Drive-in Saturday

Detective Fiction, Philip J Reed

David Bowie died yesterday. I was tempted to write something about his passing, but, ultimately, I decided instead to post something he’d already inspired me to write: a chapter of my still-unpublished novel, Detective Fiction. You can find a little background on the project here, which may help with context. Every sequence in the story was inspired by at least one piece of music, and Chapter Twenty’s flashback to the time Billy Passwater met a girl whose life he is about to ruin — the calm before the calm before the storm — was inspired by one of Bowie’s. I’m posting it now to share with you, if you’d care to read it. And his passing reminded me, and inspired me, to keep writing. I’ve started another project this very evening, and it’s the first fiction I’ve written in over a year. It’s a productive mourning. Thank you, David.

CHAPTER TWENTY

When he heard from Helena that night, he was in his car outside of the Thornweed house where, as ever, nothing was happening, could happen, or was going to happen. He’d given up on reading about Super-Spider’s self-proclaimed “Love Quest” after the hero — his city in villainous chaos around him — spent an entire comic presenting a didactic lesson on Dating Education to the elementary school children.

Dating Education was meant to precede Sexual Education (or so Chester Kenneth Thornweed explained in one of his increasingly intrusive authorial asides, each of which featured illustrations of himself looking suspiciously fit), and it would teach the children the various skills they needed in order to get close to the boys and girls that they liked. Sexual Education was fine, Super-Spider explained, but how was anybody to get to that point in the first place?

Why Super-Spider was so interested in facilitating sexual contact among grade-schoolers was — thankfully — neither questioned nor discussed. Thornweed even inserted a lesson plan that he had drawn up, consisting of activities, projects, and a 50 question multiple-choice exam with the answers at the back of the comic book.

Billy closed the binder and decided to return this issue, and the pile of other issues he hadn’t read yet, to Thornweed in the morning.

When she called him, his feeling was one of relief. There was something refreshing about her, about seeing her name when the phone rang, about hearing her breathe, “Billy, hey!” when he picked up the phone.

Helena Silvering was a flight attendant he had met years ago in Pittsburgh at a crew tavern called The Landing Strip. He saw her across the room, still in her blue uniform. Her reddish brown hair was done up professionally, and she had the round and chubby cheeks of a teenager, which she had been not long before they met. She was presumably in the company of her fellow hosts and hostesses, and Billy was with Caitlin and her brother, downing a few drinks for the ride home, and he was in the process of conjuring up an excuse to drift her way and steer her someplace quieter when he noticed that her lips were moving…but she was not talking; she was singing along to David Bowie’s “Drive-In Saturday,” which had just started playing on the jukebox, and it looked like she was getting the words right as well, so he stood up and, pretenses be damned, decided to speak to her on that account alone.

She stood up to make it easy on him. They met halfway across the room and she presented herself to be held, and they both told each other what a great song it was, and that was all they said until it was over, moving slowly, hazily drunk against each other, and she felt so temperately cold, as she always would when he touched her, as she always would every time he touched her, and there was something about the sincerity of the night, the conditions and the context of the meeting, that made him behave himself. He kept his hands above her waist…and not that far above. He moved in to kiss her, but did not, and she sighed, because she wanted him to move in to kiss her and then not. It was the closeness she wanted, and that much he could give her, and wanted to keep giving her, and would, every so often, when circumstances and schedules aligned, give her again.

He hadn’t seen her since he moved to Florida, though several times she did get the chance to call him from Tampa, where she’d be waiting for some short period for a flight home, or elsewhere, but timing had yet to work out, and they were never able to meet up for drinks or hasty intercourse.

The thoughts of hasty intercourse were relatively distant in his mind when he answered her call. She was a welcome distraction from assassins, from dead dogs, from blown cover and tall, beautiful blondes who hated and distrusted him. From debt (he’d gotten his first balance statement for the car and wasn’t entirely convinced he’d ever see the amount due decrease). From family old and new, from whatever it was that Andrew and Les, independently, might have thought about him now, at this point, and about where he was going. From his future. From Debbie Indemnity and her fat, soft thighs and the shoe he’d sent her home without, the one he found beneath a lawn chair in the living room, which was where it had come off along with her shirt…he put the shoe in his closet in case she called, which he simultaneously hoped she would and wouldn’t. From Thomas St. Quentin, who must have thought that Billy was the biggest ass in town, and yet who kept paying him for reasons Billy could not understand. From Roger Jackchick’s boy, and the future Billy felt at least somewhat responsible for not being able to salvage. From Rebecca, who was going to come down after his birthday in August…who had already bought her ticket…who was as good as here already and her baby who was as good as here already, too. From decisions he did not want to have to make and decisions he did not want to have anybody make for him…from dreams and from nightmares and from people he was starting to realize that he missed and would never see again…

“Helena,” he said. “Hi.”

“How are you?” she asked. “I feel like it’s been forever.”

