Season 6 Reviewed

I’m closing in on three years of reviews, and I’ve, of course, never missed a week. *Ahem* Lest you think that Perfect Strangers is my entire life, though, I do chain-watch other shows. Given, many of my choices are based on lines of inquiry arising from watching Perfect Strangers, so I take it back: I have no life. Send vitamin D, guns and money; get me out of this.*

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Here’s the list of sitcoms I’ve watched (at least in part) for the purposes of reviewing this neverending buffet of entrails: Taxi, Mork & Mindy, The Bob Newhart Show, Newhart, Family Matters, The Honeymooners, Peep Show,  and most recently, Roseanne.  Mork and Taxi I watched to understand what pieces Balki was built from (and I’m thinking of checking out Bosom Buddies and Laverne & Shirley as well), and I’ll get into those later on at some point on this blog. I watched Newhart and Roseanne because I wanted to compare Perfect Strangers to long-running shows that chose how they got to end.  I’d argue that those shows’ finales were arguably the two most impactful in terms of how boldly a sitcom can go out. I mean, ever. Peep Show I watched because I needed a reminder that you can successfully write about two stupid bachelors living together without having them throw raw poultry at each other every week.

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Perfect Strangers has decided what end it wants to finish in (hee hee).  I honestly think it decided before season 6 started, based on the fact that the season 5 interviews we looked at indicated that everyone’s contracts would be up by the end of season 7. Perfect Strangers has elevated its trademark habit of stretching out jokes to a meta level, dragging the only story it could come up with–Larry and Jennifer deciding whether they’re ready to hold hands in public–across two whole seasons. I sense a possibility that Perfect Strangers even got to end twice, but we’ll have to see if that bears out. We may eventually discuss Roseanne’s and Newhart’s endings; but I saw some similarities between their sixth seasons that I think are noteworthy here.

Now, on a show like Roseanne, even knowing beforehand what would happen in season 9 (among other things: Jackie gets dumped by Ernest and Roseanne has a dream about Jerry Springer), I knew that everything leading up to that point had the potential to surprise me, because change and growth were baked into the formula of the show. It’s also fair to say that Roseanne nailed the “show about nothing” before Seinfeld did, as large stretches of numerous episodes featured characters basically hanging out and musing on whatever. One of Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writing is that “every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action”; and with very few exceptions, Roseanne followed that rule. Newhart, I’d argue, stuck with the former almost exclusively after its fourth season.

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To its credit, for its first forty episodes or so, Perfect Strangers did both. But since then, every Larry story reveals the same thing as every other Larry story, and every single thing Balki says or cooks could be generated by simplistic AI. Even if you don’t know how Perfect Strangers ends, you know how Perfect Strangers ends. It’s all but hamstrung itself narratively, at least as far as Cousin Larry goes. It’s been casting about for more than a season for something to do with Balki–do viewers like to see him at school? Should he get a different job? How would audiences feel if he adopted a bird/horse/child/different accent? Though even if it were to find something remotely interesting, the show will never let him leave Larry’s side.

I was also reading an interview with Martin Amis today, and he believes novelists have “tanks” they draw from, some bigger than others’. Reading slightly between the lines, he’s saying that thanks to increased lifespans in the past century, we’ve been better able to determine when someone’s tank is used up, simply by seeing when their output becomes inferior. Another implication is that the tanks are based on experience. (Do I think my tank of experience has emptied? Well, I’ve never had buttsex but I’m pretty sure I can write jokes about the rest of this show.)

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Roseanne had so many things going for it. The premise of the show grew out of Barr’s standup persona, to wit: I’m a fat housewife, here’s what life is really like for many women like me who don’t get a voice. That sensibility–that package of speaking truth to male power & lower-middle-class concerns–informed the majority of the first two seasons. The Conners do their taxes; Roseanne quits her job because her boss is a sexist taskmaster; the Conners get family photos taken; Dan and Roseanne get to go to a nice restaurant because they have a coupon. By the end of season 2, I felt that Roseanne’s tank of “housewife” topics she wanted to tackle was about used up; but luckily, her show had one of the best groups of actors you could ask for, who all perfectly inhabited the characters in the family structure chosen.** And child characters lend themselves to stories with actual character growth.  Moreover, they allow the opportunity to utilize the same situations multiple times because each character will handle them differently; Roseanne even got to use that fact (the differences between Becky and Darlene’s personalities) to generate meta-stories about how each was upset at the parents’ differential treatment. Roseanne was drawing on multiple tanks, and even if the latter tanks (characters/actors/writers) seemed to be getting low, the show’s increased popularity allowed it to take bigger risks and pull stories about child abuse and marijuana from the first tank. Hell, the tanks made each other work better: Roseanne couldn’t have explored Darlene’s depression if Sara Gilbert weren’t such an amazing actor. All that said, even season 6 Roseanne felt like it was losing steam and creativity (and budget: Jackie’s wedding in that season finale took place in the Conners’ living room).

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Perfect Strangers started off with one tank: the original premise of a cultural exchange of values and approaches, where both cousins needed each other to navigate American life. The first few episodes offered just enough depth to surprise me, given what I expected from a TGIF (Tank Gauge Is Faulty) show. But that show–where two full-grown men learn to be adults–only had a tank so big, and we saw that reviewers in that first full year knew that Balki’s misunderstanding schtick couldn’t believably persist. Perfect Strangers cast about for new tanks, and actually found a number of them. I will still never understand why they didn’t do more episodes featuring the other apartment residents, as “The Rent Strike” is one of the few I’d be willing to watch again. (Yeah, why doesn’t this show cater to my interests specifically?) It brought in a workplace setting tank, and secondary character tanks… and then left them, I dunno, strewn haphazardly on the lawn? I’m done with the tank metaphor.

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Bob Newhart got two long-running shows: one about a psychologist, his home life, his office colleagues, and his patients; the other about some guy who’s even more boring than your grandfather and his boring wife buying a boring old inn in Vermont. Somehow the latter outlasted the former by three years. By the end of The Bob Newhart Show’s final season, once-complex characters had been reduced to single-dimension jokes. Howard Borden’s descent from a man hopelessly trying to balance an overscheduled career with dating and being a divorced dad into a man who probably couldn’t find his way back out of a port-a-potty was sadder than Balki’s on the basis of change in elevation alone. Newhart’s sixth season had basically the same issue, to the point where the stories themselves formed a larger commentary: a total rejection of the idea that the leopard can change its spots, or that it should even try. And I don’t think it was that sub of a text. There was an episode about predicting exactly when the leaves would change color. The young lovers Stephanie Vanderkellen and Michael Harris, who in earlier seasons forged new ways to let their self-centeredness direct their personal growth, explicitly reject personal growth in favor of the structure marriage offers (and then reject even that because it was too much of a threat to their hedonism). Look, there’s a fucking episode that season about how the inn’s handyman buys a new style of pants and then decides that they’re just not him.

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“Six seasons and a movie” has been a sort of rallying cry for Community fans. You’d have to point me to sitcoms that managed it, but maybe there’s something to the idea. It sounds right, doesn’t it? You’d want a good show to know it was ending and go out with a bang before it starts, um, tanking. I’d say that Roseanne’s sixth season was when many of the characters became decidedly one-note. Latter-day Roseanne would have you believe that Jackie had been a slut, not a single woman whose standards were perhaps too high for her social class; that Leon and Roseanne had been total shits to each other for years, and not simply two people clashing because one had a commitment to by-the-books customer service and the other refused to change her personality for a business setting; that Mark was a drooling buffoon, and not someone who had skills and heart hiding behind a shell he’d built up because he believed parents couldn’t love.

Maybe I took the long way around for this, but the point is that even remarkably good shows can start showing problems around their fifth or sixth season.*** That takes a little of the blame off Perfect Strangers, but it’s still true that that it reached that same flattened-secondary-character point at the beginning of Season 5, which would be the equivalent of season 4 for any other show.

But then, Perfect Strangers ran headlong into that situation, so maybe the race is to the swift after all.

