So, I owe y’all a couple of apologies.
One is that I kind of skimped on the analysis in the final episode’s review.
It’s a bad habit of mine, across a few reviews: I get tired. In many cases, it was the result of my own poor time management or deciding that hey, what the hell, let’s do a weekly comic strip with two different scripts. Why not slow things down by reviewing two feature films? No, that’s not enough, I’ll watch 30 more! Why not do two reviews plus a livestream in the same week while we’re at it? It turns out I’m very much a Bronson: if I get an idea to do something, and it seems remotely viable, I’ll do it and give myself no opportunity to second-guess. The difference being that when I fall flat on my face, it’s not as obvious.
By the time I got to that final montage in “Up, Up and They’re Gay Part 2”, I couldn’t stand thinking of Bronson Pinchot a single second more lest it drive me bonkers. I am, in fact, being monitored closely by a team of physicians and psychiatrists just so I can write this post.
I wanted to be done with Perfect Strangers. Season 8 seems to have that effect on people. The audience (minus the scrawled crayon signatures on Linda’s petition), the actors, and the network itself were more than happy to euthanize the show. It wasn’t itself anymore. They put it out of its misery. So maybe me cutting out before the end was an appropriate way to review it.
However you want to say it–Bronson’s career wore me out, psychoanalyzing Bronson wore me out, I turned into a Bronson–I think we can all agree it was his fault.
But there’s always more to say. Let’s talk about that christing montage.
Its need–maybe even its right–to exist is shaky at best. It’s a mere three minutes, obvious padding for a story already stretched out beyond all recognizable shape. The Cousins sitting in a hospital waiting room talking their way through a clip show would have been better. Hell, the worst possible dad-passes-out-cigars joke, say, Myposian cigars are made with goat hair instead of tobacco, would have been worlds better than Jennifer taking a labor shit at 2,000 feet.
Its placement is baffling. After having both his and his wife’s lives directly threatened by Balki’s insistence on making a joke every 10 seconds, and then spending a couple of weeks in the pokey because Balki talked his wife into stealing a $20,000 balloon, is Larry really going to sit there and reminisce about how great the guy is?
Its aspirations are laughable. After nearly an hour of the worst deliberate series finale, no audience could be expected to look at clips from other seasons and recognize them as being from the same show at all.
Its content–jesus there’s always more to say–its content appears to have been chosen by someone entirely unfamiliar with the show at all. There are at least three clips that weren’t in the aired versions of episodes. Balki in the oven mitt suit:
Balki shaking Larry’s head around:
And Balki and Larry doing some weird pointing thing in the “Piano Movers” episode:
Don’t even get me started on how in the hell Balki or Larry remembered Jennifer’s reverie about them as Laurel and Hardy. I think we’re all tired of the footnote gag.¹
And evidently Larry telling Balki about the dream he had where they rode a motorcycle rates right up there with Balki’s sudden heartbreaking departure to Mypos.
Would any of the clips rate in your personal list of best moments? Larry and Balki standing beside a piano? Larry and Balki looking at Balki’s arm? Larry and Balki looking at the rain?
I’ll grant you the dancing and singing, sure. If we can believe Bronson, those aspects of Perfect Strangers having such a regular place are thanks to him pushing the show in that direction. But…
Balki: Oh Cousin, you ever remember about the time Mr. Gorpley he tell the police about us look around a doorjamb?
Larry: Everyday, Balki. Everyday.
My second apology: I take back every nasty thing I’ve said about episodes in earlier seasons, because Season 8 is the absolute worst.
“The Unnatural”? A masterpiece.
“The Break In”? A misunderstood gem.
“Disorderly Orderlies”? A pioneer in progressive casting of overweight actors.
“Call Me Indestructible”? David Lynch wishes he could write dream sequences half so mindbending.
“Yes Sir, That’s My Baby”?
…yeah actually continue to fuck that one.
When I started reviewing Season 6, I felt that it was a huge drop in quality over the previous one. Season 7 started out the same way. Many fans agree, especially about Season 7. That fact and The Big Bang Theory ending are the only things keeping my faith in humanity going right now.
But when I look back on those seasons now, they were front-loaded with awful episodes. They really didn’t do much worthwhile until they’d gotten through a quarter of the episode order. Both seasons proved that there was still some magic left–mostly in the pairing of Mark Linn-Baker and Bronson Pinchot, but also in the premise itself. There are episodes in both seasons that have a good shot at being in my top 10, whenever I sit down to figure that out.
Am I saying that Season 8 deserved a few more chances, you ask? Fuck no, what is wrong with you, why would you even say that? It hurts me when you say things like that. I thought we were friends.
Some claim that Mt. Everest is the tallest mountain because its peak is farthest from sea level. Some that Chimborazo is, citing its peaks greater distance from the center of the Earth. But if you’re climbing, well, the tallest mountain would be Mauna Kea, which boasts the greatest distance from base to peak.
