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The World's End, 2013

While waiting for The World’s End, I watched Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz over and over and over again. They were great films, and they rewarded repeat viewings. I noticed something new or appreciated something more each time. They each retained, on the whole, their ability to surprise. They were — and are — finely crafted little puzzleboxes that allow you to respect the craftsmanship even after you think you’ve learned its secrets.

Then The World’s End arrived. I saw it as early as I could, and never wanted to see it again.

In fact, until this month I didn’t revisit and reassess it at all. Shaun and Hot Fuzz stayed in rotation, but I never felt compelled at all to attempt The Golden Mile again with the court of Gary King. There were a few reasons for that, and only some of them were were conscious. I understand my feelings a little better now, and having seen it a few more times I can say that I enjoy it more than I originally did, but The World’s End is, without question, the weakest of The Blood and Ice Cream trilogy.

Whereas the previous two films were tight, complex constructions of both writing and directing, impressive little gifts that seem to contain more every time you open them, The World’s End is all exposed plumbing.

It’s a mess that begins to unravel partway through the film and never quite stops. Its tonal shifts are abrupt and inelegant. Its echoes are (often) forced and without meaning. And the final half hour(!) is given over to a long-winded explanation of what we’ve just seen, heaping upon us a great deal of new information but failing completely to surprise.

It’s bloated, aimless, and can’t seem to figure out what its own message is.

But you know what?

The World's End, 2013

It’s still better than I gave it credit for being.

And while there’s a lot of fat just begging to be trimmed, there are also some truly great moments that more or less justify the missteps.

The central conceit this time around is that Pegg’s character, Gary King, rounds up four of his childhood friends for one more crack at The Golden Mile; a 12-pub crawl that they failed to complete back in June of 1990. This necessitates a trip back to Newton Haven, a town each of them was all too happy to escape.

While they’re there some bodysnatcher stuff happens or whatever. I’d explain it here but the voice of Bill Nighy spends 30 minutes doing exactly that and I wouldn’t want to steal his thunder.

The most basic disappointment for me is that The World’s End doesn’t quite manage to mesh its universes. The zombies in Shaun and the slashers of Hot Fuzz felt important to those films, but the bodysnatcher aspect of this film never quite gels with the pub crawl.

In fact, they actively work against each other at several points, and for the first time in the trilogy I started to wish Wright and Pegg just told a straightforward human story without any of that blended-genre silliness.

The World's End, 2013

That, of course, would go entirely against the ethos of the trilogy, but I still feel it would have given us a better film.

The best stuff comes at the beginning of The World’s End, which is incredibly strong. Gary narrates an extended flashback of the fateful night he and his pals attempted The Golden Mile, and a perfect bittersweet note is struck…the nostalgia one eventually feels for times that weren’t that great to begin with.

It’s a great little sequence that strikes an impressive chord. It understands exactly how we reflect on the past and cringe at who we were, wonder how we’re still alive, and yet…still miss it.

The sequence is set to “Summer’s Magic,” a dance track released in 1990 which is both the perfect soundtrack choice and a song whose title and release date are quite meaningful to the film. In fact, the soundtrack overall is something I take no issue with, with most of the songs being period-appropriate, many of them being quite good, and all of them commenting in some interesting way on the action.

Then the flashback ends and we get a legitimately painful contextual surprise: it turns out Gary was narrating his story not to us, but to a support group.

The World's End, 2013

It’s a truly dark twist that in a flash recontextualizes everything we’ve just seen, and, unfortunately, it sets the bar too high for The World’s End to really live up to. Nothing else in the film is anywhere near as clever — or affecting — as that reveal, and that’s a big part of the problem. The support group fakeout hurts. It takes the cheery narration and wistful footage and jaunty soundtrack and slaps it away with a brutal dose of reality.

The rest of the film, however, lacks that kind of twist. It presents itself…and that’s all it does. The masterful undercutting on display in that opening moment is absent for just about everything that follows. The World’s End is a disarmingly superficial film in that sense, made all the more frustrating because it started as a film that was anything but.

There’s no second layer to anything we’re watching.

Granted, Gary King views himself a dashing, irresistible figure…while his friends find him a bothersome nuisance. At no point do we suspect otherwise, though, and at many points the characters outline this precise dichotomy for us. There’s no twist to it and no surprise. Gary sees himself one way, the rest of the world sees him another, and that doesn’t really change. There’s no twist, and no surprise.

Similarly, for much of the film there’s an unspoken trauma in the group’s collective memory, and that seems as though it will pay off in some kind of interesting way, but it never does. I’m referring to the “accident” that caused Gary and Andy Knightley (Nick Frost) to part ways.

The World's End, 2013

We hear only passing references to this event, and it’s indeed an intriguing question. What happened? Gary might miss all of his friends, but it was Andy to whom he was clearly closest. It’s Andy that he misses most.

What exactly came between them? We know it was an accident, but that’s all we know. We want to find out more.

…and so we find out more. And we realize we knew enough already.

It’s revealed that Andy wrecked a vehicle — and was nearly killed — while driving an OD-ing Gary King to the hospital. After the crash Gary scampered away to leave Andy to deal with the fallout. Which, indeed, is pretty shitty, and exactly the sort of thing that would break up a friendship for good.

But does any of that change what we already knew? Do we reconsider anything? Does it change or enrich our understanding of the situation at all?

We know the details now, but there was enough context already (Gary’s hard-partying lifestyle, the fact that there was an accident, Andy’s disinterest in seeing Gary again, Andy’s tee-totaling) that we pretty much had the idea. It’s enough to know that Gary did a shitty thing to Andy; finding out what that shitty thing was fails to register, because it’s completely in keeping with what we’ve already assumed.

Additionally, late in the film, as Andy and Gary are brawling in The World’s End, Andy sees that Gary is wearing a hospital bracelet. (Reading — with a note of masterfully cruel irony — KING GARY.)

But, again, this is something we already knew. It lends a nice bit of retroactive weight to Gary refusing to show his arm in the smokehouse, but it’s something we already knew. We learn everything we need to know about Gary King in the introduction — and everything we need to know about his friends in their introductions — which leaves the film with such little room to surprise.

