There are always bigger problems, I’ve been saying.
Perfect Strangers has been swinging wildly from very good episodes to miserable ones, sometimes almost weekly, throwing pistons and spark plugs, at war with itself.
What started out as a dual fish-out-of-water story became a fish-that-annoy-you story, and has now landed at what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-these-fish-we-should-call-the-department-of-natural-resources. Where before the Cousins didn’t know how to deal with the world, now the world doesn’t know how to deal with them. Don’t get me wrong, this describes the very good episodes.
Perfect Strangers is showing some of the same signs that other 90s sitcoms displayed in their final years, when they thought they’d be ending. On the one hand, these shows are freed up to tell whatever remaining story arcs they can generate. On the other hand, if they don’t have much big story left, it’s understandably hard to put smaller stories in between the high moments without them feeling increasingly worthless. So there’s a third route: fantasy.
Before I launch into talking about fantasy episodes, let me set the stage for you here: “Yes Sir, That’s My Abortion” features one of maybe three big problems we’ve got left this season. It’s one of the worst fantasy episodes I’ve ever seen, and it’s quite possibly the worst episode of Perfect Strangers.
Fantasy/dream episodes are all over the place in terms of quality, though I’m sure if you put them all together you’d feel empty and have lost all hope for humanity by the time you were done.
On the bad side, Roseanne was a serial offender. Ignoring for the moment that its final season was all a dream, it still boasts three goddam fantasy episodes. (Two, technically, but “Roseambo” had so little to do with the rest of the season it might as well have been.) None of them was necessary, none of them was interesting, and none of them was funny. Full House did the one about Michelle’s oversized feet. ALF… well, ALF did one in its last season, I don’t have to tell you it was shit.
On the good side, you’ve also got Roseanne; the one that sticks out for me is the Gilligan’s Island tribute in its seventh season. All of the main actors got to take part in playing Gilligan, Skipper, the Professor (and the rest); the overlaid roles commented on their regular characters; and the actors from Gilligan’s Island played Roseanne characters.
I could tell everyone put a lot of effort in and got a lot of fun out of the endeavor. Family Matters in its last couple of years had no reason to go the fantasy route when it already had a main character who could read minds, time travel, and clone himself; yet I’ll argue for including the “Stevil” episodes in a top-20 list. Having a couple of midgets running around in Urkel and Carl masks was a great example of a worn-out show miraculously finding a few more jokes at the bottom of the barrel.
And these are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. God help me there’s one in the final seasons of Step by Step, Home Improvement, and Cheers.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the idea of dream or fantasy episodes. If a fantasy episode takes on well-known characters from other media, the humor can come from an exaggerated impression, or through subversion of who becomes whom. Perfect Strangers has tried this twice so far–with The Honeymooners and Laurel and Hardy–and shot no higher than basic mimicry.
The ideal form, I think, would be for a fantasy episode to clarify something about the characters, or about their relationships with each other; the actors should have fun; and the jokes should all land. (I’m sure at least 30 different Community episodes achieved that.) Because, otherwise, what’s the point? If the fans love you enough to want you back past your prime, the last thing you’d want to do is punish them for it.
A fantasy episode allows a show to do almost anything it wants to do. Given, “This Thing What I Saw On TV” and “The Abyss Also Gazebos Into You” gave themselves natural restrictions, but this is an episode where the Cousins are babies. For all I know, Mark Linn-Baker and Bronson Pinchot might have enjoyed the hell out of making this one.
But for me, as a viewer nearly 30 years later, every choice this episode makes is the wrong one.
Yes, we do have to go over them.
(Suddenly, Casey felt anxious about his readers, and he prayed strongly for their safety.)
We open at the Knucklehead Nursery to find Larry Appleton working on a broken toaster.
This is an episode about babies, and the symbolism is clear. Was it the fault of the person who inserted their pastry (penis) into the toaster? Was it overdone because of some mechanical fault of the oven (vagina)? Or did the combination ruin the Pop Tart’s gestation?
Balki, master prop comic, instantly turns it over so we can all see that it wasn’t really burnt. Balki left a ruined pastry and a fork in the toaster for days without telling anyone else who might want to use it. What a caring fellow!
