Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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Way back when I started this project (almost two years ago, for those keeping track of just how much of my life ALF has sucked away) I grabbed a list of episode titles from Wikipedia. That ended up serving as the base for my main ALF page, with the titles linking to the reviews as they were written. In doing so I didn’t deliberately look at the plot summaries, but, of course, I saw some of them. One of those summaries was for this episode…and though I’ve had some pleasant surprises along the way, this is the one I kept looking forward to.

See, I’m a sucker for “cute” stories. I don’t know why…maybe it just taps into my memories of childhood and I let my guard down. But ALF getting an ant farm, and being overcome with grief when he accidentally destroys it? I like that idea. It’s no more creative than the show’s storylines usually are, but it sounds like a nice idea for a breather episode…and one in which ALF could actually have to process the emotions one feels when faced with the death of a loved one. It’s filtered through a silly $8 ant farm, but since the last time ALF dealt with death he was fisting Uncle Albert’s corpse in the back yard, I’m more than willing to give the show a do-over.

In short, “Funeral for a Friend” seemed to me like exactly the kind of episode I would enjoy. And…overall, I think I do. There’s a lot to like about it, certainly, even if it’s not quite the episode I wished it was. The best thing about it is probably its cute concept, when it should have been a series highlight.

Is that much of a complaint? No, probably not. “Funeral for a Friend” didn’t quite live up to its potential, but it blows 96% of ALF out of the water by virtue of the fact that it had potential, so that’s something.

Anyway, enough stalling; let’s get started! We’re finally on the final disc of season three, so let me just dig it out and…

ALF season 3, disc 4

oh dear Christ no

Willie, I was looking forward to this. Why you gotta be so gross? He looks like he just caught me masturbating.

ALF, "Funeral for a Friend"

Anyway, the episode opens with ALF and Brian leafing through some book of animal pictures. ALF tells Willie that he’s picking out a pet, but Willie reminds him that they already have a cat.

Do you, Willie? Nobody’s mentioned it for weeks, and I don’t know if we’ve seen it since season two. I think Lucky got stuck under the house and none of you assholes noticed. You don’t have a cat anymore. You have a cat skeleton.

Brian gets to deliver some kind of joke. At least, I assume he does. The laughter kicks in and he rolls his eyes after saying whatever the fuck he said, but for all I can tell you he was speaking in tongues. It’s completely unintelligible.

I think it was some kind of irrelevant joke about how he’s taller than ALF now, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying because he’d accidentally sat on a testicle.

ALF suggests they get a horse, and I’m sad that Willie shoots it down so fast. Seeing ALF and Willie get kicked to death by a horse would instantly cement this as the best episode ever made.

ALF, "Funeral for a Friend"

After the intro credits ALF rides around the living room on a hobby horse. He does a John Wayne impression while wearing that actor’s iconic sleeveless jean jacket.

Come on. Surely ALF was low-budget, could it not afford another costume? So far this exact jacket has been deployed to make ALF look like Bruce Springsteen, a hippie, and John Wayne…three things that have no item of clothing in common, let alone this thing that a middle schooler on a class trip left behind in the NBC bathroom. If ALF ever has to dress as Abraham Lincoln he’ll probably be wearing this fucking thing.

Anyway, ALF makes a joke about the hobby horse driving splinters into the underside of his sack, so fucking fuck me for getting my hopes up.

Willie tells ALF that he’ll get a horse over his ugly, hate-filled body, so for fuck’s sake shut up about it. Then he puts an ant farm on the table.

ALF, "Funeral for a Friend"

ALF looks at it. He says, “You got me a pet beach?” …and that’s actually a really funny line. Not too obvious, not too silly…it’s one of those rare ALF jokes that you can laugh at without having to apologize afterward.

Seeing this ant farm brings back a lot of memories. I had one exactly like it when I was a kid. (I assume that many of you did, too.) Specifically I remember the fact that it didn’t come with ants. Willie’s does, which is fine, as this is television, and we don’t need to watch ALF dick around for 6 – 8 weeks before the plot can begin, but I definitely had to mail away for them.

I remember that because when they arrived, the ants were frozen. I don’t recall what we had to do to reanimate them, but when they were unfrozen two of them were stuck together at the head. Both of them were alive, but they couldn’t separate from each other; they were permanently melded forehead to forehead. After a long struggle, one of them decided to decapitate the other. The headless one died, of course…and the other one just had some other dead ant’s head stuck to its face for the rest of its life.

It was pretty fucking miserable. I think it taught me a valuable lesson about hating life.

Willie explains that ALF is a dumbass; this is a chance to observe the behavior of ants as they “work and play in their natural environment.” ALF calls him out rightly on green windmills and plastic trees not being a natural environment, but I find it much more objectionable that Willie thinks the ants are going to play.

Ants don’t play, Willie. They dig and they fall over dead. What you’re seeing are crack goblins. Take your lips off the glass cock for a few days and you’ll stop seeing cartoon characters everywhere you look.

ALF, "Funeral for a Friend"

Later on ALF is in the attic. Brian and Lynn come in to see how the ants are doing, and he says they suck dick; he can’t even teach them to fetch, speak, beg, or suck dick.

Brian agrees with him that ants are pretty fucking boring. Then again Brian has a pet space alien and can’t be arsed to spend time with it so his judgment is probably at least a little skewed.

Lynn has a welcome, human moment with ALF as she tells him the way her parents operate: if ALF is able to prove he’s responsible enough to take care of these ants, they might let him have a bigger pet. It’s exactly the kind of thing we get shockingly little of in this show: an observation about family dynamics. Lynn is somewhere between eighteen and fifty-six years old (depending on the episode), so she’s had a lot of time to learn about the way her parents react to things. Here, she’s passing on the knowledge. If ALF treats the ants like shit, then they’ll always be able to use that as justification for why he can’t have a better pet. If he treats them well, they might be willing to grant him a little more leeway.

It’s good, and ALF’s mildly confused response works well: “So if I take care of these ants I can have…what? Big ants?”

Look at that. Believable human moment punctuated by joke. It’s not that hard, ALF. When you give a shit, you do just fine.

Brian says that his first pet was a turtle, and ALF assures him that nobody even cares if he lives or dies, so there’s no way in fuck they care about his turtle. The kid wisely shuts up.

Lynn asks ALF, “Have you read this question and answer section of your ant watcher’s manual?” That’s a line Jack Nicholson wouldn’t be able to deliver naturally, so you can imagine how poor Andrea Elson trips over it. Honestly, try reading that out loud. The writers sure didn’t, or they’d have realized pretty quickly that no human being speaks that way without a spike through their brains.

ALF tells her, no joke, that he’d planned on reading it the next time he had to take a long shit. Sometimes I exaggerate in these reviews for humorous effect, other times something like this is said and I realize that even my wildest exaggerations are right within the show’s idiotic wheelhouse.

She reads aloud from the booklet and sure enough it says that ants play, which I’m still positive is complete bullshit. Ants don’t fucking play, ALF. They work themselves to death for the good of the colony. They have little or no sense of self, and exist solely to be productive little workers. Ants have been on Earth for over 90 million years, and at no point have any of them invented the beach ball. They don’t fucking play.

Oh, but wait! Brian and ALF conveniently see two ants “playing” just as she says that. The way this episode has panned out so far I genuinely expected the joke to be that these two assholes are watching some ants hump each other, but no. The ants are actually fighting.

Which is not quite the same thing as playing.

Like, not at all.

In fact it’s pretty damned close to being the opposite of playing, as these two insects are slowly hacking each other to death…an activity not commonly associated with one’s leisure time.

So the fact that they view this as evidence of “playing” is pretty stupid, but it’s still a lot better than hearing ALF compliment an ant on its cocksmanship.

ALF, "Funeral for a Friend"

Later on ALF throws a bunch of rice all over the house. Why? Is it because he’s a cunt?

Yes!

But, coincidentally, two of his ants are getting married. He invites Willie and Kate to watch the ceremony with him. It says a lot that in a scene like this, the least believable thing is Kate looking into the ant farm and reporting that the ants are dancing.

Fucking hell. Remember when Kate was a human being, and not the brain-dead pod person she’s been for what feels like this whole season? It’s actually really disappointing how far her character has fallen. Did I miss an episode in which ALF concussed her with a 5-iron or something?

Post-lobotomy Kate aside, I like the idea of what’s happening here: ALF is getting wrapped up in the lives of his little pets. He likes them, and they’re making him happy. Willie even takes ALF’s picture next to the ant farm, and that’s…really cute, actually. I like it when ALF gets to be a child.

Remember, he’s been on Earth for only three years. He’s still learning, and he’s still figuring out how to process things. Essentially, he is a child…just one that can articulate his feelings better than an actual three-year-old kid could. Or than Benji Gregory ever will.

The episodes that acknowledge that — such as this one — tend to at least be interesting. So, yeah, the episode sucks so far, but this is an adorable concept, and I love the fact that they’re exploring it.

Willie asks ALF if he’s happy they didn’t get a horse, and ALF responds with one of those song-lyrics-as-jokes things that WE ALL LOVE SO MUCH. This time he recites the theme to Mr. Ed.

You lucky people.

ALF, "Funeral for a Friend"

In the attic both Lynn and Willie are leaving presents for ALF while he’s in the shower. Lynn’s gift is an “Alan Thicke’s World of Ants” calendar, which I won’t even pretend to understand as a joke, but which I like anyway for some reason. Probably the specificity of it. I have no clue if Alan Thicke is an amateur myrmecologist in addition to being an actor / failed talk show host, but it almost doesn’t matter. A yearly calendar devoted to his findings is a funny idea, whether or not it has any basis in reality.

Willie’s gift is a bunch of little farm toys to display with the ants…and I love, love, love the fact that these two are encouraging ALF’s new hobby. It’s so rare that anybody on this show seems happy, so it’s nice that the one time it happens, the others join in and don’t try to crush it. Also, it must be a really nice change of pace for them to have ALF engaged in something that doesn’t involve rape.

There’s a lovely little moment when Willie finds the photo he took of ALF with his ant farm, on a table beside replacement sand, food, and a model he built of an ant. It’s a super cute moment, and it hints at a warm side of ALF that we almost never get to see. Willie beaming is pretty nice, too, since he so rarely shows any kind of pride in his slutty daughter or learning disabled son.

