Season 5, Episode 10: Almost Live From Chicago

Welcome back!  I hope you enjoyed the Dad Trilogy, but now it’s time to get back to business as usual.

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We find Balki, polishing a table and singing Reason #33…

*sigh*

The DVDs aren’t out yet, but I have to have a joke in the meantime. I guess I can still say: here’s reason #33 why a graphic design temp isn’t at this very moment working on multiple pieces of unique DVD disc art for Perfect Strangers: “Lemon Tree” by Will Holt (and popularized by Trini Lopez). The song presents itself as a warning against love, but a close reading of the lyrics bears indication that the warning is really against women.  After all, it’s not like love faded away or anything, or that the man’s love was untrue: it’s that the woman fell in love with another.  So we begin this episode with a warning that women are fickle and uncontrollable creat–

–hey why the hell is Balki polishing a table (with, I assume, something lemon-scented)? Does the biggest newspaper in the US not have a housekeeping staff?

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The cleaning is the efficient cause of Larry falling to the floor when he tries to sit on it. I can understand this, I think. I mean, you try and write a gag involving newspapers, or journalism, or mail sorting, and see how long it takes you to just write physical comedy instead.

Larry happily tells his cousin “TGIF”.

Larry: Balki, do you know about all the great shows on ABC’s new Friday night programming block? Full House returns for its third season, followed by the brand-new sitcom Family Matters at 8:30, Perfect Strangers, and then finishing off with Just the Ten of Us?

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For the first time in forever, Balki has used his catchphrase to cover up a lack of knowledge. He guesses that it stands for “two goats in Fresno”.  Is that really the best you can come up with, show? Come on. “Tampons go in front”. “The goats I fucked”. “That Gorpley is a fustilarian”.

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Twinkacetti’s Gal is Fashionable: Lydia enters dressed in what, if I remember correctly, were the only colors that existed in 1989.

Balki gives Lydia some mail and says “HAYM” (here’s all your mail).

POP QUIZ #1

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Where does Balki come up with them?

  1. Laffy Taffy wrappers
  2. He gets a good deal on them from Malcolm
  3. A small statue of Pazuzu whispers them to him at night

Far kinder than I ever will, Lydia very subtly expresses that she thinks Balki isn’t funny. But, well, when you get right down to it, bad jokes and funny clothing are Balki’s material causes, and it’s good that the show explicitly acknowledges this sometimes.

Lydia complains that she has gotten yet another letter from Channel 8, who want to do a television version of her advice column.  The General Idea’s Faulty: how exactly would that show go?  Would she just read letters on air and then answer them while the studio audience quietly watches?  Even if the person with the question were there on the set with her, would that really make for exciting television?  I dunno, I’m probably overthinking it.  Lydia is Dr. Phil. Let’s move on.

The cousins are astounded that Lydia would pass up such a great opportunity; after all, as George Walter Appleton told us, television is much better than newspaper work.

We learn that even someone as dedicated to the long con as Edwina Twinkacetti can’t always keep her story straight.  Where two seasons ago she couldn’t wait to get in front of the camera to be in the Chronicle’s TV commercial, now she has a fear of cameras that reaches all the way back to her childhood.  Her mother forced her to be on some show called “Miss Terry’s Tapping Tulips” when she was 6.

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Anyway, compared to other continuity hiccups this one is small.  I’m willing to overlook it because finally, FINALLY, another episode about Lydia.  Last time, Larry dressed up as a woman to steal the spotlight.  Let’s hope Balki doesn’t get a sex change.  I’m hopeful, but at the same time…

Remember back in season 3 when I started praising the show for how it depicted the cousins having learned each others’ buttons and patterns and blind spots? Yet here in season 5 I think I’ve said a couple of times that they each should have learned to spot warning signs.  I see the warning signs. A song whose message is to not trust women, a reference to a cancelled television show (That’s Incredible!)… and isn’t a Perfect Strangers episode that’s supposed to be about a woman warning enough?

*sigh*

Speaking of learning lessons: every four episodes or so we get an episode where Larry trots out some childhood trauma: girls rejecting him, his father being withholding, having a kidney removed so it could be made into a trophy for Brother Billy.  Yet here he is telling Lydia to not be hung up on something that happened so long ago.

Balki scares Lydia by telling her that the cameras are everywhere.

POP QUIZ #2

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Why is Balki such an asshole sometimes?

  1. Give him a break, he doesn’t know any better
  2. Assholes are funny, and this is why even characters like Lydia and Larry are allowed to be condescending. The sitcom in the 1980s was slowly trying to wrest itself free of the bonds of niceness. Even family comedies like Full House, ostensibly about the nicest, huggiest folks in San Francisco, featured a father who would insult his daughter’s best friend to her face.  Rather than limiting the mean jokes to one character, such as Louie DePalma on Taxi (not to mention making sure the other characters gave him his comeuppance), they began to be distributed to everyone, with the generous assumption that other family members or close friends would “understand” that they are just joking and are really nice. It’s Garry Shandling’s Show found a clever way around this by having its titular character relay the “mean” punchlines directly to the audience, not heard by the other characters. But in the late 80s and early 90s, shows like Married… With Children, Roseanne, The Simpsons, and Get a Life embraced the idea that family members are often assholes to each other. But family-friendly shows like the ones on TGIF continued to hide their malice behind smiles and sappy music.
  3. You are what you eat

Lydia says she’ll tell Channel 8 to fuck off, but Cousin Larry offers fame, dinners with Barbara Walters, wrapped in velvet, covered in glitz.