Balki brings Larry news that Jennifer has been knitting. Larry brushes it off, thinking she’s probably just making a sweater with the words “I don’t know, where do you want to eat?” on it, but it’s revealed that they’re tiny blue booties.
A stunned Larry thinks that Jennifer has been fucking a dwarf behind (well, under, anyway) his back.
I think of tropes as the meta-language of storytelling. I generally prefer media which subvert tropes, or comment on them, interact with them, or even create their own. Arrested Development is a prime example of the latter. And over the course of this blog, I’d like to think I’ve managed to develop¹ one or two of my own. I love The Venture Bros. (and many other Adult Swim shows) for taking well-known character types and making them face real-world consequences. I love Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series for having its characters sometimes explicitly fight against magic powers working to force them along set storytelling paths. That kind of trope-grappling produces comedy and meaning.
There’s often more fun to be found in getting things wrong than going the right way*, and that’s the entirety of Balki’s character. Balki was always struggling to fit into American life, and some of the articles in the last round of media coverage I looked at wondered if Bronson didn’t feel the same way about Season 7.
So: Balki tipping Larry off to the baby booties plays on the trope of the husband having a heart attack when he gets home to find his wife knitting. I would absolutely love it if Perfect Strangers decided to take the opportunity of an extra character in the house to introduce new, um, kinks into to as many tired married-couple tropes as it could.
Larry asks Balki if he has some stupid punchline about what he thinks the booties are for.
Larry explains to Balki that American women have been socialized so deeply into not saying anything that could enrage their violent, self-centered and self-serving husbands, that they must deliver financial bad news through proscribed feminine behaviors. Balki says that on Mypos mothers pre-chew their babies’ food. Do they not have breasts on Mypos? Or do they… yeah you know what nevermind.
Psychology sidebar: There’s a nice line here where Larry says he’ll do everything just like his own dad did, and goes from envisioning supporting his Appleson to telling him he’s not good enough in the span of two seconds. Another half-remembered thing from my college psychology courses is that, no matter how liberal a young couple is, they get a little more conservative when they marry, and even moreso when they have kids. This could be an “x and y are both caused by z” where z=age, but I think the mechanism is that people draw on the internalized models of their own parents. Larry is portrayed as a quivering wreck over it, but he’s at least aware of the potential for intergenerational trauma, which is farther than some people ever get.
You know, if you accused me of writing 1,000 words about other shows just to forestall this, you wouldn’t be wrong. It’s not that I can’t give you a play-by-play here. I technically could, but I don’t actually hate any of you. But it would be a pointless exercise, because nothing happens here.
The episode starts off its fantasy sequence of what Larry and Balki’s kids will be like with a minute’s worth of adult Larry and Balki talking, and then locking the babies unsupervised in an upstairs bedroom.
I wonder what their babies will be like? They’ll have dads. Well, question asked and answered!
What happened to Larry’s experience with babies in “Two Men and a Cradle”? This is worse than nothing happening; it’s a net negative amount of story, to the extent that it erased another episode from existence. If the whole “lesson” of the episode is that Larry will be a good parent, it’s failed already.
And it continues to fail, every 30 seconds for the rest of the episode, when Baby Balki and Baby Larry keen and jowl.
Yeah. Baby Balki and Baby Larry. No reason for them to not have different names, or any names at all. This review is the conveyor belt scene from I Love Lucy, and instead of Lucy wrapping chocolate, it’s me trying to write down every piece of shit this episode throws at me. It’s piling up fast.
As the Cousins talk to the teething monstrosities just off-screen, we see that the set designers have painted all of the wood in the house to look like it’s a painting from a storybook–
–except for the wood on the most important prop in the whole fucking episode.
I’m so sorry to make you look at this, I really am, but I need you to know how bad this is.
The Honeymooners episode allowed me the chance to make a comparison to the source material, but I’m not about to kill myself just to see if this episode really is Hell. “The Gazebo” at least was honest that it was doing Laurel and Hardy, unlike “Piano Movers”.
Can you believe they dipped into the Laurel and Hardy well a third fucking time?