“I feel like that, too,” he said. “I’m okay.”

“What are you doing with yourself now?” she asked. “Are you still looking for work?”

“Kind of,” Billy said. “I have a job now. I don’t know. I might not keep it.”

“Listen,” Helena said. “I only have a minute, but I wanted to call you, because I’m going to be in Tampa for a few nights this week. And I was wondering if maybe you’d like to get together.”

“I would like that, Helena,” he said.

She cared about him; that was what Billy was reacting to. This was a human being who genuinely wished him to be happy. She cared about him more deeply than any family member he had known, she desired him more strongly than any of the women with whom he had shared beds, back seats and bathroom stalls, and she wanted to be closer to him than any friend he had had in his life. She was a perfect girl with endless patience and freckles on her chubby cheeks and a smile that made him smile, too.

He’d never, ever be able to love her.

* * *

On Wednesday the seventh she flew in, and Billy picked her up in the employee parking lot, where she was waiting, out of uniform, with a co-pilot who was still in his.

“Billy!” she said as he approached. For the first time in a month, he left his hat in the car. She threw her arms around him, and Billy couldn’t help but notice how big she had gotten. Not…not fat, exactly…but larger, like her mother. (Whom he’d made sure to identify in photographs.) She’d filled out, and then kept going, and it took him a moment to readjust his expectations for the next few nights. Otherwise, she looked very similar to the girl he remembered, the girl with whom he periodically wondered what his future would have looked like. She was wearing only one earbud, and as she embraced him he heard Pete Townshend singing “You Came Back,” from a mixed CD he had curated for her six years and a thousand miles ago. It made him close his eyes. Maybe she was heavy, now. Maybe it didn’t matter…

The man standing beside her was older than Billy by possibly as many as ten years. He was waiting for Billy to introduce himself, which Billy passively refused to do. There were two men here, right now, and the only pretty girl had chosen him to throw her arms around. He was not about to squander that advantage.

“This is Felix,” Helena said, after a moment. She was still holding Billy’s arm.

Now the man stepped forward, and held out his hand for Billy to shake. Billy took a moment to himself before doing so.

“Felix Deckett,” the man said.

“De wonderful, wonderful kett?” said Billy.

“Be nice,” Helena said, smiling. “He’s one of our co-pilots.”

“Co-pilot,” Billy said, nodding. “Got to start somewhere, I guess.”

“If you need anything later,” Felix said to Helena, taking his hand back, “just give me a call. I’m staying in the area.”

“She won’t need anything,” Billy said. “Did I tell you I got a BMW, Helena?”

“No!” she said. “But I saw you pulling in. It’s a convertible!”

“Yeah,” Billy said. Then, to Felix, “Thanks anyway. Good to meet you though.” And he waved the back of his hand at him as he and Helena walked away.

“Helena,” the man said, and Helena told Billy to wait. She went back and spoke to Felix for a moment, and he kept throwing glances that Billy made sure not to look away from. She laughed after a moment, he did not, and she placed a hand on his arm when she finally said goodbye.

“And so it was later,” Billy said as she joined him again. He made sure to look back at Felix, who waved once. Billy turned away. “Have a nice chat?”

“Sorry about that,” she said. “He’s kind of my co-pilot. We fly together a lot, and he gets a little protective.”

“He seems like a dick,” Billy said.

“No,” Helena said, leaning her forehead on his shoulder. “He’s actually very nice. I think you two just got off on the wrong foot.”

“I did alright,” Billy said, unlocking his car. “He was just a dick.”

* * *

They got into the vehicle, Billy started the engine, and Helena leaned over to kiss him. He held her back for a moment so that he could look into her eyes, and search out that same young girl, the anonymous airhostess in the short blue uniform, underappreciated Bowie lyrics on her lips, and the beat of his band in the tips of her toes. He wanted to see her again, as he saw her then, with his face in her hair and the cool warmth of her neck against him, the smell of daiquiris on her breath, the gentle hum of her breathing, like a soft and constant engine in the distance, speeding a fleet of passengers along into a future they thought — all of them thought — they could comprehend. They’d be wrong. They had to be wrong. Because sometimes the future was the past, and sometimes the future was now, because all he had was now, and days couldn’t last forever, and words couldn’t make wishes come true, as the song went, or basically went, and he pulled her in and he kissed her and he told her that he loved her, because that was what he wanted to believe and because that was what she wanted to hear, and she closed her eyes, and he kept kissing her, and he tasted salt from her quiet tears, and he buried himself in her face and her body and her presence, and shut the world out…the entire world…piece by piece, until there was nothing left.

Only him, and only her.

And in time, he knew, that would be all he needed.

Somos las Bolas

Speaking of Fiction Into Film…in 2007 a young film student named Andrew Edmark asked if he could adapt one of my short stories. I told him no, absolutely not, but he did it anyway, and we’ve been locked in a vicious legal battle ever since.

