We open at the Caldwell. Depending on how you look at it, we’re either at the zenith or the nadir of season 5. The fact that it’s night now is a mark in the nadir column…
…and the fact that it’s written by Tom Devanney is a mark in the zenith column. (Where Lance’s column wound up, only Mr. Burns knows.)
Balki has rushed home from his college classes to tell Larry a joke, and we see that Balki is stuck in two different ways. For one, he’s still referring to it as “night school”, which usually denotes high school.
For another, he can’t get a joke right. He spoils it by getting the punchline correct, but he’s pooched the setup. It’s the “I just flew in from __________ and boy are my arms tired” joke, but Balki uses the word “drove”.
Fuck. Show, am I really going to have to break this down?
I praised the show a little while back for how “The Newsletter” gave Balki something new to misunderstand that still mostly worked for how long he’s been in America (not to mention how long he’d been in a workplace). But this one’s really pushing my willingness to overlook such things. Pushing it hard. We’re talking a level of pushing akin to, say, that of the of the object of the Salt-N-Pepa song “Push It”, assuming they were compliant with the song’s exhortations.
This episode aired on December 15, 1989, four days before my fifth birthday. By that point, I was a real kid on the go. I was in preschool. I could write my own name, identify cars by their hood ornaments, use a fork and knife, do somersaults. I could use the toilet on my own. I could tell short stories. I could tell short stories about how I pooped in the tub by accident. I watched Real Ghostbusters, Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (and yes, at the cousins’ behest, I watched Beetlejuice). Hell, I would start watching Perfect Strangers pretty soon (one of the few episodes I remember is later on this season).
I could understand jokes, and I could tell jokes. By the time I was five, I most certainly had heard the “boy are my arms tired” joke, and I understood enough about birds and airplanes to get it. Balki, on the other hand, knows it’s a joke, but he doesn’t understand the humor in it!
Look, show. I get it.
I get that Balki needs to misunderstand things. I get that it had to have been a hard balance to try to strike by halfway through season 5. I’m fine with Balki Ricardo. I’m fine with Roger Rabbit Balki. Shit, give me Foreign Sexual Predator Balki. But don’t try and pass off a Balki that is fucking cargo-culting jokes.
They try to be funny, though, don’t they?
Anyway, the fact that Balki is telling Larry where he was all evening is proof positive that these two are still in an abusive relationship.
Larry, a better man than I, opts to just ignore this week’s brain damage and instead talks about how he’s making selections for the football pool at work. Balki pops a boner at the mere mention of the word “foot” and says he wants in.
Speaking of types of jokes Balki makes, we’re treated to the first variation of this type:
Balki: Well, feed me garlic and call me stinky!
Then Balki says “wwwow” (God help us all, one word counts as a catchphrase), and then he does some alliteration, and then he says “get out of the city” (yet another catchphrase I’m proud to have only mentioned twice so far).
Anyway, where was I, is there a plot here?
Oh yeah, Balki, lured by the prospect of winning $65, says he wants in and gives Larry a dollar. Okay, so at least Balki knows that 65 is more than 1. But I bet I could still get away with trading him five pennies for one quarter.
The next day, Balki chases some guy we’ve never seen before into the basement, trying to tell his stupid joke again.
His second attempt at making the joke has failed. He knows something’s wrong, but not what.
The camera pans left to find Larry at his desk and Lydia kind of just standing by the elevator like she’s, idunno, waiting for a cue or something.
Because Balki has never once been overly-excited about something new, and isn’t the kind of person who would, say, play the lottery and eagerly watch the drawing on television to find out if he won…
…we must have Gorpley come in to announce that Balki won the football pool, having picked every team correctly. But this is more than just an issue of Balki having not watched the games; Gorpley has to tell Lydia how many outcomes she picked correctly.