I really, really like this part.

ALF, "Funeral for a Friend"

But then Lynn sees that the ants are dead.

Well, that’s that, then. The good scene was fun while it lasted. See you in another 16 episodes, everyone.

It turns out that ALF left them by the window and they baked in the sun. Granted, we find out that he’s been in the shower for an hour, and that’s a long shower, but is that enough hot sunlight to kill ants?

I honestly don’t know. I’d imagine they’re more resilient to heat than most pets would be, but I guess I can’t say that for a fact. If one of you assholes had bought me an Alan Thicke’s World of Ants calendar I wouldn’t have to do all of this guesswork.

ALF comes back from his shower and they break the news to him. It’s a sweet moment that doesn’t get too sappy, but the emotion that is present is pitched quite well. In disbelief, he says, “An hour ago, they were working the farm!”

Willie says, “And now they’ve bought it.” This is a historic moment, folks. Max Wright got a joke that didn’t involve ALF slugging him in the nuts.

ALF, "Funeral for a Friend"

After the commercial, ALF is moping alone, sitting quietly with his ant model…which he’s turned upside down out of respect.

Willie brings him a sandwich, but ALF is too sad to eat. Willie asks, “Do you want to talk? I’m trained in this area.” And…

wait.

wait.

Did…am I…

Is this a dream? Or is Willie actually acting like a social worker?

Assholes! WILLIE IS ACTUALLY ACTING LIKE A SOCIAL WORKER

WILLIE IS ACTING LIKE A SOCIAL WORKERWILLIE IS ACTING LIKE A SOCIAL WORKERWILLIE IS ACTING LIKE A SOCIAL WORKERWILLIE IS ACTING LIKE A SOCIAL WORKERWILLIE IS ACTING LIKE A SOCIAL WORKER

This is a genuine shock to me, since he usually addresses his family’s problems by bludgeoning hobos and stabbing farmers to death with pitchforks. I…I am gobsmacked. I really don’t know how to react. It’s as though this episode had such a good idea at its root that it’s even managed to affect Willie, a guy who’s seventy-four years old and has yet to be affected by an interest in intelligible diction. “Funeral for a Friend,” you magnificent bastard.

What’s more, the writing here is pretty good. Willie really does get to be a social worker for once. For instance, ALF says that the ants might have survived if he hadn’t taken so long in the shower…and Willie tells him that that’s okay; it’s common to experience guilt when something you love dies.

ALF asks if anger is natural, too, because he’s mad that Willie got him the ant farm in the first place…and it’s not just a sitcom moment. Willie tells ALF that, yes, it is natural, and it’s healthy to work through your emotions like this. He encourages him to keep going.

For the first time in this entire fucking idiotic show, I actually believe that Willie has the job that people keep telling me he has. Fuckers…this is not bad.

ALF does make some crack about also being mad at CBS for canceling Frank’s Place…and that’s a reference I don’t get. I’ve never heard of the show. Looking it up reveals that it is actually still held in pretty high esteem, though it never made it to a second season.

I feel as though the joke is that ALF liked a shitty TV show or something, but consensus says that it wasn’t that shitty. It was a racially-charged comedy/drama starring Tim Reid, who played Venus Flytrap on WKRP in Cincinnati. That…sounds kind of interesting to me. I’d watch it.

Maybe this reference was just the writing staff’s way of venting frustration that a pretty good show on another network wasn’t given a fair shake. But I’m at least mildly worried that the joke is that ALF watched a “black people” show. God knows what he would have shouted at the television.

Willie offers to buy ALF another ant farm, which is a reasonable solution, but ALF was attached to those ants, which is a reasonable response. He compares it to getting Willie a new wife if Kate died, which is certainly overdramatic but makes a fair point about the scale of loss. Something that seems small to outsiders might be huge to the person who is experiencing it. Willie realizes this, which is why he doesn’t bitch slap ALF.

It all fits as part of a surprisingly well-handled discussion about grief, and I really like this version of Willie. (Have I ever said that before?) Pity he doesn’t even survive to the next scene.

ALF, "Funeral for a Friend"

Yes, this being ALF, we need to follow that very good exchange with a prolonged view of Willie having nocturnal emissions.

God. Dammit. ALF.

He writhes around and giggles because he thinks his wife is giving him the first blowjob he’s had in years (The National Enquirer is NOT to be believed), but it turns out he just has a bunch of ants crawling all over his genitals.

Try to guess how much of that I made up. You’ll be pleasantly horrified.

Ants are all over the house because ALF left a shitload of food out. Willie and Kate go into the kitchen to survey the mess, and Kate gets to be Kate again by burning holes through ALF with her eyes. Man, I’ve missed her. I guess the filth and infestation shocked her back to life. I’ll take it.

Kate really has been a shell of her former self for too long, but this scene almost makes up for it: Willie tells her to go into the living room and he’ll do the cleaning, but she suggests burning down the house and starting over.

And, man, that’s the Kate I’ve missed. Overall I don’t know if Anne Schedeen has finally given up on trying to make the most of this awful show, but it’s nice to have her back…however briefly.

It turns out that ALF invited all the world’s ants into the house to make some kind of amends for killing a bunch of them. Willie says he has an idea about how to handle this, and Kate tells him to go fuck himself; this time ALF is hers.

It really is the best Kate scene we’ve had in ages. Especially when Willie stops her from murdering ALF and suggests that they hold a memorial service for his dead pets.

Kate says, “A funeral for ants?”

She looks at him like this.

ALF, "Funeral for a Friend"

Then she looks at him like this.

ALF, "Funeral for a Friend"

There’s no laughter. I don’t think the writers or editors saw this as a joke. And it’s probably not. It’s just Anne Schedeen being allowed to act again. And compared to the rest of this horse shit it’s glorious. It reminds me of who she used to be, and why she was far and away the highlight of this show.

Instead of violently sodomizing her husband with that broom handle, though, she lets him speak. Willie insists on the funeral, because there can be a good deal of therapeutic value in ritualism, and while his consequent flipping out at ALF is kind of unfunny and dumb, I still like the idea that he’s being a social worker, even if he’s now also being an asshole.

ALF, "Funeral for a Friend"

Anyway, the episode is almost over so we get right to the funeral. It’s in the back yard in broad daylight because at this point the family is actively hoping that Mr. Ochmonek sees ALF and burns him to death with his cigar.

We do get a great sight gag at the funeral, though, when Willie lays a wreath near a bunch of popsicle stick tombstones. It’s a legitimately funny moment, even if the screengrab makes it look like Willie is about to take a dump.

Brian asks if he can take his black armband off, and you can hear the stage crew panic because that means they need to pay the kid for a second line this week.

ALF, "Funeral for a Friend"

ALF officiates the funeral, which is neither as funny nor as sweet as it could have been. But it’s okay…it’s not overtly idiotic or anything, so I’ll take it. The best part is when he calls on Willie to speak about the ants, and the guy has no idea what to say. At a loss for words he ends up complimenting the ants on their hospitality.

It’s a funny moment, but it loses impact as the same joke is repeated with each member of the family in turn.

Then ALF lists off the names of all the ants, and it takes forever because there were a lot of ants. Ha?

While he recites the list of dead, Kate complains that ants are swarming all over the food they prepared. He says, “They’re mourners, Kate,” and that was actually a really cute little joke to end the sequence.

Sadly it doesn’t end the sequence, and he keeps reading names. Was this episode two minutes short or something? God forbid we spend more time in one of the earlier scenes that were actually good.

Later on ALF eats all the food and says Kate’s potato salad tastes like shit. Then he burps and the episode ends. Wubba lubba dub-dub!

ALF, "Funeral for a Friend"

In the short scene before the credits, we find out that ALF wrote to The Morton Downey, Jr. Show. Thank Christ ALF had better sense than to write to his own show’s analog, otherwise we might have had to see that jackass Lenny Scott again.

Anyway, ALF suggested that they add a segment about civil rights for ants. The letter tells him to go fuck himself.

MELMAC FACTS: Orbit gnats were a thing, and they’d get cooked to death by the heat shields on ALF’s space ship.

Fiction into Film is a series devoted to page-to-screen adaptations. The process of translating prose to the visual medium is a tricky and only intermittently successful one, but even the fumbles provide a great platform for understanding stories, and why they affect us the way they do.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestOne Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the film that originally piqued my interest in the process of adaptation. I first saw it in junior high. (This surprises me now, as there’s a good deal of profanity, some nudity, discussions of rape, and simulated masturbation, so we must have had a pretty inattentive substitute that day.) Toward the end of high school, I picked up the novel…and I was shocked by something the moment I started reading it: Chief Bromden was the narrator.

This is an experiment I’ve enjoyed repeating over the years. Whenever I meet somebody who’s only seen the film, I casually mention that the book is narrated by the Chief. Every time, to some degree, I’m met with disbelief and confusion. They go through that same, silent questioning that I went through way back then. Questioning which, I believe, is a testament to the strength of Milos Forman’s adaptation. Bromden narrating the source material doesn’t just land as a quirky surprise…it makes it immediately clear that the book must be a different kind of story entirely.

And it is. The shift in perspective narrows and sharpens the film’s focus, but it also sets into motion waves of less-perceptible effects. This ends up creating a welcome duplication of the original experience, familiar and just far enough removed that the film was able to take on a very deserved legacy of its own.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is probably my example of an ideal adaptation; instead of having one version that trumps (or attempts to trump) the other, we have two versions, existing in two different media, functioning together and also independently. A massive, important, gut-wrenching statement in print managed to become also a massive, important, gut-wrenching statement on film. They share a title, they share a roster of characters, and they arguably share a grander social statement, but the execution in each version is so perfectly tuned to its medium that they’re easy to keep separate. A single ray of light split into two similar but distinct images.

