Hi, y’all! From the title, it sounds like this episode is the one where they all stage an intervention about Larry’s bowel troubles!
We open at the House of Keys, where Larry has returned from picking up Jennifer and Mary Anne (Sagittarius) from the airport. He found them in the white zone, UNLOADING haha that’s a poop joke y’all.
Balki hugs and kisses Mary Anne, which, so I’ve heard, is that thing that boyfriends and girlfriends do to each other.
Larry tries to hint that he wants to have sex (with Jennifer), and Jennifer evidently doesn’t remember the code phrase they agreed on to refer to the act: “taking a nap”. Isn’t it hilarious how Larry’s wife refuses to engage in
Psychology sidebar: idiomatic expression? I thought I had gotten the psychology stuff out of my system last week, but here we are again because Jennifer refuses to be a human being. Couples’ idioms are memes for two. Hopper et al.* identified eight types: partner nicknames; affection expression; labels for other people; confrontations; requests/routines; sexual references; sexual invitations; and teasing insults. And Bruess & Pearson** found that use of idioms correlated with marriage satisfaction. Couples’ idioms create an “us” that is only understood by the two people in the relationship, and makes their understanding of each other separate from that of the outside world–or perhaps I should say makes sure others don’t understand. Larry is inviting Jennifer to set a boundary¹ with him, and to be playful with him, and she rejects both, having spent the past two weeks reconnecting with various South Asian heads of state she used to bang.
That’s right, you heard right, Larry hasn’t gotten any in two weeks, and I guess he wrapped a twist-tie around his balls because he claims they’ll explode if Jennifer doesn’t quit yapping about needing food to continue living, and sit on his appledick right that instant.
By the way, that slab of cream cheese or whatever covered in basil is supposed to be yak loaf, which Mary Anne claims she loves. You can tell by the look on her eyes that she wants him to (heh) lay a slice of that yak loaf on her placemat.
Mary Anne’s declaration of love prompts Balki to ignore her. The show did just establish last week that Balki’s mind wanders, and he apologizes for it doing so here. He makes up for it by engaging in some idiomatic expression himself, calling Mary Anne his “little gravy boat”.
It wouldn’t be a snarky review blog if I didn’t trash the jokes: Balki recites a list of all the cities that Mary Anne flew to during the last few days. Stewardesses go to a lot of places, and mentioning that sends the audience into paroxysms of laughter.
Mary Anne bought Balki a Polynesian marriage god while in Tahiti. And before you ask, no, she’s not so dumb she thinks that Title 1 §7 of the United States Code is also a marriage statuette, she knows what the idol is. Balki, holding the figure, feeling its heft, touching its unyielding surface, smelling its dry earthen smell, sticks it right in his mouth because he thinks it’s a gummy bear. Okay, so saying 11 words in a row is impressive, I’ll grant the audience that.
But when Mary Anne tells him that the gift of the halfling love god guarantees means the giver and receiver will be married by the next full moon. Balki runs out into the backyard and presents it to the one remaining turkey.
Nah, j/k, he’s a complete ass to Mary Anne and says he’ll give it to some other woman who’s not her! He keeps smiling while she buries her head in her hands and weeps. Fuck you, Balki!
At one point, I thought I might do a one-off post about the nature of the wacky other/alien character, but this seems like the best place for it. I’ll admit that the discussion is limited by the sitcoms I’ve watched in full. Before I started this blog, I watched straight through Full House; and since I’ve started, I’ve watched Mork & Mindy, Taxi, Family Matters, and I’m most of the way through Married… With Children, all in some misguided effort to gain insight into this show’s place in the sitcom pantheon. Hell, I’ll even throw ALF in there too; if we’re going to walk around in the sewer we might as well do it with open wounds.
