Welp, that sure was Season 2, wasn’t it? Where do I even start to talk about this thing as a whole? How do you even begin to discuss something that’s simultaneously the same thing each week, but also at times a complete mess of inconsistencies?
I guess let’s revisit the core idea of the show. Bright-eyed innocent from isolated agrarian island gets skewed romantic perspective of American life from the bits and pieces of pop culture that made it that far afield. Said innocent travels in hopes of experiencing everything he’s “learned” about America, only to find that it’s both more and less than he hoped for. He shacks up with a distant relative who is at the outset of trying to forge his own destiny, but whose knowledge of American society is only at the technical level (this is how something “works”).
The foreigner’s knowledge is superficial in that he only sees the output, but not the inner workings of a complex modern society; the native (the product of that society) has come to believe that systems and rules govern everything, and mastery of them, finding the right fulcra and levers, will gain him success. One needs guidance through something more complex than feudalism, sheepherding, and barter systems; the other needs guidance into the inner workings of the human psyche.
So maybe let’s start by judging the episodes on how well they get across some part of that? We’ll look at Larry first. Larry Appleton, as we’ve seen, wants to know that he has control over whatever situation he’ll be in, whether it’s through preparation (“Hello Baby”, “Babes in Babylon”, “Trouble in Paradise”) or manipulation of others (“Hunks Like Us”, “Since I Lost My Baby”, “Tux For Two”, “Snow Way to Treat a Lady”). He constantly meets with failure, either of his way of thinking (turns out babies are just going to pop out when they want to) or of his methods themselves (lies to impress women eventually unravel).
He’s always trying to gain something a little past what he’s had before: sometimes it’s a pretty woman, sometimes it’s a better job, but there always seems to be a materialistic bent to it. He tries to impress women with food, either cooked by himself or at a fancy restaurant, or with Bruce Springsteen tickets. He’s also very proud of his belongings, such as his childhood bicycle; see also how disappointed he was by the gift of a potato clock.
Balki, on the other hand, comes from a society without much material luxury; in fact, the livelihoods of most Myposians seem to depend on what material goods they have (“Beautiful Dreamer”, where if they’re not ready with all of the wool when the buyer comes by, they’re boned for a whole year). Other than being somehow fed a constant stream of American pop culture, Balki’s existence has been mainly wrapped up in other people.
It’s been established that, in communities that occupy lower socioeconomic strata, that sharing of new wealth is much more common. For instance, if someone were to win the lottery, they would share their winnings with other members of the community because if they don’t, they might not be on the receiving end of someone else’s luck. So Balki freely offers his time (“Two Men and Cradle”), his efforts (“Falling in Love Is…”), his apartment (“Hello Baby”), and ultimately risks his life (“Snow Way to Treat a Lady”), without hope of being paid back at all. While Larry assumes bad intentions on the part of others automatically, Balki assumes the best.
So what do these cousins do for each other in Season 2?
Larry helped Balki:
learn that love doesn’t come quickly, and not everyone’s honest (“Falling in Love Is…”)
learn to consider the needs of animals (“Dog Gone Blues”)
learn that sometimes you don’t have to achieve everything to be a success (“The Rent Strike”)
learn that physical presence isn’t the only way to help others (“Beautiful Dreamer”)
Balki helped Larry:
find his own strengths (“The Rent Strike”; “Can I Get a Witness?”; “Babes in Babylon”)
learn not to lie (“Ladies and Germs”; “Hunks Like Us”; “Snow Way to Treat a Lady”)
learn to just go with the flow and find meaning where he is (“Hello Baby”)
give other people approval when they seek it (“Falling In Love Is…”; “Hello, Elaine”)
So, okay, they help each other, but I do think it’s noteworthy that Balki’s missteps are usually from a place of good intentions, while Larry’s are not. Balki gives his heart and love too quickly, and Larry’s just a dirty fucking liar. Balki wants everyone to have everything they need, and Larry’s just an emotionally withholding asshole. Balki misses his mom, and Larry wants some hot poontang. I mean, come on, there was a whole two-parter towards the end of the season just to beat Larry down about his lying habit and establish Balki as a (symbolically) angelic character.
