Binge or Purge? ALF

ALF (Screen: NBC)

Time to don your spiffiest bouillabaisseball jersey and hide your cats – it’s the Binge or Purge? ALF edition!

Show

ALF, currently streaming on Hulu Plus

Premise

The Tanners – an average suburban Los Angeles family – see their quiet world turned upside down when an alien life form named Gordon Shumway crashes his spaceship into their garage. Having just escaped the nuclear destruction of his home planet Melmac, Gordon has nowhere to go, so the Tanners take him in and call him ALF. The snarky, slovenly, 230 year old alien creates much mischief in their home, making it very difficult for the Tanners to hide his existence from friends, nosy neighbors and the U.S. Military’s Alien Task Force.

Legacy

Though none of the actors ever became “household name” famous, the fuzzy, stout puppet himself (“a cross between a kangaroo and an aardvark“) lives on as a pop culture icon. ALF has made numerous appearances on other popular programs and even hosted the short-lived ALF’s Hit Talk Show on TV Land.

On a personal note, entire episodes of ALF are tattooed on my subconscious mind because my family videotaped it every week. My younger brother – who may or may not be Editor-in-Chief of a certain TV blog – would watch these tapes over and over and over, etc. And the weird thing is, none of us really minded. 1

What’s to Love Now

I went into this binge acknowledging that nostalgia might make me like this show more than it deserves.2 But even taking my sentimental attitude into account, I have to say that ALF is a way-better-than-average family sitcom.

Consider the context – this was the era of boring white family sitcoms, like Who’s the Boss?, Growing Pains and even Family Ties. When ALF came on the scene, we had yet to meet cool, working class, dysfunctional families like The Simpsons, the Bundys or The Conners. And while the Tanners themselves were just as dull as the Seavers and the Keatons, ALF was an absolute freak. He’s like an intergalactic Oscar Levant, hailing from the Lower East Side of Melmac. He speaks often of bizarre traditions from his home world. For instance, baseball is played with fish parts instead of balls. Beauty pageant contestants sit and watch as the judges parade in bathing suits. Cats are the finest delicacy. Earth-bound ALF gets bored sitting around the house so he watches endless hours of TV and obsesses over pop culture. He mails a Valentine’s Day ham to Sally Field and builds a lagoon in the backyard so he can pretend he’s on Gilligan’s Island. He’s like every weird, nerdy kid who thought they might go insane before they could escape their dull suburban life. ALF was a geek hero when our culture so desperately needed him.

But what also sets this show apart is that the supporting cast is quite likable. As the kindly, nebbish patriarch Willie, Max Wright can do a hundred shades of exasperated and be funny almost every time. Acerbic mother Kate (Anne Schedeen) makes a great straight woman, the most eye-rolly schlimazel of them all. Children Lynn (Andrea Elson) and Brian (Benji Gregory) are both good-natured and endearing without being saccharine or obtrusive. No one tries to be especially cute or precocious, which makes them seem more believable. It’s almost a precursor to Seinfeld‘s celebration of middle-of-the-road mundane. Everything about the Tanners is so late-1980s average, from their cornflower blue and mauve decor to Lynn’s stretch pants and perm. Minus the adopted alien child, they seemed like alright people I might know.

What Makes Us Groan

The laugh track is almost unbearable. In today’s sitcom era, I find live studio audience laughter super annoying. I’d forgotten just how irritating canned laughter can be, with that perfectly modulated, fade-in/fade-out tittering. The cloying, forever-long theme song is still stuck in my head even though I fast-forwarded through it nearly every time. It gets way worse when they add the shameless sax track in season three and cannibalize it for incidental music – very 80s in a very bad way.

Verdict

If you never watched ALF before and family sitcoms aren’t your thing, I won’t lie. This is probably not your bag. If you’re an obsessive TV nerd (given that you’re reading this, you very well may be) and somehow managed to miss this show the first time around, you should check out a couple episodes, at least. ALF was definitely a moment in American pop culture history. If you remember liking this show back in the day, then OMG you will love it now. Definitely my easiest, most enjoyable Binge or Purge? binge thus far.

Navigational Tips

Seasons one and two are jam-packed with jams. This was when the network censors let ALF be more edgy, before the protagonist became a role model for little kids. Some of the stuff they got away with in the early days – ALF trying to eat the family’s cat Lucky, ALF using an electric mixer to make a whirlpool tub – would make Beavis and Butthead blush. The later episodes are definitely tamer and more message-focused (in other words, less funny).

For the novice viewer Season two’s “Somewhere Over the Rerun” features ALF’s star-studded Gilligan’s Island dream sequence, in which the surly castaways rue their shipwrecked existence and obsess over a dull sitcom called The Tanner Family. Meta-riffic!

For the ALF veteran I’m partial to season two’s “Night Train” because it features my favorite bit from the entire series. ALF tricks Willie into hitching a ride on a boxcar, which is less fun than expected. ALF becomes chilly.
ALF: Is it okay if I put my foot under your armpit?
Willie: No, it’s not.
ALF: Aren’t you cold?
Willie: Yes, I am
ALF: Wouldn’t you like to wrap your armpit around my nice, warm foot?
I think about this any time my feet are cold and it always makes me chuckle. HA – ALF kills me!

