This year marks 35 years since the release of E.T., Steven Spielberg’s greatest child friendly movie, if not one of the greatest movies of all time overall. In recent years, film aficionados have tried their darndest to dismiss Spielberg as an overrated hack who works in sloppy sentimentality like Van Gogh worked in oils. E.T. in particular has been retconned as an exercise in fooling audiences into mistaking empty nostalgia for actual human emotion. To this I say cram it, nerds, it’s still a great movie, and Spielberg is still a great director, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull aside.
It also, of course, spawned a number of atrocious rip-offs, including Nukie, and the even more infamous Mac and Me, one of the most cynical children’s movies ever made, where fully half the action takes place inside a McDonald’s restaurant. One could even make the case for surprise TV smash ALF being, at the very least, inspired by E.T. The basic plots are the same: an alien ends up accidentally left on Earth and is taken in by a human family, where he quickly bonds with their young son. The family must go out of their way to hide the alien from shady government agents who mean to do it harm. Where E.T. sends the audience on an emotional rollercoaster ride through wonder, terror, grief, and joy, however, ALF was mostly just about what happens when you splice a teddy bear with Borscht Belt comedian Shecky Greene, and give him a long, phallic nose.
Jokes about ALF’s propensity for eating cats aside, the show was the lightest of light family fare, with episodes rarely going any deeper than ALF dreaming that he’s on Gilligan’s Island. That took a hard turn for an hour long Christmas episode in the second season, when ALF befriends a dying child, experiences the miracle of childbirth, and talks a grieving widower out of suicide. All of these plot points on their own would be a bit overwhelming, but together they’re a relentless tide of shmaltz, leaving a pile of crudely tugged heartstrings in its wake.
The episode opens with ALF and the Tanner Family on their way to celebrate Christmas in a cabin where patriarch Willie once stayed as a child. While Willie nearly swoons with excitement over the idea of an old fashioned holiday, without electricity or other modern comforts, the rest of the family is less enamored of it. Least impressed is ALF, who spends the entire time bitching about being subjected to such rustic conditions, decorating the cabin with poison oak, opening everyone’s gifts, and then changing the tags on them so that they’re from him instead. ALF may not know anything about Christmas, but he sure knows about being an asshole, and a furious Willie demands that he leave the cabin to get rid of the poison oak.
The Tanners are paid a visit by the saintly Mr. Foley (Cleavon Little), the owner of the cabin, who spends every Christmas Eve dressed up like Santa Claus and giving out presents to sick children. He gives Willie an envelope with instructions to not open it until Christmas morning, then casually mentions that his wife has very recently died before driving away. Evidently planning to steal the toys Mr. Foley planned to give out and regift them to his own family, ALF instead gets stuck in Mr. Foley’s truck as he makes the trip to the hospital.
Now, you’d think hijinks would ensue here, but instead, ALF, while posing as a doll, is chosen as a gift by a little girl named Tiffany (Keri Houlihan), who renames him Amanda and holds a tea party for him. While ALF enjoys the attention Tiffany lavishes on him, he’d rather be at the cabin making life difficult for the hapless Willie, and tries to hitch a ride back with Mr. Foley. After Mr. Foley gives Tiffany’s doctor an envelope, with the same instructions to Willie that it not be opened until the next day, the doctor lets him in on a tragic secret: Tiffany is not long for this world. “What are you supposed to say to a little girl who’s not going to see another Christmas?” the doctor asks in this Reddi-Whip light family sitcom, while ALF looks on in slack jawed disbelief.
Now that he’s heard the sad news, ALF opts to stick around the hospital a little longer. Tiffany, like all terminally ill people in TV shows and movies, just looks a little pale, and seems remarkably composed about the whole dying thing. She doesn’t even seem to mind that her parents, for reasons which go unexplained, aren’t there, despite it being Christmas Eve. Anyway, who needs parents when you have ALF? ALF is so moved by her bravery, and her waxing philosophical on how perhaps in Heaven it’s Christmas every day that a single tear rolls down his furry cheek.
