Before I make a joke about Balki probably going to jail in this episode, I want to take a few moments to talk about confidence vs smugness in sitcoms, which basically means I’ma talk about Full House some. There’s a pattern I’ve observed in some sitcoms, a path they sometimes follow across their second and third seasons. Once those overseeing and writing a show have figured out what their audiences like and don’t like, they revise. Elements that didn’t test well are downplayed, or even removed. Mark Brendanawicz from Parks & Recreation. Judy from Family Matters. Elements that work are enhanced, given center stage, and often milked. Sometimes, you get great seasons of television. The second season of Community. The second season of League of Gentlemen. Seasons 3-6 of The Simpsons. Other times, shows reinvent themselves and find something new to say or do. Seasons 5-7 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (I get the impression the writers thought each of seasons 4-6 was going to be the very last). Seasons 7 and 8 (and to a lesser extent 9) of The Simpsons. Season 3 of League of Gentlemen. Still other times, you end up with the equivalent of layers of papier mache over a balloon; after deflating, you’re left with a hollow shell I’ll call smugness.
Confidence in a show’s elements allows you to apply them with often pinpoint accuracy; smugness assumes that’s all that people want, and just keeps jabbing with them, blind to any target but mass appeal. Elements repeating endlessly; a storefront clown, waving, laughing at itself, waving again. Somewhere in the third season of Full House, they started getting smug; catchphrases becoming somehow a personality trait, the girls always getting what they want, characters learning lessons and still getting what they want most of the time (though I will point out the episode “Those Better Not Be the Days”, which was the most Full House ever made fun of its own failings; IMHO, it never did so again). Look at this smug shit:
I’ll admit I only watched the first episode of the very last season of Scrubs, but if the rest were anything like it, the show had been reduced to “All Your Favorite Jokes from Scrubs Are Back!” I’d even say that Community got a little smug in its third season, or at least a little lazy. Plots repeated, jokes being about previous jokes, rather than about new things. (Arrested Development got away with this by having the same jokes show up in various scenarios, with varying meanings.)
Confidence is knowing you can do right. Smugness is knowing you can do no wrong. Guess which one led to Oedipus killing Jocasta and blinding himself.
We’ve gotten some warning signs already from that interview with Pinchot that I linked you to a few weeks back. And the show’s success has filtered down even to its characters living space, the apartment growing a room, the cousins getting (if only barely) better jobs. I want to see if Perfect Strangers has achieved the confidence that it in some ways (*cough* Linn-Baker *cough*) deserves; but I’m scared that it may very well skip ahead and go straight to smugness.
Anyway, judging by the title, Creepy Balki’s probably going to jail this week, so let’s get started!
We started the past two episodes in darkness, almost as if the show were taking tentative steps into its third season; now, we begin in the full light of day, at the Chicago Chronicle.
It’s a slow day in the basement, Balki and Larry quietly going about their duties, when a woman–a new character–enters at the top of the stairs.
Olivia Crawford: Here… I am!
Larry exposits that Olivia Crawford is the editor of the Sunday magazine for the Chicago Chronicle, and that he’s always wanted to meet her.
“Well of course you have!”
Could it be…? Could that be some good foreshadowing there? She tells Larry that she’s there to get him to write a piece for the Sunday magazine, and Larry getting really flustered and happy. I share his excitement, because what I’m sensing is that we might have season 3’s Fat Marsha here. Olivia is a good actress, older, confident… ah shit, wait. She starts hitting on Balki, calling him darling, knowing where Mypos is. Ah shit, she really will be this season’s Fat Marsha, won’t she?
Larry explains to Balki how important such an assignment is, in case we’ve forgotten that Larry has gotten nothing more than two sentences into the paper during his two weeks at the Chronicle. We go to commercial and come back to Larry, stoked that he has come up with a title for his article: “Is Chicago disappearing?” It’s a piece on how Chicago’s neighborhoods are losing their ethnic character, and that’s pretty meta of you, show. It would have been nice to get an episode about Larry meeting the other foreigners in Balki’s night school classes to get some firsthand knowledge, but I’ll at least give credit that it’s a good assignment for Larry; probably something he’s thought about over the past year (?) of seeing an ethnic person undergoing the slow melting-pot process. Speaking of ethnic people Larry knows, here’s Harriette Winslow!
Olivia hates having to ride the elevator with other people; Harriette hates having to ride it with Olivia inside. I can get that. Everybody generally only enjoys their own brand.
Olivia very quickly dispatches Larry upstairs to her office to retrieve her “forgotten” car keys. She compliments Balki on the prowess with which he sorts the mail. Balki surmises that he developed his muscles from “lifting sheep”, meaning the conversation leads inevitably–as all conversations between Balki and women seem to do–to basic bodily functions. It turns out that sheep having seven stomachs only compounds the problem of constipation. And when you’re a lonely adolescent sheepherder, that instantly becomes your problem, if you know what I mean. (If you don’t know what I mean, I mean when you want to stick your penis in a sheep.)