I wouldn’t even try to argue that no one between 1930 and 1992 did a bit where the same actors played both fathers and their children. But I wouldn’t buy it if you tried to convince me “Yes Sir, She Did Drink Heavily Through the Pregnancy” wasn’t directly ripping off the 1930 film Brats.
Once the writers had bandaged their hands after signing a contract with Satan to make “Gazebo-Bo Bo-Bobo”, they had to sit down and go through the Laurel & Hardy oeuvre to see what could be transposed into 20 minutes, so I’m fairly sure they had Brats in mind when they wrote this.
In Brats, Laurel & Hardy play child versions of themselves, wearing children’s clothing, on sets with oversized props. They cry, they hit each other, they annoy their fathers, they won’t go to bed. In “The Gazeboners”, the goal was to mimic the style and mannerisms of Laurel and Hardy. Amazingly, Bronson Pinchot came much closer to this than Mark Linn-Baker, even if both of them–and the whole episode–fell far short. That kind of “failure” is baked into any such endeavor where someone imitates creators: create something new (like those creators constantly did), and it’s not faithful; stick with what they produced, and you risk the audience thinking about how much less it is.**
But with Brats, you get to see both Laurels and both Hardys on screen at the same time. Perfect Strangers doesn’t even try to meet the bare minimum of the original, despite having done matte overlays for Bronson in “Stop! Or My Mom Will Shit”. “The Gazebo” kept Jennifer out of the action by having her experience her reverie at a distance, but why would Larry ask himself what types of experiences he’d share with his offspring and then sit there and imagine something else entirely?
The cat toy’s name is Booki cat. These secondbest cousins in this secondcousin bed repeat this name 87 times, and it’s the only thing about children that this episode gets 100% correct.
Another thing you hear 87 times is the opening piano motif from Randy Newman’s “Short People”. I’ll admit to knowing more music than I know lyrics (blame media for playing mostly the hooks and choruses), and I only just recently deliberately listened to this song, but I at least previously caught that the singer wishes midgets would all drop dead. “Short People”, according to Newman, is sung from the perspective of a madman. Using “Short People” for a show about babies is about as discordant as playing “Me and a Gun” at an NRA convention.***
Ha! Oh man, I should stop and let you know that Baby Larry tells Baby Balki “stop acting like a baby”. You see, it’s funny because they are babies! I’m laughing because I could have been done with this blog months ago if I hadn’t done all those reportage posts!
Also, look at their asses, made giant by the diapers there to catch their tyrannous incontinence.
You know what else “The Gazebo” did right? It gave you a damn break every few minutes. God help me, I’m saying nice things about “The Gazebo”. To clarify: it’s the difference between a rose stem being pulled out of your penis and a rose stem being shoved into it.
“No Sir, That Didn’t Come Out of Me” just doesn’t let up. Both Cousins, in the reality of the show, are sitting there, presumably silent, imagining this. Perfect Strangers has made sure the audience is aware that Larry and Balki argue about everything, yet here they are, agreeing 100% that their children will stick their tongues in wall outlets if left alone for five minutes. The first scene gave us two whole arguments that could have played out across this episode: Larry wants to push his son to be an achiever, and Balki would allow his to roam free. Larry worries that he (he Larry) would be a terrible father, and Balki assures him he’d be fine. This episode could have been split in two, or even three, à la Season 5’s “Eyewitless Report”, with the babies acting differently in each segment. But what’s happening here?
Man, I don’t know, I’m not actually watching this, let me look.
Baby Balki keeps kicking Baby Larry in the face. Points for coming up with violence that no other episode ever offered, I guess.
I probably don’t have to tell you this, but: children are grubby little fuckers. Any toy they get their hands on will end up dirty within minutes. Maybe Daddy Larry beats Baby Larry lest his pristine toys lose their eventual resale value?
Baby Larry tries to shove a stuffed bunny down Baby Balki’s throat.
Baby Balki tries to shove the bunny down Baby Larry’s throat.
Baby Larry bites Baby Balki’s calf.
Baby Balki feeds Baby Larry a handful of button batteries.
They both stick their fingers into each others’ fontanelles and pull each other’s heads back.
They keep making a huge deal about how the babies are exactly 2 years old. Did the writers feel it wouldn’t be believable that they could talk otherwise? Or was it just to prove that these kids beat the odds on infant mortality rates among negligent parents?