The story of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest doesn’t, on the surface, feel different between the book and the film. Randle Patrick McMurphy — a brash, charismatic criminal — feigns mental illness so that he can ride out his prison sentence with relative ease in an institution. It works, but he soon finds himself locked in a fateful (and ultimately fatal) struggle with Nurse Ratched, who rules with unchecked authority over her numb and defeated patients.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

The struggle between McMurphy and the Big Nurse (as Bromden calls her in the book) is what nearly anyone would talk about when asked to discuss the plot of either version. Rightly so, but its not the only plot Kesey set to the page, and it’s only one filter through which his novel explores the world. Forman — I’d say wisely — eschews everything that doesn’t tie directly into this plot, building continuously and without digression toward the showdown between these two giants. While that means that his film loses a lot of Kesey’s warped, cynical playfulness, it also results in a sharper work…one that has a single, specific, inevitable outcome. There aren’t other threads to wrap up or questions to answer; a story of many things finds what matters most to what it neeeds to say, and discards the rest. It’s a movie about its conclusion; no blinking, no distraction, and nowhere to hide. It knows what it’s doing, like McMurphy. And like McMurphy, it barrels forward anyway, knowing full well that it won’t find a happy ending.

The book takes its time. There are lighter, humorous interludes. It moseys along and takes every opportunity to enjoy (or, at least, linger upon) the view. It knows what has to happen as well, but it finds sober, voyeuristic pleasure in the low-stakes poker games and quiet interactions that its cinematic twin ignores. The novel and the film amount to two journeys past all of the same landmarks, but at a much different pace, with a very different tour guide.

Both approaches work, and they work equally well. This is because Kesey and Forman are both in command of their form. At no point does either version of the tale stray from its creator’s intentions. They’re equally potent. Equally memorable. Equally brutal. They’re different, but I think it would be very difficult to declare with any confidence that one is “better.”

Sweeping Bromden from the central role does more than shift the weight of the story. After all, the novel actually weaves three levels of narrative; by edging him out of the spotlight, we end up with the film’s (cold, deliberate) one. The novel features the McMurphy / Nurse Ratched power struggle, of course, but there’s also the story of Bromden’s tribe (an exploration of America’s treatment of its native population), and his intricate hallucinations of an oppressive social force that he calls The Combine.

All three of these are integral to what Kesey considers to be the story. Forman, by contrast, isn’t interested in Bromden’s background or his daydreams. Very little of either of those makes it into the film, because to Forman’s story, they’re irrelevant; the director obviously came away from Kesey’s book with a powerful message, but it didn’t have much to do with the plight of the American Indian. And so we don’t need Bromden in the central role…which has the logistical benefit of Forman not needing to maneuver the seemingly deaf/dumb Indian into every important scene; in the film, the character simply does not appear where he does not fit.

But with him out of the way, we lose, too, his unreliable narration.

Kesey had a great deal of morbid fun showing us the experience through Bromden’s eyes, eyes crucially warped by the specter of mental illness. Stripping Bromden of narrative detail meant that we lost much of the loopy charm (a sequence in which Santa Claus visits the ward and is forcibly committed [“They kept him with us six years before they discharged him, clean-shaven and skinny as a pole.”] is a cruel delight that could only possibly have a home in the book), but in the absence of an unreliable narrator, the central conflict of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object gains potency.

With Kubrick’s Lolita the source material lost a massive amount of its identity in the absence of an unreliable narrator, but that’s mainly because Kubrick failed to replace this crucial component of the novel with much else. Forman, on the other hand, knows exactly what to do in the absence of Bromden’s unreliable narration: he doubles down, hard, on the reality of the situation. Bromden’s fantastical narration made for some great (and chilling) reading, but Forman offers no distraction. No respite. This is real. This is happening. And you are going to have to endure every moment. Where Kesey dazzles, Forman refuses to blink.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Of course, Forman had a great reason to devote his attention exclusively to the novel’s central conflict: two incredible actors inhabiting the necessary roles. To distract from their performances — however artfully — would have been criminal. Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher are the two main reasons the film works as well as it does, and their roles in making this film a success — of any and every kind — cannot be overstated. Most literary adaptations would kill to have just one actor that perfectly inhabits a character; One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Next has two.

Both of them illustrate (if it still needs illustrating) why it’s far preferable for an actor to inhabit rather than simply resemble a character. Neither Nicholson nor Fletcher match Kesey’s physical descriptions at all, but it would take an extraordinarily warped perspective to conclude that this meant poor casting. In fact, Ratched’s physical appearance, almost entirely a creation of the film, is one of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest‘s most enduring visual touchpoints; her hair and wardrobe now serve as a convenient shorthand for a very specific type of character — always female, interestingly — and we see it in everything from the deliberate homage of Cloris Leachman in High Anxiety to the suggested similarities of Tilda Swinton in Moonrise Kingdom. Nurse Ratched’s physical appearance sticks with us long after the film is over. It’s a triumph of rendering the ordinary horrifying.

Nicholson plays McMurphy as an agent of calculated chaos. He rips into the meticulous order of the ward from the moment he’s uncuffed (literally that moment, as the first thing he does is whoop joyously…something that even this early in the film we know doesn’t happen often here). He sets about introducing himself to the other patients, interrupting their games, and making sure they know his name. He treats them — to their clear surprise — like human beings. That doesn’t mean that he treats them well, exactly, but that’s okay. He treats them the way he’d treat anyone else. And that in itself is enough to set the wheels in motion: the patients begin to suspect they might not be so different after all.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

By contrast, Fletcher inhabits Nurse Ratched as a looming wraith. She rules her ward not with an iron fist — a simplification that must have been tempting for both authors of the tale — but with perfect calm. With a smothering delicacy. With glares and implications. And she is — pardon the language — fucking terrifying.

She’s a villain perfectly secure in the knowledge that she can never be threatened, because she also has the final say in who wins. As Bromden observes in the book, you can probably beat her once, but you need to keep beating her forever. There’s no victory state for her hypothetical antagonist…just an endless series of wins and losses until, all at once, there are no more wins.

In the struggle between them McMurphy is the clear hero, but at no point is it reduced to a simple conflict between “good and evil.” McMurphy may be the more humane combatant, but he fleeces, cheats, and uses his fellow patients in service of his own ends…and saying nothing of the fact that he was imprisoned for statutory rape, which is something he even brags about. And Nurse Ratched, for all that is clearly wrong with her methods, is ultimately in her position for a reason: many of her patients do have legitimate mental health issues, and her ostensible concerns (medication, respect for the schedule, the dangers of McMurphy’s schemes) are sound.

Nurse Ratched may be doing a number on the confidence of the men in her ward, but she’s seen (in both the novel and the film) by the rest of the hospital as one of their most valuable members. We also see her at her worst, but to her supervisors and colleagues, she’s great at her job and a valued member of staff. Clearly she’s doing something that at least seems like good work, and it can’t all be illusory.

The complicated nature of the struggle is part of why it works so well. Nurse Ratched isn’t pure evil, which is why she’s so often able to stymie McMurphy; she makes fair points. Her intentions may be less noble than his, but her reasoning — she makes very sure — is solid and defensible. And McMurphy isn’t pure good, coming across as an obnoxious braggart while still serving, remarkably, as a savior. She’s a cruel angel of mercy, and he’s a selfish asshole who makes the ultimate sacrifice. such a balance is hard enough to achieve in writing; on screen, Nicholson and Fletcher each achieve the impossible.

Fletcher masterfully embodies the personable horror that is Nurse Ratched. Hers is the most natural portrayal of an unnatural terror that I have ever seen, and her flat expressions and piercing glares are positively withering. The film does such a great job of building the dread one feels when she just steps into a room that when she finally has reason to bare her teeth in anger, it’s genuinely scary.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Hers is a silent brutality…effortlessly chilling and immensely dangerous without displaying any emotion whatsoever. The moment emotion does come to the surface, it’s unbearable. We know exactly how she maintains order on her ward; keep everyone that close to breaking, and it doesn’t take much to finish the job.

In the book, we Bromden in a position to tell us all of this in as many words. In the film, Forman conveys all of the same things visually…hanging on her icy glare long enough for us to sense, innately, in our bones, how unbreakable, untouchable, undefeatable she is. She reduces patients to tears and dismay without so much as raising her voice. She fixes the aggressive and the docile with the same look, and they wither equally.

One interesting thing Forman does is forbid her, nearly always from sharing the frame with any of her patients. In passing, yes, there are times that she does share space…but when she does it’s with McMurphy, who is meant to be seen as toppling barriers anyway. The rest of the time she engages with them we cut from the patient to Nurse Ratched, and then back to the patient. She exists behind invisible boundaries that they dare not cross, and which she is perfectly happy to maintain her end. She does not share their space…and she does not allow them to share hers.

Forman emphasizes this silently, visually, gorgeously. The camera functions like the glass window of the nurses’ station; it invisibly isolates the patients from the one who is ostensibly there to help them. And, like that glass window, it’s McMurphy who eventually shatters it.

She is, however, framed frequently with other members of staff, in particular her three orderlies. The orderlies, in turn, are often framed with the patients, and this establishes — completely visually — the entire caste system of the ward.

The patients are on one end, the Big Nurse is on the other. The orderlies go where they’re needed in order to execute Nurse Ratched’s wishes, and she never needs to get her hands dirty. Bromden tells us all of that in the book. Forman doesn’t say a word.

And when this visual restriction is shattered for good with the film’s climactic strangling, we feel a barrier being destroyed. McMurphy takes control of Nurse Ratched’s space at last…and we know, unquestionably, that this must be the last time it happens as well.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Though Forman’s take on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest feels like a pretty straight adaptation on the surface, there are a lot of significant alterations, nearly all of which benefit the film.

For instance, we don’t get the series of patient deaths that we do in the novel. There, at least three patients (Old Blastic, Rawler, and Cheswick…the latter two by suicide) die before the fateful ward party that takes Billy Bibbit and (indirectly) McMurphy, but in the film Billy is our first casualty, and it ends up having more weight in Forman’s telling as a result. The film doesn’t let show us patients dying, so when Billy cuts his throat we feel it all the more deeply; this wasn’t something that we thought could happen.

The death of Billy has more bite in the film, I’d argue, and that’s probably because it was unprecedented. Billy isn’t the next death…he’s the death. And when McMurphy reaches for Nurse Ratched’s throat, it’s not because it happened again, but because it happened at all.

