Jeez, show, I know I have to keep reviewing through the summer, you don’t have to rub it in with the episode titles!
As always over the past five (or was it six? this damn memory) seasons, we find ourselves at the Caldwell for our closing episode, wandering through the streets of this town, always silent and alone, seeking meaning in mute facades.
What clues to interpretation can we find here? Perhaps that our window into the cousins’ lives is shutting? That this particular window exists in neither positional state, and further is itself liminal, obscuring boundaries of out and in? That finales on this show have ever been a misnomer, involving more the actions which don’t occur than those which do? The ironic juxtaposition of sliced time and human continuity; the uncrossable chasm between rooftops; this again between between generations; and then laterally, across nations, genders and time itself. Windows, it occurs to me, go both ways, and we have indication now, if not of a reversal, then perhaps a looking through the other way, a closing rather than an opening–
Our most recent season finale has finally made good on the show’s promise of bridges. There, one intrapersonally, between selves (and, it amuses me to note, across man and man’s best friend); and here the show predicts one or more interpersonal joinings at a different liminal point, which you’ll note has softened since the beginning of the season.*
I could go on, but I think really what the windows say to us is that these men have owned a god damn house for a year and have never once made mention of the $140,000 they owe on it.
Balki and Mary Anne (Sagittarius) also look for clues as to the arrival of their counterparts, having festooned the apartment with foliage, garlic and toilet paper folded into bows.
Jennifer and Larry enter, and Balki confronts Larry with a Polaroid camera, the symbol of the path he didn’t take, indicating… well let’s just say it’s really deep and leave it at that.
Larry asks why Balki put all the leftover props from past seasons on the walls.
Balki: Does the word “six phases of the moon” mean anything to you?
Does it mean you have no grasp of English or astronomy?
Mary Anne says that–according to Myposian custom–Larry and Jennifer have to set a wedding date because they’ve been engaged for six phases of the moon now.
Oh for fuck’s sake! This season has gone out of its way to make sure we understand how much time has passed within so many different episodes. Looking briefly through my screencaps since “The Break Up”, I count 17 different night shots, an additional 58 days having passed according to on-screen, plus let’s be super generous and say they went to LA and got back to Chicago all within a single day. At the very least, they’ve been engaged 2 and a half months.
Also, oh for fuck’s sake! This is the first time that Larry and Jennifer have ever gotten to be by themselves since the engagement, and they come home to this pressure?
Balki tells him that, by the one-drop rule, Cousin Larry is Myposian** and thus must follow marriage customs (and somehow no others).
Larry says that they had planned on waiting at least another year before putting their hands in each other’s back pockets. Jennifer backs him up, saying that she and Larry will “follow American custom”, which involves viewing marriage not as a formal acknowledgment of a deeper bond, but as a status symbol; and that she’s willing to drag her feet through courtship a little longer to see exactly how high up through the professional (ahem) rungs Larry rises to ensure her own economic security.
Mary Anne counters that America led the way in adopting formalized timezones, setting the stage for an increasingly scheduled world, and that Jennifer better fucking pick a date because she’s tired of seeing smears of someone else’s poop in the toilet bowl.
Nah, j/k, they don’t say any of that shit. Jennifer has turned down congressmen and football players in her quest to find a man disaster-prone enough to accidentally set their house on fire; and Mary Anne is so dumb she thinks only cowboys have bridal parties.
Balki asks Larry whether he’ll be doing a bunch of other Myposian customs which he (he Balki) didn’t do during his own wedding and which Larry had no way of hearing about other than from him until this very moment: walking down the aisle on one’s hands, singing Snap!’s “The Power” while flinging spoonfuls of rat-milk custard at the guests, and then double-teaming a sheep with the best man.
Larry fumbles around for a bit about agreeing to set a wedding date, finally passing the excuse ball to Jennifer, daring her to admit right then and there that they won’t be happy together.
This has to be the most contrived way I’ve ever seen a show come up with to destroy a cake prop: Balki uses a piping bag to write a month on the cake, only for Larry to finish his sentence about how that month won’t work.
