Someone on Twitter was excited to see me get around to reviewing “Superstition.” At first I couldn’t tell if that was because he loved it or hated it. In fact, I still don’t know. But I will say this much: I can understand completely why somebody would have fond memories of watching this one as a child.
I have no memory of it. By this point in the show’s life, I definitely wasn’t watching regularly. As a result, I’m pretty sure I missed out on this one. And though the episode is by no means a masterpiece, I’m perfectly happy to concede that missing it was my loss.
This is probably an episode I’d have liked a lot as a kid. Even as an adult, there’s a sense of grounded silliness that I really enjoy. It’s fun without being nonsensical. Imaginative without being insane. It’s a decent idea elevated by its execution…and how often do we get to say that while watching ALF?
“Superstition” starts off with ALF attempting to do something nice for the family for once. He’s cooking them a delicious meal of junebug scallopini. “Hence the crackling noise,” Kate says, in a line that’s by no means necessary — what with the fact that we can hear it ourselves — but is still somehow…kind of funny. I can’t really explain why; her comment doesn’t feel like it should enhance the joke in any way, but, somehow, it does.
So the family retches for a while before ALF reveals that that’s not all he’s cooking; he has Brian’s history textbook in the oven. Why? Because “Someone accidentally knocked it into his fishtank…Willie.”
Willie fires back that he did no such thing, and ALF says he knows that; he never said Willie did it. And it’s a really, truly funny moment. It got a real laugh at me, probably because it’s not actually a joke. It’s just this small little emphasis that ALF places on Willie’s name…and that’s that. There’s no punchline, and it doesn’t need one. It’s a joke of the performance, one that’s left to live or die on the capabilities of the actors, and I like that. It shows a level of respect this show doesn’t usually have for its talent or its audience.
Anyway, they open the oven and the textbook is not only dry, but it’s burnt to a crisp. ALF panics, because there’s a Melmacian superstition about destroying a history book. Set aside a few niggles — such as the fact that ALF should have kept a much closer eye on the baking book if destroying it was so bad, and the fact that he should know by now that HUMAN BEINGS DO NOT EAT BUGS — because, for once, they’re worth overlooking. “Superstition” might have the kind of plot that unravels the more you think about it, but it’s also one of those rare episodes in which it’s worth turning off your mind for a half hour and just enjoying the ride.
Of course, I won’t be doing that. Ahem.
Lynn asks ALF if the superstition is something like what humans say, about getting bad luck from opening umbrellas indoors. My heart goes out to Andrea Elson on this one. She tries hard…so hard…to pronounce “an umbrella indoors” without sounding like she needs a breathalyzer, but she can’t. And trying it myself, I can’t do much better. It’s an unexpectedly tricky phrase to get through without being exceptionally carefuly, and it’s not totally her fault that she trips over it.
ALF says it’s worse than bad umbrella luck, though. He says it’s “Bad luck like jilting a mafia princess.”
Kate says that superstitions are silly, right before ALF’s junebug scallopini catches fire. So…that was actually a pretty efficient way to kick off the episode. We set up the problem, ALF outlines — vaguely — the consequences he’s about to face, and then we have an illustration of those consequences coming to pass. Of course, the scallopini was also left unattended on the stove, which leaves open the idea that ALF’s bad luck could well be coincidental. That’s everything we need to know to enjoy the episode…and it was pretty funny, taboot.
But my favorite thing?
This Melmacian superstition makes sense.
Not, you know, logical sense…but cultural sense. With most Melmacian customs, the show just pulls out some cockamamie nonsense and hopes you find it funny. Sometimes, admittedly, it is…but it’s no less cockamamie for it. (The word of the day is “cockamamie.” Scream whenever you hear me say it!)
Here, though? I can understand it. After all, we have a saying that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Granted, that’s more of a maxim than a superstition, but it takes the same form: if you do this, that will happen. Broken down to its core components and taken literally, it’s not miles away from a superstition.
For Melmac’s version, it’s taken a step further. Instead of history as a concept, we have a symbol of history: the textbook. On Earth, if you don’t learn from history, you are doomed. On Melmac, if you destroy the thing meant to teach you history, you are doomed.
