Reading too deeply into these things since 1981
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Fiction into Film is a series devoted to page-to-screen adaptations. The process of translating prose to the visual medium is a tricky and only intermittently successful one, but even the fumbles provide a great platform for understanding stories, and why they affect us the way they do. This month’s piece was graciously provided by reader Viktor Tsankov.

Blade Runner, 1982It is difficult to deny Blade Runner. A cult classic from the director of Alien that stars Han Solo/Indiana Jones in his prime, selected for preservation by the Library of Congress, one of the first cyberpunk works that arguably defined the aesthetic of the genre, consistently voted one of the best sci-fi films by critics and sci-fi fans alike, and influencer of works from the Battlestar Galactica re-imagining to the Ghost in the Shell films, Blade Runner is an aesthetic cultural touchstone that pales in comparison to the work it is based on and the works that came after it.

Before going any further, I don’t want to give the impression I think it is a bad film. On the contrary, Blade Runner is a beautiful, empty mess. A more faithful adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? might have had a difficult time inspiring the way Blade Runner has. What the film did is create a stylistic foundation, it teased a larger, more intricate, world that it never capitalized on, and it let its fans’ imaginations run wild.

Its narrative emptiness, its multiple versions, and its messy architecture all came together to create a uniquely subjective experience of a narrative. A viewer is largely free to choose the truth of the film in ways that would not be possible with other films, and that would be even more difficult with the singular novel.

Blade Runner, 1982

For this piece I have watched five versions of Blade Runner: 1) the original US Theatrical Cut (1982), 2) the prototype Workprint (1982), 3) the International Theatrical Cut (1982), 4) the Director’s Cut (1992), and 5) the Final Cut (2007). The differences between these versions are smaller than one might expect considering how many releases there were, but when there are significant differences I will point them out.

One of the first ways in which there is an important difference is the messy architecture that I referred to earlier. Blade Runner seems to be purposefully made to mess with an audience’s sense of place. The story is told over at least three nights and three days, although time is really indeterminate. It rains every night except for the first night and is sunny every day. The first image we are greeted with is fire shooting up from skyscrapers into the night sky. There is fire in front of Taffey’s place as Deckard runs out to chase Zhora.

Blade Runner, 1982

And there is fire outside of Sebastian’s place as Pris is walking there.

Blade Runner, 1982

When Pris walks to Sebastian’s, we see her pass by a fire truck and a police vehicle, and yet they do not see, or do not care about, the fire in the street.

Blade Runner, 1982

In general, people seem to care very little about what is going on around them. Deckard chases after Zhora brandishing a gun in his hand, and people hardly notice. No one screams, no one gets down, people just seem annoyed that he is pushing them out of his way. At a later point in the film when Deckard has parked on the street, a group of people climb onto his car while he is still in it and start trying to take it apart. The people are as blasé as about life as they are about death.

Some of the more interesting elements seem to be due to error. The scene that introduces Roy Batty has a stray finger on his coat that belongs to no one.

Blade Runner, 1982

This finger exists in every version but the Final Cut.

Blade Runner, 1982

Not only that, but it is mirrored in the scene where Roy is talking to Tyrell, only this time the finger actually belongs to someone.

Blade Runner, 1982

Similarly, at Roy’s death in the rain at the end of the film, he lets go of a dove that then flies into a clear, blue sky.

Blade Runner, 1982

This is then corrected in the Final Cut to show the rain that should have been there.

Blade Runner, 1982

Although these two scenes were corrected in the Final Cut to remove the stray finger and to add in the rainy sky, it should be noted that the Final Cut wasn’t released until 25 years after the original. For 25 years, no matter which version of Blade Runner one saw, they would have experienced these weird moments of things not lining up.

And those are just the obvious visual inconsistencies. Blade Runner is also chock full of film techniques meant to give the feeling of otherness.

The film begins with flashes to a mysterious man with his back turned, who we later learn is Dave Holden, the other Blade Runner. In his interview with Leon, the replicant, we get a brief moment of audio echo or overlap. When Deckard does his interview with Rachael, we get two quick dissolves and more audio overlap.

Blade Runner, 1982

Roy gets a dissolve after he has killed Tyrell and Sebastian as a transition to Deckard.

Blade Runner, 1982

When Roy dies he gets a final dissolve with Deckard so that both are in the same shot.

Blade Runner, 1982

Rachael is completely washed away by light when she is at Deckard’s place after killing Leon.

Blade Runner, 1982

Blade Runner, 1982

You can barely see the outline of her face when comparing the two, but it happens a couple of times in the scene. Light from outside flashes towards her and washes out Rachael and the background. When Deckard plays the piano in every version but the Workprint, it starts out seeming like non-diegetic music until we see him pressing the keys and we get diegetic and non-diegetic music in the same scene.

These techniques create a sense of distance. Some of them have a simple purpose, like the dissolves in the Rachael interview being a shorthand for time passing. But most of them are there just to keep the audience active. There is a lot of information being given and a viewer has to pay attention to be able to take it in. Put another way, it makes the setting not only seem alien, but untrustworthy. The camera lets us see the seams of the world. This has the benefit of making everything seem all the more fantastical, but the drawback of putting off people who need a more concrete setting to suspend their disbelief.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has a less fantastic setting. The world of Androids is mostly colorless and nondescript. The radioactive dust in the air is causing the world to crumble, and most of humanity has either died out or left the planet for the colonies. Where Blade Runner had busy streets filled with people who didn’t care about the fantastical things happening around them, Androids has a few people living desolate existences trying desperately to connect and feel something.

The crushing loneliness that Deckard and other characters feel is reflected in the decaying world, the empty silences. Silence “flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote [Isidore] with an awful, total power…it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-specked ceiling.” Isidore “experienced the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive.”

People feel the death of their infrastructure and the world so acutely, that they try to live as close to other people as possible. The very notion of emptiness and silence is utterly terrifying to them and messes with their minds. The world of Androids is abstract, psychological, and terrifying.

This is where the religion of Mercerism becomes important. Using an empathy box a person is able to become one with Mercer and connect to every other person using the emapthy box. The name half-explains itself; it engenders empathy for other people by having everyone that connects to it feel the feelings of every other person connected.

When someone is happy or sad, they share that feeling with the rest of the empathy box users. This feeling, when all physical evidence is to the contrary, is what keeps people connected, what keeps people wanting to stay alive despite their depressing surroundings. And it manifests itself in other ways.

This is where the emphasis on animals comes from as well. Blade Runner has a few allusions to this, as with the artificial owl at the Rosen Association and the artificial snake that Zhora says is much cheaper than a real snake. There are ostriches and ponies and birds on the street that people walk around, but it has no particular meaning to Deckard or anyone else. It is just another part of the fantastical, futuristic setting. In Blade Runner‘s future artificial animals are as or more common than real ones.

Blade Runner, 1982

In Androids, one has to have an animal, not just from an empathic standpoint of having living things around you, but from a social standpoint, too. And since animals are rare and expensive, it is often the case that people have electric animals. But owning an electric animal, like Deckard’s sheep, is demoralizing. His neighbor feels sorry for him and everyone assumes that others will look down on him. It’s difficult for owners to even pretend it’s alive.

It doesn’t matter how good the animal looks or if it acts exactly like a real one; the knowledge that it is fake taints the affection they might have for it. After Deckard has produced three of the six android corpses he has enough money to put a down payment on a real goat, and Rachael says outright that he loves the goat more than he loves her or his wife. The one thing keeping him going through the ordeal of hunting the androids is the thought that he will get to be with his goat later. For Mercer all life is sacred and he loves all animals, and this translates down to all of the people connecting with him through the empathy boxes.

This is also a defining difference between humans and androids for the novel. Androids in both the novel and film have killed people before they come down to Earth. In the film this is suggested of the six particular replicants that Deckard is chasing, and the rest are ambiguous. In the novel, this is explicitly stated to be the case for any android found on Earth. Androids are given as servants to humans going off to the colonies as an incentive for them to leave the planet, and so any android found on Earth could only have gotten there by killing their human master. Murder committed by androids is similar to murder committed by actual people, but a defining difference is that the androids in the novel are solitary. They care about themselves individually. They do not care about animals or humans or other androids. Humans, on the other hand, have empathy for other creatures, emphasized by Deckard as a group animal trait.

Humans in the novel are closely associated with animals and they empathize with them to a high degree. Pris’ snipping of a spider’s legs upsets Isidore so much that he abandons the androids even after he had decided to protect them. Androids cannot take care of animals. Even if they wanted to, which they do not, they lack the warmth and empathy necessary to keep animals alive, which humans have instinctively. It’s what suggests the humor in the title. The answer to “Do androids dream of electric sheep?” is an obvious no. It seems like a deep question before you’ve read the novel, but since androids care only about themselves, and no further than an individual level, they couldn’t possibly care about artificial animals of a lower intelligence the way humans do.

The title is a joke on human empathy towards anything and everything, including those for whom it would be impossible to reciprocate that empathy.

The replicants in Blade Runner are indistinguishable from humans. Bryant tells Deckard that though they do not begin with emotions, over time they can develop them fully the way a person could, and Eldon Tyrell tells the bounty hunter that they also implant false memories into some replicants so that they more fully believe that they are human. And this is borne out in the film. Roy and Pris kiss.

