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Author Archives: Philip J Reed

ALF Reviews: “ALF Loves a Mystery”

July 6th, 2017 | Posted by Philip J Reed in alf - (16 Comments)

Here I go, here I go, here I go again. Girls, what’s my weakness?

ALF!

Okay then.

One year ago, almost to the day, I finished reviewing ALF, and I solemnly swore upon the life of my mother that I’d never return to it, for any reason.

But, well…sometime during the series, someone asked me to review “ALF Loves a Mystery,” a one-off special that aired between seasons one and two of the sitcom. I agreed…and then never actually did it. I don’t remember who it was, but hopefully they’ll see this and realize that I’m not a giant dick who breaks his promises. I’m a slightly smaller dick who ignores his promises for several years and then fulfills them when you no longer care.

So, yeah, I’m back to take care of some unfinished business. (Sorry, ma!)

“ALF Loves a Mystery” is one of those Saturday morning preview shows. You probably remember them. That’s when Carl and Urkel would sit on the couch and show clips of the new season of Muppet Babies. (Casey recently reviewed one of these starring the most perfect strangers imaginable.) I remember enjoying these very much, and while I wouldn’t have much interest in watching it if the concept were brought back today — with Jimmy and Chuck McGill getting unnaturally enthusiastic about the new Teen Titans spinoff or something — back then it was great.

These things served as a really great sampler of that year’s new batch of Saturday morning cartoons, and, man, I sure as hell loved Saturday morning cartoons. I have vivid memories of waking up as early as I could and plopping myself in front of the TV to watch whatever happened to be on. In a way, I almost didn’t care what the shows were; I just loved cartoons. They were a fun and colorful escape, as I’ve discussed before, which is probably why I gravitated toward ones that were very fun and colorful, as opposed to ones that felt more…serious, like Transformers or G.I. Joe.

I didn’t care about that stuff. I liked talking animals and silly adventures. Sue me.

I specifically remember watching one of these preview specials and catching my first-ever glimpse of Darkwing Duck. That was the first time I was actually sold on a specific show. Seeing the extra-long clips of Darkwing Duck — which ABC was clearly, correctly banking on to be a hit — made me actively want to watch it. It looked like a really fantastic evolution of the Duck Tales formula, and, as I recall, it was an experiment that worked extremely well. It became one of my favorite shows, and while I haven’t seen it at all as an adult and can’t exactly vouch that it holds up, I still look back on it with fondness.

While I might have stumbled upon the show at some point on my own, I credit the ABC Saturday morning preview special with introducing it to me, giving me an early taste of something I’d unquestionably love, and exciting me enough that I’d jump in with the very first episode.

So, without further ado, let’s begin my reviews of Darkwing Duck.

Oh, wait. This shit.

You guys sure you don’t want to talk about Darkwing Duck instead? It was pretty funny. It was sort of a Batman parody, and…

Okay, okay, fine.

“ALF Loves a Mystery” was NBC’s 1987 Saturday morning preview special. You can follow along with this YouTube video if you enjoy the works of Paul Fusco and/or VHS artifacting.

Just kidding. Nobody enjoys the works of Paul Fusco.

See, normally — if memory serves — these preview specials would have characters from popular live-action shows sitting around, watching clips of upcoming cartoons, and delivering basic scheduling information about them. It was framing material, basically, and while there might be a vague sketch of a plot or a running joke, it was a pretty low-effort affair.

They were fun to watch, don’t get me wrong. But if you loved Full House you wouldn’t see its Saturday morning preview special as an extra episode or anything. It would just be Joey and one of the kids dicking briefly around on a sofa between clips of Denver, The Last Dinosaur.

This special is a bit different. It’s a mystery, after all. And…I love a mystery! Sure, I hate the living fuck out of ALF, but this seems to have some narrative effort invested in it, by preview special standards.

Maybe I’ll actually like this!

…oh for the love of fuck. Let me be optimistic for FIVE SECONDS PLEASE?

Yeah, see…

Typically in these specials, you don’t get the full cast of whatever show is providing the framing material. You’ll get two characters, possibly three, in an effort to produce these things quickly and inexpensively.

That’s fair. There’s no need to bring the whole extended family along if what you’re filming amounts to around five minutes’ worth of bumpers.

So, no, I didn’t expect to see the entire cast of ALF. What’s more, I never, ever want to see the entire cast of ALF again for any reason.

But if ALF was to be paired with just one family member from that show…why in the name of shit did it have to be Brian?

I mean, holy Christ. Whose kid did I dismember in a previous life that I need to sit through a fucking ALF-and-Brian special? I’d rather ALF was paired with a dishmop.

Y’know, now that I think about it — and now that I’ve tapped into my vast reserves of immense hatred — I don’t think “ALF Loves a Mystery” is attempting unique narrative* for the sake of being interesting or artistic or anything else. I think it’s because that’s one more way for Paul Fusco to kick his fucking colleagues out of the picture.

When ALF got a cartoon show, it was a prequel so he wouldn’t have to share the spotlight with the Tanners. When ALF got a clipshow, they pretended he was hosting The Tonight Show so he wouldn’t have to share the spotlight with the Tanners. When ALF got a movie to wrap up the series, they introduced new characters so he wouldn’t have to share the spotlight with the Tanners. When ALF hosted a cartoon preview show…wait, sorry, I lost my train of thought. I was going somewhere with this, though, I promise.

The special just dumps you right into things. There’s no setup or introductory scene, which is a bit odd, as you’d think they’d want to set the stage a little. Folks familiar with ALF might like to know that this isn’t going to be anything like a standard episode, but fuck that. We just get a title card, and then a list of who we’ll see over this course of this half hour.

And…it’s a lot of people, actually. The choice not to feature the other regulars can’t have been a financial one, as they sure splurged on a lot of other folks to show up and hawk cartoons.

The actors are all introduced with a credit. For instance, the narrator says, “From Our House, Shannen Doherty.” Which is weird because I’m sure even people who watched Our House didn’t give a flying shit about Our House. But I point this out because only one actor is introduced without a credit: Mary Wickes.

So I looked her up and sure enough, she was in loads of stuff. Not all of it was good, of course, but the lady worked steadily from 1934 until she passed away in 1995 (when she was voicing the grandmother on Life With Louie). She has an impressive resume that includes appearances on M*A*S*H, Dennis the Menace, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents among other big titles. But for some reason they don’t name one single thing she’s been on. Gotta make sure we mention fuckin’ Our House, though.

It’s weird. It’s like they make a big stink about all these nobodies, but then when they get to someone with an actual pedigree, they just say, “Here’s some old lady.”

Fuckin’ “ALF Loves a Mystery.”

Anyway, here’s the full cast to pad out my wordcount. It doubles as a who’s-who of bullshit no human being has thought about since.

– ALF
– Shannen Doherty (Our House)
– Stephen Furst (St. Elsewhere)
– Benji Gregory (technically ALF)
– Jackée (227)
– Danny Ponce (Valerie’s Family)
– Douglas Seale (Rags to Riches)
– Betty White (The Golden Girls…okay, this one checks out)
– Mary Wickes (nothing; some old hag)
– Heidi Ziegler (Rags to Riches)

But God forbid we toss any other ALF actors a paycheck.

Finally this shit starts. It’s ALF sitting behind a desk, talking on the phone to his agent Sid. Just what kids were hoping to see when they tuned in to watch a puppet talk about cartoons: an extended contract negotiation.

ALF pitches Sid his idea for a new cartoon show. Which, obviously, is about him, because neither ALF nor Fusco can conceive of any project that isn’t about him. Our alien hero says kids will love seeing what ALF’s life was like back on Melmac, “before it went kablooey!”

…killing every single one of the new characters we’ll meet in this hilarious new treat for the kiddies.

It’s always been really weird to me that ALF: The Animated Series was populated almost entirely by characters who were killed in the massive nuclear destruction of their planet, but I just kind of figured the show was hoping we’d be too dumb to notice. You know…the fact that at the time we’re watching it, everyone’s already dead…that’s the sort of thing only some asshole who writes thousands of words every time ALF rips a fart would even notice.

But here, now, literally as the cartoon is being introduced to the world, ALF verbally confirms to the children of America that nobody they’ll meet in this new show is breathing anymore.

Fucking hell, ALF.

What’s more, he’s actually pitching Sid his memoirs. I know I said it was a cartoon, but right after he promises his memoirs will “sell a million,” he says, “Yeah, my new Saturday morning series!” It’s confusing that “memoirs” and “cartoon” are meant to mean the same thing.

I think all they’re trying to do is reinforce the idea that whatever shit happens in ALF: The Animated Series is canon. Fine. But these words mean different things. It would be like listening to a friend of yours describe the dinner he ate last night, but every few sentences or so he refers to it as a movie. These things are incompatible. Maybe the mystery is what the fuck ALF is talking about.

ALF hangs up on Sid, who we hear as some annoying, incomprehensible chipmunk gibberish. ALF sighs and says, “Agents!” I guess he’s mad because Sid had the audacity to ask how the book ALF is writing is somehow also the weekly cartoon that’s debuting in a few weeks.

Muddying the issue further, ALF starts tapping away on a computer keyboard, saying, “Great memoirs always start with the family life.” The implication is that he’s writing chapter one, page one, but then the computer screen displays a scene from his cartoon. So…is he writing or animating?

Fuck this show.

…wait. I guess I can’t say that anymore. :(

My favorite part is that we can see the computer monitor clearly as ALF is typing, and not one fucking word appears on the screen. Plug in your keyboard, dicksack!

ALF introduces us one by one to his family: his mother Flo (dead), his father Bob (dead), his sister Augie (dead), his brother Curtis (dead), and his pet Neep (dead).

There’s also a scene in which he’s riding in a biplane with Rhonda, as part of some Orbit Guard maneuvers, and he accidentally ejects her. What a shame ALF continuity didn’t allow her to die as well.

So…Rhonda was in the Orbit Guard? The sitcom never alluded to that. In fact, the implication was pretty clearly that she wasn’t. Oh, who fucking knows.

Benji Gregory comes in, and the lack of a studio audience is by no means the reason he doesn’t get a round of applause.

He finds ALF as he always finds him: masturbating to footage of himself. The kid sees him writing and literally pleads with ALF to put him in a story, because he knows full well it’ll never happen on the show proper.

It’s kind of weird. We only saw about twenty seconds of ALF: The Animated Series, and it wasn’t even a clip. It was just quick flashes of footage with ALF — our non-animated ALF — narrating what we were looking at. I’m assuming full clips weren’t ready yet, but the whole reason anyone is watching this shit is to see the upcoming cartoons, so cutting away from one so quickly just so we can spend time with television’s least charismatic child actor is puzzling.

And, yeah, it’s Benji Gregory, not Brian Tanner. You can tell because the two have very different character traits: one is named Benji Gregory, and the other is named Brian Tanner.

Oddly, though, Benji emotes in this special like he never, ever did on ALF. He puts emphasis and feeling into his lines, and actually sounds excitable. I mean, he’s still a terrible actor. If anything, he’s worse by virtue of the fact that he’s clearly trying to act, while on ALF I think he was just trying to hold his breath until the show ended. But it’s a bit odd that the “real Benji” we’ll never see again gets so much effort put into his portrayal. The kid’s playing himself! Shouldn’t that take less effort?

