We open at the house to find Larry having cooked some eggs in a transparent frying pan.
This is foreshadowing, no doubt, of the dark path this episode will take. The fragile egg serving as symbol for the womb, the pan ensuring a clear view to the destruction of the possibility of birth. To add a layer to this: cooking eggs makes a higher percentage of their protein bioavailable, but can reduce the amount of Vitamin A. The twist: store-bought eggs are unfertilized, meaning this womb contains no viable life.
What is at risk from this double-edged sword? Whose womb? Whose life? Whose nutrients?
Won’t you all be glad when I’m done with this tired eggs-egetical schtick in a couple of months?
The joke is that Jennifer wants all of the eggs, even what’s left on Mary Anne (Sagittarius)’s plate. I mean, I guess it’s a joke–the audience laughs–but since Bronson isn’t here to to shove the frying pan handle up his ass and pretend he’s a beaver, who knows.
Seriously, I think this is the only sitcom I’ve ever seen that went for the bare minimum of pregnancy humor. I’m used to strange food cravings, stranger food pairings, and maybe even pregnant characters being ravenous in a broad way, stuffing food into their mouths, aggressively taking it from others. I’ve never seen polite requests for extra protein in one’s diet be treated like insight into the wacky world of childbearing. Like, at least make her lick the still-scorching pan or something!
Larry makes the mistake of asking where Balki is, and Mary Anne says he’s out in the garden picking flowers.
Balki runs in yelling at the top of his lungs about things dying, then he runs right back out and right back in again. On the one hand, it’s noise and motion for easy laughs, but I think it’s solving a small problem pretty cleverly. Balki has something urgent going on, and pausing for the audience to laugh just won’t work here.
When he comes back in, he reveals that all of the ants from his ant farm are dying.
Balki says that the ant in his hand (“Mitch”) still has a pulse, and after talking about it for five minutes, proceeds to give him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
The bit doesn’t end.
Nope, it’s still going.
I don’t remember if I first encountered this on the playground or at summer camp, but the ur-bit is basically: kid has a flea circus that you can’t see in the palms of his hands. He tells you all of their amazing feats, and then bids you join him in giving them a round of applause, forgetting for the moment that they’re still in his hands. It’s a one-man bit, but it at least provides space for creativity as to what kind of amazing things the fleas are doing. It’s over when the fleas die.
But merely co-opting public-domain jokes isn’t enough for Bronson: he manages to make the whole thing ten times as self-centered. Mary Anne gets a line, but otherwise everyone just stands there and stares at him while he fellates a bug. Can someone please tell me who was in charge of children’s programming at CBS in 1992, so I can send them a Hickory Farms cheese sampler for not giving Bronson a Saturday morning show?
It just won’t end. You know, I reserve the right to end this blog and never look back at any point. This is the closest I’ve ever come. When Philip was doing his ALF reviews and I started planning this blog, I figured there was no way Perfect Strangers could be that bad. I thought I’d get an ending like Full House’s, or Family Matters, just a bland petering out of story that manages to scrape together a relatively heartwarming ending. I never thought they would just hand over whole scenes to Bronson.
(Suddenly, Casey felt terribly uneasy, and he began to pray for the strength to make it through the next few episodes.)
Balki swallows the ant, Balki retrieves the ant from his throat. The bit doesn’t end.
Mark has a look on his face that says “I founded my own theatre company, but this shit gets you hired by Domino’s?” Larry encourages Balki to take all damn day with it and do some chest compressions (actually, this joke is the only thing that comes close to salvaging the bit).
Balki finally finishes, and Larry uses a tissue to wipe up Balki’s mess after all that strenuous activity with his hands 😉
About the only thing that works for me in this whole scene so far is Balki’s take on an ant farm. For a character who grew up sharing a bed with livestock, the show has never once delivered a good “Balki gets a pet” episode. Season 2’s “Dog Gone Blues” came closest–it kind of tied dogs to Balki’s experience as a shepherd–but, shit, anyone who left their home overseas could miss a dog. And we’ve since found out that Balki was very close to both household pigs and particular sheep, so it made, you know, total since for him to buy a tropical bird in Season 5’s “Bye Bye Birdie”. I’m guessing it was just too prohibitive to have certain types of livestock on a soundstage, but how in the hell was it Larry who decided to turn their backyard into a farm in Season 7’s “Wild Turkey”?