The World's End, 2013

Having said all of that, the scenes of the group reconnecting are pretty great. The first couple of pubs see the men catching up, realizing how much they’ve changed, and, slowly, slipping back into old jokes and dynamics. Their laughter feels warm and genuine, and they really do come across as people who became adults individually but remember what it was like to be kids together. It’s very well done, and unquestionably well acted.

The feeling of returning to one’s home town is also handled very well. I didn’t grow up in a town like Newton Haven, but the feeling I get from watching the gang revisit it is on par with the feeling I got when I returned home after nearly a decade away.

There’s some melancholy distance that Wright conveys so well I can’t even explain how he does it, the feeling that this was once part of you…and isn’t anymore. The feeling that you couldn’t wait to leave, but now it’s kind of nice to be back…even if you still can’t wait to leave.

The most affecting example of this is when, early in the film, a man who used to bully Peter in school borrows a chair from the gang’s table, and Peter immediately shifts back into feeling like a helpless child. Brilliantly observed is the fact that the most painful thing about his memories is that he’s the only one who has them. His tormentor doesn’t even remember him. All of it — every unforgettable nightmare he endured and the scars he still carries — stayed only with him. To this day, he remains the only one to suffer.

It’s a very realistic scene, and one of the few times in this film that we turn a human lens on someone who isn’t Gary or Andy.

The World's End, 2013

But the reconnecting goes only so far, because there’s another kind of story the film wishes to tell: one about bodysnatching. Unfortunately, it’s one that Wright and Pegg never figured out how to integrate naturally.

Instead of feeling like an organic part of The World’s End, the bodysnatcher plot robs the film of what should have been its most affecting moments, beginning with the scene in which that concept is introduced. Gary failing to impress a younger boy with his hard-drinking plans for the night — something that should register as a sad, aging man unable to cling to a popularity he never had — is rendered meaningless upon the reveal that the boy is an automaton.

It’s even less interesting when compared to a similar scene in Spaced, in which an almost identical exchange happens — right down to it taking place in a restroom — and which manages to feel both more affecting and more menacing. It’s a lesser shade of something we’ve already seen, and it’s lesser because it’s less natural.

And that ends up being the problem all around. Gary is frequently (and temporarily) deflated by the fact that so few people in Newton Haven remember him and his antics, but that means a lot less when it’s revealed that they’re all robotic replacements for the people he did know. So far from having to face the fact that he’s not the living legend he believes himself to be — which would have given his character some sorely needed growth — he gets to assign his lack of notoriety to the fact that these are all robots, and not the people who would remember him.

Part of what makes the film’s introduction work so well is that it spotlights, indirectly, how big the small things can feel to us. How massively important they are to us, while they mean nothing to anybody else.

The events of that night in 1990 meant — and continue to mean — the world to Gary King, but to anyone working at those pubs, drinking alongside the boys, or otherwise going about their business, it was just a night. The kids were just customers.

That’s the awakening Gary King should have…not the assurance that they would remember him if only they hadn’t been replaced by machines.

The World's End, 2013

Then again, the robots (or Blanks) are shown to retain the memories of the people they replace, so I’m not sure where the film wants us to land on that. It’s our explanation for why nobody in Newton Haven remembers them (which seems to be reinforced by the fact that those who haven’t been replaced, such as Mad Basil and The Reverend Green, do remember them), but the twins recognize Sam, and Mr. Shepherd remembers them even though he has been replaced, so I’m not sure there is a definite answer in there.

Even odder is the fact that the Blanks have such radically different responses to the boys. In the first pub, the barman doesn’t recognize any of them and is not interested in engaging with them. In a later pub, much of the dialogue from the first pub is revisited, with the barman (Spaced alum Mark Heap) making a big, friendly show out of recognizing and engaging with them. That’s odd because Heap’s barman is meant to clue you in to the fact that he’s a Blank, as that plot point was recently revealed to the characters. But the first barman was also a Blank; we just didn’t know it yet. So does a Blank want to wall Gary and company off from their pasts, or fool them into thinking they’ve found it again? If they’re meant to represent a unified “Starbucking” (as we’re overtly told they are), then why are their behaviors and intentions at odds?

Maybe it’s a plot inconsistency, or maybe I’m just missing something. Either way, it’s nit-picking I wouldn’t be doing if I didn’t have a larger issue with the bodysnatchers.

So here’s my larger issue with the bodysnatchers: nobody flees.

The film does its best to give us a reason for that.

In fact, it gives us a bunch of reasons because it’s desperate to have us believe that these idiots will still try to finish the pub crawl: the buses have stopped running, there’s nobody sober enough to drive, they don’t have a car, nobody has a better plan, and so on.

All of which is fine. None of which convinces me that they wouldn’t make a break for it anyway.

Running might be a doomed idea, but aside from Gary I see no reason the others wouldn’t at least try…especially considering the fact that they weren’t having all that great of a time to begin with. They were already talking about ditching The Golden Mile and going home back when it was just a dumb social event.

Once the realize their lives are in danger, they for some reason feel less inclined to give it up.

The World's End, 2013

It’s a cheat. A necessary one to keep the film moving, but it’s only necessary because Wright and Pegg came up with lots of reasons the guys would stick together, and none of them are the right one. Gary King, I believe, would march stupidly into danger for the sake of finally completing The Golden Mile. I don’t believe that any of the others would push through as stupidly.

The danger simply isn’t handled believably to me here.

In Shaun of the Dead, Ed and Shaun fled the danger because it wasn’t safe to stay where they were…and they picked up the others because it wasn’t likely to remain safe where they were, either. Right or wrong, the impulse to find a safe place to hole up made sense.

In Hot Fuzz, Angel’s response was the opposite: he tackled the danger head-on, even when he knew he was doomed (see him attempt to place the entire NWA under arrest, alone), but that, too, made sense because of his unwavering commitment to justice. When the police joined him in his crusade, that also had a built-in explanation: they were the police.

In The World’s End, though, the characters’ response to the danger feels forced and manufactured, a product of the fact that the movie needs them to behave that way, and not because that’s who they are.

The bodysnatcher stuff does give the film some great moments, I admit. The scene in which the gang drunkenly tries to figure out what to call them is brilliant, and Gary’s “to err is human…” speech toward the end of the film is one of the best things in the entire trilogy. Ditto Nick Frost’s incredibly cathartic performance when he rips his shirt open and shouts, “I fucking hate this town!”