It’s a clever enough twist on an idea we know well, and I like that the episode doesn’t go so far with the connection that it takes the joy of discovering it away from us. It takes a familiar concept, alters it just enough to make it feel foreign, and leave it to us to bridge the gap.
It’s also a very welcome change when some aspect of Melmacian culture causes us to see own own traditions and assumptions in a new way. You know…something that any sci-fi book, movie, or TV show worth its salt does on a regular basis. Invented cultures and societies are great filters through which to view our own culture and society…it’s one of the things science fiction — even the lousy science fiction — is best known for. It’s how it earned its artistic credibility.
ALF, by contrast, usually resorts to its “On Soviet Melmac…” jokes for the sake of being silly, which is fine. I no longer expect it to make grand or impressive statements that go beyond inflicting bodily harm on Max Wright. But now, here, at last, we have some aspect of Melmacian culture that comments on Earth culture as well…
Shit. I like this, guys.
After the credits Brian says, “My history book is history!” He is then loaded into a crate and removed from the set, the production crew secure in the knowledge that they’ve met his contractually-obligated appearance for the week.
ALF is convinced that the fire was due to his bad luck. After all, destroying a history book means “seven years of bad luck, followed by seven years of really bad luck.” The fact that he feels guilty about this — however silly the premise might be — is one of the best things about “Superstition.” After all, the fucker takes a powerdrill to Willie’s dick on a weekly basis, so it’s nice to see at least a little bit of remorse.
Later on we hear him fall down the attic stairs as Willie builds a crib for whomever’s kid is growing inside of Kate. ALF IS HAVING BAD LUCK.
Jake comes over and integrates himself deeply into the plot, so we can be truly baffled when he returns to his home planet in another few episodes. His role here is an important one; while Willie and Kate (and, in a more friendly way, Lynn) dismiss ALF’s concerns, Jake is willing to listen to him relay all of the shit he’s been going through since he triggered the curse. While I’m all for ignoring ALF, I’m even more for shutting him the fuck up, so this week I’m siding with Jake.
Jake poses the kind of question that makes no sense in real life, but plenty in sitcoms: can’t we stop it? And Willie, you dumb fuck, why didn’t you ask this in the first place? Yes, the superstition thing is clearly bullshit, but you’ve lived with ALF for three years at this point; bullshit is just another word for daily routine. Figure out what dumbass thing you need to do to end the episode, and jut fucking do it.
Jake’s question causes ALF to bring up the bibliocide ritual that they’d hold on Melmac to break the curse. Thank god Jake came over and asked that question, otherwise this might have been a two-parter. The ritual had to take place under the green light of a full moon, and the cursed textbook destroyer would “ask atonement” from a bunch of people wearing meat. Can you really “ask atonement?” I think you just atone for something; you either do it, or you don’t. You can ask forgiveness, of course, but that’s because forgiveness is external; it comes from somebody else. Blah, who cares. I’m listening to a dishrag talk about breaking curses on a fictional planet and I’m worrying about verb agreement.
Jake and ALF go into the kitchen, where there’s a big crash. I guess ALF’s bad luck resulted in something getting very unexpectedly rammed up his ass, because we hear him say to Jake, “Remove…it slowly.” This is an oddly saucy episode, considering it’s about a textbook getting ruined. Earlier we even had ALF say “gosh darned” in a way that was clearly meant to bring “God damned” to mind…something that ALF even comments upon. (“Ours was a polite society.”)
I’m not complaining (though the fewer times I have to imagine Jake pulling something slowly out of ALF’s anus the better), I just find it interesting that such a benign plot led to some more risque jokes.
Hearing the rectal shenanigans unfolding in his kitchen, Willie says the best line he’s had in ages: “Lynn, never have aliens.”
Later on, ALF locks himself inside of Brian’s sex crate. Willie and Lynn come in to find him all bandaged and bruised from the injuries he sustained while locking himself inside. He repeats the “gosh darned” joke from before, and it’s maybe the only time on this show that repeating a joke really does make it funnier, probably because it’s played differently the second time. Lynn cuts off his “Ours was a polite society” with a curt, “We know.” And like Kate’s line about the crackling junebugs earlier, I don’t know why this works…but it does. With “Superstition,” all of the individual parts are just working together…moving in tandem and not against each other. The episode works, in this case, not because any of the individual parts are better, but because they all seem to be working toward something.
