My problems started when I was given an Android TV box.
Well, realistically, my problems are a complex interwoven tapestry of unfortunate events that have been unfolding over time since well before my birth. Given enough time and data I could probably track them back to two cavemen arguing over a burned squirrel, but I’m going to save wear and tear on my keyboard by baking this apple pie without creating the universe.
So a good friend upgraded his Android TV device, which is like a Roku for people who color-coordinate their suspenders, and I connected it to my TV and started using it and I discovered a wealth of streaming channels covering just about anything you can think of. There is one channel that’s just endless repeats of a Weather Channel show called “Weather Gone Viral” that is their meteorologists making surprisingly solid jokes over amateur video of things like a mountain covered with (evacuated) mansions collapsing into a swollen river. It’s amazing. I have no idea how traditional TV competes. It’s the Wild West days of cable TV all over again, where you could launch a channel dedicated to an obscure niche interest, like history, and not have to mostly air shows where deranged people insist aliens used to live here because it’s impossible for indigenous people to build pyramids.
I found a channel showing the briefly very popular NBC sitcom “ALF,” which premiered in 1986. It centered on wisecracking puppet that looked like an Ewok fucked an aardvark that was an alien marooned on Earth, taken in by a typical white middle class family of actors who are all about to fire their agents the way the Roman Senate fired Caesar. It’s rough playing a character whose only purpose is to provide a setup for a puppet to deliver all of the good lines in the script.
ALF was, technically, sci-fi, though the sci-fi aspect was really only used to explain the puppet. A lot of the show’s plots and humor are derived from ALF’s ignorance of the human world, the degree of which would vary greatly from moment to moment according to the needs of the plot. Still, I see the little light bulbs turning on over some of your heads. Seriously, call an electrician. “An alien’s ignorance of the human condition is classic sci-fi!” you say. “It is the perfect setup to illuminate and comment upon aspects of the human condition!” Calm down before you knock over your Monty Python Blu-rays. You are of course correct, but that’s not what is going on in ALF. His ignorance stems mostly from the fact he doesn’t really care about the needs and lives of anyone else for the most part, and just careens through life like a cannonball of pure id that would repeatedly smash into the family with comical results. Here’s an example:
Willie: “Remember when you tried to make money taking phone surveys?”
Willie: “How long did that last?”
ALF: “Two days.”
Willie: “And how many cops showed up?”
ALF: “… Eleven.”
The end of the show came rather suddenly, the shooting star of its fame smashing into the unyielding wall of overexposure like a Cadbury Creme Egg splattering into a freshly microwaved Terminator. During the fourth season the numbers plummeted, and ALF was shown the door in favor of a new show called “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
But while the jokes more or less hold up better than average for the era, the overall setting lands much differently in this era. You watch ALF’s antics driving his hosts crazy and you realize they don’t have an out. Consider their options. First, we have the outlandish. They could kill him and dump the body somewhere remote like a serial killer or the male half of a heterosexual couple faced with literally any amount of emotional labor. But even if you could work that into a sitcom, there’s still a lot of risk. What if alien blood stains your pipe wrench? Unlike when a dead woman is found in the woods, a dead alien is going to raise questions. People are going to want to get to the bottom of things. Even the slightest clue may be used to track down the Tanners, and it’s almost impossible to not make a single mistake. No, better to avoid that kind of heat.
Another option would be to go public. Take the little mutant on a talk show and let the world watch him trade witticisms with Oprah. Of course, this would create a media circus that would redefine the very idea of media circuses. Take the British Royal Family. Even if you’re too young to remember Princess Diana and her demise, you know about her kids, William and Bhraedhynn, and their weddings and kids and clothing and vacations and bathroom tissue roll-hanging preferences and the time one got lost in a Walmart and had to survive for six weeks foraging in the garden center. And I’m just talking about here in America, where they are not even our royal family! We had a whole war about it. What I’m saying is, if the media catches wind that you’re harboring an extraterrestrial, particularly one without any sort of ovipositor despite the nose, PARTICULARLY particularly one that speaks fluent English, you’ll have the National Enquirer sending in reporters through your dryer vent like they’re Seal Team Six. Your septic tank will be dug up in the crazed search for any shred of information, no matter how insignificant or disgusting. They might even notice the star cruiser protruding from your roof. So the media is not your friend either.
Another option would be to just dump him somewhere like a box full of kittens. You’d want somewhere with people so he’d be found, or we’re back to the “dead alien in the woods” scenario. You’ll want an entity to keep things quiet or you risk the “mother of all media circuses” scenario. We’ve all seen “Terminator 2” so we know no corporation can be trusted with advanced knowledge. That pretty much just leaves the government. And the everyday parts would be a hassle; the last thing the National Park Service needs is another talking furry mascot. So it would have to be the classic Bad Guys in friendly visiting alien movies: The CIA, The military, the nameless shadow organization from whom the first two are a distraction, The Girl Scouts, etc. The problem here is, if you dump a crate full of doped-up E.T. at the gates of Area 51, the only reason you aren’t dead before you even close the rear hatch on your crossover SUV is that ten government agencies are arguing over who gets the first six months of interrogating you at Gitmo. It’s not waterboarding if you use bleach instead!
So you’re stuck. Your best, safest option is to live a life on the razor’s edge, where everyone has to wrap their whole lives in deceit. Your doors stay shut and your windows drawn tight. You can’t get too close to anyone unless you’re willing to bet the life of not just you, but of your whole family on both your ability to keep the alien hidden and that they’re willing and able to shoulder the weight of the secret if and when they do find out. And you’d best know what you’re going to do if they don’t want to join the party.
You can easily find yourself in a dark forest even without introducing new players. Living with a secret is exhausting. It wears you down. Always having to second-guess everything, never daring to trust moments of peace and quiet. Tensing up at every knock on the door, every passing car. You look at your spouse. Or your kids. Siblings. Whomever your family unit is. One of them won’t be able to take living under the taut drum head, humming with tension. They want out. They want a normal life. But if they leave, can you trust them to keep the secret? Even if you have faith in their good will, it’s all too easy to slip up, have a moment of carelessness. It just takes one. They don’t even have to leave, really, just a phone call to the right people would do it. Maybe they have already. Sometimes you catch them out of the corner of your eye, and you know they’re asking the same questions about you. Everyone stays in their own room now, even those that used to share.
And that’s all of your tomorrows.
So when I watch this show, it’s coming at me on two levels simultaneously: There’s the goofy humor tinged with cartoonish absurdity on the surface. And then there’s also this undercurrent of existential horror, of a family stretching themselves often beyond breaking as they try to protect themselves from a world that’s become deeply dangerous beyond their walls. A world filled with people, some once friends, whom they dare not trust with this truth they must carry, one they may well hate them for keeping from them and having in the first place. A world ready to take everything they have and care about the moment it senses there’s something to be gained, at once aggressively malicious and coldly indifferent. A world that leaves them wondering what of them is real, and what is just the lie.
It’s a good thing I can switch off the TV and take solace in the real world.