The World's End, 2013

But overall it just leads to some toothless commentary about Starbucking, and dull (and often humorless) fight scenes.

Shaun of the Dead had the good sense to keep its action either brief or funny. Hot Fuzz leaned on it a bit too hard, but still made Angel’s creative non-lethal takedowns interesting. (And, it must be said, still pretty funny.)

But in The World’s End they just feel tedious. Maybe it’s the silliness of the blue ink or the way limbs pop off and reattach like action figures, but something here just lacks weight, and I lose track of why I’m watching.

The first fight scene in the restroom uses one seemingly unbroken take (I don’t know for sure if it’s genuine or editing-room trickery), which may be technically impressive, but I don’t find it particularly engaging. It seems like something done for the sake of doing it, and not something done because that was the best way to shoot the scene. Compare it to Rope or the Copacabana scene in Goodfellas and you’ll get a sense of how hollow the gesture feels here.

A later brawl sees Gary’s drinking continually interrupted, and that’s decently funny, but otherwise it’s just the characters hitting people and getting hit in return. It gets old quickly and never complicates itself. The fight with the twins comes across as too Looney Tunes to even feel like it’s part of the same film.

In fact, nearly all of the bodysnatcher stuff feels like filler, and that might be because — unlike zombie films and cop movies — bodysnatcher films don’t have an established set of tropes from which to draw.

Both of the preceding installments in the trilogy hinged upon us knowing (at least in passing) the rules of the genres that they straddled. “Bodysnatcher” isn’t really a genre. Sci-Fi sure is, but it’s also much too broad. As a result, we’re left with a movie that doesn’t get to coast on an assumed level of familiarity as the last two did. It needs to introduce — continually — every one of its rules.

And, as a result, it feels like it’s putting forth a great deal of effort just to approach what the other two films achieved so naturally.

The World's End, 2013

But, mainly, there’s the fact that Gary King doesn’t change.

Nobody really changes. There’s an odd, unnatural stasis at the center of The World’s End, and I honestly don’t know how much of it is intentional, or what’s meant by it. It becomes particularly problematic at the end of the film, when Gary’s behavior and attitude (and reluctance to change or grow) results in global apocalypse and countless deaths. (Including his friends and loved ones, his own mother among them.)

What’s more, Gary causes this to happen.

In Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, the danger springs up with no help from our protagonists. Shaun tries to beat it back; Angel successfully puts a stop to it.

Gary King, by contrast, triggers the apocalypse single-handedly.

And yet, nobody in the film seems to bat an eye. They just adjust to the fact that the planet is a desolate wasteland, and Gary leads younger, robotic versions of his friends from pub to pub.

That would be fine if there were a larger statement being made, but if there is I’d have trouble identifying it. I don’t even know what Gary’s ostensible purpose is, let alone the film’s larger, thematic one.

It’s not to get drunk with his young friends — he orders waters for all of them — and he knows he and his gang aren’t welcome, so I guess it’s just to start fights and be a dick?

It’s an oddly vague conclusion for a film that just spent half an hour trying to rigorously explain to us what we were watching.

The World's End, 2013

You know what, though?

There’s a lot that The World’s End gets exactly right.

As down as I am on it, and as much as I can pick it apart, there is a lot that I enjoy.

There’s the intro sequence, obviously. There’s the series of short scenes of Gary rounding up his old friends, in which Simon Pegg seems to channel a somehow-more-delusional David Brent. But the biggest achievement comes, again, from Nick Frost. He plays Gary’s most pained and hurt companion beautifully.

Andy, if anything, is too real.

His standoffish nature and refusal to engage is just…it’s brutal. It hurts to watch. And it’s not because he turns away from his friends, but because it’s so clearly a symptom of how much he aches on the inside.

He has his life together, but he’s unhappy. And when we learn later that his wife and kids have left him, it lands. It makes sense.

This is a guy who played second banana to someone who literally left him to die…and he scraped his life together as best he could only to have that fall apart as well.

It’s affecting, and it feels real in a way that Gary’s struggle — however we may wish to define that — does not.

The World's End, 2013

Andy has been beaten by life. His inner conflict doesn’t feel manufactured; it feels honest and sad. And when he punches his wedding ring out of a robot’s tummy, we get one of the few times in this film that the bodysnatcher aspect has legitimate resonance.

Ditto his fight with Gary toward the end, when he takes his frustrations out on his traitorous, selfish friend physically. There’s something deeply affecting about that. It’s inner torment made manifest. It’s two men who love each other trying to hurt each other, because that’s what they feel like they should do.

The conflict, sadly, doesn’t last. The floor of The World’s End descends and there’s no resolution to the confrontation between Andy and Gary. We’ve left the film about people, and shifted irreversibly into the film about alien bodysnatcher robot things.

The World’s End doesn’t know how to resolve the fistfight that the entire film has been building toward, so it — quite literally — just drops it.

That’s hugely disappointing, but I was talking about the things I liked, so let me shift tracks and say that I also love Paddy Considine’s turn as Steven Prince.

Steven is Gary’s put-upon and downplayed third banana, and he reconnects with his childhood crush Sam. Together they kindle a gentle romance as civilization comes crashing down, and while the romantic element if the film is far from one of its most important, it’s handled very well. Considine does fantastic work here, and I’m glad we got to see more of him after his great — but too-brief — turn as one of Sandford’s detectives in Hot Fuzz.

In fact, the casting is great all around, and the effects work is good as well…even if I do wish the film leaned on it a bit less.

But rewatching it (a few times) prior to writing this, I realized why I didn’t want to rewatch it at all.

At first, I just thought I didn’t like it as much. It wasn’t as funny. That kind of thing.

Instead, I think it’s just a little too hard to face.

The World's End, 2013

Gary King’s arrested adolescence is too well drawn. It’s too potent a reminder of…well, of all the stupid things I’ve done. All the crap I’ve put people through. All the times I hurt someone close to me, and never took the time to apologize or make amends.

I don’t look at The World’s End and see myself. But I do look at it and find unpleasant emotions triggered. See reflections of things I’d prefer not to remember. Realize that even now I’m not the person I probably should be.