Blade Runner, 1982

Leon seems devastated watching Zhora die.

Blade Runner, 1982

Roy in general goes through all manner of different emotions like anger, contempt, joy, etc.

Blade Runner, 1982

Blade Runner, 1982

The opening crawl of the film suggests what a person is meant to feel about androids. They are used for slave labor, they are virtually identical to humans, and killing them is not referred to as execution but retirement.

The words are meant to engender the audience’s sympathy to their plight. Although they have killed 23 people to get to Earth and a bunch more throughout the film, their main goal is to live longer. They have been artificially given four years to live, and they are dying. In his death scene Roy suggests that he has witnessed beautiful and wondrous things that no human will ever witness, and that this has some value. There is poetry in his words and thoughts that can’t be denied.

Even if you consider them ruthless killers, the film also gives you Rachael. Rachael is an innocent. She kills Leon to save Deckard, and is mortified by her actions. She cries when Deckard confirms she is a replicant.

Blade Runner, 1982

As if our sympathies weren’t with her enough when she finds out her whole life has been a sham, she is also completely alone.

Being a replicant and running away from the Tyrell Corporation means that she is now wanted by bounty hunters; this makes Deckard an enemy, and yet she saves him. It isn’t until after she kills Leon that Deckard says he wouldn’t hunt her; she had no guarantees going into it.

Although it gives mixed messages about the other replicants, Blade Runner wants you to care about Rachael at least. Instead of having her seduce Deckard the way a femme fatale might in any other noir, he forces himself on her. Rachael remains an innocent in the relationship that springs up between them too.

Blade Runner, 1982

Our feelings on Rachael, at least, are clear. Similarly, Sebastian is an innocent human in the film. He does not kill anyone, and in fact helps the replicants. He takes Roy to meet his maker, and is then mortified when Roy kills Tyrell. Sebastian also has no problems empathizing with the replicants, because he creates his own friends that are not human.

It’s difficult to know what to think about the rest of the replicants. Zhora isn’t in the film long enough to have a defined personality, Leon is violent and cruel, Pris seems to take some joy in making Sebastian feel uncomfortable, and Roy kills Sebastian, our innocent human.

The other humans don’t come off any better either since Bryant doesn’t care about Rachael and bullies Deckard into working for him, Tyrell treats all of his replicants like fun experiments, and Holden in his interview had a mocking, sneering attitude toward Leon. Gaff is a bit more ambiguous since he lets Rachael live with the knowledge that she has only a four-year lifespan, but is otherwise not much of a presence. He speaks only one understandable thing and is otherwise absent for most of the film.

Deckard is the real mystery, and your conception of him changes depending on which version you see.

In all versions he kills the androids, forces himself on Rachael, and vows to protect her later. The two theatrical versions have some short narration. There, Deckard looks down on Gaff and thinks Bryant is a racist. He is surprised at his own feelings since Blade Runners are not supposed to have feelings, similar to how replicants are not supposed to have them. He more and more feels like a killer, and even feels bad for shooting a woman, Zhora, in the back, but these internal moments don’t stop him from killing the replicants. In the versions without narration, it doesn’t even seem like he minds killing them.

In general, the Deckard in the film doesn’t make sense.

Bryant says he is the best bounty hunter he has ever had, and certainly better than Holden, but every kill is a lucky one. If Zhora had taken his gun or not been interrupted when chocking him, then he wouldn’t have been able to kill her. Leon is killed by Rachael, and Rick had lost the fight before that with him. Pris similarly doesn’t take his gun after beating him up, and then decides the best thing to do is walk to the far side of the room so she can attack him with a somersault, ensuring he has time to get his gun and shoot her. Roy is Deckard’s worst showing, as he gets as many free shots as he likes and still manages to lose. In fact, Roy saves his life, the first life that he hasn’t taken in the entire run of the film.

Deckard is extremely lucky rather than skilled.

Blade Runner, 1982

So what are we meant to think of him? Except for his acceptance and protection of Rachael, what does he offer? Even that he isn’t particularly successful at, since Gaff still found her and he himself took advantage of her.

Does Rachael’s seeming acceptance of him at the end of the film (and that is somewhat ambiguous seeing as she has no one else) supposed to mirror the audience’s acceptance? There is no clear indication.

Blade Runner, 1982

These types of unsatisfying ambiguities are part of the enormous difference between Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and Blade Runner.

Just looking at the plot elements of the book and film it might be tempting to say that they are very similar. Character names overlap, and the basic premise of a bounty hunter looking for androids on Earth is the same. Some of the dialogue is taken word for word from the novel, as in Deckard’s interview with Rachael early in the film. But even when it does overlap, the meaning behind the words is different, and the meaning for the respective works is different.

Rachael’s interview in Blade Runner establishes Rachael and Tyrell’s characters, as well as giving us key information about replicants, namely that their memories can be manipulated. Rachael’s interview in Androids sets up the first scenario of mind games being played, and presents to Deckard just how difficult his task his. Although he succeeds in finding out that Rachael is an android, he nearly loses the only method for detecting them because he too easily believed that she could be human.

Blade Runner, 1982

The Deckard in Androids is also someone we want to root for. He begins the novel an underdog. Bryant establishes that Holden was the top bounty hunter and Deckard had never had to deal with the tough cases that Holden had.

After his interview with Rachael, Deckard realizes how outmatched he is. He feels that he barely made it through an interview with a Nexus-6 type, and he still has to put down six of them, which feels like an overwhelming amount. Another bounty hunter, Phil Resch, puts down 2 of the 6, but Deckard gets the other four due to quick reflexes, intuition, and general skill.

The Deckard in Androids is not only good at his job, but he is contemplative and regretful. After the death of Luba Luft, the android acting as an opera singer, he is the only one to ask what the harm is in letting a beautiful voice like hers remain in the world. He finds Resch’s cold attitude towards the androids disgusting, even as he knows that it is necessary to survive them.

A big deal has been made of whether the Deckard in Blade Runner is a replicant or not, but I have to say the question isn’t particularly interesting because of the forced perspective. If Deckard is a replicant then there is no moral quandary in his actions, and Gaff becomes our de facto hero for letting them go. If Deckard isn’t a replicant, it still doesn’t matter because Blade Runner has been clear on what the right and wrong things to do are. The film has a clear moral scheme, and his decision to save Rachael is correct regardless of what he does.

The question of his humanity obfuscates the real philosophical point, which is this: how do we define that which is human, and how do we treat things that are not?

This is where the Deckard in the book is really important. He is definitively human, and the androids are definitively amoral. Their goal for the book is to see humanity lowered, to see them fall into despair when they show Mercer to be a lie and empathy to be a pointless emotion. They fail because of a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be human, but regardless of their success or failure, their goal is a petty one. Rather than trying to lift themselves up, they try to corrupt humanity.

And still, Isidore and Deckard find themselves empathizing and caring about specific androids, even if in the latter case it is only for brief moments. The end of Androids has Rachael killing Deckard’s goat, and he is left with his electric sheep and an electric toad, tired and somewhat devastated, but happy to be done with his task. His wife orders electric flies for the toad and says that her husband is devoted to it. Despite their problems throughout the novel, and despite how demoralizing it is to own an electric animal, both husband and wife are just glad to have each other, to be together. As the world around them crumbles and they are mentally accosted by the petty androids of Buster Friendly and dead animals, they find some sense of warmth in each other’s arms.

This isn’t to say that Blade Runner doesn’t have corresponding visual motifs, because it does. The most prominent is the focus on eyes. The general darkness of the film makes eye glare much more apparent, but the replicants, and the artificial owl, also have glowing irises in certain scenes.

Blade Runner, 1982

Blade Runner, 1982

It’s a visual way to tell that they are artificial. The first scientist that the androids visit, Chew, is the one that works on eyes.

Blade Runner, 1982

One of the first shots of the film is the fiery cityscape reflected in Dave Holden’s eye as he watches from the Tyrell Corporation.

Blade Runner, 1982

Roy kills Tyrell in some versions of the film by poking through his eyes, although this was considered too violent for the US Theatrical Cut and the Director’s Cut.

Blade Runner, 1982

Leon was also going to kill Deckard by poking through his eyes.

Blade Runner, 1982

Eyes are important for the film, not just in that they represent our weaknesses, but also in that they reflect who we are.

Roy defines himself to Deckard not by his relationships or his actions, but by what he has seen; he is unique and indispensable because no one will see what he has seen. Blade Runner seems to argue for uniqueness by experience. The replicants are important and deserve to be treated as individuals because there is nothing else like them. They have the same potential to do good or bad as the humans do, but they live differently, more fleetingly and desperately.

Like a fingerprint, an iris uniquely identifies a person, and so for Blade Runner the most prevalent theme must be individuality. Whether that be Gaff’s decision to let Rachael go, Roy’s decision to save Deckard despite all of the other replicants trying to kill him, or Deckard falling in love with a replicant, the characters define themselves by their individuality.

Blade Runner, 1982

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is the complete opposite. It values our group mentality above all. Our ability to empathize is the most important trait, and it is what we use to test whether someone is an android or human.

