For the second week in a row, we get a Willie-centric episode. God knows that if you want to go out with a bang, you should turn the last chunks of your show over to a mumbling crack addict who would clearly rather be dead.
It opens in a pretty worrying way: ALF frets over deforestation. Wonderful. I was sure hoping for another Very Special Episode in which a sex-crazed aardvark creep shows humanity the true path to happiness.
It’s a shitty scene with he and Brian pretending they give a crap about each other. Somehow it doesn’t work. CRAZY RIGHT
But we do see a faint glimmer of promise when Willie walks through the door. (Damn…I’m sure I’ve never, ever typed that before.)
Specifically, we see that the show just might have figured out how to goad a good performance out of Max Wright: let him be miserable.
Seriously, he’s pretty good here. And that’s because, I’m sure, the show is giving him a chance to vent his frustrations a bit. I know I’ve talked a lot about how Andrea Elson tends to be very good when Lynn is being supportive and warm…presumably because Elson herself was a genuinely supportive and warm human being. Anne Schedeen is nearly always good, and I’m sure that’s because Kate is meant to be caustic and frustrated. I’m not saying Anne Schedeen was anything like that in person, but I am saying that she was able to channel the overpowering misery of working on ALF in a way that the other actors couldn’t. She didn’t have to hide her true feelings, in other words; it benefited her to let them inform her performance.
Now, for whatever reason, Willie gets to be caustic and frustrated. And that’s probably how Max Wright actually felt at the time. As a result, it works. Deliberately or not, the writers tapped into something the guy could, at long last, sell to an audience.
Every one of his lines in this scene allows him to be…well…him. As soon as he enters the scene he says, “Hello. Am I glad to be home?”
Then ALF tells him that his son* is going to inherit a dying world, and he replies, “What have you done now?”
ALF shows him the satellite photos he was looking at with Brian, and Willie pointedly asks, “Were these free?”
Finally, after ALF delivers his spiel about the rainforests, Willie says, “I know it sometimes looks pretty grim.”
That’s the entirety of what he says in this scene. Three of his lines are loaded questions meant to make ALF feel like a worthless sack of shit, so it’s no surprise that I love them…or that Wright delivers them so convincingly. The fourth is just an observation he makes, and his performance there, by contrast, is offhand and dismissive.
Is it because Willie is dismissive of environmental concerns? No. It’s because Wright is sick to death of working with Paul Fusco. He relishes the chance to needle ALF, and shrugs off his one line of dialogue that’s just a spacer between two ALF monologues.
We see pretty clearly in this scene just how completely over this show Max Wright is…and just how the show could still, potentially, find something to do with him: lean into the guy’s inner asshole.
It’s too late for that to make much of an impact — even if they rode Dickin’ Willie to the end of the show, it wouldn’t make a dent in the total number of episodes — but it’s still nice to see.
I want to like ALF. I really do. And I’ll give it credit when it gets something right. It’s just a shame that “right” in this case comes so close to the end, was likely an accident, and was only possible because ALF by this point had ruined the man’s life.
A great start, so of course, the show immediately undoes it with a bunch of jokes about ALF listening to Willie and Kate fuck.
What is it with this show and that happening? Sometimes you guys get on me about inserting sexual jokes into my reviews, but, fuck, believe me, this show is sex obsessed in the creepiest possible fucking way there is. It’s gross. I’m just trying to replace the show’s own constant sex jokes with ones that don’t make me want to barf.
Anyway, ALF runs out of material so he insults Kate’s intelligence for a while.
Amazing that audiences got tired of this show, isn’t it?
Then ALF starts bitching about CFCs destroying the ozone layer. I’ll give “Stayin’ Alive” credit for addressing what was, when this originally aired, a legitimately timely topic. It was also, at its time, an important one.
Hey, that’s right! Remember when the ozone layer was a huge problem for the world — and the continued survival of mankind — so we set a bunch of new regulations and changed the way products were manufactured? We as a people saw a serious issue, worked together to fix it, and didn’t fight the solution. And it worked so well that we don’t even need to worry about it anymore. And that’s pretty great, isn’t it? That we fixed something we knew was harmful to us?
Of course it’s great. I just wanted to write that for any republicans who might be reading this blog. Climate change is real. Let us fix it, you shits.
ALF says there’s a company called Sendrax which is totally the worst. And, man, when a hacky serial rapist calls you the worst, you’ve got to be really fucking bad.