That’s not the film’s fault. In fact, I admire how successfully it conjures those emotions.

It’s just frustrating that it doesn’t then know what to do with them.

The World’s End, through my personal filter, starts to look to me less like a bodysnatcher film and becomes more of a psychological horror.

The idea that someone like Gary King could exist…could continue to exist, as he is…could round up his old friends and interfere with their lives all over again…could end the film just as he always was, without the help he needs…could be left bounding unchecked through the world with no incentive to reconsider his place in it…

That’s terrifying to me.

If monster movies have you checking under the bed, this film makes me dread looking in the mirror, lest I see any part of Gary King staring back at me.

The World's End, 2013

It paints a man like Gary very well, and then doesn’t know what to do with him. The character — and the audience — are underserved.

If anything, the film’s biggest problem is how accurately and honestly it paints Gary. Because he’s not a caricature, and is instead a deeply hurting and dangerous man, he’s beyond the scope of the film. He’s too much for it to tame. He, by his own existence, raises questions and triggers concerns that the film isn’t capable of addressing.

But because it paints him so effectively, it can’t be a bad film. It’s disappointing, especially in light of the two that preceded it, but The World’s End hits some great notes along the way. It has interesting things to say about growing up, even if it can’t quite complete the thought.

And again, at its core, it’s the story of Pegg’s and Frost’s characters. This time around, though, it’s not about why they need each other. In fact, they don’t need each other at all, and they separate at some point before the end of the film to do…whatever it is they each do.

The emptiness of the ending comes from the confused story the film is trying to tell. Perhaps it was too ambitious for its own good. Or perhaps Wright and Pegg just got complacent. I certainly don’t know, and I can’t pretend to.

But I know that it’s worth watching, even a few times, because the lousy stuff makes you appreciate the previous films a bit more, and the good stuff is really good stuff.

It’s just that, for the first time, the balance seemed to really falter.

The World's End, 2013

That’s at least in keeping with the film, though.

You can get the old crew back together, but you’ll never manage precisely the same magic.

All you can ask is that you get some enjoyment out of it, before it’s all over.

Happy Halloween, everyone. Thanks for reading.

Nathan Rabin

Over the next few days, we’ll be turning the spotlight over to the authors featured in the Arts in Entertainment series. This is your chance to meet them and get a sense of exactly why you’ll want to read their books. As of right now we are just over 25% funding, but we still have a ways to go! Every dollar helps make a great series a reality, so please support the Kickstarter today to help it come to life. Here’s Nathan Rabin to tell you about his book on I’m Still Here, and to give you a taste of just how great a series this will be.

What made you decide to pitch to this project?

After I finished You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me I had one goal in mind: to write a book that would be even more grotesquely self-indulgent and personal, and appeal to an even tinier niche audience than You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me, my non-best-selling, non-award winning book about Phish, Insane Clown Posse and my 37th nervous breakdown. Since the beginning of my career, I have strived to make all of my writing all about me. It’s been an uphill struggle, given the public’s intense disinterest in my life, both personal and professional, but I have somehow managed to publish two memoirs (2009’s The Big Rewind and 2013’s You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me) intersecting my perpetually downward spiraling brain and the weird-ass pop culture that obsesses me. So I jumped at the opportunity to really delve deep into a movie that I think is one of the most important and insightful and relevant movies of the past decade, and a movie whose shadowy, murky depths haven’t really been explored.

How quickly did you decide on your subject?

Surprisingly quickly. Maybe it was because I was in a particularly vulnerable state when I first saw I’m Still Here — pinballing around the country following Phish in the summer of 2011 and trying to write a book I was half-convinced would be the death of me, or at least spell the end of my career — but the movie resonated with me in a way few films (or other pieces of pop culture, for that matter) have. I related to it on an only unhealthy level, and I see this book as being something of a follow-up or companion piece to You Don’t Know Me, that explores the same set of experiences from a different angle and with even more candor than before.

What was it about your subject that stood out to you?

This is a film that combines just about all of my obsessions in one bizarre, tricky little box full of dynamite: hip hop, celebrity, drugs, sex, madness, ego, celebrity, comedy, post-modernism, anti-comedy, method acting, David Letterman, Diddy, the purposeful and deliberate blurring of fact and fiction and much more. It’s a film that Phoenix seemingly made only to satisfy his wandering, erratic muse but it also feels custom-made for my particular brand of unconscionably personal, broad-view criticism.

What do you hope a reader will take away from your book?

At the very least, I’d like readers to come away with a renewed appreciation for the film and for the audacity Phoenix has shown throwing himself into such a tricky, bizarre and all-consuming project. Phoenix has always been a favorite of mine but I think with I’m Still Here he transcended being a mere actor convincingly saying other people’s lines and became something greater and stranger, a bona fide pop icon, perhaps the closest thing we have to Marlon Brando.

Your book in seven words:

Letting Joaquin Phoenix’s Madness Run With Mine

ALF, "Wanted: Dead or Alive"

Never, ever can there be two good episodes of this shit in a row. Really, it’s getting annoying. Am I really asking for too much? I’m not even demanding more of them. However many good episode this show produced, that’s fine. Just once, though, I’d like to see them back to back. I’d like to get some welcome sense — however false — that the show is finding its footing. I’d love it if the show just seemed good for long enough for me to become delusional.

But, no. Once again, an enjoyable, funny episode with good ideas is followed by a lump of steaming horse crap. I shouldn’t be surprised by this point, and I’m not, but Jesus Christ I wish we could buck the pattern just once.

“Wanted: Dead or Alive” opens with ALF walking in on Lynn watching something. Judging by her face I assume it’s A Serbian Film.

I figured it was just Andrea Elson staring dead-eyed because the script didn’t tell her to do anything else, but from the context she is watching something affecting. What is it? I don’t know. I think it’s a real film, but I was unable to figure out the details. Apparently it stars Shelley Winters and ends with her singing about corn. Any idea what movie this is? Winters has a vast enough filmography that I can’t narrow it down based on that, but I’m sure it’s something I’ve never seen.

We hear cow noises or something, and then ALF spoils the ending for Lynn: the guy gets “gang-hoofed” by the cows, which is the rape joke I’m sure you were hoping you’d expose your kids to when you tuned in to watch a puppet show.