Season 8 is the worst of all Perfect Strangers season no matter which mountain you’d like to inversely analogize. Worst all around, biggest drop in quality over previous season, and I sure would love for it to be as far from the center of the Earth as possible. I’ll have to cite its 6 episodes as a group to even do a bottom 10 list. No amount of additional episodes could have saved it.
Season 6 and 7, every few episodes, transcended the threadbare premise and characterizations, finding new stories that worked with Larry and Balki, or creating ways to recontextualize them. Though the writers regularly phoned it in with episode premises–what if ghost say boo? what if Balki draw picture? what if they babies?–and though you could almost hear the screech and scrape as they did the necessary piece-moving to get the Cousins married, they kept things worthwhile enough that you’d want to come back. And “Get Me To the Dump on Time”, which has to have been intended as a series finale, transcended the rest of the season’s faults by softening Larry back to his Seasons 1-3 self, earning a lot of the emotion it asked its audience to feel.
Season 8 comes across like everyone gave up entirely on Perfect Strangers being anything at all. If anyone was asking anything of the audience, it was Bronson inviting them to bask in his genius.
There’s very little to summarize of what the season did. The best thing I can say about Season 8 is that there were some very grounded ideas of what could happen in a four-person household where each couple was a funhouse mirror version of the other. What if one couple’s marriage and pregnancy went swimmingly, while the other’s hit roadblock after roadblock, neither for any discernible reason?
It’s a solid enough premise that it could have been its own television show. Labor of Love, perhaps. The Baby Lottery. Name the families the Breeches and the Bradleys. Episodes titled “Doula Banjos” and “Auntie Partum” and “Cervix Station” and “Embryo’ the Irish”.
That idea drove the scenarios of each episode, and if you squint real hard, turn down the volume, and then turn your television off, plenty of vestiges remain. Season 8 of Perfect Strangers always seemed to be on the verge of turning into that show. But, given that Melanie and Rebeca getting any sort of prominence was about as likely as, say, the Beach Boys ever getting their first black fan, that better show remained latent.
“Lethal Weapon” and “The Baby Quiz” come closest to being that show. Amazingly, given that it ceded so much of its screentime to Bronson that it had to cut out a crucial sense-making scene, “Lethal Weapon” is the only episode of the six that managed to follow most of the beats of the actual story someone wrote. And “Baby Quiz” started out with an explicit promise that it was going to be about that overarching story.
On the plus side, Perfect Strangers managed to add a complication to an already fertile (haha) premise: what if the couple who had everything easy were the ones who deserved it least? To analyze how Bronson’s performance accomplishes this is nearly futile: it’s impossible to tell whether this was any sort of deliberate choice, since he proceeded to do the exact same thing to two other sitcoms which assuredly did not intend for their leads to be total jackasses. Rebeca Arthur’s performance–the cold readings of Mary Anne’s put-downs-veiled-as-mental-deficiencies–are the only real indication we have that there was some intentional complexity in what Perfect Strangers was trying to achieve.
I wonder if–for those who haven’t spent the past four years spending every moment of their free time thinking about how ridiculous Larry be–that framework for Season 8 even comes across clearly. (I’m sure that sounds like a humblebrag, but I do have some serious concerns about my ability to re-integrate into society in a few weeks.) As it is, all the two-couple conflict is largely relegated to the women’s sole running joke, played out as they leave the room so we can get on with Larry and Balki playing with *AHEM* watersports equipment at the mall.
But that framework being there at least comforts me that someone, at some point in this season’s creation, gave a shit. Unfortunately that’s about as far as the craftsmanship went. Actually, I’ll qualify that a little. Season 8 is, in some ways, a battle between story and stand-up act.
I’ve made a big stink about about how much story and characterization suffered to make way for the Cousins fucking around with the props; about how lines and scenes were axed, and even characters were pushed to the periphery. By the time Season 7 came around, I was used to it, and treasured any time an episode rose above that baseline. Though, at that same point, the promise of Melanie Wilson getting prominence in stories looked like it was taken as a personal threat to Bronson. We first heard about it from “rag mags”, though darn if Bronson didn’t back up every tabloid claim. When Melanie threatened to get more lines of dialogue, Bronson would whip out a three-minute Robin Leach impression, or a set of Star Trek impressions, or improvise until she’d try to get the scene back on track, and then refuse to let her have even that.
And now, in Season 8, Bronson really showed his ass. That baseline–of the show hurrying through the necessary plot-establishing lines–was at its most severe here. I wouldn’t be surprised if Balki was given dialogue to express his motivations in any given script’s first draft, but for the final versions of the episodes (with the exception of “Lethal Weapon”), Larry is the only one of the two whose ends, means, and ways are clearly stated. It’s amazing to me now that there are any scenes where the Cousins verbally disagree about the story happening, and I’m sure I can thank director Judy Askins for keeping Bronson that much on track.