He shows them his letter to Sendrax, and Willie reads it out loud. I’ll transcribe it in full here, because I actually like it:
Dear Sendrax. Manufacturing CFCs is a threat to the survival of the planet. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s wrong. Damned wrong. So just knock it off.
Kate then compliments him on his choice to write it in glitter pen. And…man, I’m all for this. I really am. Wright’s disinterested, flat reading of the letter is perfect — again, deliberate or not — and I enjoy ALF’s childlike response to the situation. He’s smart enough to know Sendrax is doing something harmful, but nowhere near articulate enough to argue his point. Basically, I just like it when ALF is a believable dumbass, rather than a rampaging psycho or cosmic savior.
Already this is far better than his world-saving crusade in “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” in which a heartfelt plea for disarmament failed to make for hilarious television. (Weird, that.) Here the show still gets to make a valid humanitarian point, but it does so in a way that’s conducive to comedy. (ALF is the absolute best at having its characters sit, but it usually struggles with the “com” part.)
Am I actually going to like “Stayin’ Alive”? Honestly, I doubt it, but we’re getting flashes of what a better show would have done with the same premise, and that’s reassuring.
There’s good material in season four…it’s just spread thin. Damned thin. And it should knock it off.
Kate wishes ALF luck with his letter, which causes Willie to flip out so severely on her that I couldn’t even get a clear screenshot.
Her point is that writing to the company is a constructive response to the issue.
His point is that he’s a gigantic fucking asshole.
Later on ALF is calling a radio show to complain about CFCs or some shit, and the big joke, I guess, is that the topic of the show had nothing to do with the environment. Hilarious. ALF is a nuisance.
Lynn comes in with the mail and nothing to report about her day, because it didn’t involve ALF and therefore has no business being discussed.
She hands him a response from Sendrax, but it’s just another form letter thanking him for his concern. So, yeah, apparently he’s been sending a bunch of letters, and always getting the same vague replies.
Lynn then crawls into the Tanners’ cryogenic hibernation pod until ALF needs her again.
Later still, Max Wright gets to howl the prime-time equivalent of profanities at ALF, which means he’s pretty good again. Apparently Willie’s space puppet spent $300 at the post office.
How ALF did this without leaving the house is never addressed. Which is fine, because Willie is clearly more worried about $300 than about ALF being spotted, captured, and tortured in an underground research facility.
Actually, fuck, I’m right there with him. I’ll take $300 over ALF’s safety any day of my life. Shit, I’ll pay you twice that if you can guarantee they’ll never find the body.
Anyway, Willie threatens sexual violence against him.
I’m not even kidding.
That’s just what this show is.
Even in episodes that I don’t hate…that’s just what this show is.
ALF has been sending a shit-ton of letters to Sendrax, with a different signature every time. Right now he’s writing one signed by Marvin Hamlisch, and I figured we’d get some kind of joke about signing one of the letters “Willie Tanner,” which would also naturally feed into where the story goes from here, but second drafts are for suckers.
ALF’s plan was to have all of these letters quote his radio screed, which would then trick Sendrax into thinking he’s started a public movement against them. Of course, since ALF is making up the whole thing he didn’t have to go on the radio in the first place but SECOND DRAFTS ARE FOR SUCKERS
Eh, whatever. This scene is packed with a hell of a lot of exposition for a sitcom, but considering that a typical half hour of this show involves ALF shitting into the tub while shouting racial slurs, I’ll take “a hell of a lot of exposition” any day.
The phone rings and it’s Sendrax, asking for Gordon Shumway. Shit just got real.
Whoever is calling uses the word lawsuit, and ALF clarifies, “Would I be suing you, or would you be suing me?” (Which I kind of love.) Then he hears the answer and slides the phone over to Willie, saying, “It’s for you.” (Which I also kind of love.)
Like “Mr. Sandman,” “Stayin’ Alive” has a lot of clunky setup, but the payoffs are, by and large, worth it. While this isn’t as good an episode, it’s shockingly competent compared to most of season four. And by that I mean I only cried twice.
And…uh…that was the act break. So, okay. I don’t hate this one so far, but I’m a bit surprised that so little has happened by the halfway point of the narrative. Like, seriously. It was just ALF bitching about the same thing in a few different rooms. I get the feeling that the storyboards this week just had the word WHATEVER written across them.
Anyway, Benji Gregory has realized that the production crew pays so little attention to him he can lie horizontally across a scene and nobody will bother to move him.
Willie and Kate yell at ALF for a while, and nothing is really established by this scene except that lawyers are expensive. (Can anyone out there verify this?!)