This is best established by Isidore’s decision to connect with Mercer after finding out that Mercer isn’t real. Mercer is supposed to be one of the things that separates the humans from the machines, since they empathize with him whereas the machines cannot. He turns out to be a program, but that just reaffirms the difference between the humans and the machines even more. People just don’t care if Mercer is real because the feeling he provides them is authentic. The book suggests that to be human is to despair, and they all want the feeling of community and unity that they get through his suffering, even if he isn’t a real person.

And yet, authenticity is still very important. No one can tell the difference between a real sheep and a machine sheep, but the owner knows and that is stressful. It’s stressful that their animals aren’t authentic. People desire authenticity even though they can’t get it and they know no one else can either.

In many ways, empathy is a weakness. It allows our protagonist to come dangerously close to sympathizing with the machines and to almost be killed for it, while they couldn’t give less of a damn about him or each other. The androids define themselves in opposition to people, even as people try to make them as human as possible. The Rosen Association’s goal is to make androids indistinguishable from humans, even as the bounty hunters’ goal is to draw a firm line between the two. Humans crave authenticity even as they destroy it.

So Androids defines humanity in its empathy and in its striving for something real which doesn’t exist. The knowledge that it doesn’t exist while continuing to strive for it would suggest existentialism. It’s still individualistic, like the film, as each person has to come to terms with the absurdity of their existence, but that coming to terms manifests itself in Mercerism, in coming together and sharing their feelings and empathy with each other.

Blade Runner is beautiful, and beauty always has value. But that beauty lies in its aesthetics, not its narrative or its characters.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? has a beauty of soul, a desperate yearning for connection and truth in a miserable universe. Living in Blade Runner‘s universe seems fun and expansive with its myriad of different languages jumbled together, its vibrant night life, and fantastic technology. Living in Androids‘ universe is a slog, with every day beating on you and the slow encroachment of entropy visible all around. Its hopefulness and love of its characters are thus all the more cathartic.

Blade Runner
(1968, Philip K. Dick [as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?]; 1982, Ridley Scott)

Book or film? Book.
Worth reading the book? The book is a psychological dystopia that slowly eats at the fabric of humanism as it makes a virtue of nihilistic hope. It is one of the few sci-fi works that dares to make robots unsympathetic and it asks the right questions about what that means. It is uniquely anti-climactic. If you like sci-fi for the questions it asks, then it is a must read.
Worth watching the film? Possibly. It undoubtedly has historical value, and its cinematography is beautiful. Don’t watch it for the narrative, though.
Is it the best possible adaptation? No. Except for some dialogue and character names, they have very little in common.
Is it of merit in its own right? The Final Cut is stunning, especially on Blu-Ray, and it is always a different experience watching something as opposed to reading about it. But I would say that some of the works it has inspired manage to meld the aesthetic with the narrative better than it has, so I don’t consider it unique anymore.

Note: If you’d like a more detailed look at the differences between versions, this site will do nicely.

ALF, "He Ain't Heavy, He's Willie's Brother"

What is an interloper? In terms of television, at least, an interloper is a character who is introduced to shake up the show’s existing dynamics, nearly always temporarily. (This is due to the nature of an interloper; if the interloper sticks around, the dynamics are no longer “shaken up”…they just change.)

Introducing an interloper is one of the easiest things a writer can do to generate conflict. After all, we dislike it in real life when somebody wants to shoulder us out of our routines, so it’s easy to imagine how sitcom characters — routines personified — must feel when somebody saunters in and changes the rules, deliberately or not.

That “deliberately or not” bit is important, as an interloper isn’t necessarily a villain, and a villain isn’t necessarily an interloper. Gargamel, for instance, isn’t an interloper, because his interactions with the Smurfs are part of that show’s established dynamic. He doesn’t interrupt it; he contributes to it.

Similarly, an interloper has to…well…interlope; he or she or it can’t have been there from the beginning. An example of this would be Steve Urkel on Family Matters. While the Winslows do indeed treat him as someone who interferes with their…erm…family matters, we aren’t the Winslows; we are viewers of the show. On that level he is part of the dynamic and not a complication to it. His suave alter ego Stefan Urquelle was an interloper, however, because he changed the way people reacted and behaved around him. (This is also a reminder that interlopers don’t necessarily have to be “bad guys,” as Stefan is an improvement on Steve in almost every way.)

Other examples include Schmitty on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, or The Real Seymour Skinner on The Simpsons. In both cases, these are characters we meet for the first time, but whom the characters in the show remember from long ago. This means that while the interlopers change the dynamics for us, they actually return the other characters to their previous dynamics…pre-show, before we knew them. And, in both cases, the characters involved reject this reversion violently.

Then there’s The Office, which saw an interloper (coincidentally named Neil) added as the Slough branch’s new manager. The American version had its own equivalent, and in both cases their presence resulted in our focal character losing his job…a permanent change that was written into the show’s DNA from then on, even as the interloper slipped into the background or disappeared entirely.

Which leads us to ALF, where interlopers do indeed visit but are difficult to register, as no recognizable dynamic exists anyway.

Of course there’s behavior we’d recognize as out of character immediately (Lynn punching a stray dog to death, Willie giving up crack, Brian speaking, Kate being thanked), but very little that can be given the slight, jarring tweak that interlopers represent so well.

So much of what we have been told about these characters has been reversed, contradicted, or overwritten during the past three years and change that we can’t distinguish the work of an interloper from the work of a lazy writing staff.

Except in cases like this week’s episode, in which we’re told outright that a character is interfering with someone’s comfort.

ALF has given us a few interlopers before. Kate Sr. is the nearest approximation to this week’s Neal, as she, too, is a member of the extended family, got a multi-episode introduction, and primarily frustrated ALF. (Not surprising in itself, as Paul Fusco ensured that he’s the only character that matters). Jake, by contrast, was not an interloper, as he didn’t interfere with anyone’s dynamics at all; he was just another character for them to react to as they always reacted to people.

Dr. Dykstra was an interloper, and a great one because, by virtue of his occupation (and superior acting), he was able to occupy a space above the regular workings of the show, commenting on them, pulling them apart, reconfiguring them for the sake not of mischief but observation. He was awesome, and that’s why his episodes (on the whole) worked so well.

So, you know. Fuck that guy. Let’s replace him with Jim J. Bullock.

The opening scene sets this up, but not in any notable way. Willie talks to his brother Neal on the phone (foreshadowing) about how Neal’s wife left him (foreshadowing) while ALF bitches about how annoying Neal is (foreshadowing). That’s about it. Lynn picks up a bagel and crams it in his snout, which is a funny moment in theory, but I’m disappointed that she didn’t really wedge it in there with much violence. I think that’s a little more of Andrea Elson’s natural warmth coming through; even when the script wants her to be mean, she can only bear to do so gently. That’s disappointing from a comedy standpoint, but it’s also kind of adorable.

ALF, "He Ain't Heavy, He's Willie's Brother"

Speaking of adorable, the next scene sees the family eating dinner. Eric is there, and he’s doing the thing I’m a sucker for where he coos at ALF and keeps reaching out to touch him, because to this baby (the real life baby), the ALF puppet must look like some giant talking teddy bear. Trust me, people, I’m a tremendously awful human being who hates everything that’s ever brought anybody joy…but stuff like this melts my heart. It’s cute, god dammit, and I love it.

Anyway, they feed the kid for the first time since “Baby, Come Back,” and the phone rings. Lynn goes to answer, and Willie says that if it’s Neal — his distraught fucking brother — he’s not here.

Tell me again what a great social worker Willie is. Yeah, I understand that Neal’s been calling a lot or something, but from the dialogue we know that Neal is in legitimately bad shape, on the verge of doing something stupid, and in desperate need of somebody he can talk to. You know…somebody like a family member, or a social worker.

Both of which are Willie.

Not only is this his responsibility as a relative, this is what Willie is trained for. By hiding from somebody who actually needs him he’s not just being ethically wrong, he’s being professionally irresponsible. And as this person is his own fucking brother, he’s also just being a bad person. I’m sorry Neal is imposing on you, Willie, but something tells me his disintegrating marriage and general feelings of hopelessness and despair are more important than you having your evening free to sit motionless on the couch, ignoring your wife.

Willie even pats himself on the back for giving Neal such good advice last time they talked…while he ignores his brother’s current need to speak with him.

It’s fucking maddening watching this show sometimes. It’s like a show about a family of bears who keep referring to themselves as hippos, and there’s no self-awareness or comedy behind the discrepancy, so you start to wonder if they really are hippos and you’ve actually just gone insane.

We might as well deal with the continuity issue right now, though I assure you that’s the least of this episode’s problems: in “Night Train,” Willie indeed told ALF that his parents had two kids. That’d be Willie and Neal, I guess. Or, I would guess that, if it weren’t for Willie mentioning his brother Rodney in “La Cuckaracha.” So that’s three kids, unless for some reason Willie himself doesn’t count. Which works for me; that would make Willie the Brian of his own family, and I’m perfectly happy with that.

Anyway, the phone was for Lynn, so Willie’s off the hook and doesn’t have to let his suicidal brother know that somebody cares about him. Lynn takes the call in her bedroom to flick herself off to the dulcet sounds of Donny Duckworth mistreating her.