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TGIF: This gets increasingly frustrating, trying to assess 24 episodes of a show when I’ve watched five times that many. Perfect Strangers fanatic, video archivist, and all-around great bunch of guys Tim Caldwell warned me that this season is where it got bad. And he’s right: it felt like a worse show almost right away. Yet most of the complaints I have about season 6 are the exact same complaints I had about season 5: only Larry gets any story, they don’t know what to do with Balki, they refuse to give the girlfriends or coworkers any screentime, it’s often more interested in being a cartoon than a sitcom, it’s willing to shave off dialogue to the point that some stories make almost no sense. Season 6 intensified every one of those aspects, to the point that Gorpley and Lydia’s appearances were numerically cut by half, and at least two of Tess’s appearances were cut out entirely.

It all smears together, like poop, when you smear it together. I had the benefit the past few times of drawing out themes from the show’s preoccupations, like sports, money, death, or family-of-origin issues. Other than the fascination with death & destruction in the first few episodes, I’m not really feeling any other accidental themes here. There are a few trends that are worth noting, and I’ll start with the bad ones first.

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Bronson Pinchot–god, yes, let’s definitely get the bad ones out of the way first–is increasingly wild in his interpretation of Balki. And I don’t mean wild as in “wild success” or like how Otto Preminger as Mr. Freeze would say “wild” to mean “groovy”. I mean wild like a downed power line or a chimp throwing its own shit at you. I’ve seen fans of the show (commenter davidmagrathsmith among them) say that Bronson no longer plays Balki the same way in season 6. He regularly oversteps the logic and mannerisms of Balki as we know him. Why does he act condescending when Larry lies, or fails, when previously he expressed genuine concern for the consequences Larry would face? Why does he whip out a Hulk Hogan action figure and shake it in front of Larry’s face? Why does he mimic orgasm with a duck call? Why does he drag out physical comedy bits like failing to put on his pants? Why does he take Art Carney’s mannerisms to such an extreme that he falls flat on his face?

In the aftermath of Second Sight, and then a couple of weeks ago, Bronson openly questioned the comic strength of his own choices, and admitted the benefit of someone to direct him. So the question becomes: why is he still breaking Balki? I think any of the possible answers are equally useful.

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We had six–count ’em–six different directors this season. That’s not to say that Bronson was his usual Balki self when Joel Zwick was at the helm. But of the new directors, only one–Judy Pioli–got to work with him for more than a couple of episodes and establish any sort of relationship with him. I’m getting way ahead of myself conclusion-wise here, but I get the sense that Bronson responds to boundaries and direction when they’re offered. He claimed in some interview to not have had more than a week or two to practice that Honeymooners bit, either, which makes me wonder what role the director has in “practice”.

Two days after winning his second presidential election, George W. Bush said “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it…. there is a feeling that the people have spoken and embraced your point of view….” Bronson’s 50-odd Dutch phones may not have been ringing off the hooks with calls to be in big movies anymore, but he still had Perfect Strangers. I doubt that the paper contract on file for him said anything about which accents viewers did or didn’t like, so Bronson may have felt free to stretch Balki.

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A third answer: Perfect Strangers found that the tank (sorry) full of cartoon slapstick had the most longevity, so can you blame Bronson for going in the same general direction as the show? Balki’s whole world is more detached (Mypos floats around, remember), with “culture” represented by rabbit snares, plants that can cure any illness, and a pantheon built out of the dregs of Western pop culture and product branding. The writers aren’t always writing Balki like they used to: instead of learning how best to represent his collegemates, he wants to force them to learn other languages; he chides Larry for not caring about the community while digging in his heels on getting to wear a hat. In some ways, he’s doing exactly what the script tells him to.

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Fourth: perhaps more to the point, the writers don’t seem to be writing as much as they used to. The most obvious example I can think of is the shorthand script notes for a whole stretch of dialogue in “Little Apartment of Horrors” (the bit where they keep repeating the plant name). How long can you imagine that the script for “Duck Soup” was after they cut out all the lines for why the fuck they were there in the first place?

We started this season with the image blah blah blah. The show took itself apart, so to speak, and has rearranged itself around a structure: the engagement, marriage, and living-in-a-house of Larry Appleton and Jennifer Lyons. But the construction of this cycle across two whole seasons has left us with lots of space to fill.

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Hey, this fucking thing’s back! It wouldn’t be fair to say that the entirety of Season 6 has been so much useless air and space junk rushing to fill a vacuum. But part of it is, or I wouldn’t have bothered with the metaphor. I’m not stupid.

(Really, that vacuum should have been filled with Season 5’s promise that the cousins would become an investigative team. Oh well!)

“A Horse is a Horse”, “Call Me Indestructible”, “Little Apartment of Horrors”, and “Duck Soup” certainly fall into this rushing air category. Looping back around to the Kurt Vonnegut quote, these episodes reveal neither character nor plot. Well, okay, I take that back: we found out Larry doesn’t like parsley. But none of those have anything to do with the cousins’ relationship, other than to say they’ll find a way to disagree about anything if you give them a chance. What makes this category even more of a disappointment is knowing that Perfect Strangers proved it had the ability to take a left-field plot and turn it into something worthwhile. When “Great Balls of Fire” came so soon after “A Catered Affair”, I anticipated it being the beginning of a trend similar to that on The Simpsons, where Homer would have 10 different jobs each season. But someone on staff was awake enough that week to realize that new situations can reveal new sides of characters. It’s incredibly easy at this point to imagine a version of that episode where Jennifer had nothing to do but look at the fire pole when Larry pointed at it. But now we can count an anterior insular cortex among her many qualities. (Maybe next season we’ll learn if she has a reproductive system).

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The third trend this season was discontinuity becoming part of the fabric of the show.**** Hell, even the first episode pretends that the cousins have never been Real Burgled before.  “Family Feud” would have us ignore that there’s a whole island full of Bartokomous boys out there somewhere. You could say that “The Sunshine Boys” forgets what role Bunky McDermott played in Larry’s younger and exactly as vulnerable years; though I suspect it’s more accurate to say that the writers were too lazy to think up a different name. But mostly, the episodes this season seem to operate on the principle that the cousins haven’t been living together for years. Rather than ever putting in the work to make it look like Jennifer and Mary Anne had separate lives, the show had to invent convenient backstory just to try to convince us Larry that she was some kind of zodiacal killer. Larry not asking for fish parts to cure his common cold seems minor in comparison to the fact that it took months after his marriage proposal for him to even have–what, his fourth?–conversation with Jennifer without Balki around. I’m sure that innumerable sitcoms have this same problem at this age, but when the show hauled out the “lost memory” episode and gave itself a chance to explicitly define its own history, all it could come up with to say was “My name is Co-sin Laray App-le-ton”.

Speaking of the proposal episode, I was going to talk about how Perfect Strangers has been flailing for ways to include Balki in Larry’s stories, and trying to decide whether he should have a different job entirely. It has been, but good grief, that’s all I’ve talked about all season; is it okay if I just don’t get into it here?

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There was definitely a vacuum in the scripts where the writers let the cousins expand on bits, which in turn pushed out important dialogue and a whole character; but the vacuum was still so voluminous that we got 10 hours of Balki cooking and singing. Everything is tradeoffs, and the writers made their choices of which tank to pull from. I make my own tradeoffs too, in the form of experimental and guest posts. It turned out that two of the later episodes this season had non-standard reviews, and this resulted in a comment I wasn’t able to make then: that the cooking and singing had payoffs in the form of “A Catered Affair” and “Out of Sync”. I don’t think those episodes needed quite so much wacky yellow buildup, and without knowing how many scenarios the writers had come up with prior to the season premiere, I can’t say which came first (the chicken or its marinated lungs). “Out of Sync” still comes across to me as an episode that arose mostly from the circumstance of having a rooftop set and musicians left over from the previous week’s Family Matters episode “Life of the Party”, which introduced the Urkel Dance. But damn if it didn’t seem logical that Balki could be a caterer by the end of the season.

I look forward to seeing what new types of story that career change opens up for the show in season 7. Ha ha ha.