It’s a story called Somos las Bolas, which I thought was pretty good, and he turned it into a short film. Recently, for whatever reason, he felt compelled to assemble a “Director’s Cut” and upload it to YouTube.

Since I wrote the source material I’m not going to run my mouth too much. If you like it, great. If you don’t, that’s great too. At some point I intend to make a collection of my short fiction available for a free download here, but I’ve run into a technical problem doing that, so that’s a story for another day.

The complete film is above. I haven’t watched it yet.

Somos las Bolas

Volume 0 Author Spotlight: Philip J Reed

This week sees the release of The Lost Worlds of Power, Volume 0 as a Groupees exclusive. It contains a total of five stories, unique to this collection, and each with its own illustration. For that reason, this week will be given over to spotlighting one of the featured authors every day. Today, me. Philip J Reed, author of “Tetris.”

It's a-me.I’ve talked a bit about how much of a fast-tracked labor of love Volume 0 was for everybody involved, so while I won’t rehash it too deeply here, I do want you to keep that fact in mind, so that you’ll understand how absolutely insane I was to also write a fresh story for it.

Some background. When James Lawless (eventual co-editor) first pitched me the idea of writing Worlds of Power books, he pretty much leapt right for Marble Madness, and I just as quickly grabbed Battletoads. Then we opened the idea of a collection up to many authors…and potentially opened ourselves up to failure, as well.

I can’t speak for James, but I was worried that we might not get enough usable content to justify a book. It’s not that I thought only myself and my co-editor would be uniquely qualified to write novelizations of long-forgotten NES games…I was just slightly afraid that the folks out there who could do the best work wouldn’t even know it existed.

TetrisFortunately we ended up with a massive swirl of coverage, and great authors (with great stories) found us just fine. But I didn’t know that that would happen, so I was already formulating a plan B. Maybe, I figured, if we get a few good stories, James and I can write a few more, and then we’d have a decent-sized volume.

I didn’t want to resort to that, but if push came to shove, I’d have to do something. So I started to brainstorm ideas. Something I could write in a relatively short time (since we wouldn’t know if we had enough usable material until the submission deadline passed), and something that would also be worth reading. That’s when I got an idea for novelizing Tetris.

See, I’d just finished writing Detective Fiction around that time…a much more serious kind of comic novel than anything I would have dreamed of writing for this collection. And because that story was a bit more “grounded,” I had a lot of silly detective jokes left over. Things that I thought were funny, but that I knew didn’t belong in that particular story.

I thought I’d write “Tetris” as a detective story in which the game doesn’t figure at all; the only connection is that the detective’s last name is Tetris.

Ha ha, right?

That was pretty much the entire joke, and I’m under no illusion that it was a great one. But I figured I could write a satisfying enough mystery that people would enjoy reading it, and, hopefully, the utterly po-faced commitment to the gag would be enough to carry a lame joke further than it strictly deserved to go.

TetrisOr, I guess, the joke was that Tetris obviously had no story and no characters whatsoever, and was therefore either impossible to novelize or extremely easy to novelize…either way because you didn’t have any mandatory touchpoints guiding your hand.

Or — or! — maybe the joke was that some hack writer was commissioned to novelize Tetris, and rather than do even cursory research into the damned game he changed the name of the protagonist in some dusty manuscript of his and cashed his check.

Potentially, there could have been a few levels to the humor, but, either way, I didn’t end up writing it. And I’m glad. Glad because I didn’t really want to, and even more glad because that meant we had so many good pieces, we were worried more about trimming down than beefing up.

When Volume 0 as an idea was floated, I wondered about “Tetris.” I still didn’t want to write it, but it surfaced in my mind. A few times. And one of those times, for better or for worse, it surfaced in tandem with Flatland.

TetrisFlatland is a favorite novella of mine, and I knew James was a fan as well. It’s a philosophical / mathematical / sociological / spiritual / cautionary hallucination of a book, about a sentient shape (A. Square) in a land of sentient shapes. To say more would detract from at least some of the incredible sense of discovery that comes with reading it, but when the idea of a world of living shapes came to mind alongside my basic idea for a noir-tinged “Tetris,” things snapped into place.

A plot filled itself out. Characters introduced themselves to me. Themes came flooding in. It was no longer a stupid joke I hoped I didn’t have to tell…it was a story I genuinely, and urgently, wanted to write.

I actually told James my idea in the hopes that he’d (rightly) slap me and say we’re already short on time, and can’t afford to add more work to the pile. Instead, he insisted I do it…even though it meant he was up in the wee small hours of the morning, copy-editing the stories that I couldn’t get to because I was too busy writing.

TetrisIn the end, I’m actually very happy with it. I was building toward something, and then, for whatever reason, I ended up feeling pulled in another direction. I scrapped most of what I’d written, and started again, because the new direction was a richer one, and I wanted to do it justice. That game with no characters or story was surprising me with how actively the characters and story pulled me along.

