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Series / Alice (1976)

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"Mel, kiss my grits!"

A Work Com on CBS that straddled The '70s and The '80s, set in a diner and starring Linda Lavin as Alice Hyatt. Loosely adapted from Martin Scorsese's 1974 dramedy film Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore — no, really! — the series ran from 1976 to 1985, a total of 202 episodes in nine seasons.

Alice Hyatt was a widowed mother and aspiring singer whose car broke down in Phoenix, Arizona while she and her son Tommy (Philip McKeon) were en route from New Jersey to California. Her waitressing job at Mel's Diner was meant to be temporary while she got her singing career moving, but it stretched out to nine seasons. During that time, we met penny-pinching hothead Mel Sharples (Vic Tayback), the diner's owner; ditzy Cloudcuckoolander waitress Vera Gorman (Beth Howland); and wise-cracking, slightly over-the-hill, good-time-girl waitress Flo Castleberry (Polly Holliday). In the midst of all the schemes and hilarity that ensued at the diner, it was always Alice who remained level-headed and somehow always came up with a solution.

The series became quite popular, particularly because of Flo, who left for her own spinoff a few years in. In her place came a Suspiciously Similar Substitute, Belle Dupree, who was basically a blond version of the character. Although they (re)cast the actress who had played Flo in the original movie (Diane Ladd), Belle didn't last long, and was replaced by Jolene Hunnicutt (Celia Weston). Jolene had a similar outspoken temperament to her predecessors, but was younger and less obviously promiscuous.

Alice is remembered for making the Catchphrase "Kiss my grits!" (as uttered by Flo) enormously popular for a short while. The show also gave Linda Lavin many occasions to show off her singing skills, and occasionally let her masquerade as other characters to give her a break from playing the ultra-normal, non-threatening Alice.

No relation to the 1990 Woody Allen film Alice, the 2009 Syfy miniseries Alice, or the the song/movie Alice's Restaurant.

Tropes served up at Mel's Diner:

