Season 7 Reviewed

For most of Season 7 of Perfect Strangers, as far as anyone knew, it was the very last one.

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Everyone’s five-year contract was going to be up. The two principal actors were talking in interviews as though the show were ending, or at least expressing doubts about it. Mark that the show would have ever lasted that long, for him a strong enough admission that I think it’s safe to say he was no longer worried what impact candor would have on his career; Bronson that nothing else they could do could lower viewership further, much less bring it back.

Whether real or exaggerated in tabloids, there were definite tensions on set. Bronson refers to feelings at that time being “brittle”. The show was getting tossed around on the schedule–and what’s more to Saturday night–a double death knell. The time it took to tape an episode may have as much as doubled* by this point, as director Judy Pioli would insist on multiple takes of scenes.** Perfect Strangers was Pioli’s first regular directing gig, and who knows, maybe she wanted the opportunity to try out things she couldn’t when she had done a handful of episodes for other shows. Can you imagine, though, your last year or two of working on a show and suddenly it takes twice as long to do? The actresses facing losing a steady paycheck? Bronson, rising diva, seeing every one of his feature films fail and not having anything solid in place, other than some vague hopes from CBS? No damn wonder feelings were brittle!

For the writers, too, this was the last season. Nothing says series finale like a multi-part story ending with a wedding and a baby. They thought this season was Perfect Strangers’s last chance.

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The last chance to define who Balki was as an immigrant from Wackyland. The last chance to define who Larry Appleton was as a friend, a husband, a striver. The last chance to establish what changes they had gone through over the years. The last chance to show what their relationships with their girlfriends and coworkers meant to them. The last chance to integrate the dual settings of work and home. The last chance to showcase the physical comedy prowess of its lead actors.

On the whole, Perfect Strangers failed at every single one of these things.

But that doesn’t mean it was a thoroughly terrible season. Whenever Season 7 tried to tackle any of those aspects of Perfect Strangers, we got some of the most dreadful episodes we’ve seen.*** Luckily, the show gave itself some new things to explore, and scattered around this season are some surprisingly worthwhile concepts. I can only point to two or three episodes that I’d single out as “great”–but how many other seasons have I been able to say that for?

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The comment I see most often in Linda’s Facebook fan group (Perfect Strangers Online – P.S. I Love You) about Season 7, even from staunch fans, is that Perfect Strangers no longer felt like Perfect Strangers. It’s even come up in the comments here once or twice, but I’d have to expose myself to screenshots of Larry and Balki sharing a sleeve or sitting in their own meconium to find them, so I can’t remember who said it. Compared to any other season, though, Perfect Strangers was almost unrecognizable, visually. They were in a house, their office space had changed, all four main characters were on screen together a lot more often, Judy Pioli had some weird idea that actors had to stand in a line, and that movement during dialogue-heavy scenes needed to approximate that of a Newton’s Cradle, where one character would stand apart from the other three, and then who was singled out would switch.

And that’s just the broadest visual strokes. On a hunch (after watching 11 seasons of Married… with Children over the course of a few months and noticing this) I looked back at a few season 2 episodes to see whether the makeup was different. It was: whoever was doing makeup in season 2 used more blush on Mark and Bronson. Though it had been true for a few seasons at this point that Balki’s clothing choices were less and less rustic, now they weren’t even eccentric: he’s wearing sweaters or t-shirts in numerous episodes. If that was a deliberate choice to show Balki’s assimilation, bravo–but the fact remains that Balki was strikingly different, visually.

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If I had to guess, none of those visual aspects are what made Season 7 so different to most fans. Let’s chip away at what’s not that issue and see what’s left. Some concessions have to be made for the fact that Perfect Strangers wanted to tell its last necessary story: Balki and Larry getting married. (Somehow it failed even at that, pairing them off separately with two blondes #ApplemousForever.) And as suicide-affirming as they were, “The Gazebo” and “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” are fantasy episodes. Just like the one time you pulled up the nastiest shit you could find on Pornhub just to see what all the fuss was about****, they’re so far out there they don’t factor into this analysis. So that’s almost a third of the season gone right there.

What we’re left with is two major changes, both equally impactful.

The first is that Season 7 had absolutely no interest in the Cousins’ jobs. “Dimitri’s World” established for us that each Cousin got promoted to something entirely outside of what they had been doing up to that point. In Seasons 3 and 4, Larry Appleton was sent out on reporting assignments–sometimes fluff pieces like dog shows, or the city’s elderly, or inner-city groups. He kept hoping for a big break on exposing the criminal element of the city. Those are the kinds of assignments that could have led to an editorial position; he’d learned the city inside and out, and now had years of opinions built up. Season 5 had him working as lackey to an investigative team, but even then he seemed to be stuck doing background research. He seemed to be demoted back to fluff pieces by “Digging Up the News”, and the biggest assignment Wainwright gave him in Season 6 was to get the fuck out of the building for a few days during the basketball season. Can you believe the last time we saw Larry chasing down a lead on a story was in Season 4’s “Crimebusters”?