Each episode this season has two divergences from story. One: that it hurries through the plot to get to the physical comedy. That’s SOP for Perfect Strangers. But Two: that, once there, it becomes the Bronson Show. Season 7 had the good sense to suggest that Balki had undiagnosed ADHD; but Season 8 makes you wonder whether he can focus long enough to swallow food more than halfway. With one exception–”The Baby Shower”–if there are props around, it’s Bronson and Bronson alone who gets to play with them. If there’s room for one funny voice, Bronson will do three. If the story explicitly demands Jennifer and Mary Anne talk for longer than a minute, Bronson gets to hump the inside of a glass box.
I’ll credit Bronson with making Balki the type of character who’s expressive in a number of ways–song, dance, wordplay, physical playfulnesss–but Bronson confused sizzle with steak and makes that the entirety of Balki… and then finally ditched even that when it wasn’t good enough for him. Bronson decided that not just the character, but the whole show, are his. His spoor is all over Season 8.
There’s a choice quote from the interview Chris Mann did with Bronson that I left out of my review of his career. I’m not going to apologize for the omission. YOU try writing 80,000 words about an insufferable asshole and see how many quotes you end up not finding space for. For those of you who didn’t read the “How I Spent the Rest of My Career” series, well, first of all, bravo. Send me your other self-care tips, I know I need them. But the interview Bronson did with Chris Mann in early 2012 for Mann’s Retroality.TV site, though mostly serving the purpose of promoting The Bronson Pinchot Project, also served the purpose of portraying Bronson as someone who had matured, who had found meaning outside of acting, and who had finally made some headway through his own childhood trauma. When asked how he infused Perfect Strangers with meaning for himself in contrast to other roles with actual depth:
I made it resonant for myself by finding… first of all the physical comedy was never on the page, never ever was that on the page. And I naturally gravitated toward that because that was a way to give a dimension, another dimension. I mean, you know, the text would sometimes be, I don’t know, Balki and Larry, they get up and they get stranded on the roof. And I thought “Okay, well that’s… that’s a situation, it’s not really a story. But I found ways to give color to it, and then people responded to that, and then they would (?) this magical–magical–secret between me and the audience….
And then he gets into his whole thing about psychically conveying his traumatic childhood to others who went through similar things. He continues:
I remember one of the writers–who later became a good friend, but at the time he was an adversary–and he said, he said “Well, we had a great line for your entrance, but oh, excuse me, the audience was so busy applauding they couldn’t even hear it.” And I… and I said to him at the time “You should thank your lucky stars they feel so deeply, that they do that just cause I walk on. It’s not me they’re doing it for, it’s the connection!” And, you know, it it was so harsh, and later we became close, years afterwards, and he said “Gee, I, I didn’t…” I said, they said, I said “No problem”, cause I never look back….
Just me, or did Bronson remember by the time he got to the end of that story that the writer hadn’t actually vindicated him?
If Bronson treated one writer this way, might he have treated others the same? If you’re told explicitly, or overhear a colleague being told, that in no uncertain terms you are on the very bottom of the totem pole, and then saw that actor go off your script every chance they got, would you have much motivation left to make him look good? I’m not saying all of the writers throughout Perfect Strangers’s later seasons gave up, and I certainly can’t know if they phoned it in for that reason; and one third of Season 8’s credited writers appear to have been new to the show. But it sure does sound like fertile ground for a vicious cycle to grow and eventually result in stories as checked-out as “The Baby Shower” or “Up, Up and Away”.
It should really be no surprise that Season 8 of Perfect Strangers is the end result of every trend we’ve seen so far. No supporting characters, no cultural conflict, complete abandonment of story, conflict, and the female leads (strange how those last three are essentially the same thing this time around, huh?), and no real focus on Balki as a foreigner.*
And “Up, Up and Away” is the culmination of every behind-the-scenes power struggle that–by all evidence–the tabloids may well have gotten right. Rebeca Arthur is pushed out of the story for most of the runtime. Jennifer is punished with no support during her labor. Bronson gets every monologue and nearly every punchline. The babies–the whole goal of the season–are seen for maybe a minute total. And the final montage was put together by whichever editor got the short straw. I’d bet good money that Bronson dictated the show ending with a hot air balloon so he could scratch his Wizard of Oz itch.
Speaking of analysis I dropped the ball on (there’s always more to say), how did it take me this long to put that together with Bronson’s shoe fetish?
