Season 6, Episode 11: The Sunshine Boys

Welcome back! I hope you all managed not to get killed by your girlfriends this past week, because this week’s post will save them the trouble.

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We open at the Chicago Chronicle, where–believe it or not–actual people lead normal, adult lives, walking around all by themselves, without their cousin, fiancé/e, or best friend in tow.

Larry enters from stage left because the cameras need to hide another character’s entrance, not because what he took from the Archives matters this week.

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Under the guise of doing the crossword puzzles, Balki tricks Larry into helping him perform an incantation, saying the magic words three times.

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Balki: What’s a six-letter word for “do over”?

Larry: Repeat.

Balki: What’s a six-letter word for “do over”?

Larry: Repeat.

Balki: What’s a six-letter word for “do over”?

Larry: Repeat.

We are told quite explicitly that this episode will “do over” in some way what’s come before. Balki’s further command to “love [him] tender and call [him] Elvis” can’t not be a self-reference to the season 4 episode “The One Where Balki is Elvis”, which tells us that there will be some loss of the self due to the layering on of shorthand personality.

I find myself wondering briefly if the cousins have ever walked upstairs to meet the guy who writes the crossword, but if he’s not a) involved in a crime or b) shtupping Lydia, I doubt we’ll ever see him.

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The editor on Perfect Strangers took the week off, so we see RT (Rotten Timing) Wainwright and another guy standing right behind him on the stairs. The guy stands there for a few seconds while Wainwright walks down the stairs, and then follows. Given this show’s sculptorly approach to chipping away everything that doesn’t look like the cousins, I’m surprised they couldn’t manage to cut half a second here.

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Wainwright asks for Larry’s one-page story about racketeering and then wanders off a few feet so Larry can recognize the other guy.

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Larry: Bunkster, it’s me, the Appleman!

It’s Bunky McDermott! It’s a surprise to actually see someone from Larry’s storied childhood; but I’ve learned not to trust the show’s surprises. They usually involve a writer finding a new, unexplored corner to cut. Here’s an artist’s depiction of the show surprising me:

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But god damn is there a lot to get into here.  Let’s recap who Bunky McDermott is so I can explain why this setup is so clunky.  In season 5’s “Almost Lydia in Chicago”, Larry was eager to push Lydia to her own success because he felt that he had passed up a major opportunity in his own life. Larry declined his chance to be chess club president, the role falling to Bunky.  Bunky got married to a rich girl and became president of her father’s company.  That bit of backstory–even if you forget every other failure in Larry’s past–was enough to explain why he refuses to let any opportunity pass without trying his damnedest.  When Larry spoke of Bunky then, he was righteously angry–Bunky was the man who stole his adult life.

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So, first of all, why the hell is Larry so genuinely happy to see him?

Second is that there’s no explanation whatsoever for Bunky’s presence at the Chronicle.  It’s established very quickly in this scene that Bunky is rich (he owns properties in multiple foreign countries). Perhaps he was hobnobbing with one of the Bobos who owns the paper?* Or maybe he has some reason to visit Wainwright? I’m stumped as to why that would be, since Wainwright is just the… um… senior editor, I suppose? It’s clear that Bunky knew that Larry works at the Chronicle.  So whether he was coming just to see Larry, or for any other business, he must have told Wainwright the high school connection–which means it’s strange that Wainwright doesn’t introduce them at all, or make any comment on it.

I’m really getting tired of this pattern where the show cuts out maybe 15 words of dialogue and I write 100 to complain about it. While I was doing that, Larry introduces Bunky and Balki and the audience loses it over how two names sound similar.

RT tells Larry that he’s sure to win a Pulitzer, and that maybe after that he’ll finally put him in a real office with other reporters. He bids Bunky adieu.

Bunky says he’s impressed at Larry’s progress since high school. We get our first do-over as we find out that Bunky and the rest of the *ahem* chess club gang used to constantly play pranks on Larry, like gluing his books together, making him walk to get gas and then driving off without him, and stabbing him repeatedly in the kidneys. Bunky brings these stories up, having seemingly forgotten that Larry was the butt, and not in on the joke.

Bunky apologizes to Larry for all the awful shit that he and the guys in the *ahem* chess club did to Larry back then. Larry forgives him by way of excusing the behavior, which is maybe the most gracious we’ve ever seen the man.

