Better Call Saul Reviews: “Switch” (season 2, episode 1)

Better Call Saul is back, and, with it, an ongoing question of — and struggle for — identity. It’s something that we all experience on some level. For our ethically grey protagonist, it’s an eternal, Sisyphean nightmare.

Saul Goodman was somebody. We remember him well from Breaking Bad, and the clear draw of Better Call Saul is the chance to learn his backstory. But very quickly this newer show become about something deeper, if not necessarily larger. It wasn’t a simple question of when a switch gets thrown to turn James M. McGill into Saul Goodman. In fact, as “Switch” and “Uno” both make clear, “Saul Goodman” isn’t even this character’s terminal point.

After Saul, he becomes somebody else. Before James M. McGill, he was Slippin’ Jimmy. Somebody becomes somebody becomes somebody becomes somebody.

We may never learn much more about his future than we see in these black and white flash-forwards, but they’re enough to help us contextualize what we’re watching; Better Call Saul isn’t one man’s journey from point A to point B. It’s one man’s journey from point E to F, with some glimpses of G and some suggestions of D and the possibility of much more to explore in both directions…to say nothing of the possible alternate paths that Jimmy closes off one by one.

Better Call Saul is about a man discovering who he is…over, and over, and over again. And we are reminded at the top of this hour that — though we know he’ll find it — his journey doesn’t stop there. For at least the third time in his life he will have to shed everything he’s become, and forge a new identity. It’s sad enough to know that Jimmy will become Saul. It’s sadder still to know he’ll then become an anonymous Cinnabon manager waiting quietly by a dumpster for someone to let him back in the building.

It’s a story whose tragedy is all the more effective because we feel it looming. Yes, there’s something at stake when Jimmy turns down an offer from Davis & Main, just as there’s something thrilling about seeing him with Kim, laughing like teenagers over the bathroom sink. But it means more because we already know where he ends up.

Every gain is meaningful, every moment of small triumph or fleeting happiness important, because we know it’s only a matter of time before gravity asserts itself, and he falls. Likewise, even the smallest tragedies — Kim not answering his calls, for instance — feel ominous.

I have to admit, I’m curious how long the show will keep us in McGill territory. It was a bit worrying to me that the first and last episodes of season one both went out of their way to give us very Saul-like promises, as though viewers would lose interest in his story otherwise, but Better Call Saul seems, on the whole, prepared to take its time. It’ll throw the switch now, just to see what happens, and throw it back again a moment later. Just…you know. For curiosity’s sake. The switch is there. Why not throw it?

It’s still too early to say much about the direction season two is likely to take, but we have a few indications of where things might go. The Jimmy and Kim relationship is the most promising aspect to explore, as there’s such a natural chemistry between them that it’s impossible not to become invested. And for now, at least, they keep each other balanced. She keeps him from flying too high, and he shows her how to have a little harmless fun.

Of course, we know that eventually she won’t be there to reign him in, and that his fun will get significantly less harmless, but that’s what makes it count now.

Their time is limited.

At some point, relatively soon, something terrible is going to happen to them.

And so a little bit of jokey flirtation in the bathroom or a stolen kiss by the swimming pool means that much more. Every moment of happiness is a subtraction from their total. They’re approaching zero. Each one matters.

The next is the unready drug dealer we met back in season one’s great “Pimento,” who fires Mike and strikes off on his own. I honestly doubted we’d see that character again, and the very fact that we did meant nothing good could be in store for him. Firing Mike just brought eventual tragedy nearer to us all, and the fact that his story was left open at the end of “Switch” means we may well have our “important” client for season two lined up.

Then, of course, there’s Jimmy’s new employer. With Ed Begley, Jr. playing his new boss I think it’s safe to say that development will stick around for a while, and, really, it could go in any number of directions. Jimmy’s had both flashes of competency and seductive moments of willful weakness. He’s passed up big paydays in the past for the sake of doing the right thing, but he promises Mike that he’ll never do that again…and reminds Kim that doing the right thing has gotten him nowhere. He could either climb the professional ladder a bit to make his fall that much more devastating, or hasten his descent into Goodmanism. There’s no chance of a positive outcome, but there’s a heck of a lot of potential.

The best thing about Better Call Saul is simply the time we spend with the characters. We have our funny moments, our sad moments, our touching moments, our painful moments, our exciting moments, but the real joy is watching Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, and Rhea Seehorn do their things.

We don’t need massive, weekly plot developments. We don’t need setpieces and reminders of Breaking Bad. We don’t need anything except time to enjoy the company of these impressive creations.

Yes, it’s fun to watch Jimmy bullshit a bullshitter (Ken, who was also one of Walter White’s earliest victims), but it’s just as fun to watch him gently paddle closer to the Ziplocked phone floating beside him. Yes, it’s fun to watch Jimmy lap cucumber water from a spigot, but it’s just as fun to watch him succumb immediately to the temptation of a mysterious light switch.

There’s mileage in these characters, as they are right now, and that’s why I would be perfectly happy to make it to season 9 of Better Call Saul before people stop referring to him as Jimmy McGill.

We’ve seen Saul. We’ve spent time with Saul. We know and understand and love Saul. Saul has a place to exist.

This is Jimmy’s chance to shine, in so many ways. It’s thrilling when he does. And it’s effective and terrifying when he considers the darkness.

I’d like to stay here as long as possible. Maybe Jimmy would, too. But Kim asks him if he has somewhere to go…and we already know he does.

