALF wakes up and says, in a panic, “No more portly women!”

The fake audience laughs. I have no clue why.

Was he dreaming about being sexually assaulted by tubby ladies? Who knows. The fact that I even have to ask myself that makes me wish I died weeks ago.

As shitty as that moment was, though, I have to give the episode full credit for the fact that we get a really interesting turn. And for the first time in God knows how long, I’m actually curious about seeing where the episode goes.

I’m hooked. I really am. At long last, I care about what’s going to happen.

At first I had no clue what we were watching. I figured ALF would become a staff writer for this stupid magazine, writing first-hand accounts of bizarre things in the unknown universe which the editors assume is just creative writing. You know. A version of “A Little Bit of Soap” that remembers its main character is a space alien.

But it’s much, much better than that.

See, ALF fainted because of an article on page two, about a couple in Barstow that lives with an alien.

And while I was all ready to complain about this — if he regularly reads this National Enquirer equivalent, surely he’s seen similar stories a thousand times — Kate piped up for me, voicing that very note of skepticism.

ALF assures her that this story is different from the others, and Lynn, reading it, identifies some odd similarities.

The alien in the story is short. Fuzzy. Big ears. Long snout. He has an odd fixation on cats.

Brian helpfully blurts, “THAT SOUNDS LIKE ALF,” in case you didn’t associate that description with the creature you see sitting right there in front of you. He might as well have appended “You fucking idiot.” Maybe Brian’s role on this show has sunk to interpreter for the blind.

This is interesting for a number of reasons, and while I’m not jumping to the conclusion that there is another Melmackian hanging out in California, whatever the episode decides to do with this premise, I’m certainly willing to play along.

After all, We know that ALF, Skip, and Rhonda all survived the explosion, but in a civilization that traveled to other planets frequently, it’s certainly likely that other Melmackians survived, too.

Whether or not they’d come to Earth is a whole other story, and the likelihood of that much is definitely debateable, but coming across a story like this in a tabloid is as interesting to me as it is to him. My mind swells with possibilities…and I’m sure ALF’s does, too. This is the promise not of a 30 minute plot, but of possibility, which is something this show as a whole so frustratingly lacks.

My hopes are up, for better or worse.

Lynn questions this alien’s similarity to ALF, though, when she reads that it subsists on a diet of yogurt and lightbulbs. For ALF, though, this is just further evidence: it sounds exactly like his cousin Blinky.

This is a fantastic what-if, and one that actually has something to do with the fact that ALF is an alien.

Those kinds of what-ifs are rare, but they’re responsible for some of the series’ best episodes. What if wildlife from Melmac stowed away on ALF’s spaceship? What if ALF befriended a blind woman? What if ALF isn’t alone on Earth? All rich topics to explore, for sure. Instead, though, in spite of all the spectacular what-ifs that extraterrestrial characters provide, we more often end up closer to “What if Kate’s mom married some guy and ALF had the hiccups?”

For the first time in ages, the show is at least attempting to make good on its promise.

“Alone Again, Naturally,” I’m on your side. This is yours to lose.

ALF, "Alone Again, Naturally"

Willie, oddly, acts like a human being. He tries to ground ALF in reality, and prevent him jumping to conclusions.

Yes, he says, the details may seem to fit…but it’s still a magazine that prints fiction. And no matter how convincing the story is, the odds are very much against a space alien crashing to Earth and living in secret with a family…

…at which point he trails off.

It’s funny. By this point ALF’s residency in the Tanner home is normalized, and with every day that passes it must get easier and easier to forget that this situation is really fucking strange. In fact, it’s probably not until something like this happens that it really registers, and the face Max Wright makes as the penny drops is perfect.

His first face, that is. For some reason he then makes the second face pictured above, and I don’t care how good a moment this was; once you resort to a string of funny faces to sell your gag, you’ve convinced me your gag isn’t worth selling.

It’s a shame, because the words would have been so much better on their own. But I shouldn’t be surprised that the writers don’t trust themselves. I usually don’t, either.

Willie picks up the phone and calls the family referenced in the story.

He intends to end this fantasy by proving they’re lying, I guess, but all he does is ask, “You don’t really have an alien living with you, do you?”

We don’t even hear their end of the conversation, so we just have to take Willie’s word for it that they said “Yes” in a monumentally convincing tone.

It’s weird. Considering how easily he gives in, and the way the rest of the episode plays out (Willie shows up at their house uninvited, even though this would be a perfect narrative place for him to be invited), I’m not even sure, from a writing standpoint, why he bothers calling.

