It’s been a long trip, longer than I had guessed when I set out to review this 150-episode sitcom, but I’m finally home. Time to turn off the chrome-plated megaphone, remove inelastic clothing, drink something to settle my stomach, maybe enjoy television again.
I’ve been writing about Perfect Strangers for almost four years now; is there anything more I could possibly say about it?
Obviously. I mean, you can see there’s a post here. What a dumb question. Moving on.
Like many sitcoms, Perfect Strangers was created with good intentions. I mean, it ended with its lead ordering the other actors off the set, but it began well enough. Its concept: hope for better international relations on the individual level.
The United States was at the tail end of the “Second Cold War”, and there was a very real fear that Ronald Reagan would get the country nuked before the end of his first term. Thomas L. Miller and Robert L. Boyett, inspired by the global atmosphere at the 1984 Summer Olympics, wanted to get a foreigner-focussed sitcom going while the feeling was fresh. Bronson Pinchot, certain he was the next comedy superstar, held out until he realized no better offers were coming in.
And Bronson added to the formula; and when Mark Linn-Baker came on board, the sitcom changed further.
Perfect Strangers seemed to be constantly undergoing changes. It changed first–and quickly–from a talky, intellectual-for-sitcoms-at-least show to one focussed on slapstick. It changed from one workplace to another. When it was well-placed to tell stories about crazy retail customers, and again when it was primed to offer workplace dynamics, it chose again and again to place cousins Balki Bartokomous and Larry Appleton into every possible other setting where two men could slap each other. Towards its end, it shifted settings again, to a four-person home, but again rarely asked what might happen there that couldn’t elsewhere. And, finally, it changed from a sitcom to a one-man showcase for an actor who, feeling trapped, demanded the show give him more.
It’s a happy accident that ABC stumbled into, getting two actors who were willing to try out physical comedy, albeit each for their own reason. Leaning heavily in that direction resonated with some not inconsiderable share of television audiences, and wasn’t a bad choice. But the show could never quite find the right packaging for a 1980s version of Laurel & Hardy. It’s possible that this–a sitcom that regularly had no interest in its setting or side characters–is the best packaging that physical comedy conceit could ever get.
I’ve been reading about the social model of disability lately. The idea is that–for those persons we would identify as having disabilities–the problem lies not with the person with a disability, but with the society around them. If everyone had a visual impairment, the world would function perfectly for those with visual impairments. If every sitcom were like Perfect Strangers, there would be nothing wrong with it.
Doing critical analysis of a sitcom like this assumes, if not some perfect form, then a package of criteria to judge it against. Does it tell a story well? Does it have a unique voice? Does it provide a practical lesson? Does it know who its characters are? Does it do something surprising with those dynamics? Does it live up to prevailing mores? Is it progressive? Are the people involved in its production jerks or nice people? Is it funny?
Perfect Strangers has some pervasive critical flaws, sins of both omission and commission. It had successes and failures for every one of those criteria. An interesting side effect of this type of reviewing endeavor, by the way, is how impressive those successes feel once the failures have been mapped out.
Hell, this type of review blog wouldn’t be half so interesting if those types of flaws weren’t so deeply embedded. Nor would it be interesting if it had the exact same flaws as all the others.
Full House’s and ALF’s problems were from different directions. The former underwent network tinkering and became the whitest upper-middle-class sitcom ever. The latter existed under the tyranny of a puppeteer who thought the process of sitcom creation should revolve around his every whim. Perfect Strangers had both of those issues at different points in its lifespan; but mainly it could never find the balance between slapstick and story. Oh and also it refused to give the actresses any lines. And three minutes of every episode was spent pausing for the audience to laugh. And…
I’ve said all that already.
What these sitcoms share, though, is that they were often–maybe entirely–the diametrical opposite of what they wanted audiences to think they were. Full House wanted to portray a loving family that talked their way through tricky family dynamics, but couldn’t see how little that family cared for anyone else’s feelings. ALF theorized that a space alien would be most able to critique American culture, overlooking how poorly that might read when the alien spends most of his time terrorizing a family.
Perfect Strangers, at the end of every episode, told us that it was about two mismatched people helping each other to do their best. Two men overcoming their disagreements through the power of family and friendship. From my perspective, either cousin would have been justified in throwing the other out, if not having them arrested, for how terrible they were to each other. The more the show became a cartoon–where reality might contain curing a horse with parsley, or Larry barking at Balki in front of their wives–the more incongruent those final synth-clarinet-scored lesson scenes became.
