Boy oh boy have I got a special treat for you this week! I’m friends with a real live literature professor, and he has graciously offered to supply me with a real live literary-type analysis of this week’s episode. Unlike me, he’s smart enough to not want to be identified in connection with this blog, so I’m just going to refer to him as Professor M. I don’t blame him; he’s got a family and a solid bibliography. Without further ado, here’s Professor M’s take on Perfect Strangers!
’Pataphysics and Perfect Strangeness: “Beautiful Dreamer”
The episode opens with Balki rearranging his living space. Chairs moved and cushions strewn about, something is amiss where our ever-transient and always-foreign Balki dwells. The voice of Larry breaks into the dark: “Balki, Balki — is that you?” Here we might hear the faintest echo of Hamlet’s opening line: “Who’s there?” And here, as there, we find ourselves dealing with a fundamental question of identity. Balki, however, can only respond to this question of identity by turning out the light, leaving us all in the dark. And, so, perchance to dream?
Season 2, episode 15, “Beautiful Dreamer,” investigates identity in the strangest of ways. It opens windows into what we are told is Balki’s subconscious and leaves us wishing for greater resolution as our beloved protagonist finds himself a body divided by the demands of capitalism. In short, the episode is about the destruction of his past self as he seeks to lose himself in the American dream. “America or Burst,” the baggage on the opening credit’s wagon had comically phrased his destiny. But this episode does more. The luggage slides from physical to psychological, and Balki never does cross over into his new home. America, perhaps, and burst.
“Why are you rearranging furniture in the middle of the night?” Larry continues, tripping over what he can no longer navigate somnambulistically. Balki’s dodge – a weak gesture toward aerobic exercise – quickly fades under the darkening cloud of Mr. Twinkacetti’s “monthly going out of business sale,” which looms only four hours away. We are left to ponder: why this capitalist interruption in Balki’s living space? Could it have something to do with this wandering Mypiot soul?
But we are quickly called back from our musings to another faintly comic feign. Balki projects his dilemma in terms of a “friend who cannot sleep.” He has, in other words, divided self from self, speaking from a distance of his own problem. This “friend, [his] best friend.” And if these perfect strangers are the cousins who live in uncomfortably close quarters, Larry’s response – “I am your best friend” – lays down the true stakes: Balki is the most perfect stranger unto himself.
We might slow down to think about the episode’s problem through the terms of vulgar Marxism: we are here discussing the alienation instituted by capitalist labor, though it is here confused all the more by Balki’s inability to experience the unattainable American dream. At the heart of the episode is Balki’s struggle with insomnia.
Larry: What you’ve got is a classic case of insomnia.
Balki: Oh, no. I knew it was something terrible. Give it to me straight. How looong have I got.
Larry: Fifty or sixty years.
Balki: Fifty or sixty years? Oh my God, a slow death.
Welcome to the machine.
Should we pause for a minute, we could note that our episode’s writer, Paula A. Roth, spent a good deal of time writing for a German sitcom based on sarcastic insights into daily life. (I’m not kidding.)
When he learns it “just” means he can’t sleep, Balki swings his legs childishly and reverts to memories of youth and safety—to, that is, a time before his travels. We learn of Princess Riva, who keeps the youth asleep in her protective arms. And, as Balki puts it, this fantasy “don’t come to America.” No, Larry acknowledges. Not at all. We have the Sandman—the man who temporarily blinds his victims.
Balki refuses the Sandman. He refuses to let go of his past, and, in his refusal, longs to continue in his childish state. But the problem remains: how to put him asleep? How might cousin Larry allow him to experience the American Dream™?
And so how do we achieve the dream? We go to sleep. We separate ourselves, and Larry teaches him just that: to “put [his] body to sleep.” He teaches Balki to itemize his body, saying goodnight to each part individually, beginning with his toes. Then feet, then legs. Then fingers—Balki’s fingers, which point to himself and he snaps unconscious. Asleep he no longer can respond to Larry calling his name. He is Balki no longer; he is an identity lost elsewhere in the ether of dreams (“where would this kid be without me,” asks a looming Larry).