The Venture Bros. Review: “Faking Miracles” (season 6, episode 3)

The Venture Bros., "Faking Miracles"

I wonder if this season will play much better as one long story than it will as a series of episodes. So far, it’s difficult to judge them on their own, individual merits, and that’s both worrying and thrilling. It’s worrying because we have three episodes so far that don’t tell a complete story in their runtime. But it’s thrilling because, if the plates are kept spinning, we could end up with something incredible.

It’s too soon to tell, but unlike “Hostile Makeover” these unresolved plot-threads hold some very clear potential. I’m a bit disappointed that the closest thing we had to payoff was Dean painfully urinating some nanobots down the toilet, but this week’s chapter in the elaborate setup of season six is…well, pretty promising.

The title refers to Dr. Venture’s digging through his brother’s old, abandoned projects with Billy and Pete, but we’ll get to that shortly, because the more interesting story thread, for my money, is the (proper) introduction of Sirena Ong. We met her briefly in “Hostile Makeover” — with a strong implication that she was related to Wide Wale — but didn’t learn anything for sure except that she had gills.

Now we get a better sense of who she is: a stubborn, spoiled young girl who — like Hank and Dean before her — is stuck in a life that she doesn’t especially want. Her station is defined by her father’s station, in true, tragicomic Venture Bros. tradition. And when she finally gets to interact with an outsider, she falls more for what Hank represents — escape, freedom, rebellion — than who Hank really is.

Their brief exchange on the veranda (ending with one of the few times Hank’s managed to pull off something genuinely cool, even if he’d already mindlessly gloated about running away from stupider henchmen than her father’s) was probably the highlight of the entire episode. And, in keeping with Sirena’s perspective, it wasn’t because of what it was, but rather because of what it represents.

Hank’s romantic dabblings have given us two of the show’s all-time best episodes: “Assassinanny 911” and “Everybody Comes to Hank’s.” I’d have a difficult time articulating why those two episodes managed to be so emotionally disarming, even though Dean’s dabblings (mainly with Triana) were unquestionably more relateable and true-to-life, but seeing another such story get queued up like this is very exciting to me. The show has worked wonders with the premise before, and I have total confidence that it can do so again.

In fact, Sirena’s introduction provides Wide Wale with a clearer identity as well. Previously I wasn’t sure why Wide Wale existed. I didn’t know his joke — aside from being some degree of sea creature — and I especially didn’t know why he seemed to be taking over Monstroso’s role in the show, as we already had a hulking, powerful businessman in the rogue’s gallery.

Last week RaikoLives pointed out the obvious, and then he pointed out the second-most-obvious: “Obviously I keep wanting to say ‘and he’s dead’ but that’s never stopped anyone in this show before.” Which was basically my thought process, too. If Doc and Jackson need a character back, they can bring a character back. In this case they didn’t…and I honestly wasn’t sure why. Especially since his replacement was so similar.

Sirena helps make it clear that Wide Wale is more of a Godfather figure. Which, yes, that’s certainly been alluded to already, but her birthday party — which is clearly just a party for her father’s organization and powerful friends, while she sulks in her room and is repeatedly forbidden to have any fun — cements that as the direction the show is taking with him. Monstroso was a businessman, and so is Wide Wale. But though they’re both villainous, one’s business is a little more legitimate than the other’s.

Interestingly, the show really seems to be leaning into the Italian jokes lately. Wide Wale is a Mafia don, Serena is a spoiled princess, Hank works at a pizzeria, Scaramantula returned for the opening scene (along with some shots at the Italian automobile industry), we had that whole scene with The Ambassador a couple of episodes ago…I’m not complaining, but I find it an intriguing coincidence. I wonder why so much Italian humor is clumping together, especially when it’s generated from a pretty wide range of characters and contexts.

I do also kind of love the fact that Hank has a menial job. The squandering of the fortune a few weeks ago seems now like it just happened so we could get some jokes along those lines. Yes, wasting money he didn’t earn was a very Dr. Venture thing to do, but last week and this week we see members of the family bringing money in as well, and that bodes ever so slightly better for their future.

Whew. So, what else? Dean got some nanobots shoved up his creepy dog dork, which was…fine, I guess. I got excited when Billy dropped the test tube because it’s been a while since “strange Venture technology” played much of a part in an episode, but I don’t know that it went anywhere. I’d assume we’d see more such nano-shenanigans in a later episode if they weren’t flushed away at the end, so I guess we got a weird scene with him and Brock and that’s that.

Then we had an interesting twist on the periodically rocky relationship between The Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend. I’m glad they didn’t go the easy — but admittedly natural, especially considering her new clout — route of simple jealousy on his part, because that’s territory we’ve explored several times before, but they instead gave us a fairly satisfying, complex subterfuge that positions them both as pawns in somebody else’s game.

It’s good, and it gives the rest of the season a lot to work with, but best of all it employs a new character who immediately gives us a sense of his utility; there’s no way anybody can watch this episode and not instantly think of a dozen ways the show can use Copy Cat.

This is the kind of thing I was concerned about in “Hostile Makeover.” With all of the new characters introduced there, there was very little sense of what they’d be good for. (Apart from one or two “This is kind of like that” jokes, which are fun, but which are no substitute for characters who are interesting in their own rights.)

Copy Cat’s personality just seems better developed, and his power offers story opportunities that no other character’s does. I’m looking forward to seeing more of him. And he wasn’t the only new character who screams with potential…

I’m speaking, of course, of Blue Morpho. Oh, man, am I speaking of Blue Morpho.