Things having gotten a bit too suffocating, ALF’s next adventure is that most well-worn of 80s sitcom tropes, getting stuck somewhere with a woman who’s in labor. The woman is Denise (Molly Hagan), who gets separated from her overbearing, anxious husband when she’s trapped in a stalled elevator with only “Dr. Shumway” to help her. Though she’s initially horrified by his presence, it’s only a matter of time before the new mother is overcome with gratitude at this strange being who got her through the agony of childbirth by wisecracking at her, and takes his suggestion that she name her newborn daughter Tiffany (but only after she determines that “Gordon” isn’t a good name for a girl).
Meanwhile, in plot B, which is where the Tanners occasionally show up, the other Tiffany’s doctor (who’s also Denise’s doctor, and evidently the only doctor in the entire hospital) is concerned that Mr. Foley has donated what appears to be his entire life savings to the hospital, and wants to talk to him about it after Christmas. Mr. Foley declines, muttering “I got other plans.” As you’ve probably guessed, given his demeanor and his giving “do not open until Christmas” envelopes to Willie and the doctor (both of whom almost immediately ignore his instructions), Mr. Foley plans to kill himself, by jumping off a bridge on Christmas Eve. Thank goodness, ALF, freeloading another ride in the back of his truck, is there to stop him.
Though a vast majority of ALF‘s humor comes from his using his ignorance of Earth customs as an excuse to be a gigantic pain in the ass for everyone around him, he does occasionally (when the plot dictates it) show flashes of sensitivity and insight. Here, dressed like Santa Claus of course, he’s a glowing beacon of wisdom, reminding Mr. Foley of all the good things he’s done, and telling him “Christmas isn’t about what you get, but what you can give of yourself. A little girl taught me that…not so long ago,” while a choir swells in the background.
Naturally, Mr. Foley is so moved by this that he changes his mind immediately. Life now worth living again, he returns ALF to the cabin. The next day, the Tanners go to the hospital to bring Tiffany Christmas gifts (which is nice of them, being that her parents are, again, inexplicably not there, nor are they ever mentioned). The show closes as a tearful Tiffany waves at ALF from her hospital room window and mouths “I love you,” as that unseen choir hums “Silent Night.” It then twists the candy cane and breaks it off by having Mr. Foley in voiceover recite a few lines from “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Claus.”
And that’s it! Merry Christmas, everyone, this child will be dead soon.
You know, I don’t always mind if a Christmas show or movie takes a dark turn. Hell, the entire plot of It’s a Wonderful Life hinges on the main character contemplating suicide. The difference between that and ALF’s Special Christmas is that, in It’s a Wonderful Life, the emotional investment the audience makes in what happens to George Bailey is earned. We spend some time getting to know the character, and understand why he feels his life no longer has any value. In ALF’s Special Christmas, all we see is ALF reacting to things happening to characters we’ve never seen before, helped along by cheap gut punchers like little girls drawing pictures of themselves with angel wings, or heavenly choirs helpfully reminding you of when you’re supposed to cry.
None of these characters, not even poor doomed little Tiffany, are ever mentioned again, and, though you’d assume he was humbled by this experience, ALF returns to his usual insufferable asshole self by the next episode. Indeed, a few episodes later, ALF once again learns about grief and loss when he thinks he’s accidentally killed Willie’s elderly uncle, which suggests that the writers forgot about the events of the Christmas episode too. It’s the primary issue with Very Special Episodes, particularly those of the 80s: they wanted to have their melodramatic, “sitcoms can be serious too!” cake, and eat it too, without having to show that the characters have grown in any appreciable way (or even bother with plot continuity, for that matter).
ALF could have gone a number of different routes with a holiday episode–ALF meets Santa Claus, ALF does A Christmas Carol, or even ALF works in a soup kitchen during the holidays, if they absolutely had to go the maudlin route. Throwing in a sick child whose primary function is to teach another character the meaning of Christmas and then crawl away to die off-screen is as cloying and unpleasant as a slab of stale fruitcake.
Original airdate: December 14, 1987
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