By Chaz Lipp
One of the most beloved sitcoms in television history, Alice got its start in 1976 as a continuation of Martin Scorsese’s Academy Award-winning 1974 film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Reprising his role, the late Vic Tayback co-starred as Mel Sharples, proprietor of Mel’s Diner, a greasy spoon eatery in Phoenix. Linda Lavin starred in the title role, taking over from where Ellen Burstyn left off in the film. Alice works as a waitress at Mel’s, alongside Vera (Beth Howland) and Flo (the scene-stealing Polly Holliday).
Most of the series centers on the diner and its colorful patrons. Alice
was a truly smashing success. Flo’s catchphrase “Kiss my grits!” was repeated everywhere from offices to playgrounds all over America. Nine seasons later, it finally signed off—but not before spawning a spin-off, Flo
, starring Polly Holliday that lasted two seasons. Warner Archive
has recently issued the complete second season of Alice
on DVD (they made season one available in June, 2012). All 24 episodes are collected on three discs. Though there are no bonus features, the season’s 23rd and 24th episodes were actually held until the fourth season but are included here for the sake of historical accuracy. As such, these include an alternate opening credits sequence and re-recording of the Linda Lavin-sung theme song.
Alice survives the trappings of its era based on the strengths of its writing and, above all, the charms of its cast. Tayback is still irresistible as the gruff, salty Mel even after all these years. He’s the heart and soul of the series; funny, yet always sympathetic in his struggle to keep the diner financially successful while dealing with the antics of his wait staff. Simply put, Mel Sharples is one of the great sitcom characters of all time. Not to be outdone, Polly Holliday made Flo a pop culture icon as well. Her personification of the southern-friend country gal endeared her to millions. I don’t remember ever seeing her short-lived spin-off series, Flo, but here’s hoping that Warner Archive brings that to DVD at some point too. Veteran television actress Beth Howland has some fun moments as ditzy Vera throughout the season.
That leaves Lavin at a bit of a disadvantage as Alice. As the show’s anchor, she’s required to sort of alternate between being funny and being the straight-woman, the one with whom audiences most strongly identify. To her credit, she pulls it off admirably. Her son Tommy (Philip McKeon) featured regularly on the series. I always feel a little sorry for him (not to mention a bit queasy) during the opening credits sequence, during which Tommy must pour hot water from a tea kettle onto his mother’s bare feet. He seems to be enjoying it, but it’s hardly an enviable job.
Occasionally remnants of a more politically incorrect era rear the head. One episode centers on a Native American who claims Mel’s Diner is built on his tribe’s ancient burial ground. Predictably, Mel unleashes a few verbal zingers that would probably never fly in today’s mainstream sitcoms. But even though that kind of cultural insensitivity might raise a few eyebrows, there are lots of fun moments throughout The Complete Second Season. Not the least of which is “Oh, George Burns!” in which the Oh, God! star pays Mel’s Diner a visit. Seeing the late, great comedian—then at the height of his late-in-life career resurgence—making a guest appearance cements the fact that even by its second season, Alice had firmly embedded itself in America’s consciousness.