It’s a short scene, but a crucial one, as not only does it reveal what was in The Monarch’s basement — Blue Morpho’s old hideout — but fills in some dark backstory both actively and passively. Actively because we’re outright told that he’s The Monarch’s father. Passively because…well…we’ve already met The Monarch’s father.

Yes, Vendata gets namedropped here, and that’s no coincidence. Back in last season’s best episode — “Bot Seeks Bot” — Vendata was very, very strongly implied to be The Monarch’s father. Here, now, we can piece together more of that as-yet-untold story:

Jonas Venture Sr. was rescued from Scaramantula by the guy…only to violently grab and threaten him. Gary tells us that they later became friends, which is borne out by the photo in “SPHINX Rising,” in which we see The Monarch and his parents with Rusty and Jonas. The man was then presumed killed in a plane crash — along with his wife — but was actually resurrected by Jonas as Vendata.

That’s…a pretty sad character arc, and the more we learn about it, the sadder it’s likely to get. But that’s all more than The Monarch knows; for him, the worrying thing is that he may have hero DNA in him. Which is a nice detail, because we’ve long known that Dr. Venture has more than a little of the villain in him. Lines get blurred, roles are reversed, one character is revealed to be another.

“Faking Miracles” is a fun episode, and it sets up a lot of things that the rest of the season can play with…but I have to confess, I’m a bit nervous. Last season was only eight episodes long. Season four was split into two chunks of eight episodes each. I don’t know how many we’re meant to get this time around, but if it’s only eight, we’re going to be at least at the halfway point before “promise” can become “fulfillment.” That’s a bit worrying.

At the very least, we know we’ll have fun along the way…but The Venture Bros. has always been more than just “fun.” It’s hilarious, and heartbreaking. It’s frivolous, and profound. It’s cruel, and sweet. It’s parody, and sincere. It’s bombastic, and contemplative.

It’s a longform experiment in opposites, and it’s a very successful one. I’m not writing season six off by any means, but I am looking forward to seeing the pendulum start to swing back.

ALF Reviews: “True Colors” (season 4, episode 16)

“ALF becomes a ________” is a perfectly valid, if not necessarily inventive, template for an episode. Great shows use it (we could sit here all night listing the “Homer becomes a ________” episodes of The Simpsons), lousy shows use it. It’s not a serious indicator of how seriously we should or shouldn’t take the show as a whole; it’s just something TV shows do in general.

In great shows, having your character become a ________ opens up new possibilities for jokes and situations that weren’t there before. You have a premise for your show, and that premise is (or should be) sturdy, but by turning your character into a ________ for one week, you get to stretch your legs a little, explore new territory, and keep things varied for your audience. I was listening to one television writer talk, though I forget who it was, and he made the point that your show should always be changing or moving forward in some way, because the audience gets sick of things before it realizes it’s sick of them.

That’s great advice. And when your character becomes a ________, you might find that writing them that way works better than you expected it to. You could actually end up with a larger evolution for the show than the temporary distraction you were hoping for.

Then there are lousy shows, like the one we’ve been watching for the past sixteen fucking years of our lives. ALF never becomes a ________ because that’s the best thing for the character, or for the show, or for the audience, or for the jokes, or for the plot. No, ALF becomes a ________ because the writers still haven’t figured out what makes this show work. ALF becomes a ________ not because someone asked “What if?” but because someone said “Why not?”

And so we cram him into these different situations and occupations well before any regard is paid to the quality of the jokes that can actually be spun from it. (I’m pretty sure I’m the first person on Earth to pay regard to that.)

They’ve toyed with plots like this throughout the show’s run, but this stretch of season four is oddly heavy with them. Two episodes ago, ALF became a stand-up comic. This week ALF becomes a painter. Next week ALF becomes a minister. That’s a hell of a lot of ALF becoming things as the show hurtles toward oblivion, and, seriously, bear in mind what ALF already is:

He’s an intelligent beast from beyond the stars.

Jesus Christ…why do the writers think it’s more interesting to have him become a garbage man or something than it is to explore the actual thing that he actually is?

Usually a character becomes ________ because it introduces new possibilities to the show. In this show, however, just about every possibility is already covered by its main premise.

ALF comes from a completely different culture, so we can spend all the time we want exploring that. He’s lived for hundreds of years, so we could spend all the time we want fleshing out his backstory. He’s served in the Orbit Guard, so we could spend all the time we want delving into countless intergalactic conflicts we on Earth didn’t know happened. Space creatures could follow him to our planet. Old debts may have to be settled. Alien technology could find its way into the wrong hands, for both comic and dramatic effect.

ALF, if the writers decreed it, could use this untapped well of alien technology to travel through time, to create evil clones of people, to make Willie rich by having the guy pretend he invented it. Look at shows like The Venture Bros., Futurama, Red Dwarf, or Rick and Morty, each of which has unique technology built into its DNA, and each of which uses that technology to spin interesting stories and explore character in unexpected ways. Each of which, also, has infinite possibilities; all any character ever has to do is say, “Hey, what’s this thing do?” and we’re off. We need no more explanation about the object’s origin than that.

As a character, ALF, too, comes from a universe of unfamiliar technology, yet we never get to explore it, or find out much about it. The things that should make him interesting as a character simply don’t, because nobody wants to do the work. (It’s easier to write 20 pages of ALF masturbating on the couch than it is to write a satisfying time travel narrative, I admit, but guess which episode would be better remembered through the years.)