Also, sorry, but fucking hell, the “real” set ALF is in looks like it was stolen from a middle school production of Flowers in the Attic. It looks worse than the sitcom that’s implied to be a work of fiction.

Honestly, the levels of reality here are a bit strange. ALF at his keyboard is real and the mystery he writes in a bit is fake. Fine. That’s typically how the relationship between writers and their works functions. But the sitcom is a fictional production starring actors, while the cartoon he’s animating is real?

Does this rewrite ALF’s actual history? Instead of crashing on Earth and hiding out with a family in the suburbs, he landed and got contracted to write a bunch of shitty shows starring himself? Man, anything to erase Max Wright from ALF’s history, I guess.

Benji loses interest in anything that’s happening and starts looking around, wondering if there’s a reason he was born. ALF loves a misery.

Anyway, yeah, Benji begs to be part of a cool new ALF production, because God knows the old one wasn’t cutting it. ALF says, “What about a mystery? I love a mystery!” Which gives us our title, of course, and I find that interesting for two reasons.

First, Benji asked to be put in a story, so of course ALF just pulls out of his ass the kind of story he’d like to see, and not the kind of story Benji would like to be in. Does Benji love a mystery? If not, go buy your own computer, kid.

The second reason is that the title “ALF Loves a Mystery” is weirdly passive. Why doesn’t ALF solve a mystery? I mean, he might as well. You have the fucking puppet and a slew of guest stars.

I know…I’m aware that I always complained about ALF being made the most important part of every story on the dumbass TV show, but at the same time, ALF himself is the draw here. There’s a reason he’s providing the framing material, and that’s that kids love him. Dangling ALF in front of their faces is a way to get them to watch these cartoon clips…and then later watch the cartoons. It’s a solid impulse.

So why isn’t ALF participating? It’s the difference between a special called “ALF Wins the Indy 500” and one called “ALF Enjoys Reading the Results of the Indy 500 a Couple of Weeks Later.”

Anyway ALF types “there’s saxophone music or some shit I don’t know I just love a mystery I don’t write them” and a saxophone stars playing somewhere.

ALF complains to the child that he’s secretly alone with in the attic that the music isn’t “sexy” enough, and, you know, after 99 episodes and a movie, I’m not even surprised enough to bitch about that. ALF types something on the keyboard (presumably “get sexy for the boy”) and the saxophone music changes.

There’s a decent — if nonsensical — effect when a skyline scrolls into view through the windows. Is ALF on an airship? Whooooooo the fuuuuuuuck caaaaaaaares. We see two huge neon signs reading SMURFS and ALF. Which strip club would you pick?

Also, at this point, Benji appears to have decided that the answer to his question is “no.”

Benji asks what the fuck is going on, since the one thing he asked was to be in a story and ALF ignored him entirely to write instead a description of a neon SMURFS sign that was so vivid, the object materialized before them.

ALF begrudgingly agrees to let the kid be in his own story after all. Man, I’d love to read this as some kind of very obscure meta joke about how the episodes of ALF that seemed to be about Brian hardly contained his talentless ass. “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog,” “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”…I think the only one of his own stories he actually got to be in was “It Isn’t Easy…Bein’ Green,” which eerily foreshadowed his role on the show overall by having him play a vegetable.

ALF says Benji can be a detective named “Kid Cameron.” And a few decades later he can squander any fondness he earned from the role by becoming an obnoxious creationist. Benji complains that he doesn’t know anything about being a private eye, and ALF tells him to shut his ass. “Remember, I’m writing the story.” Which is the biggest fuck-you a puppet can deliver to a child actor in a special about cartoons.

Speaking of the story you’re writing, ALF, weren’t you working on your memoirs/animated series a few minutes ago, which is the whole thing we tuned in to see? Nah, that must just be my memory playing tricks on me.

ALF explains that in his mystery, he’ll embed clips of Saturday morning shows, and each time you see one, “expect a clue to follow.” Which is an oddly prescient sentiment; I remember reading a mystery by Sue Grafton a few years back, and being really impressed by the twenty-page recreation of scenes from The Snorks.

Benji realizes this story is becoming even less about him by the second and attempts to wish ALF into the cornfield.

ALF complains that Benji isn’t wearing the right costume for a story like this, which, y’know, is probably his own fault as the guy with the magical fucking typewriter.

He types some description into the computer he is emphatically not using to show clips of upcoming Saturday morning cartoons, and Benji gets a trenchcoat and fedora. The kid asks, “What’s happening to me?” because he’s not used to ALF trying to put clothes on him.

Benji then fades away into nothingness, fulfilling the dreams of any writer who worked during the four full seasons of ALF.

Then ALF shows a clip of ANYTHING BUT A SATURDAY MORNING CARTOON I GUESS.

It’s a bunch of stock footage of city streets that I’m certain looked fucking terrible in 1987, even before being copied to VHS, compressed as a digital file, and then shit onto YouTube. And I call bullshit, by the way. Where the fuck is my giant neon SMURFS sign? Why did ALF bother writing about it if it’s not even there when the story starts? IT IS ALMOST LIKE ALF AND CONSISTENT WRITING DO NOT GO TOGETHER.

I do like the detail of including a sign for REED’S HATEFUL SCREEDS in the lower left. That was a great meta joke that wouldn’t pay off for twenty years.

Does anyone recognize these streets, by the way? I mean, I doubt it, but since you can make out a few of the signs, maybe someone does.

We then cut from actual footage of an actual city street in actual motion to what is clearly a shitty still image of a painting.

…why the jarring shift in presentation? Could they not find stock footage of an old house? I can name two dozen horror films that would have already been in the public domain by that point. Why not use some of that shit? Or why not skip the city streets and open here instead?

Ugh, whatever. At least “painting” is incrementally closer to “Saturday morning cartoon” and I’ll take what I can get at this point.

Actually, you know what? Fuck this. I really don’t get it.

Can you imagine being a kid who tuned in to see cartoons and what you get is ALF’s catatonic sidekick starring in a one-off detective story? That’s a pretty monumental bait and switch. It would be like tuning into that theoretical Full House version because you want to be the first kid on your block to catch a glimpse of Camp Candy, but the overwhelming bulk of the special is Bob Saget, as himself, explaining how to make egg jubilee.

Benji beams into the scene and stands around doing nothing. He shouts, “What do I do now?” because ALF still hasn’t written one damned fucking thing about the central character of this mystery, preferring instead to describe irrelevant city streets. Anything to avoid having to write about this kid, huh, ALF? Trust me, I wish I had that luxury.

Also, the fact that Benji shouts this upward makes it look like he’s yelling at God about his lot in life, so “ALF Loves a Mystery” has given me one thing I can enjoy.

Benji rings the doorbell, and it sounds like that trash barge sound you’d hear in the Beetlejuice cartoon when he took off his socks or something. I guess this qualifies as a joke. ALF loves an irrelevant sound effect.

Some old butler shows up and yells at Benji for no reason, then lets him in. The parlor is full of other characters we don’t and won’t ever care about. For instance, our hero meets Frank and Joe Hardy…only — ho ho ho! — it’s actually Frank and Jo Harty! So it’s not the Hardy Boys at all! It’s a Harty Boy and his Harty Sister!

Man, this is so much better than watching cartoons!

Then the sexy saxophone music plays as Encyclopedia Benjo catches a glimpse of Jackée from 227. He pops the same boner he popped when he read the script for this special and saw he had lines.

I’ll give this credit for being a taboo pairing on multiple levels. Black/white, adult/underage, functional/mentally disabled. But does anyone find it odd that ALF is actively writing this? Like, this isn’t just some collection of actors who were free this afternoon. ALF, at a computer keyboard, is writing fan-fiction about a little boy he knows getting busy with a sexy black lady. ALF loves an interracial canoodle.

We also meet the other folks in the room, who are detectives as well. None of them are worth mentioning, but Stephen Furst starts talking in a high-pitched squeak before he remembers he’s supposed to be gruff and imposing. Then he cracks his knuckles and hurts himself. It’s a mildly amusing flourish, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Furst came up with that himself. He was Flounder in Animal House, so he definitely has comedy cred. Also, looking him up I see he died just last month at age 63. I had no idea. Congratulations on being memorialized on this blog with your appearance in “ALF Loves a Mystery.”

Jackée from 227 makes some speech about how she’s collected a bunch of great sleuths together in this room because there’s a fortune hidden somewhere in the house, and she can’t find it. Whichever sleuth finds it gets to split it with her fifty-fifty. She makes some crack with the butler about how they’ll all be dead later so she won’t actually have to share it, and the two of them laugh while all the sleuths just fucking sit there like idiots.

Yeah, great sleuths. Someone just openly announced your murder and you quietly walk right into their trap. For a guy who loves a mystery, ALF sure doesn’t know anything about detectives.

Then we…

Oh fucking come on. We made it all the way to the first commercial break with no actual clips of cartoons?

That brief scatter of bits from ALF: The Animated Series doesn’t count, as nothing happened and it wasn’t even cohesive. It was just some stitched-together shit that the puppet talked over. It didn’t give any indication of what the show was…it was just fleeting evidence that it exists and that Paul Fusco didn’t take the network’s money and flee the country.

The YouTube version has the original commercials intact, and I’d encourage you to go watch those if it didn’t mean you might accidentally see some of “ALF Loves a Mystery.”

It’s cool to see them and I’d wax nostalgic about them but I’m already 4,000 words deep and we haven’t even gotten to the cartoons yet so you’ll forgive me for not sharing my witty observations about the Cherry 7-Up song.

After the break, Jo Harty can’t believe Benji’s been on television for a full year and still can’t deliver a line to save his life.

It’s a weird scene. These three walk into a room and find an old organ playing by itself…but it doesn’t really register, because the organ music just sounds like part of the soundtrack, and we don’t get a closeup of the keys moving of their own accord or anything. If a character didn’t overtly point out that the music was diagetic, I never would have realized anything was amiss. ALF loves a botched setup.

Also, hey, IMDB has Frank and Jo’s last name as Hardy, despite the fact that Jo spells it (and the joke) out in the previous scene. Someone should go update that.

Benji walks over to the organ to investigate, and finds a book of sheet music with Alvin and The Chipmunks on the cover. Which…I mean…like…the organ could have been playing the Alvin and The Chipmunks theme, then. That would have been cute. But instead it’s just this boring, bland noodling that feels like establishing music. ALF loves a missed opportunity.

I was never a big fan of Alvin and The Chipmunks, but I know I’ve seen a huge amount of episodes. If I remember correctly, it aired at some point before The Disney Afternoon, or Garfield and Friends, or something else I actively enjoyed watching. I couldn’t tell you about a single damned episode of Alvin and The Chipmunks, but I was stuck watching it to get to whatever it is I actually wanted to see.

Speaking of which, can I just say that Garfield and Friends was awesome? Because it was. I know it’s cool to hate on the Garfield comics, and that’s fine…I won’t stop you…but Garfield and Friends was legitimately good for what it was, and it had an absolutely perfect voice cast. Don’t tar the cartoon with the same brush.

Anyway, back to something that’s actually shit: Benji Gregory. Sherlock Homeschooled opens the book of sheet music, and we see actual clips of an actual cartoon thank Christ.

It’s like twenty seconds long again. Yay.

