Season 5, Episode 23: Bye Bye Birdie

Welcome back!  To say one more thing about last week’s episode: I’m happy that I got to share reviewing a good, funny episode with others. This week’s episode…

…well, I mean, this is still Perfect Strangers I’m reviewing.

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We open at the Caldwell Hotel to find a chill wind blowing snow into the area which, for April, struck me as odd until I remembered that I’ve lived south of the Mason-Dixon line for most of my life.  (At first I thought it was a dust storm. It’s difficult to tell sometimes what’s going on in these VHS rips, but I plan to stick with these copies until the DVDs come out, as a sop to my critics, so they’ll have something legitimate they can complain about.) I’d do my usual introductory stuff about what the coming snow symbolizes, talk about how the Caldwell Hotel, castlelike with its turrets and battlements, is prepared to withstand any *ahem* late-seasonal changes, or maybe even work in calling the cousins Calaïs and Zetes… but this episode doesn’t deserve it.

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Somehow, remarkably, we don’t enter apartment 209 to find Balki washing Larry’s diapers in the sink and singing “Sometimes it Snows in April”. Instead, Larry is on the phone with Johannes from Yumpin’ Yiminy’s Chimney Sweeps to get his (heh) chimney swept because he can’t use the fireplace. I generally dislike giving away my conclusions about an episode at the beginning, but I don’t mind telling you that “yumpin’ yiminy” is the funniest joke in the whole episode. Perfect Strangers has only ever used snow to trap its characters into uninteresting plots, so I warn you: now is your chance to get out.

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Balki runs in with a parrot which instantly starts in on some the worst squawking I’ve ever heard.  Is that parrot just going to say one thing over and over again the whole episode, Balki?

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Balki–who still owes nearly $70,000 on a house–spent $250 on a bird cage (the parrot was free).

Balki: It’s going to be great for us to have a birdie!

Larry: What you mean “us”, white man?

Larry lays down the law about how taking care of the bird is going to be entirely Balki’s responsibility, which is sitcom-speak for “Larry is going to end up being responsible for something happening to the bird”.  It strikes me as a little strange that this is a setup we’d get from a show this close to its 100th episode.  We’ve no reason to think that Balki could ever possibly be irresponsible with an animal, so Larry’s admonitions would even have seemed out of place even back in season 2 when Perfect Strangers got some mileage out of a quasi-father/son relationship between the cousins. (The show opts to have Balki reference a pet hamster he owned once instead of, you know, the hundreds of sheep he tended.) And besides, not only have we already done one episode about Balki not keeping a pet, we’ve also done 67 about Larry being annoyed by whatever living being Balki has brought home. Family members, the homeless, criminals, pregnant women, old women, babies, dogs, girlfriends, bosses, a black man, a split personality, a cow… and now a bird.  At this point, all that’s left is a monkey, a robot, or a ghost.

*shivers*

Anyway, what the fuck, who cares, some writer’s dart landed on “parrot” this week, so here we are. The parrot’s name is Yeorgi, and on Mypos is very simple: pets are named after goats; children are named after sheep.

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Two weeks later, and the show really, desperately needs me to know that it’s snowing, so I’m sure that the weather is going to play a huge factor in this episode.

Inside, we find Balki and the bird sing Reason #39 that two dozen or so DVD sales wouldn’t have cancelled out rights costs: “Puttin’ on the Ritz”. Do you get it? DO YOU GET THE FUCKING JOKE?

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The bird says “don’t be ridiculous” and Balki is so happy he makes the same face I do when I’m trying to wipe around a hemorrhoid.

Larry comes out of his bedroom and tells Balki to shut the fuck up since it’s 2 in the goddam AM and some of us have lives, not him, but some of us.  And because Balki assumes that Yeorgi can understand human speech, he takes Larry off to the side and demands an apology.  Larry refuses, and Balki pouts because Larry never spends any quality time with the bird.