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If Larry’s trajectory was messy, and its endpoint confusing, at least it consisted of moves back and forth on the line of a reporter’s career. Balki… well, let’s just say TGIF: This Guy Is Flighty. He career was all over the place up to this point. He was an administrator, he was a caterer, he was going to be the head of the mailroom at another building. Why not head of the mailroom at the Chicago Chronicle, really? When Balki gets his new dual gig as editor of the “Children’s Page” and artist of the “Dimitri’s World” strip, Wainwright tells Gorpley off for not doing his job as head of the mailroom. If that was really the case, that had been the case for years. Gorpley avoided actual punishment for doing fuckall, and Balki got rewarded by being given entirely different responsibilities. (Made doubly weird by the fact that the last time he got promoted to a job whose responsibilities he wasn’t cut out for, that was half the point of the episode.) I wish I could say that’s not how workplaces function in the real world, but I expect sitcoms to be more simplistic than real life, not internally inconsistent.

Anyway, as soon as the new jobs were established they basically ceased to matter; so again, why did it have to be non-sequitur promotions? The other episodes that do take place at the Chronicle barely use it for plot purposes. The very next one there (“Missing”) doesn’t even occur in the new office, and has no reason not to other than the basement had a big floor and a doorway they could backlight. “Stress Test” just needed the setting as connective tissue for introducing a psychologist, and “The Elevator” had an elevator and some dumbass thought they needed an episode with an elevator.

Losing a setting wouldn’t be so bad if three of the five recurring characters weren’t tied to it. Surprisingly, the minorest of these historically–RT (Rough’n Tumble) Wainwright–was the most prominent one in Season 7. Since there were barely any Chronicle stories, it’s baffling to me why Sam Anderson and Belita Moreno were brought back at all. I mean, I guess it’s nice to have someone in the audience in a wedding episode, and it made sense to have Gorpley lead the Cousins into temptation for “Bachelor Party”, but past that, Perfect Strangers struggled to put them anywhere. Lydia’s biggest role this season was as the manager/owner of a community theatre, even though in Season 6 an entirely different character filled that role. The only joke that I can even recall about Lydia this season was that she got fingered by a corpse. I don’t know if the five-year-contract stuff applied to Sam and Belita too, but I can think of no reason for putting them in this season other than ABC avoiding a lawsuit. The writers weren’t even willing to flip to Lydia and Sam’s bio pages in the show bible, much less work them into a story, so they just walled them off with each other. As far as we know, they’re still fucking in a handicap stall to this very day.

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Losing half of a setting and premise I’m sure would be a major blow to any show, and a giant obstacle to overcome in re-establishing what it was about. And if you’re thinking that there wasn’t that much less Chronicle in Season 7 than 6–you’re absolutely right, but that’s just the end result of the path Perfect Strangers had been taking for years. If the Cousins’ jobs had taken up as much space in 7 as in 6, I would have said the writers found the balance they wanted; but after five years it was inescapable that they had stopped giving a shit about it.

The other “major change” that I think makes this season not feel like Perfect Strangers is the challenges the Cousins faced, and how they faced them. I used the metaphor a few times this season of Perfect Strangers as a car losing bolts and springs and carburetors; but this was the equivalent of all four engine mounts breaking. Where Larry and Balki had tackled problems together, suddenly the situations they faced were split apart. Larry was suffering relationship problems with Jennifer, and Balki was causing them for Mary Anne, but Perfect Strangers never thought to put those two things into contact with each other. I’m glad Season 2’s “Trouble in Paradise” offered an example of “two different pairs of people can experience the same problems” that I can point to, proving that the concept wasn’t just something I hallucinated after a heavy night of drinking. Perfect Strangers was exploring new territory, and it’s unfortunate that it didn’t stop to think whether Larry and Balki might compare notes on their women. That’s partially because of Standards & Practices–they couldn’t suggest Balki was sleeping with Mary Anne–but they could have explored literally any other aspect of intimate relationships.

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And that’s the bigger problem, more than the specific situations themselves: the show wasn’t having the Cousins tackle them the same way anymore. Let’s say that there are four types of “classic” Perfect Strangers stories:

  • The Cousins share a goal or problem, and have culturally-conflicting ways of approaching/solving it (“First Date”, “Can I Get a Witness?”, “The Rent Strike”, “Since I Lost My Baby”, “The Defiant Guys”, “Maid to Order”)
  • Larry has a get-rich/famous/appreciated-quick scheme and enlists others (“Just Desserts”, “My Brother, Myself”, “Better Shop Around”, “High Society”)
  • One Cousin gets into a situation/pursues a goal and the other Cousin makes it worse (“See How They Run”, “Up on a Roof”, “Night School Confidential”, “To Be Or Not to Be”, “Blind Alley”)
  • Balki isn’t as crazy as he sounds, and even if he is you’re an asshole for pointing it out (“Ladies and Germs”, “You Gotta Have Friends”, “The Horn Blows at Midnight”)

Those examples aren’t comprehensive, and two more categories (“Larry’s An Asshole” and “Let’s Break Shit”) are later additions. Season 7 featured only four episodes that could have fallen into any of those four categories. “Weekend at Ferdinand’s” had a very brief discussion of whether to let Larry be king or to pretend Ferdinand was dead, and even then we only got to see one Cousin’s method play out. “Two Angry Men” falls most neatly into a category by having Balki make Larry’s jury duty worse at every step along the way. Buried under the 15 minutes of setup, “Door to Door” is essentially a get-rich-quick episode. And “Get Me to the Dump On Time” felt the most like a classic episode by having Larry fuck up Balki’s goal without being an absolute shit about it.