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Let’s talk about other good things from this season (trust me, I won’t keep you much longer). Perfect Strangers doesn’t appear to have had much to lose at this point, so it tried experimenting a little. “I Saw This On TV” was an experiment that in the scientific world would be unpublishable, and you’re right to remember that political capital quote above right now, and to be scared by it. I would say “The Men Who Knew Too Much” had good results. It spun its–and many other–wheels across 40 minutes, but having the cousins interact with the real world was worthwhile. The immediate Chicago of Perfect Strangers bends to the dual zaniness and neurosis of the cousins; seeing those aspects land them in a major public incident cements the viability of their cartooniness. Not only the viability–and I can’t believe I’m saying this–the believability too. Remember how I was saying that Ernest didn’t work when he alone was up against the real world? “The Men Who Knew Too Much” is a decent counterexample. But the structure of 1) the cousins find themselves in a remarkable situation and 2) make it worse by how they respond to it works here in a way that it absolutely doesn’t in “The Sunshine Boys”. The cousins need each other as protection from the big, bad world, and “The Men Who Knew Too Much” is one of the better explorations of that idea.

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This season’s inauspicious start (the cousins not choking on poison gas) made it surprising that we got any good episodes at all.  “Grandpa” may feel closer to a classic episode simply because half of it was one (season 1’s “Blind Date”), but that in itself provides a meta-aspect to Larry. We see now that Larry’s anxious depression may well have a genetic aspect; and the viewer is given permission to see hope or despair for Larry’s future, since he’s been through that very same set of emotions (100 times now).

The scenarios in “See How They Run” and “Climb Every Billboard” were brilliant in comparison to everything around them. With just a little assumption and inference on the viewer’s part, they’re interesting culture clashes. The cousins’s actions are–for the most part–coming from their own characters and histories. There’s some slight breaks in Balki’s character, and Larry still lies. The cousins may not learn the actual lessons the episodes were leading to, but at least we can all have fun imagining that they were there in the original scripts.

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The few minutes of botched magic act in “Hocus Pocus” were funny because they riffed on an existing kiddie-entertainment touchstone. And the scene worked because of the dramatic irony involved in the viewer knowing how the children must have thought the humor was deliberate.

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And let me be a completely honest overgrown child myself here: I love that there was an episode where the Cousins struggle with LASER BEAMS.

“Finders Keepers” featured that sickening scene of Larry threatening to deport Balki. I just want to make sure we all have that in mind when I say that it’s still my favorite episode from this season. Before you think I’m trying to compare that scene to a Persian Flaw, NO. Larry terrorizing Balki with threats of deportation is the most execrable his character has ever been. Like the communal vagina in “That Old Gang of Mine”, though, it’s simply the type of shit you have to deal with even in the good episodes of Perfect Strangers. Not only did “Finders Keepers” have a solid sitcom situation that could have gone almost anywhere, the show took it in a direction I would never have guessed and used regular and one-off characters to actual strong comic effect. (It also provided me a path to perpetrate the purplest prose I’ve ever produced, procuring my praise in perpetuity.)

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Newhart and Roseanne had disappointing sixth seasons, but they both managed to bounce back and improve over their following two. Even writers on The Simpsons felt like the clock was ticking on the show’s lifespan and offered up a return to the focus on the relationships among the nuclear family members and some format experimentation in seasons 7 and 8.

On the other hand, there was Roseanne season 9. The Simpsons season whatever through the current one. AfterMASH. The 1960s Honeymooners revival. Season 4 of ALF. Seasons 7-9 of Family Matters. Buffy seasons 6 and/or 7. Scrubs season 9. Red Dwarf seasons VII through whichever point Philip thinks it got good again.

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The odds are definitely stacked against Perfect Strangers improving in Season 7. Tanks run out, get damaged in shipping, go sour in poor storage conditions; market and societal forces slowly replace fuel ingredients, ensuring the tanks run forever as long as the audience doesn’t notice (or care about) the differences. The Simpsons and Fuller House could potentially endure until enough of the original cast members die off. In the former, the characters have dispensation to not grow up; in the latter, all you really have to do is add more people to a house to keep it going.

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I compared Impel to Topps last week out of an impulse to benchmark good trading card “practice”. Comparing Perfect Strangers to The Simpsons’s gold standard would be unfair, but there are points of comparison. I wish we could live in a world where artistic output did not have to be chained to corporate greed, but the fact of the matter is that creative success will generally result in efforts to duplicate it. I believe that, if something longish-running should end, it should get a chance to do so creatively. I think Roseanne tried to with its eighth season; Newhart certainly did. The Simpsons has probably gone on too long for any ending that would adequately capture everything it has been over 30 years.

On the basis of its premise and quality, I think Perfect Strangers should have gotten to plan an ending in Season 5. Even if Season 6 had been its last, it could have packed its major story elements–Larry and Jennifer establishing a real relationship, getting married, and starting their new life; Balki becoming a full adult, and deciding what he wants to do and be as an American individual–into a solid 24 episodes.

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Do I need any other argument than “Duck Soup” to say the show outlasted its own quality? Again the quote from George W. Bush is relevant, so the remaining hope I have for Season 7 is this: that 6 or 7 times this season we’ve gotten good scenarios, good characterization, and funny sequences, and that maybe we’ll get half that going forward. Also Belita Moreno will be in seven episodes, so I’ve got that going for me.

I doubt that Perfect Strangers started working toward its ending out of any sober recognition of its own artistic longevity. But it did start working towards it, I have to give it that. That’s more than most sitcoms get to do, much less try.

Well, that succinctly and completely wraps up Season 6 of Perfect Strangers, and I hope you–

Ah, shit. Tess. And the Honeymooners episode. Shit.

You know what? The only good thing I can say about “I Saw This On TV” is that Jo Marie Payton loved it. If the marriage arc caused a vacuum, “I Shat Out A TV” was its own separate black (and white) hole that had absolutely no justification for its own existence other than someone having remarked that there were, years ago, two other guys who did physical comedy. Were the writers aware that their decent story ideas were being utilized more effectively by better sitcoms like Full House and Family Matters, and that it would take pretending to be a better show to trick unsuspecting nostalgic baby boomers to tune in? These fucks had the gall to ask for an Emmy for that shit!

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And the fuck happened with Tess? She popped out of Mrs. Holland’s old puss, wrecked some shit, and disappeared forever. If the marriage arc was so much stretched-out elastic waistband, the quick removal of an entire forced-in character was so much raw gaping asshole.  It’s tempting to just write this off as the show’s typical instant rejection of any story that could let side characters grow or have an impact on the cousins lives; but for once, I think the show was actually trying to add someone. Tess would never grow, no, but that wasn’t the point. She had promise as one more Newhartian character to come in, be a little shit, and leave every few episodes. She had promise as a way to prepare Larry for fatherhood. Mostly, though, she had promise for ratings, so let’s try to figure this one out.

“New Kid on the Block” was filmed August 2, 1990, and aired October 5, 1990.  Tess was intended to be in “Family Feud”–a scene was even filmed where she drives a dagger hilt-deep into Larry’s back–and that one was filmed on September 19, 1990.  “Family Feud” didn’t air until October 26. But there was a third scene, in “Black Widow” (she pushes a bound-and-gagged Marvin Berman off Mt. Whitefish), which wasn’t filmed along with the rest of that episode on September 26. According to the fan site, the Tess scene in “Black Widow” disappeared between September 21 and September 25.

It’s clear that Alisan Porter was booted before “New Kid on the Block” ever aired. It’s (hangin’) tough to believe that the studio audience was so sickened by her 30 seconds of dialogue in “Family Feud” that they booed her offstage. And I doubt that filming on Curly Sue provided much conflict (or even would have had Porter stayed on Perfect Strangers). So, I don’t fucking know why she left.

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Actually, you know what? I think I know what’s going on. Perhapthe show is now going in reverse. Season 4 ended with a would-be bride metaphorically losing face, and towards the beginning of Season 5 Lydia physically did the same via an eyelid tuck; Season 3 ended with an elderly woman dying before she could even reach the cousins, and Talky Tina winked out of existence before Season 6 could even get going.

If Season 7 were to, say, kick off with a blonde party girl settling down a group of rowdy men before the cousins came to physical harm, we’d know for sure, but certainly that many coincidences would strain believability, right?

