Immediately after the opening credits, the audience is confronted–assaulted, perhaps–forced, at any rate, to contend with the effects of affordable electric indoor lighting.
In these brief moments before the action proper occurs, the viewer is asked to consider what effects the availability of indoor lighting have had on Balki’s seven-year sojourn in America. Our brief window into Myposian life suggests that indoor lighting was a luxury reserved for royalty, but consider the one source of after-hours light available to the Bartokomous clan: the television. At once light source and capitalist messenger (the reader will forgive the regrettably time-constrained omission of discussions of “noise” in this context), I would like to put forward that it was the television that put Balki out of step with his island community. His contextless absorbance of a bounty of American values extending far into his American life (no quick picker-upper he) ultimately was deeper than it appeared, his embrace of it making him a pariah on his return to Mypos in Season 7.
For centuries the passage of time–of hours–was by use of a sundial. Moondials being only accurate on the night of a full moon, perhaps the time between sunset and sunrise were not thought of as hours. The first recorded use of “after-hours” to unquestionably refer to the later portion of the day occurred in 1891, a few years after the establishment of global time zones. Balki, his Mama, and Ferdinand may have been the only Myposians to have the mental concept of “after hours”; and these have have regularly boded ill for Balki. Indoor lighting allowed his mental unrest in “Beautiful Dreamer” to fully bloom and externalize into rearranged furniture. Superstition paired midnight and death in “The Horn Blows at Midnight”; and round-the-clock access to pre-packaged American values nearly ruined his mind in “Couch Potato”. Was Balki scared of monster movies in “Aliens”, or of the unconscious trauma the disrupted sleep schedule could visit on the psyche?
All this to chew on in just the first few seconds. You can’t tell me this show isn’t deep.
Larry and Jennifer chew, and watch, as Balki and Mary Anne (Sagittarius) massage each other’s perinea at the dinner table. They attempt to ignore the healthy sexual display, their laps chastely covered.*
The only way Larry can get Balki’s attention is to remind him of their previous violent intimacy, whapping him upside his head with a wooden spoon. I actually thought Larry asking for the salt was his polite way of reminding Balki that American houses have separate rooms for eating and fucking, but then he actually salts the chunk of onion and two slivers of carrot on his plate.
Balki claims they were playing “lip tag”. They’ve obviously all been sitting there for at least 20 minutes since they’re finished with dinner. Every game of tag I’ve ever played has someone shouting when “it” is transferred. We’ve fully entered the era of the almost-a-punchline, folks.
What’s more, it’s obvious what long-term lesson Balki has learned, staying up too late on Fridays to watch TGIF. He’s watched–and learned–how to turn his innocent charm into a commodity: any annoying behavior can be excused via a quick, cute punchline. Gotta love him.
Mary Anne declares that it’s time for a “cuddle break” and they rush out of the room. What the hell were they just doing, then? Larry says all the open affection makes him want to barf, but Jennifer says she likes watching it. She says she wants to go “to bed”–
–but haha! Joke’s on you, Larry! Jennifer still refuses to use the merest of euphemisms or private language with you! Jennifer leaves.
And a “cuddle break” appears to be the exact same thing as lip tag. No idea why they even left the room if they can’t even bother to dry hump when they’re alone. Are we even certain that Mary Anne is pregnant? After all, she’s so dumb she thinks only golfers engage in foreplay, only black people take aphrodisiacs, that asphyxiation is one of Freud’s developmental stages, and that scopophilia involves mouthwash; so it’s not impossible she just shoved a baby doll up her shirt.
She tells Balki she’ll race him “to the pillow” and takes off.
Larry, desperate to do something with the boner he popped, holds Balki back and drags him bodily to the couch. You know, I realize that it’s
but it’s just not as fun when the show hands me an opportunity every two minutes.
Larry drags out his question for Balki, hastily considering and rejecting as semantic landmines such words as excited, hot and bothered, horny, turned on, bush, hot to trot, moist, engorged, sopping, box, grope, erotic, randy, and hot-blooded. Finally:
Larry: How do you keep the ol’ home fires burning?