Willie realizes that none of these other assholes are interested in moving the plot along, so he decides to meet with Sendrax himself, posing as Gordon Shumway.
You know. Instead of as Willie Tanner, which is really who one of the phony letters should have been signed by anyway. (Narrative efficiency, how does it work?)
Then we cut to the Sendrax offices and…
HOLY SHIT GUYS THAT’S DAN CASTELLANETA.
Homer. Mutha. Fuckin’. Simpson.
And…god. I…I don’t know. I absolutely had no clue this guy was in ALF at any point. I’m kind of starstruck. Kind of impressed.
You’ve been reading these reviews. You know how often I cite The Simpsons in order to make a point. Hell, I’ve gotten told to shut the fuck up about that show already. (Rightly so. I’m not being a dick by saying that…I mention it all the damned time.) But there’s a reason The Simpsons is such a perfect point of comparison: it’s brilliant.
It’s hard to look at any show that has room for improvement and not find an example of how The Simpsons did it better. It was an immediate, urgent cultural institution, and though more than half of its output by this point has been utter shit, its overall reputation remains untarnished. It provided 7, 8, 9, or 10 years worth of solid, incredible, biting, inspiring, perfect comedy. (The number varies depending who you ask. The reverence does not.)
So I point to The Simpsons often because The Simpsons did so much — and did it all so well — that it’s a handy reference. When ALF bungles a strong premise, the odds are good that The Simpsons showed viewers how to do the same thing right. I’d cite examples, but you can refer to just about any of my previous reviews to find them, and, for once, I’m not looking for ways to distract myself from talking about the episode. HOMER SIMPSON IS HERE
Seeing Castellaneta on ALF is a massively pleasant surprise, not just because he’s an emissary from that far (far, far, far, far) superior show, but because he’s a truly gifted comic actor in his own right. I perk up because I know he’s worth watching. I pay attention because I know he deserves it.
At this point in his career, Castellaneta was already playing Homer (and Grandpa, and Krusty, and Barney…). In fact, one day before “Stayin’ Alive” aired, “The Telltale Head” debuted. The Simpsons wasn’t yet the legend we know today, but that episode — one of the best of its first season — certainly gave it a big push toward becoming one.
He doesn’t sound anything like Homer (or Grandpa, or Krusty, or Barney…) in real life, though, so if anyone watching “Stayin’ Alive” recognized him, it would have been for his work on The Tracey Ullman Show, where you could actually see his face. He was a standout member of an excellent ensemble there and — of course — that’s the show that originally featured the Simpsons. (The Simpsons is easily the most successful spinoff in television history.)
His appearance in “Stayin’ Alive” came at a time before he could bank on sweet Simpsons money to carry him to his grave, but that doesn’t fully explain his presence. Even today the guy pops up in small roles on other shows (voice-over and live action), and he seems to do it just for the sake of doing it.
He doesn’t need to keep busy, he doesn’t need the money, and he’s already immortalized in the kind of role any performer would kill to have…but he keeps taking bit roles that, strictly speaking, are beneath him. (Again, not trying to be a dick…what wouldn’t be beneath him?)
So, no, popping up on ALF doesn’t represent some early-career desperation on his part, as much as I’d like to make a joke about that. He just seems to be a great guy who likes helping out other shows that could benefit from his presence. Or maybe he just really enjoys the variety of working with different people on different projects.
Whatever the reason: what a fucking pro.
Also, interesting footnote: remember when ALF appeared in “The Springfield Files,” and Paul Fusco called The Simpsons afterward to tell them that he would have done the voice? Well, ALF spoke exactly one word in that episode: “Yo.” And the guy who voiced it? Dan Castellaneta.
Anyway, Castellaneta tries to talk Willie out of raising a fuss over Sendrax, and tacitly reminds him that Sendrax will sue his ass to hell and back if he doesn’t keep his mouth shut. There’s not much to the character here, but Castellaneta — to nobody’s surprise — does a great job veiling the threats behind the vague, PR-savvy chumminess. It wouldn’t be honest to say that he gives the character depth, but he does make the most of the expected, minor incongruity between his attitude and his intentions.
His friendly threats work on Willie, and Wright’s awkwardness here is fitting; he knows he’d be in serious trouble if he pissed off a massive corporation. (Wright’s also, of course, working with a genuine comic talent and not some concealed asshole under the floorboards, so his performance probably benefits from that.) Willie is so glad to have an “out” that he falls into this guy’s trap, and accepts gifts for his family in the form of Sendrax shirts, mugs, and hats.