Is this how sports pools work? Do most of the participants plain not watch the games at all? I’m by no means a sports fan; in fact, the only sport I seek out to watch is roller derby, and that’s because most of the players have nice big hips there are few enough rules I can actually follow the game. But isn’t part of the fun in betting on games the promise that you could be right? That you know enough about the sport and its teams and players that you could predict who could beat whom? I suppose theoretically you could approach betting solely with a knowledge of past scores and statistics, which I would believe of Larry, who up until season 4 was depicted as the type of undergrown weenie who avoided contact sports at all costs. But that approach would be like deciding to vote based on FiveThirtyEight’s predictions. Larry does try to convey to Balki that picking teams is “difficult”, indicating he has some sort of thought process, but that’s as far as it goes.
But that’s Larry; nothing about Lydia’s personality (and thank God I actually have one to reference) indicates that she would be into football at all. But this show is obviously more willing to bring in a brand new character for Balki to yell a joke at than it is to have one actually participate in the story. Show, you’ve pushed out little kids, old women, young women, black men, white men, fat men, even dogs, just so the cousins can do a pisspoor job of making jokes that weren’t that funny in the first place. Congratulations, show! Your equal opportunity approach would make Tumblr proud.
At any rate, I’m left with the impression that Larry and Lydia participate in this just for the money, which seems like a slap in the face to the people who actually give a crap about football.
Everybody takes a turn saying “Balki won the football pool” because, hey:
Gorpley doesn’t want to give Balki the money because he’s a garlic-scented foreigner, but Lydia threatens to publish the letter that Gorpley’s ex-wife sent to her advice column.
The air grew thick with tension. Sam Gorpley, a man who had made a name for himself, not as a manager, but as an ex. Ex-husband, ex-son, ex-banking associate. An X, all points, always jabbing in every direction, keeping anyone from getting close. Lydia Markham, a tornado of emotion, but every now and then you’d catch a glimpse of the cruel intelligence that lay inside. Over the years they’d circled, fired shots across each other’s bows, built planters to hold the dirt they had on each other, feinting and parrying in balanced dance. But would Lydia go that far? Would she break the cardinal rule of the advice column and out a reader? Or… could her withholding of advice have contributed to his messy divorce? Lydia was a wild card, sometimes black, sometimes red.
The cousins could sense that they were on the edge of something big, something deep, like a chasm, or perhaps hot, like a fire on the other side of a closed door. The moment passes and Gorpley hands Balki the $65.
Hey, you know, the Perfect Strangers DVDs haven’t been released yet, and who knows? Maybe they won’t actually get the rights to all these songs, and they’ll cut out these tiny scenes. At any rate, you’re listening to Casey Roastem’s Myposian Top 40, and here’s #34, that hot little number from the musical Cabaret, “Money”. Balki shakes his ass.
Larry asks Balki how he managed to pick all 13 winners. Balki claims it was his “sheepherder’s intuition”, and then he proceeds to explain how it wasn’t intuition at all, but reasoning based on the names of the teams.
Balki: Obviously, a bronco can beat a colt. And… a lion could beat a Bengal.
I was hoping for a capper with two teams that weren’t animals, and the show delivered with the Bills and the Chargers. It actually got a chuckle out of me, probably even moreso because I only know the football team from where I grew up (the Atlanta Braves).
Larry is peeved that Balki won. He talks about the time he spent watching the games, keeping track of injuries, previous games between those teams, whether the game is home or away (and how well they do at either), the weather predictions for each city, basic offensive/defensive strengths and weaknesses, how good are the coaches, whether any of the teams had a “bye” week the week before…
Nah, j/k, Larry hasn’t done any of that shit, he’s just peeved, no reasons given. Maybe he’s peeved because Balki’s going to buy a dozen Takara brand Rock’N Flowers and blast the radio all month.
Who knows? None of these writers even know what a football is!
Here we are at the Chronicle in the early evening.
Gorpley comes out of his office and gives Larry a pick sheet. It was one of the few joys he had left, but now, as with every other part of his life, he’s just going through the motions. He knows what he’s losing this Christmas.
Hey, look, the maybe-she’s-Latina woman is going to lose money to Balki, too! Hooray!
Since Balki has won the pool for the past five weeks, Larry is calling Gus so he can find a bookie to make bets. Gus tells him to call “the Mole” and yeah, I’m with you, Larry, that’s a weak joke.