Balki tells him to use to use dry wood. I seriously hope that this was intended as a double entendre, but it’s really hard to tell on a program that won’t let you imagine Balki and Mary Anne sharing more than a single pillow.
If Season 8 is doing anything right so far, it’s the thinking the writers did at the very outset as to what there was to explore in the new household arrangement. When you have six (or thirteen) episodes, you have to make them count. I honestly think high-episode-count seasons were a liability for 80s/90s sitcoms, and there was a lot of waste involved in pushing writers to fill 24 or more half-hours. You end up with inconsistencies of character, idiot-ball holding, and repeated plots.*** But the writers knew they only had a handful of stories left, saving us from God only knows what terrible plots. Balki and Larry are locked in a bank vault and stop a burglar? Dimitri gets his own balloon in the Thanksgiving Day parade and Balki and Larry destroy the police officers association float? The ultrasound shows that Jennifer is having a girl and Larry runs a Girl Scout cookie scam? Larry and Balki go undercover to investigate a local neo-Nazi skinhead group? The Amazing Jamesdini Brothers (Myposian acrobat quintuplets) come to visit and die, one by one? Balki and Larry get locked in a grocery store and stop a burglar?
If not for ABC’s standards & practices upholding middle-of-the-road values, this is a story we could have gotten any time in Season 7. Balki & Mary Anne are smitten with each other and enjoy a fairytale romance, while Jennifer won’t even let Larry fold the laundry if her underwear is in it. It’s a duality that’s so strong it’s easy to feel like it’s always been this way and that Balki didn’t subject Mary Anne to emotional abuse for an entire year.
I like that Perfect Strangers wanted to explore an aspect of the couples’ relationships that’s more in line with what we expect from the characters. Larry’s quick to assume the worst, and that he needs a drastic solution. This kind of story doesn’t even need the pregnancy aspect, but it’s a welcome complication to something that could have just gone the same bland way last week’s opening scene did, and with blander results. The pregnancy is a big mitigating factor here, and since “can’t talk to the wife” (a variant of “the floor is lava”) has long been firmly in place, it leaves Larry unable to determine what the *ahem* root cause might be, much less how to fix it.
What I don’t like is… well, this episode, but we’ll get to that. What I don’t like is that this is the same goddam starting point we had last week. Two weeks into the pregnancy season and the show has already played its “MacGuffin that makes the pussy wet” card.
That’s not to say that there’s no hope for the story.
Just like last week, it’s actually a pretty solid Perfect Strangers setup: Larry has a set of cultural ideas of how to romance a woman, and so does Balki. Larry has never gotten a chance to use his, and we’ve learned now that Balki’s easy relationship with Mary Anne means he’s never had to. Larry tries the American way and fails, Larry tries the Myposian way and fails, Jennifer says that she’s really into necrophilia role play and if anything, Larry’s body could be more clammy.
Anyway, Balki finally gets what Larry’s talking about and makes a bonerface. He offers Larry the three Bartokomous “marriage secrets”.
Yeah I figure after 145 episodes I can make a pretty good joke about what those would be:
1. Every last thing on Mypos is pig snout something or other. Pig snout cock ring probably.
2. Bugs Bunny oven mitts so your hands can cover the 25 sq. in. female Bartokomous nipples.
3. An overall reduction in Jennifer’s voice, status, and agency in both private and public life.
Nah, j/k, it’s moon oil, burning ember incense, and a tape of ocean sounds. (Doesn’t every incense involve burning embers?) Larry bribes Balki into telling him he keeps the stuff in the garage. (Do they drive the car through the front fence or the back fence every day?) Before Larry can go steal all that shit from Balki’s stash, Balki confides in Larry that Mary Anne has worn him out from all the fucking.