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The Girl is Fervent: Lydia says she’ll do it and goes up the elevator.  Going up an elevator is probably symbolic, but I just wasted like 200 words on a stupid multiple-choice gag, so let’s leave it at that.

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Later, at the Caldwell, the cousins are woken up by someone knocking on the door.  Balki wearing a weird hat played so well in “Seven Card Studs” that the writers decided to top themselves by giving Balki a taller hat.

GEE I WONDER WHO’S AT THE DOOR

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Lydia is on the verge of tears because she says she can’t face the cameras.  Hey! I’ve got a solution! Turn your back to them! (wocka wocka)

Evidently either a long time has passed or television here works as quickly as it does in the ALF universe, because it’s tomorrow that she’ll tape her pilot episode.  The cousins begin to take sides on whether Lydia should go through with it.

Now, I’m sure that some of you out there are expecting that I’m going to take this opportunity–an episode that features a television show–to use however Lydia’s show is treated as a critical commentary on Perfect Strangers itself.  Well, you’re right, and we’ll get to that by the end of the review. Until then, here’s a small taste:

Balki: Not everyone should have their own television show.

Balki keeps pulling out all these references to television shows that went off the air before he even arrived in America (here, he alludes to programs starring McLean Stevenson).  Didn’t we just establish two weeks ago that Mypos doesn’t have TV?

POP QUIZ #3

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How does Balki know about short-lived American television shows from the late 70s and early 80s?

  1. Cousin Larry’s statement in “Father Knows Best??? Part 2” should be taken as hyperbole and nothing more
  2. The island of Mypos has a subscription to TV Guide and one of the elders reads episode synopses to the children around the fire
  3. It’s not in the writers’ contracts to actually watch this show

Larry suggests that he and Balki act as plants in the audience and ask Lydia questions from her old columns so she doesn’t have to think of new answers. Okay okay okay

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The fact that Lydia doesn’t disagree with Larry–in fact calls the idea “brilliant”–gives us a little more insight to how her show will work, but the implication here seems downright fucked-up.  Are we to assume that the show is going to consist of Lydia on stage, taking questions from audience members sight unseen?  Forget being afraid of cameras, who wants to improv coherency and wisdom in real time?  That’s like asking someone to repair a motorcycle while it’s running. Like asking someone to publish the first draft of a novel. Like asking someone to have sex without drawing diagrams and running computer simulations first. *ahem*

Here’s some symbolism for you: Lydia tries to usher the cousins out of the apartment, but she is promptly reminded that it’s not hers.

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Lydia insults their couch and leaves.

Now that Lydia’s gone, the cousins return to their usual programming of stretching out bad jokes for too long.

Balki asks why Cousin Larry is so dead set on Lydia doing her show. Teenage Grief Is Formula: Larry starts yelling about high school classmate Bunky McDermott.  It’s your typical high school story: boy declines being elected president of the chess club, only to see someone else accept, and then to see that someone else marry a beautiful girl, become president of her father’s company, and get filthy rich. Larry has kept a news article about Bunky’s success in his wallet for the past four years.

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I’ll admit, there are plenty of things that I wish I’d done differently in my life, and I think about them more often than is productive. And I think it’s not necessarily a bad idea to light a fire under yourself sometimes. But I sure don’t carry a piece of paper around that says “you sucked that one time”.

Bunky, his bae Bryn Bramwell, and their beaucoup bankrolls: buddy, you better believe the alliteration bit is back.

*deeper sigh*

And here’s where Larry “lies”.  He tells Balki that Lydia actually wants to do the show, but she’s having trouble overcoming her jitters.  We’re supposed to believe that Larry is the bad guy here because–god forbid–if he can’t succeed, he at least wants to help someone else do so. The conversation he’s having with Balki is really one he ought to be having with Lydia.  Maybe his story (calmly recounted) could even inspire Lydia.  But god forbid there ever be battle that’s not between these two blinkered boobs.  But, hey, that’s the formal cause of Perfect Strangers: it would cease being itself if it wasn’t constructed out of this very kind of arrangement of elements.

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Here we are at the (heehee) “Phister” Theatre with a “Lydia Live!” logo and everything. And, yeah, it looks like the plan is not to have anyone on the stage but Lydia, and to have her answering questions without any possibility of editing after taping.  I have to imagine that some writer must have decided that there needed to be alliteration in the show’s title, because I don’t remember a single talk show that my mom used to watch that was live.  The only examples of live talk show hosts I can think of are Regis Philbin and Larry King, and they’re both older than God.  Seriously, who would put someone with no background in the medium into this kind of show? Fuck. Fuck.