How many times has ALF’s cultural origins had anything to do with the plot? Forget the simple “He’s not from Earth…” misunderstandings. I like that those exist, but those are less “ALF is from Melmac” and more “ALF isn’t from around here,” or even “ALF doesn’t get out much.”

Ready? Let’s list all the times Melmac had anything to do with anything else.

He dreamed of a night on Melmac in “Help Me, Rhonda.” He had some physiological crisis in “Wild Thing.” Rodney the Space Roach terrorized the family in “La Cuckaracha.” He thought Blinky might have made it to Earth in “Alone Again, Naturally.” He performed a bibliocide ritual in “Superstition.” And he sold stories about his experience to a tabloid in “Lies.”

I’m probably forgetting a few things, but for a show about a space alien that’s nearing 100 episodes, that’s a damned short list.

Now let’s see how many ALF becomes a ________ episodes we’ve had.

ALF becomes a makeup salesman. (“Keepin’ the Faith”) ALF becomes a soap opera writer. (“A Little Bit of Soap”) ALF becomes a compulsive gambler. (“The Gambler”) ALF becomes a nice guy. (“Working My Way Back to You.”) ALF becomes a castaway. (“Somewhere Over the Rerun”) ALF becomes a monk. (“Wedding Bell Blues”) ALF becomes president. (“Hail to the Chief”) ALF becomes captain of the neighborhood watch. (“Someone to Watch Over Me”) ALF becomes a ventriloquist. (“I’m Your Puppet”) ALF becomes a different makeup salesman. (“Stairway to Heaven”) ALF becomes a talk show host. (“Tonight, Tonight”) ALF becomes a hippie. (“My Back Pages”) ALF becomes a magician. (“Do You Believe in Magic?”) ALF becomes a romantic poet. (“Standing in the Shadows of Love”) ALF becomes a silent film star. (“Like an Old Time Movie”) ALF becomes a stock-market trader. (“We’re in the Money”) ALF becomes a psychoanalyst. (“Mind Games”) ALF becomes a drug addict. (“Hooked on a Feeling”) ALF becomes a stand-up comic. (“Make ‘Em Laugh”)

And that’s so far…we know at least two more episodes that aren’t on that list yet. And, again, I’m sure I’m forgetting a few.

Is it any wonder that this show is so terrible with character development? It’s orders of magnitude more interested in “what-if” situations than it is interested in anything that’s actually happening. In other words, it’d rather be absolutely anything other than what it is.

I…guess I can’t really blame it for that.

ALF, "True Colors"

The episode opens with Lynn saying that her new art class is very important to her, which means the next several minutes will involve ALF insulting her. Nothing new there.

There is an odd moment, though, when she tells the family she wants an honest opinion of her painting. Then she reveals it and the audience laughs.

It’s…not that bad, is it? It’s just a pear. Yeah, I understand that it’s not some incredible masterpiece, but for a girl who just started in the medium, does it really deserve explosive laughter? It can’t be that urgently bad that a burst of chuckling is warranted. If you showed it to a studio audience and not the ghostly recordings of laughing dead people, I doubt they’d react at all.

Anyway, ALF tells her it’s a big pile of shit. But he’s inspired by it — or, at least, is inspired by his wish to show her how shitty it is — so he decides he’ll be a painter, too. He tells Kate to take off her clothes because he wants to paint her droopy old snatch.

Tell me again that I’m being needlessly harsh on a show for children.

ALF, "True Colors"

After the credits, who fucking cares.

…fine. ALF has glued some bread to a canvas and “Flight of the Valkyries” is playing. Fun fact: a few years ago I was on a trivia team. We were tied for first place, and the tie-breaker question required us to identify this song within the span of a short sound clip. It’s an easily recognizable piece of music, so, really, the difficulty of the question came down to knowing the actual title of the song, and not driving yourself mad thinking of all the times you’ve heard it in films and commercials.

I said “Flight of the Valkyries,” and one of my team-mates corrected me. He said, “It’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries.'” I said no, it’s definitely “Flight.” He said, “Valkyries don’t fly!” and the rest of the team laughed at me, so they wrote “Ride of the Valkyries,” and we lost to the other team, who put “Flight.”

This is why I no longer bother making friends. AND NEITHER SHOULD YOU

Anyway, Willie comes up and tells ALF to turn his fucking music down, and nothing happens for about two minutes.

ALF, "True Colors"

Then nothing continues to happen for another two minutes, only this time it not-happens in the kitchen.

The family just sits around acting shitty to each other because they didn’t get any sleep. Brian even yells at his mother for humming “Flight of the Valkyries.” (“Valkyries don’t fly!” was presumably a line cut from the Monday script.)

Then ALF pops up through the plot window to waste more time and to talk up his new masterpiece. The family follows him into the living room, because fuck breakfast and everything they were just upset about: ALF has something to say!

In the living room he gives some little speech about himself and the importance of what he’s about to show them, and then he recites “I Saw Her Standing There” because the script was too short.

Kate says, “ALF, just uncover the damned thing.” And while “damned” was a pretty mild curse word even back when this episode aired, man does it feel so wonderfully profane here.

If someone doesn’t mean it, “Go fuck yourself” sounds trivial. If someone does mean it, “Go to hell” sounds brutal. Profanity isn’t always about the strength of the word; it’s about the intent. Kate’s intent here is to beat the living shit out of ALF with her voice, and it works beautifully.