I really have no idea why they even put the line in, because the episode doesn’t do a single thing with the revelation, this week or the rest of the season. It feels like a holdover from an earlier version of the script before Bronson looked at it. And it’s rendered immediately pointless by Mary Anne finally realizing Balki isn’t there (she’s so dumb she thinks lactophilia is something Hamlet suffered from) and calling him upstairs for another coital break.
What’s more, Bronson uses a cowboy voice to deliver the line “She sure knows how to toss my salad.” So, yeah, they were definitely trying to slip lines past the censors. (Since when are cowboys known for eating salad?)
Larry runs off to get the Myposian sex toys. I can’t believe I’ve been writing this blog this long without having ever said that.
THE NEXT MORNING, an upset Larry enters the kitchen. I’d get up pissed too if I had to listen to people moan malapropisms at each other all night.
Balki misunderstands while Larry calmly and repeatedly tells him to shut up. Of all the things I guessed the show might become in its final few episodes, I never once would have expected it to give voice to my own feelings. Larry tells him all the “marriage secrets” didn’t work. Jennifer’s skin reacted to the oil, she’s sneezing constantly from the incense, and the ocean sounds made her throw up all over Larry’s balls.
Yes! Yes! They’re finally going to use the counter Mark and Bronson demanded be installed!
Oh, no, wait. False alarm.
Balki puts a piece of tape on Larry’s arm and pulls it off. What the fuck? I like to bullshit around about symbolic interplay but this is completely beyond me on even a surface level. I thought Perfect Strangers was going to actually argue for its own continuation but it’s literally and figuratively pawing around in the junk drawer looking for ways to introduce physical comedy into the story.
Balki tells us that Larry used all the Dollar Store sex toys wrong, and what they do when misapplied, pre-empting the surprise of this week’s Jennifer’s-body-as-a-punchline.
Of course Larry was enough of a dumbass to rub body oil on her forehead. I’d gripe that she’s not sneezing at all, but who can blame her for not reading anyone else’s lines in the script? Bronson hasn’t done it for years.
I hope you’ll bear with me as I try to read into every single line here, but there are some interesting ones this week. I remarked in “The Baby Shower” that the marital interactions between Larry and Jennifer were uninspired at best. Here, they take a dive directly into darker territory.
Jennifer: I didn’t think anything could make me feel more miserable than being pregnant. I was wrong.
Larry acts like what we all just heard was some sort of punchline and oh no! I’m in the doghouse now! etc. I’m not sure if the writers just banked on Jennifer’s look being enough to carry the humor of the situation, or if they really wanted us to believe that Larry’s marriage was on the rocks. I can’t imagine anything more devastating than being told my attempts at love were the worst thing that ever happened to someone.
Larry says he’ll have to get her a “major league gift” and Balki suggests a Louisville slug.
I didn’t think anything could make me feel more miserable than the baby episode. I was wrong.
I’ve sat through 145 episodes of Balki’s linguistic foibles, and except for that weird one about tennis and sushi in Season 2, they’ve made some sort of sense. There have been strange leaps, but you see the same thing with little kids’ minds. I have a lot of trouble believing that Cheryl Alu & Barry O’Brien, working together on this script, wrote a joke with one whole leap missing. This is too much. I’ve never seen Bronson so smug about a joke he came up with.
Welp, I hope you enjoyed that episode about Larry trying to rekindle the flame in his marriage, because we’re going to spend the next ten minutes in an unrelated scene about Larry and Balki in the mall. It’s almost like Perfect Strangers took a six-episode order as a challenge to work in every possible problem a sitcom can have.
The show is very upfront about this, because the scene starts with dialogue over the establishing shot:
Larry: Look, this is a waste of time. We’re not going to find a perfect gift for Jennifer in the sports department.
This kind of dialogue is generally used to patch up the seams between scenes that sometimes split open if dialogue or whole sequences are cut. This is the first time I’ve ever seen one put in just so a show can shrug about what’s going on.
