Unaware that the Animal Liberation Front had a new DVD in release, Judge Dennis Prince was temporarily confounded by the ensuing exploits of a wisecracking Muppet eager to dine on a housecat.
"Ha! I kill me!"
Bob and Flo Shumway could hardly have expected that their precocious offspring Gordon would, some 230 years after his birth, become the center of national attention on an unpretentious blue-green orb called Earth. Little did series creator Paul Fusco imagine that this irreverent interstellar puppet of his would succeed in capturing the hearts, imaginations, and wallets of TV viewers, making Alf an global hit—one that even stood up to the stalwart competition of Monday Night Football.
Facts of the Case
Unlike another interplanetary traveler who succeeded in returning home after a short stint on Earth (all thanks to a phone call), Gordon Shumway crashes into the Tanner family's garage after narrowly escaping the total destruction of his home planet, Melmac. Dubbing him "ALF" (an acronym for Alien Life Form), the Tanner Family (father Willie, his wife Kate, and his two children Lynn and Brian) reluctantly agrees to take in the furry fast-talker with a taste for housecats. (The fact that the evil military would likely poke him with needles if ever they got their hands on him was certainly a consideration.) And so the misadventures begin, as the Tanners try to conceal Alf's presence while Alf tries to fit in with his new family. Alf continually finds his way into trouble, thanks to his biting wit, insatiable appetite, and uncanny knack to break anything of monetary or sentimental value—not to mention his knack for rattling easily-riled Willie's resolve to maintain calm in the household.
Alf first aired on Monday, September 22nd, 1986, and became an immediate hit in American homes. Practically the last of its kind, the show (which aired at 8PM) was a situation comedy that employed genuinely funny situations and clever quips, as opposed to the now-standard cutting remarks, sexual innuendo, and "potty talk." (Remember, this was about the same time that Fox's Married with Children inauspiciously began the trend of lowering the bar for the sort of crass and cynical TV humor that would soon seep into the world's living rooms.) Instead of catering to the lowest common denominator, Alf surprised viewers by delivering a fresh brand of humor while immediately shedding its potential to be just another "kiddie attraction." By injecting a wealth of clever shtick and thick schmaltz, the show proved, from the very first episode, that this sort of entertainment could and would appeal to adults, and convince them to tune in regularly. It was safe humor, and therefore very family-friendly, all the while sprinkled with numerous pop culture, societal, and political jabs and jeers that worked extremely well, given the presumed objective perspective of the visiting alien.
Alf rose to phenomenon status, though, largely due to his immediate adaptability to the trends of the day. In the third episode, "Looking for Lucky," the show opens with Alf alone at the Tanner house doing a send up of Tom Cruise's gyrating performance of Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll" from Risky Business. In later episodes, Alf creates a music video for Lynn, poses as an insurance salesman, and even slips into one of Kate's evening gowns, just for kicks. Suddenly, Alf showed even more potential as a sort of "dress-up doll" who could deftly promote and parody the styles and situations of the day, similar to artist Michael Bedard's "Sitting Ducks" and Satoru Tsuda's "Perlorian Cats" of the same period. This, of course, led to the inescapable marketing blitz that pasted Alf's face and famous quips on everything from T-shirts and lunchboxes to bubblegum cards and bed sheets; he became a new mania for the '80s generation.
Credit creator/puppeteer/vocalist Fusco for making Alf work so well, proving that delivery makes all the difference in comedy. He flawlessly manipulates Alf's head and hands such that his mannerisms, gestures, and accompanying facial reactions (curling of the nose, drooping of the ears, raising of an eyebrow) result in some truly funny and well-timed laughs. It's true that not every episode is a side-splitter, and a few even get a bit heavier than necessary (such as Alf's romantic encounter with a blind girl), but by and large the show delivers laughs at a rapid clip, fueled by what appears to be Fusco's own innate rapier wit (see the gag reel on Disc Four of this set). The human cast is, as you might expect, generally disposable here, upstaged by the furry upstart. Max Wright as Willie Tanner is probably the most effective, as the continual butt of Alf's shenanigans. Anne Schedeen performs generally well as Kate Tanner, bringing a just-acceptable level of maternal nurturing and nagging. The youngsters, Andrea Elson as Lynn (hottie alert) and Benji Gregory as Brian are generally amateurish and easily dismissed, serving only to round out the family unit yet without the typical angst of maturing children (and perhaps that's a good thing in this setting). The nosey Raquel Ochmonek (Liz Sheridan) and bloated hubby Trevor (John LaMotta) are sadly under-utilized here, but they do perform their small roles to near perfection (see, e.g., the "Strangers in the Night" episode). Partway through this first season, Anne Meara joins the cast as Kate's mother and is introduced to the Tanner secret. Her presence provides a bit more conflict for Alf—but nothing that turned out to be especially noteworthy.