As a writer, that’s always the most pleasant kind of surprise, and I can safely say that Tetris was the most surprising place to find it.

It’s something that I hope you enjoy. I hope you enjoy the entire book, of course, but I came out of the writing experience feeling immensely satisfied. And I hope at least a few of you will be, too.

Thanks for sticking with this, and thank you — all of you — for your support.

Grab it while you can. I think you will like it.

The Importance of Keeping Artist and Audience Separate

Flappy Bird

Some of you might have heard about Flappy Bird, a very simple iOS game that saw an unexpected spike in popularity over the course of the past week or so. If you’re not interested in that game, don’t worry; I’m not going to talk about it, beyond using it to provide some context.

What I am going to talk about is the importance of maintaining the distance between artist and audience, and that’s something that Flappy Bird unwittingly illustrated quite well.

The simple game wasn’t exactly a critical success, but it found a large and appreciative audience all at once. To play you’d tap the screen. That was really it, but the cumbersome nature of the titular bird meant that it was downright miraculous if you made it any further than a few seconds into the game before failing. One tap equals one flap, but the physics complicated things; avoiding obstacles meant maintaining steady flight, which was quite hard to do when your bird was front-loaded and tended toward a natural face-plant.

That was the game, but that’s not why I’m talking about it. Why I’m talking about it is the fact that its developer, Dong Nguyen, has removed it as of yesterday from the App Store. His reasoning was both vague and clear; the game turned his life into a nightmare. Or, rather, those who played the game turned his life into a nightmare.

The kinds of messages Nguyen was receiving through Twitter and other media were absolutely out of line, but they were nothing compared to what happened after he announced the unavailability of his game: his life was threatened, the lives of his family and loved ones were threatened, and many in addition to that threatened to kill themselves. Whatever you might think of Nguyen’s decision to remove it from the App Store, the subsequent behavior of those who ostensibly enjoyed his game retroactively justifies his move. Why should he worry about disappointing people who would threaten homicide upon a man they’d never met?

Presumably Nguyen had fun designing the game. Presumably he also made the decision to monetize it. (It was available as a free download, but ads were shown in game.) What happened was that the fun was over, and the threats to his life and those he cared about were not worth the money. His audience, in a very direct way, killed what they loved.

This is something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, and the Flappy Bird debacle is just the most recent instance. While there has always been some amount of interplay between artist and audience, for the most part this flowed in entirely one direction: downhill. The artist composes upon the mountaintop, the audience waits below.

Of course there wasn’t a perfect break between them. Artists still have (and have always had) families and friends. Agents, managers, publishers. There is always somebody around who will have a chance to provide their opinions and guidance to those doing the creating. But they made up a very small portion of the audience. They were necessary exceptions.

Now with Twitter, Facebook, email, forums, Reddit and the like, artists engage with fans much more directly. Rather than a handful of close friends, artists field feedback — and demands, and threats — from hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands of members of their audience constantly. It gets overwhelming, I’m positive, and when issues do arise, things are compounded by the fact that the audience member providing feedback has the option of remaining anonymous. The artist has no such luxury.

While that’s a topic worthy of discussion — it really is, though that discussion should probably be started by somebody other than myself — what really baffles me is why such a large number of people choose to employ this unprecedented level of communication for destructive purposes.

Why the threats? Why the insults? Why the demands? When artists came down from the mountaintop with their paintings, their sculptures, their novels, their poems, their double-albums in illustrated gatefolds, that’s all the audience got. They could enjoy it and appraise it at their own pace in their own way, and only in very rare exceptions would they have a one-on-one audience with the artist during which they could register their opinions.

That was a good thing, because their opinions didn’t matter. Artists unappreciated in their time have gone on to become legends, precisely because they did not take advice. They worked the way they must work; that is to say, they remained true to themselves, and to their vision. They weren’t wrong to shut out the world…they were absolutely right, because it’s very often the world that has some catching up to do.

Now very few artists could achieve any kind of following at all without some kind of public presence, and a public presence today carries with it availability. Artists shouldn’t be personal entertainers, and yet we insist that they are. We don’t want to wait, we don’t want to be teased, and we don’t want to be disappointed. We hold artists personally accountable, and when we disagree with something, we tear them to shreds. It’s still the world that has the catching up to do, but we’re quick to destroy, and by the time we do catch up, that entire universe of artistic potential has been crushed or derailed.

Even when we do like something we tend toward destruction. Quentin Tarantino recently shelved The Hateful Eight, which was to have been his next movie project, because somebody saw it fit to leak the script. Not because they hated it…but because they could. We seek, and we destroy. We take a level of direct openness and transparency with our favorite artists that fans generations ago would have killed for, and we use it to kill anyway.