Balki comes in and tries his “tired arms” bit again; he fails again. Show, are you taunting me with bad jokes now? You seem pretty proud of the fact that Balki can get away with not making a joke multiple times and still get laughs from the audience?
Larry should be telling Balki the correct form of the joke, but the handprints on Balki’s shirt are a warning sign to him that he’s being cuckolded by someone else who is constantly covered in ashes or motor oil. Balki’s explanation is that he told the “guys in the press room” that he won. Here’s something you might not know about guys who work in press rooms: their form of retribution is to very carefully and deliberately make distinct handprints all over your PALE BLUE SHIRT WITH NO FUCKING VEST.
The gunk on his pants is from Millie (one of the cafeteria ladies) throwing up upon hearing the “tired arms” joke.
Lydia sees Balki about to fill out another pick sheet and breaks the point off of his pencil.
Oh no! They didn’t have pencil sharpeners back in the 80s! What now?
But Lydia’s action is a very subtle play on words by the writers: Balki doesn’t get a point, leading him to get the point: everyone is angry at him because he keeps winning. (Those poor souls! They lost a total of $5 each! I may weep openly.)
Larry doesn’t give a shit, because he wants to know Balki’s picks. When Balki says he won’t ever, ever do that football thing again, Larry tells him he has a commitment: to America.
Long-term readers of this blog should know by now that America=Capitalism. If this season has been trying to tell us anything, it’s that sport serves as a symbol of how capitalism places the cousins (and we are all cousins) at a remove from from the natural world. Of course, it’s one of many: see the golden machinery in the background; see the tiny windows; allowing only enough sunlight for small plants; see Balki become physically marked–overwritten, perhaps–by the medium of recorded thought. But I digress.
We’ve seen roller-skating as an abstraction of males fighting for dominance over a female; tennis as a stand-in for physical intimacy; golf as a polite-society way of showing respect for the elderly (and as a polished version of its earlier incarnations). I’m not going to pretend you need to be told that sports teams at any regional level are simulations of tribal war, or even suggest that contact sports are safe spaces for acting out unacknowledged homosexual desires (gay jokes? me? faugh!). Sports teams have their own special kind of abstraction: in most cases, some animal as a symbol of their strength. But this two-layered abstraction seems to have become its undoing.
If this episode has a central thought, it seems to be that being disintermediated from the natural, physical world is a method of overcoming capitalism. By treating sports abstractions as he would their real-world counterparts, Balki has more than beaten the game: he has unmasked it. In so doing he’s revealed something too unsettling for the other players to countenance: that capitalism is a fixed game.
Much has been said of the current era of television in terms of TV dramas being the “new” literature. However, this episode alone surely earns Perfect Strangers the right to consider itself literature. “Everyone in the Pool” would no doubt function as a companion piece to Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan, which featured a man who had built his wealth by investing in stocks whose ticker symbols matched the text in the Book of Genesis.
Ultimately, Balki does respond to Larry’s appeal to his commitment to America. However, what Balki realizes (and Larry does not) is that Balki must give up the game to maintain his (and everyone else’s) place in the American economic system.
One thing I probably don’t point out enough is how some of the show’s real-world references (usually to celebrities) place it in a particular point in time. An angry Larry suggests that Balki burn the flag “while the law’s still vague”. This reference to Texas v. Johnson places the episode’s writing & filming at some point between March and June of 1989.
One thing I get tired of pointing out, though, is just how irresponsibly dumb Balki is written sometimes. Larry finally convinces Balki to play on the basis that everyone wants a chance to win their money back, and even though Balki used the word “beat” with the specific meaning of “winning against” earlier in the episode (not to mention its copious use in “Hello, Ball”), he misunderstands it here.
Later, at the Caldwell, DAMN is Mary Anne (Sagittarius) looking good.
Mary Anne asks Balki what the episode summary is up to this point. After, she suggests that Balki simply pick the losing teams and let the others win.
Balki: Mary Anne, that’s brilliant!
