Season 5, Episode 18: Blast From the Past

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Welcome back to Perfect Strangers Reviewed, now in stereo!*

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We find ourselves once again at the Caldwell, and talk about blasts from the past: here’s Balki vacuuming and singing.

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And this is probably a good opportunity to reflect on the fact that, unlike other ABC sitcoms of the time, Perfect Strangers never features a cold open with a quick joke. You know what I’m referring to, right? Just about 30 seconds worth of setup and punchline for something that has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the episode, a slice of life gag indicating that the characters do have lives outside of the plots where we see them. I’m trying to guess why Perfect Strangers doesn’t do this, and the main difference that comes to mind between it and Full House or Family Matters is the size of the cast. Were those pre-credits gags a way to keep the studio audiences occupied while other cast members were getting ready for their scenes? But then I realize that makes the assumption that those types of scenes were filmed simultaneously with the episodes themselves. But perhaps they were additions after the fact, able to fill time if an episode ended up running short? Perfect Strangers, so I read, was typically filmed pretty quickly as far as sitcoms went. Perhaps this efficient machine was tuned so well that running short or long was never an issue (the majority of season 5 episodes clock in at exactly 23:22, with only a handful dipping below 23:00).

Whyever it was, it’s certainly not because the writers couldn’t think of anything else than to have Balki dance and sing again. No, you see, Perfect Strangers was always a much denser, layered sitcom in comparison to its contemporaries. Reason #36 that most fans have had to content themselves with only the vacuuming scenes from season 2 : “Ghostbusters” by Ray Parker, Jr., a subtle clue that this episode will be a sequel.

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Larry comes in and hangs his coat. Remember this. This is important.

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Larry has braved the withering barbs of another young waitress to bring home a donut for Balki, which Balki quickly puts aside so he can talk exposition. He tells his cousin that Marvin Berman is taking them to dinner to thank them. Larry, who remembers the name of every single person in his hometown and how they ruined his chances at success, somehow doesn’t remember the person who, only three months ago, almost killed him.

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Larry has a flashback. For those of you who don’t remember Marvin Berman, you don’t get a recap. This is episode 90, why in the hell would you be reading this review before the one where he first showed up?

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If anything has been consistent about Perfect Strangers, it’s that the show has a weird fascination with crime and criminals. In seasons 2 and 3, with Vince, it came across as a little strange that he, of all people, would come back, given that the cousins had a whole building full of neighbors. And sure, okay, I get it, Larry’s a fledgling “reporter”, so every now and then it makes sense that he’d be involved in a crime story. Or, at least it would make sense if there weren’t already a reporter doing the crime beat. Wait a second, I just realized…

We met ace crime reporter Frank Peterson in the middle of season 3. In season 4, Larry tried to break a story about corruption a the lowest levels of government. And earlier this season, Larry was researching stories about murder trials about money laundering. Oh god, you guys. Nobody’s doing the crime beat anymore. Frank really is dead. (´;︵;`)

Anyway, point is, Perfect Strangers’s crime episodes are generally guaranteed to be terrible. But season 5 has been leaning pretty far into under-the-top zaniness. Plus, I think it would be difficult for this episode to be a repeat of Vince’s second appearance. The whole concept there was that Larry was afraid for his own life. But Marvin was set up as a coward himself, so it’s not going to be that. Marvin was practically begging to go to prison, plus he got a book deal out of the whole situation! I’m actually a little bit intrigued to see what direction the show wants to take this story. I just have no idea why Larry’s so upset.

I don’t know why yet because I’ve had the episode paused for the past few paragraphs. It feels good.

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After the flashback, Larry is finally trying out erotic asphyxiation on Balki, but Balki reminds him they have to eat soon, so he stops.

Larry is upset that Balki invited a “homicidal maniac” over, and okay, maybe I was wrong to be intrigued. Balki is still signing Larry up for shit without asking first. I keep thinking you’re going to change, show.

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Marvin shows up and wastes no time in being tone-deaf to Larry’s fears. He makes a joke about his “dynamite vest”, which would not have worked if it weren’t a vest that I totally wish I had now.

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Marvin is making jokes on the recommendation of his therapist, Dr. Shore. But Larry, for once in his life, makes a joking comment that’s actually pretty straightforward, about how he was traumatized by the previous event and doesn’t find it funny. Proud of you, there, Cuz.

Balki and Marvin keep recapping Marvin’s original appearance, and I find it’s just confusing me as to what happened. Marvin mentions that he ended up testifying against his bosses in order to get out of jail. I’m going to admit that I have no idea what kind of timeframe there is between reporting on crimes and going to court. So, the story then was that Larry had done the research into the money laundering operation and the newspaper reported on it. Do newspapers have to turn over the evidence they find to the police? Are detectives angry/embarrassed when reporters figure out a story before they do? (And wouldn’t that have made a good episode? Not to mention a way to have Larry interact with Carl Winslow?) At any rate, Larry must have found evidence, and if it was good enough to be published without risk of libel, wouldn’t it also be good enough to convict the crime bosses? Why would Marvin have been given such a deal, assuming they didn’t need his testimony? Like I say, no idea how these things work.