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Psychology sidebar: quantity time vs quality time, as I understand it, used to be a much larger discussion in family studies. Which of the two is more important? Is it okay to spend less time with your children, as long as the time spent is focussed and productive? Or is it better to spend lots of time–no matter the content of the interaction–with your children? The answers to these questions are sure to have profound impact on not only educational success, but on economics for everyone involved in the equation, and even more importantly, what narratives we tell ourselves about gender roles. Is it okay for a liberated woman to spend as much time on her own career as on her children? Does a man do a disservice to his children when he develops a masculinity-fed workaholism and can only spend a few quality hours with them every week? I was a little surprised to read that a longitudinal study published in 2015 to find that quality time was a perfectly fine approach, and that the parents’ income made more of a difference than the number of hours per week they spent with their kids.

*looks at the clock*

*realizes I’ve spent over an hour on this review already*

*shivers*

Balki claims to be surprised that his “two best friends” aren’t hitting it off.  And finally I realize the answer to my own long-standing complaint about Balki’s isolation: the city of Chicago must be full of actual human beings who can’t stand the guy.  Can you imagine being a student at Dial College and having to take a class with Balki? The professor tries to give a lecture on de Tocqueville’s depiction of slavery in the US South, and Balki pipes up to talk about how King Ferdinand of Mypos’s favorite delicacy is Flintstones vitamins in aspic. He chants the Quizzimikimooki before tests and always hesitantly sniffs his No. 2 pencil before using it. Always very huggy with every guy at the end of a group project. Poor Balki: he can only keep friends by caging them.

Instead of making a joke that actually derives from reality, like having Larry be upset that Balki has lined the birdcage with his articles, the bird calls Larry short. And, uh, no?

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(The bird has a Myposian accent now, I’ll give it that.) But consider what we have so far. The show has already, in its first act, established what it usually takes most of the episode to get to: Larry is annoyed by the presence of a living thing Balki brought home. Balki and Yeorgi’s activities are rattled off in a funny list, an indication that the show has bigger, better plans for its situation than these might lead to.

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Later, it’s snowing even harder, and Larry’s on the phone with Johannes again, because the chimney is backed up.  Here’s another thing that you only notice when you spend more than 23 minutes, 22 seconds on an episode of a sitcom: how the pieces of the script don’t always line up perfectly. A scene where Larry hires a chimney sweep to come out the very next day only requires Larry and a phone.  A scene where Balki complains that Larry doesn’t spend time with his new pet requires some significant amount of time to have passed.  But in the meantime, the show has played up the 1990 Storm of the Century so much that it makes no sense for Larry to have waited two weeks to start a fire. The show is taking such a piecemeal approach to structure that it ends up acting like a kid who doesn’t want his peas touching his mashed potatoes.  You’ve got a man on a phone; you’ve got a loud voice that spouts nonsequiturs (the bird, I mean); do something with that!

To fill all that time the writers freed up by not doing something with that, both cousins independently observe that rock and roll videos sure do use a lot of smoke yuk yuk yuk and then Balki sings Reason #40: Madonna’s “Express Yourself”.  He disappears into his bedroom and returns wearing a cone bra*, which he refers to as the Myposian Smallclothes of Lazy Joke Writing.

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Nah, j/k, Yeorgi is gone!

Bye bye, birdie!

Bye bye, any chance that a pet could change the cousins’ household dynamic!

Bye bye, any chance of Mary Anne having a dumb, or even a smart, conversation with a parrot!

Bye bye, any chance of a story where Balki insists the bird does understand language!

Bye bye, any chance of anyone visibly interacting meaningfully with the new thing introduced!

Speaking of missed opportunities, I was worried we weren’t going to get a scene this season of the cousins handling dead poultry, but here it is!

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Evidently Balki thinks that parrots plump when you cook ‘em and nearly throws up.  It turns out that it’s Larry fault Balki left Yeorgi’s cage open, allowing him to fly out the window.

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Balki crawls out onto the fire escape, his plaintive cry of “Yeorgi! Yeorgi!” echoing into the freezing Chicago evening, not knowing that sound travels slower through cold air. Can his calls keep up with Yeorgi’s flight?

Perfect Strangers Reviewed will be right back after you’re done Googling whether I was telling you the truth about the cold air thing.

