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One summer night a space ship crashed into the Tanner family garage, and with it came a phenomenon that would last half a decade.
If you don’t know about “ALF”, then you weren’t around in the ‘80s. Anyone who was alive during the show’s run from 1986-1990 knew about the alien. Even the Amish would have been hard pressed to avoid some mention of his name. His catchphrases and face were everywhere – from public service announcements to “ALF” glasses, toys, and probably even some waste management equipment. “ALF” was the merchandising gimmick “The Simpsons” makes fun of with Krusty the Clown. Merchandise, two cartoons, and multiple appearances on talk shows, game shows… you name it, “ALF” somehow was involved. But it all started with a television sitcom, and this was its first season.
Alf arrived on earth with a crash – literally. One moment it was a calm evening for Willie Tanner and his family, and the next they had an alien in their household. Willie identified the being as an A.L.F. which we were told stood for Alien Life Form (of course I was a huge fan of UFOs and such at the time and I had never heard the term A.L.F, but that’s neither here nor there). Alf regained consciousness and quickly found a place in the Tanner family where every week he could cause some sort of chaos or trouble or attempt to eat their cat (yes, he ate cats), but he’d always be forgiven in the end.
As a sitcom, “ALF” was no better or worse then anything else on the air in the ‘80s. That doesn’t necessarily make it good, but at the same time how can I completely tear apart a phenomenon? Alf was worshipped… of course in the ‘80s we also worshipped an Australian guy who ran around yelling “Oy!” and David Leisure as “Isuzu Joe”, so what did we know?
“ALF” runs into the problem of being a sitcom based around a gimmick. Today a sitcom like that fails pretty quickly, where more character-based sitcoms (like “Friends” or “King of Queens”) tend to succeed. Alf himself was the gimmick. Each week was an excuse to get Alf into some sort of trouble, either because of his directness, or his alien habits and knowledge. Plot lines focused on whatever was convenient, and often stole heavily from other shows where keeping something hidden was central to the plot like “Bewitched” or “I Dream of Jeannie”. Storylines topical to the era were quickly used (such as nuclear war which was tapped for the 4th episode) and of course you had to have your “Very Special Episodes” where Alf learns the true meaning of Christmas, or meets a blind girl or an illegal alien. It’s a little surprising to see a sitcom hit all of the old standbys like these so quickly, but “ALF” resorted to every one of them within its first season, even stooping to an hourlong clip show before the season was finished (which showed flashbacks for at least one of the episodes that hadn’t even aired yet).
Each episode of Season One runs just over 20 minutes (except for the clip show), which means sitting down and watching one or two doesn’t tie up much time. As you watch more though you start to realize the formula that went into the writing. Typically by the 5-minute mark the plot was set and in action, giving Alf plenty of time to make his trademark quips. The resolution for each episode usually wouldn’t come until the 18 or 19-minute mark, which meant resolutions were quick, short, and convenient. Heck, sometimes the solution to the week’s plot even happened off screen. We’d see Alf and Willie lost in the woods, go to a commercial break, and when we come back – BAM! They’re back in the living room laughing about what a time they had. For one or two episodes it’s okay, but as you watch more it becomes just plain annoying. Sometimes the story is on its way to something that might make an interesting episode on its own and – WHAM! Comes the resolution.
As the acting goes, Alf was the star, even if he didn’t receive a credit. He was the funny guy to everyone else’s straight man. Almost every other member of the cast has had a short career other then “ALF”, and with good reason: stiff delivery and over acting in (presumably) an effort to make the puppet look good. It’s funny that the character that acts the most normal as an actor is the one made of felt and fur. Max Wright is about the only member of the cast to move on to life after “ALF”. His Willie Tanner was the perfect foil to Alf’s mischief and misdeeds. As Wright has shown us with other roles though, that seems to be who he is, and not just a character. The rest of the cast really isn’t worth mentioning, other then guest appearances by Liz Sheridan as nosy next door neighbor Mrs.Ochmonek (Alf says:”Sounds like a typo”) who has earned her place with other nosy neighbors in television history.
