Season 5, Episode 3: The Newsletter

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The camera pans from the top floor of the Chronicle down to the ground: a symbol of returning to its foundations.  This is a good sign.

Parallel to this is Lydia’s descent into the basement, Lydia being herself symbolically loaded.  The brains of the show–yet her own brain is troubled.  A symbol of familiarity, the former Edwina; her hair a novelty, evoking a phoenix, rising from the black ashes of the past.  These are good signs.

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Twinkaquerent, she stands ready to receive information on Larry’s condition.

The former teacher is now beset with assignments.  Where once he only typed two-sentence summaries of minor affairs, Cousin Larry now must interview an Alderman*; research a series of articles on money laundering; and is evidently in charge of the obituaries.

It proves to be too much for his Wellington 4000 typewriter, which has lost its feather-touch control, tearing Larry’s articles as he pulls them out.

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Lydia offers relaxation advice: go to the Bahamas and rerun old columns (shit, if only I’d known I could do that two weeks ago…).  She calls it “The Best of Lydia”, which leads to a solid joke about “The Best of the Obituaries”.

Anyway, Lydia tells Larry that he’s whipped, so Larry swears to fuck up the next person who tries to give him an assignment.

Immediately he’s tested on this, as RT (Resistance Training) Wainwright comes in.

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Larry comes correct when Wainwright demands 1,000 words of background on the Burgess murder trial.

Larry makes an attempt to manage his time by giving Wainwright an estimate on when he can have it to him, so Wainwright tells him to manage his time.  I think many of us have had that boss before.

So, before Balki comes in and derails everything… think for a second on where this episode seems to be going. Think back to around this time last season when Larry took on assertiveness training.  Think back to four seasons ago when Larry tried to tell Balki how to say no to people taking advantage of him.  Pretty obvious what this one’s about, right?  But after last week, I don’t think I can trust the show anymore.

That’s not a good thing or a bad thing.

Just sayin’.

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Balki runs in shouting at his cousin that he’s going to be working on the Chronicle Chatter newsletter.

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Balki keeps yelling at Larry, and it turns out it was just a ruse to make everyone leave so that they could spend some quantity time** together.

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Larry lets slip that he doesn’t want Balki in the basement anymore, and encourages Balki, saying that maybe this is a way he can become a real reporter.

Well, I just filled my quota of asking “how the fuck does the hierarchy work here?” once a month.

There’s a nice little confusing conversation about how Larry can’t help him with the newsletter, even with Balki making a dumb joke about acronyms.  It’s nice because it’s confusing for the characters without being badly written, but also because it’s a tidy bit of character work for Larry, and the type of small change that we should have been seeing more of by now.

Last season Phil (AKA “ALF Man” from Mega Man 16) commented on “Come Fly With Me” by saying that the show could do with changing the dynamic of Larry-helps-Balki by having Balki be confident about something, only to then get out of his depth.  This episode sure isn’t that, but it is changing the dynamic. After all this time of being a father/cool big brother with sunglasses surrogate, Larry automatically makes the assumption that Balki is going to ask for help.  Even though he honestly doesn’t have time or energy to spare to help Balki, you can tell he gets off a little on the idea that he’s needed.

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At the apartment, Balki prepares the newsletter the old fashioned way of pasting articles to sheets of paper to ready them for copying. Dmitri’s just hanging out until Balki starts bashing him on the newsletter repeatedly.  Also Dmitri squeaks, meaning that Balki doesn’t even have to put a sock on the doorknob.

dmitristamp

When Cousin Larry arrives home, they do the Dance of Joy to celebrate the completed newsletter.

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We last saw the Dance of Joy at the end of “Wedding Belle Blues” where the cousins celebrated not being separated; I anticipate the next time will be for Balki finishing a box of cereal and a carton of milk at the same time. Does the Dance of Joy have any meaning anymore?

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Balki says he’s developed his own unique style: “some may liken it to Hemingway, while others cite Kafka, but you decide.”

I better damn not see another time–ever–when Balki reads something out loud slowly.