Castellaneta even gets to twist the knife with his incredible delivery of “It’s always nice to meet someone who cares but doesn’t get annoying about it.” It’s a clunky line on the page, but one that his performance absolutely sells, and it puts a nice, cynical button on their exchange.
Then Willie catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror — bought off by unnecessary shit from a company polluting the environment — and realizes he’s doing the wrong thing.
It’s a nice, uncommon visual flourish for ALF. It’s nothing you haven’t seen a thousand times before, but that’s because it works. In ALF‘s specific case, it’s a chance to let the show explain something silently for once, and I respect that. By no means is it the subtlest of messages, but it does what it needs to do, and it does so without a puppet bleating the moral at us from a trench.
Willie goes back and makes a little speech about the importance of leaving a clean world to his children, one that’s not packed with garbage and overheating from greenhouse gasses. It’s…the kind of thing you expect sitcom writers to dash off when they’re trying to make a point, but not about anything they really understand.
It’s fine, though. Wright does what he can with it. He tries to sound choked up — in an emotional way; not his typical “I inhaled a cashew” way — and he puts at least 1/5 of his ass into it. It’s…admirable for him. It’s not impressive, exactly, but I’m willing to at least give him credit for the effort.
Castellaneta is moved, though…or claims to be. He offers Willie a job** at $75k per year, plus perqs, and it’s strongly implied that Willie makes far less than this at his current job. That makes sense in one way, because social workers make jack shit. That doesn’t make sense in another way, because Willie has three kids and can still afford to live in a fucking palace in LA.
Whatever. Salary shenanigans aside, Willie puts his Sendrax hat back on and asks for details. Another obvious but effective touch, carrying forward the visual implications from the mirror. Every man has his price, and Willie’s just learned his.
Subtle? Not on your life. But once again, somebody figured out a way to say something on this show without actually having to say it.
Kudos, “Stayin’ Alive.” You’re nothing great, but you’re impressively competent.
We then get another pretty good scene at the house. Willie’s passing out the Sendrax junk he was given (their motto: “We care,” which I stupidly kept trying to make out on the small props only to have ALF read it out to us later) and our naked alien hero caves immediately. Hey, free junk, right?
A perfect character reaction. I’ll give the show credit for that. ALF is the sort of idiot who’d be knocked off his ethical high horse by the distraction of worthless garbage.
Kate seems to be less impressed, but she doesn’t say anything. Willie keeps assuming that her silence means she’s second guessing him, or his motives, but she reminds him that she hasn’t said a word. ALF chimes in: “Kate! Will you get off his back?”
Willie tells her that if he takes the job, he might be able to effect change from within. It might be a small amount of change, but that’s far more than he can effect right now. It’s a fair point — even if it is after-the-fact justification — and it puts Willie in an interesting ethical bind.
Kate reminds him of the way they used to take on big corporations in the past: on Earth Day in 1970 (the very first Earth Day, whether ALF realized that or not) she and Willie organized a sit-in against a major polluter. And while there’s no reason to believe anything changed as a result of their protest, Willie is won over by the realization that he at least was on the correct side; he wasn’t cashing the polluter’s paychecks.
And, y’know, this is why “Stayin’ Alive” works so much better than those other “ALF has a lesson to teach us” episodes, and I’m only realizing it now, as I type this sentence: it has nothing to do with ALF. In previous episodes along these lines, whether it was “Tequila” or “ALF’s Special Christmas” or “Hail to the Chief” or “When I’m Sixty-Four” or any of that shit, it’s ALF getting on a soapbox and screaming wonderment at us until we have the good sense to turn this fucking show off and do something valuable with our time, such as murder our families with an axe.
Here, it’s Willie’s struggle. He doesn’t come with The Right Thing To Do pre-installed, like ALF does. He’s (comparatively) human, and he’s juggling more complicated considerations. At the very least, there’s a kind of inner conflict. He has to think through a decision with no clear right answer…and whether you like this episode or not (trust me, I won’t think less of you for not) you have to admit this is a much stronger, smarter way to approach the question.
ALF’s instant moralizing in those episodes rang false at best, and were fucking grating at worst, because he’d shift all of a sudden from “destructive dickbag” to “Holy Space Christ who is so free from Earthly concerns that he is able to teach us the lessons we’ve sadly forgotten.” Then, of course, next week he’d be a destructive dickbag again.
You know what “Stayin’ Alive” says? It says that’s bullshit.