Anyway, ALF says wants to go to Barstow, but Willie tells him to eat a dick. Then ALF sings the theme song to The Patty Duke Show.

That’s it. He just stands in the middle of the room and sings it for a while.

So, yeah, an irrelevant musical spotlight on ALF? Paul Fusco did write this after all.

ALF, "Alone Again, Naturally"

This performance of the title theme to a sitcom that no human being alive remembers somehow convinces Willie to take his space alien to Barstow.

Why?

When Willie said, “No, fuck you,” I figured he had some kind of concern about this being a wild goose chase, or a trap, or a prank, or any number of dumbass things.

But really he was just stalling in the hopes that ALF would sing? I…guess so? Jesus Christ.

And of course ALF is in the front seat while Willie drives on a major highway because fuck worrying about revealing this alien to the world anymore. I guess everyone in L.A. has already seen him by now, and two people in Barstow are about to, so who gives a shit?

I’m not sure why Willie is taking him anyway. When they get to the house, Willie makes ALF hide in the car while he himself investigates, which is perfectly fine. But why not investigate alone, and then report back? If Blinky lives there, he could go back for ALF. If he doesn’t live there, there’s no reason to risk any of this crap.

Granted, he does say that Barstow is three hours away, which is indeed a significant two-way drive, but if you’re more concerned about gas money than about the government kicking down your door and gutting your space alien while your children watch, then forgive me for not caring much about that either.

Anyway, ALF hands Willie a cotton ball and asks him to sniff it. Willie, like any rational human being, does exactly this. He takes a big, enthusiastic whiff of this mysterious thing that was handed to him without any context by the naked alien who lives in his hamper.

Then he asks what it is, and ALF says asbestos. Willie throws the cotton ball and makes more funny faces, while the fake audience of hooting retards goes bananas.

It reminds me of a scene in Futurama, when Bender’s “evil” twin sprays toxic gas in Fry’s face and then says, “Get it? It’s chlorine!”

The joke there is pretty clearly the absence of a joke, which is something we can expect the talented writers of Futurama to pull off. Here we just have a few minutes to kill in the middle of an episode, so what the hell, let’s sniff some cotton balls.

Then ALF starts talking about how well Blinky is going to fit into the family, and the scene ends.

…why?

That’s the conversation I want to hear more of.

What does Willie say? How does ALF reply? This is an issue that needs to be discussed, and somehow I don’t think Willie and ALF are going to be in agreement. Why can’t we hear that discussion about whether or not ALF will get to live with his cousin Blinky? Or even get to see him again after this?

We can do things with that. Things that advance the plot and define the characters and give us something to chew on long after the episode is over.

Instead, we get a game of Smell This, Willie. (Thank God for commas, eh?)

God, this scene sucks.

ALF, "Alone Again, Naturally"

They get to the house and Willie goes to check it out. I know the ALF crew didn’t get along with Max Wright, but did it extend to the a refusal to not iron his shirts?

Look above his belt-line. Just look at that shit.

An old woman answers the door and takes Willie into a room full of bizarre curios, like Billy the Kid’s mustache. She used to run a traveling exhibit until the tent caught fire, so now she just lives with this shit all over her house. It’s a convincingly awkward scene which doesn’t quite tip over into cartoonishness, but it’s also not particularly funny. It’s establishing character, which is certainly good, but it’s unfortunately not going to pay off in any worthwhile way.

Her husband comes in and tells Willie flatly that there’s no alien, but the woman insists there is. The dynamic between she and her husband is an interesting one. At first he comes off as brusque and rude, but before long it becomes clear that his wife isn’t all there, and he’s just tired of having to deal with her delusions. This is best exemplified when she disagrees with him about the pronunciation of his own name. That’s a well-chosen detail, and I now know more about their relationship than I do about Willie’s and Kate’s.

She says the alien is out somewhere, so Willie can’t see it. Then she produces a small box and says a Polaroid of the alien is inside, but Willie has to pay her if he wants to look at it.

Anyone with the barest minimum of brain activity would clock that she’s scamming him, lying to him, or babbling hallucinated nonsense to him, in around zero seconds.

Willie, however, hangs out in the living room, participating in this conversation as though there’s nothing strange at all. He even pays her $10 for a glimpse of the photograph, after her husband helpfully advises him to save his money.

ALF, "Alone Again, Naturally"

Willie, you fuckbrain.