There are certain variations of Balki who would be the perfect character to own an ant farm. One is the childlike Balki from Season 1-3 Balki who would be fascinated by the “American” take on farming.* Seasons 4-6 Balki would have received the ant farm from Mama and then have had to protect them once Larry learns that their shit is the equivalent of pure cocaine. But even without any of that, the aggregate knowledge of how Mypos works turns this into a nice joke all on its own. We’ve learned that any idiom or other quirk of the English language that makes it to Mypos is accepted without question. “Ant farms” exist, meaning that you can be an ant farmer. Balki never realizes that it’s a cheap toy and is excited when he finds an “ant farm” the previous residents must have left behind.
It works, and that’s the best thing I can say for an aspect of this episode that doesn’t even feel like it was in the first draft of the script.
Balki explains that he has fallen prey to the Exterminiki curse: now that he’s 29 years old, everything he touches dies instantly.
Seriously, though, I kind of doubt the ant farm was in the initial script. It’s not quite necessary to get this scenario across.
The setup: Balki is out picking flowers.
The reveal: ???
The conclusion: Balki is cursed to kill everything he loves.
How is the reveal not that the flowers have died? OR: how was the setup not that Balki was out checking on his ant farm? Look, I don’t want really want to spend any more time talking about that bit, but I really do believe that the sensibility in Season 8 was to let Bronson do what he wanted for as long as he wanted.
While Larry gets more food for Jennifer (LOL), Balki explains that in 1583 his ancestor, Porkos the Butcher, scammed his customers, bringing down the wrath of local wizard, Dave** upon him and his descendants. Can someone please explain to me how killing animals by touching them makes a butcher’s job worse?
Because all of what Balki explained was so fucking complicated, Jennifer gets a line recapping it.
(Remember how I wouldn’t shut up about the weird staging last season, how everyone would stand in a line? Now each character seems to be rushing to their next mark rather than making their way naturally. I really can’t get a fix on what the hell Judy Askins (née Piolispizza) is doing. Did she completely check out or is she trying something new? Anyway, thanks for reading this pointless aside.)
Mary Anne runs to her next mark to ask why it’s happening now, and why it couldn’t have happened to Mama.
Balki tells us the heartbreaking story of watching his father on a hillside when he was only three years old, surrounded by the corpses of half their flock, his clothes torn, beating at his body with bloodied fists, crying to the gods to let him die, just let him die says the Bud Dry slogan “Why ask why?”
I’m glad the show even got to ask Mary Anne’s question, since both the sensemaking lines, and the women’s lines, are usually the first to get cut. But the answer should at least be “sometimes it skips a generation”, not “I forgot not only the centuries-old feud, but also the other aspect of my family that’s set it apart from all others on the island the past 400 years”. Shouldn’t there have been, oh idunno, some urgency to get a woman pregnant before he turned 29?
Okay, I’ll back off: it’s unfair to demand lots of rules from a sitcom plot. I’ve praised Perfect Strangers the past couple of weeks for at least acknowledging the heaps of raw material it has to work with between pregnancies and personality differences. It could have sailed pretty easily down that path, giving two or three lines of conflict to the women every week while the Cousins accidentally get possessed by Lactos, the Myposian pregnancy demon. Season 7 only once had Balki’s cultural background drive the plot***, so I’m glad that I can only say that kind of starting point is a rarity and not completely nonexistent in these final episodes.
Balki: I am a walking death machine.
