ALF Reviews: “Superstition” (season 3, episode 19)

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.

ALF, "Superstition"

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.”

ALF, "Superstition"

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.

ALF, "Superstition"

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.

ALF, "Superstition"

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.

ALF, "Superstition"

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, "Superstition"

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.

ALF, "Superstition"

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…?

ALF, "Superstition"

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.

ALF, "Superstition"

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.

ALF, "Superstition"

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.

ALF, "Superstition"

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.

ALF, "Superstition"

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.

ALF, "Superstition"

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.”

The First Editions of Thomas Pynchon

I’ve been meaning to do something like this for a while. I’ve always been something of a collector of books (which is a polite way of saying it’s the one thing I’m liable to hoard), but as much as I love and respect them, I don’t usually bother to track down rare editions of anything. If I find them, great…but even then there’s no guarantee I’ll buy them. I just look at them, afraid to hasten their decay with whatever oils and greases are bound to be on my fingertips, afraid even to stare too long lest that be the moment I discover I am capable of pyrokinesis.

But once I fell in love with Thomas Pynchon, that changed. At least, as far as rare editions of Thomas Pynchon books are concerned. Over the years I’ve built a collection I really enjoy, and if there’s interest maybe I’ll share more of it later on. But for now, I just wanted to go through his brief bibliography, show off some very poor photos of the first edition hardcovers I’ve acquired, and talk briefly about them.

If you want to know more about what these books are actually about (what a concept!) you can check out my Thomas Pynchon Primer. This is really just a chance to look at some things that I think happen to be pretty cool.

V., Thomas Pynchon

V. was published in 1963, when even fewer people knew who Thomas Pynchon was than do today. I bring that up because it’s certainly the reason my first edition of the book isn’t in such stellar shape. As you can see, there’s some significant wear and scuffing on the front cover, and some discoloration on the back. But it could be far worse, and I’m not complaining.

Finding a better looking copy of V. won’t be easy. As his first book, I’m sure very few people cared to preserve it. Outside of private collections of people who knew him personally, the odds are that surviving copies of the first printing bear the marks of being crammed into backpacks, dropped carelessly, or having things spilled on them. That is to say, people treated it like a book rather than a collector’s item, which, at the time, it was. This copy is the best I’ve seen in person. Potentially I’d upgrade, but the odds of finding a better one seem pretty slim.

One thing that I really like about this cover is the back. As you’ll see, publishers never really figured out what to do with Pynchon’s back covers, but I like the way they experimented with V. the best. There’s no real value to having chapter titles on the back of a closed book, but in a novel as dizzying as V., any help with orientation is bound to be appreciated. It’s also a very efficient way of introducing new readers (as they all would have been, then) to the author; those titles do a great job, I feel, of conveying the way in which he writes. His approach, variety, and interests (and seeming conflicts and confusions) are all laid out right there.

Later Pynchon books would miss out on this back cover matter…but they’d do so out of necessity. V., after all, is the only novel in which Pynchon titled his chapters. FUN FACT.

Also, another FUN FACT: this edition of V. contains different text from all later printings. The reason is that Pynchon changed his mind about a few things after it went to the printer. It’s not uncommon for spelling or formatting errors to be corrected in later printings, but in this case they were actually rewritten passages. Oddly, this unique text wasn’t discovered until just a few years ago, when Pynchon’s novels were being prepared for release as ebooks. Due to the rarity of first edition copies, and the fact that nobody expected anything different there, decades worth of scholarship missed the fact that the V. we were reading wasn’t V. as it was originally published. Neat.

The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon

In 1966, Pynchon published The Crying of Lot 49. It’s a glorified novella in terms of length, but not — I’d argue — in terms of depth. My front cover is in better shape than one might think; the artwork makes it difficult to tell. But the back cover definitely betrays some wear and tear.

On the cover we see a sketch of a muted post horn, which is an important symbol in the story and is also the novel’s sole illustration. (It also provided the design for my tattoo.) On the back we have excerpts from the reviews for V., another back-cover idea that was never used again…perhaps because Pynchon’s reviews are notoriously mixed, but more likely because between V. and The Crying of Lot 49, his name began to carry significant cachet, and it became less important to “convince” people that he was worth reading.

I actually acquired this first edition copy twice. Yes, the same exact copy. A few years ago, my girlfriend at the time bought it for me as a Christmas gift. It was — and will certainly always be — one of the best possible gifts I could receive. But I didn’t want to read it…I wanted to display it on a shelf. My motives for this were obvious, I think; the last thing I’d want to do with a piece of literary history like this is put myself in a position to destroy it. But she took my reluctance to handle it too much as dissatisfaction with the gift.

She took it back. Merry Christmas to all. And that was the last I saw of it for years, until well after we broke up. The rare book store we both visited when we were together called me and told me they’d just gotten a very good first edition of The Crying of Lot 49 if I was interested. They knew I was, of course, and they did everything they could to make it clear, without saying it, that it was the same copy she’d bought for me in the first place. So I went and bought it myself, and I made sure to show me the proper appreciation for it so I wouldn’t have it taken away again.

Gravity's Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon

Now this…this is the one I never expected to own. Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) got a larger printing than both of Pynchon’s previous titles, so scarcity isn’t the issue so much as the fact that this is the Thomas Pynchon novel. Rare copies demand high prices, because this is the one people — fans, collectors, resellers — want most.

I had a chance to spring for a first-edition paperback, and passed it up…something I was pretty regretful of for a while. But eventually I was at my favorite rare book store and asked if they had any copies.

They did…and they kept it in the back, where nobody could muck it up with their grubby hands. It was gorgeous; on the upper right of the front cover it may look like there’s a bit of damage, but it’s actually just glare from the plastic dust jacket I use to keep it in good shape. It’s quite lovely, really.

The best thing, though, is this:
Gravity's Rainbow, review copy

This isn’t just a first-edition hardcover…it’s a review copy. This was sent to some magazine or newspaper reviewer with the materials you see here. (They are loose; I arranged them here for the photo but they’re not attached in any way to the book itself.) As you’ll also see, the reviewer never did his or her job. This is a copy mailed out ahead of general release…that sat on a shelf somewhere, was moved to an archive, and was likely never even read. It’s one of the first printed copies of the novel period, and I’ve never seen another copy with the review request materials. For all I know, these are the only ones that survive.

Oh, and it’s my favorite novel of all time so THERE’S THAT.

It’s also the most expensive thing I’ve ever purchased, outside of any cars I’ve owned, so if you break into my house and want to get out with something quick, go for this. It’s small and worth a lot more than any of the other crap you’ll see lying around.

The back cover sets what’s pretty much the closest thing to a precedent Pynchon’s back covers would ever have: an uninterrupted continuation of the front cover’s artwork. It’s pretty beautiful.

Slow Learner, Thomas Pynchon

In 1984, eleven years after Gravity’s Rainbow, Pynchon finally published something: a collection of other things he already published.

Slow Learner isn’t that great; as a reading experience, you’d be hard pressed to do much worse. As a slow study of a young artist becoming a legendary one, though, it’s unparalleled.

I’ve mentioned before that some copies of Slow Learner are reported to contain a sixth story: “Mortality and Mercy in Vienna.” I’ve found copies of that story, but never a version of this book that contains it. And since this is a first edition, I don’t know where else to look. It’s possible that it was only included in printings released in other countries, but I’ve never found specific information about that, and part of me suspects it’s just false information that’s been propagated over time.

The back cover in this case includes an excerpt from the book…specifically, the author’s introduction.

By this point Pynchon had only released three novels, but his reluctance to speak about himself, make public appearances, provide interviews, or do anything else that established writers were supposed to do meant that a huge part of Slow Learner‘s value came from the brief introduction Pynchon provided. Spotlighting it here meant that people wouldn’t miss its inclusion, and, certainly, it still stands as the book’s highlight.

Vineland, Thomas Pynchon

Unlike the above, Vineland is fairly easy to find as a first edition. In fact, I think this one set me aside around $20, and it’s in gorgeous shape. I think the reason for this is that by its publication in 1990, Pynchon’s reputation had grown so much that it was guaranteed to get a huge printing…and the mixed to negative reviews that met its release meant that a lot of them were left unsold.

Personally, I don’t know why anyone could read Vineland and come away feeling negative about it. It’s one of my favorite Pynchon novels, and, yes, a wait of almost 20 years after Gravity’s Rainbow probably helped people set their expectations too high…but, damn. What a bunch of crybabies.

Oh well. It resulted in me getting this very inexpensively, and I’m sure you can find one around that price, too.

The critical reception to Vineland stings in a way that I can’t really articulate. I think I just hate the fact that I live in a world in which something of such strong literary merit is met with a shrug because it’s not whatever illusory thing people decided they wanted instead. Artistic entitlement is such an awful thing.

The book, though, is in pristine shape. The back cover features a bar code. A BOLD CHOICE.

Mason & Dixon, Thomas Pynchon

From here on, we get to the first editions that I actually bought upon release.

Or, kind of. Mason & Dixon came out in 1997, but I don’t think I bought mine until 1999 or so. I wasn’t a Pynchon fan at the time, but it was on an overstock table at Borders, as you’ll see from the price tag.

I bought it, read it, and hated it with a passion. Now I think it’s a remarkably warm and profound book that I revisit every couple of years, so…yeah, sometimes it’s worth persevering with things you don’t at first understand.