ALF tells them that he intends to stay in the crate for 14 years, until the curse runs out, but Lynn tells him that they have an idea: if he does something that, by Earth custom, is meant to bring good luck, maybe he can cancel it out.
And…you know, all this talk about luck makes me wonder why we don’t get any jokes about Lucky. Where is Lucky? I remember that cat being a major part of the show, but I guess I was wrong; it feels like he’s hardly been around since the first few episodes. I wonder why I remember his name at all.
Anyway, ALF thinks that Lynn’s idea is far-fetched, so Willie reminds him that the alternative is 14 years in captivity. ALF concedes, “Maybe your idea is more nearly-fetched than I thought,” which is a pretty good line.
You know when I complain about stories in this show having nothing to do with the fact that ALF is an alien? This is what I’m always hoping for instead.
“Superstition” is a good example of how to take ideas that could have been done on any sitcom (somebody’s possession getting ruined, a silly superstition, a run of bad luck) and give it a show-specific twist. Again, ALF is a show about a fucking space alien; the twists should come frequently and easily. Instead the identity of the central character is nearly always irrelevant to what happens to him, because of him, and around him…and that’s frustrating.
The reason I hated “A Little Bit of Soap,” “Prime Time,” “Keepin’ the Faith,” and others like those wasn’t that they were built on lousy ideas…it’s that they were built on lousy ideas that could have been done anywhere else, on any other show, without any alteration. There’s a wall-to-wall blandness that makes even the rare good lines and moments feel immaterial; you’re not laughing so much as you are wondering why you’re watching a show that’s only intermittently any good, and which never seems to know what it’s about.
Here, this feels like an ALF plot. It’s not that we can’t imagine this happening to Uncle Jesse, or Balki, or Gilligan, or Marcia Brady…it’s that we can’t imagine this happening to them in this particular way.
The way “Superstition” pans out has has something to do with who ALF is, his background, his culture. It’s silly…but at least it’s his.
Anyway, to cancel out his bad luck, Lynn gives ALF some salt to throw over his shoulder. He throws the entire shaker and hits Dick in the willie.
Realizing that there are many more jokes to be made about negative superstitions than positive ones, Lynn brainlessly suggests that ALF do some traditionally unlucky things to cancel out his bad luck. Somehow that makes sense to her, but try as I might I can’t see any possible way that that’s meant to work. Maybe she’s just hoping that ALF’s bad luck will compound so severely that he will die and she’ll be able to go to college.
She tells him to break a mirror, which he does. Then Willie tells him to walk underneath a ladder, but he immediately steps on broken glass…and gets salt in the wound from the shaker he threw earlier. By ALF standards, that was pretty masterful buildup. By the standards of any other show, of course, it’s not even worth mentioning, since it’s little more than evidence that the writers remembered more than two lines back in their own script. But don’t take this away from us.
Then Willie goes to get him a bandage and falls down the stairs. And even by ALF standards, that was shit.
Later on Lynn is applying an ice pack to her father’s head, which reminds me of when he fell down in the kitchen in “Suspicious Minds” and she was the only one who came to help him. Man, she really is the only Tanner who gives half a shit about anyone other than herself, isn’t she?
Then Brian comes home, and we see that it’s pretty dark when he comes through the door, so what was this kid doing all night? Wandering the neighborhood unsupervised? I guess I shouldn’t worry too much about it; they do live in the famously safe L.A. But I do find it more than a little funny that his family is treating him the same way the writers do, shoving him out of sight and not caring at all what does or doesn’t happen to him.
Brian sees his father sprawled out on the couch and asks what happened. ALF replies, “WILLIE’S DEAD.”
It’s the funniest thing in the whole episode. Shit, it might be the funniest thing in the entire series. I’d gladly watch a half hour loop of ALF proclaiming Willie’s death. It’s probably be my new favorite episode.