At least it’s a self-contained, cohesive clip this time. Not that it’s interesting in any way…it’s just some performance footage of The Chipmunks playing “High Tech World.” A quick Google search shows that this is from an episode called “Back to Dave’s Future” from season five. Pretty cool that Alvin and The Chipmunks is playing second fiddle to ALF, when they’ve already outlasted the entire length of his show.

“High Tech World” is an original, if you’re interested. Often The Chipmunks would perform covers of real songs — probably because it’s easier to speed up existing audio than to write a new song on a weekly basis — but this one was exclusive to the episode. The audio is available here, and you’ll see it doesn’t have a proper ending, which was probably pretty common for this show.

The song isn’t terrible, but it’s just a snatch of it and that’s all we get. No plot, no sense of what the story will be, and since Alvin and The Chipmunks play music in every fucking episode, no indication of why we should tune in for the fifth season at all.

Then we cut back to Benji and The Hartys laughing at the clip, even though it contained exactly zero jokes, sight gags, or lines of dialogue. ALF loves an incongruity.

ALSO WHY WASN’T THE ORGAN PLAYING “HIGH TECH WORLD” IF THAT’S THE SONG THE KIDS ACTUALLY HEARD WHEN THEY OPENED THE SHEET MUSIC MY GOD

Anyway, we’re almost ten minutes into this fucking shit and all the kids tuning in have been treated to a whopping forty seconds of cartoon previews. Half of that went to a show that they’ve already been watching for four years. What a fantastic preview special!

The disembodied (or, technically, off-camera) voice of Alvin tells the kids to look under a blue dog for their first clue. But ALF said that whenever Benji sees a cartoon, a clue will follow…so why isn’t Alvin giving a clue? He’s giving a clue where to find the clue (which, in turn, means that ALF provided a clue where to find a clue where to find a clue), but fuck that. Give me something of substance, Alvin you fuck.

Frank Harty does all the work of figuring out where to go, because if they gave these lines to Benji Gregory they’d be stuck on set all night as he stumbled through them.

Then again, Frank doesn’t do much better. He identifies the dog as something that sounds like “Beauford the Blue Dog,” and I couldn’t find jack shit about that. It took me a lot of Googling (and luck, as I only found him through a stuffed animal that looked vaguely like what I see here) to discover that this is Foofur.

Who the fuck is Foofur? Some dog from a shitty Hanna-Barbera show that lasted all of two seasons. I like to think that it was doomed by virtue of appearing here, just so I can hold ALF responsible for killing a dog.

This clip is even shorter than the other ones, and it’s more like what we saw from ALF: The Animated Series than what we saw from Alvin and The Chipmunks. Foofur — voiced by the great Frank Welker — just mentions the names of the other characters, I guess, and shows them in silly costumes, then tells kids to tune in.

How exciting. I can’t wait to watch this show I never heard of now that I’ve seen these characters I still don’t know in outfits they don’t normally wear anyway.

While the kids watch this clip, Detective Flounder sneaks up on them, and the implication is clearly that he’s being an asshole, because instead of doing any detective work himself, he’s just following some kids around.

But isn’t that what Benji’s doing, too? He ain’t done squat. He’s just shuffling around behind the Hartys, wishing Jackée from 227 would hurry up and kill him already.

The kids once again laugh at a clip of a cartoon without any jokes in it, but they still have no idea where the treasure is. Benji miraculously remembers that Alvin told them to look beneath the blue dog, rather than at the blue dog, which causes complete shutdown of the central nervous system.

Hey, out of curiosity, has anybody created a detective dog character named Sam Spayed? If not, forget my IMDB request and get on that instead.

The kids find a key attached to a poem about Fraggle Rock so bad even I won’t subject you to it. Then they leave and the painting of Foofur falls on Detective Flounder.

This is actually a pretty major loss since I guarantee you that was the only painting of Foofur that’s ever existed.

Speaking of which, is Jackée from 227 really such a big fan of fucking Foofur that she has a painting of him hanging in her hallway? How bizarre. Alvin and The Chipmunks sheet music is at least mildly believable, but I absolutely refuse to accept that anyone, anywhere, at any point in history, hung a painting of Foofur in their house.

And then…

Oh, yeah! ALF is in this. I forgot.

Honestly, I have to admit I’m surprised Fusco allowed ALF to be absent for so much of this special. Every so often he narrates a line, but it’s not as frequent as you’d expect. Maybe that’s why Benji Gregory was tapped for this; since ALF couldn’t be in every scene, Fusco wanted to make sure he chose the one actor on Earth that couldn’t upstage him.

It’s really a shame. I’d much prefer a half hour of Max Wright stammering his way through a hospital drama. Maybe he could cut open his patients and find the cartoon clips in there. Or maybe he’d just suck on a crack pipe and hallucinate an upcoming episode of My Pet Monster.

A running joke here is that Jackée from 227 is the only character who can hear ALF’s narration, so there’s a bit where they talk back and forth directly. And by “a bit” I mean they talk back and forth directly. There aren’t any jokes. As much as you can do with the concept of a fictional character speaking to her creator, this just boils down to the creator introducing himself and the character saying, “ok cool.”

Then we’re back to the mystery ALF loves so much more than cartoons. I’m deeply amused by the fact that, once again, Benji’s been reduced to standing quietly in the background of stories that are ostensibly about him.

I’m not complaining. The Hartys — Danny Ponce and Heidi Ziegler — suck fat dick, but they’re far better performers. Ziegler in particular manages to stay on the right side of the grating child actress line, though she admittedly tiptoes damned close to it many times. For example, when she sees a sign that says FRAGGLE ROCK: ONE MILE DOWN and proudly reads it out loud as though she cracked the riddle of the Sphinx.

The kids gather ’round a hole in the wall and listen to what I guess is the distant sound of babbling Fraggles, but it’s just chipmunk sounds for the third fucking time in the special. ALF loves a recycled sound effect.

Benji looks into the hole and Frank Harty asks what he sees, and we get the funniest line by a landslide when the kid replies, “Nothing. Wait, I do see something! It’s a tunnel!”

So, in other words, you see nothing.

For the first time, this special genuinely had my interest, as I was wondering if we’d get clips of Fraggle Rock. And we…don’t. We instead get clips of Fraggle Rock: The Animated Series, which I didn’t even know existed.

That’s because it sure didn’t exist long. It was on the air for a whole three months before it was canned.

Looking into it, this doesn’t seem like much of a loss. It disappointingly didn’t have any of the original voice cast…and, yes, I know Muppet Babies didn’t, either, but in that case it made some kind of sense, as voices change between childhood and adulthood.

Also, Muppet Babies had some legitimately good voice actors, like Dave Coulier, Howie Mandel, Frank Welker, Russi Taylor, and Barbara Billingsley. Everyone did a good job of capturing the voice and spirit of their characters without directly aping Henson and company, and the show was better for it.

Here, the Fraggles are just the Fraggles, voiced by imposters. I guess that might work for kids who had never actually seen Fraggle Rock, but for those who already liked the original show…what was the point of this? Wouldn’t they just rather watch the actual episodes with the puppets and the talent?

This clip is probably the worst yet, as it’s just the show’s opening titles. Not even the full opening titles. How lazy. At least the previous clips attempted to spotlight some aspect of the show in question. Here it’s just a snippet of the intro. Boy, I can’t wait to tune in and hear the rest of the theme song!

Then we’re back with the kids and Not-Gobo tells them to look for a woman with a glass eye or something. Literally none of these things have been “clues” at all. Just clues where to find the clues where to find the clues where to find the clues where to find the clues.

Shannen Doherty materializes from behind a boiler to reveal that she’s evil; she’s been following the Hartys all along! Not like Kid Cameron who…

…erm…

ALF loves a discontinuity.

Anyway, we get another commercial break. For those keeping score, we’re almost fourteen minutes into the special — about the halfway point — and we’ve seen four clips of cartoons. I haven’t done the math, but I’ll just assume that’s been around twelve seconds of screentime. The rest of it has been taken up by Benji Gregory struggling valiantly not to pick his nose while the cameras are on him.

The commercials this time include a Snickers ad with a woman who pronounces “peanuts” a fuck of a lot like “penis.”

That’s not a joke in the commercial, and I’m not joking by observing this. Go watch, if you don’t believe me. The narrator pronounces “peanuts” just fucking fine, but this woman can’t for the life of her. “The caramel and the chocolate are great, but the penis…!” “The penis…I’m so hungry!”

I’m assuming ALF wrote the commercials as well.

Then we’re back, and Benji miserably helps Betty White get unstuck from her Pyramid Head cosplay.

She talks about how the pyramid thing was supposed to increase her cosmic powers, and Benji’s face makes it very clear that he doesn’t give a shit about what she’s saying.

Betty White is funny, talented, thoroughly charming, and a genuine treasure. So of course “ALF Loves a Mystery” doesn’t give her any jokes or anything to do.

It’s really weird. She was the biggest name in this bloated cast, and probably commanded the largest salary. So of course they just have her stand in a room for a while, then sit in a chair.

She has a crystal ball, which is the glass eye the kids were looking for, and they ask if she can make it work. She can do better than that, kids! She can make you regret asking!

She sees ALF, which means six more weeks of diddled children.

ALF then writes her out of the story, because she called him a “hairy little guy.” What…part of that description did he take issue with, exactly?

Like, if someone called me a spiteful piece of shit, I’d be offended. They’d be right, but, still, I like being offended. However if someone called me a guy with glasses and a Hawaiian shirt…I’d probably just wonder why they were describing me to myself.

Whatever. ALF is pissed, Betty White is wiped from existence without having said or done anything worthy of her presence, and ALF introduces a clip of Gummi Bears himself.

The clip is weird. It contains dialogue (IMAGINE THAT), but no sound effects. If you’ve ever seen Gummi Bears, you remember quite well the sound effect used when they bounce. I mean…that was kind of their whole gimmick, and how they solved every problem. It happened a lot, and it had a pretty memorable sound.

So they bounce here in total silence. They unstop and drink their Juice That Makes You Bounce in total silence. And they crash around and fight evil trolls in total silence.

I mean, it’s possible that these were unfinished clips and the new season wasn’t ready to air yet, but Gummi Bears had been on the air for two full years by this point. Couldn’t they have used a clip from one of those episodes, so it didn’t look so half-assed? Granted, the point of specials like this is to show a preview of programming to come, but nothing distinct happens in this clip anyway. The Gummi Bears drink their shit and bounce at the bad guys. That happened in every episode ever. You might as well show an instance that has its fucking sound effects applied.

After the clip, Grammi Gummi — yes, that is her name — tells the kids to dig through a trunk and find a fucking Smurf or something what does she care. The Hartys figure out the mystery (they are to dig through a trunk and find a fucking Smurf or something) while Benji does nothing.

…which, in turn, means that ALF can’t think of anything for Benji to do, and he probably wonders if there’s a way to rewrite the story so that Benji’s mother was unable to have children.

ALF loves a hysterectomy.

The Smurfs has the decency to give us what seems to be a finished clip, with sound effects and everything. Nothing much happens in it — Wild Smurf pours some kind of potion on Gargamel, which shrinks him — but, whatever. It’s The Smurfs. It’s there, it’s inoffensive, and then it’s over. And it also brings the total amount of screentime cartoons have gotten to something like half a minute. Great!

Also, I don’t know how common this was for Saturday morning previews, but a huge number of these cartoons are returning from previous seasons. I mean…I guess that’s understandable, but doesn’t that make this showcase less exciting? It isn’t “look at all the cool new stuff you’ll get to watch.” It’s “look at how little has changed since you last watched.” ALF loves a complacency.