I do think there’s a debate to be had upon the merits of engaging with an audience. Certainly in some cases it seems to have worked out well…the DMX / George Zimmerman fight cancellation being a recent example of public outcry seeming to have turned a despicable publicity stunt into a rare moment of humble apology. There’s also The Venture Bros., whose pair of writers not only monitor online discussion but have openly spoken about ditching plotlines and resolutions that fans saw coming. While this level of organic response frustrates me, the fact is that the show is great, and for all we know it never would have achieved the highs that it has had the writers stuck to their original (apparently easily guessable) plans. Then, of course, there’s Ezra Pound, whose edits could well be the only reason we know T.S. Eliot today.

But, overall, I find it hard to believe that it’s constructive, or conducive to creating great art. Fans don’t know what they want; fans are fickle and reactionary on the whole. For everyone who quietly appreciates, fifty loudly rage.

Why? There’s certainly an awful lot of art that I don’t enjoy, and a lot of artists I make a point of avoiding, but I wouldn’t see the benefit in attacking them, in obstructing their plans, or of vocally detracting. The world is large. The world is varied. If an artist makes a choice you don’t agree with, the odds are good that there’s another artist making the opposite choice that you do agree with. There’s enough out there. It is no artist’s responsibility to appease his or her audience, regardless of what the modern culture of constant interconnectivity seems to suggest; it’s the audience’s job to follow the artists that they enjoy.

In the past, if an artist read negative reviews of his or her work and got upset, the onus was at least partially upon the artists. After all, you don’t need to read those. You can, but you realize you’re making a choice to do so.

Now it’s different. An artist wakes up to more messages from strangers than he or she does to messages from friends. That’s a scary imbalance, and it’s something I wouldn’t know how to address. Online, accessible socialization is increasingly mandatory for up-and-comers. Without it, how could you amass a fanbase today? But with it, won’t it get pretty tiresome trying to do the art you love when thousands of people you’ve never met are insisting you’re doing it wrong?

We lost Flappy Bird. To many people, that will mean nothing, and that’s okay. But that’s only one example; there’s no telling how much else we’ve lost, are losing, and will continue to lose by insistently stifling creativity. The Hateful Eight. Fez II. Whatever phantom episodes of The Venture Bros. never made it to production. All those unmade seasons of Chappelle’s Show. All those concerts Ryan Adams walked out of rather than deal with hecklers. That inconceivably long initial draft of The Waste Land.

Art is the one thing that makes this world tolerable. Well, that and love. Some would argue — and I’d be one — that they’re very similar concepts, and they’re both easy to destroy in the same way.

Let them be. If you don’t like it, move along to something you do like. Killing it gets you nowhere, and it just leaves the quiet, contemplative fans that much poorer for the loss.

ALF Reviews: “Oh, Tannerbaum” (Season 1, Episode 12)

Merry Christmas, everyone!!!

Okay, okay, it’s a week late. I would have loved for this to run on Christmas week, but there wasn’t much I could do apart from either a) review the show out of order or b) review two episodes in a week so that this could run sooner.

In regards to A, I didn’t feel that would really be fair. I know continuity isn’t one of ALF‘s strongest points, but if I decided to jump all around and resequence the episodes, I couldn’t be sure that I wasn’t missing information that would have helped me to understand something better. ALF is a lousy show, but I want to make sure I’m appraising its actual lousiness, and not confusing myself into finding new issues that aren’t really there.

In regards to B no fucking way am I reviewing two episodes in a week.

What I decided to do, for those that missed it, is host a live stream of this episode the week of Christmas. I’m writing this review in advance of that, because I don’t want to accidentally include anything you guys might have said, or have my opinions colored by the immense outpouring of love and affection that I expect happened when we all watched this together. So, yeah. That was the best I could really do. If you don’t like it, go start your own ALF review project. And if you do, let me know, so I can stop mine.

Anyway it’s Christmas Eve in the Tanner house! Willie and Kate are laying in bed reading old Christmas cards, which shows just how desperate they are for any excuse to avoid having sex with each other. ALF comes in wearing his stocking on his head and waving a noise-maker around, announcing that he hid all the eggs.

Yes, it’s stupid. But, you know what? I’m always going on about how ALF should be getting Earth things wrong, and that’s what’s happening here. So, God help me, I actually like this. Granted, he should be misunderstanding much more than this…but while you could conceivably base an episode around ALF misunderstanding the concept of a museum, or how the bus lines work or something, Christmas is truly a goldmine.

It’s a more or less global event, after all. No matter where you are, within any culture that chooses to celebrate it, you’ll find it tangled up with all sorts of traditions and and connotations and iconography that make perfect sense to you, because you’ve lived with it all your life. To an interplanetary interloper, however, it would be absolutely baffling. And it would lead to literally countless ways for the creature to misunderstand what’s happening around him.