And just as Billy’s death is repositioned as the death, McMurphy’s role becomes singular, too. In the novel, we get a few flashback featuring a patient known as Taber, who questioned Nurse Ratched’s authority and methods. Taber was, essentially, pulling the same duty as McMurphy. He needled the Big Nurse, refused to take his medication, and raised issues that the other patients were too docile or embarrassed to raise. Nurse Ratched, in return, made sure that he was embarrassed, abused, and eventually broken by electroshock therapy. Though he was discharged, he was not the same man. His story, relayed briefly by Chief Bromden in the book, is McMurphy’s entire arc in micro. A nice touch, but in comparison to the film this makes McMurphy less of a singular force. In the book he’s the latest in a line of disruptions, whereas in the film, he is the disruption.

Most interesting about this change is the fact that Forman includes Taber in the script. He’s played by an underutilized (but still very good) Christopher Lloyd, and he’s right there on the ward with McMurphy. What’s more, many of his lines from the book are given to McMurphy.

While it would have been easy to not include Taber at all, Forman wants us to see that what happened in the book did not happen in the movie. We don’t get to imagine that at some point in the past there was a Taber. Forman wrenches him out of the flashbacks and sits him down right where you can see him, all so you know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that McMurphy isn’t just offering another chance to the other patients; he’s offering the only chance they’ll ever have.

Probably the smartest major change, though, is Forman’s abandonment of the “Matriarchy” nonsense.

In most ways, Kesey’s novel has aged extraordinarily well. It’s gorgeously written, effectively harrowing, and socially sharp. Yet his seeming concerns about the Matriarchy read as preposterous — and more than a little embarrassing — today. The idea that men would be castrated (literally and figuratively) by an all-powerful Womanhood, to whom they’d sacrifice their autonomy, and which would hold all of the power and authority in the nation, reads even sillier today than it must have in 1962. Perhaps back then it was possible to see this as a cause for some concern; and, hey, for all I know One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest single-handedly prevented America from sliding helplessly into the tyrannical grip of unbridled femininity. I don’t and can’t know. Today, though, it’s patently absurd, and the belief that women hold (or are in danger of holding, or who would systematically destroy mankind once they managed to hold) absolute power requires a complete disconnect from anything even resembling reality.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

It’s tempting to handwave the book’s suggested misogyny as stemming from the diseased mind of Chief Bromden, but it manifests itself in too many facets (several of which have nothing to do with Bromden) to be entirely a product of his narration. It’s Bromden’s mother, it’s Nurse Ratched, it’s Harding’s wife, it’s Billy’s mother, it’s even the teenage girl McMurphy rapes. The Matriarchy — which is mentioned and cautioned against by name — is a very real threat in the world of novel, and it’s one that beats down each of the men. Forman, intelligently, ignores this entirely, and even announces as much at the beginning of the film when McMurphy is admitted. There we get a shot of patients from other wards looking upon him with curiosity…and they’re women. In the novel, the patients are exclusively male. Here, with one shot, Forman brushes aside the distasteful paranoia and lets us know something important: these things are horrible not because they’re happening to men, but because they’re happening to people. Gender doesn’t enter into it.

This is also reflected in the revised role of Dr. Spivey, who in the film is ineffectual, rather than henpecked. In the book he is present at all of the ward meetings, mainly to demonstrate the fact that he’s under the thumb of Nurse Ratched as well, even though he is technically her superior. In the film, he rarely leaves his office, meaning we get less of a sense that he’s under her (or anyone’s) control.

This is important, because this version of Dr. Spivey is not cowing in fear…yet he still fails to be of much use. He’s not rendered powerless by the Matriarchy; he’s simply not very good at his job.

If the film has a weakness (and I’d personally say it has a few), it’s the fact that it’s made up of big scene after big scene. As nice as it is to have the sharper focus of Forman’s vision and the inexorable march toward the climactic gut-punch, the novel’s quieter scenes are missed. Nearly every scene in the film is a confrontation, the build-up to a confrontation, or the aftermath of a confrontation. It’s exhausting; it can feel draining to watch…which, admittedly, is likely enough a deliberate way of getting us to feel some of what McMurphy must feel. But this comes at the expense of the feeling of misfit community that the book conjures up so wonderfully. Card games, small talk, a trip to the hospital library. Scenes that, sometimes, do little more than make the tiny universe of ward life feel more real…but that’s exactly why they’re missed. When we jump from big moment to big moment, that sense of gradual build is sacrificed in favor of something more like an emotional slideshow.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Much of these missing quiet moments are down to the reimagining of the character Harding, who in the novel serves repeatedly as McMurphy’s verbal sparring partner. That Harding is as intelligent as McMurphy is brash, and they form a begrudging respect for each other; each has what the other is too proud to admit he wants. Like McMurphy, the novel’s Harding is one of the least sick men on the ward, and most of his troubles (such as they are) seem to stem from worries about his wife’s sexuality, and suspicions about his own. Outside of McMurphy and Bromden, he’s the most important of Kesey’s patients, and it’s through him that most of the novel’s foreshadowing unfolds.

In the film, Harding is more helpless than intelligent, and Nicholson’s McMurphy, for whatever reason, can’t stand him.

It’s a major shift in dynamics from the book. Book Harding rises to McMurphy’s taunts…and the two settle into a kind of unexpected friendship. Film Harding shrinks before McMurphy’s taunts…and therefore never earns his respect. The book and the film, as a result, seem to form a pair of realities, each of which exploring the way in which Harding’s role changes, based upon two different, hypothetical reactions to McMurphy.

So far away from the often chummy banter the two share in the book, in the film McMurphy ruins his Monopoly game, spits a pill in his face, cuts in front of him in line for medication, teases him about his sexuality, kicks him out of the basketball game, and — the biggest slight of all — he introduces him as Mr. Harding before the fishing trip, whereas everyone else gets to be Dr. Cheswick, Dr. Taber, Dr. Scanlon (the famous Dr. Scanlon), and so on. In short, McMurphy treats Harding noticeably worse than he treats the other patients.

It’s an interesting change, as though Book McMurphy sees in him a source of valuable advice (and information), while Film McMurphy sees him as someone who needs to be knocked down a peg. This, I think, is due to the fact that Harding’s purpose in the novel is rendered redundant on film. In the book Harding had to relay information to the reader; he was the only character who could. Bromden can’t (ahem) speak and isn’t to be entirely trusted anyway, Nurse Ratched wouldn’t dare vocalize her intentions, McMurphy is new on the ward and learning things along with us…but Harding fit the role nicely. He was relatively sane, relatively reliable, relatively friendly, relatively talkative, and had been on the ward long enough to know which end was up. In the book, his was the most trustworthy voice.

In the film, however, there’s no need for him. Forman conveys with quiet visuals what Kesey detailed in meticulous text. The audience picks up on things by virtue of simply seeing them, and the film trusts them enough to fill in the blanks.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Forman also skimps decidedly on the foreshadowing. Whereas Kesey needed Harding to explain the nature of electroshock therapy or lobotomy, Forman doesn’t want him talking. When those moments hit, he wants them to hit both hard and unexpectedly. Just as the string of deaths was stripped from the film and Taber was stripped of his role as proto-McMurphy, Harding was stripped of his warnings. Forman didn’t want the audience to be told what was coming. The audience would know, because that’s how inevitability works, but somehow it’s scarier, more effective when it’s not spoken of aloud.

I’d argue that Forman’s rollout of horrors is handled more artfully than Kesey’s, but that’s just a matter of opinion, and even then I can’t say that I have a strong preference either way. What I do prefer is that Forman’s methods force us to side with McMurphy. In the novel, we know ahead of time what he’s getting himself into, and we have every right to question his intelligence (and, erm, sanity) when he pushes forward anyway. In the film we learn as he learns…which is as the punishments are lashed upon him. This makes us feel protective, feel angrier on his behalf, and see clearly the importance of his rebellion.

Forman’s unblinking lens (the precise opposite of an unreliable narrator) illustrates the toll this rebellion takes on McMurphy by refusing to cut away. The electroshock therapy scene makes for intensely difficult watching, simply because of how naked it feels. There’s no movie magic here; it’s a man on a gurney, acting out his pain. We don’t get any fake electricity sound effects, we don’t cut to black and leave the audience to imagine things, and we don’t have another character explain to us what the experience is like. Kesey’s depiction of the punishment is entirely internal, relayed through Bromden. Forman’s is entirely external, captured through a camera’s lens. Both of them in perfect keeping with the strengths of their format.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

This is McMurphy, writhing in agony, and we are not spared a second. Whatever the strength of his swagger after this scene, from this point on it’s impossible to not be aware of the effect it’s having on him. We’ve seen him at his most vulnerable. We’ve seen how doomed his rebellion really is. It’s something he’ll never reveal to the other patients…but we’ve already seen it.

Of course, the electroshock therapy scene is also where we learn that Chief Bromden is neither deaf nor dumb…a significant change considering that we know these things from the very start of the novel.

It’s yet another very interesting effect of sidelining Bromden. What was one of the very first things we learned in the book — one that shaped the way in which every event was reported to the reader — becomes a mid-film surprise. In both cases Bromden speaking represents a major evolution for the character, and is crucial evidence of the positive impact McMurphy is having on his fellow patients. But the film allows us to share McMurphy’s surprise, and his incredible series of reactions to the development.

At first he can’t bring himself to believe that the Chief thanked him for a stick of gum, so he does what any good scientist would do: he offers him another, to see if he can repeat the result. Nicholson’s performance throughout this entire scene is a thing of beauty, starting with the fact the he can’t decide if this is evidence that he’s helping Bromden, or going insane himself.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

When Bromden does speak again (“Ah, Juicy Fruit.”) it’s just after McMurphy loses hope, and looks away. At this point Nicholson leaps into a state of elation and laughter, as we likely do in the audience as well.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

And this quickly shifts into worry as he remembers where he is. “What are we doing in here, Chief?” he asks, immediately sobered.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Nicholson cycles through this series of emotions flawlessly…and they each feel as though they spring from the previous one naturally. It’s profoundly sad that when he realizes that he has a confidant in the Chief, he opens right up to him. It demonstrates how starved he is for somebody, anybody, that he can communicate with in a significant way.