I don’t have much to say about The Smurfs. I think it’s one of those shows that everyone saw growing up, but nobody really liked. Not that anyone disliked it, but, really, what was the actual appeal of the show? Did anyone care about it? Did anyone have a favorite episode?

I will say that when I was in Germany last year, I got to visit the Haribo factory, and they had gummy Smurfs that were fucking incredibly good. Also, Smurfs were called Schlümpfe which automatically makes them way better. You can get Haribo Smurfs here in America, but they’re a different recipe and texture and are therefore SHIT. Import some German ones, though. They’ll blow your cock off.

Papa Smurf tells the kids to go look in the attic, and that’s fine, but then Betty White and Benji Gregory flirt hardcore about how much they want each other’s bodies, and that’s not fine.

In the next scene, Shannen Doherty wants to fuck Benji so bad she can’t stop touching him, and I’d just like to remind you all that somewhere off screen ALF is writing an explicit story about his nine-year-old friend getting heavily pet and pawed at by adult women.

As if to emphasize how furiously ALF is masturbating behind the keyboard, Jackée from 227 finds a big feather and talks about how she could use it in her striptease act.

In the attic Shannen Doherty stops talking about how much she likes prepubescent dick long enough to talk about how much she likes the Archie characters. We’ve all had Tinder dates like that, huh fellas?! Actually, I’m noticing that Shannen Doherty is getting to interact with the kids directly, which gives her far more presence than Detective Flounder had, and a much meatier role as well. ALF loves a Doherty.

Then Frank Harty finds a magazine or a comic called THE NEW ARCHIE (ALF loves a newarchie), which he reads as THE NEW ARCHIES and nobody does a second take because this is technically still an ALF production.

Also, you have to love Benji being an obscured background detail in his own story.

The clip includes Archie sweeping Jughead into the closet for seven minutes in Heaven.

This preview is a bit weird, because there’s no consistency on what they call the show. The magazine cover said The New Archie, Frank Harty said The New Archies, and the narration in the clip says The New Adventures of the Archie Gang.

A bit of Googling reveals that the show eventually(?) settled on the name of The New Archies after all, so please give my apologies to Danny Ponce. What a stupid title, though; the characters aren’t The Archies. The band they formed was called The Archies. The show title makes it sound like it’s about a new incarnation of the band, but it’s not. It’s the same characters, and as far as I can tell it has nothing to do with the band at all. Either of the other floated titles here would have been miles better.

This is another of the brand-new shows “ALF Loves a Mystery” is promoting. Since you’ve never heard of it and it can’t even decide what it’s called, it will come as no surprise to find out that it was cancelled after a single season.

Man, look at these screengrabs. Maybe it’s just the fact that I necessarily have to contrast them with the bright cartoons, but who the hell picked this color palette? It’s like the special’s wardrobe and set designer sat down and agreed that everything should look like an expired condiment.

Archie tells them to go somewhere else and I already forgot where. These aren’t clues as to where the fortune is hidden! This is a fucking scavenger hunt! ALF YOU FAT FUCK YOU DON’T LOVE A MYSTERY AT ALL

There’s a decent bit of visual competency with the way the next shot is framed. They open the door to whatever room it is they were looking for, and a swinging lamp lights them just barely before it swings away again. It’s not half bad, even if you have to consider the fact that there’s no reason for the lamp to be swinging at all.

Inside the room is that no-name nobody old woman from the credits who’s never done anything as good as Our House. She’s the maid or something, and she tells everyone not rat her out for hiding in here watching a new show.

The kids hear the words “new show” and stampede toward the TV faster than you turned your science book to page 130 when someone told you there’s a picture of boobs on it.

The new show moistening up the old lady is I’m Telling!, which I guess is like The Newlywed Game for children. Siblings have to answer questions about each other, and it looks like it’s fucking terrible. Once again, it’s an actual new show “ALF Loves a Mystery” is spotlighting, and once again it was cancelled after one season. The solution to the mystery of who murdered these shows is ALF.

After the clip, Benji Gregory picks some shit out from under his fingernails

As he goes about his noble work, the actors with lines try to interpret the clue that the I’m Telling! announcer gives them. It involves an owl and a fireplace, so everyone stands around like idiots wondering what it means. I’ll tell you what it means: go to the fucking fireplace and look for an owl.

But I guess it’s all worth it to hear Benji Gregory deliver the line “To the parlor!” with all the enthusiasm of a coworker asking if you have a tissue.

The kids rush in “To the parlor!” and Frank Harty reveals he has a learning disability by rushing immediately to an end table and looking at a telephone. Frank, you moron, there were two words in the clue and you’re investigating neither of them.

Thankfully his sister was born in a hospital rather than in the back of a tomato truck and actually looks at the fireplace, where she sees an owl. Who would have thought? Frank climbs up to retrieve it. Benji Gregory is replaced by a coatrack.

Then Frank starts to fall or something and smacks the owl, which opens a secret passage behind the fireplace. Shannen Doherty says, “Kid, you’re incredible!” to Benji, despite the fact that the only thing he’s done for the entire special is twist a doorknob.

Seriously, if I were Frank Harty I’d be fucking pissed. FAWN OVER ME SHANNEN

The fireplace reveals the shittiest looking treasure imaginable. For fuck’s sake, couldn’t you shine this crap up for the camera?

Then Jackée from 227 comes in and orders Shannen Doherty, the Hartys, and a trenchcoat stuffed with hay into the middle of the room so she can kill them. There’s a decently amusing bit of business when Detective Flounder rushes in and joins the victims, saying, “Did I miss anything?” It’s a cute enough joke.

Jackée from 227 outlines her plans to have the sleuths retrieve the treasure from the vault, after which she’ll seal them into it. Which — and maybe it’s just me — she probably should have done without saying it out loud. Like, I’m sure these dopes would be willing to crawl in and get the gold, but probably not after she makes it clear that she’ll murder them immediately afterward. I guess she’s just spilling all this shit because ALF loves a soliloquy.

Then the lights go out and everyone runs around a bit to kill time.

When the lights turn back on — ALF loves an electricity — the old lady is there, and she reveals herself to be a cop that’s been undercover on this case for two months.

Fine. Whatever. I hate being alive. But — and I really hate to nitpick, because the internal continuity in this special has been rock solid so far — this raises two questions. First, why was she upstairs flicking herself off to I’m Telling! when she knew there were murderers in the house?

And second, two months? For what purpose? What crime was being committed? Yes, yes, I know it’s illegal to lure children into your house to kill them (thanks, Obama), but until this very moment, nothing illegal happened. Jackée from 227 was about to kill people, but why did you need to be scrubbing her toilets and cooking her dinner for sixty fucking days before that happened? What did that help? Just stake out the house and pounce when all the sleuths show up.

And you know what? Fuck it. A third question: why is an undercover cop 98 fucking years old?

Grammi Gumshoe launches into this whole monologue about how Jackée from 227 isn’t who she claims to be (she’s actually Jackée from 229) and relays a story about how the treasure rightfully belongs to Shannen Doherty because it was stolen from her family and hidden here and blah blah my god who cares. ALF, I guess. ALF loves a history.

Benji Gregory throws up his hands and says “All in a day’s work!” which goes about as well as expected. Shannen Doherty leans in to kiss him, so ALF beams him out of the story, because the last thing ALF wants his name on is something with any kind of closure. “ALF Loves a Mystery” should have ended with Benji being hauled off screaming by the government.

Back in reality, Benji looks at the money he collected:

It’s a dumb sight gag, but at least it’s a gag. The camera lingers on it far too long, which leads me to believe the special came in under time. The best kind of padding is a still shot on a static image, I always say.

Of course, this does provide the best ever excuse for Benji Gregory to deploy his trademark bitchface.

Benji complains that he didn’t get any money out of this shit and he also didn’t get to kiss Shannen Doherty. ALF tells him to go fuck himself.

Then we get the final batch of commercials, in which a cartoon cat provides his review of Benji Gregory’s first and last starring role.

In the short scene before the credits, Shannen Doherty shows up for a date with ALF, and the sexy saxophone music plays again. Then ALF rubs Benji’s nose in the fact that ALF’s going to rub his nose in Shannen Doherty. ALF loves a cuckoldry.

If you’re wondering if the actual setup of the special — ALF pitching / writing his memoirs — ever comes back around as any kind of payoff, the answer is: you’re watching an ALF thing. Of course it fuckin’ doesn’t. Neither did any of that shit about Jackée from 227 being able to hear the narrator.

But I guess those sorts of blindspots around the margins are meaningless in the face of the fact that “ALF Loves a Mystery” fails to even provide its titular fuckin’ mystery.

Okay. I’m going to be very basic here, because if I start really discussing the conventions and structure of mystery stories, we’ll be here for another 10,000 words. Suffice it to say, “mystery” — like “romantic comedy,” “adventure,” “coming-of-age tale” and so many other genre descriptors — brings with it a series of expectations.

You don’t have to meet them, but you have to be aware of them. That is to say, you can knowingly subvert them or strategically withhold them, but you need to at least know what they are. Your audience expects something, and you need to know specifically what it is that they expect. From there you have the right, as an artist, to do whatever you damned well please.

For a mystery, we expect a detective figure, a question to be answered, and a series of clues that we in the audience could theoretically make sense of before the story ends.

“ALF Loves a Mystery” has the first thing, but neither of the others. In fact, it has multiple detective figures, which isn’t uncommon at all. Ideally we’d have a central one — Benji here — but often there are others attempting to solve the case for their own reasons. These could be potential victims, who’d like to figure out how to avoid their own murders, or a formalized police force working through the situation more slowly and less competently than our detective. I can’t think of an example in which multiple actual detectives work against each other, but I’m sure they exist and that actually sounds like a pretty nice setup to me. One point to “ALF Loves a Mystery.”

Then we have the question to be answered. There is a question of where the treasure is hidden, but that’s not a mystery. That’s a quest, at best. The mystery could be the significance of the treasure (see The Maltese Falcon), but that’s not it here. It’s just a goal for one detective to reach, so that he or she can get half the money. It might as well be a foot race.

The distinction there carries into the next point: a “mystery” is something that needs to be puzzled out. It’s not entirely a game of speed; a detective may be trying to figure out an answer before something terrible happens, so, sure, he may well be up against the clock, but it’s a mental race as opposed to a physical one. You can involve physical struggles in your mystery (the abundance of shootouts, fist fights, and car chases in detective fiction makes that clear), but a mystery is, by its nature, ultimately cerebral.

The most unnecessary comment about this special is this: “ALF Loves a Mystery” is not cerebral.

That’s due to the fact that the clues aren’t actual clues. The cartoon characters / game show announcers just repeatedly tell The Benji Boys to go to a specific room. Sometimes there’s an object to find (which is always spelled out) and other times there’s not. Which means instead of clues, we just have signposts. By this logic, we’re all Sherlock Holmes every time we follow the instructions on our GPS.

Neither Benji nor the Hartys nor anyone else have to solve anything at any point. They just need to watch short clips and do as they’re told. Nothing is ever puzzled out, and that’s disappointing, because it would have been easy to make this a mystery. Just have the clues be actual clues. Short riddles with answers that guide the detectives toward a solution without outright telling them. Maybe one riddle has the solution “fire.” Another “parlor.” Another “owl.” And so on. The special is structured that way anyway, so it’s a shame that nobody wrote a second draft that actually included a mystery.