Anyway, ALF finally unveils his whatever the hell, and…

ALF, "True Colors"

…it’s the same thing we saw in the previous scene.

Like, without alteration. It’s the same god-damned prop we already saw and (theoretically) laughed at.

We spent all that time building up to something we’ve already seen? Christ almighty.

Anyway, Lynn tells him that his painting is a big pile of shit. It’s a nice little way of turning the blade back on him, since he was so dismissive of her pear earlier, but the best part about this scene is the endless crackle of the audio track on these damaged masters. It gives me something interesting to listen to while this group of assholes mumbles nonsense to each other until the scene ends.

There is one nice exchange, though. Lynn leaves, and ALF criticizes her legitimacy as an artist: “You know her problem? She doesn’t have a tortured soul.”

Kate replies, “She can have mine.”

I won’t miss this show, Anne Schedeen, but I’ll sure as shit miss you.

ALF, "True Colors"

Then we get a legitimately shocking development: a scene of Lynn at college. Of course, there are only eight more episodes of the show after this one, so none of the people we see here really matter. Not even Mr. Ruben the instructor, who walks around making inappropriate comments about peoples’ nude paintings, and then getting excited that two of his students are fucking.

Tell me again that I’m being needlessly harsh on a show for children.

Mr. Ruben makes some time-killing comment to each of the extras we’ll never see again, and then finally he comes over to Lynn to ask where her shitty painting of a pear is.

It’s a good question. I wondered why it wasn’t on display yet. But then she reaches into her bag and it’s ALF’s fucking peanut butter toast thing.

That’s what you get, sitcom character, for waiting until it’s your turn to talk. If you were an actual college student you’d have unpacked your shit already and seen this before you were on the spot, but noooo.

ALF, "True Colors"

Of course, you live by the sitcom convention, and you’re saved by the sitcom convention. The art professor — as they all must in works of fiction written by people who don’t understand art, criticism, or instruction — gushes over it, and he calls the class over to see the great work that Lynn did.

I’d love to hear from a reader who creates visual art, or at least understands the medium and takes it seriously. Does this kind of portrayal bother you? Does it feel needlessly disrespectful? Is it based in reality at all, or is it the kind of thing kept alive by sitcom oral tradition?

I know I’m always bothered by the way writers are portrayed in movies and shows. It’s never true to life at all.

Give me a real film about a writer, in which he spends most of the runtime staring at a blank page, or crying naked on the floor. Don’t give me this garbage with some guy in a loose necktie and two-day stubble tapping out a story, writing THE END (so that the camera can see it, of course), and then getting on with his life. Because that dog don’t hunt.

To this character’s credit he doesn’t dive into some long, inane speech about the meaning of the piece, but of course that’s only because we’ve spent way too much time away from ALF, and we really need to start wrapping this shit up.

Then Lynn pulls out her pear painting and Mr. Ruben says it’s a big pile of shit.

ALF, "True Colors"

I’m genuinely excited to find out how many screengrabs this week have the fucking toast painting in them.

Anyway, Lynn comes home and says, “You are in big trouble, mister!” which I’m pretty sure is just for all the folks here who desperately want the ALF Tanners and the Full House Tanners to be related.

She tells her parents about the shit ALF pulled, but seeing the painting so many times has me wondering why the bread that ALF glued to the canvas isn’t all smashed up or falling off. This is the kind of thing I worry about when I’m not laughing. What a shock that this never-awaited episode in which ALF paints bullshit fails to make me laugh.

ALF alludes to getting the idea for hiding his painting in Lynn’s bag from The Brady Bunch, but I don’t think that’s ringing any bells for me. Was that actually an episode? I only remember the one where the kids get pubes.

For a moment ALF is afraid the teacher hated it, so he proposes committing suicide by slashing his wrists right there.

Tell me again that I’m being needlessly harsh on a show for children.

Anyway, Lynn is in a panic now because Mr. Ruben thinks the toast painting was tits, and no matter what she turns in next she’ll reveal herself to be a fraud.

Which, again, chime in if you have experience in the art world, but I remember my college writing workshops pretty well, and this was never an actual concern.

Sometimes somebody would write a great piece, but that was it; it was a great piece. If the next one wasn’t so great, nobody gave a rat’s ass, instructor included, and certainly nobody suspected that we’d been had.

The reason was that we were all experimenting. Most of us never wrote a great piece. The few that did still had their later work held to the exact same level of scrutiny; there were no increased expectations, and there shouldn’t have been. Even if one of us was a great author — surely none of us actually were — each story got appraised on its own merits. If one story was good and the next bad, who cared?

Great authors sometimes write crap. Nobody really thinks or expects otherwise. Sometimes great artists paint a big pile of shit. Nobody really thinks or expects otherwise.

I guess we need a conflict for the episode, though, and it’s either this or have Willie walk in on ALF painting Brian like one of his French girls.

ALF, "True Colors"

We then rejoin A Very Sarah Portland Christmas, already in progress.

ALF paints some crap while “Flight of the Valkyries” plays again. Man, once you discover the magic of royalty-free classical music, you never go back.

Honest question: is there some association with “Flight of the Valkyries” that I’m missing? I’m guessing that when this episode aired, the song was most linked with Looney Tunes and Apocalypse Now as far as pop culture goes, but was there some famous movie about an artist that used this song as well? The episode never gets into why ALF listens to that while he paints, which leads me to conclude that either a) it’s a joke I’m missing, but which others will recognize or b) there’s no reason and this show is garbage.