It turns out to be a picture of a dog with antlers attached to it.

Wow, what a shock. It wasn’t a real alien. Who would have guessed? Fortunately he stops short of paying her to see a picture of the alien’s space ship…but since we later find out that that was his last $10, we probably shouldn’t give him too much credit for learning from his mistakes.

Willie finally begins to tentatively suspect faintly that something might be slightly amiss, and he leaves.

But when he gets back in the car, he looks over and sees ALF doing this:

ALF, "Alone Again, Naturally"

Which makes Willie do this:

ALF, "Alone Again, Naturally"

Quite how Willie made it back into the car without passing ALF on his way to the door, or how he didn’t notice the seat was no longer occupied until this moment, I don’t know.

Even less do I know what the living fuck Willie does after he sees that ALF’s missing, since ALF has the time to have an extended conversation with the woman and her husband in their living room.

Get your ass in gear, Willie! Or at least start the car and drive home, confident at last that your troubles are over.

The old lady is excited that she might be able to make some money off of this creature, but her husband doesn’t want his wife starting up her old sideshow days again. Both of which considerations, bafflingly, seem to take precedence over the fact that there’s a pantsless space alien in their living room.

Eventually, after the spousal argument dies down, Willie rings the doorbell. It sure as hell took him long enough.

The woman tells him to buzz off, so he keeps ringing the doorbell and then she answers it again with a crossbow.

ALF, "Alone Again, Naturally"

And that’s a legitimate laugh.

Really. It’s a perfect bit of visual comedy, and I love it.

Willie backs away, and then calls Kate from a phone booth to explain to her the hilarious Polaroid scam we’ve already seen for ourselves.

If you didn’t like seeing it first-hand, then having Max Wright doggedly relate it, detail for detail, from the inside of a phone booth in the pouring rain is unlikely to enhance its quality in your mind. This guy could be explaining how he saw the towers come down on 9/11 and you’d think he was reciting the side effects of Cymbalta.

Then we cut back to the house and…

ALF, "Alone Again, Naturally"

Okay, another legitimate laugh. This episode has had a few, but I’m pretty sure only one of them was intentional…and it’s not this one.

The woman babbles for a while about how much money she’s going to make off of him, and her husband tells her to shut up and come to bed.

Neither of them seem particularly interested in or worried about the fact that an extra terrestrial lives with them now, but at least she tied him up for the night. All the Tanners did was show him where they kept the booze and their children.

ALF, "Alone Again, Naturally"

Willie climbs through the window, and then sits around with ALF babbling about all manner of pointless bullshit instead of untying him. The husband eventually enters with the crossbow, because short of that this scene is never going to progress.

ALF, "Alone Again, Naturally"

We do get a really fun setpiece out of it, though. Willie attempts to bluff his way through the situation, informing the man that ALF is a creature of unimaginable power…a concept that both the man and ALF struggle to understand.

It’s funny, the way that this bit plays out, with Willie trying to convince the old man that he’s telling the truth, while at the same time trying to get ALF to understand the lie. It’s a funny setup, and the execution is nearly as good, with all three characters struggling to convey or accept what’s happening, without there being time for explanation.

Really, it’s good. And it gets even funnier when ALF catches on and starts moaning and waving his hands at the man, ostensibly demonstrating these powers, while the man just stands there confused.

It’s simple but effective visual comedy…the kind of thing that a low budget sitcom has every right to resort to, and coming at the tail end of a confused episode like this, it works quite well. It’s an absurd, left-field punctuation to a story that wasn’t quite sure what it was about to begin with…and I mean that in a good way.

Since the man doesn’t back off, Willie doubles down on the deception. He says that in ten seconds the man will be “flatter than a flapjack” if he doesn’t let ALF go…which only makes the man more curious. Willie counts down from 10 to one while the stranger stares at him…and then counts back up again.

It’s funnier in action than it probably sounds here. I really like it. Willie’s floundering is when Max Wright’s very particular set of skills, skills he’s acquired over a very long career, come in handy. They enrich Willie rather than distract from understanding his character, and in this case almost — almost — manage to retroactively define who he is.

It’s a fun scene, which would be enough, but it even offers up a nice character moment when the wife comes out of the bedroom…and her husband decides to play into Willie’s ruse.

ALF, "Alone Again, Naturally"

The husband doesn’t want his wife to start up the traveling freak show again, so when she enters the room he pretends he’s in the throes of ALF’s unimaginable powers, and he tells her that he’ll be killed if she doesn’t let them go.