Sorry if that was too educational or anything, so I’ll leave you with a more classical ALF Reviews observation:

At the time this aired, Shannen Doherty was sixteen years old. Nice to see ALF’s desire to fuck underage girls carries through his entire extended universe. ALF loves a consistency!

Well, that’s once again enough ALF for a lifetime. But there is one other piece of ALF media I’d like to review at some point. Maybe I’ll do that next year. Or maybe I’ll step blindly into traffic. I’m still not sure which is the better idea.

Thanks, as always, for reading. You guys are great, and I love you all.

MELMAC FACTS: A wild woman with a large glass eye would have won a beauty contest on Melmac. Rhonda was in the Orbit Guard, a-fucking-pparently. ALF’s mother was named Flo, his father was named Bob, his sister was named Augie, his brother was named Curtis, and his pet was named Neep. ALF did not love any of them enough to save them from nuclear holocaust.

—–
* To be honest, it’s possible this was the practice for NBC’s preview specials. Looking back at lists of programming now, I see I gravitated mainly toward ABC and CBS, so I wouldn’t have seen many — if any — of these NBC showcases. I’d be curious to hear from someone who does remember them whether or not actual storylines were the rule.

H-H-H-Hank and Dean, Venture Brothers

June 30th, 2017 | Posted by Philip J Reed in television - (4 Comments)

I love The Venture Bros. You know that. It’s one of my all-time favorite shows, and even if I thought this past season was a bit shit tbh I can’t say that my love or appreciation of it has been diminished at all.

I’d like to say that I realized something when rewatching it lately…but I haven’t been watching it. I’ve just been living my life, going about my business, and a thought occurred. I’ll share that with you in a moment, of course, but here, now, I want to point out that that’s part of what makes The Venture Bros. so incredible to me in the first place. Sure, you can watch it over and over again and find things you missed…but you can also just let it sit. Let it simmer. Let your mind go where it will…and you’ll still find new ways to appreciate it, and new things to consider about it.

Compare that to ALF. I haven’t rewatched that shit either, but I sure as hell don’t catch myself in the middle of the day realizing that “Don’t it Make Your Brown Eyes Blue?” is secretly brilliant.

Okay, so, anyway: late in season one, The Venture Bros. has what might be its first masterpiece: “The Trial of The Monarch.” It harvests seeds that had been passively planted by previous episodes to incredible effect, tearing apart a central relationship and positioning The Monarch — the show’s main villain — as its emotional core. No mean feat, and the episode that accomplishes it is tense, beautiful, hilarious, and unexpectedly heartbreaking.

In short, it’s fantastic stuff, and it’s still one of my favorites.

The titular Venture brothers themselves don’t do much in the episode, but it opens with a fantasy sequence that sees them in costume. Hank is dressed as Indiana Jones, and Dean as Thomas Magnum, from Magnum, P.I. You can see the boys in the screengrab above. And, for reference:

Fine. Everyone knows this. Hank and Dean are dressed as those characters. Few people overlooked that fact; it’s pretty obvious.

But…where did Hank and Dean get those ideas? From the movie and from the TV show, obviously.

…except that in season four’s best episode, “Everybody Comes to Hank’s,” we learn that Hank doesn’t actually know who Indiana Jones is. He wears the iconic hat…which came with a whip that he assumes is a “detective’s whip.”

So Hank wears part of an Indiana Jones costume in that episode, and in doing so he reveals that he doesn’t know Indiana Jones. Odd, as he dressed as the character three seasons prior. Dean may or may not know Thomas Magnum, but that’s academic; Hank doesn’t know his character, and that’s enough to question things in The Venture Bros., where continuity between episodes is important.

Indiana Jones and Magnum, P.I. are a pretty odd pairing. They come from different media and don’t have a clear relation to one another. They come from different worlds and time periods, and they don’t pursue or desire the same things.

They fit Hank and Dean well enough, of course. Indiana Jones is brash and daring, and Magnum is (relatively) focused and methodical. The adventurer and the detective. Hank and Dean.

But Indiana Jones and Magnum, P.I. on their own merits don’t really go together, and it’s not a pairing we’d ever see outside of this fantasy sequence.

Or…would we?

That’s right. The Venture Bros. paired up these two characters in 2004, but Chip ‘n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers did it in 1988.

Rescue Rangers was a very popular show, airing during the enormously successful Disney Afternoon programming block. And while Chip and Dale were already established characters by that point, it was Rescue Rangers that dressed them respectively as Indiana Jones and Magnum, P.I.

And that is interesting.

The same odd pairing of characters happened twice, and it doesn’t strike me as coincidental. Combine this with the fact that Hank doesn’t recognize an Indiana Jones costume when he actually encounters one, and I start to wonder if Hank and Dean in “The Trial of The Monarch” are actually dressed as the Rescue Rangers.

That’s a show they’re likely enough to have seen, and there’s a little more in common as well. Hank, Dean, Chip, and Dale are all four-letter names. It’s always Hank and Dean, as opposed to Dean and Hank…just as it’s always Chip and Dale as opposed to Dale and Chip. Hank and Chip are both Indiana Jones, and Dean and Dale are both Magnum, P.I. Each pair is part of a larger team that goes on new adventures week to week…

I have to wonder if that’s a subtle nod there. The joke being less that they’re dressed as two famous characters and more that they’re dressed as two different famous characters aping source material unfamiliar to the boys.

The Venture Bros. gives us a lot to consider, even in its silliest moments. It’s an impressively layered and incredibly well-written show. And the fact that I can still find new things in a thirteen-year-old episode (holy crap…) is incredible.

Oh, also: I just realized that the episode title “Powerless in the Face of Death” refers not to being unable to revive the boys, but rather to the blackout Dr. Venture accidentally causes. That’s some lovely misdirection I didn’t even notice. There’s still so much to find in this show…

Fight, Megaman! (Mega Man 5, 1992)

June 22nd, 2017 | Posted by Philip J Reed in fight megaman | video games - (1 Comments)

I mentioned in the first installment of this series that when Mega Man was initially released, there were very few games on the NES worth having. It came out early in the console’s lifespan, after all. Developers were still figuring out what to do with the hardware, and what would appeal to the new generation of gamers. Compared to nearly every other game available at the time, Mega Man was a clear standout and a must have.

Mega Man 5 faced the opposite situation. It was released toward the end of the system’s life. While games were still being manufactured for the NES through 1994, the Super Nintendo was released in 1991. It was another hugely successful console, and gamers flocked to that, leaving the NES largely behind by the release of Mega Man 5 in 1992.

We kept our NESes, of course. We still loved them and still played them. But they already felt obsolete. Whatever trickle of new games came out for the system paled in comparison to the waves of incredible new 16-bit releases for its successor.

I listed the must-have NES games prior to Mega Man way back in that article, so I might as well list the must-have ones post-Mega Man 5: Kirby’s Adventure. Maybe, if I’m feeling generous, Star Tropics II.

That’s all. It may sound like I’m being sarcastic, what with the innumerable great games for Nintendo’s original system, but I’m not. Those games — all of those games, whichever ones you’re thinking of — were already in the past. The NES was slowly and quietly dying, serving as the home of unasked-for sequels, licensed cash-ins, and limp puzzle games. It was over, and Mega Man 5 wasn’t exactly the kind of game that was going to win it any attention back.

One reason the first Mega Man stood out upon its release is that it was like nothing else we had seen. It felt — and I’d argue was — revelatory. It was an exciting new promise of a new kind of game. One in which the very sequence of its levels was left up to the player…a challenging, relentless, rewarding adventure that felt completely unlike anything we had experienced up to that point.

I think you know where I’m going to say Mega Man 5 struggled.

By this point, we knew the formula. Many of us grew tired of it, playing a new Mega Man game every year, wading through whatever the next batch of the levels happened to be, feeling disappointed by the latest cache of weapons.

The promise of a new kind of adventure was gradually replaced by a dawning predictability. By hewing so close to the same formula for so many games in such a short period of time, the Mega Man series robbed itself of its most appealing feature: its uniqueness. As a series, Mega Man was still unlike any other. But with so many games crammed into a narrow release window, that didn’t matter. It overcrowded its own market. And it almost didn’t matter how good the individual games were; the formula now felt old-fashioned. Even stodgy. Capcom convinced its own audience to stop caring.

Mega Man 5 was the last of the games I played until Mega Man 9. That’s right…as much as I loved the series, it’s Mega Man 5 that convinced me to jump ship. I figured it would be just fine without me, and I stopped paying attention. When I saw Mega Man X on the Super Nintendo a year or so later, I thought it was Mega Man 10. I wasn’t being wry; I was fully convinced Capcom could have rushed out 6-9 on the NES in the span of around 12 months without me noticing.

But here’s the thing:

I love Mega Man 5.

At least, I do now. At some point, my response to the game…flipped.

When I played it as a kid, it was at a friend’s house. (His name was Eddie, funnily enough.) I don’t think either he or I were really interested in it. I know we didn’t make it far.

We played a few levels. We tried to figure out how to pronounce “napalm.” (Check your peacetime childhood privilege, boys.) We laughed at the fact that one of the new Robot Masters was a train. Were they that desperate for ideas? Were we really going to spend all weekend squaring off against the iron horse?

We were not. We probably had some degree of fun, but it was less than the fun we could find more easily elsewhere…either on Nintendo’s new hardware, or in Mega Man’s own back catalog. Mega Man 5 was the first title in the series that, to me, didn’t feel like it mattered. And so I only played it once back then. And never again, until around five years ago.

When I loved it.

And that’s the reason I know Capcom hamstrung their own series. It’s not that the games were getting progressively worse, or even less inventive. It’s that, in the words of Artie Fufkin, they oversaturated. They split our attention so finely between the series’ own releases that it was impossible to invest in them anymore.

When I played Mega Man 5 back then, I thought it sucked. What I was really feeling was series fatigue. Coming back to it after a break — with a fresh mind, with more patience, with breathing room the series desperately needed — I found a very enjoyable installment. One that was surprisingly full of ideas. One that deserved the very audience it forcibly pushed away.

Revisiting it for this series, I expected to find more fault in it. I expected to realize that my fondness was really just a kind of relief that wouldn’t hold up under scrutiny. I expected to feel a little embarrassed for enjoying it the way I did when I finally took the time to play it again.

If anything, though, it just reinforced my love for it. I’ll say it right now so you can stop reading, secure in the knowledge that I’m mentally ill: Mega Man 5 is one of my favorites in the series.

Like Mega Man 4, Mega Man 5 attempts a story that’s slightly more involved than “the good robot should kill the bad robots.” The previous game’s use of Dr. Cossack was a relatively inspired one, as we didn’t know that character yet and had no idea what his actual motives would be. We’re told he’s a bad guy, so we go out and fight him. When we later learn he’s a good guy it does qualify as a twist…even if the further twist that Dr. Wily was behind it is dead in the water.