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And here it is folks, what you’ve all been waiting for, that’s right, you heard right, it’s the payoff for all that setup about it snowing: Balki is frozen solid!

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There are very few things I remember from watching Perfect Strangers as a child, and this moment is the most clear memory I have. I’d like to spend some time on it.  It took me two years of reviews to get to this point, and I’ll never be here again.

The show has done far too much work to get to this one gag. Again, this is the elements of the episode having no interaction with each other. The show opted to have two whole scenes where Larry calls up Gus and says “come fix my chimney” just so there’s a reason for Larry to open a window.  And then the show has Larry using the oven to set up a dead bird sight gag. A more elegant solution could be him overcooking the bird. Sometimes I’ll watch another sitcom (lately it’s been heavy doses of “The Bob Newhart Show”) and I’ll be amazed at how much fits into 23 minutes.  It’s never been the case that Perfect Strangers has suffered from long stretches of silence, so I often wonder where all the time disappears to. This week, it’s definitely the plodding setup (not to mention TWO tracks from “Balki Sings Your Favorite Hits”) that ate it.

On the other hand, Balki on the fire escape is the one image that stuck with me for over 25 years. It’s the only thing I remembered from this episode at all (though Larry maneuvering Balki through the window and trying to heat him up does feel familiar; for years I remembered the bird’s name being “Yoshi”, but still).  Other than that, I remembered latching onto a couple of Balki lines from other episodes and quoting them. For an adult to be this attached to a bird seems silly to me now. But Balki is our very special M Y P O S B O Y E, and he’s meant to be different, to be innocent and childlike, at least until Bronson gets near a secondary sexual characteristic.

Whatever its faults, this episode got across to one child just how much that bird meant to Balki. Enough that it’s giving me pause, and making me read more into Balki’s seemingly outsize reaction to losing a bird. If the show wanted me to think that Balki misunderstood talking for friendship, it failed; but I’m willing to believe that Balki’s Moogli carvings** have proved a poor substitute for an animal that moves and makes eye contact. Almost every big symbol of his former life that the show has spent time on has been taken from him. Besides, should it be any surprise that Balki is still a child? He literally gave his Myposian rite of passage to becoming a man to another person. The least we can give the guy is a damn bird!

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Anyway, back to calling out minor inconsistencies and making gay jokes (the educated man’s burden).

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Cousin Larry tries to warm Balki with a move called the “Lumbarjack”, but when that fails he points a hair dryer at his crotch.

019

Balki demands that the window stay open for Yeorgi’s return. When Larry hints that, by this point, Yeorgi has been reduced to a spray of bones and feathers thanks to the various hawks, stray cats, possums, rats, and insects of the big city, Balki responds with a joke about David Letterman.

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The next morning, Twinkacetti has still refused to turn the heat on because he suspects the cousins are breaking their lease by keeping a pet. Larry finds Balki sitting by the open window. Since this week’s plot is “it is cold”, we get a sight gag about it.

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Balki assumes that Yeorgi is simply fucking his way across Grant Park, and Larry once again gently tries to get across to him that Yeorgi probably spent his last moments near a ventilation shaft, huddled up against a dozen pigeon corpses.

Balki says he won’t sleep until Yeorgi returns, and then he falls asleep. This is how sitcom jokes work. Cousin Larry promises to keep watch by the window, and Balki goes to bed–but not before making a coded racist joke about crows.

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Soon after, Jennifer comes by to tell Larry she’s going to the bakery.  She’s known the cousins long enough to have learned not to ask if Larry wants to come: she just offers to bring him something back.

Jennifer suggests that Larry buy another pigeon, and even encourages Larry to lie to Balki about why “Yeorgi” suddenly wouldn’t know all the phrases he’d learned. She even takes it on herself to go buy the parrot herself!

Why the fuck is this scene here? Almost every aspect of this doesn’t work!

First, and maybe most importantly… why would Larry go with this plan?  It’s in his interest for Balki to not have a bird. The show doesn’t even bridge this gap of logic by having Larry go through a thought process where he decides that being annoyed by a bird and scolded by Balki is better than Balki putting his own health at risk. The entire process is externalized, and Larry just says “yes” to the very first suggestion he gets so that we can get to whatever the rest of the episode is going to be.