ALF, "True Colors"

Willie and Lynn come in so that ALF has someone to be an asshole to.

Then ALF says that he got a burst of artistic inspiration because he discovered Luther Vandross. Whom…he…wasn’t listening to.

I have no idea what’s happening here.

Then Lynn says something like, “Well, boogie it on Broadway!” and I really am totally lost.

Is that a Vandross song? Or lyric or something? I’m not all that familiar with him, personally. (Hell, I didn’t even know he wrote “Flight of the Valkyries” before this episode!) Also, she delivers the line like she just took a hit off her father’s crack pipe, so I think it’s safe to say the entire cast is well over the show by this point.

Lynn complains for a bit about having nowhere to paint, but come on. ALF might be dominating the garage, but you guys live in a five-bedroom bastard house. Surely you can find some fucking place to do your homework.

ALF, "True Colors"

…oh. Looks like she did.

So why is she bitching about having nowhere to paint? She already finished her next piece. Or maybe she painted it really quickly just now in the four seconds she was off camera? I honestly have no clue.

Again, I don’t know art, but this certainly looks competent. I’d be proud of having painted it, if I were a sitcom character who never had any interest in the medium until 15 minutes ago.

ALF says, “Stink-a-roni!” though, which gives me painful flashbacks of when he said that in “Suspicious Minds.”

I wonder why stink-a-roni never caught on as a catchphrase for ALF. I suggest you each, individually, launch an attempt to bring it back. I’ll want a report on your progress this time next year.

ALF, "True Colors"

The next day, or at some point in the whole of human history, we’re back in class. Mr. Ruben jerks off for a while about how his opening at some gallery was well-received, and then the students all leave. Why Lynn waits until the class is over to show him her next piece is beyond me, but she does, and he gets pretty hard and invites her out to coffee.


That’s why she waited until class was over. Because this is ALF, and Lynn is nothing if not a mound of olives, waiting to be stuffed.

Fortunately, this is the least problematic example of men attempting to spray their genetic fluids into her. Not because his behavior is any better — it’s kind of gross, and he explicitly tells her that he only complimented her art so that she’d go out with him — but because she stands up for herself and tells him no.

That’s good, and it’s the kind of thing that should be a pretty nice moment, but boy is it buried deep within a mountain of suck.

Again, I respect the show for giving her a bit of backbone (as opposed to giving her a boning on her back…ha! I KILL ME) but this is a really lousy episode, and it’s really not worth trying to salvage anything.

ALF, "True Colors"

Back at the house I get another screengrab with the toast painting in it. Woo!

Anyway, Willie bitches at ALF for leaving his shit everywhere. ALF jams a paintbrush into Willie’s urethra and Lynn comes home.

She tells them that Mr. Ruben only said nice things because he wanted to stick three inches of flaccid painter dong into her, and, of course, Willie couldn’t care less that her daughter was yet again being sexually manipulated by a figure of academic authority. He instead says, “He lied to you!?” because the real lesson here needs to have something to do with ALF.

Then Lynn leaves and ALF and Willie eat some popcorn and drink soda. Was this episode fucking ad-libbed?

In the next scene…

ALF, "True Colors"


Lynn comes in and apologizes to ALF for being rude to him earlier, though she makes the perfectly valid point that he was pretty rude to her first. ALF makes what I’m sure must be an even more valid point when he lays into her for not sleeping with her professor.

At some point “True Colors” conflated Mr. Ruben’s approval with ALF becoming a famous artist…somehow?

I dunno. But I’m sure ALF is right when he says that everything would be fine if Lynn had just thrown the guy a pity pork.

She explains to him that not everyone gets to be famous, and that many artists never see success during their own lifetimes. He says, “Then what’s the point?”

And she goes into a nice little (and I do mean little, which is probably why it’s nice) speech about art coming from within:

You paint because you want to paint, or need to paint, or express yourself through painting. You don’t do it for money, or fame, or even necessarily because you’re good at it. You do it because that’s who you are.

And, yeah, go Lynn. Not that I’ve ever known you to have an artist’s soul or anything, and god knows you’ll be back to not having one next week, but I admire your perspective here.

This causes ALF to observe, sarcastically, “Oh, yeah, sure. What the world needs is more mediocrity.”

And the camera catches the precise moment that four years’ worth of self-awareness crashes down on Andrea Elson’s soul.

ALF, "True Colors"

She then tries to talk ALF into finishing a fresco (a Paul Fresco?) we never see, and the episode runs out of time before anything can really go anywhere.

Another classic!

ALF, "True Colors"

In the short scene before the credits ALF paints some more shit. Specifically it’s some terrifying child with enormous eyes, weeping. You guys analyze this one; I need to finish my suicide note.

Anyway, the Tanners had a yard sale, and ALF’s paintings were the only things that sold. Weird how that sounds like a plot in itself, but it’s actually just ten seconds of wrap-up dialogue.

Ugh, whatever. I guess I should just be thankful that idea didn’t inspire them to turn this into a two-parter.

So…I guess the moral is that ALF actually did have some artistic talent?

Or that you should keep painting even if you are only in it for the money?

I have no clue. I honestly thought the final scene would be the reveal of ALF’s fresco (al fresco?), but that was pretty stupid of me, because that would mean that something in this episode had any kind of payoff.