There are two other lessons that I didn’t put up there, because I want to discuss them in a little more depth. One is the whole “family is the most important thing”, which would eventually become pretty much the ONLY lesson on Full House in its later seasons; we see this in “Lifesavers”, a little bit in “A Christmas Story”, arguably in “Since I Lost My Baby”, and finally in “Hello, Elaine”. Then there’s also the troubling “blind faith” kind of lesson that’s showed up in this season. It’s a subtle lesson in “Hello Baby”, and perhaps as well in “Two Men and a Cradle”, and at least the former of those is the tame “go with the flow and it’ll be alright” version. But then you’ve got “Ladies and Germs”, which dealt with traditional remedies and came *this* close to advocating faith-based medicine. And then, lastly, you’ve got the intersection of the “family” and “faith” lessons with “The Unnatural”. In both “Ladies and Germs” as well as “The Unnatural”, Larry is doing everything correctly (according to widely accepted knowledge), but is shown to be wrong because he won’t just blindly trust a family member. In both of these cases, he’s 100% right to try to stick with his plan, but because he hurt Balki the Kid’s feelings, he has to give in; both have a third act where things miraculously work out. The presence of this tendency worries me, especially since this season of Perfect Strangers precedes the beginning of Full House.
Another thing that struck me throughout this season was how we’ve all but dropped any sort of intellectualism in the show, and gone almost all the way towards slapstick. Larry’s still a cipher for “intelligent character” (he reads books! wow!), and I think we’re supposed to assume Jennifer is as well, since she’s obviously going to be Larry’s girlfriend, and also because she isn’t the dumb woman character. Back in the first season, we had Larry constantly trying to explain complex systems to Balki (banking, photojournalism, driving a car); we only got that a few times this season (renting vs. owning, attending classy events, skiing). Skiing in particular is a perfect example of the shift in direction this show took. Rather than have Larry actually bring anything to the table to actually teach Balki, they just went the physical comedy route of having them get their skis tangled up in the apartment. There were a handful of times that the physical comedy actually made me laugh. The bit where they shuffled around the apartment, and it took both of them to hang up the phone in “Hunks Like Us”; the frantic place-switching and dragging in “Two Men and a Cradle”; and the walking tent bit in “The Rent Strike”. But mostly they seemed to be doing it just because they knew it would get laughs. I suppose that’s not a big thing to complain about. The two things that come to mind for me regarding the natural selection process that comedy goes through are both related to the Three Stooges. I remember reading that Curly tended to hike up his shoulders because it seemed to get more laughs (I read this in the notes of one of the “phonebook” volumes of Dave Sim’s Cerebus series; I don’t know where he got it, but I trust Sim to know his stuff); and that “Slowly I Turn” bit really shouldn’t work as well as it does, but it got laughs, so they kept doing it. Can I blame a major network for sticking with what kept audiences tuning in? (Fuck yeah I can, fuck those fucking suits.)
So, basically, we’re looking at two shifts in second season Perfect Strangers. We’ve gone from Balki and Larry possessing equal knowledge to bring to the table, to Balki having more to offer Larry. I’m not going to count how many times each was right, or how many times each learned a lesson of their own. I’m not a soccer or a hockey fan, and I usually can’t follow a tenth of what’s going on on during gameplay, but I can tell which side of the field the players spend more time on. Balki won this season hands-down in terms of which cousin is “better”. The other shift is from actual adult topics and lessons to Balki turning Larry sideways to get his way, Balki having fun with “fingyprints”, and a goddam dog dancing around. Why did this happen?
I’ll take a moment to point out that www.perfectstrangers.tv is a wonderful resource, and yes, I’ve used it if I’m trying to remember something between watching an episode and posting the review. I’m trying not to overuse it, because I still want to rely on my own powers of observation for things to jump out at me. (Seriously, their episode guides are an eye-opener in just how many types of catchphrases and catchphrase-a-likes this show had.) One of the great things the site has collected is news articles on Perfect Strangers, which saves me from having to buy old TV Guides, or wear a disguise to go look at microfilm at the public library. I’m certainly not going to read every piece of reporting on this show, but I did read the Rolling Stone profile that came out right before the second season. Go read it, then come back.
Did you read it?
You fucking liars, you’re all going to fall into a pit. Anyway, whatever, one of the most important things in that article is a quote from show creator Dale McRaven:
“Right now people just want to be entertained,” says McRaven. “I think the nation is tired of being guilty. People just want to turn on the TV and laugh.”
There’s also a quote from Mark Linn-Baker about how they’re shooting for something like I Love Lucy. Some of the other news reporting around the start of the second season includes quotes from Lucille Ball herself praising Perfect Strangers. Take that with a grain of salt, though; Ball’s Life With Lucy premiered on ABC in Fall 1986 as well. There was likely some corporate synergy there, but I can definitely see some truth in Linn-Baker’s quote. So there’s an answer, though certainly not the answer, about whether this show built on 70s buddy sitcoms; somewhere between seasons 1 and 2, they decided to go even further back and see how well a 1950s comedy sense would transfer to the 80s.