The price tag is still on it because I don’t want to remove it without damaging the book. Granted, it’s on a dust jacket, but that dust jacket isn’t entirely transparent…the words “Thomas Pynchon” and “Mason & Dixon” are printed on it.

Of course, since I bought this before I was a collector there’s quite a bit of shelf-wear and a few dings, so it’s not like it’s in the best of shape anyway, but I still haven’t risked removing the tag. Maybe part of me just really misses Borders.

Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon

I can’t get too upset at the first-day Vineland haters, because I had a similar (if not nearly as strong) reaction to Against the Day when it came out in 2006. I’ve warmed up to it since, but it still feels a bit overlong…like it could do with a reduction of a couple hundred pages easily.

That’s not to say it’s without charm, though, and I re-read it recently and found more reasons to love everything I initially loved, and a few new reasons to love some of the things I originally overlooked. It’s by no means Pynchon’s best…but it’s an experience I know I’ll return to many times.

My copy is in pretty good shape!…is what I would have said before taking these photos. Now I see a pretty nasty scratch across the back cover. I have no idea what that’s from, but it’s a good reminder to be careful. Fortunately I’m sure I could find another copy; for now I’m okay with it, but in the future I have a feeling that proof of carelessness is going to drive me insane.

Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon

I bought Inherent Vice the day it was released in 2009. It feels like a lifetime ago. I was a different person then, in a very different place in life. I won’t get into any of that, but I know I read through this exact copy multiple times I was recovering from a surgery. It was this and Neil Young’s Heart of Gold concert DVD that kept me the most — and best — company.

This one is still in very good shape, even if the back cover still has a price tag and I can’t take a non-blurry picture to save my life. I’d like to be able to say that any first editions I buy as an adult are guaranteed to remain gorgeous and pristine, but the fact is that I like to read them. Wear and tear is the cost of enjoying what you collect, I guess.

Bleeding Edge, Thomas Pynchon

And, finally, 2013’s Bleeding Edge. No great stories about this one (I drove to the bookstore after work and bought it!), but I guess I did cross some kind of ethical line. After I’d purchased it, but before I left the store, I noticed damage to the dust jacket, so I EXCHANGED IT WITH ANOTHER COPY WITHOUT TELLING ANYBODY. I hope the statute of limitations is up on that crime, because if there’s one kind of prisoner that gets it rough, it’s the book swapper.

As of right now, that’s Pynchon’s most recent book. It might end up being his last, but I’ve been saying that for the past three books, so maybe I’ll just wait and see rather than convince myself that my favorite author is as good as dead.

So, that’s my tour of my first-edition hardcovers of Thomas Pynchon. A complete set, and there’s something truly comforting and rewarding about looking over at that shelf and seeing a small piece of literary history. It’s humbling…especially for a guy who writes about ALF.

ALF Reviews: “Standing in the Shadows of Love” (season 3, episode 18)

If last week’s episode (quality notwithstanding) was a story that needed to be told, this week’s is easily, unquestionably, beyond the shadow of a doubt, a story that should never have even been conceived.

This is a show about a space alien, remember. I’d forgive you for forgetting, because the writers so often do as well. I don’t expect (or want) thrilling space battles every week, but since the central premise of the show is “an alien lives with some humans” it’s a source of bottomless frustration that nearly every episode is indistinguishable from the countless shows in which a human lives with some humans.

There are a lot of places you can take an alien sitcom. Infinite, I’d argue. The fact that you’re inventing an emissary from your own fictional alien civilization — with its own customs and mores and history and culture and physiology and everything else — means that you have, more or less, a blank canvas. You’ll have to earn your decisions, and they still need to be filtered through a kind of Earth-logic so that the viewing experience makes sense, but that’s it. The number of chains that ground your story are very few. You can make your show distinct from anything else on television in almost any way imaginable.

But this show doesn’t have imagination. It takes a unique concept and goes out of its way to make it bland. The show that should by default be the most interesting thing on television tries embarrassingly hard to look and feel like everything else. Anything that should have made ALF special is sidelined in favor of bland homogeneity. The inherent promise of the show is treated by the writing room as something to be avoided. The question is almost never, “What can we do next?” It’s, “What have other shows already done?”

Which is why we end up with episodes about ALF rigging TV ratings, writing for soap operas, buying cars, angering bookies, befriending immigrants, getting the hiccups, acting as an A.A. sponsor, tagging along on dates, selling makeup, and so on. Admittedly, we also end up with episodes about ALF fighting giant spaceroaches and searching for his alien cousin…but make a list of ALF‘s standard sitcom plots and compare it to a list of ALF‘s concept-specific plots and tell me which one is much (much, much) longer.

All of this is a long-winded, roundabout way of saying that we have a literal universe of possibility and potential here, so little of which has been explored…and we get an episode about ALF helping Mr. Ochkonek’s nephew get laid.

It opens with Jake sitting around, thinking about other things while ALF does whatever the fuck he’s doing, and I think that’s the most relateable way I’ve ever seen anyone spend time with ALF.

They’re ostensibly playing board games, and I expected some kind of joke about why there are several games on the table for only two people (there’s Monopoly closest to ALF, and Trouble closest to the camera, well as whatever the hell that long blue thing is in the middle), but they don’t. There could have been a cut gag here, but we never get an explanation for why it seems like there are multiple games in progress. Or maybe it was just the props department giving the middle finger to the rest of the production crew.

Also, you can’t see it in the angle above, but each of them has their own jar of peanut butter. I feel like I’m describing a boring dream about a hypothetical episode, but I promise that this episode really does open with ALF and Jake eating jars of peanut butter while playing multiple games and not speaking to each other.

It turns out that Jake is daydreaming about some hottie from his school named Laura. He asks ALF if he’s told him about her eyes, and ALF says, “Yeah, they’re on springs and they bounce out of her head!!!” The fake audience erupts in appreciation of this non-sequitur. It was neither a joke nor a setup to one nor the punchline to one. I mean, I know he’s referring to those gag glasses or whatever…but what’s supposed to be funny about this? That ALF said something after being asked a question? Fucking hell, ALF.

Then…the intro credits start. That was fast. It’s never a good sign when the episode is in as much of a hurry to get to the end as I am.

ALF, "Standing in the Shadows of Love"

After the credits Kate walks by, so ALF repeats for her everything we just heard, rightly convinced that his audience has the attention span and IQ of a goldfish. It does lead to a good line, though, when he says, “Kate, you’re good at unsolicited advice. Tell Jake what to do.” It nearly balances out the gag that comes late in the episode when ALF believes, for some fucking reason, that Willie is trying to whore his wife out to him.

the problem is that Jake’s too nervous to talk to Laura. Remembering that she’s in a sitcom, Kate suggests that he practice on her. He says no thanks, though; he’d rather not work up a boner for some disgusting old hag.


She leaves and ALF tells him that when he was wooing Rhonda (which, as we all know, ended very well…what with their entire planet being destroyed and ALF deciding he’d rather hang around some grade school kids than ever see her again) he would write her letters from a secret admirer. Remembering that he’s in a sitcom, Jake agrees to let ALF write letters to Laura on his behalf.

You might think it’s icky enough that this hundreds-of-years-old galactic pedo would be writing love letters to a teenage girl…and you’re right! But it gets better, dear reader.

Sadly, disgustingly, stomach-churningly better.

ALF, "Standing in the Shadows of Love"

ALF is composing some verse in the shed, which seemed odd to me since he now has the whole attic to himself if he wants privacy. But this setting actually turned out to be a well-chosen one, for a reason I’d never, ever have expected.

There is a pretty good moment when ALF keeps asking Willie for synonyms for the word “beautiful,” with ALF ending up flustered that none of them rhyme with “oh, baby.”

Willie asks why ALF is writing poetry, secure in the knowledge that ALF has very good reasons for everything he does, and nothing wacky will be revealed at all.

ALF explains that Jake is in love, which gets Willie Willie all giddy and excited for reasons I don’t understand. Maybe if it was Brian I could see him getting emotionally invested, but since when does he care about the love life of the nephew of his hated neighbors?

It’s odd, but if you think about “Fight Back,” there was another (very) brief moment that suggested, just barely, a kind of kinship between Willie and Jake. It seemed, almost, like there could be a relationship between these two, in which they each serve as kind of surrogate family members to each other, since they have difficulty connecting to their actual families.

At that time, I figured it was just some unintentional subtext that, in better hands, could have been explored very interestingly. But now we have a second suggested connection between Willie and Jake…something that reaches a little deeper than the kind of “relationship” that would normally exist between some distant, doddering idiot and his teenage neighbor.

Knowing what we know about “Monday scripts” (the idea, cited by several folks involved with the production of ALF, that the scripts would be in good shape on Monday, but be hollowed out and crippled by the time of shooting with all of the best lines being either removed or reassigned to ALF), it’s fully possible that there was supposed to be some kind of relationship between Willie and Jake. Moments like this — in which his enthusiasm and interest is otherwise inexplicable — and the one in “Fight Back” — in which he commiserated with the boy over having to sit through the Ochmoneks’ vacation slides — have me willing to believe that that was the case. These are vestigial echoes of character building that were excised because neither character involved was ALF. Somewhere, in a parallel universe in which Paul Fusco’s ego ate up less volume than an elephant orgy, there would unquestionably have been a better version of ALF. And moments like this give me the frustrated feeling that it might have even been worth watching.

