Either you came to see whether Perfect Strangers is, in retrospect, a trainwreck of a show… or you came to see whether Perfect Strangers Reviewed is a trainwreck of a blog. Either way, welcome!
The show establishes that Larry lives in an apartment in the same building as his place of employment, Ritz Discount, and then quickly gets straight to the comedy: Larry struggling to open a bag of chips.
The audience is really cracked up by this because, hey, we’ve all been there, right? Larry remarks that the bag must be childproof and oh man, what wacky modern times the 80s were! Then Balki shows up at the door and if you can’t tell from his accent that he’s foreign, the volume certainly gives it away! Foreigners are loud!
The show keeps the exposition rolling by establishing Balki and Larry’s relationship. In Balki’s words: “Filo, my fifth cousin three times removed is a step-uncle to your father on my mother’s side, two continents removed”. If I understand how numbered cousins, and times removed, work, then Mypos is a seething den of incest. Kinda makes me wonder if those beauties from the intro have extra fingers (super hot). He also mispronounces Larry’s last name (“App-le-ton”), which makes me wonder if they don’t have apples on Mypos.
Continuing its assumption that the audience wasn’t able to synthesize any meaning out of the combination of colors, sounds, and motion that was the opening credits, the show has both Balki and Larry give the details of how they each ended up in Chicago and how it’s their first time away from their families. And just to hammer home that Balki and Larry aren’t that different after all, Larry makes a face that makes me want to smack him one.
Larry patiently explains that Balki can’t stay with him because he’s really grown accustomed to masturbating in the living room (something he couldn’t do living with 8 brothers and sisters). But then Balki makes a sad face and Larry buckles faster than the Flash in a carseat. Balki thanks him in his own foreign way: invading Larry’s personal space:
Foreigners like to touch you!
After exclaiming over the various wonders America has to offer (pink lemons! potata crumbs! color TV!), Balki utters seven words that send shivers down my spine:
The catchphrase announces itself with all the subtlety of… well, a catchphrase on a 1980s ABC show.
Balki then exclaims over seeing the color blue on TV, which is the setup for Larry’s punchline that green and red are on later. Whatever, sitcom jokes are sitcom jokes and I don’t really expect them to make me laugh all the time, but what’s troubling is that Larry is sorta being mean here. He’s making a joke for himself that he knows Balki won’t get, which makes it doubly funny for him (and by extension, us). Good ol’ Madison, Wisconsin hospitality: I won’t turn you out into the cold, dark night, but I reserve the right to put you down.
Night passes, morning comes, and Larry starts his workday at Ritz Discount with more jokes at Balki’s expense. We establish that he’s hoping to land a job as a photojournalist and he drops some wisdom on Balki about how you don’t always get what you want right away in America, which I assume is going to be the lesson of this episode. But soon a plot device calls Larry off-screen, leaving Balki alone in the store. When a customer wants to buy a chair, Balki relies on the one American skill he’s learned since his arrival: his catchphrase.
Larry comes back and gets upset at Balki for selling discount furniture at a discount. Larry acts like it’s the end of the world because he’ll probably get fired; I guess he’s already forgotten his own advice about how quickly you can expect things to go your way in America. Larry does a little bit of physical comedy while the show introduces Mr. Twinkacetti.
Stunning. It’s like Larry’s channeling Chaplin.
By coming in grumbling about how sunny it is, Mr. Twinkacetti establishes himself as Frank Frankenstone’s soul in Fred Flinstone’s body. Since it’s the first episode and audiences were evidently total dipshits in the 80s, everybody’s character traits are on full-blast, so it’s understandable that every line out of Twinkacetti’s mouth is an insult to Larry. I think this goes some way towards explaining why Larry’s so keen to put Balki down.
Balki tries to get a job at the store by claiming that he can fix anything. This actually gives us the one joke in this episode that made me laugh:
Larry: You can fix things?
Balki: Why not? I’m young!
Balki then offers up a weird and rustic story (featuring broken fingers, grandmas, and belly dancers) as proof both that he can fix things, and that he’s foreign. There’s a nice bit of acting here when Twinkacetti (played by Ernie Sabella) says he likes the story, pausing long enough for us to put together that it was probably the idea of somebody having their finger broken that appealed to him. But it looks like we’ve finally moved past exposition into an actual conflict for the episode: can Balki fix a radio? Let this be a lesson to any other potential immigrants out there: we will force you into unpaid labor for the very first mistake you make.