But Balki is not ready, and his dream ends with an abrupt cry for “Mama” and a screaming clutch to his chest. A short exchange finds Larry’s offer of solidarity in wakefulness batted away. So Larry explains to his cousin that his body will eventually tell Balki when he needs to sleep, and Balki, misunderstanding with the insight of genius, reverts to a primal self that only knows its bodily hunger.
But does Balki recognize his true hunger?
We fade out, hungry for more.
We awaken in the land of discounted merchandise: Ritz Discount. After a brief and insistent exchange, we see the crowd pressing against the doors of the closed shop, which we infer since it tells us “Open.” What is closed to the consumer, that is, is now for us to view.
“Not open,” screams a pig-faced Twinkacetti, only to paw sweatily through the crowd, slam the door, and exclaim with a comical slouch, “You’d think I was having a real sale.” A Real Sale. Twinkacetti reveals more than we were led to expect; we dwell suspended in the urgency of capitalism, a superegoic demand that Jacques Lacan once boiled down in Television to a simple dictate: “Consume!” Balki’s hunger is thus neatly contrasted with the drive of the pressing crowds, which we now see from the inside. “People are,” in Twinkacetti’s next words, “so gullible.”
So there is a lesson for us all who view from inside the television frame—well, all of us except Balki, who, amidst the truth of the day, has finally fallen asleep. Symbolically achieving the death enacted within the capitalist machine, Balki lies covered like a cadaver on a table full of price-slashed pastel shirts—and has slept through the conversation with Twinkacetti.
A protective Larry tries to shield him from the grim American reality and return him to his true home. “This is not a good place to nap,” declares the good cousin as he cradles him like a guardian Riva before trying to shuffle him from the store.
And Larry, who cannot bring him into the light of day (he tries to walk him out of the store but fails amidst the throng), can only place his displaced cousin under the “Help Wanted” sign. He is “Out To Lunch,” as we are told by the sign placed in his lap.
And Larry, midwife of truth, is left holding the television—until the pressing demands of his boss, who pokes him aggressively, encourage it to fall from his hands. Twinkacetti: “You broke it, you bought it.” His slogan-ese matches the signs that crowd the shot, reminding us that he is a mouthpiece for the capitalist system that stands with authority over the shattered remains below. There shall be no more reflection on the operations of this land of merchandise.
Larry, after dropping his college Psych books:
“We have to find out what’s causing your nightmare. The answer is inside your head. We have to get in there and find what we’re looking for.”
I’m not even kidding. We’re about to go explicitly psychological. And, hungry for a joke, we are given the typical Balki dish of literality. “Does this involve cutting?” Yet the psychological stakes signal something greater, stakes that are, in a sense, just as violent and deadly—on our journey as viewers, we now recognize the failure of literality and must seek a deeper, allegorical answer. .
We are to look for ways, in Larry’s not-so-air-tight phrasing, “to get into the subconscious,” which begins expectedly with a game of word association. In tune with the title, we are offered what are purportedly perfect opposites – in/out, up/down, black/white, short/tall. But then:
Why a door, Larry? And before we laugh at Balki’s strange response, we should ask, what would be the antonym for door? A wall? Does Larry’s question reveal a deeper problem of barriers?
But now Balki must explain, which he does through a typically regressive account of his past. His Aunt Sophia (name deriving from “Wisdom,” of course) was wounded by a closing door—a failed opportunity to enter another space that clearly runs in the family—and the doctor had to be repaid by bartered eggs. Balki clings to a pre-capitalist past that nearly drives Larry from his side. “That’s it, I’m outta here,” says Larry, who tries to slide away. “We have to try something else.”