Some people never learn. :(

Countdown to ALF being disappeared in front of the Tanners: 8 episodes

MELMAC FACTS: ALF used to be an artist; he’d paint any canvas any color for $29.95 (no ups, no extras). ALF can whistle in spite of the fact that he has no lips.

The Venture Bros. Review: “Maybe No Go” (season 6, episode 2)

The Venture Bros., "Maybe No Go"

There’s nothing I love more than a great show proving me wrong.

Last week, I said this:

“Hostile Makeover” doesn’t even pretend Dr. Venture is going to succeed. His very first order of business, it seems, is to fire absolutely everybody. Who are these people? He doesn’t care. What did they do for Venture Industries? He’s not interested; he just doesn’t want any of his money going to them. The new phase of his life has only just begun, and he’s taken active steps to ensure it won’t go anywhere.

This week, I happily admit that I fell into Doc and Jackson’s trap. We’re so conditioned to seeing Dr. Venture behave atrociously to people — with incredible short-sightedness and destructive selfishness — that we can see a couple of seconds of him writing on a whiteboard and read an entire season’s arc into it.

And, hey, good. The character work on this show in general — and with Dr. Venture in particular — has been sharp and sturdy. It’s almost impossible to view anything anybody does in complete isolation as a solitary moment; it always informs or is informed by who they are.

It helps the comedy to land and it ends up advancing their stories. Simple gestures or clever lines get to be both small delights and important gears in an increasingly complex (and impressive) machine.

Here’s where else it pays off: the subversion of those expectations.

Dr. Venture writing on the whiteboard as part of a montage was a very important choice of delivery. Because we didn’t hear anything, we assumed the worst: Venture’s a fucking idiot. Now we find out that that isn’t quite the truth. Sure, perhaps he still is one, and the collapse of VenTech likely still looms, but there was a method to his madness.

See, Dr. Venture isn’t going down without a fight. He’s a failure, everybody in his life sees him as a failure, and the newspaper gives over its front page to making it clear that the entire world sees him as a failure…but there’s still a part of him that doesn’t want to be a failure. That believes he’s not a failure. Or, at least, that his failure can be redeemed.

He fired the staff not because he didn’t want to pay them (the ultimate solution, it turns out, is actually to maintain two staffs), but because he wanted to start fresh. He has something inside of him. Something to share with the world. He just needs to get it out. He’s hoping, like Doc Brown before him, to see that headline change. It might still be a bad idea, but it’s an idea. He was in the shadow of his father and lived in unfair comparisons to him until his brother — a talking fist sticking out of an oven — showed up…and then he lived in his shadow and was compared unfavorably to him, too.

Dr. Venture has something to prove.

He’ll never be admired like his father, or brilliant like his brother. But he has something, whatever it is, he’s convinced that he has something, and he fires the staff so that he can rebuild it in aid of his own vision. It’s actually…admirable.

Last week, Dr. Venture was silently portrayed as an asshole. This week he opens his mouth, and we learn he’s a visionary.

Rusty’s back.

In fact, “Maybe No Go” plays like an extended response to “Hostile Makeover.” Whereas nothing happened last week, so much happened this week. Whereas last week was all rising tension, this week things go…really well, actually. For everybody.

That latter point is the most interesting, and most unique in a show like The Venture Bros., which makes a point of picking at the flaws and weaknesses of every single character, so we’ll get to that one in a bit.

First, the lighter side of things: the plots. The Pirate Captain kicks the dart monkey. The Monarch and Gary (who seems to be back to calling himself 21) attempt to eliminate all obstacles between them and Dr. Venture. Wide Wale launches an attack. Hatred and Brock team up for a thrillingly adorable defense of the tower. Billy and Pete square off against their nemesis. And all of these things had a beginning, a middle, and an end. “Hostile Makeover” felt overstuffed and a bit aimless, but “Maybe No Go” takes the same amount of material and weaves a much tighter, more satisfying tapestry.

The main story seemed to belong to Billy and Pete, which is good, because last week I wrote St. Cloud off as a go-nowhere character. And…maybe I’m still tempted to. We’ll see where things go, but this at least proves he can be part of an episode without dragging it to an irritating halt.

Their plot was one hell of a lot of fun. I remember back when “The Invisible Hand of Fate” aired; I was disappointed that we didn’t get a Billy and Pete version of the title sequence as we did for The Monarch and Dr. Girlfriend in “Shadowman 9: In the Cradle of Destiny” or Dr. Venture and Jonas Jr. in “Powerless in the Face of Death.” We got one here, and it was more than worth the wait.

Billy Quizboy is one of this show’s finest creations, and he’s high on a very long list of very fine creations indeed. His tragedy is a relateable one, and one as ripe for comedy as it is drama.

Billy is one of the few truly capable individuals in the show’s universe…and nobody takes him seriously. While other capable individuals — notably Brock and Dr. Girlfriend — rise through the ranks, earning more respect with every episode, even from their adversaries, Billy languishes. He lives in squalor. He’s mocked and belittled by his friends.

But he’s a skilled surgeon, as well as deeply intelligent and tragically loyal. His struggle to be accepted, admired, and understood has fueled several of the show’s best moments, and came to an incredible, bittersweet head in the hugely underrated “The Silent Partners.”

That episode was one of the few times that the show gave Billy a triumph. This week ends with another. After a long, emotional walk home, the invisible hand of fate gives Billy a boost forward. The “boy genius” did what he felt was right, though all earthly logic was against it. Fortunately for him, a larger, cosmic logic was on his side…and he and Pete are summoned to VenTech, presumably to front the company’s new speculative engineering department.