Someone mentioned in a comment a few weeks ago that the kid who played Jake had some scheduling issues this season, and while I have no idea what did or did not change as a result of those conflicts, it’s pretty clear that the Jake stuff is back-loaded. In the entire first half of the season, I think we only saw him in “Turkey in the Straw.” I even remember thinking it was odd that they bothered to introduce the kid in the middle of season two if they’d lose interest in him entirely by the beginning of season three.

But the back half of this season looks to be very Jake-heavy. He played a central role in “Fight Back.” ALF moved in with him in “Baby Love.” This particular episode is essentially about him. In a later episode we meet his mother. (Both of these episodes also have “Standing in the Shadows” in the title, which I’d love to believe is thematic resonance but is obviously just laziness.) Thanks to a screengrab somebody sent me on Twitter I know he plays a part in “Superstition.” And in “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” he helps Brian overcome his fear of heights or bees or the dark or dying alone…one of those things. And those are just the episodes I know of.

It’s bizarre to me that they wouldn’t have wanted to spread these episodes out a bit, so that it didn’t feel like we were shifting between versions of the show in which Jake is an important, central character and in which he doesn’t exist at all.

ALF, "Standing in the Shadows of Love"

Willie says that ALF’s scheme reminds him of Cyrano de Bergerac, a French play about a romantic with an enormous nose who helps a less eloquent man to court the woman he loves and also makes a lot of shitty jokes about his home planet.

He actually spends a long time talking about the plot, but that’s okay as I’d be willing to bet that most people watching a dumbass prime-time puppet show aren’t huge theater buffs. And, to be totally honest, I’ve never read Cyrano de Bergerac myself; I know of it entirely through references and adaptations. One of the ones that stands out most clearly to me (and probably the one I saw first) was Roxanne, which starred Steve Martin. And, come to think of it, that came out just a couple of years before this episode aired…so I suppose Cyrano de Bergerac wasn’t entirely removed from the public consciousness after all.

Then something truly magical happens: Willie climbs up to a bookcase that I forgot was even part of this set.

You win, “Standing in the Shadows of Love.” The fact that you remembered this was here, and wrote it into your story is pretty damned cool. I was impressed when “Night Train” remembered Willie’s train set…but this even more impressive. The train set was a centerpiece of the garage (at least early on), and we had a scene of ALF interacting with it. It was more (even if not much more) than set dressing. In this case, however, I don’t think that bookcase has even been referred to in the past. The only time I ever remember taking note of it was when my eyes started wandering during the music video ALF made to support his single, “(Willie) I’mma Fuck Yo Daughter.”

So, yes, once again ALF managed to take some background detail that’s been there all along and weave it into somebody’s characterization. I’ll take it. But, once again, it makes me wonder why Willie was bored out of his mind by Jimbo talking about Mark Twain in “Hide Away.”

At that time I was skeptical that Willie would be completely disinterested in literature, and now we get conclusive proof, just a few episodes later, that that was indeed bullshit, and he was just being a nasty cunt.

Willie finds his copy of Cyrano de Bergerac and brings it to ALF, who turns it over in his hands a few times and then sets it down.

That’s a well-observed moment, actually, whether it’s intentional or not. In fact, I’m sure it’s not, but book nerds know all too well the heartache of excitedly handing someone a book, only to have them not even bother to open it.

It actually reminds me of a moment in Kubrick’s Lolita that I didn’t bring up in my piece. When visiting his step-daughter in the hospital, Humbert brings her several books, despite the fact that Lolita is very clearly not the bookish young lady he wishes she was. It’s a drily funny moment, as he brings her reading materials that she’d obviously have no interest in, such as a book about the romantic poets written by a colleague of his, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Then, he offers a concession: “Here’s something you might like. The History of Dancing.” It’s a perfect moment of subtle comedy; he knows she likes dancing, so in his begrudging effort to meet her halfway, he brings her a history text guaranteed to sap all enjoyment from the subject.

Fuck. There I go, talking about books and movies again. Why do I keep forgetting that I was born into this world to summarize ALF?

ALF, "Standing in the Shadows of Love"

Later on Lynn freezes in an awkward position as ALF at first seems to be reading from Cyrano de Bergerac, but ends up talking about “four lips, slobbering like a dog on raw beef.” Hey, look! Now you’re frozen in that exact position, too.

Then he calls himself Cyrano de Melmac because of course he fucking does.

ALF, "Standing in the Shadows of Love"

Jake comes over and says the letter was great, and Laura loved it, especially the parts in which ALF described “the vanilla ice cream of her skin under the hot fudge of her hair.” BRB, updating my eHarmony icebreaker…

Now that we’re spending so much time with Jake, I have to say…I don’t hate him.

The character, yes, there are issues, but that’s no surprise. The actor, however? By ALF standards, and especially in comparison to the other youngsters in the cast, he’s downright revelatory.

I don’t know why I never bothered to look him up before, but he’s played by a kid named Josh Blake. Which…is one hell of a coincidence, as his character’s name seems like a contraction of his given name.

J’ake isn’t in any danger of becoming the best character on the show, but when you compare his performance to Lynn’s, you’ll see that Blake doesn’t strain in the same way that Elson often does. Acting comes more easily to him…whether it’s great or not is certainly open to debate, but whatever his level of competency is, he’s able to hit it without his effort showing. (And compared to Benji Gregory, this kid’s fucking Sean Connery.)

In looking him up, it doesn’t seem like he’s had much of a career since ALF, exactly…but he did go on to make appearances in much better shows, like Married…With Children, The Wonder Years, Home Improvement, and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. (He also apparently voiced a character in Psychonauts, for you gamers out there.) Considering that ALF was career suicide for literally everyone else involved with the show, Josh Blake deserves some kind of medal just for limping out alive.

Most interestingly, though? (To me that is…) He played Sylvio in the “Greek Week” episode of Full House. Big deal, right? Well…right. But, for whatever reason, that’s one of the guest roles on that show that I remember best. Sylvio was Jesse’s distant cousin, or something, and when he came to visit he fell in love with DJ, and walked her around the kitchen table which meant they were married in some bullshit sitcommy way.

Believe me, I’m not mentioning this because I think it’s wonderful…it’s just bringing back a lot of memories. I’m genuinely shocked that that was the same kid. It’s a small world, I guess.

Okay, enough of that shit. Laura liked the letter, and told everyone how wet it got her, so J’ake thinks that the next step is to reveal his identity.

ALF, remembering he’s in a sitcom, says no; Jake should give her five letters a day for the next five days instead.

No idea why, really…if she already loves this horse-shit letter from a centuries-old space rapist, I wouldn’t press my luck. Make hay while the sun shines, Jake!

ALF, "Standing in the Shadows of Love"

Then we get…oh yes…a montage.

Or ALF‘s understanding of a montage, which is a few minutes of nothing happening while royalty-free library music plays.

I know that people make fun of montages (and, for the most part, with good reason), but they really can serve an important purpose. After all, whether you have a half hour, an hour, an hour and a half, or any other length of time to tell your story, there are times that the story is simply bigger. There’s some amount of your tale that you can effectively tell, and some amount that you will necessarily have to skip over. It’s why even Rocky so famously had a montage; condensing moments of incremental progress is going to stir in the audience a feeling of inspiration, whereas laboriously documenting an entire training regimen would instead be wearying. Even if you end on the same moment of triumph, there isn’t the same sense of momentum.

Dramas like Breaking Bad use montages to advance the plot (or to skip around the meth-making process in order to avoid imitation…ahem…), and deployed artfully they can serve as fond series highlights rather than cheats of narrative convenience. Comedies like Futurama use montages to emphasize visual gags and provide another approach to the humor.

Done well, at the very least, montages feel like variations. They tweak a familiar formula, and present important information in a way that it’s not normally presented. They’re fun. They’re interesting. Even when they’re lazy — which they often are, or seem to be — they can be fun and interesting. It’s a way of elevating material that needs elevating.

Unless you’re ALF, in which case montages are an excuse to get away with not having to write dialogue. Nothing is even advanced in them. In fact, the other montage that comes to mind in this show is from “The Gambler,” and in both cases they’re just a series of scenes of ALF sitting on a fucking chair.

Of course, the montage in “Standing in the Shadows of Love” is well worth it for the hilarious sight gags, which include ALF eating a flower, and later on sneezing.

I promise you, dear reader, no show is padded more gracelessly or unapologetically than ALF.

ALF, "Standing in the Shadows of Love"

So yeah, ALF wrote a shit-ton of letters and Laura fingered herself silly. Montage over.

Jake comes into the shed and says there’s a problem; he decided to talk to Laura after all, and he sounded like an idiot. Now he’s worried that when he reveals himself to be the admirer, she won’t believe him.

ALF brainstorms various ways to resolve the plot, and mentions having to worry about the Alien Task Force, so that we will know that the show isn’t accidentally treating us like idiots when he ultimately decides to stroll around the neighborhood with Jake, find Laura’s house, and shout a whole lot of bullshit at her from the yard.

ALF, "Standing in the Shadows of Love"

Outside Laura’s house, ALF does his typically stellar job of avoiding detecting by going apeshit on a metal garbage can.