The surprise of Bromden speaking is probably the most famous moment in this film, apart from — of course — the ending. And it succeeds because of how perfectly, and simply, it balances everything that’s happening in the entire story. The idea of actual vs. feigned mental illness, power rendering its victims helpless, the punishment that’s unfolding in the background and about to engulf them, the psychological retreat of the men, the fleeting smallness of triumph.

It’s an equally powerful moment in both media, but it plays differently in each. Which might actually be the best part about it; if you’ve already experienced it in one version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the other still has the capacity to surprise.

This commiseration with the Chief is perhaps the first sign of the toll McMurphy’s rebellion is taking on him, and the electroshock therapy that follows cements it. In the novel, that same toll is relayed in a much different way. There, McMurphy takes a short detour after the fishing trip to show the patients his childhood home. He doesn’t get out of the car…he just tells them stories. He seems to be the same person he always was, except that Chief Bromden catches a glimpse of his face in an expected splash of light, and he sees a tired and hurting man. Bromden sees then what their all-too-human savior is going through.

It’s one of the most significant and important moments in the entire novel…and Forman snips it. That’s not a problem in itself, since — as with most of his snips — it’s in aid of showing rather than telling, and it’s a change that suits the medium. The problem is that Forman doesn’t also snip the fishing trip. Its most important moment has been excised, but the outing is still here…a bloated, uncomfortably silly sequence robbed of its purpose, breaking the sense of suffocation and claustrophobia for no real narrative or artistic gain.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

It’s an unfortunate example of flab in an otherwise perfectly constructed film, one which thrives on (and is weakened by any distance from) the central conflict between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy.

The extraordinary tension between the two, even (or especially) when they are both completely silent, makes the film what it is. At no point in their scenes together does one get the sense that we are watching two actors give us a performance; this is real, cold, calculated abuse, and as the story progresses both Kesey and Forman do a great job of ratcheting up the pain, the desperation, and the stakes.

It begins with their very first meeting, a group therapy session on McMurphy’s first day. And we know something is wrong not because the characters tell us, but because they say nothing. Forman catches Nurse Ratched flicking her eyes to her new charge. McMurphy just sits back and observes. Neither of them have any concept of the struggle they’re already locked into, but they both know well enough to size each other up, and identify whatever weaknesses they can. Whether in the prison or the mental institution, they each know the threat that one person with power can wield.

When two actors work well together, it’s often referred to as chemistry. What Fletcher and Nicholson have is something more like toxicity. There’s a genuinely scary, deeply affecting darkness that runs between them from the beginning of the movie through the end. At no point do we or can we suspect that they will come to respect the other’s point of view. There will be no compromise. When it ends, only one of them can remain standing. They both know that, and neither would dare give up the fight.

Throughout everything — the fishing trip, the patients pretending the watch the World Series, the basketball games, the electroshock, the group therapy sessions — this is the conflict that looms. This is the knowledge that is never far from what we are watching unfold before us. Like McMurphy laughing when the Chief thanks him, any joy we feel on the ward is fleeting. We can chuckle at the funny parts and ponder the profound parts, but quickly, sadly, soberly, we remember where we are.

What are we doing in here, Chief?

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Several times throughout the course of the film it’s made clear that Nurse Ratched — for all her perceived good — cares more about demonstrating her power than she does about what’s right for the patients. One of these demonstrations comes in the electroshock therapy scene, and it’s more than just the fact that this method of “therapy” is being deployed as punishment.

She sends three patients, after all, for the treatment. Sending McMurphy makes sense; he smashed the window to the nurse’s office and punched one of her orderlies. Sending Bromden, too, makes sense; he participated in the ensuing brawl. But the third patient, poor Cheswick, did nothing. He was neither violent nor uncontrollable; he was voicing his concerns about cigarette rationing in a way that was indeed aggressive, but was by no means deserving — as she well knew — of severe punishment. What he needed was somebody to help him calm down, but she decided instead to us him to make a point: when you enable or support or befriend her enemy, you become her enemy.

A more significant example comes at the end of the film, when she finds Billy Bibbit the morning after the party, having lost his virginity and freed himself of his stutter. She breaks him down, threatening to tell his mother, refusing to give anything in the way of support even as he is dragged screaming down the hallway. She tells her orderlies to lock him in the doctor’s office, alone. Even if he didn’t commit suicide in there, it’d be difficult to find any kind of therapeutic value in her verbal abuse and threats toward the boy.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

When Billy takes his own life, a direct result of his treatment at the hands of the Big Nurse, McMurphy snaps. The rage building behind Nicholson’s eyes is a perfect (maybe the perfect) example of why he’s one of the best actors we’ve ever had. He isn’t Jack Nicholson. He’s R. P. McMurphy. An angry dog at the end of his chain, just before breaking free.

We know what’s coming, and Forman’s camera lingers, letting them share the same shot longer than he has before, McMurphy seething while Nurse Ratched must see him, but is unable to process it. She’s in crisis control mode, but it’s for a different crisis.

The camera holds steady until McMurphy breaks, and he takes her by the throat.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

Now, Forman’s careful, deliberate shooting instantly and artfully shatters. His was a calm camera. His takes were long. His editing deceptively simple. Everything was carefully blocked and arranged. He was documenting, after all, a ward of order.

Until McMurphy gets both of his hands around order’s neck, and throttles it against the wall.

The camera can’t keep up. Patients keep getting in the way of the shot. There’s not a clear view of what’s happening, at least never for long, but we can feel it. We see it even when we can’t.

He beats her against the wall. He tackles her to the ground. He chokes her long enough that the life begins to leave her, and the camera is as shocked and unable to process all of this as the patients. It, too, seems to have still been reeling from Billy’s suicide. It only just barely manages to catch the next development. And it doesn’t get a chance to breathe until Nurse Ratched does too…as McMurphy is knocked unconscious from behind by one of the orderlies she — literally — could not live without.

In the end, McMurphy is removed from the ward. As in the novel, rumors spread of his escape. As in the novel, he returns after an extended absence. As in the novel, Nurse Ratched has had him lobotomized.

But there a few differences here, and significant ones. Bromden euthanizes him, in both cases so he will not serve as a barely-alive testament to Nurse Ratched’s incontestable authority, and escapes.

In the novel, this happens after McMurphy’s body has already been on the ward for a while, and has been examined and processed by the other patients. In the film, Forman returns McMurphy to his bed in the middle of the night, and Bromden is the only one to encounter him in this vegetative state.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

This means that in the novel, in a relative sense at least, Nurse Ratched got what she was after. McMurphy didn’t live long on the ward after his operation, but every minute that he was there registered as a triumph for her. He was a monument to her success.

In the film, she has no such monument. Bromden, heartbreakingly, tells McMurphy that he’s finally ready to escape…and then sees the scars. He’s too late. He hugs McMurphy, or what’s left of him, to his chest. And then he smothers his friend with a pillow.

None of the other patients see McMurphy before he’s killed. In fact, they don’t realize anything is happening until Bromden hurls the control panel through the window and escapes…his final gesture serving as a moment of conflicted triumph in both the book and the film, and the perfect ending to each.

But something happens as Bromden runs away in the film that can’t happen in the book: his fellow patients (Chewsick, Taber, Harding, et al.) watch him go. In the book, those people are all gone for various reasons. Largely, they’ve found the strength to leave the ward. And they do, before McMurphy’s body is ever returned. This is evidence, obviously, of the effect McMurphy had on them. The patients may have been committed voluntarily, but they still could not leave. Thanks to the acts and miracles of McMurphy, they finally do. They sign themselves out, and they don’t look back. Bromden remains because he’s not a voluntary patient…and by the time McMurphy returns, he’s one of the few on the ward who would recognize him.

This makes Bromden’s gesture that much more important in the film. The patients were strong enough to leave before this moment in the novel, but they were still not strong enough to leave in the film. In Forman’s vision, Bromden is the first one out, not the last. His final gesture is as important to the rest of the patients as anything McMurphy did for them, whereas in the novel it’s unlikely that any of them even find out it happened.

Though the Chief’s final decision plays out the same way in both versions, in the novel it’s mainly for him. In the film, it’s for everybody. It’s for everybody left. It’s a final chance for them to act on everything McMurphy had been trying to get them to act on all along.

In the novel, McMurphy succeeded…though he’d never know it. He did convince them that they were no more crazy than anybody on the streets. He did convince them that life was worth living, and that fear was not worth nurturing. He did convince them that there was more to being alive than safety and routine. None of them got the chance to thank him for it, but they all took it to heart…and they all signed themselves out.

In the film, if anyone succeeds, it’s Chief Bromden. The spirit of McMurphy lives on through him…a testament to a friendship deeper than either of them realized it was. It’s an incredible and enduring moment in cinema, and one rendered more important to the other characters by directorial decision, and the simple shifting of narrative perspective.

In the novel, the ending had to be more significant to Bromden, because it was Bromden’s story. In the film, the story belonged to McMurphy, and when he died the ending belonged to everybody.

That’s why it’s so surprising for those who start with the film to find out that Bromden is the novel’s narrator. It means that however similar the two tellings might be, the shift in perspective makes it an entirely different kind of story.

And that’s bound to be at least a little bit of the reaction; the welcome surprise that they’ll get to experience it anew, in a different format, all over again.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
(1962, Ken Kesey; 1975, Milos Forman)

Book or film? I genuinely can’t say. Each is a powerful, devastating, nearly-perfect work in its own right. I’d love to hear from somebody in the comments who does prefer one to the other, because I’m unable to view them as anything other than glorious equals. If I must choose for the sake of choosing, though, I’ll go with the book. It’s portable.
Worth reading the book? Definitely.
Worth watching the film? Definitely.
Is it the best possible adaptation? Yes. The casting and performances could not possibly be bettered, and a hypothetical smoothing out of its rougher edges wouldn’t necessarily make for a better film, nor would including a larger sample of the book’s content. It endures for a reason, and it’s hard to imagine a version working better than this already does.
Is it of merit in its own right? It does exactly what an adaptation should do; it preserves the integrity of the source material while making all changes necessary to suit the medium of film. It not only has merit in its own right; it is its own unforgettable, profound, haunting experience, which both enhances and stands entirely apart from the novel.