You know how babies wear footie pajamas, called such because the pajamas have feet built into the design?
Haha nahhh that’s not a thing.
Psychology sidebar: no, uh-uh, let’s just get through this.
So, to recap the “story” here: the babies got out of their crib, and now they’re going to walk across the room.
Baby Larry’s plan is to escape out the window to get on the swingset. He talks like it’s the baby equivalent of drunk college girls.
The fuck? Are Larry and Balki sitting in the kitchen imagining that their children are being stalked in an SOV horror film?
The show makes damn sure you know the babies are trying to get out of a window on the top floor of this house.
When it comes to survival skills, they’re only barely inborn. Newborn babies have incredibly strong grips, exhibit Moro reflexes (which I believe are an attempt to grab onto their mothers when faced with danger), will move their mouths toward anything that feels like a nipple, and possibly mimic facial expressions. But these all disappear pretty rapidly and kids become total idiots. When my little brother was two I had to stop him from eating shit directly out of his diaper.
For a brief moment the episode gave me some hope, but Perfect Strangers doesn’t even realize it’s telling you that children can kill themselves if you don’t watch them.
So, anyway, the babies try to leave the room. They can’t. Thanks for tuning in! Don’t forget to spay and neuter your cousins!
It’s possible there’s a few of you who remain skeptical of my assessment of this episode as a whole. After all, I’m not really telling you what happens in it, or much of the dialogue. I could be, like Holmes accused Dr. Watson of, guilty of obscuring the details to puff up my own importance.
The broadest complaint I can make about this is that it’s simply not an episode of a sitcom. There are no stakes, there’s no character arc. There’s no situation, and if you think there’s comedy here, I know some neuropathologists who would love to study you.
Even “I Saw This on TV” had a situation. The Honeymooners was used as a morality play to convince Larry to change his behavior. The comedy didn’t come from the meta-situation, but still derived from the plot-within-the-plot.
“The Gazebo” didn’t have a normal sitcom situation, but it still (barely) wondered whether the Cousins could accomplish building a kit with instructions.
Not only is it not an episode of a sitcom, “Yes Sir, This” is not even an episode of Perfect Strangers. It’s explicitly not the Cousins. Nor were the other two, but the whole point was to explore pop culture comparisons others had made. Where last week we saw some rapid-fire physical comedy that had to have been practiced to perfection to pull off, this episode leaves empty spaces everywhere. The babies noisily thumbsucking feels like it takes up a third of the running time. Not only that, but they move slowly. That barely sounds worth mentioning, but it’s either because the writers (two writers are credited!) took barely any time on this one, or it’s the strangest directorial decision I’ve ever seen.
I guess you could say the whole thing kind of… crawls! I guess you could also do me the favor of smothering me in my sleep.
What can we do with this prop? We can climb on it.
What can we do with this prop? We can grope it.
What can we do with this prop? We can sit on it.
What impact will Larry and Balki’s parenting styles have on their children? The children will enjoy playing with toys.
At this point, it feels like something made for children. And for all that my little brother would watch the same Barney the Dinosaur videotape 20 times in a row, I’d still choose that over this. Shit, at this point 3 hours of one of those Finger Family videos would be preferable. At least you know what you’re signing up for.
Of all the times that Chester could choose to take over a pair of hands and strangle someone, why not now?
…god help me, y’all: not a one of those was the bigger problem I started out this review talking about. It shouldn’t surprise you what it is: Melanie and Rebeca aren’t here.
If the point of a fantasy episode is to help run out the clock on a season with a limited story arc, the least the writers can do is pretend that’s not the case. Nobody told them they had to write a fantasy episode. I’d expect them to go as wild as they possibly could, like in “Gorpwitness Report”.
It’s freedom from story. It’s freedom from character continuity. The most generous explanation you could come up with for a fantasy episode’s raison d’être is as a present to the actors. (Pausing to let you consider chipper-mother diaper euphemisms.) If that’s the case, why not give it to everyone?
The episode is dually short on both metastory and things for the babies to do or say. Perfect Strangers is constantly trying to find ways to honor the actresses’ 17-episode contracts without having to write stories for them. It should be a perfect fit.