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Mother of fuck, it’s Jim J. Bullock!*

Yeah, the next morning a mysterious camper appears in the driveway, and everyone talks about it, wondering whose it is, instead of checking. That’s very true to life, the way a gypsy caravan just sort of settles on your property and you walk around the house shrugging instead of seeing what the hell is going on.

Then the doorbell rings and it’s Neal! He mentions the camper and Willie says, “That’s yours?”

…what the fuck, Willie. Of course it fucking is. How are you still confused about who owns the camper?

It appeared moments before your brother rang the doorbell. And then your brother climbed out of it and approached the house. And there’s no other vehicle out there that your brother could conceivably have driven instead.

What kind of shit is this? It’s like it was written by somebody without a human brain.

Neal explains that he took Willie’s shitty advice to turn his life around, and did so by quitting his job, leaving his apartment, and buying a camper. Willie, empathetic human being trained to deal with delicate situations like these, tells him that he never said to do any of that shit.

It’s actually kind of sad. Yeah, Neal did a lot of this to himself, but he did so while believing that he was following the advice of Willie — his brother, and a trained social worker — so Willie’s “oh, fuck off” registers as pretty hurtful. What an asshole, this guy.

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Anyway, ALF makes a dickton of noise in the kitchen, so Lynn goes in to gently beat him to death. And we can take a moment to talk about Jim J. Bullock.

He’s probably still most famous for Too Close for Comfort, where he played the comic relief bozo Monroe. I remember watching that show when I was young, and I didn’t think it was especially awful, but evidently there was one episode that displayed ALF-like levels of tone-deaf stupidity. It was called “For Every Man There’s Two Women.”

In that episode, Monroe is kidnapped by two ladies in a parking lot and subjected to a night of sexual torture before they let him go. The episode then centers on him and Henry (Ted Knight) tracking down the women who raped him and turning them over to the police. The big punchline comes when Henry says that the next time Monroe is the victim of sexual violence, he won’t help him.

I’m not making any of this up. I am, however, stealing the details from an article on Cracked. I don’t feel even slightly bad about that because those fuckers keep stealing my screengrabs when they write about ALF, so nuts to them.

Bullock was also a recurring panelist on The Hollywood Squares, where he told shitty jokes as well as anyone else did, I guess. I’m pretty sure ALF was also a panelist, just to give you an idea of how prestigious it was.

Jim J. Bullock found himself the subject of headlines and news stories when he openly told the world that he was HIV positive. The timing of this review is interesting, as Charlie Sheen — a similarly famous figure of similarly limited talents — has also opened up about having HIV. The response to Sheen now is probably comparable to the response to Bullock then, right down to the unfortunate jokes and “What did you expect?” condescension.

I’m by no means a fan of either Bullock or Sheen, but I feel for both of them. God knows I’ve made my share of mistakes. We all have. The fact that I don’t have HIV, a criminal record, an illegitimate child, or anything along those lines doesn’t suggest that I’ve made uniformly smart decisions…if anything it suggests that I’ve been really fucking lucky a really fucking massive number of times. Granted, I’d like to think that I often make smart decisions, but I can’t say that I’ve never left room for tragedy to creep in. That would be bullshit.

So, no, there probably won’t be too many AIDS jokes in these reviews, because I think that would be out of line. I don’t know how Bullock contracted it, or how Sheen contracted it, and they might not even know. Judgment is going to be kept to a minimum there.

Only there, though, because fucking hell is Bullock punchability on legs. For god’s sake, look at him. He’s Mr. Potato Head with the voice of a gay honeybee.

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Not that “sounding” (or being) gay is a bad thing, but Neal, for some reason, seems to be positioned here as a kind of voracious ladies’ man, which is so patently at odds with what we’re seeing that it’s absurd.

If you remember Jim J. Bullock from anything, you know how ridiculous it is for him to play a lock-up-your-daughters character here. And if you don’t…just look at these fucking screengrabs. You could walk in on this guy actively fucking your wife and you wouldn’t feel threatened.

There’s a scene in the camper in which he and Willie talk about how he quit his job selling storm doors, and what he’ll do now, and though it’s a nice enough scene there never seems to be much actual warmth between the brothers.

Bullock, to his credit, seems to be trying to treat Wright as a relative he’s missed and hasn’t seen for years. Wright treats him in return the way he treats everyone else on this show: as a person who needs to finish recording their lines so everybody can go home.

It’s a shame, not because Bullock is great or anything, but because he’s here and we might as well try to make the best of him. Wright, however, seems to have resigned himself to the idea that this show is as good as over. Which is true, of course…but while that could be an excuse to up the effort and go out with a bang, Wright sees it as an excuse to stop investing even the small effort we used to get from him. I’ve seen sleeping people who were more enthusiastic about what they were doing.

The scene ends with Neal asking Willie if he knows “any women that fool around, just a little.” Which is gross, and while it might be meant to play up Neal’s pathetic nature (asking your brother to get you laid is pretty sad; asking Max Wright to get you laid makes you the most worthless creature in the universe), it’s not even slightly believable, and is so clearly forced. It’s like they wrote a line for Patrick Swayze and didn’t bother to change it when Jim J. Bullock was cast instead.

I’m all for suspending disbelief, but this is asking too much. Try as I might, it’s impossible for me to imagine Bullock being interested in vagina in any way other than satisfying his curiosity as to what one looks like.

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The next morning Neal cooks breakfast for everyone. We get an idea from this scene of what his wife, Margaret, was like. Evidently she slept a lot, which I guess kind of sucks, but it seems to be meant to demonize her in a way I can’t quite understand. For all we know she had health issues and had to sleep a lot. Admittedly that’s not the implication, but “she liked to sleep” seems like a bizarre way to make the audience think she was a horrible person we should be glad he’s free of.

It does lead to the episode’s best line, though, when Neal, completely without malice, says, “Sometimes I wonder where she got the energy to leave me.” It’s a genuinely good delivery, too.

Then he and Willie talk about eggs for a while, and Lynn confides to her father that ALF made a voodoo doll of him.

Oh, ALF! I forgot he was in this show. It makes sense that he’s assert himself here, though, now that another character has made me laugh. It’s like when a dog hears you unwrapping a slice of cheese.

Willie goes to check on him in the attic and…

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…okay.

That is pretty funny.

Part of me wants this to be a Rush Limbaugh reference. Limbaugh may still do some variation on the idea with Obama, but I remember during the Clinton administration that he’d have these little animated bumpers during his show that read AMERICA HELD HOSTAGE: DAY 228, or however long Clinton had been in the White House. (Google Images is failing me on finding an example, which disappoints me more than it should.)

Clinton didn’t take office until 1993, though, and this episode aired in 1989, so it can’t be that, as I doubt Limbaugh would have been bitching about Bush Sr. in the same way. It must be referencing something else. Either way, I like it.

ALF moans for a while about Neal’s visit meaning he can’t leave the attic, and there’s some crap about ALF writing a note threatening to run him over, but really it’s just padding time until ALF grandly reveals himself.

I mean, he has to reveal himself, right? There’s no other way for this show to handle visitors anymore. It’s like going to a Rick Springfield concert and wondering if he’ll play “Jessie’s Girl.”

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In a very rare occurrence on this show (which goes unremarked upon), Kate and ALF are in agreement; they both think that Neal needs to get the fuck out of their house.

For ALF this makes sense, because he’s a selfish little nutsack…and also because he’s confined to the attic until Neal leaves. But for Kate, I’m not sure. Frustration after five days of having an unexpected visitor is totally fine, but it’s not as though Neal has been portrayed as annoying or anything. All he’s done so far is cook breakfast and ask Willie to find him a fuckbuddy.

But whatever. Willie’s been such an asshole to her for the past eighty-something episodes that I’m perfectly okay with her being bitchy now and then just to piss him off.

Willie argues with her, leaning on the fact that Neal is his kid brother and needs him. Which is lovely, except that the episode opened with Willie trying to avoid Neal for the same reason. Nice try, dickwipe.

There’s a knock at the door and they both assume it’s ALF, about to ask when he can expect to hear tepid penetration, but it turns out to be Neal.

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I guess Eric will be the last Tanner kid, because seeing Jim J. Bullock lean into your bedroom like this has got to be a form of permanent birth control.

He asks them for toilet paper, because he’s wiped his ass so many times that he’s run out, and has even used up all his napkins scraping oily shit slicks out of his cornhole. What a wonderful show this was.

He asks who ALF is, since he overheard Willie saying the name, and Kate covers by saying it’s Willie’s pet name for her. Which is disgusting. Neal says that his pet name for Margaret was his Chicken Taco, so if you ever wanted to envision Jim J. Bullock limply fucking some unconscious lady, you now know what he’d call her.

Anyway, this discussion of horrifying sex names and the need to scrape out Jim J.’s pooper really cement Neal as a welcome addition to the cast. Who knows what this guy will wipe next!

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The next morning, Neal is gone. Willie surmises that ALF wrote him another threatening note, so he asks the alien if that’s what happened.