5,000 words and I bet you greedy little shits still want a list, don’t you?

Best Episode: Were you not paying attention? It was “Finders Keepers”. Jesus.

Worst Episode: Drown in a vat of of mule piss, “Duck Soup”

Best one-off character: Judy Pioli as Widow Girlfriend

Worst handling of a one-off character: RIP Tess Holland. She’s lighting bags of poop on fire with the angels now

Best Balki moment: Tie between Balki having a horse named “Trotsky” and Balki wanting a Muppet Babies tattoo

Worst Balki moment: Tie between Bronson as Balki as Art Carney as Ed Norton; a sunburned Balki “trying” to “put his pants on”; and whatever the hell this was:

Season 6 catchphrase count: Balki (14.5); Larry (25!)

Season 6 boner count: Balki (2); Larry (2)

Cumulative catchphrase count: Balki (103); Larry (56)

Cumulative boner count: Balki (20); Larry (20.5)

Dance of Joy running total: 19

Join me next week for “Bachelor Party”!

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*Knock that one off your list of possible Larryoke songs, folks.

**I just want to say about Michael Fishman that there weren’t many stories about him in the first season of Roseanne, but he made me believe that when DJ was simply repeating others’ words or actions he was a child trying to learn the language of the family he was born into (insults he can say; thing it’s okay to be upset about). This concludes Roseanne Reviewed, thank you for reading.

***See also: Parks & Recreation had Leslie forget that the vacant lot was once a pit, but my bigger beef was that in its last few years, everyone got what they wanted, all the time, because they were just such pure people, wasn’t it nice. I know all y’all Lindas love this show, that’s why I’m burying this here.

****”Fabric” was in reference to the new couch they’d always had. I hope you understood it, enjoyed it, and told your officemates.

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Season 6 Reportage

Hello, imaginary new reader who is starting this blog with this very post, let me explain to your non-linear ass what’s going on here. I found it so important that both you and I understand some of the greater context of Perfect Strangers that I was willing to extend the length of this review blog by more than a month so we could explore the extant articles and interviews about the show. This post covers May 5, 1990 through May-ish, 1991. As usual, all of these pieces were curated by Linda Kay of the fansite.

To those of you who have been here longer, you’ll understand why I say that, this time around, I find myself hyper-vigilant for emotions, for buried truths, for certain themes and threads that have revealed themselves over the course of the last three of these posts. We’ve seen a Bronson who waffled and contradicted himself on his own reasons for gracefully agreeing to beg for his chance to settle on being the star of Perfect Strangers, a Bronson who saw his own star rising until everyone else saw Second Sight and informed him which way up was, and a Bronson who wanted to cover his insecurities by claiming to be more cultured than his own pratfalls (like Chevy Chase, whom I’m certain Bronson would swear to be unfamiliar with).

That’s more Bronsons than you can shake a shoe at!  And we’ll get to Bronson–we’ll climax with Bronson–but let’s cover some other ground first.

There’s a tool in the project management world called a triangle. It functions just like any other triangle you’ve seen, except it has words on the vertices.

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Anyway, you’ve got these three aspects of any project: scope, time, and cost.  If you want to increase one or more of them, the sum of its angles still must equal 180°. You want to cut costs? Be prepared for it to take longer. Want to widen that scope and keep the time the same? Be prepared for the quality to get squished unless you raise those costs. Anyway, I think this model goes a long way towards explaining how More Stories! More Listings! More Pages! results in having to re-use a promotional image from four years ago.

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You could certainly make the case that ratings for the show had dropped, but it was certainly true that the person who did this write-up for Modern Screen in Summer 1991 was able to find someone in the staff lounge to tell him all about Perfect Strangers while he hastily scribbled notes on a coffee filter. This article makes it seem like Larry and Jennifer got engaged maybe a few months after Larry quit working at Ritz Discount.  I’d love to read a whole issue of Modern Screen just to learn how wonderful every single show on the air was. “Melanie Wilson and Rebeca Arthur are wonderful as the boys’ upstairs neighbors….” “Mark Linn-Baker and Bronson Pichot [sic] are wonderful together.” I dunno, maybe I just don’t “get it” because I’m not a true fan.

And really, we ought not forget that fan was once short for fanatic. So could there be a truer fan than Perfect Strangers doyenne Linda Kay, who attended tapings, created a newsletter, and ? Here’s a truth that I discovered entirely on my own this past week: no amount of adherence to non-fiction guarantees an absence of authorial bias, of creative choice of presentation. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen Linda Kay reveal herself with the equivalent of trigger warnings for articles that were remotely negative about Perfect Strangers. Telefilm magazine ran an article on the Season 6 premiere “Safe at Home”, and Linda prefaces it by saying “[This article] illustrated how reviewers often just didn’t ‘get’ the show… particularly telling is the review’s assertion that the comedy is based partly off of Balki’s ‘innate stupidity.’ ?????”

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Half the show is shit like Larry saying “I’m going to hit the sack” and Balki fearfully covering up his crotch. What is there to get? Was there really some deeper meaning to “Cousin Larry got a perversion”?

I’d encourage you to read that article; it renews my faith in humanity when it says “’Perfect Strangers’ is unafraid to aim low”, or when it points out that the episode used the exterior establishing shot six times in a single-location episode. It aptly refers to Pinchot as having become “slick” and Linn-Baker “delighted at his own cuteness”.  I hadn’t paid this much mind until Judy Pioli took over, but this article did alert me to a revolving door of directors at the beginning of Season 6, which perhaps explains why the quality tanked so quickly in those first few episodes.  The Bob and Tom show their appreciation for how Rich Correll was willing to be overworked by spending potential bonus money on a full page in The Hollywood Reporter.

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Speaking of credit, one spatiotemporal locus where it’s due is Linda’s personal attendance at Perfect Strangers filmings in later seasons. Anywhere corroboration is possible increases the value of an information source, and a short piece from what Linda terms a “rag mag” is one such example. The article describes Pinchot as a powder keg, lashing out at his co-stars and even drawing Linn-Baker into a “screaming match” (likely over whether Jeff Lynne was singing “sweet talkin’ Lola” or “sweet talkin’ lover”). Mention is made of a filming where Bronson had an audience member thrown out for sneezing.  Linda claims to have been there (let’s assume she was there for every episode) and says that Bronson simply left the stage for a few minutes to get back into character after that person’s “disruptive noise”. Her blind spot here, though, is that this article claims to have an “insider” source, who would have been placed to hear Bronson say he wanted the audience member thrown out. I’ll agree with Linda that there are likely exaggerations there, but I have to wonder why someone would make this up out of whole cloth. I have no frame of reference here: was it standard practice for these magazines to slander such minor actors? The size of the article seems to be commensurate with Bronson’s stature, and I’d at the very least believe someone who had a beef with him offered the information.

So we have Linda corroborating that there was indeed a noise in the audience, and that it affected Bronson.  On the other hand, we have a second source giving a reason why Bronson might be testy (again Linda gives us her full blessing to ignore it): that Bronson finally realized they weren’t giving Balki any independent stories and that the impending marriage storyline would sideline him.  According to Star Magazine, Bronson was worried that Balki’s role would be reduced to watching Larry and Jennifer fuck, as if that wouldn’t improve the show. Has it come up yet that Melanie Wilson is now married to William Bickley, one of the show’s producers? And that we have a first-hand source calling Wilson a diva? It would be wildly irresponsible of me to actually try to put anything together from that (Melanie was still married to her aforementioned husband), but I won’t judge you if you do.

Corroborating stories is a tricky thing, and unfortunately the Information Age has both eased and exacerbated the problem.  Consider Philip Roth having to publish an article about his life because Wikipedia wouldn’t allow him to add information to his own entry because it couldn’t be cited. And thanks to mindless copying and link rot, the bullshit mountain often proves unscalable and it’s often impossible to determine where online information even originated. But consider this: a TV Guide piece on “not everyone [being] happy about” Jennifer getting 100% more lines on the show was published before the one in Star Magazine. On the other hand, the idea that Bronson would be unhappy about this doesn’t jibe with his previous discomfort with the behind-the-scenes female tooth-gnashing.