Old Muggins Here

July 25th, 2015 | Posted by Philip J Reed in Meta - (6 Comments)

Noiseless Chatter Incredimug

Have you ever wished you could support this site?

Of course not. But haven’t you wished for a way to consume hot liquids without drinking straight from the coffee maker?

Now I’ve got your attention.

For a small (and by no means expected or mandatory) contribution to the site, you’ll get an official Noiseless Chatter Incredimug as a way of saying thanks. And these things are…kinda awesome. Seriously; they’re pretty rockin’ quality.

They’re very sturdy, and I’ve been using mine for a few weeks. It’s a great little vessel, and if you’re ever feeling lonely the glorious golden visage of Mr. Fabiola (THAT IS THE NAME OF THE ROBOT) will be more than happy to listen to your problems.

It also features the URL of the site, in case you forget it or want to start some awkward conversations at work.

The cost is $18, and I apologize for that. It’s a solid, weighty mug, which I like…but it means that more than half of that cost is shipping. Speaking of which, that only applies to addresses within the continental U.S. If you live in another country (or those two states we don’t talk about) you might be out of luck for now. Sorry. If you really, really want one, and don’t mind paying way too much to ship a coffee mug to your house, get in touch and we’ll see what we can do.

For now, though? If you ever wanted to show your appreciation in a way that supports the site and nets you one fuck of a coffee mug (wine fits in it, too), you really can’t go wrong.

Honestly, thanks for reading. The fact that I have such a stellar audience means more to me than selling a mug ever could. But the more money this site brings in, the less time I have to spend freelancing, which means I can post here more often, so there’s that.

One thing’s for sure: you’ll never meet anyone else who has one. If you do, though, smash it so they have to buy another.

THE OFFICIAL NOISELESS CHATTER INCREDIMUG: $18 (includes shipping, continental US only
To buy click this thing below. All major credit cards accepted, I think. Ships within 2-3 days.





ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

“Torn Between Two Lovers” is by no means a very good episode of ALF Hell, it wouldn’t be a very good episode of anything. It is, however, a pretty interesting one. More interesting than I’d have expected an episode about sitting around talking about a school dance to be, at least.

One of the interesting things is that there’s a subplot in this episode, which is pretty rare. Thinking back, I don’t know how many episodes actually more than one story unfolding in parallel. “Movin’ Out” was one; that had Willie’s new job and the impending sale of the house. “Fight Back” had Willie pursuing bureaucratic justice while ALF’s faction went for Melmacian street justice. And here we have whatever the fuck Lynn is doing, while ALF cleans the kitchen.

I didn’t say it was a good subplot, but it has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Well…it ends, anyway.

The episode opens with the subplot, as we encounter ALF making hilarious puns about the names of cleaning products until the cold open is finished and the episode can finally begin.

He’s surrounded by all of these cleaning products because he’s helping — in an extraordinarily elastic sense of the term — to keep the house clean while Kate is away at detox. (Because damn, guys…how can a house stay presentable without a woman on 24-hour cleanup duty?)

And, no, the detox thing is not my joke…it’s ALF’s. Lynn clarifies that Kate’s actually away at a real estate seminar. So…she still works at that place she we’ve only heard about twice and haven’t seen for 11 weeks? Sorry Lynn, but I think ALF’s right. It’s far more likely she’s at detox.

Actually, does this “the family has to pitch in” subplot imply that nobody pitched in with the housework before this very moment? Even though Kate’s heavily pregnant and working a full-time job? And even though none of them have any social life or other obligations to speak of?

What a pack of assholes.

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

After the credits, some guy comes over and slips his tongue into Lynn. She calls him Danny, and…

…wait. Danny?

As in Danny Duckworth? From the first episode of this season?

I don’t want to go back and watch that one again (ever), so I’ll have to rely on IMDB for confirmation. And, yes, this is the same character. A character that we have neither seen nor heard about for 18 weeks. Wow…and I thought Kate’s occupation was a deep cut.

There’s no problem with bringing Danny back, in theory. In fact, I should like this, because it’s evidence that somebody, at some point, paid some degree of attention to some fucking thing that’s happened in this show. But Danny was a complete non-entity the first time around. Of all possible characters, why bring him back?

What’s your favorite Danny Duckworth quote? Do you remember anything he said or did? I sure don’t, and I’ve written more about ALF than anyone else will for the remainder of time. So while I like the idea that a character has come back for another episode, I’m not sure Danny Duckworth is the one that deserves the honor. And since it’s been almost an entire season since we’ve seen or heard anything about him, why not just invent a new boyfriend at this point?

That latter question is a good one, I think…especially since “Promises, Promises” (working title “Sexual Predation Follies”) aired a few weeks after that, and centered on Lynn’s involvement with three different guys: Patchouli, Eddie, and Randy.

“Lynn is still dating Danny” isn’t such a terrible thing to tell the audience, but telling them that so long after she started dating him, with no indication that he still existed within the universe of the show, and after we’ve seen her date at least three guys other than him, you have to wonder why they bothered. It really should have been a brand-new boyfriend for all it matters to the episode, let alone to the audience.

Danny tells her that he can’t take her to the spring dance tomorrow, because he has a family reunion, which is the sort of thing only sitcom characters have to deal with spur of the moment. Lynn is devastated by the news that the guy she hasn’t heard from for four and a half months (not counting reruns) won’t be around tomorrow, either.

She’s clearly disappointed, and Elson’s acting here is not that bad. At the risk of sounding rude (something I hope NEVER HAPPENS IN THESE REVIEWS), I think she’s good here because she doesn’t have many actual lines. She doesn’t have to say sad things, she simply has to seem sad as she closes the door behind him…and she’s good at that. I’ve mentioned before that I don’t think she’s much of an actress…but she definitely understands emotions, and when she gets to channel them, she’s not bad.

After she closes the door she sighs sadly. I actually like that part…but then, for some inexplicable reason, there’s a laugh from the audience.

And that’s just…odd. Normally I’d assume a joke was cut, but I’m watching the uncut episodes now so it’s not as though some careless syndication editor snipped a punchline and left the laughter. This is, I have to assume, exactly how the original episode aired.

Even stranger: ALF doesn’t have a studio audience, which means that somebody actively decided to paste laughter here.

There was no joke…she just closed the door and then started moping around on the verge of tears. Cue massive chuckle.

…what? Why would you trigger the laugh track for that? What the actual fuck was going through somebody’s mind?

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

Anyway who cares why we’re laughing at a young girl’s heartache because back in the kitchen ALF shrunk a sweater!!!!!!

Jesus Christ. Is every lousy sitcom required to do exactly this joke, with exactly this prop, at some point in its shitty life?

Lynn comes into the kitchen to repeat for us everything we just heard in the previous scene. It’s not a good sign when an episode can’t bring itself to get out of bed in the morning.

Willie asks if there’s anyone else she can take to the dance, because, let’s face it, Lynn, those pants have never been buttoned for long. ALF thinks he might be free, and says he’ll check his Week At-A-Glance.

But then he doesn’t move.

He just stares vacantly for a while as the fake audience yuks it up endlessly.

Did we really need to give ALF a glory hold for that? I didn’t even think it was a punchline…I figured he’d dig out a little book and read out some hilarious appointments or something.

I don’t know. I’ve given up on this show being funny…but is it too much to ask that it at least respects what a joke is?

Lynn and Willie talk briefly about how she’s feeling, and abandon it immediately when ALF starts talking about Melmacian courtship. Man, if that’s not the entire series in microcosm, I don’t know what is; some characters have to deal with something, but then have to ignore it completely because ALF’s started talking about life in St. Olaf.

They wait for ALF to finish his rudely interjected monologue, and then talk about whether or not Lynn and Danny are “going steady.”

There’s some confusion within the show about what qualifies as going steady, how you’d know, and so on…and I have to admit, I’ve always been pretty hazy on it too. I think the episode ends up defining it as something like “dating exclusively,” which makes sense, but that also seems a bit redundant. Maybe it’s just me, but if you’re dating someone, that’s supposed to be exclusive. If it’s not exclusive — and you’re just hanging out, having fun, having sex, or whatever — then you’re not dating that person. You’re just hanging out, having fun, having sex, or whatever.

But maybe I’m just misinterpreting the concept. I’ve always had a similar confusion about the phrase “hooking up,” and I can’t be alone because people use it to describe everything from something relatively small (making out) to something a bit larger (getting a joint punchcard at Planned Parenthood).

Phrases like these feel useless to me if they don’t actually mean something specific. If two people are using the same terms to mean different things, then I don’t know how those terms endure. Why do people keep using them? What’s the value in using them if they just create further confusion?

If you’re together, you’re together. If one of you cheats, then one of you cheated. It doesn’t matter if you were “going steady.” You were dating. If you want to run around with other people, don’t date.

Of course, the confusion behind this is at least somewhat factored into the episode; it’s not necessarily about the confusion, but it does acknowledge it, so basically I just want to complain about people having sex.

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

Later on we see Lynn tutoring Randy and…

Wait a minute. Randy is back, too? What the hell is this, a clip show?

So here’s one of the guys from “Promises, Promises” (working title: “Lynn’s Bucket of Wangs”). That makes at least three different episodes that are being directly referenced by this one out of the blue: “Promises, Promises,” “Stop in the Name of Love,” and “Changes.” What’s with the sudden surge of continuity? Again, I’m all for this in theory, but as we limp toward the end of season three are these things anyone in the audience is going to remember? Danny? Randy? Kate’s job?

I know I’ve complained about a complete lack of continuity before, but “Torn Between Two Lovers” shows that not all continuity is created equal. If we’re going to be bringing back characters, why not someone that people might actually care about? Lizard? Kate Sr.? Fucking hell, bring back Jodie and Dr. Dykstra. Whatever happened to those two? Did the show get finally wise to the fact that I was enjoying myself, and I got a big scoop of Randy instead?

Jesus Christ.

I will say, though, that I already like Randy more here than I liked him in “Promises, Promises.” There his only joke was that he’d almost invariably say “‘kay” when someone asked him a question. It was the kind of joke that wore out its welcome about two hours before it was introduced. Here he’s being tutored by Lynn, so he gets to struggle through vocabulary homework in a way that’s convincingly awkward. So awkward that it’s almost sad.