Aha! The Balki of seven years ago would have thought of himself as a wild animal, or a plague, or a force of nature, but his path to becoming an American capitalist is all but complete. Last season we saw him turn his personal tragedy into profit. First the plan to use grow lights on Myposian plants, and now we learn that Balki had asked Larry for an air conditioner for the ant farm. The reference to “Better Shop Around” is too specific to overlook. If this show chronicles the transformation of Balki from a foreigner to a full American, then all that’s left is for him to externalize himself, copy himself as a new American with a blank slate. What do you want to bet he utilizes a machine to do this?
Bronson keeps improvising about his dead ants while Mark uses the free time to try to remember if he has time to swing by the dry cleaners’ before lunch the next day.
Larry does his best to take the blame for the ants’ death, saying that it must have been when he kicked the shit out of the ant farm after listening to Balki talk about it every fucking day.
Balki asks for confirmation. Is he really free of the curse? Will this episode actually follow a story?
So, can nobody test out the negative hypothesis here? All they have to do is just go to the Chicago Botanic Garden, an animal shelter, a maternity ward. I’d sure like to see the Cousins throw some uncooked babies around, wouldn’t you?
Larry smugs off to Mary Anne about how she can watch and learn from him when it comes to handling Balki.
Mary Anne’s expression here says a lot, I think, and this is the only moment so far this season where I wished there were a bigger episode order. Larry’s only ever gotten to put down Balki this way in front of a sympathetic Jennifer. Doing this in front of Balki’s wife ups the stakes on what Larry has to atone for. The episode doesn’t do anything with it, because Larry’s only ever wrong so that Balki can be right. But we’ve only got three episodes left, and there’s no way they’re any better than what we’ve seen so far. Let a guy dream for a minute, would you?
Balki comes back in with some dead flowers and yells at the top of his lungs for everyone to stand back. The episode already made reference to how hot it was outside. Certainly the ants dying second is the more surprising, right?
Look at all these people, walking around, carefree. They don’t appreciate what they have. I hope YOU appreciate not being touched by Balki.
Mary Anne reads the business section of the newspaper (she saw an article about the gross domestic product and thought it was a consumer guide to diaper brands), and Larry and Jennifer come in talking about their Lamaze class. I… actually like one of the jokes here, and I’m not ashamed to admit this. Larry is jealous of another couple at the class, who won’t shut up about how great their unborn child is.
Larry: It’s always “our fetus this, our fetus that”.
The other joke is that Larry fainted multiple times during the class. Shouldn’t, um, every out-of-the-ordinary physical reaction register as potential evidence for the Exterminiki curse?
What’s the best thing these characters can do in the precious few moments they have to themselves? That’s right, you guessed right, talk about Balki. He’s upstairs trying out the cure Mama sent him.
Larry hazards a guess that the cure is rubbing chitterlings all over his (his Balki’s) balls.
Nope! It’s a full-body oven mitt with tassels on it. I’ll just assume you’ve instantly apprehended the multiple layers of symbolism here. I’m actually glad we’ve got this very obviously foreign prop going this episode, because Bronson has all but dropped the Greek Myposian accent he worked so hard on. It’s been waning generally for a couple of years, but this season so far, and especially this brief scene, it’s all over the place.
While Balki’s characterization loosens, this might be a good spot to point out that Larry’s tightened somewhere along the way, and I’d never noticed. The man used to wear sweaters, but this season alone we’ve seen him wear a tie on a day he’s supposed to just get out of his wife’s hair for her baby shower, a tie to the mall, and a tie to Lamaze class, which he still doesn’t take off for dinner. It’s a small but interesting way to unearth a detail about Larry’s personality.
Balki tries to continue to contribute to the household, and rebuffs Larry’s offer to toss the salad.****
Yep, here he goes. How is this necessary? Is the salad alive or some shit? Or did Balki finally subscribe to germ theory?
You know, I’ve been starting to think about the inevitable Bottom 10 Perfect Strangers list I’ll have to write, and god damn, every single episode from this season will be on it, won’t they?
There’s knowing a show, and there’s knowing a show. The way I know this show is that Balki already owned a suit of armor. The way the writer of this script knew this show is that you have to write towards the physical comedy. This scene is certainly well-constructed, and funny to boot–on the page. It’s the tragedy that makes it funny, that this man–who barely ever has to face misfortune–tries to deny its hold on his routine and his role in this family. And who doesn’t like to see food thrown around?