Let me go ahead and disappoint you before I get too deep into this to say: the handling of each of these neighbor or foreigner character arcs is as much of a balancing act as it is for any sitcom character of those eras. No character can change too much without upsetting the entire situation of the show. I’d say that the most successful long-term balancing acts are the characters of Kimmy Gibbler*** and Marcy D’arcy (nee Rhoades). Each served as a counterpoint to the main characters. The Tanners had “normal” worries like finding a good partner, finding fulfilling work, working out issues with family members in a caring way; meanwhile, one backyard over, Kimmy’s playing tuba, keeping ostriches, getting her brother Garth to help her sneak into an exclusive hotel, and fantasizing about men squatting in Jell-O. She’d get the focus maybe once per season. Marcy D’Arcy got B-plots on a much more regular basis, but her central purpose (for the first six seasons) never changed: to show that the Bundys were not poor because they were terrible people (or vice versa), rather, money and education gave you more opportunities to carry out your basest desires. Their sitcoms knew how much, and how often, to bring them in for thesis and story purposes, and didn’t even try to change them.
More on balances in a bit, let’s check in on Larry and Jennifer.
Are you surprised that they’re standing stock-stiff in their own bedroom, their crotches a staid six inches apart? I haven’t kept my boner this far away from a woman I was kissing since I was a Christian in high school. Not that I think anything but a sentient doily could get aroused in that bedroom, but still, come on.
I’ve heard it said that women arrive at sexual enjoyment via the pathway of their emotions, and that men reach their emotions via the pathway of sex. Neither of those things applies here because the plot demands they talk about Mary Anne. Jennifer is concerned that Balki–whom you might recall was a goddam marriage counselor on Mypos–does not comprehend Mary Anne’s desire to wed. Larry responds that they really need to get fucking if they’re going to have kids next season, but Jennifer presses the point.
Mary Anne, being one of those fickle, fragile women, has been getting emotional: every time she sees a woman with a wedding ring, she starts scratching at their eyes and biting their necks.
It would be nice if Larry’s statement that Balki and Mary Anne could work it out weren’t counterbalanced by Balki openly insulting her all season. It would also be sensible if Larry had left Balki’s side more than two or three times in the past six years, so he’s been there for almost every single instance of it. The whole rest of the episode is Larry trying to resolve the issue so that Jennifer will touch his balls–why now, after all these years, does Larry trust his cousin when the scene calls for him to try to internally battle with whether to hornily shrug off the obvious problem?
Larry tries to bed his wife one more time, but Jennifer says there’s no way any two characters who aren’t Balki and Larry can resolve a story on their own, and it’s up to Larry. Larry promises he’ll go downstairs and square ‘em and pair ‘em in order to sate ‘er and mate ‘er.
Turns out Jennifer brought back enough souvenir Polynesian Idiot Balls for everybody to hold, because she tells Larry to convey to Balki Mary Anne’s wishes without telling him outright. Jennifer, you know damn well that Balki will misunderstand any English word that has more than one definition in the dictionary!
Something I’m a firm believer in is that everyone–no matter their educational background or religious beliefs or their political alignment–thinks in a perfectly logical manner. I like to think of any bit of logic as a machine, and we feed information into it to get conclusions; and unfortunately we’re all subject to bad machines and bad information, and sometimes we don’t think through whether our machines might not work with each other. So there’s at least some logic at play here when Jennifer tries to take care of Mary Anne’s feelings by saying that Balki’s love will be more meaningful if he (appears to) reach the conclusion on his own.
I also believe that stating what you want is a good protection against butthurt. I’m not going to put down Mary Anne for not saying what she wants, or asking Balki how he would feel about marrying her–there’s so much gender socialization at play here that I had to pause this and go pass out toy guns to little girls at the orphanage just to offset it. But we’re at the level now of what Jennifer wants, and her solution to the problem is… hinting, which is exactly what Mary Anne has been doing for months now. And of fucking course, because it’s only the third time Jennifer has ever wanted something more substantial than nail polish (so she can look good eating pizza), they hand the plot over to Larry. Perfect Strangers is going for the hat trick on poor use of its female characters this week.
Cousin Larry tells Balki that a “certain woman” is “interested in [him] in a romantic way”. Balki expresses excitement at impending penile delight**** and asks if it’s that woman with a shawl who used to come by.
Jennifer’s restrictions plays into Larry’s desire to rush back upstairs before he loses his springform and gives me a good laugh at his clipped dialogue:
Larry: Realize it. Take care of it.