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Immediately after Larry says that he doesn’t want any more dynamite jokes, Marvin whips out a stick of dynamite that’s made out of chocolate. Great, we needed one more jerk on this show. (It’s called a “schtick of dynamite”, though, which did make me laugh.)

Anyway, Marvin keeps making jokes, and it goes on for awhile.

Later, when they come back from the restaurant, Balki is finishing up a joke about kangaroos. The cousins and Marvin have a good laugh about this groaner.

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Larry hangs his coat. Remember this. This is important.

Balki goes off to make some hot brown liquid.

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Larry hangs Marvin’s coat. Remember this. This is important.

Balki, without first washing his hands, digs marshmallows out of a bag while Marvin blithely mentions his likelihood of now getting shot in public. Marvin says that he’ll go into the witness protection program the next day. The fuck? Like I said, no idea how the timeframes for this kind of thing work, but damn, Marvin.

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The show tries to lighten the mood by having Balki and Marvin keep talking about marshmallows. Gotta love how these writers balance those tricky tonal shifts!

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As much as I love the potential of Larry having to deal with two completely oblivious happy people, he’s right in telling Marvin to leave.

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There’s a bit where Marvin keeps popping back in the door to talk and Larry shutting it on him. That’s rude, Marvin. Didn’t your momma teach you to knock?

Balki thinks they’d recognize gangsters following them, and Marvin says they wouldn’t. He’s right! I mean, after all, it’s not like on Mypos, where all the criminals have names like Stabros, Theftos, or Zimdog Zaggy Badguy, and walk around saying “Hello, my name Villainos, may I please murder your children?”.

Larry begs a higher power to deliver them from evil.

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However, knowing that faith without works is dead, Larry also goes to close the blinds.

Balki notices a heavy standing down on the street, Marvin recognizes him as “Max the Terminator”.

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When Phil was doing his ALF reviews, he remarked at least once that, in some scenes, the writers appeared to have completely forgotten what happened in the scene immediately previous. I can’t knock Balki for getting excited at hearing the word “terminator” and immediately jumping to Arnold Schwarzenegger. But this mome** just yells out the window about the movie Twins. Balki can’t pick up on the scared gestures and tone of voice in which Marvin screams “Oh my god! That looks like Max the Terminator!”, much less remember the context of the conversation they’re having. Balki isn’t just dumb: Balki’s brain is an ALF script.

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Hey, by the way, have I pointed out that crescent moon thing on their wall? There’s a couple of shelves on it. Can’t really tell what’s on the shelves, nor why it’s kind of serrated instead of smooth, but hey, there you go. Fun fact: did you know there used to be a phone on the wall right there?

I, uh, really don’t have anything else to say at this moment. Just feels good to have the show paused again.

Larry says they should call the police, and I’m a little surprised that no one stops him. Someone always stops the person trying to call the police. Congratulations, Perfect Strangers, on being brave enough to finally overcome this tired trope!

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The phone is dead, so these three run out and then run back in because there’s a guy on the stairs. There’s another joke that’s supposed to be about Balki misunderstanding a word, but depends on Balki misunderstanding–and ultimately not trusting–others’ fears. Screw you, Balki. See if I ever buy you a donut again.

The “oh no” music comes on! Oh no! A character I don’t give a shit about might die!***

The cousins will kill two mobsters in cold blood right after this!

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When we come back, Marvin is worried he’s going to faint. Fainting! Ha! One of the two things he did last time! Classic Marvin.

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Larry says they need to get a message outside the apartment, so Balki runs off to grab matches for smoke signals…

Ohhh, now the cousin can get some bass in his voice!

Cousin Larry pulls Balki and Marvin close to correct them, and thank the Gaboogies, we finally get a Three Stooges moment.

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Larry suggests a morse code signal on the ceiling to alert their girlfriends. Then Balki and Larry start arguing over the morse symbol for “S”, I guess because it’s funny to say “dot dot dot” real fast?? Balki wins the argument by claiming to have worked for Mypos Western Union. Then he just taps out S and leaves it at that.

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Then there’s a knock on the door and Larry pretends to have a Mexican accent again. Ha! Racial stereotypes sure are fun, aren’t they?

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At the very least, I’ll give the show credit for a small bit of logic: Jennifer and Mary Anne (Sagittarius) came down because of the screaming, not the morse code. (Besides, Mary Anne’s so dumb she thinks SOS is Spanish for “that is”.) There’s discussion about how they were trying to get their attention so that they would call the police, and… why is going back upstairs no longer an option?

Then Gorpley and Lydia come in and close the door behind them, locking it. Nah, j/k, Mary Anne suggests that someone ascend the fire escape and go across the roof to the next building. Since I take the time to point out every last inconsistency and stupid plot point in this show, I should say that there’s a tiny bit of underlying logic here that I appreciate. Even though the stated idea was to get the women to call the police because the cousins’ phone has been disconnected, Mary Anne automatically has assumed that the phone lines have been cut for the whole building. It’s a realistic way that someone suddenly in danger might miss a detail when trying to solve a problem.

Since there’s always more illogic than logic on this show, I should say that not a single one of these people realizes that either one of the women could go downstairs and call the police, since the mobsters wouldn’t recognize them at all.