With all of that said, “ALF” was a very funny show from time to time, unfortunately they felt the need to limit the show so only Alf was allowed to be funny. Still, he had great delivery for his punch lines and managed to be extremely personal despite being a puppet. You couldn’t help but laugh at his comments, his cat eating, or his excessive greed - in the decade of excess, Alf was king.
Despite “ALF” not being the greatest show, I guess it was only destined for it to come out on DVD. With Alf’s recent resurgence as a pop icon it is only a matter of time before he has his own show again (a talk show pilot has already aired on TV Land) and the cycle starts over again. Maybe by giving us a DVD release to watch, both viewers and producers will see where mistakes were made before, hopefully avoiding the same mistakes in the future. Or, maybe it’s just a chance to cash in on Alf’s new re-found fame.
The set consists of four discs, each with seven episodes except the fourth disc, which contains four episodes and the set’s extras. Before we get into that last disc, lets take a look at the rest of the set.
The first thing to say is the set is full of Alf goodness. If you like Alf, you’ll like the set. If you don’t like Alf… well, you probably aren’t considering purchasing the set, so there’s no need to keep reading. Each disc opens with Alf talking to the audience or on the phone. The first disc has him talking to his agent about not being on DVD, and finding out he is now available on DVD. The second disc has him finding out more information, etc. You can bypass the scene with Alf by clicking on the “Episodes” option, or you will be taken there automatically once the scene is done. From there you get your selection of episodes. You select an episode and either click play, or click a question mark and Alf will tell you about the episode. The information Alf gives you usually isn’t much, but then the plot to the episodes usually wasn’t much either. They are cute little intros though and I found myself quickly clicking through them as I put each disc in. The episodes don't divide into any sort of chapter selection, so if you want to see something later in an episode you have to fast forward to it. As each episode is only 20 minutes long, this isn't a huge problem.
The episodes look pretty good, and the sound is exactly what it was at the time (2.0 Stereo). The only real problem I had is that after looking for decent episode descriptions online I couldn’t help but notice the episodes are not in their original order for either airdate or production. I’m not sure why they were placed in another order, or how that order was chosen, but to be honest it really doesn’t matter. There isn’t much continuity between episodes, and the few episodes where there is some sort of connection the shows have been kept together. It just seemed strange, but didn’t interfere with the enjoyment of the show.
The extra features are sparse, which is the biggest downside of the set. There are no commentaries on any episode, which is a shame – an Alf in-character commentary here or there would have been funny (however one on every episode would have been too much). There is no look behind the scenes either, so there’s no getting to see what went into making the show. I’m guessing that will either be on a future set, or was never made to maintain the illusion of Alf. Still, since that’s a lot of the fun of DVD, it’s a bummer not to see it. We do get an outtake/gag reel, and it’s hilarious. I probably could watch it a couple of times. Unfortunately it appears to be from more then just the first season of the show, which means it’s unlikely there will be another gag reel on future sets.
Also included is the “Never Before Aired Original Pilot Episode”. It’s good advertising, but it would be better to call it a “Original Pilot Episode With 20% Unseen Material”. Most of the episode is exactly the same as the original pilot episode. It opens differently, giving us a look at the Tanner family pre-Alf. I assume it was probably shown to the network execs who said: cut out that 5 minutes at the beginning and get the funny guy in sooner. The only real difference is the final scene with the Alien Task Force person, who is a different actor and the interchange between him and Kate goes a lot faster. Other then that, pretty much the same as the real pilot episode.
“Alf” was a hit series for the time period it was on, but it could never make it today. Some people will enjoy looking back at the nostalgia that was Alf, and others will prefer the cat-eating alien had stayed in the past. Either way, he’s out on DVD now, and it can be certain we’ll see three more seasons released in the future. All we can do is hope he gets a little better treatment with some of those then his first DVD sees.
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