I don’t know about you guys, but I don’t think this episode about ALF helping helping Mr. Ochmonek’s nephew get laid is quite creepy enough.

Granted, I don’t know exactly how to fix that, but…

Oh, cool. Laura came to the window and ALF started gushing about how fuckworthy she is. That’ll do just fine.

ALF, "Standing in the Shadows of Love"

It’s Carla Gugino, who, thanks to this appearance in ALF, has officially been in everything.

And you know what? Good on you, kid who played Jake. Not many girls grow up to look like Carla Gugino. Way to get in on the ground floor.

Anyway, she’s at the window shouting back and forth with these idiots, which is a really clever way of penciling in the backstory that her parents are hearing-impaired morons.

ALF feeds Jake things to say, and his fawning teenage fan thinks he’s hilarious. Jesus Christ, did we just get a frightening glimpse into Paul Fusco’s fantasies?

Before long she simply must ask who her admirer is. And I don’t think that was a joke, but I found it pretty funny. Jake’s got a pretty easily identifiable voice, after all. Does every kid in her school speak with a cartoon Bronx accent?

Anyway, ALF pops an irresistible boner over this teenage girl, so he pushes Jake aside and attempts to court her himself.

So, you know.

Just want to make that clear.

For all my joking about how skeevy ALF’s behavior sometimes is, and how seemingly inappropriate his interactions with the kids are, I need to make it known that now, right now, at this point, ALF is actively attempting to fuck a 15-year-old girl.

Let that sink in.

Or…actually, yeah, don’t. Just do what the rest of the world does and pretend this horse shit show never existed. Christ fuckmighty.

She says she’s coming down, and Jake convinces ALF not to grind against the little girl he’s been sending anonymous lovenotes to and stalking for the past week. Well, not so much “convinces” as “tells ALF her dad’s a cop and he will go to prison if he so much as lays a finger in her.”

It’s a lovely little episode, really. Just wholesome family comedy.

ALF hides in the rosebush. Jake introduces himself as her secret admirer and walks her back inside. Carla Gugino develops her lifelong taste for Brooklyn calzone.

ALF, "Standing in the Shadows of Love"

Later on, or the next day, or who gives a shit, the episode recreates that famous scene in Cyrano de Bergerac in which Willie digs thorns out of ALF’s anus.

It’s nice to see Willie bending him over the living room couch for practical reasons at last, but it’s still fucking gross to watch. ALF even braces himself as Willie fondles one out that’s pretty deep.

Willie and Kate start to lecture ALF about not going outside, but they back down when they realize he’s sad he’ll never see Rhonda again.

You know, it’s nice that they care about how he feels and all, but if he ends up stuffed and mounted in the Edwards AFB giftshop it won’t matter what’s in his heart, so they should probably chain him to the radiator first, and worry about his feelings for his ex-girlfriend second a distant second.

He mopes for a while about how he’ll never see Rhonda again, and…you know what? For maybe the first time ever, ALF has wrenched a plot away from another character for a perfectly good reason. This is a great time to explore his own doomed romance, how it makes him feel, and how he deals with knowing it’s gone forever.

At least, it would be, but the whole thing is pretty significantly undercut by the fact that we just saw him nursing a raging hard-on for a fifteen-year-old girl he just met.

ALF, "Standing in the Shadows of Love"

In the shed ALF is sad because he’s only ever able to have sex with the Tanners’ laundry. Willie remembers that this episode had something to do with Cyrano de Bergerac, so he tells ALF that there’s a big difference between them: for all his poetry, Cyrano was unable to tell anyone how he actually felt, whereas ALF never shuts the fuck up.

ALF waddles away to go hang himself, but Willie, lacking foresight, stops him.

He tells ALF that he rigged up his ham radio to the satellite dish using a complicated process known as my fucking ass. Then he pointed the dish at Andromeda, which is really easy to do and you should try it at home.

Why Andromeda, though? Well, way back in the seventh episode of this show, we found out that that’s where Skip and Rhonda (the only other confirmed survivors of the Melmapocalypse) were heading.

Yeah, I’m as surprised as you are that they dug up this old chestnut. I didn’t even remember this offhand, and I know more about ALF than I do about my parents. I actually had to refer back to my review of “Help Me, Rhonda” to be sure they weren’t just inventing some bullshit for the sake of wrapping up the episode.

Willie did this impossible nonsense garbage so that ALF would be able to communicate with Rhonda in Andromeda. Which is pretty impressive, considering ham can radios barely hold a signal if it’s being broadcast from across the street. Anyway, now ALF can transmit his words of love to his lost flame. Or accidentally tune in when it’s nighttime there and hear her getting reamed by Skip.

Anyway, ALF talks into the microphone for a while about how fine Rhonda’s big hairy ass is, then he quotes the first few lines of “I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash, just to prove by contrast how much more clever the “In the Year 2525” reference from the last episode was.

That one was at least a joke. Seriously, this one just gets shat here.

Admittedly he does say the word “popsicles” instead of “obstacles,” but even Willie can’t be arsed to acknowledge that shit. The episode ends with ALF calling Willie a dumb piece of shit for not realizing that Andromeda is kind of far away and Rhonda will be long dead by the time anything they say will make it there.

Another classic in the can, folks!

ALF, "Standing in the Shadows of Love"

In the short scene before the credits a bunch of disconnected shit happens. ALF reads the paper over Willie’s shoulder, for instance, and Brian comes in with a dog whistle.

Hey, everyone, it’s Brian!


That kid you didn’t even notice wasn’t in this episode yet? Yeah, we sure missed him.

It’s actually pretty funny to me that I didn’t notice until this moment that he was absent for the entire show. I’d notice Lynn or Kate missing for sure…but Brian? It doesn’t even register.

Jake comes over to tell ALF that if he still wants to baste Laura’s turkey, she’s all his. He says that he hates her laugh, and also the handjob under the afghan was passable at best. Then they all blow the whistle, which at first causes ALF great pain, but then brings him to writhing, sexual ecstasy before our eyes.

…and now another classic is in the can.

And I still can’t believe I just watched an episode in which ALF tries to fuck Carla Gugino. Maybe that fever of mine hasn’t lifted after all.

MELMAC FACTS: ALF is a size husky in snout warmers. In the Melmacian numbering system, pepoon is the number that comes after ten. That’s a reference to Steve Peppoon, writer for ALF, The Simpsons, and Get a Life. (I wonder what he’s most proud of?) Melmacian Express Mail took 73 years to get to its destination. Melmacians can hear dog whistles.


I checked the mail a little later than usual today. I’ve been having a difficult week, if you want to know the truth. Lying down this afternoon, finishing a book with the rain keeping time against the window was probably the most relaxed I’ve been. I knew I’d barely have the energy to make it to the mailbox. It’s on the other side of the apartment complex. Not a long walk, exactly, but I’d have to be in public longer than I really thought I could take.

Still, I went. I headed out in my shorts and a t-shirt, because it wasn’t raining that hard, and I knew I wouldn’t have the energy to find my jacket. I ordered a book, and it was supposed to be here today. Another good book would help right about now.

Near the mailboxes I passed somebody’s window. A dog was pressed up close against the screen. I kept walking. Got my mail. Got my book. And I started back just in time to see the dog knock the screen out of the window and escape.

The dog hung around the outside of the apartment for a while. At first I wondered if it was a puppy that saw a stranger and wanted to play, but before long it squatted and did its business. Then it explored a bit…did its business again. And then a third time. It had obviously been holding it in for a while. Maybe seeing me reminded it that there was an outside world, but most likely I think my presence was coincidental. The dog just had to go and, finally, it could no longer hold it in.

I walked over to the apartment and knocked on the door. Nothing. Through the screenless window I saw that there were no lights on anywhere. I didn’t know what to do. I still don’t know what I should have done.

It was after hours for the maintenance crew, otherwise I’d have called the main office. As it stood, it was just me, in the rain. And the dog was starting to explore further and further from home.

I called the emergency maintenance number. Of course, it goes to an answering service. I explained to the woman politely what I had witnessed. She had me repeat things multiple times, including things that had no bearing on what was happening (such as my own apartment number), requesting several times a piece of information I couldn’t give her (the number of the apartment from which the dog escaped, which I couldn’t see, because the conversation had already dragged on long enough that I had followed the dog several buildings away).

She told me that she would file it as a service request tonight, and they’d look into it first thing tomorrow.

I tried explaining to her that that wasn’t going to work. I couldn’t just let the dog run off (it had no identification), and I also couldn’t sit in the rain with it all night until somebody decided to look into it.

While this happened, the dog stopped to investigate something and I was able to get hold of the chain around its neck. It made me feel good to know that the dog was no longer in danger of jetting off into traffic, but we were also no closer to a solution. I’d have brought the dog back to my apartment, but it was very far away and the dog didn’t want to move. Its collar was one of those things that chokes the dog when it gets tight. Since I had no leash, I’d have to have my fingers in there. The smallest pull started the dog to gagging. I couldn’t do that to the dog.

I asked her what she thought I should do. She said she was unable to give advice over the phone. I asked her if I could have the direct line of a maintenance person for the complex so that I could figure something out with them. She said no, she could not do that.

I explained to her again, politely, that I needed something to happen here. She ignored me. I had to say “Hello?” twice before she confirmed that we hadn’t been disconnected; she really was just refusing to answer me.

