Season 2 is here, and after a summer full of painstaking research, focus groups, and number-crunching, ABC shows its commitments to both its audience and its shareholders by bringing back everybody’s favorite aspect of the first season of Perfect Strangers: using the word “baby” in episode titles.
Before I start reviewing this season, I’d like to take a moment to discuss what kind of lengths I’m willing to go to for jokes. I’ve been doing a webcomic for a while now (which you can read here), and one of the storylines I have planned for it requires that I have deep knowledge of the character of Kimmy Gibbler. So what do I do? I watch every goddamn episode of Full House and transcribe not only Kimmy’s lines, but any other facts about her mentioned by other characters (I’ve been posting Kimmy’s dialogue on Twitter for a while now; you can read it here). It wasn’t entirely self-torture because Kimmy Gibbler was one of the few bright spots in the 8 years of that show. In fact, it gave me somewhat of an appreciation for what Billy Superstar went through for Full House Reviewed: I just watched the damn show, but he committed to stretching it over many years, not only thinking about it, but writing about it. Poor guy.
Anyway, I said that to say this: watching the entire run of Full House in the span of a few months revealed to me how much ABC would tinker with their shows from season to season. Characters dropped, characters added, relationships evolving, and then de-evolving to their previous state, one-off actors/characters tested in the back half of a season would show up as recurring ones the next. And I haven’t crunched the numbers on it, but the number of lines Kimmy would get on average levelled out (or, if you’re of a cynical bent, “became formulaic”) in the last two seasons. Earlier seasons had a few fairly Kimmy-heavy episodes. By the end of the show, she showed up more often, but plots didn’t feature her heavily quite so often. What I’m saying is this: like any corporation, ABC loves money, and viewers=money. A company that’s willing to apply formula to roughly how many lines recurring characters would get can’t be trusted to keep things consistent from one season to the next, or even one episode to the next.
With that in mind, let’s see what changes with Perfect Strangers in Season 2!
We open this season at Ritz Discount, so we know they still have their jobs, which means Twinkacetti’s still around, which gives me hope that Mrs. Twinkacetti is there too. Anyway, Cousin Larry is helping Balki dolly a refrigerator into the shop.
Evidently test audiences seemed to love Larry saying “lift… and push” over and over last season, because he keeps saying variations on “Bring it straight down here, and we’ll just swing it in”. Balki questions his role in the Ritz hierarchy, being relegated to pushing heavy objects around while Cousin Larry tells him what to do. Larry says that someone has to be in charge; that his role is to plan, and Balki’s role is to carry out that plan. Balki crushes Larry behind the refrigerator, a fitting aperitif for those who like Larry getting maimed. But the joke is still on Balki because Balki’s so dumb he thinks that their roles are totally fair! Haha, isn’t it great to treat foreigners like shit?
Speaking of foreigners, here’s another one and her name’s Gina Morelli! Gee, I wonder where she’s from? She’s in the citizenship class with Balki and she’s very obviously pregnant.
She gets Larry out from behind the fridge and Larry comments that she’s very strong for someone in her “condition”. Gina starts crying and telling this whole story about how her husband’s a truck driver, but he’s out of town and she just got evicted from her apartment. Holy shit, did they just give a woman three personality traits in, like, the first minute of the second season? I can only imagine how jealous Tina was when she saw this episode.
Cousin Larry agrees to help her before he realizes that means her staying in the apartment, and damn, boy, what is with you? We’re supposed to believe that Larry is just being put-upon by housing not one, but now two (count ‘em, two!) foreigners. Larry seems to enjoy looking like he’s willing to help people out, but when it actually comes time to do so, he starts backpedaling. That seems to be a theme shared by this show, ALF, and Full House. Who were these shows catering to that networks thought Larry Appleton, Willie Tanner, and Danny Tanner were main characters your average viewer could relate to? What, were white middle-class audiences of the time just assholes who didn’t want anyone impinging on their life in any way at all? Sheesh.
Anyway, Larry ends up giving up his bed, and Balki sells Gina on the idea of it by saying that Larry has a blanket that plugs into the wall, yet neither of them knows what it does. *ahem* Balki, there was a joke last season about Larry’s electric blanket. So Balki’s brain has been reset; a change and not a change at the same time.
We come back from commercials to the apartment, where Balki and Gina are saying their good-nights and thank-yous to each other in their own foreign languages; in the foreground, Larry’s doing a stupid walk and pretending to talk like them. Then Larry bitches about how Gina has the TV in the bedroom and he doesn’t get to watch it. Those test audiences sure enjoyed how much of an asshole Cousin Larry is.
