Well, we’re back, after last week’s nail-biting cliffhanger which saw Neal…
…not doing anything, really, or finding himself in any kind of worrying situation. Great.
Granted, he’s starting his life anew in LA — within convenient plot distance from the Tanners — but we have only the vaguest idea of what his old life was like (storm doors, sleepy wife), so “what will he do now?” isn’t even a question for valid consideration. It’s difficult to care about somebody we don’t know.
What are his hopes? His dreams? His intentions? What would he have changed about his previous life, given the choice? What will he miss about it? What is he looking forward to doing now that he’s single again? Has he ever been in LA before? How much of this is new to him? How much of it is scary, and how much of it is exciting? Is Neal thrilled by the idea of having new challenges to overcome, or daunted by the prospect?
We don’t know any of these things, because we don’t know who Neal is. And without knowing who Neal is, it’s impossible to be invested in this “new life” of his. After all, without any context, it’s not a new life; it’s the only Neal we’ve ever known.
Of course, it’s not fair to write him off just yet. When Jake was introduced partway through a season, he, too, seemed like an unnecessary bloat of the regular cast, but he ended up proving himself to be a pretty reliable character. That’s why I think we’ll really start appreciating Neal come season five, when…
Yeah, and, come to think of it, Jake did arrive with a sturdier backstory, and a far (far) clearer suggestion of what his previous situation was like. There may have been some teething troubles with that character, but at least we knew from the start what was in line with his character’s history, and what would represent a personal evolution.
So that’s that. We’re stuck with bloat. And not just bloat, but two-parter bloat! My favorite flavor of misery!
This one picks up where last week’s episode left off…or it would, if last week’s episode left off anywhere. Instead ALF just comes into the dining room singing to the tune of “Camptown Races” a song about how he’s glad Neal’s fucked the fuck off. He then asks Willie if he’d like to hear his rewrite of “Helter Skelter,” and Willie says no.
The “no” is really weird. It just hangs there, like there was supposed to be laughter after Willie refused ALF’s offer, but instead they left the long stretch of silence where it would have gone. It’d be a bizarre editing choice if I could be convinced that any editor was invested enough in this show to make choices in the first place.
We get a brief rundown of any salient plot points from last week (wife left him, he lived briefly in a camper, he now rents an apartment nearby) just to cement the fact that there was no reason to watch that episode at all. Then ALF says that he sometimes shits in the tub, and the opening credits roll.
I predict I will love this one!
In the next scene Willie and Kate are giving Neil a bunch of their stuff, like an iron that he got them as a wedding gift, and a hula girl dashboard thing for some reason. I kept expecting the latter to result in a joke about how the Ochmoneks must have left it there (since we’ve seen in “Fight Back” that Mr. Ochmonek’s car is covered in them, and in “Breaking Up is Hard to Do” that they have some in their bedroom), but, no. Nobody says anything.
So…is the joke that Willie and/or Kate likes and/or like hula girls? If it is, then the Tanners and the Ochmoneks have a similar penchant for cultural detritus and, once again, there’s common ground that nobody seems to realize. But, I confess, I have no fucking idea what the joke is, and I’m just grasping for something that makes any kind of sense at all.
Neal asks the Tanners to spend the night at his apartment, clearly distraught, and Willie tells him no, because he’s a great social worker, brother, and human being. Then there’s a really weird bit of blocking, which you’ll see in the screengrab above, where he touches Neal on the shoulder, but does so at full arm extension.
Try that, by the way. I know it’s not uncommon to touch someone when you’re tying to make them feel better, but try doing that from a full arm’s length away, and then just leave it there, without getting any closer. Tell me how natural that feels.
I said in the Character Spotlight on Lynn that I end up having to read into the actors’ personalities because there sure as shit isn’t any character personality to read into, so I apologize if it seems like I’m picking on Max Wright, but this really leads me to suspect he doesn’t have a warm bone in his body.
Not this alone, mind you. Every time he’s sitting or laying next to his wife, he keeps his hands to himself. He doesn’t touch her unless he absolutely needs to (as in “Lies,” when he’s trying to fool some tabloid journalists), and he rarely even looks at her. When he talks to his kids he almost never makes eye contact, and he certainly doesn’t speak to them with any fondness. Now he’s dealing with his distraught brother, and he gets no closer than is strictly necessary.