Here we get…well, the same story, sadly. Instead of Dr. Cossack, it’s Proto Man. Or, rather, it seems to be. Positioning Proto Man as the antagonist is fairly inspired, as his allegiances were already hazy when he was introduced in Mega Man 3. Having him rebel against Dr. Light only to, say, change sides again mid-game and help Mega Man take on Dr. Wily would have been a nice arc, if also a predictable one. Instead, Proto Man’s conflicted gun-for-hire nature doesn’t factor into things at all; the bad stuff Proto Man allegedly did was actually the work of an imposter, while Proto Man was…I don’t know. In Fiji or something.

Oh, and Dr. Wily was still behind it. Spoilers for anyone who recently hit their heads, I guess.

Pitting Mega Man against Proto Man on a larger scale certainly seems like the kind of thing the series could have been building toward, but the reveal that Proto Man wasn’t involved at all robs the character of any exploration of what makes him tick and robs the game of any interesting thematic resonance. Mega Man fighting his brother is inherently fascinating, whatever the reason, whatever the outcome. Mega Man fighting Dr. Wily for the fifth time is inherently not.

Of course, story is the least important thing about any Mega Man game, so I can’t hold it against Mega Man 5. It’s just that making Proto Man the villain (even if it’s destined to be a temporary role) suits the unpredictability of his character, and it’s frustrating that the game tip-toed right up to that concept without bothering to actually explore it.

On the whole, the stages in the game are quite good. Not difficult, no, and that can be its own kind of problem, but not every Mega Man game needs to be tough as nails. Also, I’ve replayed each game for this review series, and Mega Man 5 is so far the one that’s come closest to making me run out of lives. Granted, that’s entirely down to my sloppiness in the final fortress, but still…

In fact, I’d argue that a steep difficulty would actually work against the kinds of things Mega Man 5 wants to achieve. The levels are more gimmicky than what we’ve played in the previous games. Whereas those were meant to be creative gauntlets that at first challenged and then gradually empowered you as a player, Mega Man 5 creates stages that are more like amusement park attractions. Each of the levels actually feels distinct (as opposed to looks or sounds distinct) in ways that most of the levels in the previous games did not.

A good example of this is Star Man’s stage, which takes place in outer space. It’s essentially no different than any level that’s used water physics in the past (which, surprisingly, are only the Bubble Man and Dive Man stages), but the fact that there is no water makes it feel unique. Mega Man may control identically in the vacuum of space to how he controls at the bottom of the sea, but the starfield, the space-themed enemies, the meteors raining down from above…all of it works in tandem to trick the mind into believing it’s something fresh and new, and that makes it more fun as a result.

Then there’s Wave Man’s stage, which features no traditional enemies throughout its main stretch, serving as more of a brain teaser in which you steer Mega Man around and through various traps. It lends itself to an almost contemplative approach…which is then shattered impressively when you’re forced to mount a wave bike and fight your way through robot dolphins and a gigantic octopus miniboss.

First there are no enemies, and then there are no traps. First you have all the time in the world for careful consideration, and then you have none.

It’s a stage that seems to fracture the Mega Man experience interestingly, putting all of its traps at one end and all of its speed and urgency at the other, when they’re usually combined. It’s almost disorienting, and it makes you appreciate both halves of the level-design balance, giving you a chance to engage with each of them in turn.

The Charge Man stage is also a highlight, with what has to be the best music in the game. (And if you haven’t stopped reading yet, feel free to stop when I say “…and the music in this game is very, very good.”) It plays much like a standard Mega Man level, but the mere fact that it begins with you boarding a train at the station and then has you climbing into, around, and on top of it as it speeds down the rails gives the entire thing a sense of momentum that most stages lack.

Unlike Wave Man’s wave bike section, it doesn’t force you to move fast and carelessly, but it does subconsciously encourage you to. The scenery flashing by in the background implies a kind of momentum to which you’re likely going to match your own actions, unless you’re aware enough of the effect to proceed with caution. It’s a great trick, and one I’d bet most players who perform poorly in the stage don’t even realize is being played on them.

But Gravity Man’s stage is clearly the best, with a truly innovative central mechanic that’s so much fun. It’s more than just a great idea executed well…it’s an absolute delight to play through again and again, and the boss fight — in which the gravity flips constantly and you’re never on the same plane as Gravity Man himself — is a very clever way to see the stage gimmick through to its logical climax.

The sudden shifts in gravity are…well, they’re great, and they make Gravity Man’s stage one of the most memorable in the entire classic series. They also wouldn’t be nearly as fun if the level were more difficult. As it stands, with fairly simple and predictable enemies throughout, players can focus on enjoying themselves, on giving themselves over to the spectacle, on immersing themselves in an experience they can’t get anywhere else. They can have fun. If there were enemies and traps that made progress slow and laborious, it wouldn’t work as well. The gravity switching would be an unwelcome layer of frustration on top of an already challenging experience.

That’s something I think a lot of players miss. They say, “Sure, it was fun, but it was too easy.” What really happened, though, is that Capcom understood something that Super Mario Galaxy would prove it also understood 15 years later: steep challenge interferes with basic thrills. Super Mario Galaxy was an extraordinarily easy game to complete, and yet everybody loves it. Rightly so; it’s a game that deserves to be loved. But I think they loved it because the thrills were accessible. Everybody, no matter what their level of experience with games, could enjoy the basic thrill of sweeping Mario around planets in low gravity; they didn’t find themselves dying a thousand times in a row for failing to be precise in their movements or attacks. Enemies put up a fight, but only enough to keep things interesting, and almost never enough to serve as barriers to enjoyment.

Gravity Man’s stage knows that, too. If players are going to enjoy walking on the ceiling and getting Mega Man to behave with vertically inverted controls, the enemies had to let them enjoy it. Just as easily, Capcom could have made Gravity Man’s stage as difficult as Quick Man’s. But would that have made it more fun? If not, then they made the right choice. And I honestly believe that if Gravity Man’s stage — in its entirety, without alteration — appeared in Mega Man 3, for instance, it would be remembered as one of the highlights of the entire NES generation.

Mega Man 5 is a game about fun. It’s a game that encourages fun. In fact, replaying it this time, so soon after Mega Man 4, I was struck by just how sunny and welcoming the entire experience is. It feels like a product of love, or at least one that wants to be loved. It’s the first Mega Man game, I think, that just wants a hug. And, as a result, I was able to enjoy it even more than most of the other games. It’s not challenging, but it’s sweet. It’s not always memorable, but it’s always charming. It’s not the best game in the series, but it might be the friendliest.

It also introduces a few new ideas to the gameplay, which is nice, even if they’re not anything significant. For starters, there’s Mega Man’s new animal companion, Beat. Like Rush, Beat will show up in future games to help our hero, but unlike Rush, his role is always in flux. Here, for instance, he flies around and pecks at enemies. In Mega Man 7, he doesn’t attack at all, but rather rescues our hero from pits. In Mega Man 8 he adds extra (and optional) firepower during the Rush Jet sections.

Beat’s revolving role is a symptom of the fact that he was introduced to solve a problem the series couldn’t even identify. To put it more flatly, Mega Man 5 introduced him without having any concept of what he’d be good for, and the series has struggled to find a consistent use for him ever since.

With Rush, there was already precedent. The Magnet Beam and Items 1, 2, and 3 all helped Mega Man navigate stages, and there was every indication that future games would require utilities of their own. By introducing a Dynomutt to the Mega Man universe, those utilities would have a recognizable and welcome delivery system.

But Beat here…is just a weapon. Not even a different kind of weapon. He’s essentially a homing projectile, which is nice, but not really striking or important. Beat himself is pretty neat, though. He was allegedly built by Dr. Cossack by way of saying thanks, and his design suggests that Cossack used one of Mega Man’s spare or discarded helmets to build him. That’s a nice detail, and it makes the universe feel that much more cohesive.

Another new gameplay idea comes in the way Mega Man collects Beat: in each of the Robot Master stages, there’s a tile with a letter on it. Together they spell MEGA MAN V, which somehow adds Beat to your inventory. What’s noteworthy about this is that they are the first true collectibles in any Mega Man game.

The Balloon and Wire Adaptor in the previous game don’t quite count, as those are more optional utilities than collectibles, and the letter plates would set a precedent for later games to follow. Bolts are scattered around Mega Man 8 and database CDs are hidden in Mega Man & Bass, for instance.

In all, the letter plates are a nice way to encourage exploration and consideration of how stage elements work. For example, the letter in Gyro Man’s stage requires you to stand still on a platform that you know ahead of time is going to plummet quickly; it’s a decent test of reflexes that works precisely because it asks you to behave counterintuitively. Then there’s the one in Gravity Man’s stage, which requires you to have a working understanding of how Mega Man moves while the gravity flips…as opposed to before or after it happens.

None of these are especially difficult to find — barring the one in Stone Man’s stage, which can’t reasonably be found incidentally — but it’s a first pass at getting players to think about Mega Man stages in a new way, and not just as long corridors between the first screen and the boss room. The plates are interesting for that reason, if for no other.

On the whole, I think the levels are pretty good, and the soundtrack stronger overall than Mega Man 4‘s. Crystal Man and Stone Man are the only ones whose themes aren’t really up to snuff, but the rest — especially Charge Man’s, Napalm Man’s, and Wave Man’s — are among the best tracks you’ll find outside of Mega Man 2 and Mega Man 3.

But, of course, the Robot Master fights themselves are pretty uninteresting. The best fight is clearly Gravity Man’s, but beyond that I’d be hard pressed to tell you anything else very impressive.

I do like the concept of Gyro Man flying into cloud cover for much of his fight, but it’s not as interesting as it sounds, and he doesn’t spend his time out of sight doing anything dangerous. He just plops into view or sends some slow projectiles down. It’s about halfway to being a great boss fight, and it never gets there.

Others, like Wave Man, Star Man, and Crystal Man just hop back and forth shooting at you. Stone Man doesn’t even do that much; he usually just hops back and forth. Napalm Man does have a pattern that’s fun to exploit once you understand it. He’s nowhere near as fun to fight as Ring Man, but he makes for a satisfying enough duel in a similar way.

Charge Man at least has a pattern we haven’t seen before, which sees him closing in on Mega Man almost constantly, prioritizing contact damage to take our hero down. That is a nice and unexpected gameplay wrinkle, and it makes sense. All throughout Mega Man history (and nearly all throughout video game history), touching an enemy damages you, and not the enemy. Why, then, do so many enemies keep their distance? Why are none of them interested in simply colliding you to death?

Charge Man is very interested, and it makes for a standout fight with a lot of nice tension. The fact that he’s weak to the game’s crappiest weapon (oh, worthless Power Stone…) means you can’t actually just force your way mindlessly through the fight and miss it; you have to experience Charge Man in all of his frantic, close-quarters glory.

Charge Man is the exception that proves the rule, though, and once you take him out you realize just how incapable the other boss fights are of measuring up to his.

Then there’s the related matter of the Robot Master weapons, which may be the worst batch yet. But here’s the thing: they’re not inherently bad. That is to say, they aren’t bad or dull ideas. (We’ll see plenty of those next time.) They do fall down in the execution, though…mainly because the game doesn’t give them much of a use.

The best weapon is easily the Gyro Attack. It’s a fairly powerful projectile that you can turn 90 degrees once after firing. It’s great for hitting enemies straight ahead, or higher or lower than you’d normally be able to snipe them. Its decent firepower makes it even more worth using, as it’s rare you’ll need more than a few shots to take down any non-boss enemy. It’s a worthy addition to Mega Man’s arsenal. But it’s just about the only one.