He spoiled the movie because he wants to watch Crime Stoppers, but Lynn tells him to fuck off. So he tells her to fuck off even harder, and she does, because the show is named after him, so she knows it’s pointless to argue.

So, there. “Wanted: Dead or Alive” begins with the show’s most obnoxious character shoving the show’s most likable and relatable character around just for the sake of it. This is going to be great!

ALF, "Wanted: Dead or Alive"

ALF switches over to Crime Stoppers just in time to see Anderson Cooper talking about that week’s uncaught criminal. ALF delivers a zippy one liner about televangelists (he’s doesn’t care whose toes he steps on!), and…

…wait a minute. Isn’t that…

That’s Paul Fusco! ALF’s puppeteer appears on camera for the first time in this show! That’s a pretty significant occurrence. Sorry it took me a moment to realize who it was. Somehow I overlooked it, and…

ALF, "Wanted: Dead or Alive"

…wait. Why is the picture so much sharper now? Did they just not bother to focus the camera the first time? My local access high school news show was more professional than this.

It really does seem that way. We see Fusco hosting the show in Beer-Goggle-Vision, then cut to ALF for a quick line, and when we see the TV again the show is actually in focus. That proves that they knew it was out of focus to begin with. Does nobody on this show do second takes? Jesus Christ.

Evidently the criminal is some guy who marries old ladies and steals all their money, but something goes wrong with the footage and instead of showing us the guy in question we instead see those pictures of Max Wright that The National Enquirer took this year.

ALF, "Wanted: Dead or Alive"

Pretty nice Easter egg, ALF, telling a joke that wouldn’t pay off until 2015! I’m impressed.

ALF shits himself because that’s Willie, obviously. Personally I’d have assumed it was Andy Warhol. Yes, that guy died two years before this episode aired, but I’d be more likely to believe his zombified remains are robbing people than that more than one woman got suckered into marrying Willie.

So, that’s our setup for the week; Willie’s seen a million grandmas, and he’s rocked them all.

Or, rather, Willie looks like a criminal. There’s nothing wrong with that — It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia did more or less the same plot a few years ago, and that’s a much smarter show — and “Wanted: Dead or Alive” does at least try to make it interesting…but damn, trust me before we sink any deeper, this episode is pretty shit.

ALF, "Wanted: Dead or Alive"

After the credits we see that the Ochmoneks are watching the same broadcast, and drawing the same conclusion. And hey, Mr. O! God, it feels like ages since we’ve seen him. Welcome back, John LaMotta. You are a sight for sore eyes.

This seems to be a different living room set than we last saw, but it’s possible they’re in the den or something. And I’m not complaining — continuity be damned — because the set design here is lovely. It’s perfectly in keeping with who I imagine the Ochmoneks are, and what their furnishings would look like. The TV dinners (with foil!) and TV trays while they watch…uh…TV are perfectly chosen details as well.

Sadly, the background detail here is the best thing about the episode.

The Crime Stoppers host mentions that there’s a $10,000 reward, so Mr. Ochmonek suggests — possibly in jest, though it’s nicely loaded — turning Willie in. Then they talk for a bit about how likely or not likely it is that Willie is the gigolo, and as much as I usually like the Ochmoneks it gets kind of annoying.

Mrs. Ochmonek ends up feeling rejected because Willie’s never tried to seduce her or whatever, and I swear to Christ that’s the last direction I ever wanted them to take her character. She could be revealed as a connoisseur of bestiality porn and I’d find that less revolting than the idea that she gets moist over Willie.

They fight for a bit about how Mr. Ochomenk isn’t romantic enough for her. Lady, I’ve watched 80 episodes of this shit. I’ve seen both husbands in action. Trust me, compared to Willie you married fucking Ryan Gosling.

I really don’t like the backpeddling on the Ochmoneks’ relationship — which is normally shown to be loving and romantic — but at least it’s happening in a shitty episode. That’ll make it a little easier to ignore.

ALF, "Wanted: Dead or Alive"

ALF watches more of the show and wonders what he’ll do if Willie really is the perp. Would he turn him in, or hide him? I thought this would lead to a nice little reflection of the show’s premise; Willie, after all, was faced with the same issue way back in episode one. At any point he could have turned ALF in, but he kept hiding him, no matter how many times ALF set the house on fire or touched the baby’s butthole.

ALF realizing that he owes some kind of loyalty to Willie — who may be a criminal — could make for some pretty cool inner conflict…especially if the net result is that ALF concludes that Willie is a criminal and he should turn him in, but can’t because then he’d have nowhere to live. The ethical crisis then becomes one of survival.

But, no, that would be interesting, so Brian comes in and makes some joke about ALF getting high on catnip. So there’s the drug abuse joke I’m sure you were hoping you’d expose your kids to when you tuned in to watch a puppet show.

In the episode’s defense, we do get a little bit of this later on, but it still feels kind of tossed off in a strange way. For such an important kind of conflict it gets glossed over completely, until the end of the episode when we see only the barest sketches of it. As usual, this one is a few rewrites away from being a good episode, and that’s a shame because the episode does eventually stumble over what makes it interesting. Unfortunately, by that point there’s only one more page left in the script, and fucked if we’re starting over.

Anyway, ALF freaks Brian out when he presses him for details of Willie’s life. Then Lynn comes in and Brian, bitch face cranked to 11, says, “Lynn’s here. Can I go now?” Even this kid knows his role is eclipsed the moment literally anybody else steps onto the set.

ALF starts asking Lynn similar questions about Willie, and for someone who was so upset at him just a few moments ago she certainly seems to have a lot of patience and good humor right now. I’m assuming that’s because these scenes were shot on different days and nobody paid any attention to where they’d fit into the finished episode. Great work all around.

She listens to his questions and then dismisses them casually. “Why didn’t I go away to college?” she asks with a laugh.

Hey, Lynn, I’ll tell you why: because of ALF. Because of this hateful fuck-troll that keeps pissing on your dreams followed by you forgiving it immediately. And here you are, lightly chuckling about how fucked your life is. Tee hee hee!

You’re so close to being human, Lynn. Finish your evolution by murdering this thing with a garlic press.