I don’t think this is a product of characterization, and I’m sure the scripts made no mention of any of this. They probably said something like “Willie sits with his wife” or “Willie grabs Neal’s shoulder to comfort him,” and this is the best Max Wright can do.
He’s the opposite of Andrea Elson. If you tell her to comfort somebody, she gets as close to them as possible, opens her eyes wide, smiles, and makes them feel like the most important person in the world. You tell Max Wright to comfort someone, and he’s mentally tallying the seconds until he can go wash his hands.
Later on Willie finds one of those really old fans with the sharp steel blades, and immediately chops his fingers off.
He’s looking for stuff to give Neal, which pisses ALF off, even though Willie reminds him that this means Neal is leaving and things can get back to normal. Normal, I assume, involving hourly raids by the FBI.
We’re six minutes into this episode now, by the way. A quarter of the way through it, and all we’ve done is reiterate over and over again that Neal is moving out. I’ve asked this of all of the official two-parters, so I might as well ask it of an unofficial one: did this really need to be two episodes?
There’s a frustratingly common impulse on ALF‘s part to pad out even single episodes. Two-parters are even worse, because if those were single episodes they might actually be denser and more interesting. Instead we just get the same non-story slogging its way across two weeks of our lives. Either come up with two different stories about Neal, or pull the best pages out of both scripts, give it a good rewrite, and produce that instead.
There is a funny moment when Neal calls, “Willie? Are you up there?” And Willie blurts, “No.”
I like Willie blurting things, and I really wish that was utilized more often. Max Wright will never convince me that he’s a caring individual, ALF, so stop trying to tell me he’s playing one. He is, however, awkward and a bad liar, so let that be Willie’s character!
Also, I notice that I’ve called out two of Willie’s lines so far, and they’re both just the word “no.” Make of that what you will.
Neal comes up and ALF hides. To his partial credit, Neal wonders why a bed is up there. Willie dodges the question by saying it’s Brian’s old bed, and also Brian used to piss all over it. THANKS FOR THAT
But, honestly, the smarter question would have been: why is the attic clearly in use as a bedroom? There’s more than a bed there…there are pictures and starcharts on the wall, there are games and toys, there are possessions set up on end tables instead of being packed away in boxes…but Neal only asks about the bed.
I guess that makes sense, though. I, too, would stop asking questions the moment one of them resulted in an answer about Benji Gregory marking his territory.
Neal finds a tape recorder and turns it on, which is the polite thing to do when staying as a guest in somebody’s house. He hears ALF singing “Like a Virgin.”
No, it’s not funny. But it does lead to Willie faltering for an explanation, and saying, “The speed’s all off. You don’t want that.”
So, yeah, the fact that he’s trying to pass ALF’s a capella warbling horse shit off as being an actual recording of Madonna…yeah, that’s a fair gag. Way to finally redeem a mindless joke, ALF.
Later on Kate calls ALF to the table, and he makes a big production out of how long it’s been since he was allowed to eat with them. Which is odd, since this episode opened with him eating with them. This is why second drafts are good, people. (Cue everyone in the comments rightly turning this phrase back at me with examples of my inevitable typos.)
Kate tells him to knock it off; he can eat out of the toilet for all she cares. He sits down and I thank the Lord once more that Anne Schedeen — the real Anne Schedeen, not that pod person we were stuck with in season three — is back for this final stretch of episodes.
There is a pretty funny sequence here, as Brian and then Lynn enter the room, and they each ask ALF what he’s doing at the table. (ALF’s sad observation — “I used to be a phenomenon. Now I’m reduced to a ‘what are you doing here?'” — is very tempting to read as meta commentary on just how mundane this show about a space alien turned out to be.) It pays off when Willie walks into the room and greets him, at which point ALF shouts in frustration, “I was invited!”
…but, again, all of this would have worked one hell of a lot better if we didn’t already see him eating with the family in this episode.
Seriously, guys, I don’t harp on problems like this to be an asshole. (Though I am, I promise, an asshole.) I do it to point out the negative impact that carelessness can have on your show / film / song / novel / anything else you choose to create. You need to be careful with what you produce, because even a small inconsistency — like this one — can drag down the stuff you do correctly.
This entire sequence should be funnier than it is, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that just a few minutes ago ALF was already dining with everyone, rendering every single thing said here moot.
Reviewing ALF has made me much more careful in my writing. If readers pull just one thing from this series, I hope it’s a similar carefulness in the things they write themselves.