The best she could do, she said, was contact a maintenance guy and let him know the situation. I asked her, please, to give him my number so that he could call me as soon as he got the message. She made it very clear that I was being unreasonable. In retrospect, she was right. I should indeed have sat in my shorts, overnight, in the soaking grass with a stranger’s dog on the off-chance that a maintenance guy deemed it fit to check on the situation in the morning.

So we sat there, the dog and I. My phone wasn’t charged. Why would it be? Time passed and I sat with the dog, trying to hold everything together. Other people walking their dogs came over, I guess to see what was going on. They were all full of questions. I asked one woman if she’d mind coming back with the leash after she brought her own dog home, so that I could bring this one to my apartment and get us both out of the rain. She said, “Nooooo,” in the same way you say it to a homeless person who asks for your change.

Somebody else came over and let their dog sniff and climb all over the dog I was with, in spite of the obvious anxiety it caused my dog. He was all full of questions, too. When he finally decided to leave he pulled out a treat from a little bag to get his dog moving again. I asked if he could give me a treat, too, so I could calm this stranger’s dog down. He thought for a while about how to say no, I guess. He never did decide. He just eventually walked away.

My mail was wet. The rain wasn’t hard, but it was steady. And I couldn’t hold the mail and the dog very well, so the mail had to go on the ground. The dog, by this point, was very scared. Its teeth were chattering. It was shivering. My mail came apart. The book I ordered was already ruined. I wouldn’t even give it to Goodwill in this shape.

I tried hard to get the dog back to its apartment, but as soon as it realized where we were going it dug its claws into the ground. It didn’t want to go. I don’t know why. It had just been locked up in the dark for god knows how long without a bathroom break, it had no identification, and it lived with a choke chain permanently around its neck where most dogs have a collar. It sounds like a lovely environment.

I called the police station. I first had to Google the number. The battery was in the red. When I called, of course, it was a series of numerical prompts. There’s nothing better than trying to navigate those while you’re getting rain in your eyes and a whimpering dog is tugging at your other hand.

The police officer, or dispatcher, or whomever it was, was very friendly. They took all of my information and listened to my story. I don’t know why they did either of those things when they told me I’d have to call animal control instead.

Can you transfer me, please?

No. Here’s the number.

I don’t have anything to write it down with.

I’m sorry. Here’s the number.

I pet the dog. I tried to calm it down. There wasn’t much I could do. I couldn’t get it out of the rain. I couldn’t tell it whatever it was that it needed to hear. I couldn’t give it a treat. I couldn’t let it go.

So I waited. I scratched it behind the ear. I was trying to calm myself down as much as I was trying to calm the dog down.

At one point the dog held out its paw to me. I took it and it just stared at me, like it didn’t know what to do, and was just trying the very few tricks it knew until something worked. Before long the dog laid down in my lap. It was still whimpering. But it trusted me, I guess. It probably didn’t like me very much, but it knew I wasn’t going to hurt it. I thought it might be a good time to try to move toward its apartment again, but it dug its claws back in the ground immediately. It didn’t want to go back.

Time passed. People passed. Nobody helped. Nobody cared. Who can blame them, really?

I finally Googled the number for animal control. I didn’t know what else to do. I could let it go and that would be that. It would be hit by a car, that much is for sure. It was raining, and we live in Denver, where nobody pays attention to anybody else, for any reason. The dog would be killed.

Or I could sit in the rain until sunup. Then maybe I could walk it over to the main office, when it opened, and be told in person that there was nothing anybody could do.

I didn’t have a choice. I called animal control. And, again, I had to navigate menus. The police department and animal control. Surely no callers to those places would need to speak to somebody in a hurry.

While I was trying to figure out what would get me where I wanted to go, I received a call. It was a maintenance guy for the complex. He said he got my message and was told to contact me urgently, but that there really wasn’t anything he could do.

I asked him if he could open up their apartment. He said he didn’t see what good that would do. I saw a dog run away, right?

I told him no; I had the dog right here with me. He said, “Well, there’s no way I can tell you who owns the dog.” And I said that’s okay. I saw the apartment it jumped out of, and if he comes over he’ll see the busted screen for himself.

He apologized. The woman at the answering service hadn’t told him any of that. She took all of my information, and relayed, it seemed, none of it. But I’m positive she let him know how unreasonable I was being, which is why he was on the defensive.

He asked me where I was. I told him. He said he’d be right over.

And a few minutes later, he was there. He walked toward me and asked, “How long have you been out here?”

I said, “A while.”

He said, “I see that.” I don’t know what I must have looked like, but I knew I was soaked and chilled to the bone. He said, “I’m sorry. I just got the message.”

So the woman who knew exactly the situation I was in made sure to take her time to relay the message to the only person who could help. Lovely. She sure taught me a lesson about my selfish behavior.

He asked me if I could hold on a couple more minutes. He’d call the residents of that apartment to let them know he’d be letting their dog in. He couldn’t open the door without their approval, unless it was an emergency.

I waited. I don’t know where he went. He probably had to look up their number, or find their key. He was gone for around twenty more minutes.

I tried to comfort the dog. I didn’t know its name, so I tried a few commands. I said, “Easy” to see if that would help. And “Down” to get it to relax. It didn’t understand either word. I even tried “Treat?” I didn’t have a treat, but I thought maybe the promise of one would at least get its mind off of things. The dog didn’t know the word.

Based on its behavior earlier, I said, “Give me your paw.” I tried “Shake.” I held out my hand. The dog didn’t understand any of this. It hadn’t been taught anything. It gave me a kiss, though, of its own volition…and then its eyes got suddenly large as if I might scold it.

When the maintenance man came back, he said they weren’t answering. He’d unlock the door anyway, he said…and he’d close the window they’d left open. He had to do something, he said, and even if they weren’t answering he couldn’t ignore the problem.

He came over and took the dog by the chain. It still dug its claws into the ground, but he pulled it along. The dog was in obvious pain…but I understand. I understand why he pulled it. He really was helping.

After the dog was inside he locked the door and said to me, “I don’t know anyone else who lives here who would have done what you did.” Which was pretty sad, since, for all he knew, all I did was place a phone call and wait for an answer. He was an older guy. Probably twenty years older than me. I thanked him for his help, but he thanked me instead. He said, “If everyone was that nice…” and just sort of trailed off.

Then I left. He left too, I’m sure.

It’s been a difficult week. The highlight of it, so far, has been losing a book I ordered and sitting in the rain for over an hour with the dog of somebody I’ll never meet, because I was more worried about it than its owners were.

Or, no. The highlight was what the older man said to me. “If everyone was that nice…”

Then…what? We’d have a lot more people sitting out in the rain, I guess.

It’s been a difficult week, if you want to know the truth. I don’t even know if returning that dog to its home was the right thing to do.

I guess there aren’t really any definitive answers.

You just do what you can do, and you hope it’s enough. Or you decide it’s not your problem, and you move along.

I’d be a lot happier if I knew how to move along. But I never learned how.

ALF Reviews: “Running Scared” (season 3, episode 17)

First off, apologies in advance for any typos; I’m writing this with a pretty high fever. I thought about skipping a week until I felt better, but since you guys put up with my self-indulgent smarty-pants rambling about Kubrick’s adaptation of Lolita, the least I can do in return is make fun of a puppet show for you.

In all seriousness, I had originally considered Fiction into Film to be the replacement series (at least for a while) after the ALF reviews ended. That may still happen, but you’ll get a few of them ahead of that time, since it’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while and I finally have time to read again.

The end of this series is slowly creeping in on us, so while I’m not entirely sure what I’ll do next (I’m open to suggestions, by the boo), I will let you know how things are looking as we wind down.

For starters, “Running Scared” means that we’re down to the final 10 episodes of season 3. After that, obviously, I’ll do season 4. Then I’ll likely take a detour back to season one, with a few articles that will look at the major (and/or interesting) things cut from the syndicated versions of the episodes that I watched for these reviews.

Also, my DVD set apparently has an early, unaired version of the pilot that I’ll probably review for the purposes of comparing and contrasting. I say “apparently” because I can’t read German and I’m not sure where on the discs to look in order to find it…but if I have it, I’m reviewing it.

Then, if there’s any interest at all, I’ll host a live-stream of Project: ALF ahead of reviewing that. I figure that’ll make for a nice, communal way to celebrate the end of the series. And it’ll also prevent me from being the Only Person Ever Who Intentionally Watched Project: ALF.

So, there’s your peek into the future. As for the present? Well, we have “Running Scared,” which starts off great…and then ends somewhere else entirely.

I’ve found that I’ve said some variation of “This episode starts out very well…” a huge number of times. That either means that we should be happy that ALF so often hits the ground running, or frustrated that it so infrequently makes good on its own promise.

“Running Scared,” I will say right now, is immensely frustrating, because it feels like it’s a rewrite or two away from being a great episode. I’ve said things like that before, too, but here’s the reason “Running Scared” stands out as being especially frustrating: this is a story the show needed to tell.

We open with an unexpected, quiet pan over the living room, where we see that all of the furniture has been moved and towels are tossed all over the floor. Willie walks in from the kitchen in some galoshes, throws more towels down at his feet, and asks ALF to explain, again, please, what happened.