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(It’s not always a bad thing to ditch templates: I cannot express how grateful I am that Perfect Strangers finally moved past having Larry drive Balki to tears in service of getting him on board with a plan.)

It’s not that the Cousins didn’t disagree on anything anymore, but it was bullshit like whether they should be nice to a ghost who wanted to murder them, or who got to hold a bullhorn, or who sat in which chair, or… you know what, I was going for the most ridiculous arguments from the season, and then I ran out of examples completely.

I’m exaggerating a little; I’m sure you all remember the episode where Balki argued over which side of the car trunk he got to be in. But that very trend is one of the worst things that happened to Perfect Strangers. The character of Balki, the cultural differences, was the driving force of the original premise. The same character is now just a wellspring of annoyance. He’ll derail a scene by doing different voices or accents. He’ll argue over seating arrangements. He’ll make sure to grab at–and improv a joke for–every prop.

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In Season 6, we saw a few episodes where space seemed to be left in the story for Mark and Bronson to expand on physical comedy as they saw fit. That makes a kind of sense in terms of expediency of process; if that’s the way it tends to happen, write the best episode you can around it. But then we saw in “Duck Soup” that crucial expository dialogue got cut so Bronson could moan through a duck call. And this season’s “Door to Door” cut out an entire scene and switched the Cousins’ roles just so Balki could pretend to look through soap bottles. So he could try to grab a book of out Larry’s hands. So he could play finger paints. Not a bit of it added to the episode.

How the fuck did it reach that point?  It’s not as though there weren’t opportunities to draw story from Balki’s character, but it’s hard for me to imagine a roomful of writers brainstorming and striking on the idea of “Balki grabs at the prop” over and over again. I can think of two explanations.

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One is that Perfect Strangers did have a new director, one who was still new to the field, had some other focusses, and perhaps had less clout or respect in the eyes of the actors than longtime director Joel Zwick did. There is certainly evidence for this. I was lucky enough to get ahold of Joel Zwick’s and Rosario J. Roveto, Jr.’s 2016 book Directing the Sitcom: Joel Zwick’s Steps for Success less than 12 hours before this post went live. It’s very illuminating. He confirms something we heard many times in other interviews:

We’re reshooting the pilot [for Perfect Strangers] …and now we’ve brought Mark Linn-Baker in to play opposite Bronson Pinchot for the reshoot. We’re doing a scene and the scene is over and I’m in a break. I look over there and there is Bronson and Mark doing all kinds of stupid stuff. They’re slapping each other, they’re grabbing ties. They had this whole physical vocabulary that just came naturally to them…. And they turned it from a verbal comedy into a physical comedy.

I wish I had known about this book sooner, because that confirms the tone that I suspected was supposed to be there originally. Production on those first six episodes was under a tight deadline, and there wasn’t time to retool the show to build it around that core; I’d say it took until about halfway through the third season for Perfect Strangers to hit the sweet spots of balance of physical comedy and story elements. The sweet spot, that is, if you’re trying to build the show around it. Reading about the creation of Full House (briefly: the original concept of three comedians living together got three kids shoved in sideways so it could be sold to broader audience tastes) had led me into thinking that all Miller-Boyett shows began fully-formed, and any changes after that were errors introduced into the formula. Season 1 just didn’t have time to adjust to what Zwick convinced producers Bickley and Warren the show could be. Here’s Zwick on knowing what staging he wants before rehearsing:

I’m a “stage firster,” always have been. That’s what I do. I believe in it. It works in most situations. Actors really don’t want to spend time staging themselves. These guys do one show a week. They’re not interested in inventing. Once in a while, you have a Bronson Pinchot, who was an inventor on Perfect Strangers. He was always trying to find something new and something different and something… outrageously something or other in everything we were doing. But Mark and I used to keep him under control. It took both of us working him to keep him under control. The great classic thing about Bronson was, we’re about to do a scene, and he comes storming in. He says, “Okay, I’m going to come in from the door. I’m going to cross to the kitchen. I will grab myself a drink. I will sit at the bar. I would do that, that, that. Then I would cross to the couch.” I said, “Bronson, that’s terrific staging. However, as your director, I need to inform you that, at that moment, all the cameras will be pointed at the couch.” He went, “Oh, in that case I’ll come in. I’ll sit on the couch and we’ll do the scene.”

I said, “That’s an excellent choice, Bronson.” [Laughs]

Here’s the signature Casey snark you’ve come to love and expect: note how he uses a contextually-value-devoid term like “inventor”. One last Zwick quote, on directing Robin Williams:

I directed one of the first couple of Mork and Mindys [season 1, episodes 3, 6, & 7 in 1978 – Casey]. Robin Williams was insanely funny. I finally went to him like I did with Bronson Pinchot and I said, “Robin. I’ve got to tell you something. If you want some of this stuff to wind up in the show, you better hit your mark and stay put. Then do anything you want that comes to your little brain, it’s fine, but if you think you can wander around this set without hitting your marks, none of it will make it into the show because the cameras can’t adjust to you wandering about.” He took that to heart and, boy oh boy, he became really good at that. He knew that he wanted his best work in the show, he had a plan.