Anyway, before Balki gets to the broken finger part of the story (due to manual disimpaction injury, no doubt), Olivia diverts him to the topic of homesickness. She knows there’s only so many minutes in a sitcom, and she needs to get laid. Balki talks about the things he has to remind him of Mypos: Dmitri, a tapestry made by his sister Yana, the nude charcoal drawings of his sister Yana, the–
Wait, did you say “tapestries”? Olivia collects tapestries! What a coincidence! I’m reminded of self-proclaimed psychics and palm readers, and how they know enough generalities of experience, as well as conversational tactics, to get their marks to reveal something that can be capitalized on. The pretense of commonality established, Olivia wastes no time getting those digits: Balki lives at 535 Windsong, apt. 207.* There’s a good joke here, too, where Balki relays the important information that he lives in a “brick building”.
Then Olivia starts breathing on his neck and smelling him. Then she kisses him and we get our very first “wooo!” from the audience this season. And semi-fake though I take most audience reactions to be (I mean, they get prompted sometimes), “wooo!” is a thing I’ve heard in real life from people observing others kiss. Do you think our cavemen ancestors did this, back when there was less privacy? Do you think our collective unconcious thinks that thunder means rain, snakes mean bites, and one kiss means you get to watch sex soon?
Olivia just goes to town on Balki, right there on the mail table. All those letters are probably just going to other floors of the building, but Olivia’s taking Balki to entirely new places. But, ultimately, as you already know by this point, Olivia Crawford is the bad guy this week, so I guess I can’t like her. Old ladies sure are gross, aren’t they? They should learn not to want sex after they turn 40… no, 30… no what am I saying, women who want sex are whores!
She had her keys the whole time! What a liar! Who knows how deep her evil goes (as if it weren’t enough simply being a one-off character on this show).
Balki spends the whole commercial break in shock on the mail table. Larry comes back without Olivia’s keys. Balki, in relaying to Larry what just happened, is for the first time in who knows how many episodes, actually humble. He haltingly asks if “looking at tapestries” is a euphemism for sex, like when they say “lifting sheep” on Mypos. And this is good! The show is tentatively broaching the topic of sex through its characters tentatively broaching it. Larry asks if it’s Laura, from the classified ads department (an apt guess, as this department would be home, as it were, of the SWF). After revealing that it’s Olivia coming over to look at tapestries, there’s a nice little bit of dialogue I’ll point out just to reinforce the confidence theme:
Larry: Haha… Balki… I don’t mean to hurt your feelings…
Balki (annoyed mimicky voice): But you’re going to…
Larry, in a nice bit of discernment, differentiates Olivia from last season’s ulterior motive girl by pointing out that Olivia is an executive. Much like Lazarus and the rich man, Larry sees that there is a great gulf fixed between Balki and Olivia Crawford. Larry, understanding that his keylessness means he is barred from entering, accepts that this episode is about Balki and Olivia, not about his ethnic cleansing story. He concedes graciously, saying that he trusts Balki to take care of himself (confidence!). “You’ve been with women before,” Larry says, laughing over the bygone Myposian boners of summers past. “I’m sure the milkmaids were all over you. I’m sure you had to beat ‘em off with a crook!”
Balki’s a virgin!
Larry’s a virgin!
This can happen sometimes with people who haven’t yet realized their own homosexuality. “Sex” can be a particular, set-in-stone kind of concept, defined strictly as occurring between, say, mommies and daddies. Anything they’ve done outside that concept has no name, and can only described by the the moon on Balki’s lips, the combined scents of Bismol and potata crumbs on Larry’s breath when he pants, the… whew, sorry, I’ve got to stop there. Give me a minute. It’s. Um. A good joke. The way they don’t explain it. Larry agrees to stay home that evening to be Balki’s protection.
Olivia’s urgent knock opens the next scene, but when Larry opens the door–
Larry: Balki and I are cousins.
Olivia Crawford: Oh… how nice.
Y’hear that, folks? Olivia doesn’t value family! She’ll never be seen from again! She changes her tune quickly, saying that she’s late for cocktails with the Mayor, and that she’ll just look quickly at the tapestry. Larry is somehow still certain that she’s being honest. I guess I’d expect one liar to recognize another, but oh well. Everybody’s got to take their turn holding the idiot ball.
Larry leaves to go to the library to research his article, and then Balki comes out of his bedroom with… the hell?
It’s the same damn blanket he made for Larry last season. Either the prop department just decided to be lazy that week, Balki lied about making the blanket for Larry, or Myposians only know that one design to put on a blanket. Also blankets are tapestries, I guess. The tapestry purports to show the whole history of Mypos. It turns out that the Bartokomous family started when Uncle Stavros farted; then they all became retarded. Nah, j/k, Ferdinand Mypos discovered the island by just trying to walk across the Mediterranean from Italy or some mess like that. Because, you know, Mypos is such an Italian name. Not Greek at all.
Also there was a Great Tomato Famine. Geez, an alfalfa famine and a tomato famine? Those poor Mypiots. Anyway, Balki admits that he thought Olivia was a whore (wish I was joking), and apologizes. Olivia wants to know if he still thinks that way about her.
Then Balki compares Olivia to his mom. Haha! She’s old! Old women are gross! Who would ever want to touch any of the orifices of an old woman? Barf! Retch! Puke-a-roonie!