Speaking of test audiences and their love of assholes, I’ll mention that this season premiered in the fall of 1986, a few months after the first season finished up. It’s almost as if word spread through offices across America that, hey, did you see that new show on ABC about the two guys who live together? I bet they’re gay, don’t you think so? Take this episode as ABC’s response: you want two guys sharing an apartment, who are also gay maybe? Here, we’ll make them share a bed, too! Larry and Balki disrobe, revealing that Balki has Spider-Man pajamas.
And then the writers just frigging step all over the joke by having Larry ask “what are those” and Balki tell him what they are. And then they stretch it out further by having Larry ask “why are you wearing those”; evidently Balki’s He-Man pajamas are in the laundry. Then Balki tries to sneak it in by sitting down before Larry. All right! It’s fuckin’ time!
Balki fumbles his way through pillow talk, but Larry doesn’t understand what Balki means by “the hot side of the bed”. Then Balki shoves Dmitri’s ass in Larry’s face.
Poor Balki! When he tries to be physical, it’s too much, too soon for Cousin Larry; when he tries to use sweet talk, it’s incomprehensible. Larry asks “what’s in my face?” rather than just pulling his head back and looking like a reasonable person would. Dammit, is every joke on this show going to be repeated now? Is telling every joke twice an oblique reference to this being Season 2?
Anyway, the rest of the episode is Larry telling Balki how to engage in American foreplay. Balki misunderstands the word “tease” and insults Larry’s penis. Larry fumes, drinks a Cosmo-app-le-ton (antacid, triple sec, lime), and they both say their catchphrases at the height of orgasm. Larry learns a valuable lesson: that sincere efforts in the bedroom are just as sexy as good blowies.
Nah, just kidding, Balki says his bedside prayers, which are really just a way to be passive-aggressive about Larry having thrown Dmitri on the floor. Say, maybe Balki does understand intimate relationships in America! Larry apologizes, but Balki makes him apologize to Dmitri, so I’ll drop the sex bit for a minute to point out how they’re infantilizing Balki again. Balki drops the bombshell that Gina’s already two weeks past the baby’s due date. Oh no! Larry is right to be worried, since Gina’s water breaking will no doubt get all over the electric blanket.
After the commercials, we find that Larry has been timing Balki and Gina to make sure they’re able to get out the door to the hospital quickly. There’s a nice little callback to the refrigerator scene as Larry tells Balki to “swing her around” as they get Gina back to bed.
Larry hangs three coats successfully. Remember this. This is important.
Larry blames Balki for not having told him Gina was pregnant. I was going to gripe about how Larry commented on Gina’s “condition” at the top of the episode, and just remarked on how she was carrying “life” inside her in the previous scene. I was *this close* to just assuming that the line was supposed to be “overdue” and just move on, but Balki’s follow-up line cements that Mark Linn-Baker said his line as written. So…what the hell.
Balki explains how childbirth works on Mypos.
Balki: In Mypos have a baby very natural! The woman is working in the field… she takes a short break… she has her baby… and then she cooks dinner for 11 men.
That may seem like a hugely imbalanced sex ratio, but I’m guessing that every Myposian woman not washing her hands after childbirth means that every household there has its own little Typhoid Mary.
Larry says that sitcom structure demands that his character type force everyone into a plan. Does Balki have a plan?
Larry says “fuck your agri-centric plan, mine’s better” and they go through it one more time. So now we’ve spent the past three minutes 1) establishing that they’ve been practicing Larry’s plan, 2) hustling Gina off-screen, 3) hanging coats, 4) retconning the episode’s first scene, 5) Balki questioning the plan, and 5) Larry demanding they practice the plan again. Now we can move on to–oh, no, wait, Larry wants to practice the plan one more time. I was getting excited about how many character traits Gina had accumulated, but then they just shoved her off into the bedroom so Larry and Balki could play pad-a-show?
During their final practice run, Balki keeps derailing the process. He wants to know why he has to do the grunt work (lifting the “su-itcase”; cf “grapefru-it” from season 1) while Larry does all the talking and directing. Well, color me impressed, because this means that this episode’s theme was established in the first minute. Perfect Strangers is not without its problems, but I’ll give it this: it generally knows what it’s trying to do and puts forth efforts to do it.
Then Balki acts like a child, whining about how he wants to be the one to make the phone call to the hospital. Larry accedes, and we learn Balki’s idea of calling the hospital:
Balki: Hello hospital… baby is coming!