The script was written towards what everyone knew the show’s strengths to be: physical comedy and Bronson Pinchot, specifically. But Bronson can’t even try to be frustrated here; he’s enjoying the spotlight too much. There are multiple points in this scene where he’s close to breaking and laughing. He even breaks the fourth wall, Looney Tunes-style, as he throws the remainder of the salad at Jennifer.
The others pretend not to notice that this man is carrying so much weight, doing the physical comedy all on his own. They sit there and indulge him, pretending that his career isn’t already over. Oops, I mean, that he’s trying to serve dinner all on his own and that he hasn’t gone nuts! My bad.
When he offers to drench them in dressing, Jennifer asks him to speed this shit up. Balki fumbles around with a congealed piece of beef, and Larry finally steps in.
He burns his hands, shrieks, and sticks them in glasses of iced tea. Hey! Balki was about to use those props for his next bit!
Then Balki goes to get a knife for the bread he baked and…
…wow. You know how I was talking about this show exploring some real dark moments? Larry hides behind his wife and unborn child.
I was going to bitch about how the scene was devolving into a list of props Balki says he’s about to bring to the table (the bit doesn’t end), but holy shit Larry just revealed himself to be the least qualified person to ever have his own family.
And the only person who seems to have any sense of the utter fuckedness of this whole situation is Mary Anne. For an episode whose main stakes are that Balki might kill a baby, they sure don’t give Mary Anne much to do. But Rebeca Arthur, in her own way, is nailing it with the way she’s interpreting Mary Anne’s silence. Completely aside from whether she believes he’s cursed, she knows Balki is hurting, and she doesn’t know what to do other than support him every step of the way, laughing when he laughs, scolding the others for their lack of support.
One line–that they should treat Balki “like any normal person with the touch of death”–is superb as far as Mary Anne lines go. But what’s impressive here is that Rebeca puts a catch in her voice, the holding-back-her-tears kind of catch, when she says it. When the script just has her look Larry’s way while he’s saying a punchline, she turns it into a smoldering stare, a guarantee that she’s going to remember every meanness. You know, at least until that memory gets replaced by a commercial jingle or something.
Anyway Balki tells Mary Anne to go
sleep in the nursery stay with her mother for awhile until the curse goes away. Jennifer says she’ll go as well. Larry has an aneurysm over this, and I’m torn. On the one hand, dude has no sense of reading someone else’s emotional state. On the other, Jennifer’s justification is that Balki tends to be right most of the time. It’s hard to know if Larry is a lost cause unless someone actually clues him in on how they themselves are managing to be decent people. On a third rhetorical hand, he’s berated and shouted at everyone he loves so often, and just used his own baby as a shield. Fuck this guy.
Mark turns to the audience, begs for them to end the show. Please, he cries, please, he stumbles, he wanders the set, clutching shirt tails, clipboards, and one by one, they console him. They touch his face, and they nod, and he falls to the floor, sobbing, thanking them. He sits back down, where Balki pours tea on his crotch.
So, you know, Christ what a shitshow, etc. What appears to have been the last good Perfect Strangers idea got hollowed out by Bronson so he could try out all the great new accents and facial expressions he’d learned from 1930s comedies.
I’m tempted to say that this was the episode that killed Perfect Strangers. Meta-jokes will never stop being my favorite thing, so there you go: the Exterminiki curse was so powerful it reached into the real world.
I don’t have much to base this on. All I can really glean from the contemporary reporting is that Perfect Strangers was supposed to get 13 episodes, and at some point it got changed to 6. It was supposed to air in August 1992, and then it was supposed to air in April 1993, and then it aired in July 1993. At some point a while back I noticed that the first handful of episodes of Season 7 were recorded well ahead of the rest of the season. It made me wonder if there was some worry on ABC’s part that an aging Perfect Strangers couldn’t retain its viewership, and it wasn’t ready to lose money on it. Episodes were filmed pretty much weekly for most of its existence, and I do notice that there was a two-week gap between filming “Lethal Weapon” and “Baby Quiz”.