Even in just these few lines, there’s loads of potential story. We’ve seen numerous examples by now of good episodes buried under bad layers of comedy. “Karate Kids” is the first that comes to my mind, and you don’t even have to go back that far this season to find an example. Philip pointed out that “The Sunshine Boys” had a perfectly good Larry story that placed his motivations in completely the wrong place. Even if it weren’t the case that we in 2018 know that Jennifer and Larry get married and (*hastily scans Wikipedia*) throw their newborn child from a hot-air balloon, I think that ending had to have been pretty damn clear to viewers then.
Unfortunately, what we have here are two people who are in no way fit to be part of a married couple, and who for all we know have not even established a strong personal connection with each other, physically or emotionally. I mean, they were supposed to have played tennis together once, but even that managed not to happen. All we’ve ever seen them bond over is the fact that they’re smarter than the only two other people they bother to interact with more than once a month. Interpret, if you like, their panicked indecision here as an indication that their personalities are similar, but it’s no stronger an indication of that than anything else we’ve seen for the past five years. Hell, maybe Larry’s about to say that he also likes being outdoors and likes to use nail polish, and that will change my mind. But look at the wild desperate hope on this woman’s face when she comes up with “my birthday is in April” as a way to exclude a whole month.
They don’t belong together, and they know it. Getting them to admit to that would be a great story. Getting them to talk through their fears would be the okay version of that story. But like always, we only get the briefest of glimpses into that better show.***
Anyway, after Larry and Jennifer have collectively said 11 month names, Balki proves he was paying attention in college and writes “June” on the cake. He tells the couple that they must each eat a piece, and once they’ve each passed it, eat the other’s piece.
If the reasons above weren’t enough to make me wish this story didn’t end with Larry and Jennifer promising in their wedding vows to discuss kissing with tongues someday, Melanie Wilson is absolutely selling her fear. Sure, yes, the fear is there to get her and Mary Anne out of the scene, but even that would have supported the story we don’t get.
On their way out, Mary Anne is so dumb that she’s willing to try real-world approaches to battling anxiety, like giving the human brain the resources it needs for decision-making through a balanced diet.
Just like I always do any time I have to fill those dreadful hours between sunsight and sunclipse, Larry starts stress-eating, tapping his foot and laughing weird.
Balki says he knows Larry like the back of his colon, and says out loud all the nervous tics that Larry did in the past 10 seconds.
Larry does over/repeats those repetitions back to Balki, an obvious obsessive-compulsive ritual meant to magically remove the distressing thoughts brought about by actual plot possibilities.
Larry briefly does some meta-thinking–doing the job Balki ought to be doing–telling himself the reasons he has to get married and envisioning a good future, before descending once more to the cake. He’s so upset he even keeps Balki from saying his signature catchphrase (“Let’s do physical comedy now instead”).
Larry is worried that Jennifer “thinks she’s marrying a handsome, sophisticated, charming man” but that when they go on their honeymoon, she’s bound to see the purple stretchmarks grooving his inner thighs, the sporadic hair on his shoulders, the recurring folliculitis on his knees, that his butt has developed in a manner which can only be described through comparison to a double chin, and how the pinched toe box of his bargain-bin dress shoes have turned the undersides of his pinky toes into blades; hear him crying over the low water-pressure in the motel bathroom; and ultimately be enveloped by the natural perfume–equal parts ammonia and cheeseburger–he emits during any level of physical exertion.
The leg-shaking goes on for a damn long while, but before Larry can “accidentally” gouge out his eyes, Balki takes Larry’s Forkin’ away.
Balki calmly explains to Larry that sometimes vaginas give new meaning to the phrase (strike) word Frito pie; but warns that their ratings haven’t dropped quite so low that they’ll need to call their agents immediately after the set is struck, so Larry needs to get his shit together.
We find again that the grand traditions of Mypos only go back about 50 years when Balki suggests that Larry and Jennifer take the Nupitiki-SATiki. Also, I try my damnedest not to mention most malabronsisms, but this one stands out as particularly odious:
Balki: This test can determine whether or not a marryage should take place beyond a shadow of a snout.