But we can be certain ABC will do what’s best for the show and its actors, right? Haha nah j/k they totally realized that getting kids to watch meant that eventually the family members with wallets would watch too. By the way, turns out Perfect Strangers had also gotten a little bump in the ratings from viewers who stuck around after Full House.

I’m a firm believer in people being the authoritative source on their own lives, even if they lie to you about them, because even the lies disclose something.  So I find this Q&A with Rebeca Arthur in Kidsday to be particularly revealing:

Q: Do you like your part?

A: I love it…. Somebody has to play her and I’ll do it.

Other tidbits of note: Rebeca claims that many of Mary Anne’s lines don’t make it to the final edits, that she and Melanie would hang out outside of work and hit up the miniatures stores, and when asked what her family thinks of her career, Rebeca informs the interview that her mother is dead.

But this quote is going to come in handy later in this post: “[Bronson] is sort of like a big kid, and he gets in trouble when he is so naughty.”

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Rebeca appeared on Into the Night with Rick Dees, which aired (I think) after TGIF back then.  Dees introduces her by saying to the guys in the audience that he bets they stare at her tits when they watch Perfect Strangers. They discuss her Circus of the Stars appeances (Rebeca had to withstand suspicions while carrying the “noose” we saw last week through customs) and Rick asks her if being into doing acrobatic stunts is sexual and fuck you, dude. When Rebeca goes home to Maryland for Christmas, she becomes the major attraction at the mall. Oh, and how could I forget Rebeca’s great story about how Melanie almost called in a Milli Vanilli song request to Rick Dees’s radio show?

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Rebeca Arthur (Pisces) also was on Mother Love, hosted by comedian Mother Love. I want to say she looks familiar, but I also don’t want to be that white guy. They talk about a Star Magazine article about Rebeca’s diet (somehow it’s not a “rag mag” for Linda when it’s not negative), and how Rebeca hates surprise parties because she doesn’t enjoy “performing” emotion, which further convinces me she and I should get married.  Mother Love asks her other guest, Eric somebody*, whether he prefers “tiny” or “voluptuous” women, and he tries to duck the question by saying that everybody tends to lower their own standards when it’s getting late at the club.

Hmmm you may be thinking perhaps there is an underlying theme that Casey is hinting at.

HMMMM

Before we move on to that, there is one New York Daily News article by Patricia O’Haire about Mark Linn-Baker. Turns out he does theatre shit during the summer!

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Patty O. (hi Patty) also gives us an article about Bronson’s theatre work. Remember how last time we learned that Bronson was in a Broadway production of Zoya’s Apartment? Well, the reviews are in: Bronson was in it.

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In May 1990, right where we left off last time, Bronson sounds weary of being Balki for so long. Let’s face it: having to do one accent exclusively must be pretty painful when you can do three of them. He expresses surprise to Patty that that would be how he’d get typecast, even though we saw him (years ago now) claim to not want the Balki role to avoid that very consequence. It appears that Bronson networked his way into the play since he was going to be in New York for a Letterman appearance. Bronson tells us that he “can spot a good director or a good antique… anywhere.” But what, to Bronson, is a good director? Some unvisionary paycheck-casher who’ll let him do what he wants?

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A further revelation here–or rather, here, in a New York Newsday review of the play by Linda Winer–is that Bronson’s New York Connection was owed a favor by the director of Zoya’s Apartment, a 3-hour play which originally premiered in 1926 Russia. It’s tempting to believe that TGIF lent its actors a particular brand of smugness–Winer here refers to Bronson “[taking] the stage with his familiar exhilarated sense of his own delight”–but I think it simply fostered That Genetic Imperious Feeling in Bronson’s case. Linda Kay must not have caught the nuance of that quote, but she certainly feels the need to distance herself from Daily News theatre critic Howard Kissel’s statement that “Pinchot does nothing beyond cute, tiresome shtick”. The work this woman has done to overcome cognitive dissonance in the face of the opinions of people who have them for a living.

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My own sense made explicit: Bronson claims in a May 1990 CNN “Showbiz Today” interview that being “fed up” with his life led him to the play. And let’s give Bronson as much credit as is due: he was engaging in some self-improvement during this period. He mentions his personal trainer and gymnastics instructor in a few different interviews, and he was definitely no slouch with his work. The director for Zoya did try to push Bronson in a different direction, calling him out any time he saw Bronson do something he had done in Perfect Strangers. Almost a year later, when he again appeared on Letterman, Bronson relates one accident that occurred during one night’s performance.  He and lead actress Linda Thorson played lovers and had, over the course of rehearsals and performances, developed their interactions.

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Bronson misread Thorson’s readiness and tried a bit of physical comedy they had discussed; but because it was unpracticed he ended up “handstanding” on her face and falling over.  I want so bad to credit him for trying to grow as an actor, but “Honeymooners This” proved that the only lesson he learned was that there are no lasting repercussions for falling on your–or someone else’s–face. And he claims elsewhere that he still uses his downtime to research the role of Balki. Really? Was that for the episode where Balki does a shitty California accent? Or the one where he does a shitty New Yorker accent?

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Mark Linn-Baker shows up to mumble about plays, but god damn look at those lapels.

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We communicate with one another through various channels, the main two categories being verbal and physical. Some are “leakier” than others, and part of the surreality of sitcoms lies, I think, in reordering the hierarchy. Speech and facial expressions tend to be far leakier for sitcom characters; where bodily movements are more likely to give us away. So maybe that’s why I think I’m picking up on Bronson’s emotions when he’s on talkshows. He seems more relaxed in general, at least for a few months after doing Zoya’s Apartment.

But Season 6 started and Bronson was back on his bullshit again.  It’s going to be difficult to give you these interviews chronologically, so I’m going to group these by theme.

Bronson is better than you

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Bronson was a cut-up, I’m sure, but I doubt he was a capable class clown; I sense a frustrated teenager more than anything. “I was smart-mouthed and precocious and made teachers feel threatened.”  I felt the same way too when I was in high school. But then I went and made a career out of staying in college indefinitely and it’s been easy to see my own transition from teen-in-the-80s-teen-movie to adult-in-the-80s-teen-movie.  I think Bronson wanted article writers to play up his Yale credentials, and he certainly wants you to know that he found stardom by ignoring his professors’ encouragement to pursue illustration. There’s also a surprisingly elderly quote about Bronson thinking kids have too many toys because he used to play with weeds. I don’t think it merits a psychology sidebar to say that we’re prickliest about not achieving our most prized goals. Bronson’s appears to be status when he expresses upset over a woman heckling him during a commercial shoot at a mall (for Pepsi, perhaps?).

“Hey, Bronson, easy money, isn’t it?”

If you’re out there, oh anti-Linda, marry me.

Bronson wants control

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Or maybe what I mean is somewhere between that and “Bronson wants to know what’s going on” and “Bronson gets distracted when he doesn’t”.  In an interview from sometime in 1990 on Northwest Afternoon, Bronson starts the interview trying to ask about some freight cranes he saw on his way in that morning and the (female) host subtly lets him know that he’s not in control of the interview. But soon after that, he’s distracted by a kilt-wearing crewperson getting audience soundtrack. We get insight into themes #1 and #2 combining here when Bronson talks about getting pouty on set when the writers won’t let him do what he wants; but also that, on that rare week where there’s no new issue of Puss & Boots, Cleats In Heat, or Tongue Kiss and he actually watches Perfect Strangers, he’s able to see that the show works better that way. Even so, he still puts it down in general. A woman in the audience took the time to memorize an alliterative question about Bronson’s favorite episode; and Bronson responds by calling the show “boring”. The woman’s face falls briefly before the awareness that everyone else is laughing–and that she should too–catches up to her.

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All these poor Lindas!

A slight tangent here: Bronson tells Arsenio in Feb. 1991 that it’s hard for him to know how well he does on Perfect Strangers because no one will tell him if he’s done a bad job, so please send him a link to this blog, I know he’ll appreciate it.

