Season 1 was only six episodes, which seems a little strange for old ABC sitcoms. What’s more, they aired these episodes at the tail end of the 1985/86 season, sandwiched between Who’s the Boss and Moonlighting. I have to imagine that ABC would do this with shows or actors they weren’t sure of. For instance, take those other two shows.
Who’s the Boss debuted in Fall 1984 with a full 22-episode season. But it starred Tony Danza, who I’m guessing was fondly remembered for his role as Tony Banta on Taxi.
Moonlighting, on the other hand, starred Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis, both of whom (judging by their IMDB pages, what am I, an 80s TV expert?) had been doing mostly low-profile movies and bit parts on TV shows; it also had a six-episode first season in Fall 1985. So then comes Perfect Strangers, starring “Serge” from Beverly Hills Cop and, you know, that guy who followed Peter O’Toole around in My Favorite Year (which I watched solely for Jessica Harper, but that’s another story). So, yeah, I would’ve hedged my bets on Perfect Strangers as well. The downside of a short season, though, is I don’t get to say that I’m 1/8 of the way through this project. I’m actually only 1/25 through, which worries me. I mean, I’ve lived a pretty comfortable life and eventually I’m going to run out of painful experiences to share when Balki makes that face.
Something I didn’t know until after I started this blog and read up on the history of the show is that Louie Anderson was in the pilot as Lou Appleton. I can only imagine how different this show would have been. For one, Louie Anderson reads as being from Madison, Wisconsin much better than Mark Linn-Baker, who reads as so very, very Jewish. But on the whole, I think it was a good move. 80s media was rife with negative depictions of overweight characters, and all the ways that Cousin Larry (or Louie, if you will) is emotionally and mentally fucked up might have ended up as a hackneyed reinforcement of the idea that overweight guys are socially lacking. Also, Louie Anderson’s got some height on Bronson Pinchot, not to mention a wider build (that’s not a fat joke, look at his shoulders). The scenes where Larry gets upset with Balki might have ended up tonally different if it was clear to the audience that one guy could totally beat the other up. But Mark Linn-Baker’s a puppy dog; not someone you’d believe would win in a fight against anybody, even if he did get up the nerve to try.
The main group of people that shepherded Perfect Strangers into existence is a group of TV veterans: Miller-Boyett Productions had Mork & Mindy and Bosom Buddies under its belt; Paula A. Roth had been one of the major writers for Laverne & Shirley; and William S. Bickley, Jr. & Michael Warren had both been writers and producers of The Partridge Family and Happy Days. So insofar as this season does a good job of stating its thesis about Larry and Balki, I attribute it to the combined experience of all of these writers. And I seriously hope that someone reading this has watched more of any of the above shows than I did every now and then when I got to see Nick at Nite at my grandparents’ house 20+ years ago. It would be great to know whether, and to what extent, Perfect Strangers was rehashing, or upturning, familiar buddy sitcom tropes. I’d like to believe that these people knew what worked in a sitcom, but I’ve also worked alongside colleagues who have stagnated in their approach to their job.
So, anyway, let’s recap this season! If TV shows get to rehash old plots, I get to rehash old posts, so let’s find out!
First, we learned just how easy it was in the 80s for undocumented immigrants to come to this country, move into someone’s apartment based on vague assurances of blood ties, take jobs that real Americans needed without even being required to undergo a formal interview process or present work visas, and openly lust after our women.
Next, we learned just how lax hotel restaurant staff could be in responding to people who, after loudly stating their intentions to invade the privacy of their paying customers, then proceed to engage in physical altercations.
We witnessed a very particular strain of surrealism that could result in, among other things, places of businesses billing themselves as singles’ bars but fulfilling neither aspect of their categorization. Note also the multitude of trophies and strongman imagery near the entrance in the background, sure to instantly demoralize any single man upon entrance.
We had a two-pronged case study in support of the truism that “death begins in the colon”, the first major warning sign of which is being perpetually cranky to well-meaning foreigners.
We got what was perhaps the boldest statement ever of the idea that masterful manipulation of social capital can trump–as well as direct–patterns of financial capital.
Lastly, we learned that mid-80s Chicago was THE place to be if you all of a sudden wanted to party in the middle of the night, especially if you were into bondage and roleplay.
The 80s sure were a different time, huh?
Really, though, I do appreciate the way that this short season functions as a multipart introduction to its ideas. It’s also a nice selection of situations that an immigrant to America would experience, and which fit hand in glove with the dynamic of a shy know-it-all control freak living with what is basically an unrestrained, overgrown inner child. Sure, Larry and Balki are a textbook example of a very oversimplified narrative of cultural differences in terms of values & knowledge. Balki only ever had his work and his family and his knowledge comes from experiencing high levels of social interdependence; Larry, despite having a large family, seems to have grown up in an environment where resources had to be competed for. Heart vs head; give vs take; nurture vs impress. The oversimplification is problematic, though, and uses its criticism of our modern culture (we just don’t love enough; we’ve forgotten the faces of our fathers, etc.) to obscure its criticism of ones less technologically developed (what’s wrong with us if we can’t even do X as well as those who are so clearly beneath us?). Although I will say that Balki’s “hey mommo” line is a good cautionary tale that, after machinery, electronics, and oil, coded racism is America’s 4th largest export. And you know, whatever, maybe “oversimplification” is too easy a criticism. It is a sitcom, after all. But the narrative is what they went with for Perfect Strangers, and for what it’s worth, they did a good job of getting it across. While in broader, societal terms, the narrative doesn’t hold up, it works well enough here on a two-person level.
