We open at the Caldwell to find Larry once again dunking a cookie in milk. Given that he’s done this in, oh, easily 70 different episodes by now, we all know what’s going to happen, don’t we?
Gotcha! We’ve only seen this setup twice so far. The show thinks it has built a running joke that has gone on long enough to be subverted. Lucy pulling the football away got… *sigh* …nothing on this.
Anyway, Balki runs in and throws the cookie away because Cousin Larry’s fate will never change, no matter what he does.
Balki–who is still paying off a $140,000 house–has purchased a full chef’s outfit for his college cooking class*. He brought home the leftovers from his most recent project; evidently his classmates know to avoid anything that could make the special student cry and told him they loved the egg rolls he made.
Larry tries an egg roll and likes it. When he asks what’s in it, Balki takes about a minute to tell him that he bought a “Myposian delicacy” from a bait shop.
Larry throws down the egg roll and wipes out the inside his mouth, just like I feel I have to do after every joke Balki makes.
I’ve never understood this trope. If you eat something new and like it, wouldn’t you–unless it was shit or human flesh–say “well, turns out I like this!”? I mean, I get that there’s some sort of evolutionary holdover taboo against eating life forms too many steps removed from you in the food chain, but come on.
Also, Balki doesn’t tell us exactly what it is that he bought from the bait shop. If it was worms, or tiny fish, or even maggots, I have trouble believing that anything used as bait in the United States was not also used as bait on an island. I mean, cultural differences, etc., sure, but am I wrong to assume that people everywhere come up with damn near the same stuff to use as bait?
There’s a knock on the door, and since the name of this episode is “The Break Up”, it’s either the blonde woman or the other blonde woman.
It’s the blonde woman! After three years of dating, Larry still makes her knock!
In a subtle nod to what follows, plot-wise, Larry discourages Jennifer from trying something new and she refuses the “egg rolls a la Mypoise”.
Balki points at the dish, tells something to “get back in there”, and that alone is enough for me to hate this episode. But:
Jennifer has stopped by to ask Larry whether she can go out to dinner with an old college friend. That she went to college is, I think, the most information we’ve learned about Jennifer in over a season**. It at least makes sense, as one of her two most consistent personality traits is that she looks down on how dumb her best friend is (the other is that she voices this opinion loudly). Remember the last time she wanted to hang out with an old friend, though? Larry basically told her she wasn’t allowed to have friends; and she punched him for doing that.
But the way this scene plays out makes me wonder who ended up learning what lesson. The “friend” from college is a guy named Bill, whom she dated for her entire college career. And lest you think that information was given quickly, Jennifer asks Larry like twenty times if he’s all right with that, giving him a little more information each time she asks. Jennifer may have had the final say in “Assertive Training” in season 4, and towards the end of season 5 she even poked fun at Larry for his insecurities about other men. But now, four episodes later, she’s been trained to avoid the merest chance that Larry could get angry.
A good friend told me once that, if I’m going to try to guess at someone’s thinking, to come up with the most generous explanation possible. It’s an approach that at least gives you the possibility of not feeling like someone’s shitting on you. So I’ll try to be fair here: Jennifer has every reason to believe that this information is going to ruin Larry emotionally for a few hours. And she’s being open with Larry about what’s going on in her life.
She’s asking fucking permission. She puts the decision-making entirely in Larry’s hands.
Season 3 Jennifer: I like you… if you like me.
Season 6 Jennifer: I can tell him no if you want me to.
Larry, though obviously worried, keeps telling Jennifer that he has no problem with her having dinner with Bill. Jennifer hugs Larry, thanks him for trusting her, tells him that she cares for him, explains how and why the relationship with Bill ended, reminds him that she turned down a better job just for him, and as a way of making sure he doesn’t worry, kisses him deeply.
Oh, wait, no, she just leaves. “Well, okay. Bye,” she says.
Upon shutting the door, Larry shouts that he wants to die and starts reaching for Balki. Balki tells Larry that he should have told Jennifer “no” if he didn’t like the; after all, what are women if not worlds upon which we can impose our wills?