A couple more tidbits from rather long Northwest Afternoon interview: thank God Louie Anderson didn’t stay on the show, because hearing “Cousin Lowie” 8 million times would be its own special hell; Bronson expects that newer, better sitcoms will make Season 7 his last; and Bronson makes a joke I actually like! He claims that Mypos is south of Rhodes, but that it floats around.

As I was saying, Bronson has trouble letting someone else drive. He’ll stop the interview to ask a host about the micro-nods they’ll make to the crew who are also sending signals he’s trying to figure out. After 6 years of being a celebrity he’ll be surprised when the hosts announce that they’re cutting a commercial and ask “oh, are we done?”

Bronson chases a chicken around with a net

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Bronson does not have his finger on the pulse of pop culture

And this makes it impossible for him to make good off-the-cuff jokes about celebrities. And when you combine this with the fact that

Bronson has no tact

…well, he “gets in trouble when he is so naughty”. He claims to prefer classical art and to have watched The Wizard of Oz hundreds of times (Regis quizzes him on the film and Bronson tells them that some of the answers their staff provided were wrong).  It’s re-established in that same Arsenio interview that Mama Pinchot wanted her children to be exposed to greater art than pop culture, and Bronson continues to mention elsewhere not being familiar with the Beatles as a result.

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Matter of fact, Young MC was in the audience during Bronson’s October 1990 Arsenio interview, and Bronson admits to “liking” rap but having no idea who the main people or trends are. Again, Bronson is at his most relaxed when he’s around Arsenio, and maybe at his most vulnerable. In October, Bronson mentions being upset at the directing/editing choice of not showing his and Linn-Baker’s feet during their stirring rendition of a rap song he couldn’t give less of a shit about; but in the February 1991 interview, Bronson apologizes for having said so because it made the editor and associate producer “miserable”. I can appreciate that.

But what goes unaddressed in that first interview is, right off the bat, Bronson jokes on national television that his gymnastic instructor’s daughter was recovering from herpes. He even manages to elicit an “aww” from the audience when he tells her to “feel better”, which has got to be the worst way to wish someone improved health.

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Something equally difficult to take is when he starts tossing off insults that don’t appear to have any shared public support.

In the second half of that 1991 Arsenio appearance, Bronson repeats a story about another interview he was on. I think this came up before, but: Bronson took a female host’s questions to him and Mark Linn-Baker as being an attempt to prove that men were scum.  In the audience, however, were a group of women using *ahem* their leaky channels to make clear they would fuck the two of them in alley outside if the desire was mutually shared. Who cares if he was misrepresenting, exaggerating, or misinterpreting; that’s an interesting story.

You heard that “but” coming and look at the size of it: he then immediately comments on Madonna having fucked her way to stardom. When the audience gets upset with him, he stands up on the ottomen and scolds them:

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Bronson: Come on! Come on! What is the problem? Wait. If you want people to talk nice, then just go home and meet your friends.

Do I have to make a fuss every time somebody sighs? I’m looking for clues, and Arsenio does hang his head at this. But then Arsenio backs him up on it, throws the audience under the bus, and then asks them all to compliment Bronson on his suit. Hall & Goats combine their voices to protect the criticism of the rich girl, but I can’t go for that because some things are better left unsaid maneater private eyes. It’s kind of surreal when you see this chauvinist shit play out in real time.

Was it a common insult that Madonna was so untalented that she had to sleep with producers to get record deals? I’m not finding much evidence for it, though I am interested to hear if that was the case, because it would at least give some context. I think that Bronson simply thinks that you’re supposed to shit-talk others when you’re on television (“if you want people to talk nice…”), but pulling stuff out of your ass doesn’t make you cheeky, man. And don’t take that explanation of why he decided he was going to get a laugh as my way of trying to excuse him. Hell no, I think it’s doubly bad that he sexslandered a celebrity whose work he’s made damn sure we know he doesn’t give a shit about.

Thankfully, David Letterman doesn’t protect Bronson the same way in their February 1991 interview. Bronson’s last time there was when he was promoting Zoya’s Apartment; and here, while telling the story of landing on her face, he calls co-star Linda Thorson ugly. (These poor Lindas!)

First of all, fuck you on principle!

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Second of all, fuck you on accuracy!

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The audience boos Bronson and he scolds them.

There’s a handful of other factoids in all these interviews: they taped Perfect Strangers on Friday nights, it took between 3 and 4 hours to get one episode done, Bronson collects 1905 Danish phones, Bronson doesn’t believe the humanities’ ideal of consideration for its own sake has a place in higher education, he was in a Thanksgiving Day parade in Houston in 1990 that also included a float-sized version of the Kenner Real Ghostbusters Bug-Eye Ghost toy, which even the online Ghostbusters fan community was not aware of–

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–Bronson really wanted to be the star of Richard Attenborough’s Charlie Chaplin biopic, he wanted to have his own Saturday morning cartoon show, he somehow both idolized Art Carney as a child and hated when The Honeymooners would come on because it was “too loud”, and he bought a house that used to be owned by Liberace.

But *sigh* there’s some more thematic overlap as we get into the last, and worst theme

Bronson’s a fucking creep to women

Multiple times in my life I’ve picked up the idea that it’s better for me–that social rewards await me–if I simply keep my mouth shut about being anyhow better than others. The Lord Chesterfield quote about wearing your learning like a pocketwatch; Proverbs 17:28; and probably most impactfully, the ending of Wanda Gág’s Millions of Cats, where millions of boasting cats devour each other in their vain attempt to gain an elderly couple’s adoptive favor, and the only survivor–the humble cat who neither boasted nor fought–is adopted.

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My teenage stint as a Christian, among other influences, instilled in me the idea that doing is worth a lot more than saying; and seeing so many examples of imbalance towards the latter convinced me to put nothing on that side of the scale. I’ll admit to being put off when some media I consume become preachy (read: present a morally authoritative viewpoint), because that’s not what I came for in the first place.** I’ll always prefer nuance in the art I consume and make, but ultimately saying and doing are a false dichotomy.

All that to say I don’t, you know, call out sexism a lot; but I need to here since, as I’m told, silence tends to uphold the status quo. And I wish I could say that I wasn’t basically forced to do this in order to even talk about some of the shit Bronson pulls in his interviews this time around.

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In an October 1990 appearance on Regis & Kathie Lee, he begins the interview by plucking at the crotch of his pants and talking about how big his dick is; for which Kathie Lee apologizes to a woman in the audience. One of the defenses of the bullied is to beat others to the punch and make fun of yourself, but it’s a bad look once you’re powerful.  At one point in the interview, Bronson walks behind Kathie Lee Gifford and gives her a massage, joking that he’s seen that same face on other women.

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With mild self-deprecation, Bronson created a situation where Kathie Lee would be the bad guy if she voiced any real complaint. He gets away with being cute, but she probably went home and took a few scalding showers.

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In a November 1990 interview on Into the Night, Rick Dees is just as much to blame when he tells Bronson that the musical guest that night–Tiffany–is now old enough that Bronson can hit on her. If you feel you need some symbolism that Rick Dees is cut from the same cloth as Bronson, he brings Bronson’s shoes into the conversation. Dees allows Bronson access to the audience, where lays across two women after signalling that he was just going in for a hug.

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Bronson is surprised when Rick goes to commercial, but he’s allowed to stick around after Tiffany’s performance and talk about touching her genitals.

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Rick joins in, making damn sure Bronson knows that Tiffany is of legal fucking age. I’m glad the host was cancelled before the show, because Dees’s nuts.

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I’m surprised Attitudes kept bringing this guy back. Linda Dano calls Bronson out on wanting to just wander into the audience and fuck around instead of answering her questions (these poor, poor Lindas), and the conversation turns to Bronson’s girlfriend Wren Maloney.

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She’s off-stage, and Bronson gets her to come out and have to be on camera and tell the muliebrous crowd that Bronson is “excellent” (she shakes her head while saying it instead of nodding; does this signify anything or am I too on qui vive?).

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What’s more is that he uses this national television platform to acknowledge he and Wren had agreed to keep their planned marriage (which he himself brings up) a secret. Jesus Christ I’m trying to decide whether wondering aloud if Tiffany actually felt “New Inside” or publicly shitting on your intimate partner’s trust is worse and I hope I never come up with an answer.