On the one hand, there’s no reason Mary Anne couldn’t be in this scene; after all, she’s the one who should care the most about Balki’s happiness. On the other hand, there’s no reason for anyone but Larry to be in this scene, other than to have someone say out loud “here’s what will happen in the rest of the episode”.  And after four years of Larry getting punished for lying to his cousin and his girlfriend, she’s now encouraging it!

Actually, I would love for Jennifer to be this kind of character. I would love for both her and Larry to feel intellectually superior to their counterparts in a way that extends past making faces when someone says something dumb. But for the third time this episode, the writers remind me of the kids I went to school with who had so little to say in essay assignments that they’d pull out every trick just to get to a minimum page requirement. Larry needs to stay home; Larry also needs to get another parrot.  Adding another character gets you there, sure, but the way this episode has done it undoes one of the show’s most prominent consistent aspects.  That said, it’s completely consistent: Melanie Wilson’s contract can be fulfilled by giving her a handful of lines, and once she’s bought the parrot, she can disappear completely from the rest of the episode.  If a second person needs to make a face at Balki or Larry, she’ll come back.

Oh wait, it wouldn’t be a Jennifer appearance without Larry trying to control her. She says she’ll get the parrot from a male friend’s pet store, and Larry instantly starts in whimpering about whether “Jack” is prettier than he is.

For all that the show isn’t interested in really utilizing the women, I will say that someone took the time to try to write some flavor into Jennifer and Larry’s conversation; and that Melanie Wilson does her part to bring it to life. She teases Larry, saying that he’s a better kisser than Jack, which is a sweet, human thing to do.

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But Jennifer’s growth as a character will always feel too little, too late.  Too late because this show is on a trajectory towards Romper Room, and Larry does a double-take.

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When we get back from the commercial, dear god this show actually thinks that Jennifer would call Larry to tell him she got the bird instead of leaving it in her car and stopping by his apartment.

026

Balki comes out of his bedroom and says that the “official 29-hour waiting period” is up, and that it’s time for him to perform the “Vingi Vingi Bingi” (the Myposian ritual for lost pets).

Oh for–

These writers c–

027

I can look up as easily as anybody what the episode production order was, and this one was filmed before “Eyewitless Report”.  But, show, you can’t both make fun of yourself for calling everything “bingi bingi” and do exactly that in another episode, no matter which order they air in.

Balki says that the ritual could very well attract every single lost pet in the city, and Larry encourages him to try it.  God damn I want Balki to end up wrong.

Balki offers to teach it to him, and Larry says no, he’s had enough of that shit for one season and starts to leave.

Tell me, folks…

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…increasing the number of episodes from 22 per season to 24 really paid off, didn’t it?

Larry comes down the fire escape with the bird, and Balki, who is certainly waiting to hear any noise coming from that direction, does not hear him.

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The bird flies away and Larry just stares off into various distances pretending that he’s interacting with something, which absolutely sums up my experience sending messages on OKCupid.

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Cousin Larry catches the bird and throws it into the apartment, where it flies to Balki.

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Larry congratulates himself on his victory, and then snow falls on his face, because the writers are assiduously avoiding any possible humor that could derive from the actual situation they’ve decided on.

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Larry comes in the door and gives thanks, calling upon His name, making known His deeds:

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Balki quickly suspects that it’s not Yeorgi, and the bird starts saying “mi casa es su casa”, something I’m sure an actual Hispanic person would teach their bird to say.

Larry comes clean and apologizes, so Balki goes right back to waiting for Yeorgi to return.

Larry explains that Yeorgi is never coming back, so Yeorgi should be back in 3… 2…

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I think I finally understand Larry. Who wouldn’t just throw away a lifetime of moral upbringing and start acting selfish and lying about everything when being honest and caring is thrown back in your face like so much dirty snow?