It doesn’t even lead into any dialogue about why they came in. We find the Cousins just standing there in Peterman’s**** as if they’d been beamed in. Balki wants to buy Mary Anne a gift and Larry gives the exposition to Balki (there’s no women around to say it to) that Balki already bought lots of gifts for Mary Anne. It’s for some running joke about the two of them celebrating anniversaries for every little thing that’s happened in their relationship. This last gift must be to celebrate the first time he made her cry in public.
If Phil’s comment on “Citizenship, Part 2” is correct, and Balki deliberately tries to not fit in no matter where he lives, then Larry must want an externalized voice to tell him how he doesn’t fit (i.e. what he’s doing wrong) everywhere he goes. Because unless the joke is that Larry is desperate for any help at all because he’s learned nothing about Jennifer in 6 years, there’s no reason for these fuckers not to split up once inside the mall.
I’m also glad that sarcastic-in-a-way-Balki-won’t-understand Larry is back, but unfortunately it’s accompanied by Balki’s final form: the aggressively “unaware” destructive force that I presented him as in the first two seasons. It’s the same type of comic beats the show has always had–here Larry says he’d “love to hear more about” Balki’s story, so Balki goes into more detail–but instead of Balki happy to oblige, there’s no veneer of innocence left. Balki might as well be openly doing the Milt Kahl head swaggle for how obviously proud he is to have saved this show from cancellation once again.
Anyway they take all of 20 seconds to establish the cultural disagreement: gifts should be given with love vs. size matters.
A closing announcement comes on and Balki looks around like he hasn’t lived in this country for 7 years and thinks he’ll see some guy standing there. He wants to leave but Larry says the announcement is only to encourage impulse buying.
I got excited for a second because Larry’s cynicism about sales practices are classic Perfect Strangers. But it’s too late now (it’s too late now) because that would have functioned only as a part towards the end of a better story. I realize we’ve already had two episodes where Larry tries to open Balki’s eyes to the emptiness of consumerism (“Better Shop Around” and “Car Wars”), but high-pressure sales tactics isn’t something the show has explored before.
And now that I’ve brought that up, I can see it’s something that would have worked from either side of the equation. Twinkacetti leaning on the Cousins to give customers the hard sell on defective merchandise could have made a decent season 2 episode. And maybe I’m just saying this because there’s a tent in the background, but this kind of conversation they’re having now could have been the first quarter of the camping story. Larry trusts his own judgment on navigational equipment and doesn’t listen to the actually competent salesman, stranding everyone in the woods.
I spent a lot of time on story possibilities last week, so I’ll leave it at that. The point is that Perfect Strangers is proving again that there’s still plenty to explore, and that it hasn’t exhausted its central concept. The first act could have been expanded into an entire story. The past two minutes of the Cousins debating both how to buy and how they’re being marketed to could have worked, even if it would have felt that it came a little too late. Seriously, show, you’ve got plenty to wear.
There’s no need to be pulling these garish combinations from the back of the closet.
There’s a weird moment when they disagree over which direction the jewelry is and Balki points at what’s obviously a wall, but it’s forgivable. Then again, most murders are forgivable when compared to what Perfect Strangers does to its own rekindle-the-passion plot:
Balki plays with a mannequin for three minutes.
This is the hardest I’ve ever seen Perfect Strangers fail the story it sets out to tell. The précis for “Duck Soup” was that the Cousins go duck-hunting, and whatever else happened, by God they were on a lake with guns looking at ducks. Compared to this, “Maid to Order” or even “The Break In” are good stories that had the simple bad luck of existing in the rosy-lesson sitcom era. They were as good as they could be expected to be within that framework.
Or maybe the show really is operating on a much higher intellectual level than I give it credit for, because I couldn’t come up with a better joke metaphor for Jennifer’s apparent frigidity than Larry struggling to navigate a lifeless mannequin’s body parts.
They get down on the floor to pick up the limbs, meaning that when (say it with me now) The Guard Locked the Department Store, he didn’t see them.