And here we get a better version of “Larry grades Balki’s paper”.  In “Teacher’s Pest” we were given no indication what Balki’s writing style was like, and even vaguer recommendations from Larry (“fundamental problems”).  Here, Larry reads Balki’s articles aloud, meaning the audience gets to come to the exact same conclusion as Larry. You could argue that in the other episode it needed to be vague so that Larry could be easily written off as a jerk, but this improvement is really impacting me here.  This episode has basically accomplished in a couple of minutes what the other managed not to in 10. This…

This is a very good sign.

At any rate, Balki’s articles are “fluff” pieces: one or two sentences apiece about Lydia’s vacation and Gorpley’s wardrobe.

Larry: Where is the real story?

Yeah, and where’s the results of Balki’s journalism class? On the other hand, y’know what? Cover up “Teacher’s Pest” with Liquid Paper and let’s move on.  This story’s worth it.

Unfortunately, Balki’s aren’t, according to Larry.  Balki says he’s writing them exactly as he was told.

Ah, now we see that Larry’s trying to remove the splinter from Balki’s eye, ignoring the crossbeam in his own.

What is Larry’s stake in Balki writing more than fluff? Balki’s doing what he was asked, he’s having fun with it, he’s a little kid getting to make his own newspaper.  The Chronicle Chatter is pretty obviously something like People Magazine, and Lydia even said so earlier, that she gets to read about people she’d never interact with unless she absolutely had to.

Larry usually wants to use Balki, and I think that’s the missing key*** to understanding here.  He wants to feel needed, so he can say no, but now, he’s demanding to be needed. He’s creating a need–this guy should be in advertising.

But what’s more… there’s more than a little, I think, of Larry wanting to be able to stick it to their superiors.  We started out with a cornered Larry wishing to buck the system and have freedom to say yes or no to the assignments he’s given.

Cousin Larry encourages Balki to tell the story behind the story, to dig deeper–

Balki: you mean like when I stick my finger in your–

Larry: No, no. Sort of.

Larry says Balki should answer why, citing the basic five Ws of journalism, which of course he didn’t get to in the journalism class.

They do a “Who’s on First” bit that works. It’s a pretty damn organic conversation that you could expect an English learner to get completely frustrated by. Balki keeps misunderstanding Larry’s statements as questions, and Larry is misunderstanding Balki’s the meaning of Balki’s questions.  The situation is enough to make Larry’s misinterpretation of questions okay because there’s two ways that Balki could be getting confused; the situation is enough for Larry–in teacher mode–to forget that Balki can get confused on a more basic level sometimes.

Also, hey, it’s not the first time one of them has had a problem with (heh) a high rising terminal.

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Even Balki getting upset and fanning himself works.

And that previous scene–Balki being taught about asking questions–is followed up by Balki trying to interview Gorpley and misunderstanding the phrase “that’s for me to know and you to find out”.  Somebody took the two extra minutes this week to come up with good immigrant misunderstandings!

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But Gorpley is on his way to a four-hour lunch (in itself newsworthy!) and doesn’t want to answer Balki’s question about his clothes.

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Larry comes in and says Balki will have to change his tactics if he wants to get the truth out of people. You know, thumbscrews, water torture, steel wool and raisins.

Nah, j/k, that’s stuff from my Perfect Strangers fanfic. Larry tells him to snoop around, get juicy gossip (where’s Harriette when you need her?), talk to friends, wives, ex-wives…

Completely forgetting that everyone knows that Gorpley is divorced, Balki just says “what if he don’t have friends”.

*sigh*

Larry tells Balki to go incognito. Can we go for three good language mixups here? Please?

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Balki: I don’t care much for Mexican food.

Yes!

Balki: It always gives me Monty Hall’s revenge.

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*shoulders slump* Oh. Anyway, Balki worries that he’d be snooping.

Larry: It’s not snooping if you’re writing it down; then it’s journalism!

Larry and Balki have a good laugh about misnomers.

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Before Larry leaves, Balki doesn’t understand quote fingers, which is also perfectly understandable, so long as you forget “Teacher’s Pest” again.