Oh, no, wait, more exposition, and it’s a character without a penis this time! She’s introduced by way of a Scrabble game with Larry. Larry plays “Mypos”, which Susan challenges, but it’s obvious that Larry has already explained to her that his cousin is living with him. So… did he withhold the word “Mypos” just so he could use it in Scrabble, knowing it would be challenged just so he could feel superior when he proved it was a real place? You know what? Larry’s a dick. A dick who somehow didn’t know that proper nouns weren’t allowed in Scrabble back then.
Balki comes in and pops his very first high one when he meets Susan. He asks to be her slave, and I can kind of understand where he’s coming from: this is likely the closest he’s ever come to seeing the shape of a woman’s shoulders, since Susan is a liberated American woman and doesn’t wear those tools of the patriarchy, shawls. Larry reveals his plan to put a working radio inside the broken radio, so that Balki can radio while he radios, as the kids say.
The next morning, Mr. Twinkacetti comes in just beaming because he took his first dump in 7 years. Nah, just kidding, the horses he bet on last night won, because of course anyone who’s grumpy and mean has to be into gambling too.
Balki gives away Larry’s plan very quickly, but it doesn’t matter, because Balki actually fixed the radio! The radio is really loud, probably because Balki is really loud, being foreign and all. The radio proceeds to to break every bit of glass in the shop, one table at a time, one shelf at a time. This is a volume that knows how to put on a show.
After all of the glass is broken, a black guy instantly wants to buy the radio. That’s probably because, as an African-American, he’s half foreign himself and likes being loud sometimes. The punchline, though, is that Balki “fixed” the radio by hooking it up to a bunch of stereo equipment, meaning Twinkacetti lost more money. Foreigners are dumb!
Larry says “damn” and I’m surprised. Could you really say that on TV 30 years ago?
Twinkacetti fires Larry, but Balki’s having none of it and gets some bass in his voice as he gives Twinkacetti a lecture about how Larry is a kind person and is the reason the customers keep coming back. If this is the new order of things at Ritz Discount, I’d say that Larry will lose his job about 22 minutes after Balki learns what sarcasm and insults are.
Twinkacetti lets them both work for him, but not because Larry’s such a nice guy (Twinkacetti probably knows better than to buy that bullshit). He wants to get reimbursed for all of the damage, as well as all the items Balki sold for way under market value. Twinkacetti may only have the two personality traits, but by gosh he’s going to get some mileage out of them. Once Balki finds out that he’s in debt, he makes that pained happy face because debt is so American.
It’s the same face I made for about a week after having my ureteric stents out.
Billy Superstar, if you’re reading this, this is the point where the music comes on. It turns out that Larry’s wisdom from earlier was a feint. You see, what this show is doing is the highest level of misdirection. We, as the audience, assumed this would be a show about Larry guiding Balki through the complex modern world of America. But then the twist comes: Balki has just as much, if not more, to teach Larry. It was only through masterful writing that we didn’t see it until this moment. Penn & Teller got nothing on this shit. Balki teaches Larry the important lesson that family sticks together, and that they need each other (the show’s just really blowing my mind at this point, just, wow), and Larry makes this face.
And then they… no. No. I made a vow to myself that I wouldn’t make any gay jokes in these reviews. I’m above that. Larry learned a valuable lesson, and that’s that: he wallowed in the decadence of single living only to realize that he does need other people.
Balki chides Larry one more time about his penchant for ridiculousness and the episode ends.
I read once, in an article about how the showrunners of The Wire disagreed about the premise of the show, that the clearest statement of a TV show’s thesis is often the last line of its first episode. Here in Perfect Strangers, that line is “Don’t be ridiculous”. Is there any better way than using a catchphrase to let viewers know that, here it is, another sitcom on ABC, and that’s about as deep as it’s going to get? (Say it with me: of course not….)
See you next week for episode 2, “Picture This”!
Catchphrase count: Balki (3), Larry (0)
Boners: Balki (1); Larry (0)