ALF says it’s not, but his ears involuntarily waggle around, giving away his lie, and I actually really like this. It’s cute. Even if this episode sucks ass and ALF’s ear-wiggling contradicts every other time he’s lied in the past, it’s a nice moment, and it takes advantage of the fact that the main character is a puppet…something that happens with odd rarity on this show. Seriously, ALF almost never does anything that a human character couldn’t do. Seeing something like this — which is actually funny — reminds us of just how much potential went unexplored every single week.

At dinner that night (because things only happen on this show at mealtimes) everyone’s pissed at ALF. He tries telling jokes, but nobody’s laughing, because thanks to him Uncle Neal is gone forever, and…

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Oh.

Uh, nevermind.

That sure was a needless complication. Anyway, he’s back now, and he didn’t even get mad at ALF’s threatening note. In fact, he assumed it was Willie trying to toughen him up or something.

Whatever. The point is it inspired him to sell the camper and rent an apartment half a mile away. He also applied for a job, and everything’s going to be juuuuust fine. Forever!

Meanwhile, in the kitchen, ALF plays with his Willie voodoo doll, which I admit looks one hell of a lot like my Max Wright voodoo doll:

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In the short scene before the credits, ALF writes another threatening note to Neal. Willie catches him, and then ALF scampers away just before Neal comes in.

Since the note was left behind, and Neal seemed to walk right over to it, I assumed the big joke at the end would be that he and Willie would get into an argument about it, and Willie would have to cover for it again, or whatever.

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Instead, though, we get a weird second scene with ALF calling Neal’s high school tormentor, telling him where Neal lives so he can come beat him up.

I…don’t care. People can beat the shit out of Jim J. Bullock every hour of his life and it wouldn’t affect me one way or the other. But I wonder why they crafted this big setup about the note, just to cut away when Neal was about to find it and end with an unrelated scene of ALF on the phone.

Granted, I know this is a cliffhanger (and a riveting one, taboot!) but it feels like the phone conversation was a last-minute change to the episode. Maybe they shot Neal finding the note and whatever happened from there, but they didn’t like the way it turned out so they later shot this ALF-only bit to replace it. Considering the very low standards of this show, a scene that didn’t cut the mustard must have been truly shit-awful.

So, welcome to the cast, Jim J. Bullock. I know we’ll see him again next week, and for too many weeks thereafter, so I’m not too concerned that he didn’t see ALF. That’s sure to come soon enough.

What I am concerned about is season four’s desire to introduce new characters. See, I’ve wondered about the show’s intention of doing away with the Tanners in season five…specifically I’ve wondered when that decision was made. It seems as though it would have been made early in season four (or even beforehand) as there have been a few references to ALF starting a new life without the family, and we know that the season ends with him doing exactly that, as potential setup for continuing the show without them.

But the decision to add Neal to the cast — which was to be replaced wholesale the moment the season ended — is bizarre to me. Why are we deepening our knowledge of Willie’s extended family (indeed, inventing a character who’s never been referred to before, and who raises more questions than he answers) if we won’t even be expected to care about Willie by the time the season ends? It’s possible they intended to keep Jim J.’s character around in season five somehow, but I think that’s unlikely. I have genuinely no clue why they brought him in just to get rid of him with everyone else at the end of the season.

It’s weird to me. Baby Eric makes a little more sense, since I know they had to write Anne Schedeen’s real-life pregnancy into the show, but as long as we’re literally winding down this era of ALF’s life, why are we introducing other new characters so late in the game?

Why not more Jodie? Dr. Dykstra? Jake? Or anyone else that was introduced in the show’s first three seasons? Why not do some nice sendoffs for the characters we already know, rather than spotlight new people that the show will soon drop anyway?

It’s so odd to me. Of course, it’s also possible that they haven’t decided to do away with the Tanners yet. That would make a little more sense, but since “Consider Me Gone” has to be written, filmed, and edited sooner rather than later, you’d think the decision of how to end the season would be made by now.

But, oh well. Jar Jar Bullock is here to stay. And he joins Cleavon Little (suicidal black Santa from “ALF’s Special Christmas”) as another actor who sunk from working with Mel Brooks to working with Paul Fusco. It’s hard to imagine a more significant step down in comedy clout than that.

They were in Blazing Saddles and Spaceballs respectively…one is clearly a better film than the other, but they’re both pretty great in their own right, so I won’t pick on Bullock too much for being in the lesser one. (In total fairness to him, compared to Blazing Saddles just about any other comedy can be considered “the lesser one.”)

Were there any other actors who appeared in both ALF and a Mel Brooks film? I’d be surprised if so, but I might as well ask. It saves me having to be up all night worrying.

Anyway, that’s that. I’ll see you next week for “Willie’s Brother Lives in the Driveway, Until He Doesn’t Anymore: Part 2.”

In the meantime, I’d just like to remind you that Christmas is coming, and if anyone wants to make me a little Willie voodoo doll like ALF has, they’d instantly become the greatest person on the internet.

I HAVE THE POWER TO AWARD THAT TITLE

Countdown to ALF being drawn and quartered in front of the Tanners: 17 episodes

—–
* I really want this to be what people say whenever he enters a room.

The Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash!!!

Hohohohohohoho!! I hope you are eating Thanksgiving foods, because it’s time to talk about Xmas! Specifically, The Third Annual Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash!!!

For those who don’t know, the Xmas Bash!!! is pretty much the only reason anyone looks forward to the holidays. For the third year in a row I will be hand-picking an assortment of terrible, terrible, really, truly terrible Xmas specials, songs, and other curios from the annals of pop culture history. And we’ll watch them live, together, making fun of them and keeping each other sane in real time.

Honestly, it’s great. It’s like being at an Xmas party without having to put on pants, and the people there are actually really nice and they’re not wearing pants, either.

And once again, donations will be accepted for The Trevor Project, providing counseling and suicide prevention services for LGTBQ youths. It’s an important charity to me, and if you can spare anything at all to help those who need such support the most, I’d appreciate it deeply.

All you need to do is come here on the nights in question, and you should see the video player ready to go. Tune in…and make a point of joining the chat room. Lots of you guys are hilarious, and I’ll be drunk.

The dates and times are as follows:

Friday, December 18
8 P.M. Eastern Time

Wednesday, December 23 [encore stream]
8 P.M. Eastern Time

Yes, by popular demand I will be hosting the event two nights this year. It’ll be the same stream each time, but obviously the live chat will be different each night, so if you decide to tune in twice, great! Hopefully this will be more convenient for people who weren’t able to tune in last year.

The content itself is family friendly, so if you’d like to watch a string of cheesy Xmas specials on the big screen, you won’t have to worry about your Cousin Joey having nightmares for a week. The chatroom is uncensored, however, so be warned: someone may joke about farts.

There’s no way I could possibly oversell this fact: this is going to be the best Xmas Bash!!! yet. I’ve been dredging up specials over the course of the past few months, and they’re incredible. It’ll be a batch of seven, and you won’t be able to forget any of them, no matter how hard you try!

Why seven? Well, the first year our party got shut down by the anti-Xmas Bash!!! po-po, even though the stream wasn’t over. That meant that only seven specials were screened…but that was actually a pretty cool number, so I picked another seven last year. It’s tradition! AN XMAS TRADITION

What will you see when you tune in? I don’t want to spoil any surprises, but I do like to make lists of things, so here’s everything we watched at the previous two events. Hopefully this will make you really upset if you missed either of them. Oh, and it might give you some idea of what to expect this year.

The First Annual Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash!

  • ALF, “Oh, Tannerbaum”
  • Lassie, “The Christmas Story”
  • Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, “Sabrina Claus”
  • Major Dad, “The Gift of the Major”
  • Charles in Charge, “Home for the Holidays”
  • Lost in Space, “Return From Outer Space”
  • Family Ties, “A Keaton Christmas Carol”

The Second Annual Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash!!

  • ALF, “ALF’s Special Christmas”
  • The Fat Albert Christmas Special
  • Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, “Alpha’s Magical Christmas”
  • Christmas Comes to Pac-Land
  • The Partridge Family, “Don’t Bring Your Guns to Town, Santa”
  • Santa’s Magic Toy Bag
  • Nestor the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey

This year I think we’ll have the best balance of well-intentioned garbage and out-and-out crap yet. And nothing, I promise, is as unwatchable as Santa’s Magic Toy Bag. Seriously, what an irredeemable pile of shit that was.

Anyway, tune in! You’ll see more reminders in the weeks to come, but I wanted to get you the dates and times as soon as I could, so that you could tell your loved ones that you’ll be unavailable to speak with them.

If you have any last-minute requests, demands, or threats, get them in now.

The Third Annual Noiseless Chatter Xmas Bash!!! I’ll see you there!

ALF, "Hooked on a Feeling"

I’ve been doing nothing but urinating and playing Fallout 4 for the past week, so forgive me if I come off as slightly distracted…but I think I can push the game aside and focus on ALF for the couple of hours it’ll take me to write about it.