Balki wonders aloud who it could possibly be. Larry runs back in and Balki shields his head. I’m laughing, but seriously, folks, recognize the signs of abuse.
And Larry spake parables unto him: but Balki understood not what things they were which he spake unto him. Larry can’t come up with any distinguishing characteristics for Mary Anne other than “blonde” and “lives here”. So, great, we spent a whole minute ruling out Lydia. The show’s laziness in writing in two of the exact same character finally paid off, because now Balki thinks Jennifer wants his hot skunk nuts or whatever it was he cooked, you know what joke I’m trying to make.
Larry runs away and Balki talks to Dimitri because they don’t have a dog or a baby like on Full House.
On his way up, Larry meets Jennifer coming down, racing towards high jinks below stairs. He picks her up to drag her back to the bedroom, but she’s says she going to go fold the laundry. Excuse me, what? How the fuck do you know there’s unfolded laundry? You’ve been gone for two weeks, you came directly upstairs, plus isn’t being hungry enough of an excuse to go downstairs? Was there supposed to be a joke here about how men won’t touch laundry? Who wouldn’t change out of their work uniform before doing chores? Why did she sit up in her room for two minutes? Shouldn’t someone check that Mary Anne isn’t hanging herself?
Anyway, Larry remembers that nothing gets Jennifer wetter than reading the fire hazard warning on the inside of the dryer lid, and lets her go.
How about we go (how’s this for smooth transition) look at another foreign sitcom character? Latka Gravas from Taxi has some interesting comparison points with Balki: the nonsense language, the fictional/nonexistent country of origin, learning American customs over time, marrying a shorter blonde. To watch through years of Perfect Strangers and then to watch Taxi is eye-opening. Latka actually develops as a real immigrant would over the course of four seasons: he learns English, his mother doesn’t wait 6 years to visit him, he learns how to balance his customs with the demands of living in America. The arc where he marries a woman from his home country (Carol Kane, you should watch it, it’s good) lasts episodes, not 10 minutes of Kiki wondering whether more clothing would help her drown faster when she jumps off a boat. In Taxi’s later seasons, Latka developed dissociative identity disorder, reportedly because Andy Kaufman was bored with the character. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
It’s not particularly deep of me to say that Taxi did Balki first, and better, in the character of Latka Gravas. Nor is it surprising that Taxi gave episodes over to Latka and Simka doing things together, while Perfect Strangers couldn’t even manage to let Balki and Mary Anne go on a hike alone. The immediate plot–or at least, Perfect Strangers’s aspirations in regards thereto–demands Mary Anne be off-screen, but we’re never going to get an episode where the two of them engage in problem-solving or managing their relationship. I doubt I’m spoiling it too much when I tell you that Season 7’s continued dearth of any storylines where Balki and Mary Anne engage in any shared activity makes last’s season’s wedding test episode the height of heterosexual intimacy on this show.
Anyway, what the fuck, who cares, here’s Jennifer causing more confusion because she thinks the man who carries a doll around with him understands mature relationships. This is admittedly a nitpick in the midst of everything else, but Jennifer telling him she’s going to “fold laundry” could have been used–along with couples’ idioms like “take a nap”–to layer the types of confusion Balki has to deal with.
It’s more vague, stilted dialogue (“I need you” instead of “I need your help with this”) that doesn’t include a single mention of Mary Anne, and, okay, come the fuck on. Balki misunderstands every nearly-clear statement of intent from Mary Anne, but somehow grasps instantly what he thinks Larry and Jennifer are saying. Jennifer begs him “make his move” and we learn that Balki can’t get it up unless there’s at least a layer of fluffy wool involved.
Also, Balki saying that they have to stay “two ships that go bump in the night” is either the worst line the writers could have come up with or the best. But then he segues right into a Popeye the Sailor impression.
Watch out, Dave Coulier, next thing you know Balki’ll be bonding with women over watching cartoons! Jennifer asks what Balki’s talking about, which works on at least 100 levels by now, and both of them get close to breaking and laughing. It’s fairly obvious Bronson is just giving himself permission to improvise and do as many voices as he wants, because when Melanie starts trying to come up with a line to get the scene moving again, he cuts her off.