Note the value-laden terms for Robin Williams, etc., says the snarky Casey.

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Thank God Bronson hit his mark in the car trunk so we could get that stellar one-man Star Trek showcase. (Is hitting their marks the reason why everyone runs into rooms this season? Is having four people stand in a line an easy way to not have to think about marks when you’ve got four actors? Paging commenter Sharon.) At least one-half of the force reining Bronson’s “inventions” in was gone, and it shows. The first thing that comes to mind with “wandering” is the beginning of the bedroom scene in “Fright Night” where it’s not enough for Bronson to point out his Wayne Newton poster, he has to carry it across the damn room so he can funnel more dialogue to himself, refusing to ditch the joke even after knowing that he’d be pretending to hang it on a fucking door instead of a wall. If Bronson wants to writhe around with his tuxedo pants around his ankles for a full minute or stomp around in a suit of armor, well, they can always cut out a few more of Rebeca or Melanie’s lines.

But I can’t believe that Bronson was just completely without guidance from the directors or writers–or at the very least that that’s all that was going on. As much as Linda derided tabloids as “rag mags”, dismissing whatever they had to say, I think those are the key to a lot of what we’re seeing with Bronson’s performance in Season 7. As we’ve seen in the reportage posts, all of the actors seemed to have their regular haunts up until the end (A.M. Los Angeles, Regis & Kathie Lee, Attitudes, Arsenio Hall). But it’s also true that there was less and less coverage of the show, in print or on television. The idea that someone would try to make up juicy gossip about a show that wasn’t even that popular anymore is a strange one.***** So when a rag mag says that, leading into Season 7, Bronson was worried that he would be muscled out of stories because of Melanie Wilson’s increased role, it puts some of these episodes into a new light.

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“The Wedding” gave us basically two Balki showcases one after another when he follows up getting the regular wedding script wrong by then doing the Myposian wedding script. “Fright Night” tried to make an inroad into giving Jennifer the role of switching cousinsides when she needed to, backing Balki up on the authority of the *ahem* ghostwriter; which was followed immediately by Balki playing with a Wayne Newton poster. Simply because I’ve seen other shows do it, it’s easy for me to see how Jennifer’s upset over being cast as Larry’s mom in “The Play’s the Thing” could have been the major part of the episode; instead Balki wanders on stage eating a bagel and we get to see him Hulk out twenty times. I guess we can throw “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” into this group as an example of Bronson demanding to play with props at the expense of Jennifer’s time on screen.

The most telling examples, though, are the ones where the writers succeeded in actually giving Jennifer more lines and an actual role in a story. In “…Or Get Off the Pot”, there’s the scene where Bronson improvs tangent after tangent on his own lines with diminishing returns, determined to make Melanie break and laugh, and then not allowing her to be the one to get the scene back on track. And “This New House” featured a very promising direction for Jennifer’s character, namely that she was more like Larry than anyone had guessed, or potentially that she had watched and learned how to handle Balki. And immediately after this is revealed, Bronson does a three-minute strictly-okay Robin Leach impression.

I gave the guy a lot of credit for the sobering moment he had when he realized his fellow actors were crying backstage because of their lines being cut. But again: when something turns out good, thank your skills; when it turns out bad, blame the writers. The most generous explanation I can come up with is that Bronson demanded the spotlight because he was the only one who would seriously keep pursuing a TV/film career, and forgot to care.******

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But even then, there’s that scene in “It Had to Be You” where he nudges Rebeca to get her to look at him. It’s obvious that she forgot a tiny bit of staging, but he just refused to let it go because goddammit he needed to make that face. One more quote from Joel Zwick:

All buddy comedy has somebody who reacts while somebody is being funny, and that’s what you need. I think that Bronson Pinchot loved Mark Linn-Baker because he knew that whatever stupidity he came up with, when he turned around, there would be Mark Linn-Baker staring at him. He always knew that Mark would be there.

We got all the reminder we needed last week that Bronson wants control and has seemingly infinite confidence in his own abilities as a solo comedian. The most generous I can be is that not everyone is Mark Linn-Baker. I would say that Bronson maybe hadn’t had the stage time with just Melanie or just Rebeca to build up a rapport, but his energy with Mark was evidently instantaneous. Certainly neither actress had the chops that Mark did, but Bronson seems to have not put in any time and effort to work on bits with them. Like he did in Zoya’s Apartment, a lack of communication resulted in him risking their performances.

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I wish I could be nicer, Bronson the Diva is the theory that fits the most pieces.

At least he was comedy’s last (and greatest) Renaissance Man, and even half an episode was too little time spent with his shining wit, right?

Ha.

Ha ha.

Ha.

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Speaking of comedy greats, let’s talk briefly about the fantasy episodes again. I was so convinced that “The Gazebo” was going to be the all-time worst episode that I ended up overpreparing ammunition for it. Really, “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” is a stronger contender for absolute worst Perfect Strangers episode.*** There’s no more analysis of the show’s entries in that sad category that I can offer. They represent the height of misguided attempts at variety or homage. But I ask you to consider one last thing about them.

