Friday, February 17, 2012

Nostalgia Theater:
America's Brief, Torrid Love Affair With ALF

A conversation with your friend and mine, Brian Hall, regarding last week's Dinosaurs post got me reminiscing about another puppet-based show that enjoyed a short surge of pop culture saturation a few years prior. I speak, of course, of ALF, a sitcom about the wacky hijinks that ensue when a suburban family has a space alien crash in their garage and move in with them (ALF as in Alien Life-Form -- get it?).

When looked at in hindsight, ALF is a textbook example of what I like to call "hangover" TV (not to be confused with The Hangover: The Series, which I'm sure some genius development exec is pitching even as I type this...). It initially shot up like a rocket (no pun intended), taking viewers on a dizzying bender that was over just as quickly as it began, leaving the audience feeling tired, confused, and ever-so-slightly guilty. "Oh man, did I watch that?"

Yep, that you did, America:

Created by Paul Fusco (who also voiced the character and operated the puppet), ALF (real name: Gordon Shumway), was the last survivor of the lost planet Melmac, which had made like Krypton a few years prior. Stranded on Earth, ALF made life hectic for the Tanners, an assembly line TV clan headed by the perpetually frustrated Willie (played by the perpetually frustrated Max Wright), while doing his best not to attract the attention of nosy neighbors and government officials.

There's not much more to the concept than that, but nonetheless, ALF caught on with auds when it premiered on NBC in fall of '86 -- no doubt filling the "wacky alien" void that had festered in sitcom viewers' hearts ever since Mork From Ork nanoo-nanoo'd his last four years earlier. By the time of its second season, ALF's popularity was such that it inspired a spin-off animated series (embedding is disabled, but you can check out the intro here) that made its Saturday morning debut on NBC the next fall, detailing Gordon's pre-series life on his home world. The cartoon in turn spawned its own spin-off, ALF Tales, which re-envisioned classic fairy tales with an ALF twist.

Both 'toons, which ended their runs in early '89 after twenty-six and twenty-one episodes respectively, were actually pretty decent as far as animated fare goes, but that wasn't all. There was also the merchandising. Don't get me started on the merchandising! One of my fondest possessions from that era was (and remains) a pint-sized ALF puppet that I acquired via this promotion at Burger King in the summer of 1988:

(I'd given away that puppet when I moved back to the States from Saudi, but I recently reacquired one on on eBay, and I'm weirdly glad I did.)

Like with many "gimmick" shows that enjoy a sudden burst of popularity (the aforementioned Mork & Mindy, for example), ALF couldn't sustain that initial interest for long, and the bloom was off the rose by the time it was in its third and fourth seasons. In fact, ratings fell so far so fast that it ended up being cancelled at the close of year four, in March of '90, right smack in the middle of a cliffhanger. After years of suburban hijinks with the Tanners, ALF has the chance to join some fellow survivors on a colony on another planet, but before that can happen...

And that's the end of ALF. Caught by the feds and presumably led off for dissection and dismemberment. Yay! Hug your ALF doll tonight, kiddies! What makes this one a little less depressing than the slit-your-wrists Dinosaurs finale is the knowledge that the producers didn't actually plan to end things this way, they just never got the chance to wrap things up to satisfaction. (FYI, there was also an ALF comic book from Marvel that enjoyed a surprisingly healthy lifespan as well, running for fifty issues-and-change from March '88 until February '92 -- outlasting its primetime forerunner by almost two years.)

Anyway, ALF's producers did get to ultimately follow up on that downer of a finale a few years after the series ended with a TV movie entitled Project: ALF, which aired on ABC in early 1996. While the Tanners were nowhere to be seen (though mention was made of the family being shipped off to parts unknown), the movie had the titular alien enlist the help of some sympathetic military types to outwit evil colonel Martin Sheen (yes, that Martin Sheen). Here's a clip:

I don't have much memory of the movie beyond the fact that it exists, but amazingly enough that still didn't spell the end for ol' ALF. He bounced back with a short-lived talk show thing on TV Land in '04 (with sidekick Ed McMahon no less!), and while that didn't end up lasting very long, the character still manages to show up every now and then with surprising frequency -- sort of an awkward reminder of that unfortunate fling from years past that we all think we've outgrown. Here he is being interviewed on Good Morning America last fall:

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