It works, even if the whole “I’ve decided you can go free” ending is pretty anticlimactic in a show that keeps trying to place the utmost importance on ALF not being seen by anyone, ever.

While her husband distracts her, Willie opens the door to escape, but ALF just stands there watching the argument. Willie beckons to him, and then ALF says, “Oh, yeah!” and starts doing his moaning and hand waving imaginary magic again.

Willie’s exasperated reply (“Not that!”) is delivered perfectly, and the whole scene, batshit crazy as it undoubtedly is, helps to elevate — if not redeem — “Alone Again, Naturally.” In fact, a lot about this episode’s setup and conclusion works just fine. The problem is the connective tissue between them, which just feels…undeveloped.

So Willie and ALF escape, and the episode’s as good as over.

ALF, "Alone Again, Naturally"

…only, it’s not. At all.

The short scene before the credits is what does redeem the episode. And it takes an absolutely perfect, well-earned turn.

We see the ride home, with ALF and Willie driving in silence through the rain, before, finally, reflecting on what just happened without actually talking about it.

And you know what?

This is good.

This is kind of really good.

It’s probably the best exchange these two have had since “Night Train.” In some very specific ways, I’d argue it’s even better.

There’s something about the way these two dance around what they mean to say…the things they choose to hold back, or to be vague about. Typically these are just the potholes of bad writing, but in certain contexts, deliberately or not, they manage to enrich the material. The negative space between what is said and what is felt defines the conversation. It makes it difficult. It emphasizes distance…however much those having the discussion would like to cross it.

It’s just…I don’t know. It’s a perfect ending for a less-than-perfect episode, and it very nearly tricks me into thinking I’ve been watching something far better all along.

My description can only do it so much justice, so I’ll put some of it here, unbroken, so you can see.

WILLIE: I’m sorry it didn’t work out.
ALF: Me too.
WILLIE: But I’m glad you’re safe.
ALF: Safe and alone. Species-wise.
WILLIE: You know…we all feel alone at certain times in our lives.
ALF: Feeling alone and being alone are two different things.
WILLIE: I’m sorry, ALF. I wish there was something I could say.
ALF: I actually believed it, Willie. I really convinced myself there might be others of my kind here…

And it continues on from there. No jokes. No silliness. Just two sitcom characters driving through the rain, realizing that they have feelings, and wishing they didn’t.

Is it better writing than usual? I don’t know. I’d like to think so…but maybe not. It’s certainly better acting than usual…and the mood has been established better than usual. And I care more about these two characters than usual. So certainly that counts for something.

It’s a lovely scene, and it explores a what-if. In this case, it’s a sad one. It’s a what-if regarding ALF’s excitement being dashed. It’s about the emotional toll that belief takes on him. It’s about how unfair the universe can be, and how uncaring.

And while it deserves a more solid episode ahead of it, the conclusion is strong enough that I’m willing to give “Alone Again, Naturally” the benefit of the doubt.

It’s easily the best episode of the season so far, and I might even go so far as to say it’s a good one.

It’s not without its flaws — not even close — but it raised a question. It gave us a fun shaggy dog story masquerading as an answer. And then it actually answered the question in a satisfying and understated way.

I like this one. God help me, Paul Fusco…you pulled a bait and switch, and I fell for it.

Thank you.

ALF, "Alone Again, Naturally"

At the very end of the scene, ALF gazes out the window and believes he sees Blinky in the back of another person’s car.

It’s left ambiguous. ALF is convinced he saw this, but Willie says there was no other car.

ALF could be daydreaming, or maybe Willie just didn’t see the passing car through the heavy rain.

Either way, the lack of a definite answer doesn’t make it any less affecting. It’s a nice, mysterious note upon which to end a surprisingly melancholy episode.

It’s left open-ended, with just enough potential for hope, however illusory, that it doesn’t feel tragic.

“Alone Again, Naturally” isn’t the best that ALF is capable of, but I’m okay with that. I like it for what it is. The trip might not have been perfect, but the ride home is downright devastating, and it gives meaning and weight to the experience.

I’ll take that gladly, because it meant somebody cared enough to do this one effectively.

And if that someone was Paul Fusco? Then I just wish that we got to see this side of him more often.

MELMAC FACTS: Melmackian junkfood included “pudding in a shoe,” which was best homemade. ALF had a cousin called Blinky, who was given that nickname because he ate lightbulbs. “I’m so excited I could squirt” was an expression on Melmac, though I sincerely wish it wasn’t.