But… Perfect Strangers did have another focus, and this is where it came closest to a worthwhile message. For all that Balki Bartokomous got most of the laughs for mispronouncing “laundry” every week, more often than not the stories were about Larry Appleton. Larry Appleton believed in the strength of his own ambition. He likely sensed that no one at his high school or college was as intelligent as he was, and saw the big city as his next step. But once he got there… he fretted. He hesitated. He lied about his abilities. He wondered would the pretty girls be just as dismissive as they were in Chicago. He needed constant reassurance and didn’t know how to get it.
Over and over, Larry had to be told by his friends and bosses that he was fine, that he was lovable, that he was valued, that he was skillful.
And those final-scene conversations–doing a post-mortem on how something went, or coming clean to someone else about how you were feeling, making amends for wrongs done–are important. They’ve been immensely crucial to my well-being over the years. Perfect Strangers wasn’t in the best position to show us how, exactly, those types of conversations might go (cf. “The Break In” and “The Break Up” for bad examples vs. “The Defiant Guys” for a good one), but it never once questioned that they were necessary.
And today, when both (some) conservatives and (some) progressives are willing to ditch civil conversation in an attempt to win the “culture wars”, it’s a message that still has some relevance.
When I started this blog, I was still hanging onto the joke about how sitcom characters seemed to have to learn the same lesson over and over, forever, or at least for eight seasons. But I’ve lived just long enough to get some little perspective on my own negative patterns, enough to see how so many of them can be drifted back to without work. Larry Appleton is more realistic in retrospect than I gave the show credit for while I was in the midst of reviewing it.
And Balki… *sigh* Maybe it was better after all that the writers gave up on trying to write a nuanced immigrant character, given how often that meant infantilizing him or trafficking in stereotypes of the sleazy Greek male. Bronson left that largely behind, too, the “foreign” aspects becoming shorthand (mispronounce, misinterpret any homonym to be about livestock, speak gibberish) while he put his attention on more important things like Arnold Schwarzenegger impressions. Bronson Pinchot deserves a share of the credit for creating Balki Bartokomous, the happy-go-lucky, sanctimonious dodo who sang and danced and cried and misunderstood and didn’t misunderstand after all. I can’t imagine there have been many viably long-term live-action roles for a character who shifts gears so constantly. Balki was the best thing that ever happened to Bronson’s career, and–speaking of the indomitability of personality–something that he tried to recreate again and again without regard to whether it was appropriate to the context. Perfect Strangers was a good enough container for it, though it was 8 years after the show’s end that Bronson found another role–Shakespeare’s Autolycus–that deliberately called for something like that type of character. If he was any more famous, he’d likely be doing the same shtick today.
It’s also fair to say that the #MeToo movement would have outed Bronson’s sexual behavior if he was any more famous. Let’s not forget that.
So I guess I’m the third person to finish one of these retrospective long-form critical-analysis-and-weiner-jokes sitcom review blogs? (If there’s a completed one I’m not aware of, link me to it, please.) Judging by the other two–Billy Superstar’s Full House Reviewed and Philip J Reed’s ALF Reviews–the final post is a place to reflect on the project itself. To talk about the inspiration, the process, and how much it has transformed my life for the better.
The first is easy: Philip’s ALF reviews put me at serious risk of splitting my sides (no shit: I was healing from a kidney transplant and had more staples on my abdomen than a year of Playboy bunnies), and I, with my Larrylike, with my Bronsonlike ego, decided I was up to the challenge. As his project was inspired by Full House Reviewed, I guess I’m Billy Superstar’s spiritual grandchild.
The second is easy, too, but it’s bound up with the third, which I’m not sure I can attest to in quite the same way.
You see, I’m very much a Larry Appleton. I hesitate. I wonder if my creative work will go unseen as always. Does it have a unique voice? Does it do something surprising? Is it progressive? Am I a jerk? Is it funny? I need constant reassurance and don’t know how to get it.
My situation has changed over the course of this blog. I’ve gone from a bad job, to being unemployed, to being in a better job with less pay. I’ve gained friends, I’ve lost friends. Lots of things in my life are better now than they were in 2015. Some feel worse.