ALF explains that the curse can spread to others, and he’s convinced that that’s what’s happening. Then the TV explodes and Willie makes some funny faces.
After the commercial break, Jake fixes the TV. It was just a short in the plug, but I’m impressed both by Jake’s electronic acumen and his ability to retain a consistent character trait. Seriously, with all of the hobbies and passions of Willie’s that have been introduced over the past three years, how many of them have we heard about more than once? The ham radio, I guess, so that’s one out of sixty-eight. You’d think that due to the sheer number of hobbies this asshole keeps accumulating the writers would have at least accidentally tripped over the same one a few times, but no.
Jake, on the other hand, was introduced to us as having a preternatural knack for fixing things and, sure enough, he still does. This means that he somehow managed to remain the same character from one episode to another, which isn’t an easy feat in this show, and also that he’d make a great addition to your team the next time you play Maniac Mansion.
When the TV is fixed, ALF turns on some kind of call-in psychiatry program. There’s a good line when Jake asks if they guy is any good, and ALF replies, “He’s on channel 129. You be the judge.”
Very interesting to me is the fact that this joke has aged well. Back when “Superstition” aired, there were far fewer channels than we have now…yet that line, unchanged, would still work today. You’d think that when the number of channels has inflated so substantially, we’d have to do some adjusting in our minds for the joke to make sense…but we don’t. As written, it’s just as funny now as it was then.
I don’t think it’s a matter of foresight so much as it is a matter of the fact that for all of the new channels, most of it still is crap, and no matter what your tastes in television you’d have a hard time filling 129 channels with anything worth watching. Whatever the reason, I find it interesting that a punchline so specific holds up well today. Especially on a show where most of the punchlines weren’t any good to begin with.
ALF calls in to what looks like David Cross hosting the pre-taped call-in show. It’s actually something called Video Couch, which is coincidentally the name of the most boring porn site I ever signed up for.
The guy who plays the TV shrink is named David Wohl. I looked him up and he’s definitely been in loads of things I’ve seen, but always as some guest character, and never as anybody I can remember. But what’s really interesting to me is his performance. He plays this character with a kind of subtle weariness that we definitely don’t often see in this live-action cartoon show.
I almost wonder if he had any idea what ALF was; he’s obviously acting on his own, without the…ahem…benefit of working directly with master thespians Paul Fusco, Max Wright, or Benji Gregory, which means he is solely responsible for setting the tone of his scene. And…I like his tone. He doesn’t choose to play this character as either a sitcom psychiatrist (“Very eeeeeenteresting, Mr. Shumway. And, zell me, how long haff you been haffing these dreams of your mutter?”) or as the exaggerated local-access jackass we’ve seen on this show before (“Take a Look at Me Now”). He’s just…a guy. A guy who doesn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about his job of helping his callers, but who is doing it anyway and is at least more interested in giving them advice than cracking wise and running around the studio with his pants around his ankles.
The Video Couch sequence isn’t particularly clever — it’s just a way to get an outside character to tell ALF that it’s okay if he wants to do his phony baloney whatever-the-fuck ceremony nobody will remember next week — but it’s welcome, because it feels we get to a couple of minutes in another show entirely…one that still isn’t very good, but one that at least isn’t beating us over the head with shitty jokes and grating performances.
David Wohl doesn’t make me laugh here, but if I had the choice between spending the rest of the episode smoking cigarettes in silence with him or returning to the ALF set to see how that mess pans out, there would be no choice at all.
This brief detour into less obnoxious television ends with one of the studio lights crashing down and almost killing David Wohl so that there will be no danger of someone acting like a human being in this show again. It’s not much of a punchline, especially since it undercuts the possibility (which should be probability) that ALF isn’t really cursed. Yes, bad things are happening to him and around him, but we should definitely have the option of seeing it as a little bit of coincidence and a lot of confirmation bias; ALF expects bad things to happen, and convinces others that bad things will happen, so that when the “bad luck” manifests, that’s what the characters latch onto. Instead ALF is supernaturally able to transmit bad juju through the phone lines and affect the lighting rig of some local access shrink we’ll never see again? Fuck that.