Some episodes this season haven’t aimed for anything greater than the cousins flapping their hands around. You don’t need any other characters for that, so why not put the actresses in an episode where literally all you have to do is make them say figures of speech with the word “baby” in them?
On the other hand, if this type of episode is supposed to transpose character relationships onto baby scenarios, yeah, I don’t know what the women would be doing either.
Sometimes I’ve been willing to overlook their absence as an error of omission: if the writers were really writing backwards from the physical comedy setpieces, Jennifer and Mary Anne (and Gorpley and Lydia and and and) got as much time as there was to give.
But now that one’s a wife and the other is about to be, what the fuck? I dare you to name any other sitcom where a wife character was absent more than 25% of the time. The writers knew the whole previous season the increased role Jennifer and Mary Anne would have this year, and still pulled this shit. There’s plenty of room for them, but it’s clear they’re not welcome. I’ve said before that part of my interest in writing this blog is seeing what mores were instilled in me early on by television. I may not have seen much of this season originally, but the messages got through, either from here or elsewhere.
For Perfect Strangers, women only become important when you want one, or when they’re an obstacle, which is often the same thing. They have to be lied to or appeased. If they want something, toss them around, insult them, pretend you didn’t understand the question. If the topic of children comes up, you don’t need to have any sort of discussion with the woman. She’s only necessary once you’ve decided to have the kid and need her vagina.
Graduate school was the first time I ever lived on my own and had to cook for myself. Once, for dinner, I had an entire Red Baron pizza and a whole can of Minute Maid frozen concentrated apple juice. The next morning I experienced the longest, largest shit of my entire life; and this episode still beats it by an order of magnitude.
Back in Cousinworld, Jennifer walks in, makes a face, and squeezes the baby right onto the table, umbilical cord snapping taut at the last moment before it slides off the far edge.
Larry faints, and Balki says Larry will be alright when the baby arrives.
Jennifer: What baby? I was trying to tell Larry I’d finally agreed to start foot binding!
*rips an entire baby in half*
Jennifer asks if Larry is disappointed and he says it’s hard to tell, disappointment is all he’s ever known, kind of a background hum until someone points it out.
Larry goes back to his book, and Jennifer teases that he’s forgetting a crucial part of becoming a good sitcom father.
Larry ponders for a moment, and finally realizes:
Larry: Oh! Oh! Yes, I’ll talk to ABC about auditioning with some child actors first thing in the morning!
Join me next week for “Wayne Man”!
Catchphrase count: Balki (1); Larry (2)
Boner count: Balki (0); Larry (1)
Unused Larryoke Countdown #15: “Tears in Toyland” – Eric Clapton
1. The author, in his efforts to possess an appropriate amount of ego, though with the admission that it, that is an appropriate amount of ego, is variable in the sense that different situations necessitate different levels or types of it, has chosen the word “develop” rather than “create”. The author acknowledges a certain level–or, to be more exact, certain types–of inborn knowledge, such as swallowing, facial emotional display, and other basic motor functions; recognition of other faces; and perhaps even Universal Grammar; but also that all other information held in the author’s mind was, initially, a message sent by some other source. Though the author acknowledges that tropes can be considered a form of knowledge (the reader might argue wisdom and the author would not grudge the reader this argument), and that knowledge can be created out of unique agglomerations of informations, he is unwilling to be so bold as to claim that the tropes utilizedᵃ are of his own individual creation and not received from some forgotten source.
a. Again, the author’s ego shows itself: perhaps “employed” is more correct here.
*There’s a limit. I read an advertisey/excerpty-type article for Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon’s book about writing Hollywood movies years back, and they offered hard-won knowledge that if you try to upend every single storytelling trope, you’re not only left with something unwatchable, you’re left with a script no studio will buy because it looks like nothing else that’s ever made them money.
**I think there was some solid gag-writing and dialogue in the 2012 Three Stooges film, but Chris Diamantopolous didn’t have the frustration that Moses Horwitz put into Moe Howard.
***Not as bad, but when I was at the 2010 American Library Association convention in DC, they did play “Centerfold” by the J. Geils Band on the sound system while we were waiting for Amy Sedaris to talk.