You can almost hear the crunch as Balki shifts emotional gears, telling the real story of why he left Mypos. It turns out Jennifer wasn’t the first woman who wanted Balki to Bartakeitout. I’ll save you having to wade through me localizing a bunch of King James verses and just tell you that Perfect Strangers steals and bastardizes the story of Potiphar’s wife trying to seduce Joseph’s amazing technicolor dreamcock.
So why does Balki not understand Mary Anne’s hints? Because Balki got kicked off the island when he rejected the advances of a vengeful rich woman.
Why doesn’t Balki want Larry to drink alcohol? A single beer and seeing a breast will ruin your life, what kind pig would want that?
Why does Balki have trouble turning in a comic strip on time if he can’t look at an object that bears no resemblance to the cartoon? I’ll have you know that sheep died, how dare you.
Is everyone on Mypos just like Balki? Man, fuck you, I’ll make him sell hot dogs just because you had the gall to ask.
What’s his mom like? BALKI NICE TWIST AND SHOUT BABASTICKY MARY ANNE VERY NICE
Perfect Strangers would just really like if it you’d stop asking questions about Balki at this point.
Balki and Jennifer talk over each other and Balki wins, sending her back upstairs. I guess that’s a more honest way of keeping her out of the plot.
Larry is upstairs in his pajamas and robe, getting the bed fastidiously ready for them to get under the covers and exchange a minimum of fluids.
Jennifer insults him and he gets aroused for “strict schoolmarm and naughty student”.
Laurie thinks back to how she didn’t talk through the entirety of third grade and shivers as her lubricant trickles out, anticipating Gene’s punishment, the crepitant crack of ruler on knuckles.
Laurie: Ask me who the publisher was.
I was going to ask why there’s an office inbox in their bedroom–and a portrait of Tess and her mom–but it’s obvious now they’re all props for various humiliation roleplay. I’m less grossed out than disappointed, since the title of the episode promised shitting.
Jennifer says that Balki thinks she wants to marry him. That’s not idiomatic, that’s just bad writing; the show can say anything but the word “sex”.
Larry says that he should have killed Balki some time when they were in a rowboat that we never saw, but assures Jennifer that Mary Anne will be fine because he knows how women think.
Oops! Larry will never, ever screw that again!
Mary Anne bursts in the room (can no one walk or knock?) and demands to know if she’s going to be in any more scenes. Nah, j/k, she tells them she can’t take it anymore and is moving out.
The “oh no” music comes on. Oh no! A woman might decide what’s best for her life all on her own!
Larry runs into the kitchen and Balki assures him that if Jennifer’s wet, it’s not his fault. While Larry plays an exact repeat of his earlier lines with the simple addition of “not Jennifer”, let’s talk about some more pop culture characters.
Believe it or not, situating the wacky “other” character in a show’s central role can cause some serious problems, and there are scarce few unequivocally good examples I can think of.
A central character generally demands some sort of arc, especially if they’re a fish out of water. If sitcoms depend on keeping their situation intact over the course of more than one season, having a character actively learn and adapt is a strange choice indeed. If the situation changes, the show is set adrift. Take Bosom Buddies: two (not terribly wacky, even if one is Tom Hanks) guys dress in drag because the cheapest rent in the city is at a women-only apartment building. By the second season, literally every other regular character knew Kip and Henry’s secret, because those revelations were used for plot and character purposes. Having no more pressure to find novel ways of hiding penises, the show pursued romantic arcs for its leads and petered out over the course of a few stock-plot episodes.