One more thing from the Letterman interview: Bronson mentions wearing a button reading “Can I Fuck You?”.

I’m breaking chronology and putting Bronson’s May 1990 Regis & Kathie Lee appearance last because I had to do some soul-searching.

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Regis Philbin–who, by the way, is what you’d get if Mark Linn-Baker snorted coke–has on hand a promotional image from “A Christmas Story” and Bronson almost immediately starts in talking about Melanie’s breasts, barrelling over some off-camera protest.

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And… I said the same thing when I reviewed the episode. Bronson literally says “Look at the breasts on Melanie”, and I simply said the same thing with more words:

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Jennifer and Mary Anne (Sagittarius) come by, and damn, whatever happened to that style of overalls? I’m not into blondes, nor am I into female characters who barely have the one personality trait, but Jennifer’s doing a lot with a little thanks to 80s fashions.

And I said that mere sentences away from my criticism of mistletoe’s pop-culture portrayal of mistletoe as a tool of the patriarchy! Blind spots suck.

Obviously, Bronson’s openly being a letch, and the fact that his and my audience differ by orders of magnitude doesn’t mean a damn thing. I find myself scrambling for reasons to excuse my behavior, and I’m not sure that there are.

Let’s test out one: it’s okay because I don’t have to interact with her, the implication being she’ll never know. Bronson may have had to talk to her later; I won’t. And you could argue I’m not harming Melanie Wilson directly; but I may have harmed your view of her by saying that I didn’t consider her fuckable until she used an outfit to accentuate her breasts.

The other main one: it’s just a joke. And the more complex version of this is: this blog is for humor and shouldn’t be taken seriously. I have a little trouble believing that Billy Superstar would talk to you in person the same way he wrote Full House Reviewed (his spelling and punctuation improved vastly any time he had to talk about something more serious); and you could argue he had developed a character to go along with the screen name. If I’m writing as a character, it’s maybe just an extremity of an inner voice that I only let out on paper or in front of close friends. I try to apply the same set of morals to everything I do; but perhaps I let Billy’s focus on Aunt Becky’s posterior permit me to continue commenting on Anterior Jennifer’s. And taking others’ leads–including the show’s tendency to see Jennifer as nothing but eye candy–isn’t the self I tell myself I am.

I was making jokes, yes. But they’re jokes that functioned only for those sharing my male gaze. My comment about breasts was unfiltered “hey, I kind of like those this week”. To say that the latter butt joke was less bad would miss the point, and the inner voice coming out there was allowing itself comments similar to those made by a past partner of mine. I even asked her about the jokes, and she laughed; but she knows enough of the greater context of Casey that it didn’t trouble her view of me. You don’t get to see all that context because, as I say, I don’t make a point of talking about how *ahem* virtuous my beliefs are. Hell, down here I’m God, right? I’m in a position where I get to explore the greater context of Perfect Strangers and even heap criticism on a Linda of my own, and keep my own faults as hidden as I can.

I owe an apology to the female portion of my audience because I–to whatever extent, it doesn’t matter–made it clear I was willing to unthinkingly consider Melanie Wilson in terms of whether I’d want to fuck her, making me less of a person you’d feel safe around. Doing is greater than saying, so my goal is holding me to never, ever doing that again. If you share that goal, thank you.

Kathie Lee offers Bronson some politer language–”nice figure”–which he agrees to. But then they surprise him by bringing out Rebeca Arthur and–

Bronson: Oh, Rebeca!

Rebeca: What is this stuff? [in reference to Bronson’s beard]

Bronson: Thanks! And you have big breasts!

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She came all the way to New York to see him in Zoya’s Apartment.

_____________________________________________________________________

*Eric Carle Lewis

**Later Groo comics; Leslie Hall’s fifth album Destination Friendship

I think I need a week away from Bronson before doing the season review, so join me next week for a bonus post!

Season 6, Episode 24: See You in September

Jeez, show, I know I have to keep reviewing through the summer, you don’t have to rub it in with the episode titles!

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As always over the past five (or was it six? this damn memory) seasons, we find ourselves at the Caldwell for our closing episode, wandering through the streets of this town, always silent and alone, seeking meaning in mute facades.

What clues to interpretation can we find here? Perhaps that our window into the cousins’ lives is shutting? That this particular window exists in neither positional state, and further is itself liminal, obscuring boundaries of out and in? That finales on this show have ever been a misnomer, involving more the actions which don’t occur than those which do? The ironic juxtaposition of sliced time and human continuity; the uncrossable chasm between rooftops; this again between between generations; and then laterally, across nations, genders and time itself. Windows, it occurs to me, go both ways, and we have indication now, if not of a reversal, then perhaps a looking through the other way, a closing rather than an opening–

Our most recent season finale has finally made good on the show’s promise of bridges. There, one intrapersonally, between selves (and, it amuses me to note, across man and man’s best friend); and here the show predicts one or more interpersonal joinings at a different liminal point, which you’ll note has softened since the beginning of the season.*

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I could go on, but I think really what the windows say to us is that these men have owned a god damn house for a year and have never once made mention of the $140,000 they owe on it.

Balki and Mary Anne (Sagittarius) also look for clues as to the arrival of their counterparts, having festooned the apartment with foliage, garlic and toilet paper folded into bows.

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Jennifer and Larry enter, and Balki confronts Larry with a Polaroid camera, the symbol of the path he didn’t take, indicating… well let’s just say it’s really deep and leave it at that.

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Larry asks why Balki put all the leftover props from past seasons on the walls.

Balki: Does the word “six phases of the moon” mean anything to you?

Does it mean you have no grasp of English or astronomy?

Mary Anne says that–according to Myposian custom–Larry and Jennifer have to set a wedding date because they’ve been engaged for six phases of the moon now.

Oh for fuck’s sake! This season has gone out of its way to make sure we understand how much time has passed within so many different episodes. Looking briefly through my screencaps since “The Break Up”, I count 17 different night shots, an additional 58 days having passed according to on-screen, plus let’s be super generous and say they went to LA and got back to Chicago all within a single day. At the very least, they’ve been engaged 2 and a half months.

Also, oh for fuck’s sake! This is the first time that Larry and Jennifer have ever gotten to be by themselves since the engagement, and they come home to this pressure?

Balki tells him that, by the one-drop rule, Cousin Larry is Myposian** and thus must follow marriage customs (and somehow no others).

Larry says that they had planned on waiting at least another year before putting their hands in each other’s back pockets. Jennifer backs him up, saying that she and Larry will “follow American custom”, which involves viewing marriage not as a formal acknowledgment of a deeper bond, but as a status symbol; and that she’s willing to drag her feet through courtship a little longer to see exactly how high up through the professional (ahem) rungs Larry rises to ensure her own economic security.

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Mary Anne counters that America led the way in adopting formalized timezones, setting the stage for an increasingly scheduled world, and that Jennifer better fucking pick a date because she’s tired of seeing smears of someone else’s poop in the toilet bowl.

Nah, j/k, they don’t say any of that shit. Jennifer has turned down congressmen and football players in her quest to find a man disaster-prone enough to accidentally set their house on fire; and Mary Anne is so dumb she thinks only cowboys have bridal parties.

Balki asks Larry whether he’ll be doing a bunch of other Myposian customs which he (he Balki) didn’t do during his own wedding and which Larry had no way of hearing about other than from him until this very moment: walking down the aisle on one’s hands, singing Snap!’s “The Power” while flinging spoonfuls of rat-milk custard at the guests, and then double-teaming a sheep with the best man.

Larry fumbles around for a bit about agreeing to set a wedding date, finally passing the excuse ball to Jennifer, daring her to admit right then and there that they won’t be happy together.

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This has to be the most contrived way I’ve ever seen a show come up with to destroy a cake prop: Balki uses a piping bag to write a month on the cake, only for Larry to finish his sentence about how that month won’t work.