Last week, we saw Mark Linn-Baker offer rare praise for Perfect Strangers’s uniqueness in delivering physical comedy at a time when no one else was. And it’s always been Mark that I’ve praised for the physical touches he adds. When he says that he and Bronson come up with the physical stuff, I believe him. The way he rushes down the stairs to grab a baseball bat and murder a burglar in “Car Tunes” likely wasn’t in the script, or at the direction of Judy Pioli. On the other hand, I’d believe that bit where they throw around a wine bottle in “Going Once, Going Twice” wasn’t designed entirely by them; but Mark gave that sequence his all. Anyone would have had to to make it work.

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But finding a shit to give about the fantasy episodes was more than Mark could do. I’ll allow that he studied some of Jackie Gleason’s mannerisms and voice for Season 6’s “I Saw This On TV”, even if he didn’t nail it or have the same larger-than-life presence. And I’m sure he watched a few old Laurel & Hardy films in preparation for “The Gazebo”. In both cases, Bronson’s performance outshone Mark’s. You’re welcome to just close this tab and delete the site from your history; I can’t believe I said that either. The both-hands-thumping-the-chest-fingers-splayed-to-indicate-his-own-importance thing that Oliver Hardy does seems to be such a central part of the character that it’s unbelievable that Mark didn’t incorporate it into his interpretation. Neither there, nor in “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” does it appear that Mark had polished up any of the physical comedy. I’m probably making too much of minor details again, but it is rare to call Mark’s performance the less-committed.

Luckily for us, we only got two entirely useless episodes, story-wise. On the other hand, Perfect Strangers was trying to tell us more, and longer, stories. Some (“This New House”, “Dimitri’s World”) are just bare piece-moving; I would have included “The Wedding”, but it moved pieces and gave us a decent “what antics are they up to this week” plot. Season 7 offered both a two-parter and a three-parter.  Philip pointed out that “Weekend at Ferdinand’s” would have made more logistical sense taking place on Mypos; I agree, and I think a three-parter that early in the season would have been too much to ask of viewers (as well as my suspicion that ABC wasn’t certain this season would make it all the way to April, plus maybe budget concerns). Especially if you subscribe to that theory, Perfect Strangers had more story than it could tell successfully, even if turning over four minutes to The Bronson Show every week hadn’t been the norm.

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I want to applaud Perfect Strangers for taking Balki back to Mypos; and nothing makes my therapist as concerned as the fact that I actually appreciated some aspects of Mama. But the show simply didn’t give itself time to explore long-established aspects of the Bartokomous clan, like their rising wealth thanks to electric shears, or what I assumed was Balki’s status as something of a folk hero thanks to tales of his adventures spurning the advances of horny old women, meeting a black man, buzzing the Kellogg’s building. We get the very loaded image of him literally unable to sell his own packaging as an American, but that’s it.

Which, by the way, could be explained by his forced exile from the island (“…Or Get Off the Pot”) because he spurned the advances of a horny old woman. Did his reputation preclude any possibility of a career there? Are you really just not allowed to herd sheep anymore? Again, Perfect Strangers had more ideas than it knew what to do with, or even put into conversation with each other. I’m glad we got to see just how Larry would (and wouldn’t) function in paradise, but between the smell of Balki’s imported little cheese dogs and Mama’s 16-pound breasts, the story needed room to breathe.

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Having more story than time is disappointing, but ultimately forgivable. Meeting the hitherto-unseen Mama and going to Mypos are exciting ideas to explore, but I’d stop short of calling them necessary. Balki’s relationship with Mary Anne, especially after a full season of him treating her like shit, was downright urgent. Setting aside three episodes to deal with that issue was a good choice, but just about every other choice they made was either wrong or incompletely considered. I fail to see the logic in spending one-third of a three-parter just getting across to Balki that his girlfriend’s upset; but if they had to do that, couldn’t they have made it a story instead of a series of $25,000 Pyramid questions? The show spent that time revealing things about Balki that had nothing to do with the issue at hand, and then spent the next two episodes also not dealing with the issue at hand. The following two episodes each had decent concepts, but they both started from the same point: Balki will gravitate to someone who’s the same as Mary Anne. With as much conceptual repetition and padding and Woody Woodpecker laughs as we got, I have to praise Season 6’s “The Break Up” for its economy.

I’ve made it sound up to this point like Season 7 of Perfect Strangers was a thoroughly bad season of television. Amazingly, with everything that I’ve discussed here, I can’t say that. It discovered a few new tricks that led to some definite successes.

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I mentioned in the last season review that Newhart was flagging in its sixth season. Moreover that around years 5-7 many shows, even great ones, can run out of steam or even unless they find something new to do. I’m just going to talk about Newhart this time (you’re welcome). After Newhart decided it couldn’t–or wouldn’t–change its characters in its sixth season, it found a new direction. If it couldn’t expand them forward, backward, or laterally, it could still shoot them directly through the roof. Starting in its seventh year, and breaking completely loose in its final one, Newhart became a lampoon not only of itself, but of that generation of sitcom. (The lampoon became explicit in the February 1990 episode “Seeing Double”.) Every supporting character’s tics were turned all the way up to 10. Michael Harris’s slick Hollywood patter became an onslaught of deliberate alliteration, Spoonerisms, and mixed-up idioms. The earlier sparsely-used “reveal” that Larry, Darryl, and Darryl knew famous people became their defining quality. In its final year, a baby was running a television network via giggles and gas, a whole episode was dedicated to a one-off character’s giant ass, and a Japanese corporation buys the town and turns it into a golf course.