“Hooked on a Feeling” begins with Vault 111 opening at last, 200 years after The Great War has left the planet a barren wasteland. ALF is unfrozen in this dangerous new world, and left to fend for himself as he searches for his kidnapped son…

…okay, yes, I’m kidding, but as I made that joke, I realized that ALF and the Fallout series are actually worthy of comparison. (NO REALLY KEEP READING)

In each case, the backstory involves the nuclear destruction of an entire planet. In ALF‘s case that destruction is literal, whereas in the case of Fallout it refers to the destruction of civilization. In short, Melmac isn’t there anymore, while Earth still is.

But that’s not as material as you might expect. Earth is physically still there in Fallout, but it’s nigh unrecognizable. A few surviving landmarks remind you of what humanity has lost, but that’s it. ALF and the Lone Wanderer find themselves therefore in very similar situations.

Alien (to you) creatures roam the planet. You’ll never see anybody you know again. There’s a whole new set (or, rather, new sets) of laws and rules and mores you need to teach yourself…and if you’re not careful and you expose your origins to the wrong people (Melmacian refugee in one case, naive Vault-dweller in another), you are in very real danger of execution…or worse.

In each case as well the nuclear disaster occurs off camera. It’s something we hear about (whether through loading screens or Melmac Facts), but never see. This allows us, in the audience, to fill in many blanks as we see fit, but it also does a great job of reminding us of what’s important: something happened, yes, but more important is what happens to our protagonist next. The apocalypse happens off camera because the apocalypse is not the story; how our hero deals with the apocalypse is the story.

Interesting parallels. But the difference, of course, is that Fallout is interested in its own mythology. ALF has no interest whatsoever, which makes it odd that the writers built Total Nuclear Annihilation into their backstory at all.

Don’t get me wrong, I like that Melmac was destroyed by careless social idiocy. I think that’s one hell of a brave choice for a late 80s American sitcom. But since the show does almost nothing with it, I’m not sure why it made that choice. As it stands, Melmac could still exist and ALF could just be stranded on Earth for any other reason. A busted ship part, for instance.

It’s that simple. “A.L.F.” saw our alien hero fleeing the apocalyptic blast that swallowed his homeworld, which is exciting and great, but for all the show did with it ALF might as well have just run out of gas.

Fallout does a great job of questioning itself and finding interesting ways to explore its own premise. It relishes the opportunity to figure out why things panned out the way they did, how different regions dealt with and adjusted to the tragedy, and how everything we take for granted about modern life (not just in a technological sense, but in a social and cultural sense) can vanish in an instant…and how that changes, damages, and destroys humanity when it does.

ALF could not care less. Nor could ALF. He finds himself stranded in a whole new world…so he figures out when his favorite shows are on television and he’s pretty much adapted to his new life.

That could be the joke (our oft-mentioned Roger on American Dad! lives a much richer social life than ALF does, but his adjustment period is suggested to have been about as brief), however the problem is that the family adapted to their new lives at least as quickly. Faced with incontrovertible proof of intelligent alien life — and, indeed, the prospect of actively harboring it from discovery in perpetuity — Willie takes a shower, Kate cooks dinner, Lynn studies for a test, and Brian sniffs glue under the bed.

The joke can’t be that ALF adjusts so quickly, because so does everybody. The joke can’t be that ALF doesn’t give a shit about this sudden reconfiguration of everything he knows about life itself, because neither do the Tanners. The joke can’t be anything, actually, because not even the characters are interested in the premise of this show.

ALF is just there. This is the way Melmac ends: not with a bang, but a whimper. The writers, the actors, and the show’s creator Paul Fusco had an idea that quite literally exploded with promise from the start…and none of them could wait to drill it into mediocrity.

ALF, whether the show cares to admit it or not, is a work of post-apocalyptic science fiction. It’s also, to my knowledge, the only one that does an entire episode about its protagonist eating cotton balls. It’s hard to imagine any way to exaggerate this for effect; the ALF we got is the most disappointing of all possibilities.

ALF, "Hooked on a Feeling"

“Hooked on a Feeling” showcases again, sadly, how poorly preserved season four’s masters are. There’s a worn VHS quality to the visuals, and a faint hum of static on the audio track.

And, again, I won’t hold this against the episode, but I will confess that it interferes a bit with my enjoyment. Sure, maybe the episode stunk and I wouldn’t have enjoyed it anyway, but now it stinks and is annoying on a visceral level, so I feel the need to bring that up.

It opens with ALF breathing his disgusting breath all over the side of Lynn’s face and neck, holding it just long enough for Andrea Elson to consider the sweet release of teen suicide.

The family is unpacking groceries, including, of course, a bag of Kettle Chips in clear view. Was somebody on the production staff courting the heiress to the Kettle Chips fortune or something?

Willie comes in with Eric and asks who the fuck ate all the heads off his Q-Tips, as characters often do in great works of post-apocalyptic science fiction. SPOILER IT WAS ALF

ALF, "Hooked on a Feeling"

After the credits ALF is laughing at a TV that isn’t on. Willie and Kate come in not to scream at him for braying mindlessly while the baby is trying to sleep, but to ask him if eating cotton has been affecting his mood. Man, on how many sitcoms can someone ask that question without it being a joke?

Willie tries to take the cotton away, which leads at least to a gem of a screengrab.

ALF, "Hooked on a Feeling"

He says he’ll ration it to ALF, which seems like an odd solution, but I guess I don’t actually know what the problem is. ALF is telling a bunch of shitty jokes and does an impression (as far as I can tell) of a Southern belle, but is this supposed to be out of the ordinary for him?

I get the sense that it’s supposed to register as though it is, but I certainly couldn’t tell you how this is any different from the shit he’s normally doing. Aren’t shitty jokes, offensive monologues, and howling laughter at shit that isn’t funny just another day with ALF in the house?

I think the idea is that the cotton balls are making him hallucinate…or act drunk maybe…?

Which is a pretty interesting idea in its most general sense. ALF is from another planet…another planet with a different atmosphere, composed of different elements, with gave rise to life forms of an entirely different physiology than what we know on Earth.

Okay, sure, they apparently breathe oxygen (and speak fuckin’ English), but aside from that they are very different creatures. Our junk food might provide their nutrients. Our fruits and vegetables might make them sick. And something we find inedible might prove to be a powerful hallucinogen to them. It’s all in the way the body processes things; different bodies, different processes.

And it leads to a pretty funny moment, I guess, when ALF complains that without his cotton balls, “those Cheech and Chong movies are going to lose some of their poignancy.” I mean, I didn’t laugh at it, but I wanted to laugh at it, so that’s something.

I’m on board in theory, because that’s an interesting idea. But only in theory, because this show is a giant lump of shit, and the idea of ALF doing a “pot episode” fills me with nothing but hatred and dismay.

ALF, "Hooked on a Feeling"

Later that night, Max Wright and Anne Schedeen wake up in cold sweats after realizing what they’ve done to their careers.

Also, ALF is singing “Theme from New York, New York” at the top of his lungs. Eric doesn’t wake up crying, which means it’s probably too late to observe that somebody should have fed him at some point.

Of course, the aural gag of ALF’s performance is no substitute for actually seeing him in a funny hat, about to deepthroat a banana on webcam, so we cut to that next.

ALF, "Hooked on a Feeling"

Willie, Kate, and Lynn all rush to the living room to pierce his kidneys with knitting needles…the latter even though she has no lines.

I’m not complaining about that…just observing that it’s odd that Brian’s not around. Having no material for the kid isn’t an excuse, as Andrea Elson gets to appear in the scene. Come to think of it, we haven’t seen Brian at all. Was Benji Gregory accidentally left in a hot car or something?

ALF offers the family a bite of one of the couch cushions and suggests that they visit a plantation on Alabama so that they can enjoy cotton that’s still warm from the palms of a negroid, but everyone just goes to bed because that’s what they do when the writers can’t think of how to end a scene.

ALF, "Hooked on a Feeling"

The next scene has Brian in it, making his absence in the last scene even weirder to me, but, more importantly, it also has my favorite line.

Kate asks Brian if he told ALF breakfast was ready. He says, “No,” and she replies, “Oh, thank you.”

I’m legitimately going to miss Anne Schedeen. And I might even miss Brian if he keeps wearing awesome shirts like this one, which is patterned with overturned green skulls. Are you sure you’re not Mr. Ochmonek’s kid?

ALF comes in, weary and disheveled from the night before. Kate offers him some aspirin, and when she’s not looking he eats the cotton ball from the bottle…which is pretty funny.

Willie catches him doing it, but ALF says that Brian ate it. I guess the joke should be that there’s no way we’d believe Brian ate a cotton ball, but, come on, I wouldn’t put anything past this brainless kid.

ALF admits that he may have a problem, and sad music comes on while Willie takes his wife’s hand.

…okay?

Am I supposed to be touched? Worried? I’m assuming this is at least a little bit parodic — what with it being a hand puppet eating cotton and all — but I honestly don’t know for sure that that’s the case.

ALF has treaded Very Special Waters before…most notably with “Tequila,” which sucked cock, and “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?” which was actually really good. That’s a 50% success rate, which is better than ALF has for anything else (except Dr. Dykstra appearances, I guess), but I’m not keen on seeing it revisited, especially since there’s no way in hell this crap is going to approach the heights of the episode with Jake’s mother.

If it leans on overt parody of Very Special Episodes, then we might be on to something. If it doesn’t…

…it’s too hideous to contemplate.

