Polly Holliday tells Linda Lavin to "Kiss my grits!" Warner Bros.' Archive Collection line of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released Alice: The Complete Fourth Season, a 3-disc, 24-episode collection of the smash CBS sitcom's 1979-1980 season. Loosely based on Martin Scorsese's 1974 big-screen feature, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (adapted for television by the movie's scripter, Robert Getchell), and starring stage-trained pros Linda Lavin, Vic Tayback, Beth Howland, Polly Holliday, Diane Ladd, and Philip McKeon, monster Nielsen-hit Alice, for some unknown reason, has largely fallen off the "classic TV" radar, mostly lingering as a pleasant memory only for the generation that initially enjoyed it during its long, long 9-year run. Visiting it again after so many years, I wasn't surprised at all, though, that this loud, energetic, silly little farce still cracked me up. It's just too bad that this season's two-thirds-way departure of the marvelous Holliday (she should be on that DVD cover) dampened the sunny tone of Alice's subsequent go-arounds. No extras for these so-so fullscreen transfers.
For those who may not have seen Alice, a brief introduction is in order. It's been three years since widow Alice Hyatt (Linda Lavin) and her young son, Tommy (Philip McKeon), on their way to Los Angeles where Alice had hoped to resume a singing career, had their car break down for the last time outside of Phoenix, Arizona. Finding a job as a waitress at greasy spoon dive, Mel's Diner, which is owned and operated by loud-mouthed "cook" Melvin Sharples (Vic Tayback), Alice works with dizzy, dim Vera (Beth Howland) and sassy gum-crackin' man-eater Flo (Polly Holliday). Conflict at the diner often erupts from controlling Mel's stingy ways and bad temper--exacerbated by the negative comments his food often receives--while laughs are always delivered, with a smile, of course, courtesy of ditzy Vera's slapstick fumblings and Flo's naughty-but-nice flirting with Mel's semi-regulars, including coach Earl Hicks (Dave Madden), lineman Henry Beesmeyer (Marvin Kaplan), and truckers Ralph, Chuck, and Charlie (Michael Alldredge, Duane R. Campbell, and Ted Gehring). When Flo decides to leave Phoenix to take a job back home in Fort Worth, Texas, Mel's former waitress and now aspiring songwriter, brassy Isabelle "Belle" Dupree (Diane Ladd), conveniently shows up at Mel's Diner, looking for a job.
With the exception of A Semi-Merry Christmas, a 1977 Alice episode I reviewed a few years ago as part of an Archive holiday-themed TV collection, I haven't seen Alice since it went off the air in the mid-80s...and I'm pretty sure I didn't catch many episodes past this fourth season, when Polly Holliday was "kicked upstairs" and fired off the show. Sitting down to write this review, I started off wondering about a familiar query of mine pertaining to the loss of public recognition of once-hugely popular vintage TV shows: how could a series like Alice that ran for a remarkable 9 seasons (long by any sitcom standard)--many of those seasons highly rated in the Nielsen's--disappear so completely from the consciousness of today's viewing public? Growing up as a typical TV addict in the early 70s, I was as familiar with "old" shows from the 50s (I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners) as I was with then-current ones. How did something so popular like Alice, then, get lost in the airwaves, leaving almost no mark on the pop culture radar of today's viewers? The answer, I fear, is a depressing one for viewers who care about these things: all that old crap is getting jettisoned by today's consumers. Often-times forgetting the fact that I'm in a TV and movie "historical bubble," purposely watching older titles at the expense of newer stuff, I continually catch myself surprised when I interact with someone younger who not only has absolutely no idea who I'm talking about when I mention Archie Bunker, or Mary Richards, or Napoleon Solo, or Buz Murdock and Tod Stiles, or Maude Findlay, or Ben Cartwright, or Fred Sanford, or Richard Kimble, or Richie Cunningham, or even Gilligan...but who also doesn't particularly care to know about them, either. And with that disinterest comes an ominous loss of context; if you didn't grow up watching reruns of the syndicated The Abbott & Costello Show, then you might go around blithely thinking its equally amusing rip-off, Seinfeld, is one of the most startlingly original sitcoms in television's history...when it is most decidedly not). Of course, availability of a title greatly effects recognition--60-year-old I Love Lucy and 20-year-old Seinfeld are still well known icons to newer viewers because they're always on--but there's no denying the fact that mainstream television and its stations with their-now splintered, fragmented audiences--once a steady, reliable conduit for older shows when it was the only home visual media game in town--just isn't interested in keeping iconic titles like The Brady Bunch or The Twilight Zone or The Waltons front and center and "alive" for new viewers...let alone doing the same for something like Alice.