Or take ALF–god damn let’s do ourselves a favor get ALF out of the way–which just flat-out refused to have an overall arc for its main character, or any of its main characters. On one level, many of its scenarios are what I’d want and expect from a comedy about an alien who’s not allowed to leave the house. ALF learns about call-in-shows; ALF learns about soap operas; ALF learns how to avoid the neighbors; ALF learns about ham radio. But, on the presumed strength of its cartoon character lead, Paul Fusco forced the show to function like a cartoon. No human was allowed to function as one, so they never got much lasting characterization or lessons or even lines sometimes–and as a result, no development of character for anyone at all, when that’s the direct promise of a fish-out-of-water story. Perfect Strangers is frustrating because it systematically refuses to give stories to the girlfriend characters or coworkers. But ALF even moreso because it’s obvious what the stories should have been, and exploring family dynamics is what it was claiming to do. Perfect Strangers far more seldom tried to sell itself as something it wasn’t.
Philip J Reed said about all there is to say comparing ALF and Get a Life when he reviewed the latter’s “SPEWEY and Me” episode, but there’s an aspect of the latter I’d like to discuss here. If ALF thought it was a cartoon and failed to write it that way for anyone but ALF, Get a Life would write its supporting characters as humans or cartoons, whatever worked for the next best joke. Chris Peterson, the aging paperboy, is also the greatest subversion of the wacky neighbor I’ve ever seen. (It’s been a few years since I watched it, so this is broad strokes.) In the first season, Chris is regularly portrayed as upsetting his friend Larry Potter’s domestic life. Larry’s wife Sharon hates Chris, because he does crap like destroy their kitchen, bring in an alien who vomits all over her living room, and be an overall bad influence on Larry. Ultimately, Chris encourages Larry to leave her to live a “carefree” life of his own, you know, like Chris, who lives with his parents at 30 and can’t get any better job than paperboy. Get a Life seemed pretty clear to me on the idea that, behind the eccentricities of Kimmy Gibbler or Urkel or Kramer or Charlie Dietz or Cody Lambert or Howard Borden or Larry, Darryl and Darryl or Maynard G. Krebs lies a basic inability to function in the world. Get a Life lampooned the character to the extent that he was a direct danger to the nuclear family, but the satirical point remains.
I have a couple more characters to talk about, but for the moment I’ll say this: Perfect Strangers does, to its credit, fall closer to Get a Life than ALF in this respect. To the extent Balki’s a cartoon character and pulls other characters into his loony orbit, he works. I’ve beat this horse dead, and then revived it with a single bay leaf, and beat it some more, but Perfect Strangers began by promising something more on the realistic side and never fully made it all the way over to Wackyland. But it went there often enough that when it does try to advance emotional arcs, like Larry and Jennifer’s engagement and wedding, it feels unearned. To the extent that the show tries to make Balki zany and dramatic at the same time, he doesn’t work–but more on that in a bit, you’ve been reading a lot of text and probably want some pictures.
This time, Larry navigates a successful path through the strict schoolmarm’s rules, and Balki comprehends that Larry’s referring to Mary Anne. Larry tells him it’s about to be too late now, too late now if Balki doesn’t go trade some seriously emotional malapropisms with her.
Balki thinks Larry means that Mary Anne will die. He sobs for like three seconds, so we can easily mentally guess how severe his reaction would be if he knew the truth.
In case you weren’t absolutely sure on what was going on, Balki tells Dimitri about it.
Mary Anne walks in asking if the newspaper’s there. She says she wants to read “the funnies”, which makes her the only actor on the whole show who actually ever read them in real life.
Balki responds by telling Dimitri “laughter is the best medicine”, in earshot of Mary Anne. If I were her, that’s when I’d beat the shit out of Balki (but I’m me, I’ve been aching to do it since “The Unnatural”).
He sits her down to talk, expressing sorrow over what’s going on for her. When she wishes she’d been more blunt–
Balki: Should have, could have, would have… Mary Anne, let’s not conjugate our lives.
The audience realizes that that word has some sort of grammatical meaning and laughs.
Man, Balki, fuck you, you didn’t offer your lap to Larry when you thought he was dying. I’ll grant the show this: at least Balki making an out-of-the-ordinary statement (“I want to spend the rest of your life with you”) reads as how he normally talks.
We’re at something like 70% awkwardly vague dialogue, with Mary Anne referring to their wedding as “the event”, but that manages to be the most minor problem here. For one, the words Larry used earlier led Balki to think Jennifer wanted him to plow her like one of his Myposian fields; but transferred to Mary Anne, Balki doesn’t once think Mary Anne wants sex.