The Simpsons, Thomas Pynchon

The following is a great article on artistic discussions of the deep web, online privacy, social responsibility, and more, courtesy of UK-based reader Patrick Massey. I found this fascinating, worrying, and enlightening in equal parts, and I hope you experience some mix of those three things as well. Take it away, Patrick.

A “Marco Polo” of the contemporary public sphere: “Internet” and “privacy.” The two phenomena are often yoked together in the news: the various problems of data access (who should be denied it? Whose data should be sacrosanct? What justifies access sub rosa?) swap pre-eminence in public consciousness as the Big Three of ‘net privacy–Snowden, Assange, Manning–swap the limelight. (In this essay, “‘net” refers to both the readily accessible surface Web, typically but carelessly referred to as “the Internet,” hence my coining an alternative term— and the Deep Web, the Internet’s large, largely criminal underbelly.)

In this essay, I want to consider how, not the news, but contemporary visual culture (i.e. screen and theatre of 2013/4) visualizes and/or fails to visualize ‘net privacy. I hope to address familiar issues of ‘net privacy via less familiar co-ordinates. Of course, William Gibson and other genre authors have been addressing cyber-issues, crafting cyber-aesthetics for years; but here I’m thinking of a) the real world ‘net in b) mainstream works of c) the last two years.

SCREEN MEDIA, and The ‘Net/Screen Problem

Documentaries aside (though cf. Terms and Conditions May Apply, Citizen Four), Internet privacy is surprisingly scantly treated in ‘13/4 screen culture. The two so bracketed, ‘net-oriented films I remember most readily–Her and Transcendence–privilege online addiction and a deus ex machina Johnny Depp over issues of ‘net privacy. Even Assange bio The Fifth Estate is more reportage, a primer on its subject and Wikileaks, than a meditation on abstractions or themes (and even then, Assange’s relationship to the media is privileged over ‘net privacy).

In mainstream C21 cinema in sum, ‘net privacy is principally a means to emotive ends. In Hard Candy, Chatroom, and Trust, the abuse of ‘net privacy does not itself merit attention–rather, it enables plot-wise the kidnaps et al that define and rather pre-occupy those thrillers. Even in the Catfish franchise [’10 film + current MTV series], any interrogation of ‘net privacy abuse is suborned to affect: to first terror (“who are these people?”), then horror (“look at those people!”). Although Catfish et al can be, indeed have been starting-points for discussing ‘net privacy, that discussion doesn’t happen in the films themselves.

Such scanty treatment of ‘net privacy on screen owes not only, I think, to auteurs’ simply “not having got round to it”, but also to a fundamental, broader disjunction between the ‘net and screen media. The ‘net does not readily lend itself to concrete visualization. One must get figurative, experimental; but screen media tend towards “meatspatial” settings— realities, however fantastical or futuristic. Consider Star Trek’s holodeck: always a real-world milieu, often Earth-historical, never a Tron-scape. Consider too the recent backdoor pilot for CSI Cyber: introducing a series oriented around the Deep Web, yet resorting latterly to “Female (Early 20s)” showing hard copy evidence of her online chat-room ignominy to meatspatial paparazzi in a meatspatial VEGAS: EXT.

Star Trek, Holodeck

I might suggest three reasons for this disjunction. First, the chokehold of corporate network funding and the likelier non-profitability of experimentalism [versus the realism that characterizes the “New Golden Age” of television]; the desire to fully exploit and justify investment in physical sets; and third (and still more tentatively proffered), the Internet’s being TV and film’s unheimlich, uncanny counterpart, perhaps frustrating the interrogation of the former by the latter… Heady stuff. But the bottom line for us is: if the Internet in sum cannot find a screen aesthetic, what hope for its clandestine, its even less readily visualized cyberspaces? And what hope consequently for addressing ‘net privacy?

Happily, ‘net privacy has been better visualized in theatre of ‘13/4— a medium naturally more amenable to the figurative and the experimental.

THEATRE, and Romancing the ‘Net

In The Net Effect, Thomas Streeter posits romanticism as a key co-ordinate in ‘net studies. He primarily argues that neoliberal forces propagate a romantic individualist idea of computing, and that “capital R” Romanticism can help us understand the social meaning of computers.

With this precedent in mind, I turn to ‘net privacy in theatre of ‘13/4. All the plays I’m going to consider deal with perversions, criminal iterations of ‘net privacy. But none less than Keats was ‘half in love with death’; and however perverse their content gets, these plays evince, if not a Romantic aesthetic per se, then something sufficiently akin that I’m going to draw formal Romantic parallels and beg your indulgence.