So...after watching 24 episodes of this fourth season: should Alice survive on some level of pop culture awareness? In a word: yes. The reason? Simple enough: it still works. It's still funny. Scripted by accomplished comedy writers like Arthur Marx (Groucho's son), Tom Whedon, and Charles Isaacs, to name just a few; directed by pros like Marc Daniels; and performed by a seasoned cast of comedians who--despite any reported backstage squabbling--had their timing down pat--Alice's classic combination of silly slapstick and rapid verbal byplay and one-liners only needs to make one laugh to succeed as an artistic endeavor, and that it does, time and again. Farce, often broad, is the name of the game here, hung on a simple yet fruitful framework: the everyday workings of a cheap, greasy little spoon, and the colorful, whacky characters who work there. There's a one-liner at least every 30 seconds or so, many times clever and always "clean" (even all the references to Flo's evening activities are G-rated; adults will get the insinuations), while the frequently loud pace never slacks (someone is always yelling, it seems). Most importantly, the two hallmarks of today's situational comedy--deadpan irony and blank cynicism--are nowhere to be found in this consistently upbeat sitcom. That's the element I found a refreshing change in Alice, an essentially positive tone that still predominated in network sitcoms of that time, prior to today's harder-edged, skeptical, sarcastic shows (and I don't mean to imply "better" when I state "refreshing change." Just different).
Certainly the most noteworthy aspect of this fourth season of Alice is the departure of Polly Holliday's Flo character--for my money, one of the funniest, most alive comedic creations in television's history--and the subsequent, gradual decline in the series' quality over the following five seasons. No matter how talented everyone is here--and they most certainly are--there's no getting around the fact that Holliday's hilariously randy, raucous Flo was as vital to putting headliner Linda Lavin's Alice on the map, as Henry Winkler's Fonz was to Ron Howard's Happy Days. Unlike Happy Days or the analogous The Mary Tyler Moore Show, however, the lead character here--the "normal" Alice among the crazies at Mel's--isn't particularly compelling (the show's biggest drawback). And unlike those shows, the nominal lead here, Linda Lavin, reportedly wasn't interested in having a supporting player routinely upstaging her (both Ron Howard and Mary Tyler Moore wisely knew that letting a character "break out" only drew more people to their series). It's difficult to pin down exactly, but Lavin at this point in the series seems...unhappy in some vague, generalized sense. She's too much of a pro to let any kind of personal or professional contretemps interfere too terribly much with her surface performance (one or two times she did look a tad peeved at Holliday getting a big laugh), but the undertone of tension is unmistakably there, and it only succeeds in throwing further attention to her reported rival, Holliday (who blisters through her scenes as if Lavin isn't there--she's like a force of nature). It was common, reported gossip even outside the industry that there was some sort of "feud" going on between Lavin and Holliday at this time (one news article I found reports flat-out that Holliday was fired because of Lavin), with the outcome of Holliday's scene-stealing being Holliday taken off the show and given her own sitcom pilot (I'll be reviewing Flo next week). Holliday never returned to Alice (even after Flo was canceled a year and half later), and Lavin never visited Flo (unlike real-life friends Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper, who crossed over several times for TMTMS and Rhoda). To my knowledge, neither one of them has publically commented on those rumors, so maybe it's all just that: rumor. Diane Ladd, however, Holliday's replacement, publically confirmed similar trouble with Lavin (Ladd, an equally-skilled dramatic actress, just isn't as funny as Holliday...which is a problem since her Belle is obviously constructed as a Flo-Lite substitute). But there's no guess work in concluding that once Flo departs Mel's Diner, Alice becomes a lot less interesting.
Picking out the highlights of this fourth season of Alice is an easy task: the first 18 episodes that feature Polly Holliday. Once she departs, the laughs are still there...but not nearly as strongly or consistently. The season opener, Has Anyone Here Seen Telly?, gets an "A" from me the minute that announcer stated the special guest star that night would be Telly Savalas (who is deliciously campy flirting with Vera; when she wishes he was wearing lipstick so she could prove he kissed her, he gives her an A-quality leer and exclaims, "Ooooh...that's heavvvvv-vvvy!" Classic.). Mona Lisa Alice, from Whedon and Isaacs, is a beautifully-paced entry, with a marvelous build that pays off with Mel screaming and ringing that bell with his spatula and blowing free meals out the door every time someone screws up and doesn't greet a customer with a smile. Tayback, a perfect blowhard foil for the girls (he's what's really missing in Flo), gets a good vehicle in Mel Loves Marie, when he insists on a prenup with fiance, waitress Victoria Carroll from the Chez Chug-a-Lug restaurant (Carroll just isn't funny enough whenever she shows up this season). Vera Robs the Cradle is a good outing for Beth Howland, when Tommy falls in love with Vera (in many ways, Howland's broad character is the toughest one to essay here and keep funny and interesting...which she consistently does) Mel's remembrance of similar romance is priceless: "When I was 15, I fell in love with this really old bag, about Vera's age. I really got hurt," to which he's asked, "She break your heart?" to which he comes back, "No, her brother broke my nose." Flo gets fired again in Flo's Chili Reception. When Mel can't understand why anyone would spend fifty bucks on a dinner with Flo, a vampy Flo responds, "Because, BurgerBrain, I'm attractive, I'm a good talker, I'm a good dancer, and the list goes on and on," as she shakes her ass, to which Mel sneers, "It's probably the 'on and on' that got him." Little Alice Bluenose should have been a good one for Lavin, where she becomes irate with her boyfriend (Land of the Lost's Spencer Milligan) posing in the nude for Vera's art class, but instead, she comes off as strained and uncomfortably unfunny. Holliday, on the other, kills with, "You wouldn't catch me drawin" a picture of a naked guy...I might trace him, though...." (check out the pre-P.C. Mel leering at a Playboy in front of his female employees, before he swacks Holliday on the rear).