His stomping (see what I did there? with shoes?) all over the final six episodes of the sitcom that gave him the most stardom he’d ever have ensured that Perfect Strangers went out on a sour note. Whether anyone intended it, the finale asked us neither to look back on eight years of meaningful memories, nor to look ahead to a promising future in blissful domesticity, but to hate the character of Balki Bartokomous. For the die-hard Perfect Strangers fans who showed up for five weeks in July and August of 1993 to watch these episodes, I can’t imagine that any of them (sit down, Linda) felt that it had been worth coming back at all, unless all they had ever cared about was fantasizing about Bronson Pinchot’s lips.
Bronson got everything he wanted; and everyone stepped back and let him have it.
And he had the gall to be angry during the taping of “Up, Up and Away, part 2”! I feel for Rebeca Arthur, who was ordered off the set when Bronson got upset with her. I feel for the audience member who, according to a tabloid, Bronson had ordered out of the studio for sneezing. I feel for Melanie Wilson, whom Bronson once sexually assaulted and who he repeatedly forced out of scenes. I feel for Mark Linn-Baker, who continued to show up even when his co-star no longer saw any pressing need for them to work up physical comedy bits together.
And, hey, I feel for Bronson, too. When I got to the credits of “Up, Up and Away, part 2”, where the cast were saying goodbye, I forgot that I had actually seen Mark and Bronson do the Dance of Joy that last time. Even though Perfect Strangers didn’t show it, Entertainment Tonight did during its segment on the episode’s taping. Bronson says he broke down crying when an audience member asked him and Mark to dance one final time, and you can hear the water in his voice in the ET clip. Both Perfect Strangers and Entertainment Tonight were kind enough to not use the footage of him crying, the latter simply mentioning that the request “shook Pinchot up”.
But–per his 2013 reddit “Ask Me Anything” thread–Bronson thought that his breakdown aired. For 20 years, Bronson Pinchot thought that the world saw him angry and crying and at an overall low point, emotionally. I can’t imagine what kind of skin it would take to think that was broadcast to the world and not simply refuse to ever show my face in public again. That’s a lot to carry around.
I know I’m painting you a bleak picture, but… that’s where the evidence points.
The first six episodes of Perfect Strangers was ABC taking a chance on a premise they weren’t too sure of, and discovering that viewers wanted it.
The final six episodes of Perfect Strangers was ABC taking one final chance on a show they weren’t too sure of, and discovering that no one at all wanted it.
Its first season allowed Bronson Pinchot room to experiment with the character of Balki, taking it (so he says) in directions not originally in the script.
Its last season allowed Bronson Pinchot room to do what he liked with the character of Balki, taking it in directions no one would ever write.
Perfect Strangers began life as a Balki: full of potential, well-meaning missteps, and high hopes. In its attempt to fit into the contemporary (sitcom) world, it “quoted” pop culture (Taxi, Mork & Mindy, Bosom Buddies) out of context to try to fit in.
But it ended as a Cousin Larry, full of anxiety, bitterness, and devoid of hope. It finally boiled down to a man who felt he’d been so overlooked that he’d dive into any get-rich-quick scheme (monologue, funny voice, pulled face) that would prove his worth and superiority.
I’d love to hear a rosier take on it, from anyone who was at all close to the action. I’d love to know–if Bronson’s co-stars did have a rough time of things–that they’ve since matured in the same ways as Jo Marie Payton, that they’ve decided to be happy they got the success they did, and to not begrudge others the spotlight.
There are so many unanswered questions, still, about Season 8 of Perfect Strangers. Why did it come back? Why was it going to be a 13-episode season and not a full 24? When did it get shortened to six? And by whom? And for what reasons? At what point did the actors know it would be only 6? Did they think it would be 13 at some point? What other stories did the writers have planned? Was “Up, Up and Away” the intended season midpoint? Why did it get made at all, with all these problems? Why did it air at all, with the episodes as terrible as they were?
I can’t know, at least not with the information that’s out there right now.
There will always be more to say.
But I think I’ll stop here.
Best episode: Haha nope
Worst episode: “The Baby Quiz”
Best one-off character: Baby shower guest #3
Worst one-off character: Baby shower guest #1
Best Balki moment: Balki almost dies
Worst Balki moment: Balki doesn’t die
Final Dance of Joy total: 26
Season 8 boner count: Balki (3); Larry (1)
Season 8 catchphrase count: Balki (4); Larry (3)
Final cumulative boner count: Balki (25); Larry (26.5)
Larry wins the boner count by a tip lol
Final cumulative catchphrase count: Balki (119); Larry (69)
Balki wins the catchphrase count
Larry got 69 though LOL
Join me next week for an interview with Ross Brown, creator of Meego!
*You’re thinking of the root and the oven mitt suit, and you’re right, but only the suit–not the belief in being cursed, nor the belief in organic cures–unequivocally reads as foreign.
May a Myposian laxative kick in during an interview with the mayor. Footnotes.
What kind of love letters does Bronson Pinchot write?