Jen Haley’s The Nether deals with online pederasty in a private “Hideaway” [Haley’s device]. In fashioning the Hideaway, Haley eschews a complementarily grimy, abject aesthetic for irony: it is an archetypal country estate, with trees, gazebo, and fishing-pond. Notwithstanding its nominally Victorian context, a Romantic aesthetic— Blakeian innocence, a “Lakeland Poetic” idealizing of Nature— surely underpins a milieu that presents like this:

The Nether, The Hideaway

Blakeian also is Iris, the Hideaway’s resident, white-clad sprite–and “willing” victim of virtual child abuse. Innocent prima facie, but horribly au fait with abhorrent experience (“Perhaps you’d like to use the axe first”): Iris embodies the disjunction that hinges Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. Note finally how, according to its creator, “it’d upset a balance” in the Hideaway to suggest that Iris could grow older: anyone whose mind went to the Romantic organic conception of nature, give yourself a mark.

Price’s Teh [sic] Internet is Serious Business is a reportage piece about the respective rise and fall of the “hacktivist” groups Anonymous and LulzSec. Its dominant aesthetic is anarchic: a ball pit abuts the stage, from and around which emerge Socially Awkward Penguin and other costumed memes. Bright lights, Harlem Shake: you get the drift. At first sight, privacy is not the word here. But Price also depicts hackers’ private forums— and here, the staging tends towards lyricism. Computer code is recited as poetry (cf. Chandra’s recent equivalence of the two, if intrigued); databyte flow, enacted as dance. Here, literarily and physically, is a lyricism where elsewhere is jouissance: thus is privacy “Romanticized” (cf. Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads, Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Dvorak’s New World Symphony…).

James Graham’s Privacy tacks otherwise to Haley and Price. Graham’s is a synoptic approach to ‘net privacy, a condemnation of illiberal governmental/corporate/ security state malpractice as regards ostensibly password-protected public data. Such factuality is not the Romantic way, likewise Privacy’s format: a hybrid of verbatim enactments of his [The Writer’s] interviews with real British Establishment figures (Shami Chakrabarti, anyone? Well, Google her sometime); lectures; and fourth-wall—breaking audience participation. For good measure, Privacy rides roughshod over the Romantic exaltation of the subject: an array of thumbprints is the default [screen] backdrop, and the “subject” of the audience participation (having given prior permission) has her real-world online footprint, herself by proxy dissected onstage.

Privacy, James Graham

Despite all this, Privacy retains a double pertinence. First, it acts as a counter-proof: as its core is non-Romantic, so Privacy does not depict privacy itself [cf. Haley’s Hideaway, Price’s hackers’ forums] but exposes, is an exposé of its absence. Second, its aesthetic rather taps into the “other end” of Romanticism, where rapturous apostrophes fade into disquiet, into sublimity: the awesome dimensions of Big Data, the staging [that screen, those magnified thumbprints] vis-à-vis the actors and the script’s analytical impulse.

So: 2 1/2 proofs and a counter-proof, we might say, of a relationship between ‘net privacy and a quasi-Romantic aesthetic. My humble explanation: that the ‘net (especially the Deep Web) remains so broadly un-comprehended, its depth so untapped, as to inspire from us what “the naked countenance of Earth” [Shelley] inspired from the Romantics.

PYNCHON: A Quick Nota Bene

In another world, where space and time were as playthings, I’d fully discuss Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge: the only “literary” fictional novel that readily comes to mind that not only foreground ‘net privacy as a theme, but actually figures it as a distinct, visualized cyberspace–DeepArcher; conceived of as a ‘grand-scale motel for the afflicted’, for Pynchon’s kindred preterite [cf. Gravity’s Rainbow, or Google judiciously]; variously iterated as train concourse, desert, and galactic Void; and ultimately a Purgatory for leads, lovers, and 9/11 victims all encountered (and killed off) in the narrative. (On a complementary note for that latter point: Kabbalistic imagery and lexis is deployed in descriptions of the Void). Would I could share my MA dissertation with you all; but I’ll highlight simply this: doing what even screen media cannot (at least easily), and in keeping with his typical trickster mode, Pynchon visualizes ‘net privacy chimerically; that one cannot identify a definitive DA-scape is the whole point. A nicely postmodern note, I hope, on which to finish considering contemporary cultural visualizations of the ‘net.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...