Guest star Martha Raye scores in Carrie Sharples Strikes Again (she gets the silly, farcical tone of the piece instantly), while the best line belongs to one of the diner's customers, caught in a long line for Raye's superior cooking: "Wait...you mean this line is to wait to eat? I thought it was the line to date Flo." Mel's in the Kitchen with Dinah should have let Shore loose a little more; she's a tad too gentile here when Mel and the girls invade her talk show. Cabin Fever seems truncated; we're expecting a bigger payoff when the gang is trapped in a mountain cabin with a tornado coming. City girl Flo has different ideas about camping: "My idea of 'wildlife' is a 200lb trucker who's been driving for 3 days straight," (and what's with the substitution of Tommy in the tub for the opening credit sequence snippet...when he's not in the actual episode?). Guest star Art Carney is sharp in My Cousin, Art Carney, even if the storyline about Mel marketing his chili, goes nowhere (Carney's belching bit is priceless). Mel, the Magi, is a funny little Christmas episode where the gang has a party in the darkened diner (a bearded Jack Kruschen is amusing as Santa, having a sweet moment with the trusting Vera--Howland is quite touching here). Good Buddy Flo has a killer finale--Flo smashes a semi-rig right through Mel's diner--with Tayback's blubbering good for some big laughs ("She killed my diner!" he wails, to which Marvin Kaplan offers, "Think of it as a mercy killing,"). Alice in TV Land shows Lavin yet again to poor advantage, when she should have been getting the majority of laughs in this outing where she learns Tommy admires Flo more than her (when dimwit Vera breaks down that Tommy never mentioned her in his TV interview, an enraged Mel drags her out the door of the diner and screams to the world, "Now hear this, people of Phoenix! Vera Louise Gorman is a dinghy broad!").
Alice Beats the Clock is a little Norma Rae-like spoof that's nicely put together, with a steady drumbeat of laughs as the girls fight Mel over a time clock (hard to pick the funnier line, both from Flo: "If God had wanted me to punch a time clock, he would've have given me longer nights or less sex appeal," or, in wonderment at an off-camera picketing Vera, "Well bless my soul...the wind caught her sign and blew her clear over to Pedro's taco stand!"). Martha Raye returns for Carrie's Wedding, another winner pumped up by the animated veteran (nice to see fav Phil Leeds in a small bit here). My Funny Valentine Tux is a funny outing that sees the gang trying to help a broke Alice and Tommy come up with a tux for his prom (this was the morass of the Carter years, remember....). Mel's advice on getting a high school date is sound: send her over a beer and follow up with, "Hey, you're a good lookin' broad--your place or mine?" Holliday "measuring" McKeon's tux size with hugs is one of the funniest things I've seen in awhile; "I know he's a little boy," she reassures (will anyone who reads lips email and tell me what she's silently saying to McKeon, with a wicked little smile, before the scene fades out?). Auld Acquaintances Should Be Forgot isn't nearly as funny as it could have been, if they had cast somebody other than gruff-rather-than-amusing Ernie "Rocky" Rockwell as Mel's ex-Navy buddy. And finally, Flo's Farewell is just that for Alice, as Holliday marks her last appearance on the show. It's quite a nice episode, touching even at times (Holliday's alley-way goodbye to Mel--complete with one final grab-ass from Tayback and a whispered, "Kiss my grits" from Holliday--is very sweet), and also fascinating to watch as you try and read the subliminal emotions of the two lead actresses as they professionally part (Lavin, for my money, looks seriously conflicted during the final scene, like she finally got what she wanted...which may also result in the end of her hit show). The best moment comes when Mel lays a big one on Flo, flustering her no end and causing her to breathlessly exclaim, "Why didn't you do that before I made up my mind?" causing a suddenly sexy, obviously pleased-with-himself Mel to reply, "Because you never would have gone!" Nice.
Alice hit its series' highest Nielsen ranking this 1979-1980 season: the fourth most-watched show on network television. Part of CBS's absolutely dominant, powerhouse Sunday night line-up, which included 60 Minutes (remarkably, the number one-watched show in the country), Archie Bunker's Place (11th), One Day at a Time (10th), The Jeffersons (8th), and Trapper John, M.D. (19th), Alice's direct competition was The ABC Sunday Night Movie (29th for the year), and the once-mighty, now-fallen The Big Event, on NBC. Remarkably, Polly Holliday's mid-season replacement, Flo, with only six episodes in the spring of 1980, became the 7th most-watched show for the entire season. Clearly Flo was headed for a long, long run, just like Alice...or was it?
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.