You can’t– the operative word is– you own a fucking house– how did you even–
What the fuck does Balki think he was trying to say?
Speaking of nervous tics: I’ve debated a few times whether to even bring this up, but this is the third time Bronson has done it this season. I don’t even know what you’d call this, but Bronson will move his mouth sometimes right after a line like he’s either trying to communicate slyly with Mark or he’s developed some case of self-echolalia. He did it to Fire Chief Wayne Newton last week. It’s not the only time he does it in this episode. It’s weird.
Anyway, what the fuck, I officially don’t care, Cousin Larry says that most pop psychology tests are bad enough, and one that doesn’t even rest on any sort of sound, researched scientific principles or methodology would be even worse.
Mythos having failed him, Balki eschews pathos, ethos, and logos in favor of pothos, pulling his cousin into the kitchen with the cake.
Balki gives Larry some good advice: call Jennifer and ask how she feels.
Oh, wait, no, there were four more words: about taking the test.
Larry calls Jennifer and he barely gets out the plot synopsis before she hangs up on him. I’d knock Mark Linn-Baker for saying both “Hello? Hello?” and “She hung up” (as if we all didn’t grow up with the disconnect tone), but we found out from Jo Marie Payton that they would do Q&A with the audience after filming, so he knew he needed to.
Jennifer runs into the apartment, begging for the test, and wouldn’t you know it, these two are perfect for each other because her leg is shaking like mad.
Balki reaches for her leg and Larry slaps his hand away. Fuck yeah, Larry! Male characters getting away with groping women by pretending to be clueless is pretty fucked up and no doubt left a lasting impression on my psyche and, as we’ve learned over the past year, that of every other man in America.
Two days later, we learn that the test takes not only its name, but also its values, from mid-20th Century America. Balki asks if Jennifer would get upset if she had cooked dinner and Larry didn’t call to let her know he was coming home late.
Balki did the same– there’s like one phone on– the $140,000 house– Jennifer’s out of town like half the–
God damn do I hate these kind of questions; they’re the pop psych equivalent of asking a kid which one is gay: him or his boyfriend.
Psychology sidebar: one of the core ideas of social psychology is that people’s behavior is heavily impacted by the presence of others. This means that, until consummate artificial intelligence can devise perfect survey questions and beam them directly into people’s minds, there’s the risk that the person administering the tool will case a “response bias” in the test subjects. If all questions on a measure are worded negatively (“not”, “won’t”, “disagree”), will the subjects answer “no” most of the time? Will they try to idealize themselves and give socially desirable answers (or, at least, the answers they think the researches want)? And can you propagate value systems with the questions? Unfortunately, yes. Kenneth B. and Mamie P. Clark’s study investigating “racial identification” by asking African-American children about dolls was published way back in 1947****, but I see some form of the test still get used today as “proof” of some level of self-loathing among that population. Here’s how it worked: the researchers would show black children aged 3-7 a white and a “colored” doll and ask them questions: “Give me the doll that you like to play with”, “Give me the doll that is a nice doll”, “Give me the doll that looks bad”, “Give me the doll that is a nice color”. Do you see the message that the researchers didn’t realize they were giving the children? Only one doll could be nice, look bad, or have a nice color. The majority of the children, at every age group, identified the black doll as bad; and the final question on the test (“Give me the doll that looks like you”) reduced a few of the children to convulsive tears when put in the cornered position of having to refer to themselves as bad.
Okay, this review is getting dense, so let me give you the plot essentials so you’ll know you’re really not missing much. Balki asks Jennifer questions, and gives Cousin Larry physical tasks. Cousin Larry keeps complaining along the lines of “You had me see how many of my own toenails I could rip off before fainting and Jennifer just gets a question?” or “You had me jerk off beside the mailboxes while singing ‘Dancing Queen’ and Jennifer just gets a question?” We only get to actually see one of each question and task, which is fine, because escalation of a concept really has no place in comedy.
I hate to say this, but there has been enough good physical comedy on this show that Larry playing Simon Says feels like the show bought a shovel for the express purpose of setting the bar lower.
