Welcome back! Let’s go!
Ooh-hoo, looks like we’ve got a new character this week!
We open at the Caldwell to find a Vitner’s Snacks truck driving by. Once inside the apartment, we find Balki using a wall-mounted soda can crusher. And oh man I forgot those even existed; we had one when I was a kid, and I loved the shit out of it, too. But pairing two symbols of junk food consumption so close together means that we have already discovered this week’s theme.
Balki slam dunks the can into a laundry basket and congratulates himself on saving the environment, and sheesh is there a lot to unpack with that. Recycling is too often simply a way to tell ourselves that we are forgiven for our sins of consumption. Waste is a product of how much one uses, but the can crusher–as well as using a “trash can” you can see to the inside of–turns the act of consumption into a product of how much one has “saved”. Not only that but the mechanism depends on selling the consumer yet another product. It’s a cultural antacid that allows the consumer to wallow in self-centeredness: Balki has to run to answer the phone because he has moved it away from the counter to make more space for his rotating display of trash.
Balki answers the phone with his standard sex hotline greeting:
Balki: Thank you for reaching out and touching me.
…but quickly changes tack when he realizes that it’s a friend. Gina has called to ask Balki to babysit Little Frankie, who is now four years old.
Nah, j/k, the Morellis all died because Gina was trying to “smoke” Steve’s “brakes” while he was navigating the turns on a mountain pass. She was trying to “blow his doors off”. Trying to “mash his motor”. Sorry, I’ll stop.
Caldwell resident Mrs. Holland (no first name) has called to ask Balki to babysit her daughter Tess. Balki quickly agrees, though the wooden paddle sitting next to Dimitri hints that there are not age-appropriate toys for the child to play with.
Cousin Larry runs in trying to get Balki’s attention and starts pulling paper out of his pockets. First recycle, and now re-use: Larry has evidently grabbed paperwork out of the garbage in an attempt to expose yet another criminal.
Larry was at the Department of Public Works, covering a meeting, and he saw “Big Jim” Morris there talking with some city aldermen. And even though we’ve had 30 episodes about aldermen at this point, Balki has to look at Larry’s mouth to understand the word.
Ha! That Balki, never learning! And when Larry says that “Big Jim” Morris is a shady contractor who has been barred from doing business with the city, Balki makes a joke about “Dirty Dancing” and dances, shaking his imaginary nuts at Larry.
Heehee, that Balki! Always misunderstanding in the most delightful ways! He also makes a joke about child rape.
Hoho! What better time to make a joke about pedophiles than when you’re introducing a new child character?
You know, now that I’m watching this through a second time, Larry doesn’t even say what the pieces of paper are. He makes reference to them being “notes” and evidence he’s “dug up”, so I don’t know if it’s trash or stuff he wrote down and jammed into his pockets. Perhaps after “Here Comes the Judge” they don’t let him have full pads of paper anymore.
But it’s likely that the dialogue that contained the answers was cut in favor of Larry dragging out the scene by shouting and slowly saying everything he says to Balki, much of it twice . It’s a totally understandable move, because it means that they can put off showing the new character.
Cousin Larry helps Balki achieve his lifelong dream of developing a perichondrial hematoma and tells him that he can’t have any distractions while he’s working on the article.
It should be obvious that whoever this kid is will be a troublemaker. You know, I could keep nitpicking all of the little bits of illogic here, you know, how Larry’s supposed to be doing any sort of substantive work with only twenty crumpled sheets of looseleaf, or how it’s too bad that Larry doesn’t have a bedroom with a movable, shuttable, lockable door, or how it’s too bad he doesn’t have a girlfriend with an apartment that he could go use for a couple of hours, or how it’s too bad he doesn’t have an office to work at, much less an office that can be accessed at all times of day or night, but I don’t think I’ll get into that. I’m… actually happy that we’re getting a “classic” Perfect Strangers plot where Balki invites someone over without asking permission, so I’ll just accept that Larry will have to deal with a noisy child while he’s working. What the hell happened to me?
Hey, look! It’s Cousin Oliver 3J Luke Brower Nicky and Alex Cousin Olivia Joey Donovan Seven Sam McKinney Kennedy Russo Lilly Lambert Tess Holland!
Larry’s rapid decline into the biggest asshole in the world is shown this week by having him slam the door in the face of his neighbors. Has anyone ever seen this happen–opening and then immediately closing the door on someone–outside of a sitcom?