ALF, "Wanted: Dead or Alive"

Ugh, whatever. Later on ALF creeps up to Willie while he’s sleeping on the couch, and I assure you I have many times awoken from this precise nightmare.

Willie wakes up and ALF puts a wig on him and fuck this show.

ALF, "Wanted: Dead or Alive"

The idea is that ALF is trying to disguise Willie so he won’t get caught, I guess? I don’t fucking know. I guess this means he concluded Willie really is the crook, and, honestly, this show is nowhere near smart enough to pull it off, but that could be a neat way of exploiting ALF‘s ropey characterization.

We’re in season four — the final season — and still don’t know who Willie is. Is he distant or loving? Is he a good husband or someone who ignores his pregnant wife’s cries for help? Is he a good social worker, like we keep hearing, or a violent imbecile, like we keep seeing? Is he an asshole or a saint? A loner or a friend? Does he hate his life or love the people that surround him?

We don’t know any of this for sure; one week we might get a definite answer, but then that gets overturned the next week. Nothing sticks. Willie’s character could be described as “pliant” if we want to be generous, but more accurately he’s a mess of unconnected and scrambled traits that have yet to intersect. Willie is a bunch of things, and he’s nothing at all.

I’m not saying that the show could (or should) pull off the idea that Willie really is the black widower, but the fact that we know so little definitive about him means that that could be our inroad into suspicion. Like Hitchcock’s (uh…) Suspicion, ALF could take the very few things we know about Willie and leave us to assume the worst about the rest. It could be a fun — and admirable — way to address the massive black hole that occupies a central role in this show…the one we’re supposed to call Willie.

But instead ALF gives Willie some Groucho glasses and a pair of pointy ears, and tries to get him to take a cruise to the Bahamas. Who cares. I have no idea what the logic of any of this is.

Willie tells him to eat a bag of dicks and goes to bed. Why he wasn’t sleeping in there in the first place, I have no idea. This episode thought so little about itself that it’s no wonder it didn’t end up thinking about ALF as a whole.

ALF, "Wanted: Dead or Alive"

Then the phone rings, and ALF tells the caller that Willie moved to the Bahamas. It’s kind of dumb, until we find out that the caller was Mr. Ochmonek.

This…I kind of like. Both halves of the story dovetail nicely. ALF is trying to protect Willie, but in doing so he makes Mr. Ochmonek even more suspicious. Mr. O now not only saw a resemblance between Willie and the criminal, but he thinks Willie is disguising his voice and pretending to have left the country.

It makes sense that this would tip them into drawing a definite conclusion about Willie’s guilt, but before anything happens we have to listen to Mr. and Mrs. Ochmonek argue for a while over whether or not to turn Willie in. I guess that’s what they do to fill their lives after the tragic death of their teenage nephew.

Mr. Ochmonek ultimately calls Crime Stoppers and tries to collect the reward. And while that’s an asshole thing to do, I’m fine with it. On the one hand, I think his “tip” on the case is strong enough at this point to warrant a phone call. Sure, any “evidence” here could be (indeed is) circumstantial, but it’s not up to Mr. Fucking Ochmonek to solve crimes. He’s just reporting what he knows, which is what Crime Stoppers asked its audience to do.

And, hey, if this guy is dangerous and defrauding innocent people, this could just be Mr. O’s way of doing his civic duty. Maybe I’m stretching that last one a bit, since I don’t believe a word of it myself, but, honestly, at this point Mr. Ochmonek could walk over to the Tanner house with a nailgun and fire it directly through Willie’s skull and I’d still like the guy. (I’d like him even more, truth be told.)

One the thing I really find interesting is that, so far, the plot of this episode has unfolded without any influence from ALF. The Ochmoneks watched the show, the Ochmoneks drew their conclusion, and the Ochmoneks called the hotline. Yes, ALF saying Willie moved to the Bahamas helped the decision along, but it was leaning that way anyway. For once, ALF doesn’t seem like he’s causing the plot to spiral out of control.

He’s just a presence, and not a catalyst.

I like that, because I fucking hate ALF.

It’s also nice because it means other characters get to actually do something, but mainly I just fucking hate ALF.

ALF, "Wanted: Dead or Alive"

The FBI comes to the door, which I guess is this show’s equivalent of a living room jam session with the Beach Boys. Seriously, this happens all the time. How often, exactly, is the government going to raid these assholes’ house? Did nobody on the writing staff ever say, “Maybe there’s a different way to advance this plot”?

It also bothers me that none of the government agents are ever seen twice. When you have the same character type show up 55 times over the course of your show’s run, how could you not think to make him a recurring character? It’s so odd. It would be like a milkman making deliveries in each episode, but it’s always a different milkman. Instead of “here’s two more FBI guys we’ll never see again,” why don’t we get regular appearances from Agent Doe and Agent Cardholder? You’re already using them constantly; cast them and make them characters.

My Doe and Cardholder reference there comes from The Venture Bros. I didn’t intend to explain that, but the more I think about it, the more I realize they’re a genuinely instructive example. In The Venture Bros., everybody is a character. Every line suggests a human being delivering it, rather than an actor reading from a script. Sure, sometimes the content of the line is no more than, “Hey, look at this!” But the delivery, the voice, the tone, the outfit, the expression on the character’s face…all of that adds up to at least a suggestion of a real character there. Even background characters who don’t get any lines are given so much personality through how they dress and how they move that they’re memorable.

Compare that to ALF, which doesn’t seem to have any interest in building character at all. In ALF‘s mind, everyone is disposable apart from the main character. So of course the FBI guys aren’t characters. The Tanners, who appear every week, aren’t even characters. In fact, they’re the very definition of disposable, as the cliffhanger at the end of the season reveals. If the planned season five really were to take place at the Alien Task Force base, we’d never see these people we spent four years with again. And, what’s more, the show would be no poorer for it. ALF should be embarrassed by that fact.

Speaking of characters, the disposable FBI guy on the left is played by David Alan Grier, who would move on to much better things the next year with In Living Color. I remember him being very funny there; one of the strongest talents on a show that had more talent than it gets credit for. In Living Color never achieved the cultural significance of Saturday Night Live, nor is it one of those sorely-missed sketch comedy underdogs like The State or Mr. Show, but I’ll go to bat for it. In my memory at least it was a pretty great show for its time.