Larry, to his credit, seems to have finally changed a bad behavioral pattern. Previously, any time he felt that his relationship with Jennifer was threatened by a more capable man, he took steps to improve himself physically, taking karate classes and giving himself a crash course in rollerska–
–oh, wait, no, sorry, that’s not what I’m supposed to remember. Previously, any time Lary felt that his relationship with Jennifer was threatened by a more capable man, Larry was insecure about his own abilities and qualities. A man in a park ranger uniform, or a muscly man hitting on Jennifer, or even a man jumping over barrels were threats to the relationship. Previously, Larry felt that he was being wronged if Jennifer asked to reschedule a date to see an old friend. He appears to have killed these two birds with his newfound stones, now believing that Jennifer is a “90s woman”. The way to hold onto a 90s woman, according to Cousin Larry, is to not be possessive. One must, says Larry, hold on loosely, but not let go. If Jennifer were to leave him, he would be miserable.
Balki points out that Larry is miserable now. Previously, any time Larry felt that success was within reach, he’d instantly latch onto it and, in his haste and greed, lose his chance at it. Jeez, Larry, what are you trying to do, delay gratification or something? What a stupid piece of shit you are!
Philosophy sidebar: Larry is making a behavioral choice on the basis of a hypothetical imperative: he wants a particular consequence, and has chosen a behavior that he thinks will get him there. Balki, on the other hand, is offering a version of a categorical imperative: that Larry should say how he feels no matter what, because it’s the right thing to do; it’s his duty. Hypothetical imperatives are inherently subject to individual bias and desires, and not the pinnacle of moral thinking and behavior.
Larry’s reasons are not good enough for the show. Probably the most immediate criticism of the idea of categorical imperatives is that they ignore the consequences of carrying out one’s moral “duty”. When I was a teenager, I was a Christian and quite stringent in my moralism: any negative consequences occurring after a moral action were a direct result of whatever sinful system they occurred in that was built to discourage such moral action. The show seems to be taking this same stance, saying that Larry–
–you know what? Fuck, I can’t keep this up, the show has only glanced off substantial philosophical debate by accident. I mean, fuck, look at this:
Larry keeps calling Jennifer a “woman of the 90s” and Balki keeps misunderstanding it as “woman in her 90s”. Balki has known Jennifer for four years, so they do the joke as many times, and Larry never once says “1990s”. You know how there’s a running gag where Balki looks at Larry’s mouth when Larry is teaching him how to pronounce a word? He does it here, where Larry is correcting prepositions. Here I was, steeling myself for an onslaught of songs every episode this season, but this is worse. This is three of the show’s most grating impulses in the span of a minute.
Just when I think it can’t get any worse, we get the best scene ending Perfect Strangers has done in a long time. Balki begins crying (heehee, no, that’s not it 🙂 ), Larry says he’ll start his explanation over; and the scene cuts off mid-sentence. Amazingly, it turns out that not only is having Larry actually take more time to help Balki understand something a logical, human response, but him staying unaware of Balki’s pain is funny. It’s the type of thing Larry ought to be doing more of in order to build the idea that his flaws are comical.
We cut quickly upstairs to find Mary Anne (Sagittarius) painting her toenails; flanked by framed shots of actors Mark Linn-Baker and Bronson Pinchot. On the far right we see the doll in which Tess Holland’s soul now resides.
Jennifer storms in and says that, after three years, she doesn’t know “where [the] relationship is going”.
Readers, it was at this point that I started laughing out of sheer mental exhaustion with this episode. Everything is wrong with this. Not only is Jennifer half of the problem, but if she’s using Larry’s insecurities as a gauge of her love for him, what more proof could she need?
Holy Fuck Does This Need a Psychology sidebar: Let’s dip back into Eric Berne’s Games People Play to try to parse this one. Jennifer’s behavior hews closely to that described in the game “If It Weren’t For You”, where a woman marries a dominant man who restricts her activities. In the true form of the game, the wife complains about the restriction (thus the name), but her goal is to avoid those activities entirely without it being her own fault. Why? Because she’s scared of trying new things. Jennifer is upset because she’s been thwarted, and can’t get what she wants out of the game anymore. It’s the best I can come up with to understand this (as well as Jennifer’s behavior in “Future Shock”), because outside of “If It Weren’t For You”, I can’t imagine someone acting this way. Unfortunately categorical imperatives can’t reach Jennifer either:
Mary Anne, the dumb one, tells Jennifer to ask Larry how he feels.
Jennifer decides to tell Larry that she wants to date other people, so in the next scene, she comes by to tell Larry that she wants to date other people. I’m so glad we’re not missing any of the steps in this process!
Larry actually invites Jennifer in this time, and there’s a bit where Balki misunderstands the “we” in “we need to be alone”. It’s a surprisingly funny cap to Balki getting worn out deciphering English.