Balki jumps in to say reminisce about how the kids on Mypos would pretend to be a rooster just to get the hens horny and confused. Bunky ignores him.

He invites Larry to a dinner dance party at the Beekman Club, the swanky uptown Chicago joint where seven people from Madison, WI, are members.  Larry says a list of funny names: Muffy, Buffy, and Fluffy. Bunky says a list of funny names: Biff, Cliff, and Griff. Balki says a list of funny names: Glinki, Blinki, Dinki. This is exactly how conversations go when I talk to people I went to high school with.

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Balki’s list of names is so impressive that Bunky invites him before leaving.  Larry explains his excitement to Balki: he will finally get a chance to be “accepted” by the people who were the most popular in high school.

Larry: Everybody wanted to be in Bunky’s crowd. They were the smartest, the best-looking, the most popular. They had the most fun.

Psychology sidebar: there are a couple of things going on here.  One is mental schemas–the organizing tools in our brain that group together information so we can free up our energy to think about other things. Unfortunately, when we sort people into our mental categories, we start assigning them qualities they may not possess. We tend to think that attractive people are smarter and more interesting. I, for one, fell prey to the same thinking about attractiveness and popularity when I was in grade school. The students who were more attractive–be it natural features, grooming, or clothing–were more popular. Success=some other success. And there is some feedback loop to that after a point. But child psychologists differentiate between perceived popularity and sociometric popularity, the latter being based on actual peer like/dislike. It turns out that there’s very little overlap between the two categories! The fact that most of us hated the popular kids for being popular should have been a clue. It also turns out that Larry occupies neither of these categories.

I’m a little torn on exactly how I feel about this. On the one hand, for fuck’s sake, if you can’t be consistent with a character you’re re-using, come up with another one! Larry seethed with anger when he talked about Bunky before. Now he’s anxious to win the man’s approval. Bunky’s success previously was thanks to his marriage to Bryn Bramwell, but the fact that he’s not wearing a ring here tells me that the writers consulted the one-page show bible instead of rewatching the other episode.

On the other hand, there’s a lot about this that’s in line with a much earlier version of Cousin Larry.  I watched a little bit of a season 2 episode recently–no, I’m okay, I don’t have a death wish, I just needed to compare Balki’s accents–and one thing I had completely forgotten about was how self-deprecating Larry used to be. Everything in his life up to that point had worked against him. Inasmuch as we want Larry to succeed, we share his belief that external factors were keeping him down until he left Madison. Bunky says that Larry’s come a long way, and he really has. Ignoring his constant nervous breakdowns about whether Jennifer will ever see his penis, I couldn’t tell you the last time that Larry talked like his whole life was one big inevitable failure.

I hope you enjoyed this promise of a worthwhile setup. I also hope you enjoy it when people break their promises to you.

Hey, remember three seconds ago when Larry had understandable motivations? Well, fuck all that, because now he’s working hard to convince Balki to come to the dinner dance party. Balki wants to stay home and watch television, and Larry even admits that there’s no reason for Balki to go. Larry tells Balki that Wayne Newton was a member of Chess Club 7.

At this point, the show has completely forgotten that one of its original angles was having two men forge a friendship by passing through various landmarks on the road of adulthood together. At this point, however, it’s pushed the cousins down their own separate paths: Larry overcoming the effect his past has on his current behavior patterns, and Balki doing fuckall.  When a story focuses on Balki, Balki becomes the wisest, purest, most capable magician, hindered only by Larry’s greed to screw things up.  When a story is about Larry, Balki’s brain disappears and he’s strongarmed into coming along.  The show can’t bear to see these two men be apart for more than 30 seconds, but it also can’t be bothered to come up with stories that could involve both of their hopes and dreams. I thought it was bad enough that Perfect Strangers just barely fulfilled the Belita Moreno’s and Sam Anderson’s contracts by letting them walk across the stage five times a season; but it’s starting to do that to Bronson now as well. The whole premise of this show–even in its most watered-down form–is that these men approach situations differently, and we’ve lost even that.

The very first line in the show bible is “Balki likes Wayne Newton”, so it’s spoken like another incantation, magically providing a reason for Balki to be in the rest of this episode.