I’m going to assume you see where these ridiculous questions–and Balki deliberately giving them a bad score–are going. I’ll admit that forcing a couple to say “fuck this, I love you anyway” is clever enough for this show even if I did see it coming a mile away.
The problem, though, is that this episode forgets who Larry is. Used to, we’d get a progression where Larry’s theory-based claims of mastery over adult life buckle under their own weight, leaving him no option but to beg for the Myposian way. Here, the show has forgotten that that was once Larry’s whole character. He and Jennifer are desperate for any sort of affirmation that they’re doing well, stating answers as questions, asking if they answered right. When Larry expresses discomfort with the test, Balki makes it clear Larry’s fate rests in his hands. He lays it on thicker than a Casey in an opening shot.
Perfect Strangers Reviewed will be right back after I send an email to OKCupid letting them know how they should change their matching questions.
Later, some guy points at the Caldwell, and the camera follows his arm. Just think, if he’d pointed any other direction, I wouldn’t have to watch the rest of this.
I complained that we only get to see one question and one feat of manly strength, but honestly there’s simply no time for it. Bronson decided this scene called for a suddenly pompous demeanor and that dragging out his lines makes him sound smart and condescending. Exactly what viewers tuned in for, right? Balki seems to oscillate more wildly these days between “incredibly competent” and “wears a hat”, and these past two weeks might be the furthest sweeps of this phenomenon. He’s neither talking nor acting like the Balki we first met; is this the same guy transfixed by a shaking leg five minutes ago? You can argue that Balki is acting this way to play on the mood of the scared couple, but come on. This whole test would still work with a playful, loving Balki at the wheel, holding his cards close to his chest and matter-of-factly dismissing any skepticism.
Balki is bordering on smug, which makes it feel like Bronson is also smug for thinking this is the right direction to take Balki.
I’ll give him this: the plot does allow it to be clear, albeit after the fact, that Balki is playing a role. But the script breaks Balki in a different way when it tries to establish his credentials as a “Nupitiki Dr. Ruthiki”.
The fucking fuck? Why is it never enough that Balki did something on Mypos, but that he also must be the best at it? Balki was supposed to be 21 years old when he arrived in America (at MOST he was 22 if you want to fold season 1 into season 2) and he was a pre-marriage counselor, even though brides are a birthday gift when you turn 25? Don’t get me wrong, I love math (my credentials: I got highest individual score in a middle school intermural math team competition), but god damn I hate having to waste it on this shit. Further, I have to imagine that Balki’s dad is never once going to be mentioned on the show, and I suspect that Bronson wanting nothing to do with his own father had a lot to do with that. Most of the audience wouldn’t have known that, but in addition to Balki not mentioning any authority other than a title, I’m left wondering how in the fuck a teenage Myposian wouldn’t get soundly ridiculed by people even a few years older for trying to act like an expert when he doesn’t even get to observe his own parents’ relationship. I mean, I don’t care how constantly babies shit, I sure wouldn’t trust one to advise me on purchasing the best toilet.
Larry repeats Balki’s title, and then repeats Balki’s clarification of same, which is the type of stellar writing you only get when you give a room full of writers ten whole months to come up with good jokes.
And now they’re just talking about sheep and pigs happily fucking and–
AAAHHH! Sorry, the way Jennifer just jumped up like that startled me. Completely forgot she was there.
Jennifer: Just because the test has never been wrong before doesn’t mean it can’t be wrong now.
Poor thing, they really don’t let her on stage enough or she’d know that Balki is Never Wrong™.
Luckily, irony isn’t a total blind spot for this show, as Larry says he’ll still marry Jennifer… after a couple of years of intense study. For all this episode’s faults, that one line still lands beautifully. Since the quick escalation to five years’ postponement is misplaced from the better version of this episode, it only functions here as padding. (And why the fuck did the show wait until now to even bother to remember these people have parents?) But that split-second of hope that Larry figured out the lesson before reverting back to avoidance was the only part of the episode that actually had a positive emotional effect on me.
