Season 7, Episode 9: Wild Turkey

It’s been a rough couple of months, hasn’t it? Perfect Strangers almost seems as though it was determined to stress-test just how many viewers would stick around after an episode of first-season Step by Step. Can’t think of a way to end an episode? Have the cousins wave their hands around. Can’t think of a single fucking way to work a man’s wife into a plot? Just hand Bronson a telephone and let him talk for three minutes.

It’s amazing that I was able to wring any enjoyment out of “Mommie Direst parts 1-80”, and they were merely islands of reprieve amidst the flood of squandered opportunities.

There are always bigger problems, but luckily this episode doesn’t suffer from (many of) them. Whether it’s simple statistics–you try coming up with 24 ways to ruin a show and see if you don’t also stumble onto ways to improve it–or just that somebody finally woke Tom Devanney up, “Wild Turkey” isn’t half bad. In fact, it’s half good.

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I’m stoked, though, you wanna know why?

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IT’S DEAD BIRD TIME Y’ALL

Jennifer gets a bird! Mary Anne (Sagittarius) gets a bird!  If you were wondering what kind of increased role these women would get this season, there it is, they got to handle the props used for Mama’s breasts last week.

This has to be deliberate, right? Some sort of knowing wink from the writers that this has happened in every single full season of the show? We had the cousins throwing a burnt duck around in season 2, full turkeys from the frozen section of the Shop’n’Spend in season 3, the “Flying Chickens” game in season 4, a Yeorgi death scare in season 5, and a (heh) misfire with season 6’s obligatory “don’t eat the cute animals” episode. I’m even willing to believe (and, yes, hope) that it was a big enough in-joke for the writers that they built an episode around the cousins playing with poultry, because that view helps excuse part of the plot. But we’ll get to that.

(By the way, the cameraman this episode is having some real trouble holding both the camera and his bottle of Everclear at the same time, because every time the camera pans, it shakes around. Luckily it’s not causing me near the same level of motion sickness as Mama did.)

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These people have been living together for months now and they can’t plan household activities for shit. Oh no! They have too much food! Whatever shall they do? Am I supposed to believe these fuckers have four cars out in front of the house? On the other hand, Jennifer’s the only person who thought to put the turkey at the bottom of a grocery bag, so at least someone in the props department is coming in to work sober this week.

Then they all start fighting over who’s going to cook the Thanksgiving dinner. Jennifer says she thought that since she’s the wife–and since she’s caught up on all the women’s magazines for the month–she’d cook. Balki says he’s made Thanksgiving dinner every year. Mary Anne says she bought a turkey because she thought the Cousins might want to try out juggling before the show’s cancelled.

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Mary Anne tells Balki that she planned on marinating her turkey in brandy to prove what a good wife she would be, and for the 50th time this season already Balki acts like he doesn’t know what she’s talking about; here specifically that she means someone else. Is he joking? It’s not funny. Is he trying to cleverly get across to her that if she won’t be direct, he won’t respond? He’s not worth marrying. I would have said that no one can be that stupid, but the show is determined that I believe it of Balki. We all know that this season is going to end with them getting married, and I’ll grant that there needs to be some obstacle to put it off for that long. But does that obstacle have to be that Balki doesn’t even know that he’s her boyfriend? Why is the show going out of its way every week to make their eventual marriage less and less believable, much less desirable?

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Anyway there’s a holiday on Mypos called Mud Day because foreigners are both poor and dirty.

Larry runs in with a t-shirt cannon and starts firing frozen cornish hens at the other actors and into the audience.

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Nah, j/k, Larry runs in, his kooky action at a distance pushing the others to the far side of the room, and gets them to guess what he did. When he tells them he’s writing a “turkey story” for the newspaper’s special “Thanksgiving edition”*, Balki tries to boost his spirits about his bad writing. It’s been probably forty or fifty episodes since I’ve paid any attention to how Balki misunderstands idioms, but isn’t it supposed to be the case that he thinks idioms refer to real things? How has he come all the way out at the other end? It’s almost as though he jumps at every possible opportunity to be wrong, which is an original thought that I had all on my own at 1:39 PM this past Sunday.

