For years, Judge Aaron Bossig shared his home with a small, furry alien. Apparently so did millions of other viewers.
"What about those Lakers, huh?"—ALF's first words after being discovered
How many mistakes can one show make and still succeed?
Facts of the Case
In 1986, a survivor from the exploded planet Melmac crashed to Earth. Gordon "ALF" Shumway (Paul Fusco) had the good fortune to find his way into the home of Willy and Kate Tanner (Max Wright and Anne Schedeen), who told him his presence would have to be kept a secret. Earth was not used to having extraterrestrial visitors, and if ALF fell into the wrong hands, his life on this planet would be very short and painful. The biggest threat was the Alien Task Force, a group that scans the skies for UFO transmissions and roams the country looking for aliens to dissect.
After three years on Earth, ALF is growing a bit restless. Day after day of watching TV and raiding the fridge are wearing thin. Stranded on a strange planet and confined to a suburban home for his own good, ALF yearns to get out and live his own life.
Looking back on the last season of a show, it's natural to wonder where the series "jumped the shark," or started losing viewer interest. Watching the last season of ALF, the episodes are just as witty and charming as the first. More so, in many ways, as they give ALF the opportunity to take potshots at the human condition (earlier seasons often missed these golden opportunities). What ultimately brings the series down are some classic TV show mistakes like shoehorning in a new character, bringing a baby onto the show, or just getting downright preachy. I contend that ALFwas a series that never actually jumped the shark, but tried to with all its might.
The most obvious "shark bait" would be the prior addition of Baby Eric. In the 1980s, many shows tried to bring in some fresh material by adding an infant to the cast. As evidenced by Family Ties and Married With Children, adding to the family usually didn't improve the show as much as the producers would have wanted. However, the damage wasn't quite as bad in this case. Eric wasn't a crucial addition to ALF, but he did provide for a few good episodes, such as "Baby Come Back," wherein ALF becomes Eric's babysitter. The show worked best when ALF would comment on our world from his alien perspective, and now he had the opportunity to talk about babies. What could have been a show-killer became a minor distraction.
Another classic mistake was the addition of yet another principal character, a character that was previously unknown and played by an actor who never had the chance to develop chemistry with the rest of the cast. Meet Uncle Neal. Neal is Willy's screw-up brother who moves in with the Tanners and therefore learns about their furry houseguest. JM J. Bullock steps into the role of Neal like a pro, but truthfully his character is just a redundant Willy. Oh, there are a few trivial differences between the two characters, but overall Neal's dialogue could have been interchangeable with Willy's and no one would have really cared. It's not that Neal is a bad character per se, he just serves no real purpose to the show. Not surprisingly, he's gone and forgotten after a few episodes.
ALF even got dangerously close to jumping the shark when it again dipped into the "very special episode" plague found in most 80s shows. For some reason, so many shows felt the need to make amends for just being funny, so they made one un-funny episode per season about a serious topic. In this case, it was ALF getting panicky over the environment. In the episode "Stayin' Alive," ALF convinces Willy to protest a company's environmentally unfriendly policies. It's a pretty big departure from typical ALF episodes involving him digging up the yard or setting fire to the kitchen. It's different enough that it's almost feels like a different show, and that's enough to turn off all but the most forgiving ALF-fan.
Still, after bad casting decisions and bad story ideas, ALF continued to retain much of its charm. While it held true to its formula as a show about a smart aleck alien, the show maintained continuity and did support decent character development. During the first season, ALF struggled to understand our world. Four years later, his frustration comes from being cooped up in the house, unable to walk among earthlings. He's a social animal, being confined to a small circle of friends must be very stressful. Throughout the season, he'll struggle to find more and more ways to get out of the house, ultimately getting the chance to go to a different planet at the season finale.
Season 4 does get a chance to shine in its own light. While initially the characters were very broad and one-dimensional, these last few episodes highlight some real character growth. In the episode "I Gotta Be Me," Lynn has a mature discussion with her mom about losing her virginity and moving in with her boyfriend. ALF begins to understand how humans feel about pets, and swears off eating cats. We even see Kate show brief moments of affection toward ALF, whereas before she had always tried to distance herself from him. For everything this show did wrong, the cast and crew did a lot right.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
As enjoyable as this set is, ALF as a series didn't live up to its full potential simply because it ends on an unresolved cliffhanger. At the conclusion of the last episode, ALF had a chance to start a new life on a new planet with his friend Skip and his girlfriend Rhonda (other surviving Melmacians). Seconds before their reunion, ALF is captured by the Alien Task Force, never to see his friends or the Tanners again.
That is NOT a suitable way to end a show that had run four years. To add insult to injury, Season 4, like all the others, has been released on DVD only as edited "syndication" versions. I've complained about this for all four seasons, but apparently the damage is done. We fans have ALF on DVD, apparently at the cost of two minutes of footage per episode.
For anyone who already has Seasons 1, 2, and 3, there's no reason not to buy Season 4. The video and audio quality are respectable for late 80s TV, but unlike the Season 2 DVD set, there are no extra features.
That said, if you loved the furry little Melmacian, I'd recommend buying Season 4 along with the later TV movie Project: ALF. The movie does tie up some loose ends, and you'll get some closure in knowing that the little guy winds up okay.
ALF has been found guilty of reckless endangerment of a great TV series. The ultimate demise of this show has been noted. Why can't we dissect TV Network Executives instead of small, furry Melmacians?
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