It’s a sweet moment at the end of an episode that’s almost wall to wall with them. In fact, I’m not sure The Venture Bros. has ever been this generous to its characters before. The Pirate Captain cleans up. Dean proposes the solution that could save the company. HELPeR doesn’t have to cope with a resurrected J-Bot. The Monarch and Gary find a path forward…in the basement. Wide Wale is swiftly and easily repelled in his assault.

And — seriously guys, this was adorable — Hatred and Brock got along. Decades of animosity between the two gave gentle way to a mutual respect. Brock’s always had the ability, but, for once, Hatred had the intel. They worked together, smiled together, and went out for a beer together. It was a more natural fit than I would have guessed possible, especially after last week just about seemed to position them as rivals for the season.

The Venture Bros. is the only show I know that can take a Swedish murder machine and a reformed bad-toucher and turn their mutual jump from a building into a disarmingly sweet denouement. When they fell, most of my concerns about season six fell with them. Even through my concerns last week I knew I was in good hands, but it sure is nice to see that confirmed so quickly.

I’m going to leave you with a couple of questions, which I hope will engender discussion. No wrong answers; I’m just curious what people are thinking.

First: what’s the primary difference between Wide Wale and Monstroso? They dress similarly, they’re both huge, they’re both powerful businessmen…is there a reason we subbed out one for the other? I’m not complaining, I assure you, but it’s not like the switch from The Monarch to Sgt. Hatred in season three. In that case there were (multiple) story reasons, and the massive change in character was important to the show. In this case it feels a lot like a character we’ve already seen, and I don’t know quite why we bothered promoting someone new.

Second: what was in the basement? I’m guessing the original Venture clone farm. I have a reason that my guess is so specific, but I’ll keep that to myself for now. What do you see under those sheets?

And, what the hell, third: are you feeling incredibly stoked for the rest of this season? Because holy shit did I just get invested.

Fake Plastic Teeth


I’m mainly writing this because I didn’t want my last post to stand for too long on its own, lest someone assume I…y’know.

I didn’t.

And, honestly, I’ve been doing pretty well this year so far. I write about depression because it helps me to voice things, and to get them out…and because every single time I do, somebody writes in and thanks me for saying what they haven’t been able to articulate themselves. If anyone, ever, feels just a little less alone when I open my mouth and talk about it, that makes the discomfort and difficulty of doing so worth it.

But things have been quiet for a couple of reasons, neither of which is depressive! One, the writing of a new novel project, which I’ve already talked about. Two, SEVERE DISCOMFORT.

See the photo above? That was taken two days ago. It might be the only time you get to see my mouth full of teeth that aren’t actually teeth.

I had dental surgery on my birthday (five hours of dental surgery…), and for the next two weeks or so, I’ve got a fake set in there. They’re over my real teeth, so, don’t worry, I didn’t pull a Pnin or anything, but they’re there until I can go back to the dentist and have my work completed.

It’s…odd so far. They feel much different in my mouth, and it’s often painful to bring my teeth together. The rest of the time, there’s just a feeling of vague discomfort. And eating under these conditions is, to borrow a phrase, exquisite torture.

I’m more or less on an all-soup diet, which might be good for my weight but bad for my sodium intake. Who cares. Life is just a long balancing act involving the thousands of things that are trying to kill you, anyway.

Much more excitingly, I bought some of that liquid astronaut food Facebook is always trying to sell me, and I look forward to eating something that doesn’t have CAMPBELL’S written on the label. I’ll report back if anyone’s interested to know which color sock it tastes like.

So, dentistry. Needless to say I’m bedridden and miserable. Right?

No! Look at the fucking picture! I met birds!

Things are fine. I feel, on the whole, great. But, oddly, writing is more difficult.

I can’t really explain why that is. I don’t know. But when I sit down to write (articles for this site, pages of the novel, even emails and texts to friends) I end up making loads of easily avoided mistakes and typos. The pain doesn’t bother me, really…I’ve felt far worse…but I guess it’s just enough that it distracts my mind. It’s strange that a pain so relatively mild can still interfere with your ability to do good work. Or, at least, work you can be proud of.

So I’m here. I’m still working on this. I’m not violently depressed or in oral agony. I’m just full of soup and typos. And appreciation for readers who allow me to make fun of a sex-crazed puppet one day, and open up about depression and mental health issues the next. I don’t know of any other site that could get away with that, and I really do appreciate all of you.

It means the world, and I’m always glad to see folks sharing posts like that and discussing it on their own. I’ll say what I say. It may not apply to you, or help you. But I truly, genuinely hope that discussing it does.

Anyway, one final footnote for now: yesterday I attended The Balki Bowl, which was a live-streamed event in which eight episodes of Perfect Strangers, along with vintage commercials, music videos, and other curios, were screened with live chat.

Sound familiar? It’s a total coincidence, I’m sure, but that was pretty Xmas Bash!!!-like, and I think I might have found my technical solution for the Bash!!! moving forward.

…at least, potentially. We’ll try out this new platform for the Project: ALF live stream, and I’ll definitely ask for your opinions then, but, for now…it looks promising. So get excited! I’m already putting together next year’s torturous playlist.

Here’s hoping you enjoyed your Super, Puppy, or Balki Bowl of choice. Thanks for being beautiful.