And all of a sudden I miss the sexually aggressive Balki from “First Date”. After the practice run, Larry starts talking some bullshit about how he’s like Eisenhower the day before D-Day, so I guess they’re both just overgrown children.
Then Gina wakes them up to tell them she’s been in labor “for a long time” but didn’t tell them because she wanted them to get their sleep. Cousin Larry starts fumbling around because, remember, 80s sitcom audiences needed motion in addition to colors and sounds to keep them awake for a whole 22 minutes. Larry keeps this up for awhile, going on a rager and throwing things around the apartment because he can’t find his keys. Some planner you are, Cousin Larry. Balki slaps Larry and thank God.
Somebody had to get this episode back on track! It was spiraling out of control because the third location was just as overdue as Gina’s baby.
They drive around Chicago’s famous Green Screen District for awhile, Larry screams and freaks out, and Gina has her baby in the car. I have to imagine that if aliens learned about modern American society solely from sitcoms, they’d get the impression that the majority of children are delivered in cars, restaurants, or in every part of the hospital but the delivery room.
Larry just can’t even. How sheltered were you, Cousin Larry? From the opening credits, I know that at least three of your siblings are younger than you. Larry looks in the back seat and promptly passes out, this obviously being the first time he’s ever seen a vagina.
Back in the apartment, Balki leads Larry to his armchair.
Balki: Well, little boy, we had a big day.
You know what? Even with how padded that middle section was with them talking about practicing Larry’s plan, and how many jokes they repeated, I’m going to admit I like this episode. Balki acting like a kid is now excused, because it works as subtextual buildup reinforcing the role reversal that Larry and Balki experience in the third act of most episodes. Ultimately, this episode is a good statement of the relationship between the two main characters as well as the show’s thesis. Larry thinks he knows how everything works in America, and thinks he’s showing his foreign cousin the ropes; but knowing how things work isn’t the same as experiencing them (you know, like vaginas). Balki acknowledging that he doesn’t know so much makes him more receptive to learning, while things not matching the ideal makes Larry break down and miss the experience. Ultimately, each has something to teach the other. At its core, it’s the narrative that I spoke to last week: that technologically advanced societies tell themselves: in their rush for progress, they have lost something important of their humanity, and that those less advanced are more pure of heart. It’s also basically a variation on the “magical negro” trope, that those who are less than us (“us” being the modern white man, natch) will forever selflessly make efforts to help us. (Or, one could argue, Balki’s childish mannerisms put this in the “children have no internalized barriers and always speak the truth” camp.)
Anyway, the show is doing what it set out to do, which is one of the things I wanted to keep an eye on. I am curious to see how well they’re able to keep up that theme, and the main relationship, over the course of 8 seasons.
Then the music comes on, and Balki says “Cousin…” and the audience all say “Awwww”. Oh, for fuck’s sake, I was just reservedly singing your praises, show, and then you had to go and tell the audience to say “awwww” before it was really deserved. And then Balki tells us another Myposian saying, which he says in his native tongue; outside of the earlier scene in this episode, it’s essentially the first time we hear him speak his own language. And then he explains that the saying means “If everyone knew how to herd sheep, there would be no one to write poetry”.
…isn’t that basically what Larry was trying to teach Balki at the beginning of the episode? That division of labor is sensible because everyone has different abilities? I thought the episode’s message was clear, but these kind of shows have to tell you what the lesson is because, you know, we are idiots. After all, we’re watching television instead of reading books. But they really botched the landing here at the end. I think I may smell producer notes.
So, on balance, it seems that not much has changed, though the season is still young. Actually, given the short length of the first season, it’s probably not unfair to consider this the show’s second chance at an introductory episode. So let’s do what we did with Season 1 “Knock, Knock, Who’s There?” and see if the last line of dialogue reveals the show’s thesis:
Balki: Let’s go out and paint the town red, white, and blue! But first, let’s put on our pants!
That about sums it up, right? Because they’re gay?
(I’ll admit that was a long way to go for a crummy gay joke, but I warned you at the outset of this review that when I commit to a joke, I commit.)
See you next week for “Hunks Like Us”!
Catchphrase count: Balki (1), Larry (0, even though Balki slapped him)
Boner count: Balki (0), Larry (0, unless you count the one he obviously has for Eisenhower)
P.S. Larry’s car appears to be a cherry ride, answering my question from “Baby, You Can Drive My Car”.