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While Larry was out at some farm getting material for his story, Farmer McGregor offered him a good deal on his remaining turkeys, since he was retiring. Larry, unable to recognize that turkey farmers don’t retire during the week of Thanksgiving and that the guy was bribing his way into free advertisement from a major newspaper, bought all 58 of the genetic misfires that other customers had rejected and which would lose all market value in the next 36 hours.

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Jennifer makes the same face most women do when I tell them about how I spent my afternoon talking fowl with old men, and asks how the hell they’re going to keep the turkeys penned in since every single establishing shot shows no fences between their front and back yards, whether he’s gotten any of the proper licensing for housing or selling livestock, whether he’s bought any food or water for them at all, how much did that food cost, whether he bought any wood shavings for litter, and whether he’s bought any insurance against his customers suing him when one of the turkeys pecks their daughter’s eye out.

Nah, j/k, she’s just there to set him up for his catchphrase.

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After this point, I wouldn’t blame Jennifer if she just slapped the man before he got past “I have”.

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Larry’s plan is to roll up into the Shop’n’Save’n’Ted’n’Alice and start shouting at customers in hopes that they’ll follow him as he’s dragged out by a security guard. “Whack ‘em and sack ‘em”**, this discount butterball will proclaim, offering housewives who waited until the last minute the rare opportunity to put in even more work on a single meal. Larry easily gets Balki on board by offering to let him bite the heads off.

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Jennifer is disgusted and tells Larry they’ll never achieve upward mobility if the neighbors hear him rudely contracting pronouns like that. Then Balki starts talking about the best way to stick your penis in an eggplant for Mud Day.

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The next day, Mary Anne is rocking the gaudy early-40s Southern Aunt shirt this Thanksgiving, and I immediately wonder if there’s some unspoken sitcom rule that your clothes can’t look anything but perfect while cooking unless that’s the salient joke. We all know they just one minute ago walked into this room, but this whole layout makes them look prissy. Who transfers marshmallows to a bowl before then putting them on sweet potatoes? Whatever the fuck Jennifer’s making appears to consist of celery, eggs, raisins, mushrooms, and–per Jennifer’s reading of Balki’s recipe–gopher penis.

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Mary Anne–who is so dumb she didn’t realize her high school boyfriend’s Road Runner had an 8-track jammed permanently in the tape deck and thinks of the Eagles as “Plymouth Rock”–lets the turkeys in. Actually, we get a halfway-decent “Mary Anne is dumb” joke that’s entirely because of the demands of having live animals on set. Turkeys are only going to walk at a certain speed without provocation, meaning she has to misunderstand instruction (close the door) and keep the cousins out of the house long enough for the turkeys to get to the other side of the kitchen. I say keep these turkeys around if they’re going to write better material for Mary Anne than the writers can.

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The Cousins chase ‘em and brace ‘em, and thanks to these high-definition Hulu rips we can see just how much they (they turkeys) shit on the floor.

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On their way back out, Larry tells Balki to stop putting Pilgrim hats on them; Balki responds by saying a list of other things Pilgrims were known to wear.

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Jennifer starts talking about how her wedding ring–which she evidently placed micrometers away from the edge of the counter–is now missing. Who cares if she was being irresponsible with it, here’s the fucking thing: Jennifer is wearing a wedding ring. Or, I should say, Melanie Wilson is wearing her wedding ring. It’s not the diamond ring that’s at this very moment slicing up a turkey’s throat, it’s just a gold band. And I probably wouldn’t have noticed this with the VHS copies that I was previously using, so forgive the extra 500 words about this, but hey, you got extra jokes about turkey shit.