GOD DAMMIT BALKI LISTEN TO YOURSELF
Just four weeks ago you had a shitfit when Larry asked you to play golf badly! “You made me a cheating loser”, you said! It was a “really stupid” idea, you said!! Fooey!
Balki pops a boner but Larry comes in, demanding that Balki fill out his fucking pick sheet already.
He does it.
Balki and Mary Anne (who is so dumb she thinks a pooch kick is animal cruelty) leave for the movies, and Larry calls up “The Mole”. God that’s such a terrible bookie name.
Larry bets $1,000 per game on 10 games.
The “oh no!” music comes on. As in “oh no, instead of having Balki’s knack prove unsustainable in the long run, they’ve decided to just make him magic!”.
The next night (?), Balki and Mary Anne are actually watching a football game! They celebrate Balki’s complete and total loss.
Larry, we are told, went to a sports bar that was showing all the games, so it makes perfect sense that he arrives at the apartment a mere 10 seconds after the last game of the night ended.
Larry comes in looking like he just got scared by one of his own farts.
Mary Anne misunderstands that “can” is often used when really “may” is meant, kisses Balki, and then leaves. Gee, I wonder if those two are dating.
Larry is on the verge of either screaming or crying as he tells Balki about the money he owes to a bookie. On Mypos, there’s a bookie called “Jimmy the Geek” (which is a good joke name for a bookie), who will shave your head if you lose on the sheep races and don’t pay. But Larry is worried that someone’s going to break his legs. Here’s a good line:
Larry: He knows my name. He knows where I live. He knows where I keep my knees.
Larry wants to bet another $10,000 on the next night’s game and Larry tells Balki to pick the winner for him. Balki tells him to never, ever do that (betting) again. Cousin Larry agrees, but then Balki tries to put a rider on the bill for Larry to take him to Disney World.
Balki says he needs to relax for his sheepherder’s intuition to kick in.
Larry lays him on the couch, dims the lights and brings him Dmitri. If you just made a masturbation joke to yourself, I’ve taught you well.
The team playing the next night will be the Packers and the Browns. If you just made a buttsex joke to yourself, ew, that’s gross. You are a gross person. Go away.
Some of you may have noticed that, occasionally, once every season at the most, I’ll slyly avoid writing a new joke by repeating an old one and passing it off as a “running” joke. The show does this, too: Perfect Strangers has Larry yell something repeatedly at Balki’s face. Isn’t it funny?
And despite Balki being the more emotionally savvy of the two, he never got any practice on Mypos in dealing with someone shouting in his face. What he should do is set a boundary and tell his cousin that such behavior is a conversation dealbreaker for him, but Balki just gets scared of Larry’s behavior and apologizes.
Balki picks the Browns and… we already know at this point that Balki’s right, because there’s no way this show is going to let a $20,000 bet to a bookie carry over into the next week. All I really care about now is what funny way Balki thinks that “browns” beat “packers”.
Are there stakes here? I can’t help but compare this episode to one from The Simpsons, “Lisa the Greek”. There, Homer learns that Lisa has the ability to correctly predict football game outcomes, and similar to Larry, exploits that ability to make winning bets. And like Balki, Lisa discovers Homer’s ulterior motive. However, in the climax of that episode, Homer is backed into a corner and cannot bet, as Lisa has tied the outcome of the game to the question of whether she still loves him after what he did to her. In “Lisa the Greek”, the stakes are suddenly high and all too real for the relationship between father and daughter. And given that The Simpsons had by that point in its run 1) established Homer as someone who, if you’re feeling particularly cynical, arguably doesn’t deserve love, and 2) established Lisa as someone who occupied a higher moral stratum than her father, and who believably was in a place to pass that kind judgment.
Here… Larry could lose some money, but he won’t. A smarter version of Perfect Strangers might even find a way for him to lose $20,000, and then quickly reverse it (upon entering the apartment, The Mole exclaims “why, a complete set of Moogli carvings! I’ve been trying to get my hands on these for years!”). But Larry won’t lose the money.
While watching the game, Larry positions Balki’s head for one last blowie before The Mole cuts off his penis with garden shears.