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Mary Anne (Sagittarius) asks why it’s called “live” and Jennifer explains television show pilots. Mary Anne says something smart: a detailed understanding of how shows are picked up.  She explains this by saying that she once had a conversation with Ted Turner in an elevator.  I like the explanation in “Father Knows Best??? Part 2” because it led to a really specific and unexpected (and great) punchline.  But here… I mean, sure, it preserves the characterization that Mary Anne is so dumb she thinks a sportscast is what football players wear when they break their legs, but I think I preferred it when she was just smart about something completely out of left field.

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The cousins just go right up on stage to talk to Lydia and nobody stops them. Good job making sure you aren’t recognized as plants in the audience, guys.

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There’s a nice little moment where Lydia gets distracted by a stagehand putting a microphone on her.  Belita Moreno is good at these little touches.  They’re additive, as opposed to when Bronson undoes entire jokes.

Ha! “Phister”

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The announcer gives the intro to Lydia’s show, and when the camera zooms in on her she starts talking like she’s having a stroke.

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Lydia flips out and tries to run away but is thrown onto her back when she reaches the length of the microphone wire.  Ha! Isn’t it funny when people get hurt?

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The entirety of what this television station does for Lydia is give her a paper bag to breathe in and have the director (?) ask her if she’s alright.

Balki rushes in with Lydia’s things and says he’ll take her home.

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*deepest possible sigh*

Reminder: there is still a studio audience–including Jennifer and Mary Anne–watching as the following happens:

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I’m not even going to bother to try to write some well-turned phrases about the self-incriminating metaphor on display here. Fuck it. Perfect Strangers sends a message loud and clear: women don’t get their own shows. Women don’t even get their own episodes. Try it and you’re subjected to violence. “Almost live” is just another way of saying “stillborn”. I would say that at least Harriette got to leave and have her own show… but two weeks after “Almost Live from Chicago” aired, Family Matters would air “Laura’s First Date”, the first appearance of Urkel, who would take over the entire show in short order.

Perfect Strangers doesn’t even try to warm up a story about a woman through use of egg rolls and saxophone anymore; it just goes in dry.

POP QUIZ #4

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Fuck this show?

  1. Fuck this show.
  2. Fuck this show.
  3. Fuck this show.

There have been plenty of times in conversation where my drive to understand the reasons behind things has resulted in the other person thinking that I’m excusing what I’m trying to find explanation for. Some people do make the argument that if you were a god–if you could understand the reasons behind everyone’s choices–you could never condemn them for it.  I don’t believe that.

Treating Girls Inexcusably; Fuck. Perfect Strangers hates women, kind of in the way that God hated Esau: not through emotion but through treatment.

The final causes of Perfect Strangers are that TGIF featured family comedies, that Perfect Strangers was the only family comedy that starred only adults, that a show about adults wouldn’t attract young viewers, that physical comedy is funny (and not the consistent centerpiece of any other TGIF show), and that adults doing physical comedy cease being adults and become cartoons.

“Almost Live in Chicago” is a version of Perfect Strangers that treats the show–and its characters–like they’re cartoons.  I mean, shit, look, Larry just tied Balki up with duct tape–

The chase scene in “Taking Stock”. The bathroom scene in “Pipe Dreams”. Balki’s bowling technique in “Blind Alley”.  I don’t think this episode would stick out so much if every–or even most–episodes were written with this assumption; then, we’d likely see the cousins manhandle multiple different characters more often.  But even though the show has at times made Lydia one-dimensional, it’s never treated her as a cartoon.

Last week’s episode featured the cousins discovering the dishonest core of a social norm; this week they throw a woman around.

I’m not going to go into detail about the rest of the episode, except to say that the final dialogue is Balki propping up Larry’s ego by telling him how great his life is.

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Fuck, y’all.

Join me next week for “Home Movies”.

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

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

Extra credit reading: Aristotle’s Four Causes

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One thought on “Season 5, Episode 10: Almost Live From Chicago

  1. I’m actually not disappointed that Larry’s whole spiel about Lydia following through is based on him not following through. I feel like it’s part of human nature to offer advice to people that we ourselves never bother taking. A gentler version of “do as I say, not as I do,” so to speak.
    However, This Gamble is Fucked when it comes to the fact that Lydia’s show was live. Like… really, Perfect Strangers? As you pointed out, she has no experience with being on television, and they’re tossing her into the lions’ den right from the start. That makes zero sense. They’d have to at least shoot a pilot and run it by test audiences. I mean, why couldn’t they make it that? Is it because the live show ups the ante, and therefore the conflict? I call bullshit. The writers for this show know how television works, but they’re banking that the average audience member does not. I don’t feel like it’s a huge television trope, but it’s well-known to the point that Archer successfully makes fun of it in an episode where one character says to another, “Don’t you know how television works?!” Both characters then pause and turn to a producer to ask, “IS that how television works?”
    Like, is it a secret meta joke that television writers don’t know how television works? Is that the ultimate, layered joke here?

    Like

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