Also, you know, maybe I’m making too big of a deal out of this, and if I am, please tell me and I will gladly give up reviewing forever; but where the fuck is Mary Anne’s character? Her sole trait is that she’s dumb, so dumb that, when she hears the first chords of Pachelbel’s Canon, she covers her ears. Perfect Strangers decided to dedicate a whole episode to misunderstandings, and didn’t let her have a single important one other than assuming Balki might be an adult for a whole minute. At least–and I feel my organs shutting down one by one as I type this–the episode about Lydia taping a TV show showed Lydia try to tape a TV show.
Mary Anne says her mother will be there, and Balki is physically pained at the idea that a family member might actually show up to someone’s wedding on this show.
Mary Anne shouts up the stairs for Jennifer and Larry.
Larry (off-camera): OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE WHAT NOW
Jennifer confirms the “big news” and the women scream with delight. Larry congratulates Balki and despite everything else in this wreck of an episode, everyone cheering while Balki sits in confused, abject horror is damned funny and makes me kind of wish the whole episode had been him thinking this was just American culture.
Balki stands up and shames them, and then Mary Anne is so dumb she too believes she’s going to die in a few days. Which, hey, if anyone knows this is a sitcom, it’s her, and that others opening her mail at the worst possible time is a distinct possibility. Jennifer corrects Mary Anne and turns on Larry, who promises Mistress that he used none of the forbidden words.
Hark! Poesy ambrosial drips from plenitudinous lips:
Mary Anne: You’d marry me just to keep me from moving out?
Balki: Sure, and this way I won’t have to sneak around to drink Kool-Aid out of your shoes.
The last two long-running central wacky/other characters I think it’s worth discussing here are Mork and Steven Q. Urkel. Of the characters I’ve been looking at, they’re the most direct comparisons when looking at how sitcoms have tried to balance or marry comedic and dramatic elements of a character whose whole purpose is to be funny because they’re different.
Mork & Mindy, unlike ALF, had no trouble exploring what it meant for an alien to exist with humans. What would he think of Earth jobs? How would he interact with children? What would he have trouble understanding about us, or vice versa? What all would you need to know about him (and vice versa) to keep the secret? There’s even an episode where he finds that he’s allergic to Mindy, when challenging the central situation seems to be a relative rarity for sitcoms. At the same time, the things that were most accessibly alien about him stuck around far longer than made any sense: his greeting (“Nanu nanu”) and sitting upside down in chairs showed up in the third season of the show. Strictly they should have been gone after the first episode, because Mork was never meant to be an idiot.
Even with the bottom of the barrel of alien-on-earth plots not yet visible, Mork & Mindy did start showing some cracks in its third season. I know it exists–I mean, I watched it–but it’s still hard to believe that someone actually wrote an episode where an alien takes revenge on a lazy appliance salesman by having broken appliances come to life and put him on trial. By the end of that season, it was pushing Mork and Mindy towards marriage. There were some strikingly mature moments. For instance, an episode where Mindy goes out of town for a few days and Mork can’t stand being away from her is followed up by an episode where Mindy realizes that Mork has barely been around other human women in his three years on Earth. Mindy encourages Mork to date around, and… man, I can imagine Mary Anne having that idea, but can you imagine Perfect Strangers actually letting her say it?
Sure, Mork & Mindy had its mature moments, like Mindy having to think long and hard for 22 minutes about marrying an overgrown child, but it didn’t seem comfortable staying there very long. I’m certain that ABC executives and producers had a lot to do with this, but Mindy’s feelings for Mork felt stuck at an 8-year-old girl’s concept of love. Mork & Mindy never convinced me of Mork being capable of romance, but I could imagine a Balki who is by turns goofy and loving. Just as Rebeca Arthur convinced me that Mary Anne is more than a dumb blonde, prior to this season the writing and Bronson both had me certain that Balki would be the most caring boyfriend you could imagine, and that their marriage was delayed simply to keep the 8-year-old girls watching and dreaming of those lips.