Goddam am I talkative this week! You probably came here for the sunburns, right? Let’s get to the sunburns.

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That Saturday afternoon, at the Caldwell, Larry is getting ready for the party.  This might be my favorite use of the “anal-retentive character plans everything” trope, as Larry has the seven hours until the party planned out.  Just like Scarlett O’Hara, Larry wants to be the perfect lady, so he’s eating beforehand so he can eat like a bird at the dinner dance party.  Balki’s helping by making sure that Larry’s bowels are cleared out.

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Bunky calls to tell Larry that he and his six friends just got back from a trip to Caribbean. That’s it. That’s all he calls to say. Larry tells him that he, too, just got back from the Caribbean.

That’s it. That’s why they’re going to get sunburns. Spielberg couldn’t have written it into this story any smoother.

Not only could Larry just lie and say that he went to Caribbean at some earlier time, he could tell the truth and say that he went to the Caribbean at some earlier time.

Larry tells Balki that they’ll need some sort of proof that they went to the Caribbean and drags him off to a tanning salon.

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Oh, no, wait, Larry and Balki–who are still paying off a $140,000 house–have rented tanning beds. Remember how much trouble the cousins had getting a piano up a staircase? Your memory is incorrect and you should feel ashamed about this.

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There are some moments that you spend years dreaming of, playing out scenarios in your mind, planning what you’ll say and do, telling yourself that you have confidence enough to face anything. And when it comes, it’s all gone, and all that’s left is your eagerness and excitement, and you’re afraid to appear vulnerable.  I think it’s best to just let this sequence speak for itself.

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Excuse me, I, uh… *pulls on waistband to let steam out*

Just like all those times where Urkel had to lean backwards with his knees bent in the later years of Family Matters, Bronson tries to hide the fact that he has muscles by pretending to pretend that he has muscles.

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Larry sets an alarm clock for 30 minutes, and the editor realized that the only way for the cousins to get sunburned was to cut out the scene where the alarm clock goes off.

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Hey, wait! I only count two charred studs! Question for anybody who’s ever used a tanning bed: do they actually make a loud whirring noise?

Perfect Strangers Reviewed will be right back after I take a cold shower in a drum major uniform.

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The cousins were rendered so unable to move around by their overdone tans that the very first thing they did was move the tanning beds off to the side. There’s some stupid bit with an oscillating fan where they’re happy when it’s blowing on them and sad when it’s not. There are 43 more episodes of this show.

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Balki says that they should skip the dinner dance party, but Larry says he’ll miss his chance to become a member of a club in his own city where seven of the members are people he’s known since high school.

Well, here the cousins go again, strutting and bellowing their way across the stage to their tuxedos.

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It’s long been my suspicion that the writers build episodes from the physical comedy scene outwards, as “putting on tuxedos” seems to be the answer to the question “what’s the worst thing you could have to do after getting a sunburn?”.  And then “dinner dance party” was the answer to “where would they wear tuxedos?”

Instead of trying to put on his pants, Balki just writhes around.  We’re already at a point where what we’re watching has at best a tenuous relation to the plot, and now Bronson is blatantly milking the audience for laughter by shaking his butt around. I guess you could say he really knows how to…

…wait for it…

…make ‘em clap!

That’s right, folks, there are 43 more reviews’ worth of me.

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That night at the Beekman Club, Jennifer and Mary Anne (Sagittarius) enter to tell the audience that everyone else there is wearing aloha shirts and khakis.

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The cousins enter, stiff and grunting. There it is, the last moment where it’s remotely salient that the cousins have sunburns in tuxedos. Hope you enjoyed it!

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Bunky, tanless, welcomes Larry and Balki. Larry calls him out on having told him that the dinner dance party was formal dress, and Bunky laughs at him.  Eight people who couldn’t possibly be Cliff, Griff, Biff, Muffy, Buffy, and Fluffy, and are out of earshot besides, join in the laughter.

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Two of these people are even standing behind Balki and Bunky in the shots on either side of that insert. I guess if I were the editor on this show I’d have stopped giving a shit too.