I think the writers on Newhart felt that the quieter comedy of Bob Newhart was a dying breed, and that newer, perhaps brasher sitcoms (Murphy Brown, Roseanne, Married… with Children) were about to have their day. A caveat: I’m basing this on nothing more than the energy and common threads of sensibility behind Newhart’s choices in its last two years. But there was an eventness to it, a feeling that there was nothing left to do but blow up the whole concept of a sleepy sitcom. At the very least, I think those writers asked themselves questions about what the show was, what it represented, and what they could do with it as a structure.

When it wasn’t failing to hammer out story sequences, or jerking off to its own physical comedy forebears, Perfect Strangers was asking those same questions.

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A minor question this season put to itself was what it meant for the Cousins to live in a house. I joked in Season 5’s “This Old House” that it was trying on elements of your standard family sitcom. But the joke there–that all the interested buyers were named after other television characters–carried over into Season 7. The Cousins visited the auction for the estate of “Howell Thurston” and imposed on Howard, Marion, Richie, and Joanie. Perhaps there’s a reason the rich neighbor who owned a whole network of hotels was named Dumont? Dead Mr. Wilson in last season’s “Finders Keepers” may also be an entry here; and Farmer McGregor in “Wild Turkey” is the oddball (butterball?) for being from a book. Thurston Howell and the Cunninghams are the only clearly deliberate ones, but those and the ones in “This Old House” are enough to say that the Cousins moving into the “real” world of sitcoms was the intended joke. It’s one I wish the show had leaned into more forcefully.

Season 6 was best represented by a trashed chair whose pieces didn’t fit perfectly together anymore. Season 7 loudly asks us to look long and hard at this stupid-ass chair. Look at this, it’s Chairnobyl over here! What dumb fucker would put this in their house? Of all the chairs in the world, this is the craziest-looking one, I gotta show this to my friends!

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And Tom Devanney & Co. dragged that stupid chair to every audience they could find. I realize I’ve been thinking of Devanney as the head writer, and maybe that’s because I like his scripts best, but even the shittiest Season 7 episodes were getting in on this sensibility. Starting in Season 6, he writers seemed to be deliberately asking themselves what various groups would think of Larry and Balki: children (“Hocus Pocus”), news/Californians (“The Men Who Knew Too Much”), ghosts (“Fright Night”), their girlfriends (“The Gazebo”), a typical American family (“Wild Turkey”), a jury of their peers (“Two Angry Men”), celebrities (“Wayne Man”), a psychologist (“Stress Test”). (I suspect that “Door to Door” would originally have featured a montage of sales pitches if it hadn’t overworked its plot to death.) And for each audience the Cousins found themselves in front of, a different aspect of their dynamic was revealed. They’re inadvertently hilarious, a threat to society, maddening, familiar, unhinged lunatics, endlessly frustrating, confusing but ultimately caring, and ultimately a functionally volatile pair.

If Perfect Strangers had spent its first couple of years casting for ways to build a show around two actors’ natural rapport and instant physical vocabulary, Season 7 finally found a perfect way to do it. The writers finally understood the Cousins as a machine that could be turned on at will: set it down in a situation, press a few buttons, give it a nudge, and watch it go. It’s partially luck that “Stress Test” ran out of order as the last non-story episode, but it was the best illustration of how the writers and actors knew the machine called Larry and Balki inside and out.

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These directions, both major and minor, offered a far more cohesive feel to Season 7 than any of the multi-part stories, or even having the women around more did. If the TV-family names, and spinning the wheel to see what audience the Cousins are performing in front of that week, had been the entire season, it would have made up for the fact that the Chicago Chronicle was an afterthought.

It was very nearly a great season of an ABC sitcom. It had some truly horrid misfires on both the physical and story levels, but even with so many things stacked against the show–the loss of a veteran director, backstage emotions, Bronson’s self-importance, a rapidly-decreasing resemblance to its former self–it was the best final season Perfect Strangers could hope for.

But most shows, one way or another, kill themselves.

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Here’s that list thing I guess

Best episode: “Stress Test” (“Wild Turkey” runs a close second)

Worst episode: Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thee against the stones, “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby”

Best one-off character: Rob Bob for personality, Dr. Michael Aldridge for functionality

Worst treatment of a one-off character: Chester Bainbridge

Best Balki Moment: the sad Woody Woodpecker laugh in “Chicago Suite”

Worst Balki Moment: I’m spoiled for choice. Four-way tie between throwing Melanie off, the season-long dismissal of Mary Anne as a person, the Robin Leach impression, and the damn Star Trek voices.

Season 7 catchphrase count: Balki (12); Larry (10)

Season 7 boner count: Balki (2); Larry (5)

Cumulative catchphrase count: Balki (115); Larry (66)

Cumulative boner count: Balki (22); Larry (25.5)

Dance of Joy running total: 23

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What selfinvolved enigma did Casey, finishing the season, gathering multivarious multiarmed multitudinous arguments, voluntarily apprehending, not comprehend?