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Lydia asks Larry about his workload and Larry questions RT Wainwright’s mental health (“not playing with a full deck”) and

UH-OH

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I guess you could say Larry was “hoisted by his own petard”. I guess you could say that he “put his foot in his mouth”. That he “fucks Balki”.

But man, wasn’t this story exactly what I was asking for during the season 4 review?

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The next day (?), Balki comes in the basement and look who’s wearing a funny hat again! It’s our Balki!

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But before Cousin Larry can even read the newsletter, Gorpley (no longer dressed so snazzy), comes out of his office laughing.

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Let’s just zip through this part, because I’m sure you can kind of guess.  Balki reported that Lydia went to Milwaukee to have an eyelid tuck****, but then Lydia comes in and reveals that Gorpley’s antics were outed in the paper as well.  Evidently the Gorpster has been shtupping somebody named Maggie Minor, who happens to be the wife of the sports writer. And obviously, if you’re a sportswriter, you’re built like a linebacker, so this is reason enough for Gorpley to be scared for his life.

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(There is also, we learn, a “Dmitri the Sheep” cartoon in the Chronicle Chatter, though it is not shown. It’s a nice additive detail.)

Okay, now here’s the pinch point. A distracted Cousin Larry gave Balki some incomplete good advice: no examples, no boundaries on what should be kept personal out of decent respect for others. Balki has become Anonymous without any ill intent, and Larry’s desire to be a smart big brother (something he never got to be, but always thought he deserved to be) is on full display. This is, believe it or not, the good episode I’ve been looking for for quite some time. Balki honestly misunderstood an idiomatic phrase, which becomes… well, not a great gag, but simply the equivalent of the result of a chemical reaction.  It plays out exactly as it’s supposed to, and the neatness of the plot raises the level of the joke. (Balki wrote that people should be Wainwright some playing cards for Christmas.)

*counts on fingers*

We’re on episode 75 now, precisely the halfway point of this whole series.  Let’s celebrate with a

Psychology sidebar: Put simply, operant conditioning describes the process by which we learn to repeat–or discontinue–certain behaviors/responses.  The idea is that we (humans, cats, dogs, mice, etc.) will repeat behaviors that lead to successful outcomes and cease those that don’t.  Further, those behaviors can be refined as well through processes of differentiation.  I’m somewhat surprised I haven’t thought to talk about this before, because it’s a decent framework through which to view the show’s choices in what it focusses on and how it tells its stories.  I’ll skip over a lot of the theory so I can talk for a minute about reinforcement/reward schedules.  Imagine a lab rat is pressing a lever to get a food pellet, but the food only comes out according to a schedule. There are two schedule aspects; “interval” refers to the amount of time between responses and “ratio” refers to the number of responses. Each of these can be fixed: a food pellet only comes out every 60 seconds, regardless of how many lever presses; or a food pellet only comes out after every 10th lever press, regardless of how much time has passed.  Or, the schedules can be variable: it could be 1 minute between food pellets one time, and then 3 minutes the next, or 10; it could take 2 presses to get a pellet, or it could take 100.

The schedule that’s most addictive is that very last one, variable ratio.  You could certainly argue that Perfect Strangers follows a variable interval schedule, but damn if it doesn’t feel like a variable ratio sometimes.  At any rate, here we are, halfway through, and the show has given me a reward for these millions of times I’ve pressed tiny lever-surrogates in hopes of something worthwhile. *sigh* Looks like I’ll do the next 75 episodes…

Meanwhile, back in the basement, the cousins already cornered by Lydia and Sam, RT (Raging, tetchy) Wainwright comes in and tells Larry he’s got some splainin’ to do.

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Larry blubbers.

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It goes on for a while.

(Also, Wainwright only seems to come in from the bomb shelter part of the basement.  Does he live there?)

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Then Matt Minor, Maggie’s husband, comes in looking for Gorpley.

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Gorpley points at Larry, and Balki just stands there, realizing that he can turn others’ misery into his own journalistic success. The 2014 Academy Award-nominated film Nightcrawler, starring Jake Gyllenhall, got nothing on this!