ALF, "Hooked on a Feeling"

After the commercials Brian has changed into a Hawaiian shirt and GUYS IT IS CANON THAT HE IS MR. OCHMONEK’S KID

ALF gets all pissy because they’re eating food and not giant cotton fluffs or something, I guess, so he leaves. Lynn mentions that the mother of one of her friends was in a support group that helped her quit smoking, and Kate suggests the loose idea that ALF could benefit from something like that.

Willie spits caustic sarcasm at her because he can’t exactly shuttle ALF over to the Betty Ford Clinic, nor can he invite a group over and tell them he’s a rare talking dog or something, you dumbass hag of a bitchwife fuck.

What a dick, this guy. I look forward to the next time ALF fans pop up in the comments to tell me that Willie is a much nicer guy than I give him credit for. As I’m concerned those people are commenting from a separate plane of reality.

Yes, I understand that he has a point; ALF can’t be revealed to the world, even if the world can help him solve this problem. But no, by no means do you need to verbally assault your wife for trying to find a productive solution…especially when you don’t have any better ones yourself.

Oh, but, wait…Willie does have a better one, even if it doesn’t occur to him: Dr. Dykstra.

Willie has a longtime friend who already knows about ALF and has an established history of helping him through psychological issues. Hell, he’s a psychologist, and he visited the house twice in the past week. Looks like we can get ALF some therapy after all.

So what was that bullshit about your wife’s idea being monumentally stupid and worthy of dickish scorn? You know somebody who can facilitate exactly what she suggested, and you know he can do so successfully.

But, no, it’s better to ruin dinner for the whole family by acting like an asshole and making your wife feel dumb for trying to help.

Tell me again, phantom commenters, why you believe Willie would be great at social work.

Actually…

ACTUALLY WAIT. Fuck!

Willie IS A SOCIAL WORKER. He must deal with addiction issues all the time. Like, every single day.

Why is he drawing a complete blank here? Why is he making fun of his wife’s suggestion that someone may be able to help ALF? Why is he not volunteering to help?

I’ll tell you why: because he isn’t a social worker. Willie sitting here bitching at his family while ALF ODs on the carpet is the social work equivalent of a fire fighter sitting motionless on the sofa while his house burns down. Yes, he’s off the clock, but no, that doesn’t mean he becomes instantly incompetent and forgets that he’s been specially trained for exactly this situation.

Willie’s not a social worker, folks. The show tells us that he is, but it has yet (outside of maybe one scene in the ant farm episode) to show him doing anything a social worker actually does, behaving in any way like social workers actually behave, or caring about anyone who isn’t himself.

Fuck this show, and fuck this fucking fuck.

ALF, "Hooked on a Feeling"

Then the family suggests another way their suggestion would work, making Willie’s assholish response seem even less deserved and more out of line: they could invite a support group to the house, with Willie pretending he has the problem. That way ALF can overhear their responses and benefit, indirectly, from their help and understanding.

All things considered, that’s not that stupid an idea, but Willie mumbles and grumbles because his family fixed everything, I guess. Last week he got upset because ALF fixed his radio. And he’s always shitting all over the Ochmoneks for the nice things they do for him and say to him.

I’ve never, ever seen a character so constantly pissed off by the nice things people do for him. Even Scrooge changed his ways by season four.

Willie, having no idea how grateful he should be that Kate is handing him a resolution to this episode rather than a stack of divorce papers, begrudgingly goes along with it, making sure she knows how much he hates her for suggesting it.

What a guy.

Then ALF eats a bunch of lint out of the dryer, which muddies the pot analogue somewhat as we learned in “Baby, You Can Drive My Car” that lint was valuable on Melmac.

So is it marijuana, or money? Well, in this episode it’s one, and in the other episode it’s another.

Then again, cotton is a major component of U.S. currency (75% or so of every bill, unless that’s recently changed) but I can’t imagine that was a conscious connection on behalf of the writers. More likely they forgot that they already built lint into the Melmac Mythology in a different way. Those idiots. It’s like they aren’t even reading my Melmac Facts!

ALF, "Hooked on a Feeling"

The support group arrives in the next scene, and I admit it’s impressive that ALF landed a cameo from Leisure Suit Larry so late in its run. In the kitchen ALF makes fun of the woman on the left for being overweight.

WE WILL ALL MISS THIS SHOW

He also says that the pâté Kate is serving looks like cat food…which reminds me: where’s Lucky?

I think the last time we saw him outside of the intro credits was “Tonight, Tonight,” but that obviously wasn’t part of the show’s main continuity. (And I have a sinking suspicion they just slapped any old cat in Joan Embery’s lap without regard for resemblance.) So when was the last time Lucky had anything to do with the show? I couldn’t tell you when he last appeared, or was even directly referenced. And why not reference him NOW THAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT CAT FOOD?

A commenter flippantly suggested at some point that ALF ate Lucky and hypnotized the Tanners into believing he was still around. I’d credit you if I remembered who you were (remind me!), so along with Brian being Kate and Mr. O’s illegitimate lovechild, I’m willing to say that “Hooked on a Feeling” passively cements that as canon as well. This episode sure is doing a lot of unintentional world building!

ALF, "Hooked on a Feeling"

Kate brings the appetizers out, which is the show’s excuse for letting everyone else get a few digs in at this woman for being heavy. It’s kind of shitty, actually, and it reminds me of just how needless and cruel the jokes about Randy’s intelligence felt in “Torn Between Two Lovers.”

There and here the show seems to want us to laugh at characters for something they can’t help. It’s not undercut or commented on in any interesting way; it’s just a tacit invitation to point and laugh at someone different. (It’s not that far removed from the show’s treatment of the Ochmoneks, come to think of it.)

And that’s…pretty fucking awful. I imagine that the purest episode of ALF would just be some unfortunate, unattractive person standing quietly center stage while the entire regular cast laughs at him and calls him names.

There is, however, a moment I love here…and, yes, it actually involves a fat joke.

One of the other women at the meeting comments nastily, “Is there anything on that tray you don’t want?”

Hilarious, right?

…no, of course it’s not.

But the delivery is so deliberately hammy, so intentionally melodramatic, so beautifully drawn out (“Is there anything on that tray you dohhhh-n’t wahnt?”), that I love it.

ALF, "Hooked on a Feeling"

I love it because this woman, whoever she is, realizes full well what a cartoony piece of bullcrap she’s been cast in, so she pitches her performance in a way that lets us at home know that she knows it’s bullcrap.

Jack LaMotta does the same thing by giving his character a clear personality beyond what’s written on the page. Bill Dailey did it by rising above the material he was given and treating it with a degree of professionalism that it didn’t deserve. This woman does it by becoming a live action Cruella De Vil.

In short, she’s having fun with it. She’s in a crappy show, she’s given a crappy line, and the whole joke here is that she gets to shit on someone for being fatter than she is.

Her response? She becomes an exaggerated villain in a way that displays clear self-awareness. Look at her eyebrow, for crying out loud! She raises it high after delivering her line…a promise to the audience that she knows what she’s doing, and that doing it is the only way she’ll come out of this shit with her dignity intact.

There’s even a great little flourish to her performance afterward, as she glides behind Kate and the heavy woman, her face appearing briefly between them as she does so, and we see that she’s holding the same expression.

It’s genuinely funny, but the shot isn’t framed properly so the camera doesn’t quite catch the joke. (Hence the lack of a screengrab.) This suggests to me that either the production crew failed to properly frame their own shot (plausible), or this woman — Marcia Firesten, who doesn’t seem to have had many roles in other things — invented the flourish on her own, and the crew wasn’t expecting it (more plausible).

Either way, I love it.

ALF, "Hooked on a Feeling"

The meeting begins, and Willie flounders a bit while introducing himself. I guess the Tanners didn’t decide what Willie’s lie was going to be, because he says he’s trying to quit smoking…while Kate told the group earlier that he’s afraid to leave the house.

Jesus Christ, people…if you’re going to infiltrate a support group on false pretenses, at least figure out what the fuck those pretenses are. Is that too much to ask? How much of an idiot is Willie that he didn’t bother to prepare a lie beforehand? He knew what the plan was!

It’s kind of annoying, not least because Willie’s floundering is usually pretty funny (see “Lies,” which I’m becoming more and more convinced will be the runaway best of the season).

Here, though, it’s just the camera fixed on Max Wright while he makes faces and eats up time.

It’s much funnier when he’s actually blurting ridiculous explanations…otherwise we’re just watching a confused old man slobber all over himself. And it sucks.

ALF, "Hooked on a Feeling"

Willie escapes to the kitchen, which he’s able to do because the support group people aren’t characters; they’re just actors who aren’t in this scene, so he can take all the time he needs.

He and ALF touch boners for a while, and then he says that he doesn’t know what to say to the group about why he smokes. He tells ALF that this whole arrangement was made to help him get better, so he has to want to get better, which is something I understand but which I also can’t see affecting the way a totally separate conversation in a totally different room with totally different people will pan out, and fucking fucking fucking fucking fucking fucking fuck this episode sucks.

Willie says he’ll steer the conversation to something ALF can relate to, and then he re-enters the meeting to talk about raping his kids.