Birthdays, for instance, might seem a bit silly to an alien, but you could at least explain them pretty easily. “So-and-so was born on this day, however many years ago. Every time another year passes, we celebrate and give him presents.” That might sound silly to the alien, but there wouldn’t be too much room for confusion.

Think of everything attached to Christmas, though. The birth of Christ. Who wasn’t actually born anywhere near Christmas. The co-opting of a Pagan holiday so that Christians could avoid detection. Christmas lists. Carols. TV specials. A tree that you bring inside and decorate. Stockings hanging over a fireplace. Presents sneakily dropped off in the middle of the night. Eggnog. Santa Claus. The North Pole. Flying reindeer, elfin toymakers, milk and cookies…

The list goes on. And I’m just describing the stuff that would come to mind for me. An Englishman would probably add Christmas crackers to that list. A German would shout a lot. You get the picture.

So, yeah. This is the right thing to do. Especially since the fact that during the course of the conversation ALF confuses it with Easter, New Year’s and Halloween proves that he’s trying. He’s not being a dick, for once. He’s just lost. We Earthlings have an awful lot of holidays and they each come with their attendant traditions and mores and preparations. He’s mixing them up not because he wants to ruin things, but because there’s too much for an outsider to keep straight.

This is good. This is the right way to do it. Even ALF’s inevitable fit of destruction is well-intentioned:
ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

He chopped up the Christmas tree for firewood. For once, though, I’m on ALF’s side. Did Willie and Kate really wait until Christmas Eve to explain to him what the tree was for? It obviously wasn’t decorated yet, so unless somebody told him differently — and we see here that they did not — how would he know that this particular tree at this particular time of year is just supposed to sit inside covered in tinsel and baubles? He doesn’t know this shit. ALF is right and Willie and Kate are in the wrong here. If that’s not a Christmas miracle I don’t know what is.

It’s also justified by a funny exchange. (This early in the episode? Is this actually going to be a good one?)* ALF tells Willie that he has a surprise, and then Kate shouts from the next room for Willie to come quick, because ALF did something horrible to the tree. Willie asks ALF what he did, and ALF says, “I don’t want to spoil the surprise.”

See? This isn’t ground-breaking stuff, but it’s fully competent comedy. It’s really not that hard!

And look at that lighting through the window! They actually went through the trouble of making it look like that sort of dull, hazy, early-morning sunshine, and it’s even shining from a lower angle onto the set than it is normally. That’s some impressive detail for this show right there.

We’re off to a good start. Heck, by ALF standards it’s a great start. There’s enough potential absurdity in the idea of an alien celebrating his first Christmas that there really should be no problem filling out 21 minutes. Right?

…right?

…fuck you. You know that’s not right.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

The credits are just the normal sequence…no superimposed snowflakes or sleigh-bells or anything. Once they end we see everyone dressed up for Christmas, I guess. I don’t know what ALF is wearing. It looks like red suspenders, but then later he gets up and I can’t tell if it’s really a ribbon draped over his shoulders for some reason, or if the suspenders they made for the puppet are just horribly tailored.

Also Lynn is wearing what I assume is a Christmas sweater, but it’s hard to tell because it always looks like she dressed herself right after hitting her head in a car accident. I’m not even sure if it’s supposed to be an ugly sweater. I mean, it is, but it’s no worse than anything else she wears any other day of the year so who knows.

Damn, I’m catty. I’m like Joan Rivers, but with all of my original skin.

Lynn is sitting on the couch, disentangling Christmas lights. That’s absolutely something that folks do around the holidays, and it’s a nice touch. I’m actually pretty impressed that they would bother to give her something appropriate to do rather than sit her motionless on the couch, waiting in awkward silence until it’s her turn to talk.

At the table, though, ALF and Brian seem to be sorting branches into piles. I assume they’re the branches from the tree ALF chopped up, but what are they doing? Organizing them by size for later storage? Why not throw them out? I honestly have no idea what they’re meant to be doing there.

Willie is out getting a new tree, and ALF says that he hopes he makes it home before it starts snowing. Kate explains that it doesn’t snow in their part of the state, but ALF explains that it has to snow, because it’s Christmas; that’s what he learned from all the Christmas stuff he’s been seeing on TV.

Again, this is good. I like that ALF has no actual experience of Christmas, and so needs to piece things together from what he’s told and what he sees. Again, this is evidence that he’s trying, which is a lot funnier than having him be a dick all the time. Good intentions with unfortunate outcomes fuel great comedy. Rampaging dickitude is just tiring.

It might seem a little silly that ALF would believe weather patterns were dictated by a holiday, but compared to everything else we are expected to believe around Christmas — whether it’s that the Son of God showed up and saved us all from Hell or that an old man in a flying sleigh is watching our every move — isn’t “snow is guaranteed to fall” a relatively small absurdity? It works. It’s not a stretch. It’s organic.