And I’ll admit I enjoyed the acting, too! I’ve never read up on what makes for good acting, on television or otherwise, but I think it would be safe to say you at the very least have to make the character believable. I watched a lot of Roseanne as a kid, and for years I could never see John Goodman in anything without my mind instantly seeing him only as Dan Connor. I’m sure that both Linn-Baker and Pinchot benefitted from not being overexposed in movies and TV at that point; if anyone associated any characteristics to either of them, it was to Pinchot. And one one-dimensional indeterminate accent with legs is much like another, so even if audiences had seen Beverly Hills Cop, Pinchot wasn’t swimming upstream against expectations. For better or worse, Serge and Balki are the roles for which Pinchot is best remembered.
Framing these six episodes as a “pilot” season, I do get the impression that the writers were testing out different Balki modes (Balki the Kid, Sexually Aggressive Balki, Roger Rabbit Balki, etc.). But that doesn’t mean we don’t know who Balki is, right?
There are plenty of Balki consistencies: assuming others are as generous as he is, loving the semi-dregs of pop culture, BEING LOUD. So for right now I’m going to put down the inconsistencies in Balki’s character as the quirks of writing a short first season.
Mark Linn-Baker, on the other hand… I completely am willing to believe that this little Jewish-looking man came from a Midwestern proto-Quiverfull household that fucked him up in ways that may take 3 or 4 seasons to completely reveal, and that he’d end up in a shitty dead-end job with very little hope of ever fulfilling his dreams. Balki is basically an avatar of his culture; anything I can think to interpolate for his character is based on whatever weird things I assume isolated Mediterranean folk do for centuries when no one else stopped by from the mainland to tell them to cut it out already; and any interests I can come up with past what the show tells me are guesses at what weirder aspects of 1960s-1980s American pop culture reached other countries divorced from their greater contexts. But Cousin Larry? Dude finishes super-quick when he masturbates & goes into a shame spiral afterwards, and will likely die from a heart attack by the time he’s 37. Although, I will say that this interpolation/extrapolation doesn’t seem entirely out of place: the characters are meant to be different. But it wouldn’t be the first time that bad writing or characterization looped around and unknowingly commented on itself, ouroboros-style.
As far as characters like Twinkacetti and Susan? Well, shit, based on how quickly they say their lines and leave, I get the impression the show has not made up its mind on whether it wants to keep them around. Obviously the writers needed to pick at least one character type from column A, and one from column B, and settled on these two as the most expedient for the six stories they chose to do. (I’ve been watching It’s Garry Shandling’s Show lately, so that sausage-making aspect of television is sort of at the forefront of my mind.) Also, as I’m writing this, I’m realizing their potential as devil-and-angel-on-your-shoulders types of characters; if I missed this aspect in any of the episodes so far, I’ll have to rely on all of you to tell me, because I’m sure not watching any of these again.
And that’s not a “boy this show is shitty” joke–I mean that. There’s nothing from this season that I ever think I’ll get nostalgic for as a TV viewer. There are certainly things I liked about these six episodes, and they’ve been an interesting study. For one, they’re problematic, which means I can actually say smart things instead of just jokes about Larry’s bowels and how Dmitri wasn’t always able to stand on his own (the joke is that he is filled with dried semen). But I’m realizing just how out of my depth I was when I began writing my webcomic. I just launched right in with trying to tell stories, when I really should have spent time figuring out my characters first, and my lead’s characterization has suffered for that ever since. So while this has been helpful to me, these are lessons learned, not experiences “enjoyed” (like, the way I enjoyed the shit out of early Simpsons and will forever return to it every few years). I don’t tend to read academic works twice, and I try not to have to learn lessons more than once.
Which, I suppose, is why I will never be a sitcom character!
Anyways, you didn’t come here to listen to me go on forever, you came here to see the boner count totals for Season 1.
Season 1 Totals
Catchphrase count: Balki (9.5); Larry (4)
Boner count: Balki (3); Larry (1.5)
Dance of Joy count: 3
It was Balki. Balki had the most boners in Season 1.
I guess I’ll throw in that my favorite episode of this season was “Check This” because it was firing on all cylinders, what with Balki the Kid supporting the “male brotherhood” throughline, the pairing of Ernie Sabella and Belita Moreno, and the surprising G. Gordon Liddy payoff.
Worst episode? “Happy Birthday Baby” because they just didn’t seem to know what to do in the middle of the episode, and that godawful joke with the cop and Lou.
Thanks for sticking with me for the past 8 weeks. We’re six episodes down, 144 to go!
See you all next week when I’ll review “Hello Baby”!