The guys arrest Willie, which is the way each of these Beach Boy jam sessions must end. Man, Max Wright sure got arrested a lot on this show. I’m glad it’s a only work of fiction with no relation to reality.

ALF, "Wanted: Dead or Alive"

The FBI guys hustle Willie into a room full of Max Wright clones, and I assure you I have many times awoken from this precise nightmare.

This might have been a fine enough sight gag on its own, but then Willie steps in gum and I guess that’s the punchline instead. I don’t know. What does stepping in gum have to do with anything? You took the time to build a whole new set and hire a bunch of people who vaguely look like Max Wright, and it’s all in aid of having him step in gum…which he could have done anywhere?

Who fucking knows anymore.

ALF, "Wanted: Dead or Alive"

Back at the house ALF hides in a box like he did in “We’re So Sorry, Uncle Albert,” only instead of Lynn coming outside to comfort him Kate comes outside to rip his nipples off.

ALF explains to Kate that he didn’t turn Willie in, which is true, and that’s good. But he also says, “I knew you’d finger me,” which is the digital penetration joke I’m sure you were hoping you’d expose your kids to when you tuned in to watch a puppet show.

Kate points out that all of the evidence suggests ALF did something to fuck this up, and threatens to dissect him while he sleeps.

I missed this Kate…the one who flicks herself off to thoughts of ALF being hit by a car. She wasn’t nearly murderous enough when she was heavy with child — the child that once again everyone seems to have forgotten exists — and it’s nice to see her spring back pretty quickly to wishing him ill. If she keeps it up, I might just survive the rest of this season.

ALF, "Wanted: Dead or Alive"

Back at the station Max Wright is living his lifelong dream, to be surrounded by willies.

They all place bets on which of them is guilty, which is probably a funny idea but in practice I hate this episode and therefore hate anything that isn’t the end credits.

David Alan Grier comes in and announces that Tanner’s story checks out, and he’s free to go. I have no idea what story of Willie’s checks out. “I didn’t do it,” I guess?

We never find out what his alibi was or why he’s cleared, or what they even investigated. The guy might as well have said, “The script says you’re free to go.”

It’s also pretty convenient that Willie was the first one they investigated and cleared. What about all the other Willies who have been here longer than him? Don’t they care that the new guy gets cleared and sent home first?

Anyway, one of the other Willies gets up and tries to pass himself off as our Willie, saying Kate must be worried sick. I like that, as Willie probably did try to make conversation with the other guys, and now this fake Willie is using his personal information against him.

Willie stops him and says that he’s the real Willie Tanner, which could have turned into something funny. At least potentially. They could have had a decent scene in which all of the Willies claim to be the Willie, and so the cops don’t know who to send home.

It wouldn’t make much sense because they could easily be fingerprinted or something to prove who was real, but I still think that would have been funnier than Willie stepping in gum.

Instead it doesn’t go anywhere. David Alan Grier just says, “Nice try, Mr. Fusco,” and lets the real Willie leave. So I guess the joke is that a guy named Mr. Fusco looks like Max Wright? I assure you Paul Fusco has many times awoken from this precise nightmare.

ALF, "Wanted: Dead or Alive"

As Willie leaves he bumps into the Ochmoneks, and one of the FBI guys lets it slip that they were the ones who had Willie arrested for the reward money.

Willie gets pissy with them, which is fine, but he also says that he can’t believe that after all their years of being neighbors they’d treat him like this.

Yes, he actually says that without an ounce of irony. Look in the fucking mirror, Willie.

Mrs. Ochmonek apologizes to him which, yeah, that’s well-deserved, but when was the last time Willie apologized to them for anything? I don’t think it’s ever happened, and that guy’s constantly being a dick to them.

Okay, yes, they called Crime Stoppers on him, but isn’t it sort of the cops’ job to make sure they’re arresting the right person? That’s not the Ochmoneks’ fault. They just phoned in a tip. If the FBI fucked up and detained the wrong person (or, seemingly, people), that’s on them.

Whatever. Willie hates the Ochmoneks even more now. At least now he has the vaguest of reasons to, so I guess that’s progress. Now I’ll only think he’s 99% out of line when he stands around laughing at Mr. Ochmonek’s war injury and calling them fat and ugly.

ALF, "Wanted: Dead or Alive"

Back at the house Benji Gregory is in the foreground of a shot for the first and last time in his career. Then Willie comes back and kicks one of the Ochmoneks’ lawn flamingos over because he’s a fucking dick.

ALF comes in to greet Willie and says, “I’m so excited I could leave a spot right here on the carpet.”

I hate this show.

Willie explains to the family that ALF, for once, had nothing to do with this. And, I admit, I like that. I mean, it’s not exactly true, since he tried to get Willie to take a cruise to the Bahamas and plied the kids with information about this criminal, all of which made Willie look guilty when the FBI showed up, but whatever. In theory I like it.

Then the episode finally does draw the parallel between Willie protecting ALF and ALF protecting (or trying to protect) Willie. Which, to be fair, justifies the concept of this episode, if not its fucking horrendous execution.

Then the family leaves Kate and ALF to sort out their conflict. Kate apologizes to him, and ALF tells her to blow it out her ass. He says that he gets along fine with everyone else in the house, so she must be the problem.

I HATE THIS SHOW

ALF, "Wanted: Dead or Alive"

In the short scene before the credits ALF wears a wig and does his impression of a black person.

If you’re not watching these episodes along with me you might have trouble knowing when I’m making something up. So let me just assure you that I am making absolutely none of that up.

Have a spookily bigoted Halloween everyone!!!

Countdown to Jim J. Bullock existing: 4 episodes
Countdown to ALF being disemboweled in front of the Tanners: 21 episodes

Futurama

Before I leave on vacation I like to post a little “Behave yourselves!” notice. Not that you don’t…it’s just that I won’t be around for a week to monitor posts, so try not to get angry at each other. If you do get mad at someone, track them down in real life and beat them up so we can keep Noiseless Chatter civil!

Also, if you notice any spam while I’m gone, trust me; I’ll clean it up the moment I get back. Don’t respond to it, please, because that makes it more difficult to delete after the fact.