Oh my Lord, two weeks in a row where the show fixes problems from previous episodes. Last week it was actually getting to see Balki’s imagination at work. This week it’s having a child character actually play with one of the cousins, something I bemoaned the lack of way back in season 2’s “Ten Speed and a Soft Touch on My Hole”.
The show displays its mastery of symbols once again by inverting Michelangelos’ Pietà. And like any good symbol, this one has layers, both hinting at Tess’s purpose and her fate.
Larry, consummate piece of shit that he is, demands Balki introduce him to Mrs. Holland instead of doing it his own damn self. During the introduction, Balki tries to explain the news story Larry’s trying to break to Mrs. Holland–but he gets all the details wrong. In the span of two minutes Balki has lost all of the corrections that Larry screamed at him. It stinks as a joke within the narrow scope of the episode, but works on the broader level of explaining why Larry still has to cut Balki’s disgusting cheese dogs into little pieces every night. Anyway, Larry inquires as to where Mrs. Holland moved from, what she does for a living, who her husband is, how old Tess is, and then welcomes her to the Caldwell Hotel, and Tess to his apartment, saying that he has years of experience babysitting his younger siblings.
Oh, wait, no, Larry doesn’t do any of that shit. He says “Hi” to Mrs. Holland and that’s it. Mrs. Holland’s onus now shifted onto others, she leaves to go back upstairs and have a noisy threeway with her husband and Mrs. Schlaegelmilch.
Larry hangs Tess’s coat. Remember this. This is important.
And I somehow didn’t see this coming, but as soon as Mrs. Holland’s gone, Tess wants to make noise?
Instead of going into his room, locking the door and plugging his ears with chair stuffing, Larry tells Tess that it’s “quiet night” and just sits on the couch and thinks he’s going to do work.
Inside, someone throws one of those giant inflated bouncy balls that you’d find in the 10-foot-tall bins at K-Mart at Larry. Then Balki runs in and–
HEY NO NOT IN FRONT OF THE KID COME ON GUYS
Larry–who is still paying off a $140,000 house–forced Balki to babysit outside in the cold, dark night, where a 10-year-old held him up at gunpoint and stole his shoes.
Tess turns the stereo on to a radio station and cranks the volume all the way up; a hard rock song starts playing:
She’s wicked, nasty and mean as a girl could be
She made me weep, she’s gonna cry
It’s not that I find the lyrics interesting; but I do notice that the show is more willing to write its own songs than play the actual music for existing ones.
Tess pulls the volume knob off the stereo and Balki fixes it (ha! that Balki). Meanwhile, Larry starts hulking out.
Larry shoves some headphones onto Tess’s head and tells her to keep the fuck quiet. Balki drags Larry into the kitchen so they can argue.
Psychology sidebar: the obedience studies conducted by Stanley Milgram in the 1960s are some of the most well-known in social psychology. I’ll leave it to you to read up on them if you’re not familiar, but the main takeaway from the research is just how easy it is for authority figures–even if just a professor in a lab coat–to elicit obedience from others, even if that obedience involves harming others. Obedience can be often easy to achieve; but it’s also easy to counteract. Seeing someone else disobey decreases compliance; losing the trappings of authority (university vs. office building) decreases compliance; and so does seeing authority figures argue. Ever see someone reject diet advice because they’re sure that, no matter what the food, there are articles alternately saying it’s good and bad? Larry is telling Balki to discipline Tess, but arguing in front of her about it all but ensures that she won’t behave.
Anyway, what the fuck, who cares, Balki says a song lyric and the audience yuks it up. When Larry suggests that Balki lay down some boundaries for Tess, Balki tells us that “on Mypos we never say no”. Then he crosses his face once he realizes he said it.
Then we get this bullshit:
Balki’s trying to make a clone of himself, shut it down, Larry!
Larry leaves for the Chronicle (finally!) and Balki holds up Tess, demanding the audience’s obeisance to its new ruler.
Later, Cousin Larry comes back home to find a cliffhanger.
Oh no! What could possibly have happened? I couldn’t in a million years guess! If only there were any comedy tropes from the past 50 years I could look to for some clue to decode this puzzle!
Perfect Strangers Reviewed will be right back after I contemplate my life choices.
