This DVD set was the only thing that could pry Judge Aaron Bossig away from his prized Bouillabaseball card collection.
Two words and an asterisk: that's what Lions Gate offers to excuse yet another edited TV series on DVD.
Facts of the Case
Having earned its second season, ALF takes the momentum of the first season and accelerates it. Whereas before, ALF was amused at the concept of a flush toilet, Season Two has him becoming obsessed with Gilligan's Island—and even going to visit the castaways! It's a surreal experience seeing Gilligan and the Skipper meet up with Gordon Shumway, and it deserves recognition as a great moment in TV history. More importantly, it's just plain fun! ALF (as a character) was a TV junkie and ALF (as a TV series) was a great vehicle for making jokes about classic TV shows. ALF wisecracks about watching the old Bob Newhart Show, yet his psychologist is played by Bill Daily. Indeed, though ALF lives as a shut-in, we find that his real goal is to be a late-night talk show host. You'll also see him blow up the kitchen, and host an intervention, and still find plenty of time to watch TV.
Another big change from Season One is ALF's mobility, or lack thereof. In the first season, ALF walked around and did lots of physical humor. With the second, the show's creators switched from using a dwarf actor to an animatronic puppet. Starting with this set, you'll notice ALF doesn't walk as much, and often isn't shown from the waist down. It seems like a minor downgrade: seeing him move around making wisecracks helped solidify him as a believable character, making him more real. In any case, his attitude remained the same, so the show itself continued to get better.
Making a fair judgment of ALF requires a great deal of moderation. My love for the show initially makes me want to appreciate the smart-alecky comments of an alien on a foreign world. Yet, at the same time, I feel compelled to note each time the show fails to explore something that could be a very poignant reflection on humanity, visible only to an outsider. ALF would be the perfect show to delve into such things, but ALF: Season Two tends to steer clear of them at all costs. Likewise, I also feel tempted to give the series carte blanche…what else could I expect of a silly 1980s family sitcom? It wasn't written to be powerful or thought-provoking. ALF is an adorable, wisecracking troublemaker first and foremost, destined to sell lunchboxes and plush dolls, not become a sociologist. Yet, if I accept that, I write off ALF as nothing more than a live-action prequel to the cartoon that followed. The series was too well done to not be given more analysis than that.
Like many '80s shows, ALF maintained a fairly predictable and episodic format. Subtlety is not its strong point, and the characters have no problem adhering to the broadest stereotypes possible, while the writers have no qualms about shooting for the most obvious joke possible. The silliness is broken from once per season with a "Very Special Episode," wherein the characters will be allowed a little more depth and room for personal growth. The "Very Special Episode" was a staple of 1980s sitcoms, giving the writers a chance to voice their social consciences (and maybe pull in some pity ratings as well). This is part of the reason ALF didn't offer many insightful views on humanity: he rarely saw such things as physical handicaps or alcoholism. In typical 80s style, ALF cracked jokes about TV dinners and left the deep thinking to Star Trek. It's not a complaint, per se; it just seems like a missed opportunity. A decade earlier, an alien named Mork made a few comic jabs at the human condition. Fast forward to the 90s, and the Solomon family does a fantastic job misinterpreting every single human custom. ALF takes a few potshots at pop culture and politics, but not to the same depth as some of his peers.
That's not to say ALF doesn't shine in its own right. The characters may be a bit broad, but the actors really make the most of them. The Tanners are an extremely believable family unit, with Max Wright and Anne Schedeen are spot-on as responsible parents, while Andrea Elson and Benji Gregory look and act like typical American kids. ALF himself fits in very nicely, with a family role that seems to be a blend between a visiting relative and the family pet. Goofy as it is, the show makes it work.
Season Two has some pretty nice highlights. The whole "ALF eats cats" joke gets beaten to death, but the writers think up plenty of new ideas for variety. In addition to the aforementioned Gilligan's Island episode, you'll also see ALF run against Kate in a Presidential election in "Hail to the Chief." Both the election and the trip to Gilligan's Island were explained away as dreams. That's a testament to how much fun the show was: for any other show, an impossible story that ends up being only a dream would be seen as a cheap cop-out. Here, it actually works. Come on, who could get a decent night's sleep in the Tanner household? And in the requisite "Very Special Episode," ALF is discovered by Kate's old college friend, who has become quite an alcoholic. By convincing her he's a hallucination, ALF convinces her to quit drinking.