What that something else is: a return to the dream state. Balki empties his mind and returns to his dream. With Larry’s empathetic responses excluded for brevity, this is that dream:
I see little white cars… They’re, ah, they’re coming toward me. Their, um, their, their engines are roaring like thunder… And. I want to run but I can’t move. And they’re coming closer to me. And. They’re going to crush me.
Damn right, Balki, damn right! The dream clamors with apocalyptic thunder, but Balki still cannot make its content manifest. He refuses to discuss the dream and runs to his personal sanctuary: the washroom haven. Are we ready to discuss it yet?
Whatever it is, it requires backup. Larry has brought in a crack squad of dream interpreters—Mary Anne and Jennifer, flight attendants known for their ability to escort people to new lands. Now there’s popcorn on the table and we’re ready to project the film of Balki’s subconscious.
“Dreams are nothing more than windows to our subconscious that should be opened to let in the fresh air of reason,” says Mary Anne to the surprise of everyone. The laugh track makes it clear that those were big words.
But Balki is not ready. The ladies leave, and Balki threatens to do the same. Larry is left to find a way to get the truth, as our twenty-five minutes are coming to a close. He pretends to find interest in the book before him, which is a temptation that Balki cannot ignore. He is lured back to the analyst’s couch.
Larry tries to learn more after some devilish temptation. Balki bites. Larry will share the book with the answer to only one question:
Larry: Where are the cars in your dream going?
Balki: Aaay. Into a big garage….
Larry: …Why are they going there?
Balki: I don’t know why they’re going into the barn.
First apocalypse, and now revelation! The quick exchange reveals that the cars represent sheep that bring us back into the memories of his childhood and the fears of his liminal self: an annual sheep-shearing ceremony on Mypos that he is now missing. Not there to help them, Balki worries that his family will not get enough work done to barter for the food they need. They will go hungry. Perhaps they need to consume differently?
But the new development also encodes a detour: we thought the cars were coming toward him? Wasn’t that the first version of his dream? Balki must still be in the barn!
And so it’s time to make a call to the one phone in Mypos. (Let’s not go into the ideological mirror that this imaginary island of Mypos provides for America.) Balki feels somewhat better, at least—though he is now homesick. But more, Balki is sick for a home. He is dwelling in the past, unable to meet the new demands of the machine. His mind his troubled, a Globe-like theater to which we play audience, and which is distracted by demands to leave his youth and unity of self behind. Hamlet, haunted by the superegoic demands of the new ghost of his old father, puts it thus:
Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter.
But Balki fails to wipe his mind clean, and writhes under the sponge (perhaps that is what he does in the bathroom). And Larry does not know enough to help—for how does one help in this situation? What does it mean to keep that door open, rather than slam it shut? Can you be led through, Balki?
So Larry offers him instead an escapist fantasy—an imaginary return to Mypos, the loving arms of Riva, and a seat at the family table:
Larry: Why don’t you call home more often? You won’t be in the chair but at least you’ll hear voices.
And so Balki is back in the chair—wishing to be home while still in America. He has been left divided, even schizophrenic; he is shattered, disrupted—the furniture of his mind rearranged but unliveable, tripping up the stranger with whom he lives. Capitalist demands rush at him like roaring thunder, substituting his beloved sheep (they are treated like people in Mypos, Balki has explained, and remain linked to a pre-capitalist society) with the alienated objects of mass production.
In the end, Balki and Larry seem to find the tentative resolution. But are Balki’s struggles to be continued? The episode concludes with him once more falling asleep, prematurely. “Balki, Balki, is that you?”
Holy shit, folks! How am I going to follow that one next week? I’ve only ever purchased Jacques Lacan’s books for the library where I work. I’ve never read one. Good thing Professor M didn’t make any boner jokes, so I’ve still got that going for me.
Join me next week for “Tux for Two”!
Boner count: Balki (0); Larry (0)
Catchphrase count: Balki (4); Larry (0)