I feel like I’m the same old Larry Appleton… but I know I’m not. Every experience is transformative, and I very much believe that most experiences are preparatory for our next ones, if we let them be. I’ve also learned not to take my immediate feelings on something as the final word. Remember how much Bronson hated Perfect Strangers towards the end, but later felt more warmly about it?
I–meaning me right this minute–may not be the best person to tell you all of what this blog has done for me. You see, there’s this thing called
Psychology sidebar: the arrival fallacy. Journey towards any goal, and–unless that goal is, like, building a machine that pumps endless endorphins through your system–when you get there, you’re likely to feel a little let down if you told yourself along the way that it would make you happy, get you a mate, a raise, fame, or clear up your acne. Like it or not, we are very emotional creatures, and we are prone to let our emotions tell us what we think. No endorphin rush = “I must not be happy”. (Ever hear stories where someone–usually elderly–starts believing that their spouse has been replaced by an impostor? It’s not that they don’t recognize the spouse–it’s that the neuro-level links between that recognition and the emotions tied to the person have degraded. They don’t feel positive emotions when they see their spouse, thus it must not be that person.) Let’s posit for the moment that happiness is the result of assessment, and not an endorphin rush.
A blog like this is a lot of work, especially if you push yourself to be funny. Many times, I feared that the next week, the next post, the next scene, would finally be the one where I realized the joke well had run dry. I mean, how many different ways can you describe an overgrown Jewish cherub and a shaved Yakov Smirnoff? But every time, I found my way through the thickets of episodes I thought I had nothing to say about. It was a practice (aren’t I so open, so vulnerable, so progressive to tell you all this) in overcoming the fears about my own abilities. Like young King David, I’ve killed the lion, and I’ve killed the bear; the next Philistine of a project I take on is surmountable too.
Did I worry that those achievements would still go unseen, or undeciphered? Sure, all the damn time. Today, even. It’s on my schedule for tomorrow at 2.
But if I’m looking for endorphins, here’s the thing: I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun writing as I have making this blog. When I went off on the Daisyworld tangent in “The Gift of the Mypiot”, when I was pasting STOP over Balki’s face, when Mary Anne was so dumb she thought a postlude was a drugs-by-mail service, when footnotes, when Larryoke countdown #41: “Now I’m Peeling” (Irene Cara), when I NAME DIMITRI I TIME CROSS IT STREET, when (Sagittarius), when —, when Frank jumped…
I never questioned it then. I was immersed. I was in Csikszentmihalyi’s state of flow, and all my itches were being scratched.
When it was difficult, it was character-building; when it was easy it was sublime.
This is the first large creative project I’ve finished. And, having learned the terrain of my own psyche, its pitfalls and peaks, I’m more prepared for the next one. Any success is sweeter with those pitfalls mapped out. Expecting a finished product to clear my complexion etc., may be a trap; but lucky for me the process is so much fun. It’s worth some level of stress.
While we’re on the subject of emotions, I feel a huge sense of loss now. There’s something to be said, I believe, for choosing a constant in your life, and making a religious practice out of it, even if everything else is in flux. When I was on dialysis for three and a half years, my webcomic provided that constant.
When I started this blog, I had hopes that rewatching Perfect Strangers could, as Proust’s madeleine, transport me back to the feelings of my childhood. It didn’t, but in the meantime the show became meaningful to me in different ways. It became that constant.
And now it’s gone.
When I finished my Season 8 Reviewed post, it hit me hard: I will never, ever do this again. For almost four years, there was always another episode. I’ll never get to see Larry and Balki do anything else, and I’ll never get to make fun of them for it. I can watch any of the episodes, at any time (spoiler: I won’t), but I can never write about them like this again. “Game Brain” was a momentary salve on the wound, one last hit, but… we’re done now. We’ll never talk again.
And I’m sad. I miss you already, show.
But for a good long while, you–you reading–and I had this. We both showed up week after week to find out what I thought about this show. We were both dedicated to seeing this thing through. Your comments illuminated aspects of episodes I had never considered. You cracked jokes with me at Larryoke. But even if we were never in two-way communication about it, Perfect Strangers connected us. There were some weeks where having an audience kept me writing. If I made this blog for you, you made this blog for me as well.
I hope that you enjoyed it, and more than that–
As I hang my sitcom-reviewing coat–
That you’ll remember this.
This was important.