Mork & Mindy handled its romantic arc far better than Perfect Strangers treats Balki and Mary Anne, simply by having both characters deal with their own thoughts and emotions about it. That arc came at the end of what I think ought to have been its final season. Season 4, once establishing that they were married, then introduced Jonathan Winters as their son Mearth (from Earth lol). It’s painful to watch a sitcom try to contain two improvisational solo comedians–but I’m straying from the point. Mork & Mindy put in as much drama as it could stand, and then snapped back to zaniness (did you know Orkans age backwards? How delightfully nutty!).
I’m going to hold up Family Matters as both the worst treatment of a wacky neighbor comedy-wise, and also the best drama-wise. So here’s what happened when both Balki and Urkel became runaway hits with children: they had to do double-duty as comic relief and the voice of morality. Both were (supposedly) written in their early seasons as children who don’t know any better: clutzy (Urkel), getting others into unlikely situations (Balki), assuming more familiarity than others were comfortable with (both). But then ABC layered morality onto it: it was wrong for Carl to be upset with Urkel or for Eddie to choose more rewarding social connections, and it was wrong for Larry to fib, or drink a beer. But at the same time you’ve got Balki trying to ram a plunger up Jennifer’s ass, and Urkel finding Laura asleep and debating whether he should run a hand up her shirt to find out if she’s got any Cs. (We were also supposed to believe that ALF could simultaneously convey the wonder of the universe and blatantly ruin a family’s finances.)
But Family Matters’s middle seasons had something Perfect Strangers didn’t. Jaleel White was a growing boy, to the extent that there were eventually issues about his tight, high-worn pants showing off his growing dick. His voice had changed, and it became clear that maintaining the same nasal tone was work for White. Because it situated Urkel as the main character, Family Matters gave him not only the stories, but the character sketch too. The aggregated details about Urkel add up to a bittersweet success story. His atheist parents hated him to the extent they were constantly trying to ditch him (and eventually moving to Russia without telling him); but Urkel finds faith and community in church, and freedom from his own biological restrictions through his skill in scientific pursuits. For most of the show’s run, the central joke–does this annoying nerd deserve compassion?–remained intact; but the inescapable fact of White growing up seems to have forced a change.
Family Matters held off a long time on maturing Urkel, but when it finally did, it was lucky to have as good an actor as White (okay, it had two things Perfect Strangers didn’t). White was equally able to sell an Urkel so nerdy he’d make the same pun about his Isetta every chance he got, and an Urkel who was devastated to not understand why his (o so pure) love wasn’t reciprocated. In its last couple of seasons, White was able to add believability to an Urkel who wanted to grow up not by turning himself into Stefan Urquelle, but by trying out new ways of being, dressing, and interacting with people. And, just like Mork and Kip and Henry (and soon Balki), his story basically ends with a marriage proposal to Laura. We can think ahead and know that Urkel’s still going to keep his fridge stocked with dairy, and at some point send an aging Carl Winslow through a wormhole to Planet Urkel, but we know he’ll be an adult about it. All of the changes he went through over nine years don’t read as a sort of loss; they’re accumulative and make Urkel feel like he became the sitcom equivalent of a real person. We can forgive the misdeeds of his youth (I, too, at twelve years old wanted to touch a breast) because he was a different person then.
And, as ill-conceived and inconsistent and quick to ditch Harriette as Family Matters often was, I still want to see what a married Urkel looks like. (And even if all Carl is doing is having an aneurysm because Urkel accidentally poked a hole in his ostomy bag at a fancy restaurant, Reginald VelJohnson will always be a delight to watch.)
Aside from the fact that Perfect Strangers isn’t likely to show me what marriage will do to the Bartokomouses, I don’t want to see it because this season has squandered what remaining affection I had for Balki. For all that it looked like he was the main character, Balki hasn’t grown at all. Even if his intelligence hadn’t actually regressed over the past 7 seasons, it would still feel that way.
Mary Anne says she’s leaving because Balki hasn’t even thought of marriage. Balki says he’ll marry her just to make her happy, which she understandably rejects (which rejection, by the way, is as strong an abnegation of selflessness as anything in The Fountainhead).