I may be stepping out on a limb here by saying this, but I get the feeling that having two characters watch television is not the best way to build tension. Mark Linn-Baker seems to intuit this and completely overacts by tossing Balki around. If you’ve ever had someone tell you that sports like football act as catharsis for our violent feelings, here’s your counter-argument.*
The Browns win.
The cousins do the Dance of Joy.
No, I’m not giving you a gif. You know what it looks like.
So, in the end, the show seems to be happy with this version of Balki, a Balki who is always correct/able/knowledgeable to the point of incredibility. The Sirens of Titan gets away with its Bible-directed stock investing because it’s science fiction (science fiction cum philosophical novel; many of Vonnegut’s science fiction ideas are directly symbolic). Here, the cousins are supposed to be living in the real world, where people have shortcomings. People have hangups leftover from their formative years; people seek out respite from their neuroses in the arms of others; people get stuck in the mindset of wanting to win because of how much they’ve personally and perennially lost.
You can chart a definite arc when it comes to Balki’s sports acumen. He was secretly good at baseball because there was a game on Mypos that consisted solely of batting. In retrospect, it’s an ass-pull, but an ass-pull that conceivably could have worked with a better script. Then we had Balki and bowling. Balki was good at bowling because of the way it was played on Mypos (okay enough), but then he still managed to be better than everyone else despite not being able to see clearly. More recently, Balki’s obviously suspect method of golf still resulted in a great score. And here… well, Balki’s method is just perfect without question.
And I mean literally without question. Does the show tell us why Balki picked the Browns over the Packers? No. Instead, the sportscaster tells the flying/tired arms joke.
I mentioned at the top of this review that “Everyone in the Pool” aired on December 15, 1989, four days before my 5th birthday. I find a couple more things significant about that week. The first is that, on that same night, on the fledgling sitcom Family Matters, a young man named Stefan Q. Urkel made his debut. I deliberately didn’t talk about Urkel’s characterization when I didn’t review Family Matters, but it bears mentioning here. Urkel, like Balki and the daughters from Full House before him, is the character that young viewers will identify with. Because ABC was well aware of who it was marketing TGIF to, these characters are always in the right. Except in those rare cases where, say, Stephanie Tanner drives the car into the house, it is always the adults who must make amends to the children. Larry apologizes for manipulating Balki. Uncle Jesse apologizes for putting his own needs ahead of Michelle’s. Carl apologizes for disliking Urkel out loud.
But in each of these cases, the children get away with murder. The Tanner children are allowed to be self-centered brats at school functions. Urkel is allowed veto power over Laura’s decisions when it comes to dating. And Balki is allowed to spend a whole episode not getting a joke right (as well as having the space to be morally relativistic depending on who’s telling him to deliberately lose).
The second significant event that week in 1989 was on December 17, when “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” aired. I’ll admit I’m pattern-making out of a small number of pieces, but at the moment, it’s hard not to see that significant milestone in my own childhood also being a significant moment for television. Within two days of each other, Urkel and the Simpsons were introduced to millions of viewers, and each represented a different direction for sitcoms. On the one hand, you’ve got the ABC model of seemingly-loving families who are kind of jerks to outsiders and each other; and then there were shows on Fox where the characters were also jerks, but they were honest about it (see also Married… With Children and Get a Life).** Also the Simpsons was a very smart show; Family Matters had Urkelbot.
Where does Perfect Strangers fit in? Think of Perfect Strangers as a concept car, testing out ideas and formulas and structures before putting them in the main product line. Or think of it as a regular old car, traveling down dirt roads, making dual depressions in the dirt that would eventually become ruts. Either way it’s a car.
Is it just me or was this a terribly uninteresting episode?
Join me next week for “Because They’re Cousins”!
Catchphrase count: Balki (0); Larry (0)
Boner count: Balki (1); Larry (0)
Dance of Joy running total: 16
*psychology sidebar: both the playing and the watching of football are not cathartic; rather, they are both a reinforcement of it, especially the latter, being literal practice of violence
**no, YOU’RE ignoring Roseanne!