Actually, if readers pull just one thing from this series, I hope it’s that I’m a really funny, smart, and attractive guy, but if they pull two things from this series, then the other one can be that crap about the writing.
They don’t get far into the meal before the doorbell rings.
Mother of fuck, it’s Jim J. Bullock!
His new job is handyman at his apartment building. But because he’s Jim J. Bullock he doesn’t know what the fuck he’s doing, so he just hides at the Tanner house when somebody needs him.
ALF flees to the kitchen, and Lynn goes to comfort him while Neal complains about his ex-wife Margaret some more. He says she’d eat four or five pounds of meatloaf at a time, so I guess in addition to being sleepy she was also really fat. Keep the Margaret jokes coming, guys! They’re great!
In the kitchen ALF stews — not literally, sadly — because Neal is eating his dinner. And as we cut to commercial, we see an illustration of my earlier point. Remember what Max Wright looks like when the script tells him to comfort someone?
Well, for the purposes of comparison, he’s what Andrea Elson looks like when the script tells her to do the same thing:
One might be a social worker, but I know who I’d turn to if I was feeling blue.
When we return Anne Schedeen does her impression of a drinking bird toy:
It’s the next day, and Neal has been there since six in the morning. Right now he’s taking out their trash. She tells Willie to talk to his brother about “getting a life,” and I really do love her. When she’s on point, Anne Schedeen gives her dialogue just enough edge to make her seem bitchy without being unlikable. She’s genuinely the only thing I look forward to in this show anymore.
Neal plans on painting the trash cans with the name TANNER on them, and Willie says this is good because it’ll help him catch the Ochmoneks next time they steal them.
Fuck off, Willie. Nice try, and all, but I remember that it was the Ochmoneks who bought you trash cans in the first place, way back in “Come Fly With Me,” because you were content to just let your garbage blow all over the neighborhood like an asshole. Stop trying to make the Ochmoneks look like the bad neighbors. It’s not going to happen. You could wake up every morning to Mr. Ochmonek punching you in the nuts and he’d still be the nicer guy.
Kate says that the situation isn’t fair on ALF — who was promised that once Neal moved out he wouldn’t have to hide in the attic anymore — but Willie says that ALF should learn to show a little compassion.
You know, like Willie did last week when he avoided all of his brother’s calls, or this week when he refused to help him settle into the new place, or touched him in the same way that he’d hold a dirty diaper.
Willie heads to the attic to find ALF packing. Hey, great! Looks like we’re getting to Project: ALF 16 weeks early.
…no, he doesn’t actually leave, but “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face” becomes yet another episode this season that raises the idea of ALF striking out and starting a new life without the Tanners.
I like that, and it lends credence to my growing suspicion that the writers knew season four would end with ALF actually leaving as setup for a Tanner-less season five…but, again, if that’s true, then why are we bothering to introduce Neal in the first place?
Speaking of introductions, Willie proposes that ALF and Neal should meet. That would prevent ALF from having to hide all the time to avoid him, and on some level Willie must realize that Neal and Mr. Ochmonek are the only residents of Los Angeles ALF hasn’t met yet, so really what the fuck does the premise of this show even matter anymore?
From a logistical standpoint, Willie’s a fucking idiot.
What’s to keep Neal from panicking and braining ALF with a vase? Or deciding to call the Alien Task Force at some later point when Willie’s not around? From a storytelling standpoint, though, I’m okay with this. It will be one of the very, very few times that the family intentionally introduces ALF to someone. Every other time it’s just been some visitor walking in on ALF taking a shit, so even if this is a fucking idiotic plan I at least respect the attempt at variety.
Later on the family waits for Neal to arrive, and ALF gets nervous. Lynn calms him down by saying, “ALF, you two are going to get along great. He’s a wonderful guy with a terrific sense of humor,” which is clearly a holdover line from before they cast Jim J. Bullock.
They decide that ALF should hide when Neal arrives and reveal himself later, which would give the Tanners time to prepare Neal for the fact that he’s going to very soon, and very often, be raped.
Against all odds — and blowing my expectations thoroughly away — we get a really good scene next.
In retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. The one time I remember ALF being deliberately introduced to another person was Dr. Dykstra, in “Going Out of My Head Over You.” And that scene, in which Willie has to find the words to tell someone he’s known for a long time that he lives with a space alien, was pretty great. Now it’s Willie and the rest of his family, which gives us a chance to recapture the tension of that scene without repeating it directly.
