Once again, the folks at the Warner Archive Collection have pulled out a relic from the past which — for one reason or another — meant something to me during my youth. In the case of Alice: The Complete First Season, I am reminded of sitting up during the later part of evenings with my grandparents watching television, laughing at the onscreen hijinks of the staff of Mel’s Diner. Of course, I have grown up significantly since then (well, a bit) when it comes to my taste and experience in the departments of film and television, so checking out Alice again after all these years had the potential of being a bittersweet experiment.
Alas, it was a bittersweet viewing. Though based on the 1974 motion picture hit drama Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore by Martin Scorsese, this CBS series (which ran from ’76 to ’85) bears little more than a passing resemblance to its source material. The show centers on widow Alice Hyatt (Linda Lavin, who also croons the show’s sappy theme song) working as a waitress in Phoenix in order to make end’s meet after her car breaks down there.
The restaurant in question — the aforementioned Mel’s Diner — is of the distinctive greasy spoon variety, run by a cantankerous feller named Mel (Vic Tayback, in what was quite possibly his most well-recognized role), who really does have a heart of gold despite the verbal abuse he dishes out alongside his slop. Also employed at the diner are Flo, the sassy Southern slut (Polly Holliday) who brought the phrase “Kiss my grits” into the national lexicon; and Vera (Beth Howland), a disturbed dimwit whose good intentions surely helped develop that saying about the road to Hell.
Aside from earning a few bucks here and there waiting tables, Alice also takes care of her young son, Tommy. Originally played by Alfred Lutter in the pilot (who was reprising his part from the Scorsese flick) Tommy was replaced in episode two by Philip McKeon — a far less-interesting young lad whose only advantage was his good, all-American (read: Aryan) looks. Of course, a sitcom based on a drama about a strong woman just isn’t kosher without the occasional missed opportunity at love, and Alice finds one bad beau after another for star Lavin to smile and subsequently smirk at.
Though the 24-episodes this collection has to offer contain many familiar faces in guest appearances, notable guest stars for this season include TV’s favorite Batman, Adam West (“Sex Education”), and the great Victor Buono (who, coincidentally, played villain King Tut in West’s cult Batman series) as a food critic who dies after he eats Mel’s chili.
Presented in a three-disc set, Alice: The Complete First Season is quintessential formulaic television from the mid ’70s. It offers its viewers a lot of laughs, and the occasional cry, too — all wrapped snuggly within the strong moral fibers the heavily-scrutinized networks apparently had to enforce back then — and it is for that reason (and the sentimentally soft theme song) that the experience of revisiting this series proved so hot and cold for me. It’s too silly for its own good sometimes, and too serious to truly know what it’s doing during other occasions. Still, it’s nice to see the show again, and the ten-hour runtime is a decent way to fill a few afternoons if TV Land’s current schedule isn’t to your liking.