Balki tells them that their last hope is to take the “Nupitiki Spic ‘n’ Spanakopita” (Larry repeats it), the “marriage cleansing ritual”. In case you didn’t catch the joke, Balki then all but turns towards the audience and tells them that Spic ‘n’ Span is a cleaning product.
It was obviously night outside the windows in the previous scene, which means that Jennifer and Larry did not take any time to talk to each other about this on their own. Fine, whatever, this makes them the perfect couple, I guess! Let their house be full of the blandest furniture, let them always give up on food discussions and order pizza, let them pass up every career opportunity, let them forever be scrambling to guess what the other doesn’t necessarily like or dislike, let them not name their child until it turns eight. I don’t care.
Balki, in Exidorean robe, has bid the couple stand in a plastic kiddie pool.
Jennifer: Balki, it looks like the prop department really dropped the ball this week to the extent that I have to take a wildly improbable yet correct guess at the shape of your pendant which, by the way, the script has me, a woman, refer to as a medallion.
Balki: You’re right Jennifer, it is in the shape of a lambchop, which coincidentally is also the shape of the island of Mypos. It’s enough to give you an overactive theory of mind, huh?
Balki points out his hometown of Podunki and fuck you and there’s a Six Flags over Mypos and fuck you and the blue part is a mood stone based on the state of Jennifer and Larry’s relationship and
YOU OWN A HOUSE GOD DAMMIT
Balki dumps brown liquid over Larry and Jennifer’s heads. What does it symbolize? Reader, if you don’t know, I haven’t taught you anything.
Balki declares the test a failure, that New Tina was doomed from the get-go, and that Larry and Jennifer should resign themselves to lives of solitary masturbation. Larry and Jennifer start blaming each other, and Balki encourages the discussion of their emotions.
Larry admits he’s afraid Jennifer will realize he’s not sophisticated; and Jennifer admits she’s afraid that Larry will learn she doesn’t necessarily have a personality.
They affirm their mutual tepid feelings for each other, decide to marry in September, and tell Balki to shove his test.
Balki tells them they’ve passed the test, which is probably the only time I’ve seen the “learn your lesson and still get your reward” trope work. But then Balki reveals that he–he Balki, the man who never lies, not even once, no never–made up the part about drenching them in Ex-Lax’s final form because they were more neurotic than any couple he’d ever tested on Mypos. So, what, were the 100 other Myposians that Balki has told Larry stories about to illustrate Larry’s errors all made up too?
What if both of them had personalities that led them to believe in the power of tradition/organized religion, or just didn’t want to rock the boat? If they both back out of the marriage on that basis, wouldn’t that suggest a good match? You can’t set up traditions or parts of your state religion that you reveal to be false and admit that you were using it to get a certain emotional response. You give the whole game away, and this tactic makes it even more jarring that Balki was a marriage counselor years before he could even get married.
We started this season with the image of a torn, mangled chair unsuccessfully stitched back together, and it turns out to have been an apt metaphor. “See You in September” is simply the latest in a series of examples of the writers putting the available parts of the show in different ways from what came before. They hold together well enough within the episode, but try to place the weight of the show’s memory on them, and pieces fall off. Perfect Strangers is no longer quite the same show.
But you, O my readers, remember sometimes thy little Balki that was.
Cousin Larry pours the shit on Balki.
Join me next week, when I’ll take a look at what these actors did between seasons!
Catchphrase count: Balki (0); Larry (0)
Boner count: Balki (0); Larry (0)
Cut for syndication: At the very end of the episode, Tess walks in, pulls a lever, and a 16-ton weight drops on Balki, Larry, and Jennifer. Ain’t she a stinker?
*Which, as you may remember from Professor M’s review of “Beautiful Dreamer”, began as a symbol of fear
**Balki claims Larry is 1/64 Myposian
***The Man in the Tight Cousin
****Clark, K. B., & Clark, M. P. (1947). Racial identification and preference in Negro children. In E. E. Maccoby, T. M. Newcomb, & E. L. Hartley (Eds.), Readings in Social Psychology (3rd ed., pp. 602-611). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.