This is very, very good. See, ALF flooded the living room because he intended to freeze the water and create a skating rink. Maybe you find that funny on its own; I don’t have strong feelings either way. But what I love about it is the fact that we don’t see any of that. The cameras switch on not for the wacky antics, but for the aftermath.

In the first episode of this season (“Stop in the Name of Love”) the highlight was probably the scene in which we see Willie pulling banana peels out of the coffee maker. As I observed at the time, it’s funny because of the idea of ALF cramming them in there in the first place. Had we seen him doing it, it wouldn’t work; there’s nothing inherently funny about someone gumming up Willie’s percolater. Give us the germ of an idea (bananas + coffee maker), however, and the odds are high that we’ll visualize something funny on our own.

That’s what happens here, and it works, but it’s not all that happens here. When ALF replies to Willie, the way in which he delivers his lines compounds the joke very well. He suddenly becomes a little kid who is tired of having to apologize yet again for the same stupid thing he did, but knows he has to because somebody else is in charge, and he’s in deep shit.

It’s great. Giving us this episode’s “bananas in the coffee maker” equivalent would have been enough, but an ALF who is both irritated and apologetic provides an additional layer of comedy. I like it.

Max Wright, I’d love to report, is on point in this scene, but he’s really not. He’s okay, but we’ve seen him much better than this. His repeated calls for ALF to tell him, again, why the living fuck he did this are funny, but they’re funny because they’re funny in theory, rather than because he makes them funny.

Usually the problem with the cast is that they don’t know how to take sub-par material and make it funny. This time, sadly, the material is good and the acting doesn’t rise to it.

Before long Willie storms out of the house to buy a pump, and once he leaves the phone rings. It’s somebody asking forebodingly for Gordon Shumway, and, man, the Tanners really should have forbidden their secret space alien from placing and receiving phone calls, but they never did, because ba hoobie derby dee.

ALF, "Running Scared"

It’s some guy who says that he knows Shumway is an alien, and if he isn’t paid $3,000 by Friday, he’s going to turn ALF in to the authorities.

It’s creepy and all, yeah, but he’s obviously mistaken. Why does he think ALF is an alien? Hasn’t he been watching the show? I have, and I haven’t seen any evidence that he behaves in any more “alien” a way than any of the other characters. Weird. Huge continuity error here.

But seriously…yeah, this episode has my attention.

For all the bullshit ALF gets up to in the backyard, on top of the house, and sometimes all around Los Angeles…and in spite of there being neighborhood watches and nosy neighbors and a general idiotic carelessness on the part of all those who are cursed with the name Tanner, ALF has never really gotten himself into trouble. This is overdue. Since the first episode of season one we’ve been reminded of the fact that ALF can never, under any circumstances, get caught…while simultaneously watching both he and the family engage in moronic activities that should guarantee immediate capture. It’s about time ALF had to face a consequence like this. It is, as I’ve mentioned already, a story that needs to be told.

Sometimes, such as in “Alone Again Naturally” or “Someone to Watch Over Me,” he gets himself into a bind, but it’s never for long. Willie or someone is always there, within arm’s length of the situation, to quickly bail him out using shitty sitcom magic. There are no stakes, and aside from the odd cliffhanger deferring disappointment until the following week, no real sense of danger.

Not until now, at least.

For 66 consecutive episodes, this show has alternately ignored and dismantled its own premise. And all of that — without exaggeration, all of that — could be redeemed with just one episode that makes good on the promise. Placing ALF in real danger of exposure, as a result of his own / the family’s own carelessness, could redeem everything we’ve seen.

“I know this show seems stupid,” it would say, “but trust us. We know it, and we’re addressing it right now.”

It’s the show acknowledging the fact that these pieces have always been here, and taking the time, at last, to fit them together.

In short, I love this premise. “Running Scared” has me from this very first scene; it’s already funny, and it’s already interesting. Its central conflict is specific to the nature and situation of the main character, specific to the premise of the show, specific to the danger ALF is in with the Alien Task Force, and specific to the world we live in…after all, the guy on the phone hasn’t turned ALF in; he’s just shaking him down for some money. And why not? That’s the most identifiably human thing I’ve seen on this show in ages.

Granted, Mashy Magoo the Thanksgiving Hobo had the same idea, but he fell in love with ALF’s…whatever ALF has, before the Alien Task Force arrived. The idea of somebody finding a space alien and immediately thinking to profit from it is a believable one…and this time, the person with dollar signs in his eyes is going to see it through.

It’s good. Visually, too, the episode is keen to push its boundaries. We’ve only had two scenes so far (the slow living room pan and the extreme closeup on the blackmailer’s jaw) and they’ve both been uniquely shot. This isn’t standard sitcom stuff. As much as “ALF’s Special Christmas” wanted to convince me from the start that it was a Very Important Installment, “Running Scared” actually has me believing it. It’s showing me respect, it’s rewarding me for watching, and it’s hoping I come along for the ride; it isn’t dragging me along by the nostrils.

ALF even comments on the fact that Willie always pulls him out of a jam, acknowledging the shortcoming that’s robbed so many other episodes of their tension…but Willie’s not there. ALF looks around and sees the mess he made (WINK WINK), and realizes that he might not get the help he needs now.

Guys…I know we’ve only just made it to the intro credits, but this has the potential to be a really great episode. Surely it won’t let me down.


Right, guys?


ALF, "Running Scared"

The next morning Willie and Kate stumble into the living room. They talk about how ALF came into their room last night and apologized for everything he’s done wrong since he arrived three years ago…in alphabetical order. Obviously that’s something else that’s funnier to hear about than to actually witness firsthand, and, again, I like that. By ALF standards, this episode is showing remarkable restraint, and it’s better for it.

The most interesting thing about this scene is the reveal that ALF still hasn’t told the family. He’s convinced, apparently, that this will be the last straw, so in spite of ALF being in significantly more danger than he’s ever been before, it’s also the one time he can’t ask for help. Instead, he’s apologizing for all the other shit he’s pulled since he moved in, and that’s smart from a writing standpoint. It also echoes “Working My Way Back to You,” which was one of this series’ most pleasant surprises. So far “Running Scared” is a good episode channeling an even better one. I’m happy.

Then “Running Scared” gets a real laugh out of me, but I can’t really articulate why; all that happens is that Mr. Ochmonek shouts, “Hey, Tanners!” as he approaches the house. That’s happened at least a dozen times before, but something about it strikes me as funny this time. Maybe I’m just excited because the episode is already pretty good, so my favorite character showing up feels, for once, like a cherry on top rather than a reprieve.

He brings them a sign that was in their yard, which says that their house is for sale for $4,000. (ALF later explains, in a pretty good joke, that he tacked on the extra thousand because he felt the Tanners should get something out of it.)

Mr. Ochmonek was never portayed as the brightest bulb, but the fact that he really believes the Tanners would sell their home for four grand seems much too stupid for him, so I choose to believe that he’s just joking when he says he’ll buy it. Willie declines, and Mr. Ochmonek says he’ll pay $4,100, and Willie can have his lawnmower back…but that’s his final offer. Too stupid or not, that’s a good line.

Kate explains that someone must have made that sign as a prank. And, wow; how did it take these assholes so long to come up with that as an explanation for ALF’s nonsense? Seriously, it’s a good excuse, and not one that you need to explain any further. Kids are always doing idiotic, sometimes inexplicable, things just to be dicks.

Usually when ALF does some dumbass thing that they need to explain, they end up inventing some kind of explanation that is clearly a lie and just makes them look stupider. (This also, it’s worth noting, used to lead to some good Willie moments as he floundered on the spot, but the show put a stop to that as soon as it realized that it was actually being funny.)

So, yeah, when forced to provide an explanation for ALF’s antics, shrugging and saying, “I dunno, I guess some neighborhood kids did it” sure is the smarter approach.

ALF, "Running Scared"

In the kitchen ALF records an audio diary: “Captain’s Log: Stardate 2525. Man, I’m still alive.” Set aside the idiotic idea that ALF is hiding something from the Tanners by loudly recording himself talking about it in the next room, because the line is a really well-integrated music reference. (“In the Year 2525” by Zager and Evans, if you didn’t know…it’s a monumentally shitty song, but Futurama had some great fun with a parody version.)

It’s also more clever than nearly any of ALF’s other pop culture references; as he’s an alien, it really might be stardate 2525 to him. We have no idea, and the joke might be the coincidence of the song’s lyric mirroring his own situation rather than the simple flash of recognition upon which similar gags in this show often intend to coast.

So far, so good. Unfortunately, “Running Scared” is just building itself up to let us down.

Willie and Kate come in and see aluminum cans everywhere. Kate asks him what the fuck he’s doing drinking all that soda. He replies, “Currently, I’m recycling cans. In a short while, I’ll be recycling soda.” It’s…pretty funny actually.

For shit’s sake, “Running Scared,” stop tricking me into thinking you’re going to be good.

They confront him about the recycling and the FOR SALE sign, and he tries to dodge the issue of why he’s raising money by saying, “you never know when you’re going to have to pay off some extortionist.” Then he tries to cover it with a phony laugh, which Kate, as the only Tanner not to have suffered severe brain damage at some indeterminate point in the past, sees through.

Lynn comes in and says good morning, and Kate says, “Oh, no, not so far.” Schedeen’s delivery of the line is stellar.

