Reader and Perfect Strangers fan Sharon wrote to me and made an offer I couldn’t refuse: not having to watch this show this week. Sharon has been watching Perfect Strangers with her daughter, Piper, and I’m proud to present their thoughts on the journey here. See you at the end!
(I’m keeping their last name private lest you call child protective services.)
I stumbled upon Casey’s blog while looking for more information about Perfect Strangers, a show which I have been watching with my 10 year old daughter Piper. It took me a little bit of time to figure out the rhythm of his blog posts. Sarcasm, got it. Repeated catchphrases, of course. Homosexual references—okay, Casey, whatever. Sometimes two men living together is just two men living together. Even if they did make that cringe-worthy “Mama told me never to do the Dance of Joy alone or I’ll go blind” joke in “This Old House.” And now that he points out all these moments, I can’t un-see it. Thanks a lot, Casey.
I was such a fan of the show when I was a kid that I had a Bronson Pinchot poster back in the 1980s. He’s wearing a vest. He’s holding a white dove. (I imagine Casey will make some sort of metaphor or psychoanalysis about this.)
Teenage me had a thing for Bronson Pinchot, is what I’m saying. Other favorite TV shows of my youth include The Monkees, and Friday the 13th: The Series. Make of that what you will.
Anyhoo, I thought I could offer a perspective on the show from the point of view of someone who is female, an original fan of the show, and watching it with a 10 year old. My daughter Piper watches a lot of TV. Probably too much TV, but it’s hard for me to put my foot down when I know damn well I spent my youth doing algebra homework while watching Ducktales. Some of her favorite shows are the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon live action shows, like Bizaardvark (about two girls who create funny web videos), The Thundermans (a family who are secretly superheroes), and Henry Danger (also about a guy who is secretly a superhero, and his sidekick.)
I started watching Perfect Strangers from the very beginning. I remember watching a preview of the show on an entertainment program, and they showed the clip of Balki in his Spider-Man pajamas, with Cousin Larry asking, “What are those?” and Balki answering “These my Spider-man Pajamas,” and I thought, “THIS is a show for me!”
I received the DVD of the first two seasons of Perfect Strangers as a Christmas present from my husband, who knows me well. At the time the first two seasons were all that was available. I watched, I was transported to a simpler time, when sitcoms had a heart and schmaltz was OK and we were in the pre-Seinfeld “No Hugging, No Learning” ethos of the cynical 1990s. The good old days. I really appreciated how, in the beginning, it wasn’t always that Larry was right, and Balki was wrong, or vice versa—the two of them seemed to balance each other out and learn lessons from one another. Neat. And because I like sharing the things that I love with my children, and because I figured this one would be appropriate to share with a 10 year old (unlike Friday the 13th: The Series, which she actually already watched when I was home on maternity leave with her), I started watching Perfect Strangers with Piper.
I thought the physical comedy in “Hunks Like Us” was fantastic. In my youth I liked Balki, because kids are supposed to like Balki. Now that I’m an adult I really appreciate Mark Linn-Baker. It’s hard to be the second banana. Of course a second banana’s career also lasts a lot longer.
I was bummed that for a long time we only had access to the first two seasons. In my memory, season 3’s “Pipe Dreams” was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen. (Tangent: Friday the 13th: The Series also has an episode entitled “Pipe Dreams.” It’s, well, decidedly different.) I liked how as the show progressed, it seemed to get more self-aware. “I have—” “Oh God” “a plan.” and “Is this the part where you talk down to me?”
And then I found out that Hulu was acquiring TGIF shows, including my beloved Perfect Strangers! Now, we are so happy, we do the dance of joy! Di di di didi di did di….
So, we settled in to watch the remaining seasons. Right now we’re done with season 5, and my daughter and I have—some thoughts.
For one thing, how did Balki learn to speak English? Mypos obviously has its own language, but Balki came to America with a pretty good grasp of the English language. Is English a subject in Myposian schools? Correspondence course? Itinerant ESL instructor? Well-meaning college students on voluntourism trips?
In about season 3, the plots got fairly weak. “You know this is going to get worse,” I told my kid. In the middle of “Dog Day Mid-Afternoon,” I asked, did Balki get dumber?
I started to realize that somewhere along the way, in my own youth, I gave up on Perfect Strangers. The last episode I remember watching is the one where Larry proposes, and I had genuine feels for Larry at the time. I wanted him to win, and get the girl, even though Jennifer is so clearly out of his league. Larry’s happy, show ends. Right?
Wait, there’s two more seasons after that?
I had to Wikipedia to see how the whole thing ended up, and boy, am I not sure how my kid is going to like the idea of Jennifer giving birth in a hot air balloon. (Spoiler alert.)
Perfect Strangers is a good primer in sitcom tropes for a kid. Curmudgeonly bosses, like Twinkacetti and Gorpley? Check. An episode with gambling? Check. Episodes with identical cousins? Check. The Rashomon trope? Oh hells yeah.
Sometimes I’ll observe something like, how come the women never get any more of a plot? And she’ll say, because it’s not about them. If there were a sitcom about us, she asks, would it have subplots of the neighbor kid?
Or, I’ll say, why doesn’t Balki see through Larry’s latest ruse to get him to do something he doesn’t want to do? “Because then there wouldn’t be a show, Mom.”
