Retro Sci Fi TV: ALF (1986)

By | December 8, 2018

A look at shows from the past that may not have stood the test of time and/or that are relegated to their era, but many of us still have fond memories of them.

What Is It? In this sci fi sitcom, the alien Gordon Shumway (referred to in the show as ALF for Alien Life Form) from the planet Melmac crashes on Earth and takes up residence with the Tanner family where he proves to be a constant interruption to their average suburban lifestyle.

Aired: 1986-90, NBC, 4 Seasons Totaling 102 Episodes plus a TV Movie

Starring: Paul Fusco, Max Wright, Anne Schedeen, Andrea Elson, Benji Gregory

Created By: Paul Fusco, Tom Patchett

Is It Must-Watch Sci Fi TV? No, but it is worth checking out a few episodes to introduce yourself to ALF, one of the funniest television characters ever.

The Skinny: Many people who grew up with this show have very fond memories of it and consider it classic television. And the lead character ALF, puppeteered and voiced by Paul Fusco, is definitely one of the all-time greats. But the series took this character, who was quick with the witty line and who could make you bust out laughing in a heartbeat, and mired him down with stock sitcom plots and characters (reason enough to justify an alien invasion). Willie Tanner was actually a good foil to ALF, but the rest of the characters all to often slipped into the standard sitcom roles, and the scripts were mostly copy-and-paste. In the second season the mother-in-law character Dorothy was added and she helped the show by giving ALF a good verbal sparring partner. But they didn’t take full advantage of the cast addition and continued to mail in the scripts instead of exploring the show’s potential and setting it apart from average Prime Time fare.

Now I’m not saying that ALF was a bad show, it was actually a good show with moments of brilliance (the latter usually involving the title character). But it could have been a great show if the creative team had put more effort into telling better stories. Of course, NBC may have played a major role in the show’s direction because the broadcast networks had a strong aversion to sci fi at that point, and they were not all that interested in adding unique shows to their schedules.  They preferred to stick with tried and true formulas with maybe a new gimmick added to pique viewer interest. As an example, the non-genre sitcom Perfect Strangers aired at the same time as ALF and had an interesting premise with a very unique lead character (Balki played perfectly by Bronson Pinchot), yet it was also weighted down by standard television stories and situations. The broadcast nets were just not that interested in pushing boundaries at that time, and the few shows that did–like Max Headroom–did not last long.  ALF is definitely worth checking out, and it’s probably best to start with the second season once Anne Meara was onboard as Dorothy (the show is very episodic, so you won’t miss much by skipping the first season). But a little bit of this show goes a long way, and you may find yourself growing tired of the formula after a few episodes.

Cancelled Too Soon? Well, it was cancelled on a cliffhanger. The series met with plenty of success during its four season run where it ranked tenth and fifteenth (based on total viewers) among all shows in its second and third seasons respectively. But its numbers dropped off considerably during its fourth year, and NBC did not help things by shifting it to Saturdays later in the season. Still, the producers expected the show to come back for a fifth year and they ended it on a cliffhanger with ALF getting captured by the government’s Alien Task Force. But NBC axed the show due to declining ratings and president Brandon Tartikoff later admitted the cancellation that followed was a mistake saying that the show had “one or two more seasons left” in it.

Revival: That series ending cliffhanger was resolved in the 1996 when ABC aired the movie Project: ALF. That focused on the government’s attempts to study ALF and did not include any of the human regulars from the series with the explanation that the Tanners had moved to Iceland (because that’s where you go when someone steals your alien). Supposedly, the fifth season was going to go this direction anyway. The movie aired on ABC because NBC never lived up to its commitment to provide a conclusion for the series, but it never resulted in a revival of the series. In 2004, ALF’s Hit Talk Show debuted on TV Land and that parody of late-night shows ran for seven episodes.

Should It Be Rebooted? Yes, and that is already in the works. As I said above, ALF is one of the all-time great television characters and he deserves a show that puts him to good use. Warner Bros. TV has started up the project and Paul Fusco will be returning to the show along with co-creator Tom Patchett. There are very few details about the series at this point, but hopefully the reboot will avoid the copy-and-paste stories that kept the original series from being the great TV show it could have been.

Interesting Fact: When ALF first debuted, the character became a huge phenomenon and was quickly spun-off into two Saturday morning cartoon shows (ALF: The Animated Series which ran for two seasons starting in 1987 and ALF Tales which ran for one season starting in 1988). ALF even had his own comic book series which was published by Marvel and ran for fifty issues.

Where Can You Watch It? All four seasons are available for streaming on Prime Video with Amazon Prime membership, though that does not include the Project: ALF movie.  The entire series is also available on DVD (though not blu-ray yet) as is the movie.

Read More About the Show: Wikipedia |

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