Who was Doug?

_________________________________________

*Per private communication with Linda Kay of the fansite, who attended many tapings in the show’s last few years, but who skipped a number of Season 7 episodes because of the increased taping times. She says that episodes directed by Joel Zwick took ~2.5 hours to tape, and episodes directed by Judy Pioli took 5 hours.

**Per my interview with Jo Marie Payton: “…we would get in and out, and Joel Zwick is the fastest-directing director I know. He studies, he knows exactly what shots he wants to get, he knows, he allows you the space to do what you want to do in the short time that you have to do it because that show was, what, 22, 23 minutes long, something like that. He allows you the creative space to do what it is you feel like you need to do because he’s already done his homework, so he knows where the camera shots are.”

***SO FAR

****”The Gapezebo”, “Yes Sir, That’s My Stepmom”

*****Let’s continue last week’s discussion of citations for a minute. Without the full picture of, say, the scope and depth and breadth and tone of a particular tabloid’s coverage; and without the full picture of whether there were real or fake things being reported for shows with more (and less) prominent actors; this kind of analysis is unfortunately pretty limited. But still, it’s what we have.

******Potential philosophical discussion of human morality/integrity: we are at our most evil when we section off our thoughts and our feelings one from another. (I offer you every single viral tweet or Facebook post pointing out gross inconsistencies in conservative/Republican arguments/values at the individual, pundit, or politician level as grist for this topic.) That, perhaps, the worst thing we can do for our own minds/souls is to not put our internal informations in contact with each other.

P.S. Nowhere else to put this, but does anyone else think Rob Bob kind of functions as a Larry-Balki hybrid?

5 thoughts on “Season 7 Reviewed

  1. Happy to be paged for my knowledge and expertise in the field of directing, at which I am an expert because I have done it three times in the last three years, don’t tell anyone that I don’t really know what I’m doing.

    Having four people stand in a line would be a good way to make sure everyone is seen, but is also really lazy and boring to look at. There should be multiple ways to stage these four people that shows dynamism and action. The only time characters should stand in a line would be if a line is called for–like the angel choir in “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever,” for instance.

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  2. Some of the episodes from season #7 were done really well, some weren’t what I would consider great. I remember season 7 well and the saga involving the switch to Saturday nights which happened on Feb. 1, 1992. The episode that aired that night was the one with the wine bottle. I remember it well and I had Jambalaya for dinner that night. Anyway, there are few things I consider myself an expert on, Perfect Strangers is one of those things. As you know, Growing Pains and Who’s the Boss had been moved to Saturday nights beforehand at the beginning of the ’91-’92 season. Both shows had already, over the previous two years trended way down in viewership. In fact the only reason ABC had not cancelled either one is because it had already “bought” the episodes in a multi-year contract which was not set to expire until the end of the ’91-’92 season. ABC had already paid for the episodes so it only made sense to burn them off on Saturday night even though both shows were old and dead already. Most sitcoms start dying around the sixth season. Older shows losing viewership was fine with the networks back then. They get more expensive to produce in the later years so it makes more sense to just cancel them and put something new in their time slots. At the time there was always tons of production companies making tons of pilots for the networks to choose from. If they thought they had new pilots that were good, they cancelled the older programs. Perfect Strangers is a different story. It had in the previous three seasons (4, 5, and 6) actually gained viewership each season. Sure, it had a pretty good time slot which it “won” every week of every season it aired on Friday night and also during the summer rerun months. For a show airing on Friday night, it commanded a share in the 20’s which was really good and usually ranked among the top #30. Historically, for any show airing on Friday night (traditionally lower viewership night) to rank in the top #30 programs, that is a HIT SHOW. I remember the week after Christmas in 1990 ABC aired a new episode against all reruns on the other three networks and Perfect Strangers was ranked #3 show of the week! In fact the sixth season pulled in good numbers and the first half of season 7 did also, although when ABC moved Full House to Tuesdays in the fall of 1991, both Family Matters and Perfect Strangers lost some viewership. I watched the ratings on a weekly basis back then as they were printed in the weekly TV supplement in the Sunday paper where I lived. Family Matters, which became the Friday lead in at 8:00 pm that fall, dropped from ranking anywhere from #10-#20 to #25-#30. Perfect Strangers was usually #25-#35 each week in season 6 and it dropped in ranking to the #35-#45 range for the fall of ’91
    (I specifically remember the ghost episode ranking #37 for the week, another episode which I can’t remember ranking #41). So Perfect Strangers was not losing viewership on average until it moved to Saturday in Feb. 1992. This was done to KILL the show because the ratings were too good to cancel when it aired on Friday nights. So the show did not lose viewers because of content. ABC knew this and wanted a reason to justify cancelling it to make room for new development it had in the wings. After the success of TGIF, there were tons of producers trying to come up with a show to sell ABC for that night. ABC thought they had many new replacements for Perfect Strangers that would be cheaper to purchase and better fit in to the demographic of shows geared toward younger audiences. However, PS lost a chunk with the move. After the end of season 7, I remember opening up the TV Guide to see what fall shows would be airing and it said the word “series hiatus” besides Perfect Strangers. I was only 12 years old then and had to ask my mom what that word even meant. It didn’t say cancelled but said it was going on hiatus. She explained the definition of the word to me and the next week, on the back page of the Sunday TV supplement there was a story about a letter campaign started by fans (I believe this was Linda’s doing) to save the show from “impending cancellation”. I wrote a letter as did some other fans I knew and I was the only one of us to receive one back from the director of programming at ABC/Capital Cities (that was what it was called then). As I recall, the letter (which I saved for years but is now missing) said that because of the outcry from fans around the country, ABC decided to order six more episodes of the show to allow the cast and crew a chance to “tie up” the loose ends and have a proper finale. It also made a point to mention that the show had many fans and that it was not ending because of lack of viewership, but because the cast and crew were ready to move on to other projects. The series finale, which aired on Friday 8/6/93 ranked #11 for the week and had a 31 share which is really good Typical ratings for the series finale of a still popular show. One thing I wanted to mention was that Sam Anderson and Belita Moreno were still on contract for season 7 but were seldom used. Where they were still on contract, Miller/Boyett and Lorimar Telepictures still had to pay them for a certain # of episodes that season whether they used them or not. What times they were used, it was because they were paying them either way so they stuck them in a few ep’s. It was obvious the writers had planned to write them out if the show completely if the show continued past season 7. This was most likely for two reasons- to reduce production costs and also because with the new living situation of the main four characters, they would not need them to create storyline. I hope somebody will appreciate this information I have provided which has been stored in my head for over 28 years.