ALF, "Running Scared"

ALF, cornered, has no choice but to explain himself. And, in a nice subversion, the family doesn’t believe him. They think he invented the blackmail story in order to hide whatever it is he really wants money for, with Willie taking care to use air quotes when referring to ALF’s “extortionist.”

It’s a nice way of evolving the story. Instead of ALF continuing to hide the problem, or the family learning about it here and taking some kind of action (either of which, admittedly, could still have made for a great episode), we get something even better. The family does learn about it, but thinks ALF just found a new way to be a pain in their asses…and ALF does break down and reach out to them for help, only to find himself rebuffed.

We get to see multiple consequences pan out, in other words. ALF keeping schtum or the family rallying around him would each lead to their own kinds of stories, but fairly predictable ones. Instead ALF blabs and the family fails to rally, which helps “Running Scared” to feel like it’s actually jumped the rails. It’s no longer a safe and secure sitcom formula; some threat to the show’s homeostasis was introduced, and the chance to address it has been fumbled. ALF had only one way out of this mess, but he wasn’t able to reach for it. Then he was forced into reaching for it…and it slipped out of his grasp.

ALF, in a word, is fucked.

He tells the Tanners that the blackmailer said he’d call back with further instructions on making the payment, and that the guy called him a pinhead. It’s an exposition dump that isn’t that funny, but he also reveals to Brian that he stole all the money out of his piggy bank, and Benji’s bitchface finally gets some proper context.

ALF, "Running Scared"

Later on, ALF is waiting by the phone with Kettle Chips. I’m not sure if this qualifies as product placement, especially since we can’t see the label this time around, but in “We Are Family” we could pretty clearly see that that’s what he was eating in the tub. Since name-brand products are usually relabeled in this show, I wonder.

Also, they’re really fucking good if you’ve never had them. Even if the subliminal suggestion here is that they taste an awful lot like delicious cat meat.

Anyway, the phone rings, and he lets the answering machine get it. Pretty boring sentence, I know, but it’s actually one of the best ALF moments ever.

The recording says, “Hi, this is Gordon Shumway. I’m dead right now. Please leave your name, address, and extortion demands at the beep, and I’ll get back to you probably never. As I said, I’m dead.”

Funny writing, solid delivery, perfect use of the awkward phrasings and pauses of outgoing messages.

It’s just Willie calling though. He’s calling from work to say he’ll be late, and do cut to him in a non-descript office, but nobody else is there and nothing’s going on. So all of those secretaries and bosses and colleagues that we’ve seen in various other episodes weren’t worth inviting back on the show. In fact, empty space around Willie is a perfectly acceptable substitute for all of them, which provides some telling insight into ALF‘s approach to characterization.

He tells ALF to change the message to something less insane, and ALF does, using the new message to tell people to stop terrorizing him, and to wait for the beep.

It’s a good scene over all, even if the second answering machine gag isn’t as strong (or as unexpected) as the first, but what’s mainly interesting to me is that the blackmailer doesn’t call back with instructions like he said he would.

I’m genuinely curious as to why…and I’m not saying that because I’m playing coy or anything. I’ve seen the episode. I know what happens. I know how all this shit plays out. And I still have no idea why the blackmailer says he’ll call ALF back the next morning and then doesn’t.

ALF, "Running Scared"

ALF lives in the attic so fuck that bullshit last week when Kate read The Berenstain Bears to him in the laundry basket whatever who fucking cares fuck

Lynn comes up because she saw his light was still on, and she finds him hovering in fear around the window.

She believes his story, or is at least willing to indulge him, whereas the rest of the family won’t. It’s a sweet moment, and my favorite incarnation of Lynn. One we haven’t seen in ages, actually. For quite a while in season two, Lynn served as ALF’s sobering voice of reason. She took the time to talk with him when nobody else would, and, as a result, formed a bond with him that felt almost human. It was, while it lasted, the most reliably satisfying relationship in the show, and seeing it resurface here reminds me of how much I miss it.

“Running Scared” doesn’t manage to live up to its own premise, but even if I hated it I’d have to give it credit for revisiting a lot of the things I like best about this show.

ALF, "Running Scared"

She calms him down by saying that the guy said he’d call back, and he didn’t. At no point does she completely buy into his story, but she at least believes that he’s not lying to the family. He is scared; that much is obvious to her. It’s just a question of how much she believes or doesn’t believe in the specific conclusions he drew.

Something’s up, but the nature of that something isn’t what’s important to her right now. Her friend needs her, and that’s what she reacts to, even though she doesn’t (and can’t) have all the facts.

Andrea Elson is by no means the best actress, which is why scenes like this give me the sense that she’s a genuinely warm and caring human being. These moments come naturally to her. She doesn’t struggle with her lines the way she usually does. She doesn’t sound confused or robotic; she doesn’t flub her timing or work visibly hard to remember what she’s supposed to say next. Acting, in other words, doesn’t come naturally to her, whereas warmth does.

Even a screengrab gets it across. Look at the picture above and compare it to almost any other time you see her on this show. She’s at ease here because she’s able to channel something she understands: an innate, hopeful goodness.

She leaves him for the night, and as soon as she’s gone the phone rings, because of course it does. It’s the blackmailer again, saying that the Tanners are fucked if ALF doesn’t pay him the money. Then he laughs and hangs up.

ALF makes some joke to nobody. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going. And so do I!!” Which I’m positive isn’t funny, but I’m in pain just trying to work out what he or the writers thought it meant.

What’s really odd though isn’t the fact that he called ALF so much later than he promised to, but that he also promised to give him payment instructions…and he didn’t.

So what exactly was his plan here?

It’s more than just a slightly illogical stumble…it’s the precise, sad moment at which you realize “Running Scared” doesn’t actually know what it’s doing.

ALF, "Running Scared"

At…some time of night on…some day, somebody pounds on the door and Willie and Kate go to answer it. It’s a trio of slumming character actors representing Immigration Services. They’ve received a tip that Willie is harboring an illegal alien.

And that was a twist I didn’t see coming. And it’s a great one. I’m surprised the show took this long to come around to the space alien/illegal alien joke, but the fact that it did take so long makes it legitimately unexpected when it finally does happen. And I like the fact that this isn’t the punchline of the episode; we didn’t build to a pun…instead the pun served as an evolution of the plot. And, in a way, the conflict.

I like this. I really, truly, genuinely do.

I want to make that very clear before we tumble into the trench of bullshit before us.

Ready? Here goes…

See, I’m admittedly fuzzy on the timeline, but as near as I can tell, here’s what’s happened: the blackmailer calls ALF, and says he wants $3,000 otherwise he’ll turn him in. He says that he will call back the next morning with instructions, but he doesn’t. Instead he calls that night, scares ALF all over again, and hangs up. Now he’s turned him in.

But…why? You need to give your extortionee the time — or at least the ability — to pay you, otherwise you don’t stand to extort anything. It’s weird, and it casts a shadow of confusion over everything we’ve seen so far. And it’s not one that episode ever clears up, even when the full extent of the scheme is revealed. (Spoiler: it’s not really full at all.)

The immigration guys come in to search the house, but Willie demands to see a warrant. His whimpering when they immediately show him one is his lone bright spot in the episode.

I’m wondering, though, why the standard immigration officers travel in trios, when the Alien Task Force has been shown to operate in pairs at the most. Aren’t space aliens more dangerous? At least potentially? Sure, they might all be fat little fartbags like ALF, but the Alien Task Force doesn’t know that. (If they did know that, they wouldn’t have a reason to operate.)

The point is that whatever alien life exists or doesn’t exist, the Alien Task Force is hunting down a very unknown adversary…so why does it operate like an even more routine organization than Immigration Services in Southern California?

Willie stomps around the living room screaming that THEY ARE LOOKING FOR A HUMAN ILLEGAL ALIEN, to remind you that you’re watching a really fucking terrible show, even though this episode might have tricked you briefly into believing otherwise.

The main immigration guy asks Kate if they have a basement or an attic. She says they do have an attic, but they just fumigated it.

Of course, as we learned in “Isn’t it Romantic?” they also have a basement, which is (some fucking how, for some fucking reason) where all of the furniture from the motel they stayed at during their honeymoon is kept. But Kate doesn’t mention a basement, because the writers don’t remember that episode, and for the first time I envy them.

Kate offers the man a fan if he needs to check the attic, but he tells her that that won’t be necessary. Then he calls to his two colleagues: “He’s in the attic.”

It would be a great moment if it weren’t punctuated by Willie writhing around like somebody just jammed a thumbtack into his spine.

ALF, "Running Scared"

The immigration guys go up to the attic, and while they’re gone the Tanners find a note from ALF. It’s a goodbye note, his fifty-eight by my count. In his letter he explains that he’d rather be turned into creamed chip beef than have the Tanners go to prison on his behalf. Of course, the exact opposite was the case in “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” but the writers don’t remember that episode, and for the second time I envy them.

The note also says that he took the car, and he promises to leave it on Highway 71, “just outside” Edwards Air Force Base.

One, maybe I’ve asked this before, but who in shit’s name taught ALF to drive? He’s not allowed to leave the house; when would he ever need to know how to operate a motor vehicle? Ugh, who fucking cares.