Larry: Is it bondage night already?
Balki says that Tess did it. So why the fuck did they separate the first three seconds of this scene and try to make it into a cliffhanger? All the questions brought up in those first three seconds were answered in the first three seconds. What does this scene add?
Larry: You should discipline her.
Balki: No. I need to pee.
No discussion, no handing the kid back to her mother, no fucking mention of the mother; as far as I can tell, Tess tied Balki up and went to Larry’s room to quietly read The Things They Carried. Anything else would require another character, interaction that progresses the plot, or action that would mess up the sacred third act. We take about a minute and a half total to establish that Tess tied Balki up, and that Balki is mere seconds away from befouling his pants.
In “Two Men and a Cradle”, Larry and Balki had to take care of Little Frankie because she was going on a road trip to be with her husband for a few days. Here, Mrs. Holland… just leaves. And then she doesn’t come back for her daughter.
See, look, here we are at the Chicago Chronicle. We’re here, and the episode’s only halfway done, so we know Tess will be here.
Oh, and fuck you, show! I was being cute with all that stuff about you loading the first few scenes with symbols and hints, but here you are being fucking sloppy with it. For Christ’s sake, putting a guy from a sprinkler company in this scene. The episode’s going to end with the sprinklers being turned on, folks! You can stop reading now if you want. I guess. Fuck.
RT (Recurrence: Tenth) Wainwright tells Larry that his story is great and he’ll put it on the front page. So all that mess about Larry not getting any work done had nothing to do with the rest of the episode. Cool.
Wainwright made a special trip downstairs just to tell Larry that he needs to shave 100 words from the story so it will be first-page material. But he’s only got 10 minutes!
Larry starts freaking out and counting down the remaining seconds out loud, just like I usually do about this far into an episode.
Hey, it’s Gorpley! He didn’t even rate a mention in the season premiere but he’s here now!
He storms out of his office and, spittle flying from his lips, all but growls as he…
…tells Larry to ask Balki to investigate a series of minor inconveniences he’s experienced that day. Whoa, watch out for this guy! Gorpley leaves, because his presence would mess up the next few lines of dialogue.
It’s obvious that Tess is behind all of the goings-on at the Chronicle, but what’s not obvious to me is how in the scheduling fuck the cousins remain completely unaware of what the other is doing on a day-to-day basis. The cousins both live and work together, so it seems unlikely they wouldn’t carpool.
Balki and Tess come in from the Hyrule exit, Luke/Yoda-style, Tess throwing mail everywhere. Larry had to work hard to emotionally manipulate Balki into shirking his sacred duty as a mailboy back in “My Lips Are Sealed”, but now he’s letting Tess just throw it everywhere.
Larry sends Tess three feet away so he can scream at Balki. Balki says that on Mypos, is very simple: the woman go out in the field to work, and she bring the child with her. Larry says that that’s not how things work in America, and god damn they shoved the whole of that culture clash into two sentences, didn’t they?
Tess sends Larry’s watch up the pneumatic tube, and Balki puts his mailbag over his head. Is this just how the rest of episode is going to play out? Two-minute scenes where Balki and Larry disagree, Tess acts out, and the plot stands perfectly still?
Later that day, Balki runs down the stairs with the pieces of Larry’s watch. And here I was, worried that this episode wouldn’t have a complete story. Larry starts to talk about how that day’s paper will be distributed in an hour, but since Poochie is not on screen, he quickly shifts to asking “Where’s Poochie?”
Lydia knows from experience that this show likes to ditch its female characters for newer models, so it’s understandable that her response is to try to kill Tess. Does it matter what Tess did to Lydia? She did a thing, that’s all you need to know.
Hey, look: Tess did another thing.
Hey, look: Tess did another thing.
Tess does things.
But hey, RT was finally included in a story beyond telling Larry what to do! I guess that’s… whoa, wait a second, I was about to say it was good. Glad I caught myself.
Tess, who has walked up the stairs, shouts down to the gathered characters.
Tess: What you think of as pain is only a shadow. Pain has a face. Allow me to show it to you. Gentlemen, I am pain.
Then she turns on the sprinklers. The water rises to the fusebox and kills them all.