I nearly typed “Bronson plays with a mannequin for three minutes” a few paragraphs ago. It’s getting harder and harder to separate him from Balki. That bit earlier when Balki looked around urgently to find the announcement voice–Bronson has been doing that kind of thing for two seasons now. It’s the kind of thing that Balki got away with in Season 3’s “Better Shop Around” with the talking barcode scanner. I could just write it off as the permanence of sitcom characterization, or Bronson just inhabiting a role that the writers had no long-term interest in developing. But seeing him throw himself so fully into singing “Dem Bones”, playing with props, and doing voices, it’s obvious that those other small touches are just autopilot.
The dearth of information (contemporary reporting or otherwise) on Season 8 of Perfect Strangers means I don’t know the whens and whys of its return or its cancellation. I have to speculate.
But I’m 100% on this: no one sets out to write an episode about marital discord and decides halfway through that it’s really about two men who can’t put together a store display. Bronson, are you that full of yourself to demand time to screw around, or are you just practicing for that kids’ show on CBS you’re supposed to get?
Balki was allowed to stay up too late; he should have gone to bed at 7.
Anyway–and I can’t believe I’ve never said this either–Larry asks Balki to give him head.
Another thing I wouldn’t have guessed is that Larry would get a Balki line. He refers to being “torn between two dummies, feeling like a fool”, implying that he’s not sure if he should fuck Balki or take Balki’s advice and fuck the dry wood to his left. They finally notice that no one’s in the store, even though this was the case even before the Guard Locked the Department Store.
Larry, formerly separated from financial happiness through lack of keys, now finds himself in a prison of capitalist excess, trapped with the end result of wringing seven years’ of advertising space out of a one-note character.
After standing right in front of the cash register for a minute, Larry says they should focus on finding a way out of the store. They walk three feet away from the doors and stand in a different spot for the next couple of minutes.
Balki says he has a plan, and after the requisite dialogue where Larry says Balki’s plans are garbage, we don’t hear it.
For the rest of the episode, we don’t hear it. I would have an easier time with this if there were some tie with the beginning of the episode, if Larry said now that the last time he used one of Balki’s solutions, there were unknown rules and it got him in trouble. But even then, isn’t it the usual structure on this show to be presented with a Balki solution, ignore it, fail, and then have to beg for it?
Anyway, in regards to plans, Larry calls himself the engine, and calls Balki the caboose. I hope whoever is writing the complete compendium of regional American homosexual slang is reading this post.
A security dog shows up.
I’m going to partially take back what I said before about Balki running on autopilot with the announcement, and allow that maybe it was “groundwork” for Larry thinking that a growling dog is actually a recording. It’s… dumb (this recording would only be valuable to the store if there was an obvious exit) and worthless (Larry can explain that he thinks it’s a recording without establishing that speakers exist in this world earlier on), but at the very least it shows that one of the two writers thought about two different parts of the story at the same time. It’s more than I can say for the rest of the episode.
Jesus, I feel like I’m cheering a dementia patient on putting their shoes on the correct feet.
(Speaking of, there’s something relatable and almost charming about how the props department just rearranged the letters on the Keds display. They’re dealt pieces they can barely use and just go the best they can.)
There’s like five minutes left in this so Larry continues not to look at the dog and Balki continues to tell Larry there’s a dog, and the dog just sits there.
I’m going to be highly clever and link this back to that Louisville slug joke. This is one leap too far for a story to go, because now there’s no link whatsoever between the situation and climax. I’ll take “Climb Another Billboard” as a kind of gold standard of Perfect Strangers situations (not to mention it’s also one that would have been instantly resolved in real life because someone would come back at some point to check what’s going on). There, the Cousins got themselves into a hopeless scenario on the combination of their own misguided thinking.
But what’s the lesson here? “Boy oh boy, I sure was wrong to compare my relationship to that of people who I already know are nothing like me. I’ll never do it again, because if I do, I’ll lose my other testicle to a dog’s incisors.”