The Star Crash is a decent shield weapon, but the problem with that weapon type is that they’re almost always unremarkable. They’re passive, and not exciting to use…barring perhaps one exception in a later game. Here it has a basic and predictable use in absorbing the falling shards in Crystal Man’s stage, but otherwise Mega Man 5 doesn’t have much call for a shield.

This is mainly because it’s more generous than any other game in the series with its health drops. 1-ups and health are handed out like candy, so while a shield could conceivably help you avoid some projectiles or take out small enemies here and there, it’s almost never worth the effort of switching to it. When Mega Man is constantly at or near full health, a shield becomes unnecessary.

Then there’s the Gravity Hold, which is a nice screen-clearance weapon, but, again, nothing particularly exciting. And, once again, Mega Man 5 doesn’t offer much call to use it; the number of crowded screens (therefore ones that could conceivably need clearing) can be counted on one hand.

The Power Stone is…indescribable. It produces three stones that orbit Mega Man and quickly spiral offscreen. Aside from a few times you can hang on a ladder and use it to hit enemies directly above or below, it’s fairly worthless. The stones are also spaced out enough that it’s very difficult to hit a target…even a large one, such as Charge Man. This one is flawed in both concept and execution, making it somewhat unique in this batch, but, once more, Mega Man 5 simply doesn’t create situations that are conducive to using it. You’ll experiment with it, see what it does, and never have a need to load it up again.

If it were powerful (thereby earning its name) the difficulty of actually hitting things with it might make sense; you’d trade off a tricky arc for a great deal of damage. Instead, though, it’s ridiculously weak, making me wonder if the developers were just trying to win a bet that they couldn’t design a weapon with absolutely no redeeming characteristics.

Then we get the four most interesting — and therefore frustrating — weapons in the game. These are the ones that should have been fun to use, and indeed seem tailored to specific situational usefulness…but those are situations Mega Man 5 never bothered to include. The Napalm Bomb drops right to the floor and bounces toward small targets that are almost never there. The Water Wave is a sudden wall of water that seems like it will sweep away enemies and create a handy barricade, but in practice it does neither, and Mega Man’s charged Buster can hit low-to-the-ground enemies anyway.

The Crystal Eye is a large projectile that splits when it hits a wall and ricochets around…but I can’t think of any stages or rooms that are built in any way to take advantage of this. In practice you end up with a bunch of smaller Crystal Eyes bouncing around, possibly colliding with enemies and just as likely not, meaning it’s unquestionably easier to use the default Buster. At least you know where those shots will go. Even the fortress boss that’s weak against the Crystal Eye doesn’t encourage or even allow you to use the weapon’s main functionality; the fight takes place in a room without walls, meaning you can only treat the weapon as a differently shaped Buster shot.

The Charge Kick is a very smart idea — turning Mega Man’s slide into its own weapon — but since it deactivates the Mega Buster it’s often detrimental to equip, and there are very, very few situations in which sauntering up to an enemy and sliding through them is preferable to taking them out easier, more safely, and more quickly from afar.

In truth, it feels as though the special weapons and the stages themselves were designed by two completely different teams. They were each produced under a different kind of design philosophy, and they don’t actually function together at all. Any rare instance in which these weapons do you any good is purely coincidental.

But then there’s an exception: the Super Arrow, which you get along with the Star Crash from Star Man.

The Super Arrow is a lot of fun, and we all know by now how much I like weapons that have multiple purposes. In fact, the Super Arrow is something like an unofficial utility; Mega Man can launch it at enemies, sure, but he can also ride it across a room, and use it to climb walls. It’s one of the rare instances of an item in Mega Man 5 that’s fun to play with. You know. Like some kind of…game.

It’s a shame about the weapons, because in a game that was actually built to showcase them, I think they could have some interesting uses. They seem to be tailored to targets that are at awkward or unexpected angles to the player, so why don’t enemies attack that way very often? Why is it so easy to hit everything with a straight, weak shot? With a weapon that bounces around the screen, why don’t we have even one enemy it’s worth trying to hit from behind?

Even Beat isn’t much fun to experiment with, as you don’t get him until you’ve found all eight letters…meaning you’ve explored just about everything apart from the fortresses. And don’t even get me started on what they did to poor Rush Coil…which is now some kind of…springy pogo-platform? It’s awful, and its absurd visual design just makes it look like Dr. Light drunkenly assembled the robot with the coil on the wrong side.

Oh well. At least it’s still fun to play with Rush. (Enjoy that while you can…)

I know the game is rough. I’m fully aware of it. I’ve probably made more negative comments above than I’ve made positive ones. And they were all deserved. So were the positive ones, I’d argue, but you get my point.

I know Mega Man 5 has a lousy reputation, and I remember being turned off by it firsthand as a kid. I remember playing it and saying, conclusively, “That’s enough Mega Man.” Even Capcom seems uninterested in giving it a second look; when they released the excellent Mega Man Legacy Collection last year, which collects all six of the NES games, they included Robot Masters from each included title on the cover image…except from Mega Man 5, which goes totally unrepresented.

But I love it.

I love its stage gimmicks. I love its Robot Masters, however weak and wimpy they are. I love the promise of its weapons, even if that promise is never achieved. I love navigating platforms with the Super Arrow, simply because it’s more fun than screwing around with the shitty new Rush Coil. I love the music, in particular one of the best ending themes the series has ever had. I love the idea of Proto Man pushing back against the good guys, even if that didn’t actually happen or lead anywhere.

I love Mega Man 5 in spite of its flaws, because so many of those flaws are interesting. They suggest a much better game than what we actually got, I know. But the charm is there. The love is there. The fun is there.

Mega Man 4 is the better game. I’d never claim otherwise. It’s technically superior in every way, barring, perhaps, the soundtrack. But I actually like Mega Man 5 more.

What matters when we play video games is not which ones are “better” than others, in any number of possible regards. What matters is how we feel when we play them. The journeys we take within. The ways in which we respond to the things they do, even if what they do is deeply flawed. What games do right and wrong factor into it of course, but those considerations more steer our opinions than drive them.

Our opinions are born of the fun we have, the excitement we feel, the memories we cherish. Games, after all, are an art, not a science.

Put the same ingredients into the blender 10 times, and you won’t end up with 10 equally appealing results. The Mega Man series is a perfect illustration of that fact.

Last time I offered Mega Man 4 up for critical reappraisal. I wouldn’t do the same for Mega Man 5. It wouldn’t benefit from it. I know that. But I’d still encourage readers out there to give it another shot, on its own merits. You won’t find a critical darling there, but you may find a personal one.

Mega Man 5 is a rickety favorite. One I discounted because of how much it seemed to get wrong…only to return to as an adult, willing to engage with how much it got right. I love it in its imperfections. And isn’t that what love is? Love isn’t a tacit acknowledgment of everything that something gets right…it’s pushing through the hard times, working through them together, holding fast to what is good.

It’s not the best Mega Man game. Nobody on the planet would say it is.

But engage with it…give it time…look past a few admittedly large issues…and you’ll see one of the most playful, warm, adorably optimistic games in the series.

There’s a diamond in there. You just have to be willing to dig for it.

Best Robot Master: Napalm Man
Best Stage: Gravity Man
Best Weapon: Gyro Attack
Best Theme: Charge Man
Overall Ranking: 2 > 5 > 4 > 3 > 1

(All screenshots courtesy of the excellent Mega Man Network.)

It’s easier at the end of a serialized season to reflect on that batch of episodes as a whole than to reflect only on that chapter.

That’s because we’ve reached the end, at least temporarily, and as threads are tied up and pieces shuffled into place for the eventual season four, what we’re really left with is perspective. We talked a bit last week about how an ending can define a journey. And, frankly, I think last week’s episode was more than enough proof of that fact.

So leave it to “Lantern” to illustrate it even better.

More than ever before: spoiler warning.

“Lantern” ends with Chuck burning himself alive in his living room. Of course, if you don’t see a body, the best you can do is assume. But, two points about that. First, neither Breaking Bad nor Better Call Saul have been in the habit of false deaths or surprise resurrections. If you’re led to believe something, it’s nearly always because it actually happened. You may well be missing some necessary context, but the end result doesn’t change. And second, we’re clearly led to believe that this final.

There are ways out of this. Maybe Jimmy is parked across the street, sees the fire, and rushes in to save his brother. Maybe Chuck has second thoughts and crawls out onto the lawn. Maybe Walter White falls through a time portal and resets the universe. So, yes, no matter what, season four can do whatever it wants to do. There’d even be a minor precedent for it: in the first episode of season two, Jimmy walked back the decision he made at the end of season one.

But I don’t get the feeling that’s what the show will do here. At least, I hope it doesn’t. Better Call Saul is very much a show about consequences. About dealing with fallout, both expected and unexpected. About doors closing on you and finding fewer and fewer of them left open with each passing day. Undoing this would help very little, and wouldn’t really seem to be within the intentions of the show. Especially since “Lantern” brings so many other decisions to a head, and forces the characters to face their consequences.

Before we get to that, though, let’s talk about Chuck. The ending of “Lantern” positions him as the emotional centerpiece of season three. We opened with him having one kind of breakdown, and close with him having another, very different one. He started off (in flashback) feigning new depths of his illness, and ended experiencing them for real. The notable difference between the two is that when he was only playing, he was simply a confused and batty old man. Here he’s unhinged and, ultimately, suicidal.

To go from one to the other requires a journey. The slip from being so in control of a situation that you can fake your symptoms to being so helpless that you’re at the mercy of them is significant, and season three as a whole describes that transition.

Chuck rose and fell and then rose and fell again throughout the course of these ten episodes. He got the upper hand over his brother with a surreptitious recording, and was then exposed and humiliated in a courtroom. That experience placed him on a genuine road to recovery that saw him make significant progress and start to get his life back together, just for it all to come crashing down. Likely for good.

He played his hand tonight against Howard, and lost. “You won,” Howard says, and I know he believes it. After all, nine million dollars of Howard’s own money and loans in his name were promised to Chuck just to get him to shut up. But for Chuck, it was his last way back in the door at HHM, and it closed instead. Howard would rather be millions of dollars in debt than work with Chuck for another day. That stings.

And it makes his eventual breakdown that much more believable. In that meeting with HHM’s key stakeholders, Chuck was acting and speaking as though he were in control. The reality was very different. When it hit him, he was left literally speechless. His former colleagues gathered to applaud him…but he left the building alone. It was over.

For Chuck to die here…it would make a perfect kind of sense for the character. To Chuck, power was important. He was an intelligent man. A gifted lawyer. A savvy judge of character. He had knowledge and abilities that nobody else had. He stood out in his field. He was respected. He built a massive, successful firm from the ground up, and he did it through hard work and tenacity.

But doors close on you. We watched it happen.

Chuck’s death would also make a perfect kind of sense for Jimmy’s character. His older brother told him, point blank, “The truth is, you’ve never mattered all that much to me.” For that to be the last thing he ever hears from his brother…well, that would obviously be meaningful. And would be a completely understandable shove forward on the road to becoming Saul Goodman.

Chuck’s snipe also punctuates a lecture to Jimmy — the latest and possibly last — about how Jimmy is doomed to hurt those around him. Why regret anything? The cycle begins anew. People get hurt. Jimmy feels bad, sure, but if people get hurt again…what does that say about Jimmy?