Later, at the Caldwell, Larry throws his wet shirt into a blue laundry basket. This second use of a laundry basket is a deliberate choice by the show, as it ties this scene to the one at the top of the episode. Balki is used to only dealing with natural resources. He approached babysitting the same way he did on Mypos, assuming that all children were alike in their natures regardless of environment. But the natural resource of childhood functions differently in America. The episode began with Balki exulting in his unwitting partnership in the waste of goods many steps removed from their natural-world counterparts. One remembers Balki’s fearful jump away from the first soda can he encountered. Soda is magic; its origin and final destination are both mythologized. It has taken the mass waste of water–a resource whose comings and goings Balki is more intimately familiar with–to clue him in to his error.
For the first time in 75 years, the Chronicle didn’t publish. For those of your scratching your heads as to why this happened, have you seriously not been paying attention? In darn near every episode, someone will say something like “Speak up! I can’t hear you over the printing press!” or they’ll say “Boy, I sure wish I worked on a higher floor, and not stuck here in this basement office with the printing press!” or someone points in the direction of the audience and says “Over there is the printing press for the Chicago Chronicle. It is right there and it is the printing press.”
Larry calls Tess “Tess the Terrible” like it was supposed to catch on or some shit.
Tess comes by–alone–to tell Balki sorry for “making it rain on your paper”, which is a phrase I might expect from a three-year-old, but not a nine-year-old. Why the fuck is this scene here? Balki and Tess are apologizing to each other, but they should both be apologizing to Mrs. Holland. No discussion with the mother about what happened, no inquiry into what kind of boundaries Mrs. Holland sets for Tess, no expectations for anyone’s behavior going forward, here’s some cookies we bought from the store and dumped out on a plate for you. Cookies didn’t save old Mrs. Bailey, and they ain’t gonna save you, kid.
And oh my god the music! They’ve layered violins and French horn over the usual clarinet, and it’s the most saccharine this show has ever gotten, like I’m supposed to be brought to tears by Balki having to say “no” to a child.
Balki weeps for joy at Tess’s acceptance of this new rule. That’s showing her who’s boss, Balki.
Somebody buy me new teeth for Christmas. I just ground mine down to the roots.
Before the episode ends, we get a decent bit of directing. Tess has to apologize to Larry to make things right in sitcom terms, but someone was aware enough to seize on an opportunity to hint that Tess and Cousin Larry have more in common than they originally thought, and that they could eventually hammer out a workable friendship. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it begins and ends with them both stubbornly crossing their arms. Sorry if I seemed to indicate that “New Kid on the Block” had made any efforts outside of this specific 30 seconds to give Tess a personality that extended past “unruly child”. But someone was alert that day and we get a peek at a better version of the episode.
Well, Tess leaves, so that’s done, and then they drag out the ending. Larry tries to make a joke by beginning a question with “was it me, or…” which becomes this drawn-out thing with Balki misunderstanding the meaning of the question. It’s actually funny, and I’m glad to see Balki reasonably misunderstanding a language construction. If it weren’t for the fact that the standard way to phrase the question is “was it just me, or…”, I would say it’s the best one yet.
The cousins hear Tess’s voice from the direction of the window; Balki relays the message that Tess is calling for Larry. Larry doesn’t want to go to the window, so Balki employs a position called “The Chestnut”.
Larry sticks his head out the window, and we learn that Tess is in the apartment directly above.
When I began this blog, I did my best to avoid any knowledge of future plots or characters. But at this point, I’ve interacted with Perfect Strangers and its associated online fandom enough that it would be dishonest to pretend that I didn’t know this is Tess’s only episode. By all appearances, she was intended to be a recurring character; heck, they put her name in the opening credits!
“By all appearances”, of course, assumes that Perfect Strangers and any other sitcom are varieties of apple. Perfect Strangers has honed its skill at disposing secondary characters to perfection, meaning that it can introduce a cute child character and dump her in the span of one episode without breaking stride. Non-cousins aren’t there to be developed; here, they exist solely to deliver multiple, near-identical punchlines to a single set-up. When the show is done with them, it throws them away. And it will, eventually, throw them all away.
The episode opened with Balki crushing cans in order to facilitate them being recycled. Ultimately, you can make your trash smaller, and find a narrative that allows you to pat yourself on the back for consuming, but it’s still waste.
Join me next week for “The Break Up”!
Catchphrase count: Balki (0.5); Larry (1)
Boner count: This was an episode about a kid! You sicko.