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I’ve never been married and, come next May, when I can truthfully say “I have reviewed every episode of Perfect Strangers”, my chances of ever being so will reach their lowest point, but I get that some married people are proud of it, and want to show it off. Maybe she made a promise to Closetmaker Joe that she’d never take it off. Or maybe she really was a diva. But couldn’t she take off her shiny, glinting wedding ring for one fucking scene, a scene that’s about how she’s not wearing her wedding ring? They’re cooking food, put a damn oven mitt on her hand!

But maybe I shouldn’t expect anyone to think that much about Jennifer’s appearance because nobody else gives a shit that she’s even there. Seasons 6 and 7 set themselves the task of tying up the stories of both heteroromantic relationships, but half of the season 6 episodes that could generously be said to “feature” her aren’t even about her.

We’re one-third of the way through this new season and the show has already decided it doesn’t have to do anything different now that she lives with the Cousins. In “The Wedding” we learn, what, that her parents own a corn cannery? And in “This New House” we learn that she ordered delivery from Pioli’s Pizza once. This is the second fucking story about Jennifer’s ring that refuses to give her a role. The writers could have Jennifer do literally anything other than say “I’m mad at you, Larry” and it would be the most interesting thing that has ever happened to her character.

This was the part of the plot I was saying that the running “dead birds” joke excused. I take it back. Fuck this show.

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Jennifer threatens to whack Larry’s sack if a turkey ate her ring.

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Later (like probably fucking 30 minutes later but we have to have that establishing shot) we find that the cousins have systematically brought each turkey, individually, into the kitchen where raw food is still laying out so Larry can inspect ‘em and dissect ‘em with a wand metal detector that Jennifer probably stole from work. Why is this scene in the kitchen? The writers all but admit it’s not visually clear what’s going on by having a toolbox full of silverware at the ready.

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I’m not even going to bother with a “gosh kids it was 1991 and you couldn’t take electronics outside hurr durr” joke because god dammit I bet the original script had them walking through a backyard full of turkeys with Larry holding a clipboard and Balki sweeping a full-sized metal detector over the turkeys.

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The wand beeps passing over Balki’s head; Larry leans in, parts Balki’s hair, and we get a tight shot on the words Caffeine Free! diet Coke.

Everything up to this point has been total dreck. Why should I care about Jennifer’s ring again if she’s going to be even less present this time around? I can think of ways to work her into the rest of the plot, and I’m sure you can too. Also, an animal ate something, who cares? I’ve no reason to believe Jennifer will be mad longer than 20 minutes if Larry just buys her a new one. There are absolutely no stakes here for long-time viewers, which has to be all that was left in 1991.

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But it improves as soon as Balki admits to having sold one of the turkeys. The Cousins’ exchange here is one of the better ones. Bronson gets the rare opportunity to play an embarrassed Balki, who tries first to pretend that he didn’t hear what Larry said, and then to hide what he did, and finally to hastily throw together some form of excuse along the lines of doing the job Larry signed him up for in the first place.

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And Mark finally gets some better “Larry is furious” material to work with, switching from violent to Balki’s best friend and back. It’s exactly the kind of thing that I would have told you most episodes of Perfect Strangers would include before I started reviewing it.

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It’s a brief moment because Bronson’s contract stipulates that he gets a full two minutes of each episode to himself; this week Balki walks over to the door and does a turkey mating call that’s supposed to call the bird back. Balki muses that he might even fuck the wayward turkey when it comes back just so it won’t be let down.

The scene ends with the 57 other turkeys rubbing their cloacae on the door.

I’m sure most people have their own unique traditions for Thanksgiving. For a few years, my family’s was to go to the local cafeteria-style restaurant instead of cooking. WZGC, the Atlanta classic rock radio station that was “Z-93” for most of my life, would play “Alice’s Restaurant” every Thanksgiving, a tradition I’ve mostly kept up as an adult.