So far, so similar-to-every-vacation-message-I’ve-ever-posted.

But that changes here! Because I’m not going to apologize for the lack of content; I’ve got loads of stuff locked and loaded, so stick around and enjoy! That includes new ALF reviews and the conclusion to Trilogy of Terror on Halloween, with a look at The World’s End.

It also includes Arts in Entertainment author spotlights, so check those out, and please pledge to make this series a reality and get copies of these books for yourself. The Kickstarter is right here, and we still have a long way to go. Every single dollar helps, but for just a little bit more you can make out with a book or two as well. Thank you to everyone who has pledged…please help us make this a reality. Time is running out!

Speaking of Arts in Entertainment, we’ve added a potential seventh title as a stretch goal: journalist, game reviewer, and all-around great man Cody Muzio will be writing about the legendary SNES port of Street Fighter II. The best part: if we hit the stretch goal, everyone who pledges for the full-series subscription ($35 or above) will receive this book as well; they won’t pay anything more for the seventh book. It’s a way to make a great deal even better.

You can read more about that title on the Kickstarter page, and pledge as well. Remember, you don’t get charged a dime unless we are fully funded, and not until November 15 at the soonest. So if you’re waiting for payday…don’t! Pledge what you can to help the series come to life, and you won’t be charged until and unless it does.

And, finally, my destination: sunny, silvery, gaudy Las Vegas! If I hit it big, rest assured I’ll pull down the Kickstarter and finance the thing myself. Of course, I only allow myself one pull on the nickel slots, so let’s not bank on that, exactly.

One of the things I’ll be doing in Vegas is shooting host segments for this year’s third-annual Xmas Bash!!! Stay tuned for more details on that; we’ll be picking dates and times soon.

Once again, you’ll have an opportunity to donate directly to The Trevor Project. Once again, it won’t be mandatory, but I hope you’ll consider doing so. It’s a charity that’s dear to my heart, and if we can turn a night of hilariously bad television and brilliantly funny commentary into something positive for an organization that does so much for those who feel like they have nowhere else to turn…well, frankly, that would mean the world to me.

So I’ll be back, little ones. And you’ll be missed. Enjoy the place while I’m away, and replace any of the booze you drank with tap water. I’ll never notice!

Zachary Kaplan

Over the next few days, we’ll be turning the spotlight over to the authors featured in the Arts in Entertainment series. This is your chance to meet them and get a sense of exactly why you’ll want to read their books. As of right now we are just over 25% funding, but we still have a ways to go! Every dollar helps make a great series a reality, so please support the Kickstarter today to help it come to life. Here’s Zachary Kaplan to tell you about his book on Synecdoche, New York, and to give you a taste of just how great a series this will be.

What made you decide to pitch to this project?

When I signed on to the project, I had no idea the path my life would take. Synecdoche, New York had always meant a lot to me. I’d always been a diehard fan of Charlie Kaufman’s work; his sense of humor and unique style seemed to meld a bleak, anxiety-prone outlook with a sense of pushing through the morass, of achieving a true, genuine happiness. When I saw Synecdoche for the first time, I bawled through most of it — in part because I had recently lost my grandfather. When I saw it a second time, I was struck by how my opinion of the film’s message differed so greatly from my friend’s; I saw something of a cautionary tale, the idea of caring too much about what other people think dooming oneself to perish at the foot of an impossible ideal, so stop caring and live for yourself. She saw a damning condemnation of others, an upsetting rejection of the outside world. This dichotomy intrigued me, and these thoughts in general inspired me to take the opportunity to write at length about what had become one of my favorite films.

Then, after signing up for the project, my mother committed suicide. And every idea in the film, every message, every scene became a statement about life, death and grief; specifically, my life, her death and the grief of myself and my family. The film became a statement about what suicide is, what life is, what death is, and everything in it seemed to eerily apply to my situation. I recognized that I was not thinking completely rationally — that’s what grief is, after all. But I felt intimately connected to the film through this process.

I hope that by channeling this grief through the film, I will be able to understand my mother and her suicide, to help myself regain the optimism that this terrible event shattered, and to speak to others who have gone through situations like mine in a way that could help them understand their own grief and pain. And perhaps I’d help prevent a few suicides in doing so, in being brutally honest about this process and how I reached this point. It’s this brutality that attracted me to the movie — the raw, unfiltered look at what life is, what death is, and why we go on. It’s this brutality that once gave me a renewed optimism just as it shook my friend in a negative way. And it’s this brutality that I must channel if I hope to continue as a part of this world and get stronger as I go. Because in the wake of a suicide, you see the rawness of the world as it really is. And there is only one way forward: through it.

How quickly did you decide on your subject?

It took me perhaps a week of mulling over different movies and such that I could write about before I decided on Synecdoche. I have no idea how I picked such an apt film for my situation, but there it is.

What was it about your subject that stood out to you?

If I could see a film and feel uplifted while my friend could see the same film and feel incredibly depressed, I knew that there was something complex there worth exploring. It touched me in ways that I had yet to fully understand, and it resonated with my worldview in a way that few things do.

What do you hope a reader will take away from your book?

I hope that when someone reads my book, they will be able to view the world in a way that helps them get meaning out of it in the way that I get meaning out of it. As an atheist, I must turn to the stark reality of life itself to find the optimism needed to get me through the dark times. And with times as dark as they are now, I feel like I can fully pull out the meaning behind my perspective a way that I never could before. This film resonates so deeply with this perspective that I can think of no greater tool to guide me through the darkness. If you could call my struggle a test of my faith, then I’d see this film as my Bible.

I know there are others out there like me. I know that there are others whose worldviews, atheistic or otherwise, can work as a double-edged sword the way that mine does. I know that there are others who see the world as I do, and who will hopefully gain perspective that I have gained and will continue to gain as I complete this work. I hope that I come out on the other end a more complete person, and that others can use my book as a guide to help themselves do so as well. A tome for those who can only see the world in a stark, bleak light, and how that light doesn’t have to be so stark or bleak. And I hope very much that it helps those who are considering suicide. I hope that it helps them realize that there is a point to staying here with us, in the living world. I hope to show my readers the beauty in the sadness. I hope to save lives.

Your book in seven words:

Excavating grief in search of life’s essence.

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