You’ve all watched sitcoms, right? You know that when someone has something even slightly unusual about their appearance, you can count on a parade of jokes about it. There are all of two here, and Balki makes one of them. I was told that there were seven different people who participated in the pranks on Larry; I didn’t really expect to meet all of them, but for fuck’s sake you couldn’t come up with another one, show? You couldn’t even have the otherwise-supportive girlfriends fail at trying not to make cracks about their boyfriends?

It’s obvious at this point that the joke’s on Larry once again. Bunky’s lie about what to wear gave us the tuxedo half; and Bunky’s call that he went to the Caribbean gave us the sunburn half. The first part makes sense, and sets up what comes later in this scene. But the latter part is a failure of setup. It’s well-within the scope of Larry’s personality for him to lie about having gone to the Caribbean. I suppose that the show could want me to believe that Bunky has so thoroughly mapped Larry’s mind that he could count on Larry hastily getting a fake tan; otherwise why call? Unfortunately, simply being tanned isn’t additive when you already have tuxedos at a theme party. I refuse to believe that Bunky knew that Larry would overdo the tan, even if that’s what it looks like the show wants me to believe.

There are certainly better ways this could have been set up. In the beginning of the episode, Bunky could have casually mentioned an upcoming trip to somewhere slightly less fancy than the Caribbean, prompting Larry to lie–that he wasn’t sure he could make the party because he’d just be getting back from a trip to the tropics.

At any rate, Bunky’s a shit prankster if he can’t even improvise when handed an extra blunder to ridicule.

There’s like half a minute of the cousins struggling to pull out the chairs for their girlfriends, which really supports the central idea that Larry is being pranked. Having Larry try to talk to any of the other six people he knows from high school wouldn’t have matched this.

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The lights dim and Bunky says that it’s coronation time, and the spotlight falls on the cousins.

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Bunky calls them both to the stage crowns them “kings of the evening”.  There’s laughter from the partygoers, all twenty of them, some of them easily 20 years older than Larry, half of them African- or Asian- American. The writers forgot that Larry went to high school in another state altogether, but did it have to forget that these people would be at the party? I’d be willing to believe that Larry’s high school was astoundingly diverse, and that maybe even some of Larry’s teachers turned out for this–if that’s what the show were going for.  But the show is asking me to believe that a group of seven people who wanted to haze their former peer got a whole exclusive club of people who never met Larry to be in on the prank. If the idea is that Larry can’t escape his high school bullies, it fails, because we only hear from Bunky. If the idea is that the Beekman Club delights in this thing on a regular basis, it fails, because we only hear from Bunky.

Whoever is in on the prank doesn’t matter to Larry, though, because when the bucket of pig’s blood falls on his head, he decides that they’ll all pay. His mind flexes and the doors to the lobby slam shut, trapping them all in the dining room. His mind flexes again, turning on the sprinklers, shorting out the band’s electrical equipment. The resulting fire spreads quickly, taking those that escaped electrocution. Larry emerges from the pyre that was formerly the Beekman Club, and heads down Michigan Avenue, popping the tops off of hydrants as he–

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Oh, wait, no, Bunky just wheels out a toilet as Larry’s “throne”.

Ha! Come on! Larry’s been humiliated by better toilets than that!

That’s it, after eight years to come up with something, that’s the big prank. Trick a guy into putting on a crown and standing next to a toilet.

Larry gives a speech about how foolish he was to want to be a part of Bunky’s group, and leaves.

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Nothing will ever be worse than season 3’s “The Break In” for sheer mistreatment of a serious topic. But “The Sunshine Boys” outdoes it completely when it comes to mishandling a story. Taking up a full third of an episode with physical comedy is already the baseline for Perfect Strangers, and once I accepted that, it became a question of whether it worked within the story, and whether it made me laugh. Sunburns in tuxedos is a funny idea. It’s undoubtedly the only thing people remembered about the episode, because it’s a very clear idea; and, hell, I don’t think anyone had done it before. Bronson and Mark grunting and shouting in this episode is only as funny as it is in any other episode, but the problem here is that the plot didn’t call for sunburns, nor did it do anything with them once it had them. First there is a plotline, then there is no plotline, then there is.

Giving the women nothing more to do than walk in and sit down is also the baseline for this show, but once you get to that climactic point–the cousins and their girlfriends at a fancy restaurant–doesn’t it feel like there should be some other story surrounding it? Even if you refuse to really use the girlfriends? The show sets up two different plot elements for this episode, and then doesn’t let them interact with each other, and in the end barely comments on either one. Perfect Strangers has managed to get away with building its plots from the inside out up til now, but this time the seams are showing because there’s almost nothing but. I feel like you could isolate any aspect of this episode build a better story around it.