Undaunted, Olivia tries to force her mucous membranes on Balki’s mypos membranes.
Balki: M-mama never did that.
Balki says that he wants to wait until marriage. Larry comes back, having forgotten yet another key: his library card. What a trooper, taking one last shot at establishing a running motif of “no entry” to reinforce how Balki won’t enter Olivia, and how she won’t enter the show ever again. It could have even been mirrored by ethnic communities not being able to enter the greater cultural milieu. But Larry blows it by asking “what’s going on here” when it’s completely obvious.
Balki: ARE YOU BLIND?!
When the show keeps me from making yet another joke about how Larry asks “what” before “why”, I consider that progress. I consider that the show noticing its own patterns, its own faults, if not yet correcting them, then at least commenting on them, is a good thing. Then Balki makes a joke about Olivia being all over him “like a wet t-shirt”, and that’s a good joke too!
Olivia just doesn’t give up, though, suggesting that Balki rendezvous with her at Mickey’s Hideaway the following Tuesday. But Larry knows all about the place, having stayed up many a night until 2 in the morning just so he can masturbate quickly and silently to their television ads. Olivia then threatens to get Balki fired, and now who’s blind through overconfidence, doing such a thing in front of a witness?
In the next scene, Larry rattles off a list of other employees who got fired just because they didn’t want to sleep with Olivia. Ha! A bunch of guys turned her down because sex with old women is gross gross GROSS!
Olivia is once again ushered into the basement by the woman who knows that you can’t be both the person having sex AND the person using it as blackmail. The cousins have already sent a letter of allegation to the managing editor, but:
Confidence has turned to smugness. Olivia felt secure in her position on a higher floor, but in trying to mine the basement for her own desires (eww!), she has eroded the foundation of her power. Jack, the managing editor, comes down to the basement. The cousins offer further proof of Olivia’s tawdry nature: Larry has discovered that there’s a room at Mickey’s Hideaway named after her, and Balki offers to be dusted for her fingerprints. This is–
*wipes tear from eye* Balki said fingerprints. I’m so goddam proud of my boy right now. Pronouncing words correctly. Refusing to give his body to those with nefarious purpose, and instead offering it freely in service of justice. What does Olivia have to say for herself?
Yeah, that’s what I thought. Get off my show, you sex-crazed old bag!
Olivia is fired, and the audience cheers. Olivia puts down the Chicago Chronicle and starts to leave, saying that she hears they put out in New York. But! Ha! Harriette won’t let her on the elevator! Black women sure don’t take any nonsense, do they?
Jack: You two should feel proud of yourselves.
Larry is happy to have served his role as detached adult in this episode, until Balki points out that it means he won’t get to have an article in the Sunday magazine. You can tell Larry’s doing the mental calculations here of just how long it will be until he can get home and crack open a nice cold Pepto Bismol.
And then the show ends with a good joke about how Balki’s happy that, if and when he gets married, he’ll be able to spend his honeymoon in a state of fumbling, awkward bliss.
So. Confidence vs smugness. Progress vs (self-assumed) Perfection. Humility vs hubris. Ovis aries vs Olivia Crawford. I’m happy to say that this episode shows some confidence, as well as some progress. Likewise, similar to the cousins’ situation at the end of every episode, it’s clear we have still have some distance left to cover. There’s some decent jokes, some one-upping of season 2’s tropes, some humility on Balki’s part, and some confidence in Balki on Larry’s part. With the cousins as the heroes, we have to see every other character from their perspective. In season 2, we were forced to see Fat Marsha through their eyes, meaning she was, if not a proper villain, an unrestrained other. We must also see Olivia through their eyes, at least until the final act, when a judge must come down from on high to decide the matter. She threatened the cousins, but she also threatened the reputation and operation of the newspaper. Olivia Crawford was a clear bad guy; I wanted so badly to make the joke that she was evil simply because she was doing things a man in power might do. But she was doing clearly unethical things, so I left it alone. I just wish the show hadn’t added “she’s old” into the mix, and suggested that her age, coupled with her forwardness, were what turned Balki off. Actress Holland Taylor was only 44 when this episode aired, and Balki 28. If I had seen this as a kid, that difference might have seemed greater to me than it does now. But I’ve come to learn not to judge my past self by my current standards. It’s important to look at old media in terms of current mores, and instructive to see where and how it falls short (or doesn’t). But there’s only so far one can go in criticizing it, I suppose, since there’s nothing to be done about it now, other than hope that the next time is better. But since I didn’t say this last week, I do feel bad for any sitcom character who’s the least bit overweight, or even a few years older than the other characters; because they always seem to end up having to do an episode about that innocuous aspect of themselves, just because it’s not some assumed media “norm”.
Anyway, I’ve gone on long enough with this review. I’ll have plenty of time for more self-reflection next week, when the cousins and I will be “Taking Stock”. See you then!
Boner count: Balki (0); Larry (0)
Coner count: Olivia (1, continuous)
Catchphrase count: Balki (1); Larry (0)
*Did they move twice? In two weeks?