I’m in such an information desert here that it’s easy to let everything signify. Even with the idea of shows “jumping the shark”, that you can pinpoint the moment when a show seals its own fate, even with that idea firmly in our collective consciousness, it’s a bold claim to say that a single episode killed a show. Especially when the some of the people who wrote for it are still alive, and quite possibly reading because you’ve contacted them about an interview.
It’s easy for me to think of “Lethal Weapon” being the episode that prompted someone to pull the plug as fast as they could on Perfect Strangers… because that’s exactly my reaction to it. If this is the way it’s going to be from here on out, it’s not Perfect Strangers anymore, and it’s best to stop here.
The previous two episodes made numerous teases for what viewers could expect throughout the season: Mary Anne and Jennifer having very different pregnancies, and a whole lot of silliness from the Cousins. With 13 episodes, the former could have led to something more satisfying. That the show went for an episode not related to the babies at all here could be an indication of confidence that there’d have more time. But for the past two weeks, at the very least both leads were involved in the physical comedy. The plot for “Lethal Weapon” puts the physical comedy squarely in Balki’s hands, and rightfully so, as it derives from the plot. But he appears to be taking far more than he was given.
Was that one week not spent filming there to allow everyone to regroup and pick out the last three scripts they wanted to end the season? The counterarguments, I assume, must be numerous. I don’t know what the turnaround time on getting props and costumes ordered and ready, or getting stories worked through from table drafts to shooting scripts, or revising everyone’s contracts, would be.
I’m sure I’m making way too much of the bits of contextless information I have. I can’t know for sure what impact this episode had on the show’s end. It didn’t exist in a vacuum, tastes were changing, room had to be made to take chances on other actors and other ideas. But I’m damn certain about Bronson taking more than his share, and no one reining him in.
Why am I so confident about this, I make you ask for the purposes of faux-conversational writing style?
Because the next scene was cut out entirely, and what it established was necessary for the climax of the episode to make any fucking sense.
You don’t have to look any further than the inevitable montage in the final episode to see proof of it:
It would have been the only Season 8 scene in the Chronicle, and the final appearance of RT (Resurrected Terror) Wainwright; and I think it would have offered some very welcome continuity between this and the previous season.
The scene plays out thus: Larry and the suited Balki are chased out of the elevator by angry colleagues since Balki pressed all the buttons. Wainwright comes in and tells the Cousins that the Dimitri strip Balki turned in was shit and to do it better, threatening to fire Larry and only Larry if better fails to occur. Balki fucks around with some pencils. Larry, exploiting the Myposian collective unconscious Urangst, tricks Balki into thinking he’ll suffer a bad case of hypodactyly without oxygen getting to his fingers. The gloves then off, Larry fakes a faint. Balki doesn’t catch him and says he expects liars to lie.
So, yeah, the part of the episode they spent the most money on (putting a set back together and hiring extra actors) had to be trashed so Balki could throw salad and do accents when pretending to talk like a dying ant.
Actually, I’m understating it. Two scenes were cut so Balki could fumble meat all on his own. The final scene–the goddam resolution–where Mary Anne comes home to say she’s not going to abandon Balki in his darkest hour, got the axe too. Both of these scenes were filmed; the studio audience saw them.*****
How the fuck do you end up having to do that? Who was in charge of making sure an episode doesn’t run over 22 minutes? I have no idea who on set would have a general idea of what needs to be tightened up, or what can breathe, during rehearsals to reach that time, but there has to be someone, right? Someone who does this kind of thing day in and day out? I’d imagine someone with the experience of Joel Zwick had a sense of when an episode was pushing the time limit, but I really don’t know enough of the nuts and bolts here. It’s tempting to think that Bronson didn’t drag shit out like this in rehearsals, but it’s also tempting to think that Judy Askins wouldn’t stop him if he did.