God help me, though, there’s still a shred of hope left for this episode, because just like spaghetti sometimes looks like Jesus, this collection of disparate elements actually points toward a lesson. If we can accept that everything that happens in this episode actually could happen, and restrict our view solely to Larry’s experience, the lesson seems to be: that what Larry does to himself and his true friends (sunburn) is far worse and longer-lasting than anything a bully ever could devise (tuxedo), and that adding on false layers to impress the unworthy damages and restricts the self.

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Unfortunately, though, the show either doesn’t realize this or doesn’t care. Here’s a sampling of the dialog when they get back home:

Jennifer: Larry, I don’t understand why you wanted to join Bunky’s club.

f’rinstance, or

Larry: I don’t know why I’d want to be friends with somebody like Bunky.

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The show opts to have Larry realize that he doesn’t need other friends, because he has three already. Instead of letting the main character peel off an old social skin, everyone sits around and wonders why the fuck they even bothered with this story.

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It’s an experience we’ll all get to recreate when I show this episode during Larryoke 2!

Join me next week for “Hocus Pocus”!

_____________________________________________

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

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

Cut for syndication: Tess injects guinea worm larvae into Larry’s leg while he’s asleep in the tanning bed

*the bobeaux riche, if you will

6 thoughts on “Season 6, Episode 11: The Sunshine Boys

  1. 1. Listen, show, when a 5th grader says “didn’t they already do this? When they worked out too much?” You’ve lost all credibility.

    2. In Re: the boxer shorts, I submit to you, “Toad looks funny in a bathing suit.”

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  2. I think this is one of the few episodes of anything that could be significantly improved by ripping its story out entirely.

    Obviously you’ve spent 43,000 words explaining why this story doesn’t work so I won’t bother with that, but I think that by removing Bunky’s mean streak, the prank, the active setting up of Larry, we’d get something far better by default.

    So Bunky and Friends used to make fun of Larry, and that makes them sound mean. Larry still craves validation. They’re both grown up and Bunky — BEING AN ADULT — invites Larry to some shindig. That’s it. Keep that and only that.

    From here, have Larry fall into his own anxiety spiral. He doesn’t get a sunburn in a tuxedo because he was deliberately misled by a childish asshole. Have him get a sunburn in a tuxedo because he’s let his paranoia and lack of self-worth drive him to do those things. That’s why he’s renting a tux for a party nobody told him required one. That’s why he goes tanning when literally nobody else would care where he went on vacation, or how recently.

    In short, Larry is so desperate to portray himself as a success that he reveals himself as a gigantic boob. This could actually explain what REALLY happened with Larry and Bucky when they were younger. Maybe Bucky didn’t make fun of Larry because he was an asshole…maybe he made fun of Larry because Larry kept doing these idiotic, elaborate things to fit in.

    Even the moral works better that way. “Don’t be someone you’re not” doesn’t work when you’ve been tricked into abnormal behavior. It does, however, work when…y’know…you choose to pretend you’re someone you’re not. (Assuming that was the moral. Who fuckin’ knows.)

    The only way this episode would work for me (and I’ll say that loosely) is if it were intended to set Bucky up as a recurring antagonist, who would keep tricking Larry into doing outlandish things. I’m sure that’s not the case, though.

    As it stands, let this be an isolated story about how Larry’s mind works. Larry’s brain holding him back is far funnier and more interesting than Bunky holding him back could ever be.

    Like

  3. Yeah. Things go off the rails every time a show (and Perfect Strangers isn’t alone in doing this) accepts and confirms a character’s belief that their failures are due to everyone else in their lives conspiring against them. The show has, on occasion, been decent about conveying that Larry’s problems are due largely to his own neuroses, but then they go and say, “No, really, Larry totally could’ve been a winner if it weren’t for all these people setting up elaborate tricks to screw him over.

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    • It seemed so inevitable I never questioned it. I could offer maybe two or three reasons that Larry might come up with, but the real one was so he could find out what color Balki’s nipples were.

      Like

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