I'm greatly amused at the idea of sitcom adapted from a Martin Scorsese movie. I suppose if one had to be made, "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" would be the safest bet, considering the impossibilities of a sitcom based on "Mean Streets" or "Taxi Driver." Then again, perhaps the TV-watching public of the Carter years might have been deprived the brilliant sight of Wayne Rogers as a wisecracking Travis Bickle, his "You talkin' ta me?" catchphrase punchlines rivaling "Dy-No-Mite!" in their pop cultural impact…
Norman Fell: "Geez, Travis, when you going to clean up this mess?"
Wayne Rogers: "You talkin' ta me?"
(live studio audience laughs and applauds wildly)
But I digress. Boy, do I ever.
In bringing Scorsese's film to the small screen, series creator Robert Getchell boiled everything down to the roughest of generic sitcom character sketches: Flo (Polly Holliday) is the Sassy Floozy; Vera (Beth Howland) is the Complete Moron; Mel (Vic Tayback, reprising his movie role) is the Cranky Loudmouth Buffoon; and poor Alice (Linda Lavin) is the Normal One In the Middle. They all work at Mel's Diner, some two-bit dive in Phoenix. (This begs the question: when all four characters are out somewhere, who's running the diner?)
Most of the comedy gets pretty recycled throughout the series' inexplicably popular nine-season run, with punchlines involving Flo being a hussy, Vera being an idiot, or Mel's food being inedible, even unrecognizable. (This begs the question: with food this lousy, who's wanting to eat here?) Some punchlines aren't even punchlines at all - one episode has Mel telling Flo, who just returned from vacation, "Welcome back, Kotter!" The laugh track went crazy for that snappy one-liner, which suggests it's supposed to be funny.
And then, of course, there is "Kiss my grits." The line, given to Flo to say in every episode, is perhaps the most absurd of all TV catchphrases. It's obnoxious and forced and everything that is wrong with bad television. (This begs the question: who, in this crazy-ass universe, is schtupping the illiterate, craggy, VD-ridden Flo so much? Also: how is it that Mel, who has the charm of a steaming cow pie and the face and body of, well, Vic Tayback, gets so much action?)
The episodes range from pretty darn awful to downright unpleasant - these are characters you're meant to hate, right? These shrill, whiny dimwits spend each episode grating the nerves, shouting at each other while tossing off half-formed attempts at verbal gags (with jokes sometimes punctuated by Lavin rolling her eyes, as if to tell the laugh track people when to turn on the machine). After watching a few shows in a row, I began to sincerely wish every scene would end with Mel punching Vera in the face, or maybe strangling Flo with that pink neckerchief of hers. Kiss my grits, indeed.
"Alice" has fallen victim to Warner Brothers' new plan to ride out the bursting of the TV-on-DVD bubble by pumping out a random assortment of episodes onto a bargain disc under the "Television Favorites" banner, rather than release a full season set. Fine by me - the less "Alice" in this world, the better - although I can't imagine who'd want such a cheap collection. Fans of the series deserve full season sets, and everyone else will probably remain uninterested in rewatching the same six episodes, even if it's tempting as an impulse buy. This sort of release is little more than the digital equivalent of TV-on-VHS releases, with its incomplete, random grabs - only we get more episodes per release. Yay.
Included on this disc are:
"Alice Gets a Pass." Alice gets eyes for Mel's college pal, a famous NFL quarterback - who turns out to be one of them homosexuals she's heard so much about. Can she get over her prejudices and accept him as a friend? Sloppy, ill-conceived message-making that's impossible to watch now in this post-"Brokeback" world, thanks to Mel making repeated references to "a weekend fishing trip with Jack." Sure, that's what it is.
"The Odd Couple." When Flo's trailer is stolen, she moves in with Alice. Turns out Flo isn't just a whore and an imbecile, but she's a self-absorbed, detestable slob, too. Can Alice figure out how to kick her out without hurting her feelings? If I were Alice, I'd be sure to double wash those sheets.
"Close Encounters of the Worst Kind." Discussions of Alice's psychology class lead everyone to reveal what they hate most about each other, which begins to destroy friendships. Can Alice make everyone pals again? With non-stop shrilliness, this is the episode that had me yearning for Mel to break loose with the punching of the faces.
"Block Those Kicks." Mel's gambling habit threatens to leave him betting - and losing - the diner, and Alice gets the brilliant idea that everyone should try quitting their addictions together. Can Alice quit chocolate? Who cares - the fact that Flo is giving up coffee instead of anonymous sex with strangers in truck stop restrooms reveals a major flaw in the construction of this episode.
"Cabin Fever." A mix-up means everybody thinks they get some guy's cabin for the whole weekend, and darn it, looks like they might have to share, and darn it, a tornado's coming right at them! Can Alice keep the peace before they all meet a violent end? OK, so there's no violent end met here, but cramming all these people in one room for yet another episode of everybody-yelling-at-each-other sure leads a man to dream.
"Flo's Farewell." In a feeble attempt at setting up Holliday's dreadful spin-off series, cleverly titled "Flo," Flo is offered a hostess job at a swank Houston restaurant. (This begs the question: how swank could a restaurant possibly be with Flo manning the door?) Can everyone come to terms with Flo's departure, and what will the swingers of Arizona do without the state's top skeeze around? Dopey and uninspired - par for the course with this series - the eye-rolling hits a breaking point when "Kiss my grits" is actually used as a tearjerker line for intended emotional effect. No kidding. (Warning: this episode contains the site of Holliday and Tayback locking lips. Eeeeeeewwwww.)
Shot on cheap video, "Alice" is one of those 70s sitcoms that never looked good. Here, it's soft and faded, revealing all the flaws in using broadcast video of its day. The orange (and later red) titles are oversaturated and bleed way too much, several names in the closing credits coming very close to unreadable. Presented in the original 1.33:1 format.
The Dolby mono soundtrack is uncomplicated, holding up better than the video side of things. The series used a fairly lousy recording of both of its two theme songs (lyrics to the first verse were changed during the show's run), so that suffers, but the rest of each episode sounds fine. Optional English and French subtitles are provided.
I regret to report that my wife thought it would be fun to watch a few episodes with me, as she had fond memories of the show. Several laugh-free minutes later, she began to ask if the show was always this horrible. (To her credit, she stuck through three full episodes, mainly to accompany me in ridiculing the show's many massive failures.) This is one of those nostalgia trips best left untaken: "Alice" is a miserable little show, poorly designed in every way. I watched six episodes because I had to; there's no reason for you to do the same. Plus, if for whatever reason you are a fan, why bother with this toss-off release when you know you really want a complete set? Fan or not, you really just need to Skip It completely.