It’s tradition on Perfect Strangers to treat characters like the fresh oranges and grapes you buy every week, and finally remember them long enough to move them from the fridge to the garbage. So instead of Balki having sold the turkey to their next-door neighbors the Finleys, we get to meet the Johnsons instead. They must live in one of these rowhouses!

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Haha nope!

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Larry and Balki debate whether to tell the Johnsons the truth while the turkey quickly cools and flies lay eggs inside it. Larry’s plan is to faze ‘em and haze ‘em by telling them their turkey is poison. But Balki says it’s too late now (it’s too late now) because the Johnsons are already eating. Normally I’d complain about how they couldn’t just come up with a plan in the car, but here it works better to see Larry struggling to come up with one and throwing the dead turkey into the Johnson’s bushes, so the Johnson’s dog will later choke on its bones. Larry pretends to be cheery, proclaims himself to be a “full-service turkey organization”, and pushes past Mrs. Johnson into the house.

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This takes me back, how about you? Remember how old people used to dress this way?

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We’re introduced to Mr. Howard Johnson (heehee) and quickly learn that his family are all named after their counterparts on Happy Days–Marion, Richie, and Joanie. Grandpa Fonzie hits Balki in the stomach and Balki sings “Splish Splash”.

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(Speaking of old people, the props department knocks it out of the park by putting Royal Doulton character mugs and Toby jugs in the background. It’s exactly the type of thing someone who dresses like Marion Johnson would own.)

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Larry and Balki introduce themselves right after Howard indicates he already knows “the foreign boy from down the street”, you know, from when he bought the damn turkey from him. Larry begs the Johnsons to let him say grace over their meal.

Larry, the true American, entreats ‘em and cheats ‘em, utilizing the specter of a loving God to get the typical nuclear family to close its eyes while he runs a scam on them. He entered their home under the guise of serving them, and once he was able to establish that they would obey a single command (“pray”), decided they didn’t deserve the whiteheaped corn on their saucestained plates.

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But honest prayer is not enough for those in power, no, when Howard ends his thanks, Larry must mute ‘em and loot ‘em: their prayers were not sufficient, and that the Christian God, the God of Moses, is a vengeful God, and could tell they were only doing it for Larry’s sake, not His. Suddenly it is Larry, and Larry alone, who is able to intercede on their behalf. Any resistance to this is shouted down (blame ‘em and shame ‘em) with a filibuster of further guilt.

Larry preys while he forces Balki’s complicity by having him dig through the food.

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There are a few minor problems here, but this is my favorite sequence of the whole season so far. One thing is that I got to learn something. Once a turkey swallowed the ring, I suddenly needed to know everything I could about turkey digestion.  Larry tells Balki that the ring is going to be in the gizzard, and that is actually where rocks end up, which help the birds grind up their food. Balki should have known this instead of digging through the stuffing, and I don’t really think people put the cooked organs back inside the turkey, but if we couldn’t have the cousins trying to walk through a herd of turkeys, we can at least have Larry get his hand stuck in one.

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And I can’t imagine any better running joke to precede Larry Appleton’s imminent fatherhood than him shouting at children.

But here’s the best part of this whole scene: the Johnsons are angry at, confused by, and ultimately scared to death of Larry and Balki. (Marion especially, she pulls up her shoulders every time Larry gets close to her.)

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They see his mood swings, they hear him pause his prayer to smack Balki around, and they’re hoping that if they just keep their eyes closed the Cousins will get this out of their system and leave. This is something that Tom Devanney seems to have understood that I’m not sure the other Perfect Strangers writers did: the Cousins are completely obvious to everyone around them, and it’s funnier to acknowledge it. I’d say roughly three-fourths of Perfect Strangers episodes involve Larry taking Balki three feet away to “whisper”, Larry vacillating between violence and tenderness, or Balki between idiocy and cogency. The only person that should fall for Larry’s facade is Balki; the only person that should be surprised when Balki fucks up is Larry. And I’m going to hate myself in the morning for admitting to this, but if the show feels that it has to commit to Larry and Balki acting out this pattern in every last corner of their lives, then it works better tonot have them do it in front of their wife and girlfriend, lest they become just as unaware.