  • Adaptational Location Change: The diner was located in Tucson in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore but moves up Interstate 10 to Phoenix for the series. Also, in the movie Alice is a California native who moves to Arizona from New Mexico, but in the series she's originally from New Jersey (a change presumably made to accommodate Linda Lavin's very East Coast accent).
  • Advertised Extra: Tommy eventually becomes this as the show's focus drifts from different areas of Alice's life to solely of adventures of the diner.
  • Angry Chef: Mel Sharples. He's the owner/operator of Mel's Diner, a greasy-spoon truck stop grill in Phoenix, Arizona and is the sole kitchen staff, with Bad Boss, Jerkass, and The Scrooge tendencies. Some of the show's humor focuses on his cost-cutting measures.
  • As Himself:
    • One memorable episode featured George Burns visiting the restaurant. Vera thought he was God (having starred in the ''Oh, God!'' movies.) Vera realizes he's just George Burns when she finds out he's going on a date with Flo, saying he couldn't be that holy if he did.
    • Art Carney appeared in another episode in which Mel had a scheme to can and market his infamous chili under the name "Chili Con Carney".
    • And another instance with Robert Goulet, whom Alice was impersonating as part of a Zany Scheme.
    • Actor/dancer Donald O'Connor appears to cheer on Vera as she attempted to break the world record for marathon tap dancing.
  • Breakout Character: Flo received her own sitcom and was known for her catchphrase "Kiss my grits."
  • Cannot Tell Fiction from Reality: Vera, at least in the episode with George Burns.
  • The Cast Show Off: Linda Lavin was cast specifically because of her singing talent.
  • Catchphrase:
    • The infamous "Kiss my grits!", usually preceded by her drawling, "Mel?" The writers attempted to give the other characters catch phrases, none of which caught on to anywhere near the same extent. Mel's "Stow it!" was the only other one with any staying power.
    • Mel later added "Bag it, Blondie!", directed at Jolene.
  • Caustic Critic: "The Last Review" saw Mel's Diner be the planned subject of one, after Alice invites a newspaper reviewer with a nasty reputation to review Mel's chili, hoping to drum up business. Things quickly go downhill, by making none-too-flattering remarks about the diner, the service he receives, etc. That's before the critic suddenly falls ill shortly after sampling his first bite of the chili and is non-responsive; medical workers are unable to revive the critic and he is declared dead. Mel learns about the incident and, after an initial autopsy report reveals he suffered from food poisioning, worries that it was his chili that contributed to his death. In the end, Alice gets a call and shares some excellent news: A more conclusive report revealed that something he had eaten earlier in the day, several hours before showing up at Mel's, along with a congenital heart condition and the resulting sudden heart attack, resulted in the events that killed the critic, and Mel's chili is safe for the world to eat.
    • On a more general sense, Mel himself when criticizing his waitress' performances.
  • Christmas Episode: "A Semi-Merry Christmas" (season 2), "Mel, the Magi" (season 4), "Mel's Christmas Carol" (season 6), "'Tis the Season to be Jealous" (season 8).
  • Cloudcuckoolander: The "third waitress," Vera, generally caught all the "dumb" lines, but was also weird enough to qualify as this trope.
  • Compressed Vice:
    • In "Block Those Kicks," Alice, Vera, and Flo suddenly gain addictions to chocolate, smoking, and coffee respectively, and, along with any mention of them, vanish as soon as the episode is over.
    • In the final season, "Tommy's Last Weekend", it turns out Tommy's quickly turned into a drunk who's suffering been suffering blackouts, loses a car, and can no longer keep up on his college courses. Tommy promises to seek treatment, which must have worked (and how!), because he's back to normal the next episode he appears. Must have gone cold turkey.
  • Crossover: Boss Hogg and Enos Strate, of The Dukes of Hazzard, somehow make their way from Georgia to Phoenix in one episode. Boss Hogg is said to be Jolene's cousin.
  • Digging Yourself Deeper: Alice is once arrested for being a prostitute when she was doing her singing lounge act. When asked what song she was singing, she sheepishly admits "Love For Sale."
  • Disappeared Dad: Part of Alice's backstory is that her truck-driving husband was killed in an accident, leaving her to raise Tommy alone.
  • The Ditz: Vera.
  • Enormous Engagement Ring: Flo was once romanced by an oil sheik who gave her an engagement ring. The stone was so large the other waitresses thought it had to be fake. But then they did the "cut glass" test where Mel took the ring and scratched on the glass door to the diner. He tapped where he had just scratched with his knuckle in triumph. Then the circle he had just scratched fell out of the door.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: Alice's showbiz career. One episode explored the trope by giving Alice several opportunities to join a traveling show, only for her to develop a severe case of hiccups every time she attempted it. Turned out it was a psychosomatic reaction, because she didn't want to leave her new life behind.