ALF, "Hooked on a Feeling"

Actually, he just goes back to the “won’t leave the house” thing, so I wonder why the smoking was introduced at all. It feels like a setup for a comic complication that never actually comes.

Willie says he doesn’t want to be seen, because he’s not from around here. Then he’s asked where he’s from, and Willie, too quick, replies, “Ohio.” That’s where Leisure Suit Larry is from, so he starts asking if Willie knows any of his old friends. And then Cruella De Vil jumps in and says, “Do you ever think that everything is going to come crashing down around you, burying you in an avalanche of hopelessness?”

She holds his wrist while she asks this…and then keeps holding it. I love this woman. Can she replace 90% of the actors on this show moving forward? I’d have a lot more faith in the remainder of season four if she did.

ALF calls loudly for Willie, because fuck this show.

Willie goes in to check on him and presses him for a reason that he eats cotton, as though that’s what the entire episode is asking, and if we just figure that out the problem will solve itself. Odd; I thought we’d established that he was eating cotton for its hallucinogenic properties.

Maybe that’s what Willie’s asking — “Why do you need to escape through narcotics?” as opposed to “What do you get out of taking narcotics?” — but the phrasing is weird, and it’s only in writing this sentence that I’m able to figure out what Willie seemed to be getting at.

ALF, as sitcom characters do when there’s only a few minutes left in an episode, comes to a realization: he wants to go outside, and he doesn’t like people telling him what he should and shouldn’t do.

Great! Those problems solve themselves. Open the door and let him strut to certain doom. Everybody wins!

ALF, "Hooked on a Feeling"

Admittedly, it moves into stronger territory when ALF says that he wants to see others who are like him. “I want to go home,” he says.

And, as we know, he can’t do that.

There is no more home. Something happened…and there’s no going back. Whatever you want is behind you, so you need to start wanting something — anything — that’s ahead.

That, the episode suggests, is why he turned to eating cotton. Which is great and all, but wasn’t this a drug addiction allegory? Is the episode suggesting that junkies are just lonely and want to return to their home planets? That they’ll stop taking drugs the moment the articulate what’s missing in their lives? Because that sure as shit isn’t true.

What actually happened here? It feels as though one problem was introduced, but the episode ends by resolving another.

Actually, scratch that; it doesn’t end by resolving anything; ALF still can’t go home. Instead the episode begins with one problem and ends with him mentioning another.

How interesting. How bizarre.

ALF goes on about missing his family and friends, which would be touching if it didn’t look like he was also giving Willie an under-table Handy Jay:

ALF, "Hooked on a Feeling"

The therapist comes in to check on Willie, and to ask who was yelling about wanting to go home. Willie says it was he himself yelling, so the therapist does what a sitcom therapist does and says, “Isn’t this your home?”

Willie passes this off as some kind of awakening, and that’s that. The therapist and the support group leave. Wow, Willie sure provided lots of support to his fellow members, didn’t he?

ALF also complains about not getting to have a child of his own, which he did back in “Having My Baby” as well, but you might have missed that because we were all arguing about abortion.

Anyway, with the entire plot resolved by virtue of ALF mentioning a bunch of issues nobody can help him with, we get to the episode’s money shot of Willie eating a cracker.

ALF, "Hooked on a Feeling"

In the short scene before the credits…

ALF, "Hooked on a Feeling"

No

ALF, "Hooked on a Feeling"

please no

ALF, "Hooked on a Feeling"

SHITTING JESUS NO

Countdown to Jim J. Bullock existing: 1 episode
Countdown to ALF being desanguinated in front of the Tanners: 18 episodes

MELMAC FACTS: Melmac had Saturday Night Aphid Chews. ALF and Rhonda went “harness racing” one night, and she helped him out of his bridle. (It was established in “Stop in the Name of Love” that ALF and Rhonda never actually dated — Melmac blew up before he got to take her out — but this wasn’t necessarily a date.) Willie says that ALF always jokes about Melmac…something ALF doesn’t dispute, which may mean that some of the previous Melmac Facts are retroactively false. SUPER SORRY

goodfellas

I loved Goodfellas when I was younger. Well, okay, I still do. It’s a brilliant film, and occupies a pretty high spot on my list of all time favorites, but it was especially meaningful to me when I discovered it in middle school or so. It was the first film that I didn’t just enjoy, but that I appreciated.

It is, unquestionably, an artistic masterpiece. It has to be, because when I first saw it I had no concept of the language of film, and very little idea that the medium could be meaningful. I liked things or didn’t like things…there was little I could articulate beyond that, and little I could understand.

Goodfellas was the film that punctured that bubble for me. It was something I enjoyed, but it also impressed me in ways I’m still figuring out decades later.

Scorsese’s visual mastery, for instance, was arresting. I sat rapt, over and over, watching the same scenes unfold in ways that felt fresh and new every time. And for a good long while, this was the film I’d point to whenever I wanted an example of a director who used existing pop music as perfectly integrated components of his own work. The body discovery sequence set to the piano outro from “Layla” deserves to be in some cross-media hall of fame.

It was — and continues to be — a movie that affects me in ways I don’t fully have language to express, and while there’s a lot that remains beyond my cinematic understanding, I’ve always had a logistical question regarding the climax to the famous “shinebox” sequence.

In the film, a made man named Billy Batts is celebrating his homecoming in a bar owned (or at least controlled) by Henry Hill (Ray Liotta). Batts makes an ill-advised attempt to greet Tommy (Joe Pesci), and ribs him about his childhood job shining shoes. Tommy clearly bristles at the reminder…tensions flare and are temporarily defused, but Batts asserts his dominance and insults Tommy one final time. Tommy leaves, but not without instructing Henry and Jimmy (Robert DeNiro) to “keep him here.” Later that night Tommy returns to find a much emptier bar, and our three heroes brutally murder Batts and dispose of the body.

That’s the scene. What confused me when I was younger was the role of Jimmy “The Gent” in this…specifically, how culpable he was for Batts’ murder.

When Tommy returns, Batts is speaking to Jimmy. Jimmy sees Tommy approach, and Batts does not. I couldn’t figure out at the time what Jimmy actually did next: did he grab Batts so that Tommy could beat the shit out of him? Or did he try to pull Batts away to avoid the political nightmare and fatal vengeance that indeed followed these events in the film? Yes, before long Jimmy is kicking the man to death on the bar-room floor, but that’s after the assault is already underway. Did he at first attempt to prevent it?

Now it’s clear to me that he holds Batts for Tommy to hit. I’ll blame the worn-out VHS on which I watched the film so many times for the confusion, but my original question was at least in keeping with logistical issues within the film.

Jimmy, after all, is older and more experienced than Tommy and Henry. He knows full well the danger all three of them will be in if Batts — importantly a made man — is attacked or killed by them. And though Tommy does imply he’ll return later, there’s no denying the sense of surprise (especially for Henry, the nearest thing to an audience surrogate) when he actually follows through on his threat.

Jimmy might be on Tommy’s side, but there’d be many reasons for him to prevent the assault, whether he had the foresight to think it through or simply reacted on instinct. Either way, I could understand — and must have, in some sense, wanted to see — his intervention.

But he doesn’t intervene. He holds Batts. He throws him to the floor. He helps Tommy do what Tommy came back to do.

Which itself leaves me with a new question: when did Jimmy decide to let this happen?

As outlined above, there are many reasons to stop this…and only one to let it happen: respect. Tommy, Henry, and Jimmy work together. They’ve been through a lot. They’re close. When one of their number is disrespected, it falls to others to make things right, whatever the cost.

But is it really that simple? I wonder.

Jimmy pushes back on Batts a little bit after the initial verbal confrontation with Tommy, and Batts is indeed “kept there” until Tommy returns.

But how do you read this behavior?

Did Jimmy actually know what Tommy planned on doing (again, Henry clearly did not) and made sure to facilitate it? Or was he just coincidentally talking to Batts when Tommy walked in, and decided then to help his friend enact revenge?

I honestly can’t decide. I can see it being intentional (Batts is very intoxicated when Tommy returns, which may suggest that Jimmy was plying him with alcohol to keep him weak and unaware), but at the same time that seems like a lot of work to get to an outcome that’s just as bad for Tommy as it is for Batts.

Throughout the course of the night, while waiting for Tommy to return, would Jimmy never reconsider the danger he’s placing all of them in? Letting Batts leave — or encouraging him to leave — would have let a small instance of disrespect go unpunished, but it also would have saved all of them from fatal retaliation…

…which makes me wonder if Jimmy was indeed just drinking with the man and didn’t think at all about Tommy making good on his threat until he actually shows up to do so.

I go back and forth on this one. I don’t know which is the case…if Jimmy kept Batts there expecting Tommy’s return, or if he made a split-second decision to help Tommy knowing it was too late for any other option.

It’s a major question for me, as I think either answer suggests a pretty different Jimmy. The former possibility suggests a crueler, more dangerous Jimmy, and the latter suggests a cooler, more faithful Jimmy. Cooler and more faithful goes well with my overall reading of his character, but they’re both fair possibilities.

So which was it? I have a feeling this isn’t even a question for many people; they’ve probably always read it one way or the other.

What I’d like to know is, which way did you read it?

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