ALF outlines all of the things that he learned from Christmas specials, and he concludes by folding in some imagery from that old commercial where Santa Claus rides a Norelco razor through the snow. Guys, this is getting dangerously close to funny. Was the writing staff visited by three spirits in the night or something?

While they decorate Lynn and Kate find some of the eggs that ALF hid, making for one of those very rare moments in this show where something that happens has anything to do with something else that happened.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Willie comes home with a fake tree in a box, and the episode is still being good. I honestly don’t know what happened, but Willie gets a nice little speech here with actual character work as its punchline. He explains that he drove all over town to find another tree, but everybody was sold out. At one lot he found a tree, but it was being auctioned off to the highest bidder. Willie says he left when the bidding reached $100, because he has his pride.

That’s funny. Not almost funny, but actually funny and it got an actual laugh out of me. He then says that the tree came with a can of simulated snow, and ALF says he should have gotten a second can so that they could build a simulated snowman.

IT IS REALLY NOT THAT HARD TO WRITE COMEDY THIS IS NOT BAD

Anyway, ALF is disappointed that this is the replacement, because he wants a real tree. This might be the first sign of real weakness in the episode — why exactly does he care when he doesn’t have any experience with either type of tree yet? — but it’s certainly not the last.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

The family hears some carolers outside and they go to the window to watch them. I shouldn’t have been so quick to compliment the lighting crew earlier, because now for some reason it looks like they’re staring into the fiery ball of ultimate carnage that’s six seconds away from colliding with the Earth.

Kate, Lynn and Brian decide to go with the carolers, because they can see the writing on the wall and don’t want to be around when this episode inevitably falls apart.

There is one more good joke after they leave, though, when ALF says that on Melmac you would never let children go caroling. Willie asks him why, but ALF says he can’t explain, because “you’d have to know Carol.” Yeah, that’s Fozzie Bear level stuff, but there’s a reason we like Fozzie Bear. It’s not the quality of his material…it’s the charm behind it. For the first time since the Jodie episode, ALF has some charm behind it.

I know you guys don’t like it when I enjoy things, but I’ve got give credit where it’s due. Don’t worry; I start cursing later, so you can skip down to that if you want to.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

We jump ahead a little bit in time, and we can’t see the tree until Willie steps aside to reveal it. I don’t know if this bit of blocking was done on purpose, since there’s no laughter that wells up on the soundtrack, but it is pretty funny. It’s an effectively shitty prop, and a nice example of the show’s low budget actually working in its favor and strengthening the reality.

Willie hates the tree, and he and ALF decide to go chop down a real one from the same place he and Kate used to chop down trees years ago. It’s certainly a contrived premise, but it’s at least playing out in a reasonable, rational way: it’s a holiday, something went wrong, Willie wants to fix it before the family gets back.

Again, not groundbreaking, but it’s better than, say, having it be Willie’s birthday, and so he finds out his wife slept with Joe Namath, then he decides to jump out of a plane.

Seriously dudes, that one sucked.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Willie and ALF sit in a fake car and pretend to drive while some stock footage of a forest plays behind them. They explain for our benefit that they can’t find the place Willie used to go to cut down trees, which I definitely buy if it’s been a long time and it’s dark out, but it is a little bit silly that he doesn’t just pull over and chop down one of the tens of millions of trees we’re watching him drive by right now.

ALF is navigating. He tells Willie to make a turn onto a road that’s not actually there, and they end up in a ditch. You know, there was a scene in the American version of The Office where Michael drove into a lake because his GPS told him to turn there.

I never had a problem with that because I thought it was a nice — though admittedly absurd — joke about the way we rely on instructions rather than trusting our common sense, but apparently a lot of people felt that that was “too stupid” for the show and were turned off by it. Maybe I just didn’t think that way because the show was already pretty fuckin’ stupid, but what do I know.

Either way, I bring that up because while it might be pretty dumb to drive into a lake because you’re used to trusting your GPS, what happens here is infinitely more moronic. Willie doesn’t see a road, but he takes ALF’s word for it that it exists…despite the fact that he can see there is not a road there and he is driving into a ditch. What’s more, ALF is an alien. He doesn’t know this area. How could he? How could he even know how to read a map properly?

Obeying a GPS makes some kind of sense because you’re deferring to what you assume is an authority on the subject. Here Willie is actively disregarding what he actually sees happening in order to defer to somebody who unquestionably knows nothing about what’s going on.

In a word, it’s bullshit.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Anyway the family comes home from a night of caroling, and they find the tree unfinished. They read a note that Willie left, and start to worry because he left it a while ago and he’s still not home.

Then they hear somebody else singing outside, and their door opens to reveal…

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Mr. Ochmonek! Holy shit! We haven’t seen this guy in…ten episodes! Jesus.

I was excited because I thought this meant we’d find out what happened to his wife, but…nope. We don’t even find out why he came over. It’s really bizarre.

