DVD Review: Alice (The Complete First Season)

What does it take for a network executive to embrace a female-oriented sitcom based on a Martin Scorsese film? Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was an Oscar-winning drama with a couple of light moments. But it was far from the studio laughter that greets the cast of Happy Days. The movie’s screenwriter, Robert Getchell (Mommy Dearest) spotted the sitcom moment inside his journey movie. Alice’s car breaks down in Phoenix, Arizona. She takes a job as a waitress at a greasy spoon to pay the bills. She even finds love except it turns out to be a married Harvey Keitel who has no problem beating his wife. So Getchell just stepped it back to Alice stuck in Phoenix and working at the greasy spoon. Not need to bring Harvey into the mix. The network took a gamble on the soup of the day and found a hit that lasted 8 seasons. Alice: The Complete First Season surprises by how it lightened up the atmosphere of the movie and succeeded.

The TV series centers on Mel’s Diner. Linda Lavin (Barney Miller) is the frustrated singer stuck in Phoenix. She’s recent widow raising her teen son (Philip McKeon) while working various shifts. At first her fellow waitresses aren’t much of a help. Flo (Polly Holliday) is smart and sassy. Vera (Beth Howland) is a giant ball of nerves. The ringleader in the diner is Mel (Vic Tayback). He had performed the role in the movie. The sitcom really lightens up his gruff cinema character. This was a good thing for Vic since he was one of the top guest goons on TV. He menaced Cannon, Jim Phelps, Joe Mannix, Sheriff Matt Dillon and Ironside. His comic touch wasn’t completely unknown since he also appeared on The Monkees, That Girl and Get Smart. But could he create a weekly character that viewers would find gruff and slightly lovable? He knew how to serve up jokes that were more tasty than his eggs for over 200 episodes.

“Alice Gets a Pass” really touches upon a sensitive subject for 1976. Mel’s old college pal is coming to town for a fishing trip. Jack Newhouse (Denny Miller) is a retired pro quarterback interested in Alice. Naturally there’s a problem as Newhouse admits he likes being with Alice except he can’t really date her. He’s gay. Mel doesn’t know this about his macho pal. Alice isn’t sure if she wants her kid hanging out with Newhouse. The show quickly introduces Flo with her trademark catch phrase “Kiss my grits.” That was how you could tell the show had quickly latched into the pop culture. “Pay the Fifty Dollars” busts Alice on charges of being a hooker. The sheriff is Gordon Jump (WKRP in Cincinnati). “A Call to Arms” alarms Alice when she receives an obscene phone call. Who could it be? Hard to tell when they cast creepy guest star Geoffrey Lewis as the deputy. Alice contemplates getting a gun for security. Doesn’t the state of Arizona give you a gun when you apply for a driver’s license?

There’s a Batman related episodes in the middle. “The Last Review” serves Victor Buono (King Tut on Batman). He’s a food critic interested in reviewing Mel’s cooking. Mel nearly sabotages the meal with his pimping the worst his menu. Buono gets in a great cock fight joke. “Sex Education” brings Batman himself into Mel’s Diner. Adam West’s not there to battle the meatloaf. He’s the son’s sex education teacher. Alice is unnerved that her kid’s hormones are going into overdrive. She fears the class is making him want to have sex with classmates. Is Adam West turning teens into perverts?

“Vera’s Mortician” introduces us to her new boyfriend (Newhart‘s Tom Poston. Oddly enough John Fielder (The Bob Newhart Show) also pops up. Little did they know they’d both be linked to Bob Newhart. “The Failure” attempts to pump up the self esteem of a man. Trouble is the guy is a robber. Bernie Kopell (The Love Boat) would use these lessons to go to med school. “The Hex” curse the diner thanks to Kaye Ballard (The Mothers-In-Law). “Mel’s Happy Burger” films a commercial in the dinner. Can Alice make Mel the next Ronald McDonald? Ronnie Schell (Duke on Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.) wants to help.

Alice: The Complete First Season is a first class start to a long running series. The interplay between Alice, Flo, Vera and Mel really makes you want to laugh at a scenario that wasn’t so funny in the Scorsese film. The show doesn’t lose its depth when it plays for laughs. There’s no difference between how Alice dealt with a gay character than an episode of Will & Grace. They figured out how to make Batman teach sex education without mocking the concept.

The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The transfers are fine for a show that was shot on video. There’s a few glitches, but nothing traumatic. The audio is Dolby Digital mono. The levels are fine with the laughter kept below the dialogue.

The Pilot (24:09) is rarely seen since it features a different son. Alfred Lutter III played the son in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. He couldn’t completely make the transition to the sitcom since he looked like he was about to be bigger than Mel. Dennis Dugan (Richie Brockelman, Private Eye) lures Alice out on a date with the claim of being a music agent. Alice even sings in the diner to show off her chops. This is where they got the opening credits footage of Vera and the exploding drink straws.

Alice: The Complete First Season establishes why the series stuck around for so long. There was a good chemistry with the cast. The scripts were daring and entertaining. This is a Manufacture on Demand offering so it might not play well on your computer’s DVD drive.

Warner Archive presents Alice: The Complete First Season. Starring: Linda Lavin, Vic Tayback, Beth Howland and Polly Holliday. Boxset contents: 23 episodes on 3 DVDs. Released July 12, 2012. Available at Amazon.com.

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