Are there other explanations? Was dropping whole scenes much more common back then? I hope there are, because the only conclusion I have is that Bronson was treating Perfect Strangers as his own personal showcase and everyone let him. Balki removed too many cans from the bottom of the pyramid, and the whole thing’s toppling.
Do you even care about the rest of the episode at this point? The next few episodes? This is the most depressed Perfect Strangers has ever made me in terms of knowing how much one person can ruin a show with his own ego.
Just three more episodes. We can do this.
THE NEXT EVENING, Balki tells us over the establishing shot that he had been so certain he could draw Dimitri with his mitts on. Yep, that sure did cover everything we needed to know from the missing scene and avoided giving the audience useless information!
The Cousins come in the back door carrying boxes of fried chicken. Can Larry not heat up a damn can of Chef Boyardee? Even I knew how to throw a Kid Cuisine tray into a microwave in 1992.
We’re getting dangerously close to the end of the episode without any lines to make us feel bad for Balki. So, when Larry says that he himself is cursed, Balki whips out “maybe you’re only cursed because you have me as a cousin”.
Larry–again channeling my own feelings–just mutters “fuck you” under his breath and keeps eating his chicken. He’s even loosened his tie, so you know he’s really upset. Larry says he just wants to enjoy his spicy chicken wings, wash his hands, and masturbate, ideally in that order so we don’t get another physical comedy scene.
Balki says some names of varieties of cooked chicken in what no one bothered to tell him wasn’t actually a Southern accent.
Larry starts choking on his chicken, and Balki starts smiling and laughing. From my perspective, this barely registers as abnormal: I’ve been watching Balki secretly torture Larry when no one else is looking every week for over three years now. But to the home audience, who are used to sitcom characters either telegraphing or just plain telling you their plans, Larry choking doesn’t read as manipulative.
Better yet, think of this scene from the perspective of someone who only started watching with this season. You and I know that Larry is a manipulative person, but that’s because we’ve seen him sell Balki some line of bullshit 100 times by now. In Season 8, we’ve seen him take without permission, and we’ve seen him ignore dire warnings to satisfy his lusts. We could look at this scene completely in isolation and guess that the scene before it must have included some trickery from Larry.
Balki’s lines clue the audience in that he thinks Larry’s bluffing, but without having seen the prior devious attempt on Larry’s part, the whole thing barely holds together. Larry’s dying, Balki doesn’t give a shit… and why? Because Balki couldn’t draw Dimitri with oven mitts on? To the uninitiated or less-than-100%-attentive viewer, Balki’s just turned into an asshole.
Anyway, Larry stumbles around the kitchen gasping for air. I’m pretty much out of metaphors and symbols at this point, we’re just watching a sitcom die because a fucking bit won’t end.
Balki finally takes off his mitts and gives Larry the Heimlich maneuver, and I fulfill my quota of out-of-context fetishistic gay sex screengrabs for the week. The only way to defeat death is with some hot lovin’, etc.
Larry spits the chicken into the front row, and it sits to this day, encased in lucite, on Linda’s fireplace mantel.
Larry just wheezes for a while, because who really needs to see Mary Anne ecstatic that her husband’s alright?
Balki forces an exhausted Larry to do the Dance of Joy with him.
Under the credits, the dinner scene continues to refuse to end.
Join me next week for “The Baby Quiz”, but I really don’t blame you if you don’t want to.
Catchphrase count: Balki (0); Larry (1)
Boner count: Balki (0); Larry (0)
Dance of Joy running total: 25
Unused Larryoke Countdown #4: “Killing My Sitcom With His Schtick” – Roberta Flack
*Just imagine how insufferable I would be had I the chance the talk about capitalism finding a way to make you buy–and then wait weeks to receive through the mail–a handful of dirt and bugs.
**The similarities to ALF are accumulating: ALF mentions a planet named “Dave” in an early episode.
***”Weekend at Ferdinand’s”; “Citizenship”–in its broad strokes–could translate into a story about anyone from anywhere else.
****THE ONE TIME
*****All this information comes from the fansite.