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Devanney also wrote season 6’s “Hocus Pocus”, where the Larry’s obliviousness to his own leaky channels in dealing with Balki turned an impromptu magic act into inadvertent parody. It’s the most self-subversive episode we’ve gotten since “Eyewitless Report”, and possibly the last one we’ll ever get. If outright zaniness is what Perfect Strangers wants to be, having the cousins be the source of their own problems is the better route than, say, a plant that gives you facial hair.

And what’s more is that Mark Linn-Baker ups his game for it. He sees in the script that his and Balki’s antics are meant to make the Johnsons fear they’ve let madmen into their house, and he pushes Larry’s manic behavior over the top. Even in the opening scene, he’s grinning like an idiot over his plan every time he’s not talking.

If ever there had been a time for Balki to start playing with or eating the food, it’s here, but between lines Bronson is obviously wondering why they’re not letting him make turkey calls. Even a glass-eyed, drooling Balki adds to the overall effect it’s supposed to have on the family, but at the very least they let him tickle Grandpa when he starts choking.

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Cousin Larry tries the Heimlich maneuver on Grandpa, breaking the man’s ribs. Funny Games got nothing on this!

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Before Larry can stick his arm down Grandpa’s throat, Howard Johnson stands up and says that he’s been praying this whole time that they’d leave on their own and is now convinced there is no God.

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Back at the Birdhouse, Larry waves goodbye to the 57 turkeys, who leave in a 1966 International Harvester Loadstar bus singing “Movin’ Right Along”, and then sits down to Thanksgiving dinner with his family.

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Jennifer is so thankful that she found her ring in her jewelry box that she’s taken back her earlier threat to not have sex with Larry until he’s built up six months’ income in savings.

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Mary Anne is thankful she gets a line in this scene.

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Larry doesn’t know what to say thanks for, since the daily arguing with Balki over minutiae, the crushing debt, his boss’s open disdain for his work, and the constant struggle to keep his wife content have all made this the happiest year of his life.

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Balki thankful be American have friend America.

The final joke is that, instead of any one of the three frozen turkeys they bought, they have TV dinners under the cloche, I suppose so they could pretend to make a funny reveal to themselves. Why in the gobbling fuck didn’t they cook the sweet potatoes?

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The four of them sure do have food when they get together!

Join me next week for “Dimitri’s World”!

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

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

Unused Larryoke Countdown #22: “Turkey” – Classics IV

*Thanksgiving is the next day, so what the hell kind of operation is RT (Roast Turkey) Wainwright running? Geez, I bet if they had their own in-house cartoonist, they wouldn’t even require him to have a couple of months’ worth of strips ready to go.

**Given that live turkeys have actual shit inside them, truth-in-advertising laws would probably dictate that Larry’s slogan be “Whack ‘em, sack ‘em, and unpack ‘em”.

4 thoughts on “Season 7, Episode 9: Wild Turkey

  1. Hey, we have the “Alice’s Restaurant” tradition too. I married into it though; I don’t think I’d ever heard of the song before my wife informed me it was the most important part of Thanksgiving.

    It would be interesting to rank the Perfect Strangers’ writers. Tom Devanney seems pretty inconsistent, but better in the more recent episodes. We’ll see how Stress Test holds up, which I remember enjoying.

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  2. It’s been a rough couple of months, hasn’t it? Perfect Strangers almost seems as though it was determined to stress-test just how many viewers would stick around after an episode of first-season Step by Step.

    It’s sort of like how email scammers deliberately use poor grammar so that anyone who doesn’t catch on immediately can be assumed stupid enough to fall for the scam.

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