Since the goal now is to keep the mobsters from getting to the man who almost put them in prison, Larry (a man who almost put them in prison) offers to go to the next building for help. Before he leaves, he tries to get a promise from Jennifer that she’ll never use her vagina again if he dies; she makes the same face women do when I press them on their feelings right before I jump out a window.

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Balki starts talking about how brave Larry is. Larry almost immediately comes back in and says there’s another man on the roof, as though that’s somehow a bigger worry than how suspicious Larry must look to the goon standing on the ground.

Someone knocks on the door saying that they’re the “phone man”. Larry gives everyone a role in a plan to throw a blanket over the guy and tie him up. Man, everybody’s listening to Larry this week!

Man, everybody’s going to die this week.

Some swarthy fellow with his hand in the pocket of his jacket comes in.

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*sigh*

We all know he’s actually a repair man, right? This joke almost works except for the fact that I’ve never once seen a repair guy without some kind of tool belt. Anyway, the brown man just trying to do his job is quickly tied up and imprisoned by three white men, whose leader is afraid of anyone who might possibly have a higher red blood cell count than his.

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Larry says “Balki! Into the closet!”, Balki rushes into the closet, and Larry pulls him back out. I know there’s something homoerotic going on here, but the symbolism on display is more complicated than an episode of Aeon Flux.

There’s another knock at the door, and then they all trap an old white man.

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Det. Lift Browman: Freeze! FBI! That wasn’t really that funny the first time!

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The other guy they blanketed is Marvin’s psychiatrist. Balki says that one of the FBI agents looks like “the neighbor on Doogie Howser”.

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So here’s something interesting: he doesn’t. At all.

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This is about two steps removed from actually working as a joke. Ideally, the actor playing the cop would have had a role on another show, and Balki would have referred to that. Or, a step down from that would be that Balki referred to some other actor on a show that the cop actually did resemble. As it is, even if this episode was written and filmed before Doogie Howser started airing, and even if there was no way for the Perfect Strangers writers to know what was going on with another ABC show, it seems a bit lazy to just make a joke that only had a slight chance of making sense once the episode would air. It shows good instinct on some writer’s part: as a good tension breaker, namedropping another ABC show, making a fair guess that another program would include a neighbor character. It’s a fine joke in form, but not in execution, you know, kind of like Perfect Strangers in miniature.

Anyway, what the fuck, who cares, Dr. Shore says that Marvin ran away from protective custody at a hotel.

He fucking left the…

Wouldn’t he have seen these FBI guys at the…

He could’ve called the cousins and had dinner at the…

Left it paused for an hour this time. Fuckdamn does it feel good.

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Marvin says he’s going to Kansas and his new name will be Orville Perdue. I assume he’ll be working at a Cinnabon****. He leaves, and you know what? I’ll miss him. One of the things I’ve come to appreciate about this show is that someone involved has a good sense for casting. George Wyner is great as Marvin Berman: by turns a lovable dope and a meek psychotic, his appearances have been two of the few times that a guest actor has enhanced Balki’s innocent in-the-moment misunderstandings. And by giving Larry two goofballs to corral, the show finally hits the madcap-comedy groove it’s been looking for. I’ve had trouble so far–and I’m sure I’ll continue to have–with how Perfect Strangers has been gradually losing all vestiges of its roots as a more adult-targeted show. It’s often occupied some tepid middle ground between the two, with token efforts at cultural conflict and lessons. Even this episode has plenty of illogic, some of it admittedly due to the often messy work of piece-moving, but the show has leaned so far into cartoon territory here that it doesn’t matter so much. A lot of this has to do with simply having a third silly character in play, but much of it certainly comes from Wyner’s performance. And also, bravo to whomever was over casting then, you did a great job, with the sole exception of Jennifer.

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Speaking of the store-brand Judith Light, she says that, between this and all the times she’s walked in on the cousins doing “folding deck chair”, she will no longer come downstairs when she hears screams coming from the apartment.

Mary Anne, who has been here for all of seven minutes, thanks Balki for a “lovely evening”. I’m not ashamed to admit I laughed at that one. The women leave.

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Then Phone Man comes out of the closet and bashes the cousins’ heads in with their phone.

See you next week for “He’s the Boss”!

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

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

*to activate this feature, use your second computer monitor and duplicate your display

**I have officially run out of synonyms for “idiot”

***I’m referring to Marvin here. I understand your confusion.

****This is an extremely funny reference to Better Call Saul

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P.S. sources online claim that new footage was recorded for the flashbacks in this episode. I have some trouble believing this. There are differences in angle, and especially in dialogue in the third flashback scene, but they could easily just be alternate cuts of the same scene. The curls of Larry’s hair and the knot of Marvin’s tie are in the exact same places. I’m interested in knowing the ultimate source and reason for the claim that it’s new footage. You may want to answer that the fan site is the source for the claim, but that’s not enough for me (besides, it references a script that simply calls for a flashback–wouldn’t the new dialogue be in the script?). To quote dead guy Christopher Hitchens, “That which can be asserted without evidence, can be dismissed without evidence.”

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