Larry says they should back up, very slowly, his ass against Balki’s crotch the whole time. They start to move, and the dog barks. They do it three more times.
Balki, how about that thing where every animal loves you? How about that Vingi Vingi Bingi ritual?
Ah, there’s the reason we’re in the sports department! It’s so they could throw tennis balls past the dog! It all makes perfect sense now. Who can blame them building an episode around groundbreaking comedy like this?
Then they all stand in place for another minute. I’m not sure how I feel about this. On the one hand, it’s not Bronson the prop comic. On the other hand, it’s almost like someone set themselves the personal challenge of seeing if they could make the Cousins stand in one spot for a full five minutes. If I had any confidence left that the writers had goals in mind for this episode, I’d applaud it.
Balki, fearing imminent death, tells Larry to let Mary Anne know where he keeps his money. He keeps it in the kitchen behind the nutmeg.*****
He calls it a nutmeg nestegg. *sniff* I’m tearing up, y’all. I’ve never been so proud of the audience for not laughing.
Welp, that’s all the jokes they could come up with for that scene! The Cousins run around and the dog chases them. I’ve seen episodes of Boohbah that had greater depth and better resolution.
THE NEXT MORNING, Jennifer and Mary Anne get the very last scene they’ll ever be in all by themselves.
I admire the commitment to their own mental health, waiting until they’ve gotten a full night’s sleep before wondering if their husbands have been murdered.
Jennifer doesn’t believe Larry’s story until Balki backs him up with further detail about how they had to shit on the floor just like the dog does.
Mary Anne chides Balki for missing an anniversary (he wasn’t even gone for 16 hours?), but he hands her a car full of gifts a box. We don’t find out what the gift is.
Mary Anne says her gift for Balki is up inside her PUSSAY
Jennifer asks Larry why he spent all night with another man, surrounded by masculine-coded equipment in a store called Penisdude’s. He says he was trying to save their marriage and she asks why the fuck he would ever think that.
*does a Jim Halpert take directly at you*
Larry: You don’t seem to be interested in me lately. Balki and Mary Anne are always taking cuddle breaks, and, and y-you don’t want to touch me.
If Jennifer’s earlier line was diving into the deep end of bad marriages, Larry’s, I don’t know, digs under the pool. I’m not great at metaphor. Maybe I’m making too much of this because I have been there. Points for having someone say that out loud, but 1) we established last week that he let this build up for 2 whole months, and 2) this isn’t Roseanne and it’ll be fixed in the next minute or so.
But just think, though: if Larry hadn’t been forced to murder a dog, he never would have gotten in touch with his emotions!
Jennifer admits she doesn’t feel attractive, and Larry says she’s never been more so. (He also likes a little tummy on a man and, well, this is the next best thing.)
I love that the very first thing Larry did when Peterman’s opened that day was buy a neck pillow and wait for a disaffected teenager to giftwrap it while he stood there in torn clothing, reeking of marked territory.
Under the credits, Larry poses as a mannequin and Balki tries to pretend he’s a dog by licking his own balls.
Join me next week for “Lethal Weapon”!
Catchphrase count: Balki (1); Larry (0)
Boner count: Balki (2); Larry (0)
Unused Larryoke countdown #5: “Against Mall Odds” – Phil Collins
*Those be the napkins.**
**This is symbolism! Really deep, intense, thought-provoking sitcom symbolism.
***Perfect Strangers adds its own twist to this, as 24 stories per year could easily have been filled if it had explored the lives of its secondary characters at all.
****In many plays, names are meant to evoke certain moods or feelings, or tip you off as to the character’s personality or even philosophical position in the story. For instance, Shakespeare’s Falstaff suggests a falseness, or perhaps the failure of supports. Peterman is the rare English name that has no possible double meanings.
*****A good indicator of personal growth on Balki’s part: he no longer keeps money in the bank because the puppy checks were just too large a temptation.