’80s Couch Surfing: ALF

Welcome back to ’80s Couch Surfing, a series in which I watch and review two episodes of a sitcom from the 1980s. Today’s entry is ALF (1986-1990), a show about a family that harbors an “alien life form” muppet who likes to eat cats and make sarcastic quips.

Season 2 Episode 26: Varsity Drag

I don’t really know how I’d explain ALF to my kids, other than to just shrug and say, “Hey, it was the ’80s. We didn’t think stuff like this was weird because we saw it all over the place. So just settle in and watch people joke around with a funny alien thing.” I don’t think it would be a hard sell, though, because ALF was insanely popular back in the day. His puppet was really expressive and well-voiced, and the surrounding cast more than adequate for the task. It also had a pretty great theme song (as long as you are able to tolerate the sax).

OK, so on to the episode! So for this Season 2 finale, the Tanner daughter Lynn just got accepted to a college in Massachusetts, which deeply bums out ALF (real name: Gordon. Seriously.) because that means she’ll move away and he’ll either lose a friend or a crush. Either way, he’s pretty upset about it, but I can’t get past the clothes that he’s wearing here. Lynn’s parents come in and drop some bad news for her ears alone, which is that they can’t afford to send her to college now that they’ve had to support ALF. She’s going to have to live at home and go to the state university. Lynn’s really upset and ALF’s the obvious target of her wroth.

What cracks me up more than ALF himself is playing “spot the archaic household device” in this set, like the old coffeemaker or the fact that the family’s budget is stored in a binder of loose paper. At least they have Oreos. Sanity restored. ALF offers to look over the finances to see if something can be done for Lynn and discovers that his food and “breakages” cost around $10,000, which is pretty obscene. He makes the connection that he’s to blame for the financial crisis. “I feel like slime gut droppings on an open fire!” he says, making me wonder if a particularly talented eight-year-old was in charge of punching up the script.

My first laugh from the episode comes when ALF calls out “Where’s the fire extinguisher?” just to get Willie and Kate to run into the room as fast as possible (he also times them: 2.1 seconds). He announces that to help with he finances, he suggests that they both get additional jobs. They’re not going for it, so ALF offers to get a job himself. That’s a scary prospect, because as Kate points out, his last job doing phone surveys resulted in no money earned and 11 policemen coming to the house.

Watching this now, I’m kind of thinking that ALF is really just subversive commentary on house guests who overstay their welcome and don’t realize what a burden they’re being on an established family unit. To wit, ALF wakes up the Tanners with a tease that something is in the living room. It’s a lot of newspapers. A lot a lot of newspapers. “Do you think you can afford a college tuition with a paper route?” Kate asks incredulously. “Of course not,” ALF replies. “That’s why I got ten paper routes!” OK, that was genuinely funny.

Since ALF can’t drive, the Tanners drive him in the pitch dark around his route. Seriously, these two adults look like they’re about to murder the alien, and I honestly have to wonder what they’re getting out of this arrangement. Like, why put up with an obnoxious alien if they don’t profit from it or enjoy the relationship? Anyway, the paper route montage goes badly and the neighbors now think the Tanners are destitute because they see them delivering papers.

Lynn finds out about the paper route and this, for some reason, breaks through her grumpiness and helps her to settle into being a homebound college kid. Obviously, this was one of those contrived moves to keep the actors around on the show, but still, I think she lets ALF off too easy. The real conflict of the episode should have been between her and ALF, but that never happens and she ends up taking blame that is rightfully his to own.

Overall, I was entertained. I haven’t seen an ALF episode since I was a kid, and I liked how its inherent strange setup and the magnetic draw that ALF himself has kept me from getting too bored. Plus, the adults are given some leeway to really act peeved toward ALF, and that’s gold.

Season 4 Episode 24: Consider Me Gone

I don’t think I really set up how wackadoodle weird this show is for you, so let me try again. So the story here is that ALF is a refugee from the planet Melmac, which exploded. He crash lands on earth and is hidden from the public and the government by the Tanners, who now have to care for this problem maker while he tries to repair his ship in their garage. Not only is the premise strange, but the making of the show itself was equally weird, as the set had to be constructed with all of these floor holes to allow the puppeteer to use them and the cast had to act off of a puppet. Allegedly, the adults were not very fond of their experience doing this, but the show was a massive hit at the time, and so it ran for four seasons.

That brings us to another season finale — and the show finale — with Consider Me Gone. The episode starts with ALF trying another get-rich-quick scheme by talking to Australians across the international date line to figure out what tomorrow’s racing results will be. Right then, ALF hears a series of beeps on the HAM radio and announces that it’s Melmacian code — and that someone is trying to contact him. After the opening credits, ALF tells the family that the message is from his friends Skip and Rhonda, who are coming to get him and bring him to a New Melmac that they’re colonizing. Most of the family is very anxious to get him to leave, since he’s been bumming on their couch for four years now.

At the Alien Task Force in Washington on a very, very cramped set, the military is tracking the same message and wondering it it’s meant for them. Over in California, ALF reluctantly sends a message to his friends to come pick him up — that he’s actually going to leave the Tanners (but he won’t chip in for gas). The military intercepts ALF’s transmission and doubles down on trying to crack the code.

For a sitcom, this last episode is not really that funny. Very few jokes are lobbed as the Tanners throw a goodbye party for ALF. The long-suffering mother Kate seems just fine with finally getting rid of the pest and reclaiming her career and financial freedom. “We haven’t really gotten along or been that close,” Kate says. “But we have seen each other naked!” ALF responds. All the more reason she wants him gone, I suppose. Lynn gives ALF a locket, Brian gives him a really badly drawn picture, and the adults give these long, boring speeches. They also give ALF a part of the roof that he destroyed during his crash.

ALF leaves the house for good and bemoans, “Four years, and they gave me a STICK.” Well, you gave them crippling debt, so that seems fair. As the Tanners head to the pick-up site, the Alien Task Force cracks the code and heads for the same spot. What’s strange for me is that there’s a baby in the back of the car that wasn’t there at the party. I guess the Tanners had a kid?

So they arrive at the place, give their final goodbyes, and the alien ship shows up. This being a sitcom, the ship is never shown, just some spotlights flickering about. But the government chooses this time to swoop in, scaring the ship off and surrounding ALF with military officials.

And that’s the way the season — and the show itself — ended. On a cliffhanger. Reportedly, NBC had promised an extra episode to wrap this up but then went back on its word. Fortunately, there was a conclusion of sorts with the 1996 made-for-TV movie Project ALF (which I shall cover at another time).

For the historical significance of the show, I guess this episode was important, but it wasn’t that entertaining nor funny. As far as finales go, it just felt like none of the cast had their hearts in it and the writers couldn’t figure out any way to make it amusing. At least I can go to my grave having seen it! That made my life worth living.

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