Willie comes into the living room with a rag wrapped around his hand. Jake asks what happened, and Willie tells him that he cut himself while swabbing out his crack pipe. This causes ALF to raise again the importance of doing the atonement ritual, but Willie, desperately sucking residue from his fingers, tells him to fuck off.
In order to aid his cause, ALF outright threatens the safety of Willie’s unborn baby. After all, does Willie think his kid can survive 14 years of this bullshit? Man, I’m sure glad that ALF now considers inflicting grievous bodily harm upon a toddler to be an acceptable method of resolving plots. I predict wonderful things for this show once the baby is born.
Willie agrees to do the ritual, but ALF reminds them that it needs to be performed under green moonlight, so they’re fucked. ALF, you cunt, why did you just threaten Willie’s stammering, nearsighted fetus if your dumbass plan wouldn’t work anyway?
Jake resolves the green moonlight issue by suggesting they all wear green sunglasses under regular moonlight. This raises an interesting question, actually; if the color of light is important to the ritual…whose light?
Wearing tinted glasses doesn’t actually change the color of the light, does it? Well, sure it does. Kind of.
For the person wearing it, it does. And since “color” itself is dependent upon perception, what of the colorblind? Or the blind? If filtering the perception of one is a valid solution, are those who can’t perceive green at all unable to participate in the ceremony? And what if one set of sunglasses actually makes the light look more bluish than green, or…?
Blah whatever who am I kidding. It’s all just an excuse to get the cast looking even sillier.
I do like a few things about this scene, actually. Specifically, I love that Willie left his meat in its packaging. That’s a perfect little character detail that I buy completely. (Of course, if he could get away with that, why in fuck’s name wouldn’t everyone follow his lead? Surely the warm trickle of salmonella down their shorts can’t be that welcome.) Even better, though: the side-effect of the Oscar Mayer cold cuts resembling military epaulettes. That takes a funny character detail and turns it into an additional visual joke. That’s very welcome, and remarkably clever for this show.
There’s also a fun line when Jake, with steaks hanging down his chest, asks Lynn how he looks. She replies, “A-1.”
…fuck you. I liked it.
ALF then tells everyone at the ceremony to pour gravy into their hair. They complain, and he calms them down by explaining that that part is optional; he was just trying to make it fun.
“Superstition” does a pretty great job of walking the fine line between stupid and clever.
Then ALF does something pretty new and innovative for this show: he remembers Brian.
Oh yeah, that kid! The one whose textbook kicked off this whole mess. How could we forget?
Well, pretty easily actually.
After ALF asks in the voice of Paul Fusco where the hell that kid is, when he says on the set at six o’ clock he means on the set at six o’clock, Brian stumbles into view and asks his mother, “Is my hot dog on straight?” So if you’ve been wondering where that massively popular catch-phrase, now you know. Say it the next time you walk into a room and you’ll be the life of the party!
ALF dicks around like a dicking dick instead of performing the ceremony. Mr. Ochmonek then does what he could have done at any point during the past three seasons, but these fuckholes never worried about: he comes into the back yard while they’re all doing stupid alien shit.
The tableau he encounters is pretty funny, though, I admit. Even if Lynn looks like she just inhaled a bumble bee.
ALF hides under the table. Mr. Ochmonek asks Jake why he’s wearing his sunglasses at night, and I can feel the restraint of the writers when he doesn’t reply, “So I can, so I can.”
Honestly, how they managed to avoid not making that joke, I’ll never know. Not that they make any other joke in its place…Jake just says he wants to wear them. Ha ha?
They tell Mr. Ochmonek that they’re having a barbeque, and are thawing their meats with body heat. It’s pretty fucking dumb, but it leads to maybe the best Willie / Mr. O exchange ever. Willie says, “Trevor…haven’t you ever wanted to let your hair down and slap on a flank-steak?” Mr. O pauses, then concedes, “I’ve always thought about it.”
It’s funny…and it’s a moment well-handled by both actors, but since most of their exchanges take the form of Mr. Ochmonek buying the Tanners gifts while Willie punches him repeatedly in the testicles, calling it the “best ever” feels a massive understatement.