  1. My mother must have been in heaven – she’d already raised six older kids without VHS or cable. I’m so glad she was able to cash in on playback’s addictive nature, and with a show she actually liked. She hated most of the crap we watched, and for good reason.  
  2. More so, it was eerie how I could remember every pilot episode punchline a split second before it was spoken.  

A Brief Word From Our Sponsors:

Tara Rose
About Tara Rose 106 Articles
Since 2009, Tara has been writing snarky essays about pop culture, motherhood and her various neuroses at Rare Oats. She spends most of her other time selling cheese, raising a small human and goofing off with her husband Dan. E-mail: tara@whatelseison.tv
Contact: Twitter
  • Wendell McKay

    I take exception to Family Ties being lumped in with Who’s The Boss? or Growing Pains. Reflective of a certain kind of white liberal middle class despair though it may have been, it had a lot more to say than the other two (and WTB had a lot of opportunities).

    As for ALF, even back in the day, I sensed it was a cut above the rest, even with its insane central gimmick. The episode when ALF had a chance to reunite with his girlfriend Rhonda and gave it up to stay with the Tanners (I forget the exact details) ended with a wonderful bonding moment between he and Willie. Willie makes sure he’s okay before going to bed, and leaves ALF in the laundry room listening to “Help Me Rhonda.” Great stuff.

    The Tanners themselves were a great family. I actually had a bit of a puberty-rendered crush on Anne Schedeen, and Willie had such fantastic tension with ALF. One of the only times I watched the Tonys was in ’99 or ’00, when Brian Dennehy and Kevin Spacey were making such waves with their revivals of, respectively, Death of a Salesman and The Iceman Cometh. The producers thought it would be a great idea to get some of the leading actors from the various plays out to do a kind of scat, bebop freestyle of various lines from the plays they were in. Max Wright was playing Malvolio in a production of Twelfth Night. It was… pretty fucking interesting, and I wouldn’t be surprised it it was on YouTube.

    You’ve seen Permanent Midnight, right? Between that and that Cracked article on the behind-the-scenes horrors that were an apparently daily occurrence on the ALF set, I’m not sure I can stand to watch it again, great though it was.

  • Aaron Mucciolo

    I could look this up but I’m super lazy – was the sport on Melmac called Skleenball? Or something like that? I think I may have had a couple of trading cards of ‘players’ which tells you how valuable I found my allowance at the turn of the 90s.

  • Tara Rose

    While I agree that Family Ties was a better show than WTB or GP, I dare you to rewatch it and find it entertaining. I have not seen PERMANENT MIDNIGHT or read that Cracked article (oh, dear – sounds like that’s for the best, though now I’m too curious…). Wasn’t Max Wright guilty of some nefarious acts in real life? I know I can google all this but I’m still riding my happy wave of nostalgia!

    • Wendell McKay

      I watched it in reruns about ten years ago, and while it wasn’t Night Court or anything, it was entertaining in places (Michael Gross’s peculiar brand of dignified befuddlement was pretty inimitable).

      I’ve purposefully avoided learning too much about Max Wright’s alleged offenses.

  • Tara Rose

    Aaron – it’s bouillabaisseball. I think I even spelled that right.

    • Skleenball was also a thing. It was the game ALF and Brian were playing with the dustpans and can of anchovies when ALF tore the painting above the piano. Later he blew up the kitchen.

  • Tara Rose

    D’oh! I stand corrected on skleenball.

  • Tara Rose

    Also, can we talk about my favorite episode, “Tequila”? Kate’s old college roommate Maura, a seemingly successful lawyer, crashes at the Tanner’s house when she’s on the outs with her husband. ALF stumbles into her late at night, which is “no problem” because Maura is drunk on tequila and mistakes him for her imaginary drinking buddy, Sammy. The next morning, when ALF is hungover on tequila shots, he tells Kate and Willie that their buddy is “a boozehag”. They’re all defensive until Willie remembers they used to call Maura “boilermaker” in college because she drank fourteen boilermakers in one night. Resolution – Kate confronts hungover Maura, who denies having a problem. Then ALF walks in, pretends to be Sammy making a sober visit (while Kate pretends she can’t see him), and frightens Maura into rehab. Oh my word! It’s like a Very Special Episode done right. The whole Sammy thing is so sad and disturbing. The way ALF plays mind games for her own good is demented but also seems effective. THIS SHOW IS SO WEIRD!

    • “We drank half a fifth, which makes it a tenth. OWWW. Math hurts.” I use this more often than you’d think (mostly in non-alcohol contexts).

      • Tara Rose

        Hahahahaha! (Hey, look – I figured out how to use the “reply” feature)

  • I don’t know if it’s my favorite episode, but the one that remains the most relevant to me is the episode where ALF rigs the ratings to save “Polka Jamboree.” Shockingly, TV ratings measurement has not changed much in the almost 30 years since that episode aired. I tried to incorporate some clips in a TV research presentation once, but they ran a bit long.

    There’s some good Cosby/NBC snark once Brandon Tartikoff (David Leisure) gets involved. I believe it also has my favorite rejoinder from the series: “Thank you, Noah Webster.” “Noah problem.”