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Later on, Larry is talking to Wainwright on the phone, apologizing for what he “did”. Him not doing this in person, in Wainwright’s office, is one more thing I’ll ignore because this was a good episode.

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And then Balki comes out of his room wearing something foreign and looking pained, much like I did when I had to wear a tie for elementary school functions.

He refers to it as the Myposian Mantle of 1,000 Itches. So we’ve now returned to the theme of Balki being only exterior, claiming others’ minds with his vest, having to wear outfits to tap into his former culture, understanding only the literal meaning of words (he made liberal use of the words Who/What/Where/Why/When in his articles), causing problems when forced to go beyond “fluff” writing and dig deeper. Light in the loafers, dating an airhead, turning his 3D sheep into a 2D cartoon, gliding on the surface of days… and now wearing a punishment designed solely for the skin. Balki says he must wear it one year for every person he offended, and I laughed out loud at the 7-year-itch joke.

(Also we learn that there are Boxer Shorts of Eternal Chafing. I’m proud of you for making a dick joke, show. Mighty proud.)

Larry tells his cousin to just apologize to everyone so he can take Balki’s shirt off.

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Balki says he’ll resign from the newsletter, but Larry tells him his first effort was pretty good. NOT THE FIRST TIME, AMIRITE?

Ah, such a good episode, and now we’re in the final seconds, lessons learned, tying everything up, I bet this is even going to end on a good joke…

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The final joke is that Balki went in disguise as a waiter at the restaurant where Gorpley and Maggie Minor hesitantly touched each other’s pee-pees under the table.

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*sigh*

Join me next week for “Tooth or Consequences”!

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Catchphrase Count: Balki (1); Larry (0)

Boner Count: Balki (0); Larry (0)

Dance of Joy Running Total: 15

*Let’s hope it’s not Alderman Zittrell, whom we last completely forgot about right after “Crimebusters”.

**Psychology sidebar here: I’m not up on the research about quantity vs quality time, but I will make a detour just to say that quantity/quality is a good framework through which to say that this show sucks.

***It’s called a MOTIF, y’all.

****The reader may wish to refer to “Just a Gigolo” for insight on this.

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4 thoughts on “Season 5, Episode 3: The Newsletter

  1. “The Best of the Obituaries” is a good joke. And the episode doesn’t sound bad. But:

    “Wainwright demands 1,000 words of background on the Burgess murder trial.”

    …this I don’t get.

    If he’s just asking for background (so that somebody else can write the story) that’s fine, but then I don’t know why he’d specify a wordcount. You ask for background of the murder trial, and you get what you get. If there’s a lot of info it should probably be condensed, but 1,000 words is oddly specific. What if there’s not that much background? Does Larry have to pad it out?

    You ask for background and you get some bullets. Maybe lots of bullets. Key figures and dates. Some good quotes. But 1,000 words almost implies narrative. And that’s not background.

    UNLESS it’s 1,000 words of background that they intend to plug into the story, but no newspaper is going to give over that massive amount of ink to BACKGROUND. Even the OJ trial wouldn’t have had that much “background” in a news story; the bulk of the text should be given over to the most recent or important development. And if it is, that means that this story on the trial will be something like two or three thousand words long, at least.

    Which is insane for a newspaper. Did the writers forget and think the cousins worked for a news magazine instead?

    Cancel this shit.

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    • For what it’s worth, reference has been made to a Sunday magazine, much, I assume, like that of the New York Times. Would that call for a 1,000-word narrative?

      Or, hey, it was the 80s, maybe OJ (Old Journalism) was different.

      Like

  2. If it’s for a Sunday magazine, that’s…probably okay. If it’s an ongoing trial and worth the coverage, they could well give over a full magazine to key players, a timeline, photos…and a 1,000 word narrative wouldn’t be out of place in that case.

    But then…Larry should be doing a fucking cartwheel. His 1,000 word writeup on the Trial of the Century is getting published in a special Sunday magazine everyone will read and talk about, and many will save. At that point, he’s arrived. And you’d think he’d have…some kind of reaction, as opposed to “ugh, I’m so busy”?

    Like

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