You get to feeling bad for poor Randy, because it’s his character’s job to seem like an idiot in a show packed wall to wall with the biggest fucking morons to ever walk the planet. As a result he doesn’t come across as comically dense so much as he seems to be mentally disabled.

Yes, ALF implicitly adds ridiculing the handicapped to its litany of dickitude it thinks we should find funny, but we’ll discuss that more in a bit.

Since he does get a little more to say — and he actually gets to interact with Lynn, as opposed to just sitting next to her — this definitely qualifies as the better of his two appearances. Of course, this being ALF, whose own audience is mentally disabled, the writers outright have Randy blurt, “I’m stupid!!”

You know. Just in case the only character trait he’s displayed in his entire time on screen wasn’t clue enough YOU IDIOTS.

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

Then Willie comes in, and Randy rises to greet him, which is a nicer character detail than this character deserves. I think that happened in “Promises, Promises,” too, but here it serves as a nice (albeit theoretical) contrast to Danny. We don’t know for a fact that Danny wouldn’t stand when Lynn’s father enters the room, but he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would think much of it. Randy’s a dolt, but he’s respectful and polite.

A better episode would make more of stuff like this. As it stands, I don’t even think it’s deliberate characterization. It’s accidental…which doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it does mean that “Torn Between Two Lovers” fails to address the most important things: the difference between the two lovers, and why Lynn would be torn.

What we need is more characterization of these two. Right now I have to infer that Danny would treat Willie differently than Randy treats him here, but if we had a scene of Danny and Willie interacting, we wouldn’t have to infer anything. We could more easily compare the two…recognize their differences…and put a little bit of stock in Lynn’s decision.

In “Torn Between Two Lovers,” Lynn does, in some sense, end up having to choose between Danny and Randy. Wouldn’t it be nice if you at home gave even half a shit about who she picked? And if we don’t care…why are we watching?

You know those terrible reality dating shows that all of your friends watch but you can’t stand? Those shows are still on the air — against all standards of good taste — because they do a good job of convincing the audience that a decision like this matters. It’s done through flashy editing and soundbites and a manipulative score; it’s a trick of making the packaging look so important that you lose sight of the fact that you have no reason to want what’s in it. Any such show that fails to make the decision feel important doesn’t last. (Or, more likely, doesn’t make it to air.) Which makes sense; if the show can’t bother to sustain the illusion that the romantic dabblings of total strangers are important enough to watch, then how could the audience?

“Torn Between Two Lovers,” in this respect, has an ace in the hole. Of course, it squanders it spectacularly.

See, in this case, none of the parties involved are total strangers. This episode shouldn’t have to work as hard to convince us that the decision is important, because we should already have some kind of feelings about these people. We should have already made some investment in them before this choice is even raised.

The problem, which I’m sure you smelled a mile off, is that this is ALF. While we may care to some extent about Lynn (the show’s last vestige of anything resembling humanity), we definitely don’t care or know about Danny or Randy.

We should know about them, because they were each important parts of their previous episodes…but what do we actually know? I’m tempted to conclude that Danny is the dickhole, but that’s only because my brain wants (desperately) to be able to shape this crap into some recognizable structure. And however charitable I am being toward the show by concluding that there’s some kind of contrast between the two characters, the episode’s ending doesn’t bear out that reading anyway.

“Torn Between Two Lovers” is giving us three characters who aren’t strangers, and tossing them into some romantic entanglement that should feels like it matters. But once the question is raised, we see clearly that they might as well be strangers. We’ve met them before, but that’s it; we don’t know anything about them.

Again, we should be dealing with two new suitors for Lynn, as both of these bozos were blank slates in their previous episodes anyway. The most disappointing thing is that “Torn Between Two Lovers” doesn’t develop them much further than that, even though the choice Lynn must make is central to the plot.

There’s some more accidental characterization of Randy that I like: he lapses back into saying “‘kay” when Willie asks him how he’s doing, and though I’m sure this is not deliberate, I like the idea that Randy finds it easier to open up to Lynn than to others. That’s kind of sweet, actually, and it’s the sort of thing I wish was deliberate…but the ending makes it clear that the writers had no fucking idea what this episode was about.

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

Willie tells Lynn that “Julie” called for her. And this is odd, because since when does Lynn have friends?

Yes, I’m exaggerating. In “Baby, You Can Drive My Car” she talked about some girl she was supposed to see The Pretenders with. And in “Changes” she mentioned a friend who was a cheerleader. That’s all I can remember, and we’ve never seen her interact with another girl around her own age. Only her mother, her grandmother, and Mrs. Ochmonek…which is really fucking strange.

Even terrible, terrible shows like Full House or Saved by the Bell showed their teenage characters having friends…many of whom we actually saw more than once. And do you know why that is? It’s because teenagers have friends.

Seriously.

All of them do.

Even the nerdiest kids find some kind of clique. NOT THAT I WOULD KNOW.

The point is that when you’re a teenager, you have some degree of a social life by default. If this girl* doesn’t, then we’re firmly in We Need to Talk About Lynn territory.

What kind of teenage girl on a sitcom never interacts with another girl her age? It’s so…odd. How are we almost four seasons into this shit and we still don’t know what she does with her downtime? (Apart from spending it with Willie’s rain gauge that she keeps in her closet.) It’s really odd…and it unflatteringly paints Lynn as a misfit. That’s some more accidental character development, I guess, but it’s not the welcome kind.

Randy discovers that Lynn isn’t going to the dance, and he says that he’s not going either…an observation he tries to spin into an invitation.

It’s the kind of thing even a naturally suave and charming young man would have trouble swinging, and Randy’s fumblings are convincingly awkward. In fact, I like this sequence a lot, because it feels like, deep down, this one-note character might be recognizably human after all.

Very deep down.

Very, very deep down…

It’s nice. And there’s a moment when Lynn hesitates to answer him…and Randy immediately backs down, defeated. It’s actually kind of painful to watch, because Randy plays it convincingly. We’ve all been there, bud. Exactly there. :(

Ultimately she agrees to go with him, and he’s so excited he walks away with the bowl of pretzels that was on the table. Then we get the episode’s best moment. (Who could have guessed that this honor would ever go to Randy?) He comes back to the door and hands her the pretzels. She thanks him. “They’re not from me,” he says.

And, I’m sorry, but as shitty as this episode is, that whole bit was very well-acted by sitcom standards.

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

She goes to the kitchen and tells ALF that she’s going to the dance with Randy. He replies that it’d better be a slow dance…which is a moderately clever joke but still comes off as incredibly mean. I don’t even like Randy and I want to kick this guy’s ass that.

The phone rings after Lynn leaves, and it’s Danny. ALF talks to him anyway, because fuck everything.

Danny says he’s free after all, but ALF tells him to keep it in his pants because Lynn has another date now.

Good thing this show has an alien in it. I certainly can’t imagine any of this magic happening on those lousy “all human” comedies.

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

ALF and Brian play Atari while Lynn gets ready. Can anyone make out what cartridge that is? I keep wanting to say it’s Demons to Diamonds, but I’m really just hoping someone else played Demons to Diamonds. (I loved Demons to Diamonds.)

Any guesses as to why the veins are bulging out of Benji Gregory’s hand and neck? Is he throttling that joystick like it’s Paul Fusco’s throat?

I know we joke about this kid not being a very good actor, but since the set of ALF was seething with hatred and idiotic tension I think we should all take a moment to appreciate the fact that he did not grow up to be a murmuring serial killer. I mean, I guess there’s still time for him to become one, but still. I wouldn’t have lasted this long.

Lynn comes into the living room to ask about her purse, and ALF says he hilariously destroyed it while doing laundry. The show cares even less about that particular development than I do, so we skip right along to ALF telling her that Danny called while she was in the shower.

She’s pissed because ALF told Danny that she was seeing Randy now, and she doesn’t know what to do. ALF suggests telling Randy that “your boyfriend’s back, and he’s gonna be in trouble. Hey na, hey na, your boyfriend’s back.”

Fuckin’ ALF has really taken a liking to reciting song lyrics and hoping they miraculously pass as jokes. “Suspicious Minds” has loads of Elvis ones, obviously. Then we got similar ones with “In the Year 2525” (in “Running Scared,” where it admittedly did miraculously pass as a joke) and “I Can See Clearly Now” (in “Standing in the Shadows of Love”).

It’s supremely lazy, and I’m still reeling from the shock that Jake didn’t quote “Sunglass at Night” in the last episode. Maybe such stellar non-material is only allowed to go to ALF.

Lynn says she can’t believe this situation, and ALF says, “I know what you mean. I can’t believe Bruce Willis is a star, but there it is.”

And that is a joke that sure hasn’t aged well. Disagree? Compare Willis’s career trajectory to Paul Fusco’s and let me know how much room ALF has to talk.

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

Someone comes to the door, but it’s not Randy! It’s Danny, and you know he means business because he dug out his spring dance bolo.

Danny knows exactly what he’s doing; he’s showing up unannounced to catch Randy with his woman. Well, a lot of people’s woman, but that’s not important right now.

I like the idea of having the episode build to a “showdown” between two characters…but, again, we’ve only seen them each once before, way back at the beginning of the season, in different episodes, and we’ve never heard a peep about either of them since. It…kind of loses the impact, don’t you think? I really do wish they’d have invented new characters for this. Maybe then they’d feel obligated to develop them somewhat, instead of just settling for this guy from this episode versus that guy from that episode.

Part of me wonders if this was intended to air right after “Promises, Promises.” Someone in the comments brought up the fact that the scheduling of certain episodes was shuffled around for availability reasons, so it’s possible that this was intended to air then.

…however, Kate’s working as a Realtor, so that can’t be the case; this would have to air sometime after “Changes,” which came several weeks later. By that point, why bring back these characters? And all of this is irrelevant since “Torn Between Two Lovers” has to also air after “Promises, Promises,” in which Lynn is fucking other guys anyway.

WHAT IS THE POINT OF ANY OF THIS

Whatever. It’s kind of interesting, I guess, that both Danny Duckworth episodes have to do with Lynn planning to go out with one person and ending up with another. But by “interesting” I mean “fuck it, even I don’t care.”