I couldn’t be happier for Mary Anne’s choice. She can finally get that promotion in London she turned down and be free of Jennifer’s verbal abuse in the bargain. I think the Perfect Strangers writers knew it was the right choice for her, and I’m glad they followed that instinct, even if it does mean a less satisfying reunion coming up.
The show admits there’s a problem with Balki, and tries to tell us that it’s solving it by redirecting our attention to the superficial aspects. But the real issue here is that Balki is just a heap of homonyms and organ meats and Mary Anne’s a real person. The most generous I can be, psychologicalsidebarically, is that Balki’s first glancing blow with human sexuality resulted in him losing everything he had, and that he either consciously avoided the concept personally, seeking sublimation through marriage counseling, or he had a true mental block around it; and it’s a reading I think you could apply to the next couple of episodes. Should I be surprised that Perfect Strangers is consistent in misunderstanding what’s frustrating about Balki?
The only explicit bar Perfect Strangers is setting for Balki is that he “think about” marriage. Somehow not that he needed to take a shit to prove his love, I still can’t figure out why they chose such a misleading title. Anyway, after openly telling Mary Anne all season long he would eventually dump her for someone else, the show sidesteps this to say that Balki’s most grievous sin is that he simply didn’t think about marriage. If he is to remain the moral center of this show, he can’t be accused of anything more than a simple error of omission.
Oh man I’m laughing so hard that they forgot to actually have anybody say they’ll miss Mary Anne in this scene, and had to add Larry saying it over the establishing shot.
Balki gives Mary Anne their season pass to the reptile farm. She says they can still be friends and go there and yeeeahhh rrrriiiiight.
Balki goes on to say they can still make shadow animals. And eat Play-Doh and watch Romper Room and make boomboom in their diapers, I get it, show, you’ve made your damn point.
Balki tries to kiss her and Mary Anne sets a boundary, saying friends can’t do that. Balki accepts this, perhaps recalling Twinkacetti’s words that sometimes men do those things for each other.
Run, Mary Anne! You don’t have to take care of his feelings anymore! Feel the wind blowing through your head! Run!
I’ve never felt less sorry for a sitcom character. You earned this, Balki.
Join me next week for “Chicago Suite”.
*Hopper, R., Knapp, M.L., & Lorel, S. (1981). Couples’ personal idioms: Exploring intimate talk. Journal of Communication, 31(1), 23-33.
**Bruess, C.J.S., & Pearson, J.C. (1993). ‘Sweet pea’ and ‘pussy cat’: An examination of idiom use and marital satisfaction over the life cycle. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 10(4), 609-615.
***A great analysis of Kimmy’s treatment was published last week; I recommend it.
Catchphrase count: Balki (0); Larry (0)
Boner count: Balki (0); Larry (1)
Unused Larryoke Countdown #10: “50 Ways to Grieve Your Lover” – Paul Simon
1. The reader is invited to recall the interplay of symbols on display in the episode “The Gazebo”, wherein Lawrence Gunther Appleton constructed, for his and Jennifer’s paired relaxation; and likewise invited, that is the reader, is invited, to join the author in their, that is the symbols’ (and concomitant interplay) extension here. The semi-open, semi-enclosed gazebo may be seen (and the author, it should be disclosed, is a proponent of this view) as a concession on Larry’s part to treat Jennifer as the woman of the 90s that she is (or, at least, that he believes her to be and, if not believing, at least believing in acknowledging the concept and also in adherence to the social expectation that this consideration be extended to American women) and not rein her in too tightly; and Jennifer’s eventual (in the episode “The Gazebo”) and continued (all further episodes heretofore) non-entrance into the gazebo itself as a rejection of closeness to Larry, her husband. If the author may be allowed some playfulness with the reader (and if the reader choose to accept this offer of intimacy, may submit informations to that extent), and at the risk of slowing the pace of this current review, he would like to invite further the reader to view symbols, on a meta-level, as similar to caterpillars, betimes entering their chrysalides and emerging as butterflies.