Mr. Ochmonek leaves and the family tries to get ALF to perform the fucking ceremony already. Instead he makes them do the Hokey Pokey until Willie is on the verge of shredding him with his bare hands in a red haze of crack withdrawal.
At last, ALF reads from the sacred text. “Sorry about the book,” he says.
And it’s over.
It’s funny…it really is…but there’s more to the scene than the punchline.
The fact that that’s it…that all of the buildup and ceremony was for that…is legitimately funny, and the frustration of Max Wright and Anne Schedeen is felt very clearly here. Notice I don’t say Willie and Kate. No…I think it runs a little deeper than that.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the actors are channeling their real world frustrations in this scene. After all, the 20-odd-hour recording time for an episode of ALF must have a pretty similar high-effort / low-payoff ratio for them as this ceremony had for Willie and Kate. Deliberate comment on the inner workings of the show or not, this scene allows them to react to exactly that imbalance. It allows them to vent — or at least to display — the frustrations that they feel when ALF — like ALF — takes so long to accomplish so little. And when it’s over, there’s not even a sense of satisfaction. So little was accomplished that all they can do is go home and wait for the next disaster.
Am I reading into this? Almost certainly. “I’m Your Puppet” showed that the series isn’t totally averse to meta-commentary, but that doesn’t mean “Superstition” wants to accomplish the same thing. But whether or not the script had meta-commentary in mind, Wright and Schedeen almost certainly did. The frustration and seething anger on display here is the best acting we’ve gotten from either of them in quite a while. In short, they’re channeling something…that much is clear. And if I had to bet on what it was, I’d feel pretty comfortable doing so.
Mr. Ochmonek comes back…not to join in the barbeque but to take their picture.
Why? His wife is out, and she’ll never believe this horse shit unless he has a photo to prove it.
I fucking love you, Mr. Ochmonek.
Then he leaves and so does the family, abandoning ALF alone in the yard while he loudly sings the Hokey Pokey to himself. Since Mr. Ochmonek already dropped by twice, unannounced, within the past three minutes, the Tanners must be getting pretty comfortable with the idea that somebody could find and murder their alien. Pretty…pretty comfortable.
The episode ends with a short melody that combines the ALF theme with the Hokey Pokey, and, jesus, just the fact that I’m typing an observation like that makes me wish I had the guts to kill myself.
In the short scene before the credits ALF dumps a shitload of potato chips on Jake.
This episode wasn’t great, but it was definitely good. In fact, it’s probably one of the most solid episodes yet. Its quality wasn’t sky-high…but it was even. For the purposes of comparison, think of something like “Alone Again, Naturally.” That episode, I’d argue, had higher highs, but it also had far lower lows. “Superstition” hits (and holds) a level above competency but below greatness. Its sturdiness, however, and the fact that it sits so comfortably at that level, is an achievement in itself.
It was a nice, sustained riff on a clever idea. And while it could have been done much better, it deserves a pat on the back for not sliding back into laziness and stupidity.
I don’t know if this will scratch my list of best episodes, which I’m going to do at some point to remind everyone that I’m not a totally miserable bastard, but it wouldn’t miss out by much.
“Superstition” does a few things very well, and that’s nice, but its biggest achievement is the fact that it does almost nothing poorly. It’s one of those rare episodes of ALF that takes full advantage of its possibilities, and makes effective use of every scene.
I liked this one. It wasn’t great, but I liked it anyway. In fact, talk to me again at the end of this project, and I have a feeling it will have grown on me.
Of course, I’m sure everything from the first three seasons will look better once Jim J. Bullock joins the cast.
Gosh darnit, ALF.
MELMAC FACTS: On Melmac it was bad luck to destroy a history book. They were “a polite society.” Melmacian culture valued books highly. The society’s motto was “Are You Going to Finish That Sandwich?” The curse of destroying a history book can be broken through a “bibliocide ritual,” which I already talked about above and don’t want to type out again. Melmac’s moon was green under certain atmospheric conditions, or when someone threw up on it, and the planet’s High Priest also worked as a butcher. All Melmacian rituals required the wearing of meat, unless they took place on a Friday in which case the participants wore fish. At weddings the preacher would say, “You’re hitched. Go for it, babe.”