If the past few episodes have been attempts on the part of ABC to see what kind of retooling might meet with the most audience approval, “Bye Bye Birdie” is certainly the rebuke to that approach.  Almost all of Perfect Strangers’s worst habits are on display here. Doing the bare minimum of work to get to its running time, barely allowing its non-cousin elements any time on set, and when it does, it’s only for the mechanics of plot (which is noisier here than the bird was), refusing to let them interact. The show threw away hundreds of possibilities just for another 23 minutes of Balki being stupid and self-centered, but correct, and Larry being honest, caring, and smart, but wrong. This episode seems to be explicitly rejecting the idea of anything entering the apartment and changing the status quo between the cousins.  Did you enjoy not seeing Balki play with a pet? Great, we’ll never mention that he got rid of it so you can continue to not see it.

The last joke of the episode is that the street outside the Caldwell is now full of lost animals who have come, all at once, regardless of how far away from the apartment they were, in response to the Vingi Vingi Bingi. Whatever else we may get in the next few seasons, the show is confidently placing its bets that Balki is still TV magic, and that all he has to do is sing to bring viewers running.

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Perfect Strangers offers us a Balki frozen in time, and any supplications for change are only met with the trained response of “don’t be ridiculous, don’t be ridiculous”.

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Join me next week for “Digging Up the News”!

_________________________________________________

Catchphrase count: Balki (1); Larry (2); Yeorgi (4)

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

*Holy synchronism! The cone bra first appeared the same day this episode aired.

**I beg the reader’s forgiveness for my failure to explain what these were when I made reference to them in “Everyone in the Pool” a few months back.  The Moogli carvings are the wooden animal toys that Balki carefully removed from his shelves when the cousins were trying to score some hot verse in “Poetry in Motion”.

4 thoughts on “Season 5, Episode 23: Bye Bye Birdie

  1. This week, on Superior Rewrite Theater:
    Well, pretty much anything.

    But still. If they wanted to tell a story about Balki getting a bird, that’s fine. And if they want Balki to lose that bird, that’s also fine. It’s up to the writers to figure out ways of making those things happen, and they did.

    Once they hit upon THIS way, though — the broken fireplace / cold snap — they really should have shuffled the bird off to a different episode, because this situation could have been fueled a far superior story.

    For instance, the girlfriends have a working fireplace, right? Larry seems to be the only one complaining, so I assume so. Would Jennifer and Mary Anne really just sit in their warm apartment while their boyfriends slowly freeze to death below? Of course not. They’d invite them up until the heat is fixed.

    Maybe Larry, being neurotic, would be on the phone constantly, with increasing panic, to get the fireplace repaired because he’s afraid that the more time he spends with Jennifer, the more opportunity she’ll have to realize he’s a boob. There’s a conflict there and a thousand opportunities to explore whether or not you even decide to give Balki and Mary Anne a B-plot. Let the guys and gals have a trial run at cohabitation. THAT’s a plot with potential. “Balki’s bird leaves and comes back” is not.

    Honestly, this episode would have been better without Jennifer, because her presence just reminds us of her existence, and passively assures us that she’s content to let both of these idiots die before she offers up her couch. Why was she here anyway? Couldn’t Larry have bought the damned bird himself? Put the women on a flight or something so there’s a reason these dummies are stuck in the apartment.

    I hate this one.

    (Also, this building seems to have a hundred apartments, at least. Would they all have fireplaces, and therefore chimneys? Do they share chimneys? Not sure how this works. Maybe it’s fine. But if my flue is open and the neighbor above me has his closed, wouldn’t I smoke him out every time I used the fireplace? Would you have to coordinate fireplace usage building-wide?)

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  2. Casey, ABC did not write, produce, or distribute this show. It was produced by Miller/Boyett productions in association with Lorimar Telepictures which distributed it to ABC. ABC had very little to do with the content other than to make a few broad suggestions here and there. The network only aired the show and received the ad revenue. You often mention ABC as if it had something to do with the show, other than broadcasting it, which is incorrect. As long as it got decent ratings, which the show always did, they would have kept it on the air forever. Networks do produce their own content sometimes, now more often than not, but this show was never produced by ABC.

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