It works well. The family strikes the right note between excitement and anxiety, and they dance around the reveal just enough that it feels real. It’s also pretty funny that Neal hears they’re hiding a secret, and guesses that it’s something to do with Brian. (This is another bit of meta-commentary I hope was deliberate, because god knows they’ve done nothing with that character, ever, and it’s tempting to believe that the other characters have picked up on this as well.)
When Willie finally comes out and says, “We have an alien living with us,” he repeats it several times, changing the words just slightly each time, as though speaking this thought out loud restores the oddness and the wonder it’s been stripped of after four seasons of trivializing the show’s premise.
Strangely, Willie says that ALF has lived with them “for almost three years now,” so I guess time does pass more slowly in the show than it does for us in the real world. Kate also says that they had to “lock out the 976 numbers,” so if you’ve ever wondered if ALF excessively masturbated to phone sex operators in a house with small children, you finally have your answer.
Willie opens the door to the kitchen to reveal ALF…but ALF isn’t there. Neal, thinking this is all a joke, gets up and pretends to introduce himself to an invisible alien. While he does this Max Wright shoots daggers at him, because this guy’s only been in two episodes and already he’s gotten more jokes than Willie ever has.
I like the idea that the reveal doesn’t go as planned. It’s not some grand, magical moment as it usually is when somebody meets ALF; Willie spills the family’s most important (though also worst kept) secret, and then there’s no ALF around to prove it. He starts to search around in worry for the alien who has completely disappeared without explanation.
It’s just the idea I like, though. The execution is fucking terrible, because this wrinkle is over before it begins. ALF just says, “Sorry!” and walks through the door anyway, with no excuse or reason for why he didn’t do it a moment ago.
So much for complication. It’s much better to just have Jim J. Bullock making a funny face.
ALF tells him to cook him dinner and to get a life. Kate tells ALF to stop being such a dick, but ALF doesn’t, because that’s kinda the only thing he knows how to do.
Welcome to the family, asshole!
In the short scene before the credits, Neal tries desperately to get some Melmac Facts out of ALF, but the writers just want to go home so that doesn’t happen.
Instead ALF cheats at chess, which Neal says he’s never played before. Which…I don’t know if I buy. But then again, I don’t know who the fuck Neal is supposed to be, and this is as good a time as any to talk about that.
Last week I was operating under the assumption that he was supposed to be something of a horndog, based on his behavior in that episode (such as outright telling Willie to find him a woman to fuck), but obviously that seems incompatible with flaming homosexual / living doiley Jim J. Bullock being cast in the role.
Best Commenter in the History of Anything (For Real) kim read the character differently: “He just seems like another version of Willie, except more nerdy and awkward. […] But really if you introduce a character that is very much like another character that already exists, it’s not much of an improvement.”
And she might be right. Maybe the horndog thing was supposed to be just one throwaway gag for the sake of seeming out of place, and Neal is just a big nerd. But now he doesn’t even know how to play chess, so if he’s meant to be some kind of Mega Willie, that doesn’t work, either.
I honestly don’t know. Is Neal supposed to be Cool Willie (a moniker suggested by RaikoLives), as reinforced by his Thirst 4 Poon and his joking around with the invisible alien, or is he supposed to be Mega Willie, monumentally awkward and dorky, though without having dorky knowledge or interests?
Either could work, and either would be hamstrung by evidence to the contrary. Neal has now had two full episodes to establish himself as a character, and I don’t know what character that actually is. That’s embarrassing.
But I don’t hold this against Jim J. Bullock. Yeah, he’s fucking terrible, but I’ve seen enough of this show to say conclusively that poorly defined characters can’t be blamed on the actors. The better ones (Bill Dailey, Josh Blake, Anne Schedeen, that woman with the raised eyebrow a few weeks ago) find ways to stake out character details in scripts that don’t actually provide them, but I can’t exactly blame those who don’t. If the script doesn’t meet them halfway, it’s hard to hold an actor accountable for not making up the difference.
So, yeah. Lots of time spent getting to know somebody we still don’t know. Sounds like a pretty appropriate way to welcome a character to the cast of ALF.
Countdown to ALF being skinned alive in front of the Tanners: 16 episodes