Balki leaves, and Jennifer and Larry confirm with one another that they’ve been dating for three years, and then Balki comes right back out to pull Larry away. Five seconds ago the show needed Balki to be at the end of his rope, but in this scene it needs him to say something in Myposian, so he takes Larry over to the lamp. Not in the bedrooms, not outside, not even in the kitchen, but three feet away, specifically three feet away: “I’ll meet you at the lamp”.
Balki: Kongi fongi lavi, andri baba dravi…
(pause for the audience to laugh)
Balki: …och popopo lopi…
(longer pause for laughter)
Balki: …just don’t be so dopey.
(audience goes wild, balloons drop from the ceiling, the University of Chicago Band marches through the apartment playing Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration”, and the reanimated corpse of Stan Laurel presents Bronson Pinchot with a lifetime achievement award)
They cut to Jennifer to indicate she can hear them, Larry repeats the entire Myposian phrase, and I have no idea what the show thinks is funny anymore.
Anyway, what the fuck, I mean what the fuck, Balki says that this phrase literally translates to “When a man is rinsing out his underwear, don’t drop by”. That’s right, you heard right, English translates to other English words. Fuck.
And, having told Larry that it’s Myposian custom to not meddle in another person’s intimate affairs, in other words, something he’d never, ever do, not even ONCE, NEVER–
–he tells Larry to tell Jennifer how he feels.
Larry asks if Balki if this episode is about Balki.
When–after about three minutes–Balki finally says “no”, Larry tells him to go into the bedroom until the end of the scene.
We’re 9 minutes in now, and nobody has broken up. Nothing has happened except Larry ate some worms and did a moderately progressive thing. Mary Anne proved she has hand-eye coordination. Balki wore a funny hat.
Jennifer asks Larry how he’d feel about them dating other people.
Larry: Other people? Have you even watched this show?
Larry says it would be alright, and is actively searching Jennifer’s eyes for some clue as to her feelings.
Jennifer clarifies–she’s not talking about dating just one person, she’s talking about fucking her way from O’Hare to Hegewisch–what does Larry think?
Larry: It wouldn’t bother me if it wouldn’t bother you.
Gee, ain’t women so different from us men that it’s durn-near impossible to understand them?
After asking 30 more times if Larry is sure that he’s okay with her sucking every dick in Lincoln Park, she says they should break up; she leaves.
Balki walks out and says something in his California surfer-dude voice and the scene ends.
Perfect Strangers Reviewed will be right back. How I wish it weren’t true.
Two weeks later, Larry is poised at the window with his binoculars. The show doesn’t make a Rear Window reference, so I’ll be respectful and not make one either.
Larry says that Jennifer and Bill have gone out fourteen times in as many days, so I’m guessing he must not have said this to Balki any of the other thirteen times.
In order to preserve the audience’s fragile egos, Balki does the math for them and tells Larry that Larry has not left the apartment in two weeks. Jesus, did they forget to tell this week’s writer that Larry has a job?
Balki suggests that they go out for “sky-high sundaes”. Larry says no. Balki suggests they go out for “sky-high enemas”. Larry still says no.
Balki whips out another shitty accent–Prison Guard–and tells Larry to “move it along” and pushes him toward the couch with a hand-carved Davros dildo.
Balki advises his cousin once again to tell Jennifer his true feelings, but this time, he takes longer to say it. The problem here is that Larry and Jennifer aren’t communicating, so the solution is to have Balki take up more of the episode.
Has Balki talked to Mary Anne in the past two weeks? Has Jennifer gone to work in the past two weeks? Who cares, I want to hear what Balki’s mama has to say.
She says to tell people your true feelings. So glad we took that detour.
Larry says he wants to forget the past three years, and asks Balki not to remind him of “that nameless blonde woman”.
Oh god, I’ve never laughed so hard at Perfect Strangers.
Balki says “Jennifer”, Larry shouts at him, and then they both say “I promise” simultaneously, which I hope will become a catchphrase.***
At this point I have to wonder if the show realizes the problem at the core of this episode: that Larry and Jennifer have never had a real relationship. Larry says he’s going to destroy everything that Jennifer ever gave him, but is himself destroyed when he realizes that she never wrote love letters to him.
Mary Anne stops by to tell Balki that Bill plans to propose to Jennifer that night at Chez Fino.****
Mary Anne: This is literally the only reason I’m in the episode.