Two, Edwards Air Force Base is a real place. It’s around two hours from the center of LA by car, so, geographically, that checks out. However I wasn’t able to find a Highway 71 that ran anywhere near it. That could just be me, and I admittedly didn’t drill exhaustively through maps of the region, but if there isn’t really a Highway 71 near there, I’ll be pretty disappointed. After all, they went through the trouble of giving us an identifiable real-world location to cling to, but made up a supporting detail that could have just as easily been gotten right.

There’s a reason I’m digressing into a discussion of Edwards Air Force Base, and it’s not because I’m a picky fuckball. (I totally am, tho.) When Brian asks why ALF is heading that way, Lynn explains to him that that’s where the Alien Task Force is.

So hot damn…we have some more information about this idiotic organization. Here, again, is confirmation that they don’t operate in secret, as a teenage girl knows exactly where to find them. Bums know how to reach them by phone. Rewards for tips that lead to the capture of an alien are offered publicly. Oh, and if they see a crashed UFO on your roof they’ll ask if they can come in, but if you say no they’ll have to leave. So yeah, the Alien Task Force operates openly…which again raises the question of how that could be possible in a world that shuns and ridicules people who believe in aliens. (Poor Mrs. Ochmonek was driven insane by this very fact in “Take a Look at Me Now,” and I was in turn driven insane by having to review it.)

But, whatever, we’ve been through that before. The real meat here is the fact that the Alien Task Force is a one-location thing. They don’t have offices all over the country; there’s a singular, fixed address. What luck that ALF crash landed a couple of hours away from them and not, say, in Portland, Maine. They’d really be fucked, then.

Seriously, if you’re only going to patrol one city looking for aliens, you might as well not even bother. I wasn’t able to find the total number of cities in the world (for understandable reasons) but estimates peg it at around 3,000. So even if you knew that an alien would land in a city, there’s a 1 in 3000 chance that it’ll be the same city you chose to patrol. Of course, we don’t know that an alien won’t land in, say, a town. Or a village. Or a desert, or a forest, or the ocean. On top of that, we aren’t even sure aliens exist, so my completely reliable math says that even if the Alien Task Force operated with a 100% coverage rate of its chosen city, their chances of finding so much as a strand of ALF’s pubic hair are about six hundred thousand zillion to one.

So, yeah, your tax dollars at work.

Fucking Alien Task Force. You want to kill ALF! Why aren’t you the coolest thing in this show?!

ALF, "Running Scared"

Then we see ALF on his way to Edwards AFB. I wish he was listening to some music, though, because instead we have to sit through him amusing himself (he’s certainly not amusing us) with a series of monologues about what he might say to the Alien Task Force. If you think they’re anything but padded bullshit, you’ve not been watching ALF.

Then we go back to the Tanners, and, man, there’s really no winning with this dumbass show, is there? Cutting from the Tanners to the alien sucks, and cutting away from the alien and back to the Tanners again sucks. There’s really nowhere this show can go. Maybe if they cut away to Jake masturbating at his Knotty Peek machine I’d at least give them points for variety.

The main immigration guy explains to Willie how he found out they have an (illegal) alien: a name turned up on a mailing list, and their computers flagged it when it wasn’t tied to a social security number.

Now, I like about 25% of that, which is a pretty good amount for this show. ALF does indeed subscribe to magazines, and he orders all kinds of shit through the mail, so I’m happy that that’s how he was spotted. But I also know that the lack of a social security number thing is bunk. No computers anywhere are tracking that, and certainly no flags would go off if a social security number couldn’t be scraped up.

How many John Browns exist in the country? Are computers working ’round the clock to make sure that each of their subscriptions to TV Guide are linked to the correct social security number? Computers won’t be sorting through them to see who does and doesn’t have a social security number, and confirm that each is linked correctly to the right identity. And also, why would any publisher or mail order company do this on behalf of Immigration Services? I don’t think Fingerhut gives a shit who is buying their junk, and it certainly wouldn’t be cost-effective to perform rigorous background checks on every customer even if they did.

Additionally I get enough junk mail made out to Phlippi J Reed that I’m pretty sure they don’t try to deport people on the received end of clerical errors.

Willie, the fucking idiot, doesn’t ask whose name was on a mailing list…he instead asks who ratted them out, which is moronic even by the moronic standards of ALF & The Fuckass Morons, and acts essentially as a confession that he is indeed harboring an illegal alien.

But the main immigration guy ignores this obvious confirmation and instead calls him a pinhead, which conclusively proves to Willie that he’s the blackmailer. That rings massively false to me, because I refuse to believe that Willie is called a pinhead by any less than 90% of the population he regularly interacts with.

He apologizes to the immigration guy, but says he’ll have to ask him and Darryl and Darryl to leave, which is a reference to Newhart. Man, was this show dying to get Bob Newhart to guest star or something? Thank Christ Bob never sunk anywhere near that low. Can you imagine him playing second banana to fucking ALF?

Thank God we were spared the episode in which ALF becomes a telephone psychic while Bob Newhart plays the guy who stands quietly to the side while the puppet gets all the jokes.

ALF, "Running Scared"

Mr. Ochmonek comes over to find out what all the commotion was. Yes, in the middle of the night Mr. Ochmonek gets up and heads over to check on the Tanners, who regularly wish illness and death upon him, just to make sure they’re alright. Remind me again who the bad neighbors are.

Willie explains it was immigration, and Mr. Ochmonek offers to help. He says his cousin’s a lawyer. “Call this number,” he says, handing Willie a card, “and ask for inmate 24601.” I love you, John LaMotta. I don’t know why you’re even in this shitty ass shitshow for shits, but I’m so glad you are. So, yes, that was a legitimately funny line, but at its core he’s offering a family favor to Willie the moment he finds out he’s in trouble. Remind me, again, who the bad neighbors are.

They ask Mr. Ochmonek if they can borrow his car, and he asks, “Again?” This could have been a callback to “Fight Back” a few weeks ago, but instead they’re referring to a time off-camera that somebody had filled Willie’s gas tank with malted milkballs. So, of course, but he loans them the car yet again, without any kind of explanation of what they need it for or when they’ll be back. Remind me…again…who the bad neighbors are.

Willie and Kate grab his keys and leave without so much as a thank you, and the scene ends with Mr. Ochmonek standing in their open doorway, so I guess he’s also about to babysit their kids.


ALF, "Running Scared"

Then ALF is in a barn.

Hey, why not.

He’s hollering about needing to use the phone because he ran out of gas, trying to get someone’s attention.

Normally I’d complain about this behavior, but since he’s on his way to turn himself in anyway, I guess it makes sense that he wouldn’t feel the need to be as cautious. Then again, if this fucking monstrosity knocked on a door in rural America in the middle of the night, the odds of him being shot to death on the spot are 100%. He’s even got on a red hoodie…and, no joke, Willie finds him because he leaves a trail of candy wrappers. I can’t confirm for sure that they were Skittles.

Willie stumbles in and finds ALF. Thanks to the candy wrappers I’m not concerned with how he found him, but I call bullshit on the fact that he was somehow only 40 seconds behind the alien who left hours earlier.

They talk for a while and Willie says that instead of running off, ALF should have come to them. ALF reminds him that he did, and they didn’t believe he was in trouble. So, yeah, they’re all assholes.

ALF, "Running Scared"

Then a farmer comes in and ALF hides. Willie picks up a pitchfork to stab this elderly man to death in the middle of the night, like the truly stellar social worker he definitely is.

After they decide not to engage in a rural California pitchforking to the death, Willie tells the man that he ran out of gas, and the farmer offers to give him some for $20. It’s actually funnier than it sounds, but not enough to warrant me typing this shit out.

When the farmer leaves ALF and Willie discuss how to get the cars home, then ALF says goodbye to the cow and tells it to watch its cholesterol.

That was the punchline of the entire episode. “Running Scared,” everyone.

This is where we end up after the blackmail plot, the great Lynn scene, and the alien/alien confusion?

God dammit. This is what I get for getting my hopes up. ALF giving life advice to a cow.

ALF, "Running Scared"

In the short scene before the credits Willie announces to us all that the main immigration guy is in deep shit for shaking down illegal immigrants. Evidently he’s been blackmailing them for a while now, so I can see why he’s fired. Why the family is no longer under legitimate investigation for housing illegal immigrants, though, is conveniently not addressed. I guess once the blackmailers are out of the picture, Immigration Services reverts to the honor system embraced by the Alien Task Force.

It’s strange; if the guy’s been dismissed for shaking down illegal immigrants, what did Willie do? Tell them that he was being shaken down for harboring illegal immigrants? Probably not, of course, but how could he escape any kind of followup visit, at least to close the file?

Whatever. Everything’s back to shitty normal.

ALF thanks Willie for saving his life.

Nobody thanks Mr. Ochmonek for coming over, offering his help, loaning them the car, and babysitting their fucking kids, all without explanation, for allowing that rescue to happen.

Hey, Tanners! FUCK YOU

I don’t know. I’m sure I’m reading too much into it, but the whole final scene feels like Willie is just saying, “Don’t worry, everyone. We’ll never have to deal with a plot like that again. Next week we’ll be back to ALF eating train sets and shitting them all over the rug, just the way we like it.”

“Running Scared,” again, was a story that needed to be told. But mother of Christ it did not need to be told like this.

MELMAC FACTS: The Alien Task Force operates out of, or at least rents a loft at, Edwards Air Force Base.