So here we are, Piper and I, at the end of season five. And because kids are supposed to practice predicting or whatever, instead of just enjoying the story they’re reading or show they’re watching, I asked her some questions. “What do you think will happen on Perfect Strangers?”
“They’ll go on more vacations.” (She likes the vacation episodes. She thinks they’re funny. I guess she likes it when things go to babasticky.)
And because I know about dramatic irony, or the viewer knowing something that the characters do not, and my 5th grader is learning that stuff too, I know that they at least rise somewhat in the echelons of the Chronicle, with Larry doing more reporting and Balki starting “Dmitri’s World.” (Spoiler alert.)
“Do you think they’ll ever get new jobs?”
“Do you think they’ll ever move?”
“No, because Jennifer and Mary Anne*** would have to move, too.” Astute observation from a 5th grader. Obviously the only thing tethering those two to Larry and Balki is geographic proximity.
“So, nothing is ever going to change for them?” I asked her.
“I think it’s going to get more ridiculous.”
Just wait until she sees what happens in Season 8!
As a matter of full disclosure I think that you, the kind of person who is reading this, should know that I own a stuffed sheep. But I did not name him Dmitri, because I thought that would have been too derivative. His name is Pierre.
Perfect Strangers Wrap-Up
We’re done. Almost 150 episodes watched. It’s a little sad. One of my favorite things as a parent is sharing stories with my kids; good triumphing over evil, the power of friendship, the laugh from a good character. I’ve read them Harry Potter’s and Ramona Quimby’s stories. I have watched the unfolding story of wayward teenagers in Point Place, Wisconsin, in the 1970s with my oldest daughter; and I have watched the story of a singing knight who is trying to win back his lady love and get a princess back her kingdom with my middle daughter. Piper, my youngest, and I got to share the story of a naïve Mypiot and his allegedly street-wise cousin.
The conclusion I’ve come to, while re-watching these shows, is that Larry and Balki are kind of like your old college/high school friends who were just a couple of great guys, and you haven’t seen them in a while, and you’d like to introduce them to your kids to show you what their mom was like Back In The Day. And then you see them again, and you realize–maybe they weren’t quite as funny as you remember. And also maybe they’re sometimes kinda dumb, and occasionally unnecessarily violent. (What was it with those years? Why is Homer strangling Bart supposed to be funny?) But still, you have residual good feelings, and you want to see how this plays out, so you keep watching. My kids have already seen all the episodes of Full House, which I never liked as much as I liked Perfect Strangers. It was time to get them some more T.G.I.F. knowledge. [Teaching Girls is Fundamental – Casey]
Something I’ve come to observe over the 100+ episodes I’ve watched is the complete lack of B plots. Were they not invented in the 1980s? Did they think we couldn’t keep track of more than one storyline? Piper once commented that it would be nice to see an episode about the women (notice that her Generation Z self knows not to call them “girls”), but then it would be a bottle episode, and then I wondered where she learned the term “bottle episode.”
So far, we’ve skipped three episodes–“Sexual Harassment in Chicago” because the kid is 10 and although I’m all about teaching consent, I don’t think the 1980s sitcom format is the way to introduce the subject, although I’ll call it out when I see it on “iCarly.” We also skipped most of “Door to Door” because it just embarrassed me too much FOR our intrepid cousins, and also because maybe I sold CutCo knives for a week once and it brought up too many memories. And “The Gazebo” we fast forwarded because it was boooooring.
We’re watching on Hulu, which allows you to see exactly how long each episode is. I usually skip the theme song, which is about 1:30, an excruciatingly long time for a show that only ever has a maximum of six actors listed. And it is Piper, who is 10 and in 5th grade, who observed that it’s about at 4:00 left in the episode when the cousins “learn their valuable lesson.”
Piper would like to relay that she is happy that her favorite character, D(i)mitri, got nearly two whole episodes dedicated to him in Season 7. Piper is also most likely to be the only 10 year old in America who, when asked to name a Hollywood star, comes up with Mark Linn-Baker.
Piper wants to re-watch some of the vacation episodes; those are her favorites. Current Nickelodeon programming has taught her that catastrophe is humor. So I guess I’ll be re-watching syndication favorite “Snow Way to Treat a Lady.”
The one thing the show had then, which I think is lacking now, is heart. I’m not even convinced that The Big Bang Theory’s characters like each other, much less love each other. You can tell that Larry and Balki—and Mark and Bronson—had genuine affection for one another.
Or, as YouTube guy Steve Shives so eloquently put it: “But I loved it anyway….I prefer clumsily executed heart to skillfully executed cynicsm. I would much rather have a show that tries to speak to the goodness of people. That tries to leave the audience with something positive, however awkward and artless the attempt, than have a show where the message is: ‘everything sucks and only fools care.’”
Is the character of Balki a stereotype? Is Larry more uptight than necessary? Of course. Are they fun to watch?
Of course they are. Don’t be ridiculous.
Thanks, Sharon! I don’t know why the guest writers keep saying “don’t be ridiculous”. Is that from something?
The dove, of course, represents the person looking at the poster, and the image is a promise that Bronson’s hands will gently hold you, and not throw you around like the dead birds seen on Perfect Strangers.
And speaking of–join me next week for “Duck Soup”!