I think I know what it says about Jimmy, and it’s not what Chuck thinks it says. You each have your own feelings as well. But the fact is that this is coming from somebody Jimmy admires, cares about, and loves. For him to hear that Chuck believes others would be better off staying far away from him…that’s painful. That’s cruel. And that’s bound to lead to some soul searching. Where, ultimately, he’s going to decide that his soul isn’t worth much at all.

To Jimmy’s immense credit, he does his best to undo much of the damage he caused. He’s correct that he can’t put the genie back in the bottle, but if he can get some old ladies to be friends again — even at the cost of his reputation — he’ll do it. It’s similar to what he did for Chuck in “Klick” last season; he confesses to his own wrongdoing just to help somebody else feel better. He’ll set himself back to pull somebody else forward. That’s Jimmy…not Saul.

But at some point, he stops doing that. At some point he starts putting himself above others. At some point he doesn’t have the twinge of conscience that makes him do the right thing.

Doors close on you.

I will add that I really liked seeing Erin playing along to help things work out…even if she wasn’t “playing” all that much. She’s a great character and one I was glad to see again. Hopefully it won’t be the last time we see her…or Francesca. We know that the latter plays a big part in Saul’s life, but for now, she’s let go. Just because she hitched her wagon to a dual practice that wasn’t fated to last. Another great character kicking around the universe, looking for a path forward.

Elsewhere Nacho deals with the consequences of his own actions…which endanger his father almost immediately. I mentioned before that Nacho is the one true wildcard in that section of the story. We know exactly what becomes of Hector, Tuco, Gus, Victor, et al. But Nacho’s fate is unknown, which means he’s the one character that can unexpectedly die. I still don’t think we care about him anywhere near as much as we cared about Jesse Pinkman, for instance, or Hank, or even Gayle, but if Better Call Saul chooses to develop the character further, we could be in for some real heartache in the future.

Oh, hey, I might as well bring this up since I see people talking about it elsewhere: Yes, Saul mentions Ignacio when he meets Walt and Jesse in Breaking Bad, and we’ve been told that he’s referring to Nacho. Some folks have taken that to mean that Nacho is alive at that point in time…but that isn’t true at all. All it means is that Saul doesn’t have knowledge of his death. He could be lying in a shallow desert grave at that point. The only thing it proves is that the lawyer believes he’s still alive.

Okay, sorry, just wanted to clear that up. Nacho’s fate is very much in flux, and possibly in jeopardy. His gambit with the pills pays off this week, and he even gets the opportunity to cover his tracks as everyone else scatters, but Gus gives the boy a knowing glance. This is either good news or bad news for Nacho. Gus does a fantastic job of keeping that uncertain.

Then there’s Kim…who takes some well deserved time off. I don’t have much to say about her at this point, except that I’m very curious to see where the character goes next.

None of our major figures are in the same place now as they were when season two began. Howard is in debt without a partner, Francesca’s been let go, Kim is on indefinite leave, Jimmy’s no longer practicing, Chuck’s on fire…

Season three began with such promise for everyone. Season four will begin with so little left clearly ahead for any of them.

Doors close on you.

Notably absent in the finale was Mike. Which was an odd choice. I’m sure it wouldn’t have fit so I’m not complaining, but ideally I would have put his short scene with Lydia in this episode instead, just to give him an ending as well.

Instead it just feels odd not to check in with our deuteragonist. Then again, Mike’s been pretty…underutilized this season. Both seasons one and two had a lot for him to do, but here he spent several episodes just following a trail. Sure, it led him to Gus…but aside from that, did Mike really have a story? Or did he just jog around the map for a bit?

I expect season four to rectify this. Now he’s on the payroll, and he can get up to all manner of shenanigans with those wacky chicken slingers. But season three seemed like an awful lot of effort to move him incrementally forward.

I still think Better Call Saul is at its best when it’s not setting a place at the table for Breaking Bad. We’ve seen that show. We know that show. We can watch that show any time.

I want Better Call Saul to be about Jimmy. About who he is. About how he changes. About what matters to him and why he’s doomed to lose it.

So far, Gus, Hector, Tuco, and even Mike don’t factor into that much, if at all. It’s a separate story competing for airtime, shouldering Better Call Saul out of the way to make room for characters that won’t matter to this series as much as they mattered to one that’s already off the air.

That’s my wish as season three ends. Better Call Saul is so good that I want to spend more time with it, and I want to know that the time I am spending — all of it — serves this show and not its smarter, more popular, more admired older brother. Gus and Hector and all the rest of those crazy kids can pop up all they like…but they need to be a part of Jimmy’s story. They can’t be an irregular distraction from it.

For now, though…that’s it. The door has closed on season three, and I appreciate you taking the time to watch along with me. I know these reviews don’t get as many comments, but a lot of people seem to read them. I can only hope you’re enjoying them as much as I am.

Oh, and if you’re curious what song was playing when Jimmy went to visit Chuck, here you go. It’s one of my favorites, and one of the saddest compositions I’ve ever heard. It was used to incredible effect here. The perfect soundtrack to the last time Jimmy would ever see his brother alive. Or, as Thomas Pynchon put it in Gravity’s Rainbow, “Certainly not the first time a man has passed his brother by, at the edge of the evening, often forever, without knowing it.”

See you in a year for season four.

There are a number of television episodes that are made — nearly or entirely — by their endings. “Abyssinia, Henry” from M*A*S*H. “Time Keeps on Slippin'” from Futurama. “The Best Christmas Ever” from Moral Orel. Hell, even ALF‘s “Alone Again, Naturally.” Or, to be more relevant to the matter at hand, “Dead Freight” from Breaking Bad.

I’m not arguing that these are bad episodes if viewed in isolation from their endings. I am arguing, however, that they are enhanced, enriched, and defined by those endings. Take away the final punch and you’ll probably still have something good, but you’ll also have something extremely different.

Those endings provide the context. They’re filters we don’t get until just before the credits roll, but through which we’re meant to view the entire episode. They’re reveals that provide the tools for understanding what it is we just watched. And, in each of the above cases, we don’t even realize we need those tools along the way. We believe we’re watching one thing. It’s rolling along. We’re enjoying the ride. We have a solid idea of where we’re going.

And then…

Crash.

The journey is the story, but the destination defines the journey. Where we end up — or fail to end up — redefines the steps we took along the way.

So Lt. Col. Henry Blake never makes it home. Fry’s grand gesture goes unseen. Orel’s prayer goes unanswered. ALF catches a fleeting glimpse that may have actually just been wishful thinking. An innocent child is murdered to protect a group of criminals.

And Kim drives off the road.

I love Rhea Seehorn. I believe strongly that Kim Wexler is one of the best things on television right now. She’s a rich, believable, important character that regularly pushes Better Call Saul over the line into greatness.

But I’ve wondered about the character before, both within and without these reviews. I’ve wondered if she isn’t too good. If Better Call Saul needed a love interest for Jimmy to work his way through fairly quickly, but who turned out to be too good to let go.

So the question for me — as much time as we spend with her, as well-spent as that time is — was always how long we had left with her. She departs before Breaking Bad begins, and that’s a deadline that seems to approach more rapidly with every episode. What’s more, though: we know* that Jimmy and/or Saul gets married and divorced several times before meeting Walter White, and so, presumably, we’ll also need time to work through those relationships post-Kim.

Kim’s time is necessarily abbreviated, and then abbreviated again. Eventually she and Jimmy will split up for good. Does she leave him for a better opportunity? Does his increasingly seedy behavior drive her away? Is she collateral damage in the fallout of some criminal activity Jimmy or Mike gets up to?

“Fall” doesn’t definitively provide an answer, but it provides another possibility: she becomes a danger to herself.

That’s something I never guessed. Kim’s so collected. So capable. So…great. Surely her destruction would have to come from an external force.

But “Fall” ends by suggesting that it may not.

The funny thing is that it could have, if that were the lesson “Fall” wanted us to pull from it. All the show would have had to do is have her take a shot with Jimmy before rushing off. Have her dawdle for another five minutes and drive 60 instead of 55. Have her explain the situation to her oblivious partner rather than rush out.

Any of those simple, natural responses would have passively reinforced Jimmy as the destructive presence in her life.

But none of that happens. She takes command. She leaves.

She crashes.

And the camera pulls out so that we can survey the damage right along with her.

Of course, it’s worth rewinding. The reason Kim took an additional client at all is due to the fact that Jimmy wasn’t financially pulling his weight. She knew she’d need to make up the difference, so she broke her vow of exclusivity with Mesa Verde to work on an oil rights dispute. That does, in fact, shift the indirect blame back onto Jimmy.

Right?

Well…as much as I can’t fault Kim for planning ahead, the fact is that Jimmy has been pulling his weight. Not in the best or most ethical or most reliable ways, but he’s been paying up on schedule…and springing for dinner. What’s more, he was even celebrating by episode’s end the fact that money would no longer be a concern for him. He’d covered his debt to her.

Thinking through the problem and being responsible, is what led to her downfall. Had she taken a mindset similar to Jimmy’s (a vague “That is tomorrow-talk,” as he claimed in “Off Brand”), she’d be fine right now. She wouldn’t have taken another client. She wouldn’t have had to pull extra all-nighters. She wouldn’t have nodded off behind the wheel.

Instead, she rightly identified that Jimmy was unreliable and took steps to fix the problem on her end.

That was the smartest possible thing to do in her situation. And that was her problem.

As much as we love Jimmy and Kim together, I think we all wanted to count on the fact that he’d be the damaging influence in her life. I don’t think any of us wanted to see her as her own problem. I don’t think anyone wanted to have to look a second time at her admirable qualities and see them as flaws. I don’t think anyone wanted Kim to be…human.

We want to believe that our troubles aren’t our own. That we could be so much more than we are, so much happier, so much healthier, so much richer, so much more popular if it weren’t for…something. Something beyond our control. Our looks. Our place of birth. Our parents. Our dead-end career. That dumbass we wasted too many years with. If it weren’t for…something, we’d be okay.

And part of growing up — truly growing up — is realizing that, with very few exceptions, it’s not something. It’s us. It’s our habits and patterns and thought processes. It’s our hangups and fears and anxieties. It’s who we are that holds us back. It’s the monster in the mirror.

Poor Kim faces the monster at the end of “Fall.” And this, I feel, positions her for the most important emotional arc of the season. I could be wrong, of course, but the rest of “Fall” doesn’t feel like it’s moving its characters toward their final positions before being placed back in the box.

Chuck and Howard clash. Mike makes things official with Gus. Hector takes his pills. Nacho tries to protect — if not exactly save — his father. Jimmy does right by his old Sandpiper clients in an unexpectedly callous way.

It’s not as though things are stagnant. The pieces are moving. They’re interacting. They’re making progress.

But throughout the episode I had to keep reminding myself that there was only one more left this season, because nothing felt like it was approaching any kind of terminal point.

And then Kim crashed.

“Fall” deposited her in a situation that leaves her with no more room for blindness. Unless, of course, she chooses wilful blindness.

Kim Wexler is positioned for a change. Nothing felt as though it was headed for the finish line but, suddenly, immediately, in the blink of an eye, that’s exactly where she ended up.

The destination defined the journey.

—–
* It’s possible that he lied to Walt about this for…some reason, but so far “eh, he lied” has never been this show’s answer to any bit of backstory, and I don’t believe they’d start pulling that crap with something so significant.

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