This much-welcome DVD collection of Season One's 26 episodes is something of a mixed bag, however. First off, it's terrific that Lions Gate has seen fit to deliver this set on a four-disc edition, providing a pleasantly distracting stroll down memory lane for many of us, while illustrating Alf's actual point of origin to those who've only come to know him through his 10-10-220 commercial spots (playing the foil to some recognizable sports figures).
Presented in their original full frame format, the shows start, unfortunately, with some dubious video quality from the opening scenes of the first episode. They appear far too soft; almost ghosted. Thankfully, the quality improves as the episode continues along, as well as throughout the rest of the episodes, leading me to believe the quality issues are the result of the source material, and not necessarily the fault of a lazy transfer. Overall, the image quality is good, though not as crisp as I'd prefer (again, likely a shortcoming of the original masters). The coloring looks good throughout, always vibrant and always pleasing to the eye. The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, preserving the originally-aired soundtracks. It sounds fine and is always clear.
Before moving on to extra features, it's worthwhile to point out that the animated menus are among the most enjoyable I've seen on a DVD release. Each disc features newly-filmed material of Alf as he rants into a telephone (on Disc One, demanding an explanation from his agent as to why his show isn't yet on DVD!), then impatiently cajoles us to make a menu selection. When selecting from the episode menu, each selection includes a question-marked button for Alf's brief synopsis. It's really a fun menu design and serves as an added viewing attraction.
OK. Regarding the actual extras to be found here, Disc Four features the bonus goods that, sparse though they are, are good to see included in this set. They begin with the original unaired pilot episode, which features additional expository scenes with the Tanner family before Alf's ship crashed. Comparing it to the final aired pilot, you'll also find that several of the scenes were re-shot, and a different look was adopted for the title logo. Next up is the blooper reel—while it's a scant six and a half minutes in length and sports a sort of crappy VHS-quality image, it showcases the quick and clever wit of Fusco as Alf mugs and ad-libs through some fun flubs, never breaking character nor lapsing in puppeteering precision. Lastly, you'll find some Alf trivia and credits presented in static text format; nothing groundbreaking, but perhaps of interest to avowed Alf-anatics.
Though presented out of original airing order (odd), here are the episodes you'll find as they appear on the set:
• Keepin' The Faith
• Little Bit of Soap
• The Gambler
Of final note here is that the discs are packaged in a rather unorthodox manner, stagger-stacked on the two interior halves of the keep case. That is, Disc Two is secured underneath Disc One (as is Disc Four under Disc Three) such that you'll need to remove the top disc to wrest free the bottom disc. I suppose this saves space somehow, but it's rather cumbersome to fiddle with. Who knows, maybe this is how they did it on Melmac.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Of course, the biggest gripe Alf fans have raised about this much-anticipated release is that Lions Gate (knowingly or not) has released the edited "syndicated versions" of the episodes, not the original network broadcasts. In essence, roughly 3-5 minutes has been trimmed, here and there, from each episode to allow for more commercial time when the series migrated to syndicated airing. No matter how purportedly insignificant the edits may be, this simply does not pass muster in the realm of TV on DVD, and the folks at Lions Gate (and even creator and participant Fusco) should be duly admonished for such an act, be it an oversight or not. Also, I'd raise a charge of negligence by not providing any running commentary here (speak to the pilot episode at least), which is becoming an expected inclusion by many fans and DVD consumers.
It comes down to having to take the bad with the good here. Though it's disappointing to see some of the aforementioned flubs inherent to this release (with Lions Gate still uneven and inconsistent in regards to their DVD offerings), it's good to see Alf make it to the digital medium, reminding us all of how fun and inoffensive situation comedy can be. He hasn't lost his charm, nor has his infectious likableness diminished, even 18 years after his original arrival. He's fast-talking, unflappable, and family-friendly, and that's always a good and entertaining mix to find in your DVD tray. Hopefully the errors committed on Season One can be corrected for the remaining three seasons, which will hopefully be traveling our way soon.
The release team at Lions Gate is hereby sentenced to attend DVD School to learn the proper methods and means of delivering quality home entertainment. Creator Paul Fusco and all associated with Alf are commended for their commitment to good humor without need for a preemptory viewer rating system. Court adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Unaired Pilot Episode
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