They argue for a bit, and Danny tells her to blow Randy [off]. Sure enough the doorbell rings, and it’s our favorite pretzel thief. He’s all snazzed up, and he hands Lynn a 2-liter bottle of soda because he wasn’t sure if she liked candy.

…that probably works better in text than it worked on the screen, to be honest, but I did like that joke.

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

Randy’s clearly the nicer guy in this scene. He’s civil to Danny who is rude in return, but, to be fair, it’s easier for Randy to be civil; Lynn’s not his girlfriend. He’s just some putz who lucked into getting her to go to a dance with him. Danny is angry, yes, but he has a reason to be, and Randy does not.

As I mentioned earlier, I’d think that this was a clumsy way of demonstrating to us that Randy’s the nicer guy overall, and the guy Lynn is actually “with” is a schmuck, but the episode doesn’t work out that way, so who knows what the fuck is going on. Maybe the writers didn’t realize he was coming off as nicer than Danny at all. They certainly don’t treat him the way one might treat a character we’re supposed to like, so who knows.

ALF listens in from the kitchen, because it’s his name on this show, god damnit. Brian asks him if Randy’s mad, and ALF says, “He doesn’t know yet. The information has entered his head, and is now searching desperately for his brain.”

There’s a lot of humor at Randy’s expense in this episode, all of it in this vein, and until now, as I’m writing this, I wasn’t sure why the jokes were playing so poorly.

After all, Randy can be dumb; that’s fine. Make a list of all the great comedy characters who were a bit thick and you’ll be up all night before you even have to scratch your head. So why do the Randy jokes feel so nasty?

Well, here’s why. It’s because Randy doesn’t get to be an idiot. Instead, we’re told he’s an idiot.

See, when a character does something stupid, it can be funny. (Obviously.) But when one character insults another for being stupid, apropos of nothing, it feels cruel. Indeed, it often is; we’re not often meant to enjoy that kind of behavior. We’re meant to see it for what it is: pretty damned dickish.

The better Randy jokes (the 2-liter soda here, the bowl of pretzels earlier) come from Randy getting to do something dumb. The worse Randy jokes (every time ALF opens his fuckin’ mouth) are characters repeatedly telling us what a worthless moron he is. What sounds funnier to you: someone accidentally doing something silly, or someone getting insults shouted at him because he’s less intelligent than the shouter?

We like stupid characters. We must, otherwise they wouldn’t be in every comedy ever made. But we want to laugh at their stupidity without feeling complicit in it. We laugh when they slip on banana peels because we find it humorous; we find it harder to laugh when some asshole steps up and chews them out at length for being stupid enough to have slipped on that banana peel.

We want to laugh at stupid characters…we don’t want to make fun of them. Why would we? That’s just…mean.

Some shows — Fawlty Towers comes immediately to mind — do play up the insult comedy. In Basil’s case, he did bully poor Manuel, who was trying his best. But Manuel wasn’t dumb; he may not have been the brightest bulb, but unquestionably most of his sillier behavior was due to communication issues beyond his control. When Basil insulted him it was funny because it functioned on another level: anything Manuel did wrong could be traced back to Basil. Basil, that is to say, was causing his own problems. Manuel was just trying to help…and was punished regularly for it.

It probably wouldn’t have been funny if Manuel had actually been an idiot. It certainly wouldn’t have been clever. It would have been easier to write, sure, but so what? Manuel getting yelled at for being shitty at his job isn’t comedy. Basil relentlessly scapegoating a day laborer is.

But there’s another reason these kinds of assholish comments from ALF don’t work: they muddy the water.

Clearly the show wants us to like ALF. That’s fine; we’ve been through why that’s insane many times over, but, by this point, we just need to accept it. ALF is supposed to be clever and charming, gorgeous, the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful Melmacian we’ve ever known in our lives.

Fine.

But in this scene, we’re also supposed to see Danny’s behavior as dickish. And it is; the show is correct. Danny is being an asshole to Randy, and we know that because Lynn — again, the closest thing to a human being ALF has anymore — calls him out for it.

Unfortunately, his dickish behavior is indistinguishable from ALF’s. We’re supposed to hate Danny because we’re supposed to hate Danny, and supposed to love ALF because we’re supposed to love ALF. What’s the difference between them, then? “Torn Between Two Lovers” tells us the answer, whether it means to or not: nothing.

The writers have painted themselves into a corner. They wanted us to fall in love with one character in spite of the fact that he’s raging asshole, so when it’s time to introduce a character we’re supposed to dislike for the same behavior, we’re in a tonal trainwreck. We’re meant to love one and hate the other for behaving in the exact same way.

If the writers cared, I bet they’d wish they’d given ALF a character trait other than “cunt.”

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

ALF and Brian watch from the kitchen, and Brian asks why they’re fighting over Lynn anyway, since she’s not all that hot. You see, Brian is quite discriminating in his incest fantasies.

Lynn comes in for a few seconds to get her thoughts together. Of course on this show that means that she sits quietly while ALF does an irrelevant comedy routine. This one is about “time-freezing phasers,” which Brian mentions they saw on Star Trek.

Now, I don’t know the first thing about Star Trek, so I had no idea whether or not time-freezing phasers existed. To find out, I turned to our resident expert, Sarah Portland:

No. There was an episode where time appeared to be frozen, but in that case, Kirk was just sped way up so everyone appeared to be frozen. Just to be extra-thorough, I skimmed through the synopses of TOS, TAS, the first five films, and the first two seasons of TNG. While there are certainly plenty of BS time travel plots in Star Trek, none of them involve phasers, which are self-defense weapons.

Not sure why I even asked. I should have known something was fishy when Brian was allowed to speak.

Anyway, Lynn stumbles upon a resolution to this non-plot that I actually kind of like: she realizes this whole mess is her fault. (I know, I know…but bear with me.)

She returns to the living room where she finds two forgettable nobodies from previous episodes circling each other with their fists raised, which is something no human beings have ever actually done. Lots of cartoon characters have, though, and I think that says it all.

She tells them that if they want to fight, they each only get one punch. Randy says that that’s all he needs, and so she invites him to hit her.

See, she’s the one who caused the problem, so if they really think it’s worth beating someone up, then she invites them to beat her up. Obviously they don’t, but I like that little twist. Lynn didn’t do anything knowingly wrong, and I think that’s important to take note of, but she did do the thing that set this whole mess into motion: she agreed to go to the dance with Randy. As friends, yes, but that was still the catalyst for this whole kerfuffle.

Her point is decently made. These two are fighting over nothing…but it’s a nothing that she herself created. Clearly neither of them are going to crack her in the jaw, and it makes them realize instead how stupid the whole thing is.

Granted, realizing how stupid the whole thing is is not the best way to end an episode of a sitcom, but I’ll take what I can get, and Lynn’s gesture at least shows that some thought was put into resolving this premise.

She decides to go with Randy, because he asked her and she accepted, and it wouldn’t be right to break it off. And she tells Danny that if they want to be more serious they can be more serious, and they can have a long talk about it.

Hey, remember the episode in which we met Danny? She had dived right into (almost) marrying some guy in a planetarium. Now she needs a ratified document outlining the terms and conditions of her relationships. Change of heart or what? I’d call it character growth, but I’m approximately fifteen zillion percent sure that nobody involved with the show even remembers that Lynn was almost married.

The really odd thing about this resolution, though, is that Randy really did seem like the better guy. He was nicer to her and her family. He was humble when he asked her out. He brought her gifts. All we saw of Danny was that he shipped out unexpectedly the night before the dance, then stormed into her house to kick the teeth out of the guy she tutored.

He was kind of an asshole…but that’s who she went with. The entire episode seems to be building toward Lynn making the decision to leave him because of the ass he revealed himself to be. Maybe she’d end up with Randy (idiot with a good heart isn’t the worst stock character to hitch your wagon to), or maybe she’d realize they’re both impulsive dickwads who just initiated a fucking brawl in her living room. But, either way, the episode seems to be built around the idea that Lynn is with a schmuck…

…until it isn’t, and it’s actually about expressing your feelings and making sure you know what going steady means, and still going to the dance with that poor guy who actually seems to care about you so that it hurts him twice as hard when you move on forever.

So I don’t really know what this episode was about. Randy seemed like the nicer guy (and the better match; Lynn herself isn’t getting into Mensa anytime soon), but ultimately she just goes to the dance with him out of obligation. Danny seemed like a dicktard, but she stays with him because…he’s hotter? I guess? Is he? I don’t even know if she thinks so.

Basically two people we’ve met once before but still know nothing about get into a fight that doesn’t matter and Lynn resolves the episode by saying that nothing has to change, even though she strung Randy along and her boyfriend revealed himself to be a violent, jealous assbag.

I hate this fucking show.

ALF, "Torn Between Two Lovers"

In the short scene before the credits Anne Schedeen returns from her vacation, visibly traumatized by being back on the set of ALF.

MELMAC FACTS: The three stages of courtship on Melmac: exchange left socks, trade belly button lint, spit in each other’s soup. (“Ours was a polite society” my dick.)

—–
* Of course, we’re assuming that Lynn is a teenager in this episode. She could be in her 20s for all we know. But the point is that she’s either in high school or college, and in either case she’d have to work to not make friends.

The Simpsons, "The PTA Disbands"

In my spare time (I HAVE SO MUCH OF IT) I am preparing a study regarding The Simpsons. I’ll share it here when it’s done, but, for now, I need your help with a little background data.

I’ve prepared a very quick 10-question survey that I’d like you to answer if you’ve ever seen The Simpsons.

Seriously; it should be damned quick. If it’s going slowly, it’s because you’re driving yourself insane trying to be comprehensive…so don’t do that. Say what comes to mind, give it a little bit of thought at most, and submit.

http://goo.gl/forms/1qNLH3OOxl

Again, just to be clear, this is not the study itself. This is information that I’ll need before I can actually begin. Share away on social media, and direct your Simpsons fan friends here to help.

I will be taking responses until August 1.

Get your answers in! The more you can tell me the better, but all responses are helpful. Do not, however, submit multiple responses yourself.

Please take a few minutes to help out and share your opinion. Thank you!

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