And it is. ALF isn’t some paragon of loving selflessness…he’s a bored little asshole. It’s not passion that causes him to latch onto a concern for the environment…it’s the fact that he has nothing else to fill his time. That’s why he no longer seems to care once Willie brings him one of those solar calculators the size of a business card with Sendrax written on it. ALF’s not dedicated to any cause…he’s just in desperate search of something to occupy his time. He’s distracted into caring about the environment, and just as quickly he’s distracted out of it.
It’s Willie who needs to make a stand…not ALF. And that does fucking wonders for this episode.
It’s still not good…but it’s far and away the strongest of ALF‘s didactic sub-series. And I think, therefore, it’s pretty instructive as well.
Anyway, Willie decides to tell Dan Castellaneta that ALF doesn’t need him; he can go do his stupid cartoon show nobody will ever watch.
Willie gives a big speech full of OZONE FACTS and really hammers home the point that even a minor change in global temperature can spell the end of the world, but Castellaneta doesn’t give a shit; Sendrax fired him, and he’s on his way out.
His speech isn’t much more than a retread of the one we got before, but Castellaneta here is fantastic. He keeps trying to give Willie more Sendrax things (including pencils, paperclips, and his desk phone) before cheerily insisting, “Go on, take anything! I hate these people!”
In the mouth of anyone else on ALF‘s payroll, that line would have flopped. Castellaneta hits a fucking grand slam. It really goes to show what talent can do, even on a show like this.
LOOK AT THIS GUY HE IS SO FUCKING GOOD
Seriously! Look at a screengrab and you can just tell he’s being funny. Like…actually funny. Not just making faces while a puppet looks at pornography.
Anyway, Castellaneta decides to do some good on his way out. He calls one of the Sendrax plants and tells them that the instruction to stop making CFCs came down from the top…so the plant stops making them.
It’s…that easy, I guess? Factories must have just had a big switch on the wall, and prior to 1990, they were all set to “CFCs”. By 1994 (yes, ALF was four years ahead of its time on this) everyone started flipping them to “NO CFCs”.
What…was Sendrax making, anyway? I mean, overall. Was it just a CFC factory? Like…it was literally just making pollution?
Surely there was some product or service it was providing. If they all along had the technology — on hand and ready to go, as this suggests — to provide that same product or service without polluting as much, why didn’t they do that from the very start? It would have shut up this Gordon Shumway character, they wouldn’t have had to threaten massive legal action, and they wouldn’t have had to offer some stammering nobody a $75k job to keep him from making waves. Plus they could have had a surge of really awesome PR.
It’s just…weird. Everyone was clamoring for Sendrax to do something, which it turns out it can do in a matter of seconds with no loss of profit or efficiency, but instead the company knowingly made its own problem worse?
Ugh, who fuckin’ knows. Let’s go to Moe’s.
Anyway, Dan Castellaneta tells Willie that within a few days the plant will realize there was no order from the top to cease making CFCs while they make whatever the fuck else they make, and they’ll start making them again.
…unless Willie contacts the media and spreads the story that Sendrax turned over a new leaf, effectively forcing their hand lest the public backlash get even worse.
It’s nice. It addresses one logistical concern here. Not nearly all of them, but one is about three more than ALF usually addresses, so, that’s nice.
Then Willie asks him if he was offered the job in order to buy his silence, or if they really thought he’d be a great asset to the Sendrax team. Dan Castellaneta says, “You’re a crack-addled putz. Stay away from my family.”
In the short scene before the credits, Kate threatens to murder ALF with a meat mallet.
Really, she does.
I know I always make jokes about people killing ALF with a funny kitchen implement, but…
…the…the show actually made that same joke itself.
And last week, “Mr. Sandman” stole my thunder in joking about Lynn’s sex life. It…my joke…the…the things I invented, ALF invented, too.
…this is like looking in the mirror and seeing that I’m covered in ALF merchandise.
I have more in common with my enemy than I think.
I just need to lie down.
…just…for a while…
Countdown to ALF getting sniped in front of the Tanners: 3 episodes
MELMAC FACTS: ALF has seen two planets destroyed. One was Melmac, obviously, but he doesn’t reveal the name or circumstances of the other. His explanation: “A guy has to have some secrets.”
* You know what this footnote should say.
** I buy most of this exchange, but I’m really not sure why the guy abandoned his earlier “We’ll sue you to Kingdom Come” fallback. That was already sort of his escape hatch if palling around with Willie didn’t work…and now that it doesn’t work, he offers the guy a job instead. It’s…weird. But it’s also ALF.