  • Flanderization: Early in the show's run, Mel Sharples is a straight-man, being on balance a serious character. By the second season, his rudeness and cheapness are played for laughs.
  • Genki Girl: Vera usually has the most upbeat, cheery personality of the waitresses working at Mel's.
  • George Jetson Job Security: Mel's toughness as a boss drove many of the plots, as did his waitresses—especially Vera and Flo—always seeming to be on the firing line for whatever offense was the main plot of the week. On several occasions, he did follow through with threats to fire them, but he always hired them back as he realized Vera and Flo (and later waitresses Belle and Jolene) were members of his extended family. Interestingly, Alice never seemed to be on the firing line, although she and Mel at times had heated moments.
  • Grand Finale: In the final episode, Mel sold the diner to the government as part of a freeway project. Just in time to free up the girls to go their separate ways; Alice decided to go on tour with her country music singing boyfriend, Jolene came into some cash and decided to open a beauty parlor, and Vera was quitting anyway because she and her new husband, police officer Elliot Novak, were expecting their first child.
  • Greasy Spoon: Mel's Diner is one of the crowning examples of the type.
  • Halloween Episode: "Alice's Halloween Surprise" (season 6), "Space Sharples" (season 9)
  • Hear Me the Money: Vera could do this to any stack of currency, no matter how big or how many different denominations mixed into the stack, and determine its exact total instantly.
  • I Am Spartacus: In Season 1's "Mel's Cup", when Alice accidentally gives away Mel's navy souvenir loving cup for a church rummage sale and Mel suspects it was stolen, Alice, Flo and Vera take turns admitting they stole the cup, and even Mel jokes about having stolen it before he goes on a quest to find the alleged thief.
  • Intimidating Revenue Service: "The Pain of No Return" has an IRS agent informing Alice that she owes back taxes her late husband failed to pay... which he's willing to waive in exchange for sexual favors.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Mel. Despite his Bad Boss, Jerkass, and The Scrooge tendencies, he still takes great pride in serving as a Parental Substitute for Tommy, who lost his father in a trucking accident.
  • Lighter and Softer: This has more comedy and less drama than the movie.
  • Marshmallow Dream:
    Vera: Oh, I have wild dreams, too. Last night, I dreamed I was eating spaghetti, and when I woke up, my pajama strings were missing!
    Flo [flatly]: Good, Vera.
  • New Year Has Come: "What're You Doing New Year's Eve?"
  • One-Note Cook: Mel made a mean chili. Everything else was mocked mercilessly.
  • The One Guy: Mel is often this when Tommy is absent, which happened more and more in later seasons.
  • Really Gets Around: Flo.
  • Recurring Character: Several regular customers, including Earl Hicks, telephone lineman Henry Beesmeyer, and police officer Eliot Novak; Mel's mother, Carrie, and his girlfriend, Marie; Alice's mother, Mona.
  • Rotten Robotic Replacement: In "The Robot Wore Pink", Mel replaces Alice, Jolene and Vera with a robot named Blanche. Unfortunately, the glitchy robot works too slowly, and when put on high breaks the dishes and tables while frightening away the customers.
  • Snowed-In: "A Semi-Merry Christmas" has the gang stranded in a semi-trailer by a Rocky Mountain snowstorm.
  • Spin-Off: Flo. It didn't last long, and Flo never came back to Alice despite the character's popularity.
  • Suspiciously Similar Substitute: The two waitresses who replaced Flo: Belle, and then Jolene, Both of them were sassy Southerners, like Flo, but Jolene was clearly not supposed to be as sexually available as the other two.
  • Thanksgiving Episode: "Who Ordered the Hot Turkey?" (season 2), "Alice's Turkey of a Thanksgiving" (season 7)
  • Thematic Theme Tune: "There's a New Girl in Town", sung by Linda Lavin.
  • Vandalism Backfire: Mel attempts to rig his own contest to fail, by ripping up the only "E" in the "Spell out 'M-E-L-S' for the grand prize" drawing (after raising the grand prize offering to counter a competitor's contest, to a level he couldn't pay if he wanted to). He does this in front of Alice and the other waitresses as a message of "I'm running a scam and there's nothing you can do about it." When Vera later reassembles the pieces, she finds out Mel destroyed an "M", not the "E". Cue Henry announcing he'd found the "E" for the grand prize. (Henry ends up settling for the original grand prize of $101.)
  • World-Weary Waitress: as well as the Spin-Off, Flo feature Florence "Flo" Castleberry, who was forever snarking with owner and cook Mel of Mel's Diner, to the point where, in the 1970s her Catchphrase, "Kiss my grits!" became a Memetic Mutation in the 1970s.
  • Yet Another Christmas Carol: In "Mel's Christmas Carol", Mel fires the waitresses after they refuse to work until midnight on Christmas Eve. He's visited by the ghost of his (never before or again mentioned) Brooklyn business partner, Jake Farley, who is chained to a number of kitchen utensils. Jake warns Mel that if he's been bad enough in life to, among other things, end up chained to an Amana side-by-side refrigerator when he dies.