Balki begins to make a wry observation that by branding your restaurant with a fake European name, you can get people to pay lots of money for live slugs, but Mary Anne tells him to shut up, this episode’s way past the point where a good running joke could save it. Balki curses–in front of a woman!–and gives us a new Myposian word: feesticky.*****
It’s Edward’s, from season 3’s “Karate Kids”! (Did Chef Robert buy it?)
Ooh, lookit this fancy place, don’t you wish you lived in 1990?
Jennifer and Bill are right next to the entrance, meaning they don’t notice when the cousins walk through the entrance.
The maître d’hôtel, whose primary concern is providing an all-around satisfying experience for all restaurant patrons, lets Balki drag Larry by each table while he exclaims about the decor and destroys expensive art.
The cousins stand at the dessert table and say a few lines of dialogue. So glad we took that detour.
I guess the props department blew all of their money on that door two weeks ago, because the menus have laminated pieces of pink paper reading “Chez Fino” on the front.
Hey, remember when we learned that Balki had such perfect eyes, he could win a bowling game even when his vision was blurred?
Haha, no you don’t!
Larry does a double-take when he sees Jennifer and starts throwing shit off the table. He pulls Balki close so they can kiss. Larry tells Balki his true feelings, and the cousins leave, brave young lovers following their star.
I really hoped that Bill Suitman would be as much a desperate sad-sack as Larry. It would have been the ultimate joke for this story; seriously, who proposes after two weeks of dating after eight years of not talking to someone? But he’s just some well-formed piece of white bread.
Balki drags Larry back in so they’re standing about two feet away from Jennifer’s table. Balki shouts at Larry; Larry tries to distract Balki by shouting about seeing Wayne Newton.
EVERYONE EXCEPT FOR JENNIFER AND BILL IS LOOKING AT YOU, LARRY
Then, finally, a punchline I liked:
Balki: Who had the Cousin Larry?
Larry has trouble pulling himself together, and Balki tells him to tell Jennifer how he feels.
A couple times now I’ve looked to Perfect Strangers’s inspirations from decades past. In “Just Desserts”, I watched the I Love Lucy episode it was paying homage to; when, in “Aliens”, it stole a whole episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show, I watched that, too. When the show tries to recapture the glory of past comedy greats, it tends to fail spectacularly (fuck you up your fuck, “Piano Movers”). “Break Up” isn’t an example of Perfect Strangers trying to cheat its way into the pantheon of physical comedy greats; but this is a situation that I’ve seen other sitcoms do. The reader is welcome to imagine here a list of other sitcoms that have featured this situation.
It’s pure luck that I’ve been watching Newhart for the past few months and saw its version of this plot recently. I know, I know, Vince Lucas told us all not to watch Newhart, but I’ve got this “bad boy” image to maintain! I also think it’s worth comparing how two very different shows can handle the same scenario.
In the third-season (1984) episode “Twenty Year Itch”, Joanna Loudon (Mary Frann) mentions to her husband Dick (Bob Newhart) that twenty years previous she and her then-boyfriend had promised that they would meet at a particular restaurant in exactly twenty years.
The decision as to whether Joanna will go out on the date, and whether Dick is okay with it, takes up the entire first half of the show. But that’s not a bad thing! That time is taken up with conversations. You see a committed couple tiptoe their way through a discussion that neither one wants to be blunt about. In fact, Joanna doesn’t even tell Dick she wants to go. And through scenes between Joanna and their maid, and then with Dick and their handyman, the audience gets not only a gradual reveal that Joanna’s ex was physically attractive, but a well-reasoned speech on how Dick being alright with Joanna’s freedom is one of the keys to their marriage’s longevity. It’s only at that point we find out that Joanna does want to go on the date. When Dick finally acts suspicious before the date, Joanna takes the time to make her feelings clear. In the final act, a worried Dick shows up to the restaurant, where he finds that Joanna’s college boyfriend didn’t show up.The ex was never the point, and neither were the stakes (hell, how high can stakes get on a show about a not-quite-historical inn in New England?). The episode was equally about 1) an adult couple navigating their way through a situation that was new for them and 2) an adult woman learning how to process emotions that she was surprised to have.
Perfect Strangers offers us Jennifer making confused faces at a newly-secure boyfriend, Jennifer shouting at her best friend, all the pauses for laughter, and finally Jennifer dating a man out of what I have to assume is pure spite. The episode sure as fuck doesn’t tell me why she’s doing it. The writers don’t know what to do with Jennifer other than have her get angry, because that’s all there’s ever been. We’re led to believe that there’s real risk of her leaving Larry for good.