He kisses Kate under the mistletoe, and there’s a funny enough moment when he passively demands some eggnog, but what, exactly, is the point of this scene?

When I first watched the episode I thought the payoff would be that he goes out to find Willie or something, but instead he just shows up for about a minute and we never see him again. What’s he doing on Christmas Eve without his wife? Why is he here? Nobody invited his ass.

It’s like ALF thought it would be nice for us to see a beloved character again, but that doesn’t work when we’ve only seen the guy once before, ten weeks ago, and didn’t even care about him then. “Hey, everybody! Remember your old pal Mr. Ochmonek?! No? Well, here he is! Merry Christmas!”

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

By this point the episode is almost totally off the rails. (In a very short time, it will be totally off the rails.) They sure did squander all the good-will the first act managed to build up.

ALF and Willie are still stuck in the car, which should be a promising enough situation. Especially as Willie starts to tell ALF about the Christmases he had as a kid, and the fact that they always had a real tree and so forth.

This should be nice. Maybe a bit maudlin, but so what? It’s Christmas Eve. Willie can reminisce and wish he was with his family. In fact, this moment would ideally tie right back into the first scene, with he and Kate reading the old Christmas cards. This speech should end with him realizing that somewhere along the way he lost sight of what made Christmas really great, or something, and got hung up on how things looked.

I don’t know. I’m not saying that would be good. But it would be sort of neutrally lame in a well-established way. Instead it’s Willie and ALF in a car and a story that literally gets abandoned because the writers don’t want to figure out a way to turn it into anything.

Stuff like this is why I feel as though we’re watching these characters act out the first draft of the script; they write the story up to a certain point, realize they’re no longer interested in doing what they planned to do, and then just skip over things or abandon them.

That’s okay. I’m a writer, too. Not only is it a given that you’ll end up following a different narrative path than you might have expected, but it’s a good thing as well. Your job, then, is to write this better story as it revealed itself to you, and then go back and fix things (if not completely rewrite them) so that this new story makes sense. What you don’t do is what this show does weekly: leave everything exactly as it is and hope to shit your audience isn’t paying attention.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

As if on cue, hey look, a dream sequence. Lucky us.

Willie drifts off and dreams about his family in the living room. Nothing is different except for their clothes, which, to be honest, change every day anyway and so this is no evidence of Willie having any creativity whatsoever.

Everything is pretty much as it really is back home, except that Mr. Ochmonek isn’t drunkenly fumbling around with Kate’s tits. Willie comes home, in the dream, with the same fake tree he had before, only this time the family loves it.

He says something about how glad he is that an alien doesn’t live here, which implies that things are happier in this fantasy without ALF. I’m glad that Willie’s awareness of the fact that ALF bends his life over and fucks it every chance he gets is manifesting itself in some way…but I do wish it was manifesting itself as a brutal screwdriver attack on the alien instead.

Kate says that she thinks the tree is leaning too far to the left, so she calls the tree repairman. When he shows up, it turns out to be ALF.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

I think it’s funny that in both of Willie’s unnecessary dream sequences so far, ALF shows up for even less necessary reasons. Did Fusco insist on being in every scene, even if his character had jack-shit to do with anything?

Willie panics because ALF is an alien or something. I don’t know. Neither do the writers; they’re just running out the clock. “Oh, Tannerbaum” started out just fine, but then nobody on the staff knew where to go from there and so we’re getting silly dream sequences with just a few minutes left in the episode because that’s easier than actually wrapping up anything that happened earlier.

Anyway ALF the tree repairman has to take the tree back to the shop to fix it, and Willie gets upset and tries to keep the tree. He and ALF tug on it for a while. I half expected the credits to come up at this point and make it abundantly clear that the people making this show literally stopped giving a shit at this precise moment.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Willie wakes up only to find that there is a real tree in the car with them, because ALF went out and chopped it down while he was sleeping. Willie feels bad, and there you go. That’s your Christmas moral: don’t ever dream mean things about an alien, because while you are dreaming them that same alien might be doing nice things for you.

Amen.

It starts to snow, a park ranger comes up and gets mad at Willie for cutting down the tree without a permit, ALF hides under a blanket, and he and Willie whisper “Merry Christmas” to each other. Sweet holy barf did that episode fall apart.

ALF, "Oh, Tannerbaum"

Fortunately it’s Christmas Eve, and as per tradition every adult male is allowed to commit one crime of their choice without there being any consequence, so the Tanners get to keep the tree.

Nah, I’m being wry. Willie does say that he had to pay a fine, but honestly I’m not sure why he still gets to keep the tree. If you caught me stealing the Scales of Justice from in front of the courthouse, I’d expect to be hit with a fine or something, sure. I wouldn’t expect that after I paid the fine I’d get to keep them, though.

It’s bizarre. I don’t know. Who cares. ALF gets a ViewMaster and the episode is over.

Merry Christmas you fucks.

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* No.

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