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    • Thanks for the insight! A question for you would be: does a rise in viewership necessarily mean a show is a hit? My assumption – and maybe this is too easy and unquestioned an assumption, on my part – that Full House and then Family Matters were drawing bigger numbers than Perfect Strangers, and that’s why Perfect Strangers got moved further and further back in the TGIF lineup. So is it a matter of percentage increase over time compared to the straight numbers? (Quick-and-dirty illustration: the world population is always growing, and thus the number of pizza eaters is always growing. Domino’s and Pizza Hut’s number of customers are both growing; but if Pizza Hut’s grows at a far more rapid rate than Domino’s, then we cannot say Domino’s is a hit based on its numerical increase of customers.)

      Another question: once it got pushed behind Full House and Family Matters, how much of Perfect Stranger’s rise in viewership was directly a result of its own quality/qualities versus how much of its rise in viewership was based on new viewers that Urkel was pulling in? That was an effect back then, right?–that one strong show could keep viewers around for the next one? As you say, Perfect Strangers did lose some viewers without Full House there.

      Another potential thing to consider, though Now I Am Almost Certainly Nitpicking – Perfect Strangers’ series finale aired before the proper start of the Fall season. It wasn’t going up against other finales–or other premieres.

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  3. The numbers showed slight increases each year after moving to Friday nights. That is not why I think the show was a hit. IMO, a show is a hit when it’s the most watched program on both network and cable TV which at that time was the only way to watch a program. In other words it was the most watched tv show at 9:00 or whatever time slot it aired in the entire land. Perfect Strangers always won it’s time slot which means it was the most watched TV program during that time slot all broadcast TV-network or cable. So I would definitely call it a hit show. Because it did not contain any children in the cast, ABC kept moving it back to later in the evening so they could air shows with kids in the cast in the earlier time slots. Even with it being pushed back to 9 and then 9:30 it continued to gain viewers.
    True, FH and FM were drawing bigger numbers but they aired earlier in the evening. Just because a show is gaining viewers does not necessarily make it a hit show but in this case I think PS was a hit because of the reasons I mentioned above. It’s no doubt that the ratings for PS continued to increase because of it airing after the two other shows. It was kind of like PS was given a new lease on life and morphed into somewhat of a different beast when moved to Friday nights mid way through the ’87-88 season. Instead of eroding viewers as most shows do as they age, it was gaining viewers due to it’s time slot no doubt. What is really interesting is that Family Matters (#15 in the ’90-91 season) was pulling in higher numbers than Full House (slightly) many weeks during the ’90-’91 season. When FH was moved to Tuesdays in the fall of ’91, FM ended up ranking #27 for the season (down from #15). PS season to date ranking up until the move to Saturday on 2/1/92 was #36, down from #31 the previous season so it did not experience a precipitous fall in ranking as what FM did.
    Now to the finale-it’s very true that Perfect Strangers finale was aired up against reruns on the other networks and back then nobody watched cable in prime time so it doesn’t even count. I’m sure that helped but it still was viewed by a lot of people who would not have watched it if they had not liked the show and wanted to see the finale. Most series finales for older shows do horrible in the ratings unless they were popular. And when they air during the summer it is even worse. August used to be a strictly month of reruns and when I was a kid it seemed nobody watched TV in the summer time because it was all reruns. I agree the writing started to suck and the final season felt like nobody cared but the actors. But when the show ended it was as popular as it had ever been based on it’s ratings which are all that matter when deciding whether a show was a hit.

    Also R.I.P Thomas L. Miller, Executive Producer of Perfect Strangers. Your talents will be remembered by the great work you did!

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