Also part of Season Two is The ALF Christmas Special. Willy takes his whole family (plus ALF and minus the cat) to a cabin in the wilderness to celebrate Christmas. After a family squabble, ALF wanders off and finds his way into a children's hospital, where he makes friends with a sick little girl. Since the show is fairly hokey all year round, I expected the Christmas special to be pure schmaltz. True enough, the holiday special is full of the same black-and-white moral lessons, but strangely, I found myself getting sucked into the story anyway. I knew ALF meeting the hospital Santa would end up being a lesson in generosity. I didn't care. Nor did I care when Willy talked about Christmas as a kid, when he was too poor for presents. I saw it coming. A Christmas special has that disarming effect; I knew they'd be tugging the heartstrings, and that's okay. Unlike the rest of the time, this furry little alien wasn't trying to comment on things that us earthlings grasp naturally. He wasn't making Play-Doh dip or eating shaving cream. ALF was trying to understand why bad things happen to good people…and no one on this planet has that figured out yet. This is a topic that makes us all feel like aliens.
All this, and no crummy "clip job" episodes. Season Two is a winner. Thankfully, the set has a few decent extras thrown in for extra goodness. I'm often amused that studios will list "Menus" as being a special feature, when in reality it's nothing more than a tool to navigate the disc. The ALF sets, however, have a totally different concept for a DVD menu, and for the first time, I truly consider a simple menu to be a special feature. The menus are actually small skits, created just for the DVD, starring ALF, who's still in his prime 15 years later. He'll crack jokes about the DVD collection or the episodes on the disc, and even give a personal introduction to each one. Normally, I'd find such an elaborate menu to be a waste of bits, but these menus fit the spirit of the show too perfectly. Objection overruled, the menus are cool.
Also included are two preview episodes from ALF's Saturday morning cartoons: ALF Tales and ALF: The Animated Series. Both have the effect of showing a different side of ALF. The sitcom was based on the classic fish-out-of-water conflict, so by putting ALF back on Melmac or back with his buddies, we the audience become the fish out of water, figuring out how ALF's world works. Full DVD sets of these shows will be coming soon, according to Lions Gate.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The video looks fairly clean for a 1980s sitcom (though some softness and audio dropouts can occasionally be noticed), we've got great menus that help bring our favorite fuzzy alien out of retirement, and even a few bonus episodes. I'll be making no complaints about what Lions Gate is trying to offer. The bone I have to pick is: why are we still getting syndication versions on DVD? There's no reason we shouldn't get complete episodes. On broadcast, episodes will need to be trimmed for time. With DVD, this is not so. On broadcast, the show is free, paid for by commercials. DVDs are purchased by fans, who support the product directly with their own money. To not give someone a complete episode when it benefits neither the show nor the consumers seems unjustifiable. The money for these shows is coming directly out of the consumer's pocket, so there is no reason to provide anything less than each episode, in its entirety.
Truth be told, these ALF sets are very well done (editing notwithstanding). The extras are well-thought-out and the menus are hysterical. I'm inclined to think there must be serious difficulties involved in obtaining the original, uncut episodes.
I know many people will ask "Why get bent out of shape over this? ALF is a 1980s sitcom most people only vaguely remember. If a few seconds here and there are cut, what's the big deal?" What's wrong is that what's being sold isn't what it appears to be. You can put all the asterisks and disclaimers you want on the box, but people willing to spend money for a TV show on DVD want complete episodes. X-Files, Buffy, Cheers, Seinfeld, and dozens of other series have been released in very nice sets. Why should ALF get shafted?
When I was 7, I wanted a friend like ALF. I'm 24 and I still do. He can break all the lamps he wants, Gordon Shumway still gets a "not guilty" verdict.
The court is still undecided on Lions Gate Entertainment. ALF: Season Two shows fantastic effort and great potential, but much disappointment as well. We asked them for "Extra Crispy," and they gave us a cat with arthritis. Court will be adjourned for more deliberation on the special features. As for the individual in charge of archiving the episodes—you are held in contempt of court. Bail will be set at 50,000 wernicks.
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