And even though everyone around Larry is treating this like a real threat, you could go with a more generous explanation: that it’s all in Larry’s mind (or that they know how Larry will react to it). Larry is neurotic, and there’s no reason to change that now. But Larry trying to change his behavior despite his insecurities is one of the best jumping-off points I could hope for in a season 6 episode. The stakes have to be high for Larry because the stakes are always high for Larry. When you feel you’ve had nothing for so long, every new gain–and thus its potential loss–feels huge. The problem with “The Break Up” is that Larry stands to lose “everything” because “everything” amounts to maybe 30 minutes of Jennifer and Larry interacting on screen.
Larry: There’s something Iiii’ve been meaning to tell you. And I wanted to tell you the first time I saw you in the health club….
Oh, wait, no, it’s okay, Jennifer doesn’t remember that scene, and neither do you.
Larry: …and then we started dating and I wanted to tell you again.
Yep, that sums it up!
Larry says “I love you” but–uh oh!–Suitman just asked Jennifer to marry him before Larry rolled up. He insults Larry’s looks and then presents a ring that, so I’m told by the dialogue, is a very nice ring.
Then, since women have to be fooled (or, with the “smart” ones, talked) into choosing a mate, Balki gives Larry a pep talk replete with sports metaphors. It’s very kind of him to not insult Jennifer behind her back.
Larry assures Jennifer that no one else’s love will be as neurotic, manic, petty, and uncontrollably jealous as his.
Larry, who writes articles for a newspaper, says that it would be “just really good if you married me”.
Jennifer accepts, making what her fellow actors assured her was a face that conveys emotion, and they kiss for the fourth time. No, I meant Larry and Jennifer, but, you know, probably Balki and Suitman, too, wherever they went.
Oh, fuck my fucks, y’all; this episode. Perfect Strangers is trying to have its cake and forget it, too. It makes Larry and Jennifer such poor communicators that a plot like this could even happen, that they’ve been together three years and still can’t work past a problem like this. And, just like the opening gag with the cookie, it also wants to have this relationship be deep enough to make love and marriage a believable outcomes. Larry wins Jennifer–forever–by saying “I love you” one time.
Either “The Break Up” is in the running for the second-worst episode, or it’s actually the greatest. The last round of interviews we looked at revealed that everyone involved knew there were only two seasons left, so setting Jennifer and Larry up to be married early in the season will likely allow for stories they couldn’t tell otherwise. The show hasn’t earned an episode where dating brinksmanship could lead to a marriage proposal, but was writer Terry Hart cognizant of this? If he was, I could say that he wrote an episode about two people who are perfect for each other. Jennifer and Larry have proven to be terrible communicators. The episode was pointing directly towards a lesson about how these two need to learn to talk to each other, but ends by confirming hollow, self-serving assumptions about women by having Larry get the ultimate gold star just for saying “I love you”. Jennifer doesn’t even have to learn her lesson, which was the incredibly low bar of “ask your boyfriend how he feels”. It’s either terrible writing or a beautiful punchline.
That is to say, consequentialism has won out, and the show has achieved its hysterical imperative: I’m laughing at this episode, but probably for the wrong reasons.
Larry comes home complaining that he had to pay for Bill Suitman’s food, which is a nice little Seinfeldian moment.
For the 99th time, the music comes on. Larry says that he never would have found out that Jennifer loves him if it hadn’t been for Balki. Yep! She sure as shit was never going to realize she needed to say anything more than “—”.
Balki says that Larry should be overjoyed that someday his wife’s body will turn frail, her skin will collect liverspots, he’ll find out what yeast infections smell like, that blowjobs will get better as she loses teeth, and that he’ll have to wipe the deflated flaps that were once her ass when her joints go.
Join me next week for the MOTHERFUCKING 100TH EPISODE, “A Horse is a Horse”.
Catchphrase count: Balki (0); Larry (1, though Balki and Jennifer also say it)
Boner count: Balki (0); Larry (0)
*The teacher’s name is Mr. De Rigeuer. *Mork voice* arr arr arr
**To be fair, season 5 told us that she plays tennis, rollerskates, and that her dad is still alive; character-defining qualities all.
***I’m almost certain it doesn’t.
****They also forgot to tell this week’s writer that French and Italian are different languages.
*****Babasticky, as we figured out years ago, is literally “shit (of) sheep”. “Fee” must refer to gonads.