By the way, that quote I’m mentioning from Mark Linn-Baker? It was one of friggin’ two measly quotes from him in the whole article. The article’s writer seems to have had a day-long interview with Bronson Pinchot, but for all we know the guy may have spent two minutes on the phone with Mark Linn-Baker. Linn-Baker is, if anything, a little dismissive of television, but good grief had Pinchot already taken on the demeanor of an arrogant Hollywood type by that point. I mean, come on, a few minor movie roles followed by a part on a failed sitcom, followed by a part on a sitcom that got renewed for a second season hardly seems meteoric. But I’m positive Pinchot was the reason Perfect Strangers even got a second season, and I’m sure Pinchot knew it, too. (Also, holy crap, Pinchot wrote a comedy album that was never made? Color me curious!)
So we had a first season, the response to which was that audiences wanted physical comedy, and they wanted Balki. (In the primetime hour, they cried more, more, more.) I think this may also explain a little of how the show treats women. I said what I needed to say about this show and women back in my review for “Get A Job”, so go read that if you want to see what I think. The TL;DR version is that women are mostly unknowable except that deep under the left boob of every Bonnie Kleinschmidt out there is a heart so dark that, if the woman is given access to money or power, will become an evil, sex-crazed Edwina or Fat Marsha. But season 2 just blew through its secondary characters like so many bottles of antacid. I appreciate that Mrs. Twinkacetti showed up so much, and I’m retroactively surprised that Gina showed up a couple of times, but we’ll never see any of these others again. From now on they’ll all be up there together in the Statesville prison, along with Martin and Dutch and Lana, Thames and Sally Decker. I’m still super-bummed that Susan didn’t stick around. And damn, was it just me, or did themes of loss just echo through the second half of this season? Larry lost his chance to be Christmas boy, Balki mourns the loss of two sheepdogs, Twinkacetti loses his wife briefly, Balki misses being with his family for Christmas and the annual sheep-shearing, Larry loses his bike, the cousins lose their job, Mary Anne keeps losing parts of her brain…
I’ll miss Susan, I’ll miss the Twinkacettis (even their kids, Set Dressing and Speaking Role), I’ll even miss fucking Schlaegelmilch. But if you’re going to up the physical comedy aspect, you’re basically going to end up with just Balki and Larry most of the time. That’s what we got, and I feel like that was a detriment to the show. I mean, “A Christmas Story” was a total shitshow because we just had to sit around while Larry moped and whined for what felt like most of the episode; compare that to “The Rent Strike”, whose strength lay partially in the fact that the plot was driven by the existence of a whole building full of characters. It’s no surprise I liked the latter about as much as I disliked the former. And as much as I hate how the show has just handed us girlfriends for the cousins (seriously, it’s not even a will they/won’t they, it’s a when will they here), and as much as I loved the Twinkacettis, it would have been a stretch to have Larry and Balki stay in that discount shop one second longer. I know we’ve got a bigger regular cast coming, and that’s certainly needed at this point.
What can we expect for the future of this show? I’m going to bet on more physical comedy, more Larry being wrong and evil, and definitely more of Balki singing. The consensus seems to be that seasons 3-8 haven’t been released on DVD because of the cost in music rights, so there’s definitely more Balki singing. I suppose the upside to that is we might get more of Balki shaking his imaginary tits, but the downside is that the film quality is going to go way down. Yes, I’ll be using the copies that are floating around on torrent sites from now on, and if someone from ABC wants to object to this, I’d be glad to send to each executive, creator, actor, guild member, or whomever, exactly what they would have made off of the sale of one complete series DVD, sold at whatever deep discount price Amazon would have been selling it for about a year after its release. I’m being generous, ABC: if the DVD had been released, I’d’ve bought it second-hand from a third-party seller, and you’d have gotten nothing anyway.
Let’s get to the last few things for my season review:
Favorite episode: “Get a Job”. I never thought I’d say this, but I would actually watch this one again.
Episode I hate the most: “The Unnatural”
Best lesson: Balki’s, in “The Rent Strike”
Worst lesson: it’s a tie between Larry’s in “Ladies and Germs” and Larry’s in “Hello, Elaine”
Best one-off character: Susan Kellerman as Fat Marsha
Worst one-off character: Elaine, but I will say that she was one of the better actors the show has had. There was just so much build up that for her not to at least emotionally belittle Larry in some way was a let-down. I mean, Larry’s got 8 siblings, right? Couldn’t we have used baseball girl for this story?
Worst handling of a one-off character: Fast Eddie (blink and you’ll miss him)
Season 2 catchphrase count: Balki (31.5); Larry (3)
Season 2 boner count: Balki (6); Larry (9)
Cumulative catchphrase count: Balki (41); Larry (7)
Cumulative boner count: Balki (9); Larry (10.5)
Dance of Joy running total: 9
And, for next week: I’ll look at what our actors did between seasons 2 and 3!