Even in just these few lines, there’s loads of potential story. We’ve seen numerous examples by now of good episodes buried under bad layers of comedy.  “Karate Kids” is the first that comes to my mind, and you don’t even have to go back that far this season to find an example. Philip pointed out that “The Sunshine Boys” had a perfectly good Larry story that placed his motivations in completely the wrong place. Even if it weren’t the case that we in 2018 know that Jennifer and Larry get married and (*hastily scans Wikipedia*) throw their newborn child from a hot-air balloon, I think that ending had to have been pretty damn clear to viewers then.

Unfortunately, what we have here are two people who are in no way fit to be part of a married couple, and who for all we know have not even established a strong personal connection with each other, physically or emotionally.  I mean, they were supposed to have played tennis together once, but even that managed not to happen. All we’ve ever seen them bond over is the fact that they’re smarter than the only two other people they bother to interact with more than once a month. Interpret, if you like, their panicked indecision here as an indication that their personalities are similar, but it’s no stronger an indication of that than anything else we’ve seen for the past five years. Hell, maybe Larry’s about to say that he also likes being outdoors and likes to use nail polish, and that will change my mind. But look at the wild desperate hope on this woman’s face when she comes up with “my birthday is in April” as a way to exclude a whole month.

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They don’t belong together, and they know it. Getting them to admit to that would be a great story. Getting them to talk through their fears would be the okay version of that story. But like always, we only get the briefest of glimpses into that better show.***

Anyway, after Larry and Jennifer have collectively said 11 month names, Balki proves he was paying attention in college and writes “June” on the cake. He tells the couple that they must each eat a piece, and once they’ve each passed it, eat the other’s piece.

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If the reasons above weren’t enough to make me wish this story didn’t end with Larry and Jennifer promising in their wedding vows to discuss kissing with tongues someday, Melanie Wilson is absolutely selling her fear. Sure, yes, the fear is there to get her and Mary Anne out of the scene, but even that would have supported the story we don’t get.

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On their way out, Mary Anne is so dumb that she’s willing to try real-world approaches to battling anxiety, like giving the human brain the resources it needs for decision-making through a balanced diet.

Just like I always do any time I have to fill those dreadful hours between sunsight and sunclipse, Larry starts stress-eating, tapping his foot and laughing weird.

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Balki says he knows Larry like the back of his colon, and says out loud all the nervous tics that Larry did in the past 10 seconds.

Larry does over/repeats those repetitions back to Balki, an obvious obsessive-compulsive ritual meant to magically remove the distressing thoughts brought about by actual plot possibilities.

Larry briefly does some meta-thinking–doing the job Balki ought to be doing–telling himself the reasons he has to get married and envisioning a good future, before descending once more to the cake. He’s so upset he even keeps Balki from saying his signature catchphrase (“Let’s do physical comedy now instead”).

Larry is worried that Jennifer “thinks she’s marrying a handsome, sophisticated, charming man” but that when they go on their honeymoon, she’s bound to see the purple stretchmarks grooving his inner thighs, the sporadic hair on his shoulders, the recurring folliculitis on his knees, that his butt has developed in a manner which can only be described through comparison to a double chin, and how the pinched toe box of his bargain-bin dress shoes have turned the undersides of his pinky toes into blades; hear him crying over the low water-pressure in the motel bathroom; and ultimately be enveloped by the natural perfume–equal parts ammonia and cheeseburger–he emits during any level of physical exertion.

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The leg-shaking goes on for a damn long while, but before Larry can “accidentally” gouge out his eyes, Balki takes Larry’s Forkin’ away.

Balki calmly explains to Larry that sometimes vaginas give new meaning to the phrase (strike) word Frito pie; but warns that their ratings haven’t dropped quite so low that they’ll need to call their agents immediately after the set is struck, so Larry needs to get his shit together.

We find again that the grand traditions of Mypos only go back about 50 years when Balki suggests that Larry and Jennifer take the Nupitiki-SATiki. Also, I try my damnedest not to mention most malabronsisms, but this one stands out as particularly odious:

Balki: This test can determine whether or not a marryage should take place beyond a shadow of a snout.

You can’t– the operative word is– you own a fucking house– how did you even–

What the fuck does Balki think he was trying to say?

Speaking of nervous tics: I’ve debated a few times whether to even bring this up, but this is the third time Bronson has done it this season. I don’t even know what you’d call this, but Bronson will move his mouth sometimes right after a line like he’s either trying to communicate slyly with Mark or he’s developed some case of self-echolalia. He did it to Fire Chief Wayne Newton last week. It’s not the only time he does it in this episode. It’s weird.

Anyway, what the fuck, I officially don’t care, Cousin Larry says that most pop psychology tests are bad enough, and one that doesn’t even rest on any sort of sound, researched scientific principles or methodology would be even worse.

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Mythos having failed him, Balki eschews pathos, ethos, and logos in favor of pothos, pulling his cousin into the kitchen with the cake.

Balki gives Larry some good advice: call Jennifer and ask how she feels.

Oh, wait, no, there were four more words: about taking the test.

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Larry calls Jennifer and he barely gets out the plot synopsis before she hangs up on him. I’d knock Mark Linn-Baker for saying both “Hello? Hello?” and “She hung up” (as if we all didn’t grow up with the disconnect tone), but we found out from Jo Marie Payton that they would do Q&A with the audience after filming, so he knew he needed to.

Jennifer runs into the apartment, begging for the test, and wouldn’t you know it, these two are perfect for each other because her leg is shaking like mad.

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Balki reaches for her leg and Larry slaps his hand away. Fuck yeah, Larry! Male characters getting away with groping women by pretending to be clueless is pretty fucked up and no doubt left a lasting impression on my psyche and, as we’ve learned over the past year, that of every other man in America.

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Two days later, we learn that the test takes not only its name, but also its values, from mid-20th Century America.  Balki asks if Jennifer would get upset if she had cooked dinner and Larry didn’t call to let her know he was coming home late.

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Balki did the same– there’s like one phone on– the $140,000 house– Jennifer’s out of town like half the–

God damn do I hate these kind of questions; they’re the pop psych equivalent of asking a kid which one is gay: him or his boyfriend.

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Psychology sidebar: one of the core ideas of social psychology is that people’s behavior is heavily impacted by the presence of others. This means that, until consummate artificial intelligence can devise perfect survey questions and beam them directly into people’s minds, there’s the risk that the person administering the tool will case a “response bias” in the test subjects. If all questions on a measure are worded negatively (“not”, “won’t”, “disagree”), will the subjects answer “no” most of the time? Will they try to idealize themselves and give socially desirable answers (or, at least, the answers they think the researches want)? And can you propagate value systems with the questions? Unfortunately, yes. Kenneth B. and Mamie P. Clark’s study investigating “racial identification” by asking African-American children about dolls was published way back in 1947****, but I see some form of the test still get used today as “proof” of some level of self-loathing among that population. Here’s how it worked: the researchers would show black children aged 3-7 a white and a “colored” doll and ask them questions: “Give me the doll that you like to play with”, “Give me the doll that is a nice doll”, “Give me the doll that looks bad”, “Give me the doll that is a nice color”.  Do you see the message that the researchers didn’t realize they were giving the children? Only one doll could be nice, look bad, or have a nice color. The majority of the children, at every age group, identified the black doll as bad; and the final question on the test (“Give me the doll that looks like you”) reduced a few of the children to convulsive tears when put in the cornered position of having to refer to themselves as bad.

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Okay, this review is getting dense, so let me give you the plot essentials so you’ll know you’re really not missing much. Balki asks Jennifer questions, and gives Cousin Larry physical tasks. Cousin Larry keeps complaining along the lines of “You had me see how many of my own toenails I could rip off before fainting and Jennifer just gets a question?” or “You had me jerk off beside the mailboxes while singing ‘Dancing Queen’ and Jennifer just gets a question?” We only get to actually see one of each question and task, which is fine, because escalation of a concept really has no place in comedy.

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I hate to say this, but there has been enough good physical comedy on this show that Larry playing Simon Says feels like the show bought a shovel for the express purpose of setting the bar lower.

I’m going to assume you see where these ridiculous questions–and Balki deliberately giving them a bad score–are going. I’ll admit that forcing a couple to say “fuck this, I love you anyway” is clever enough for this show even if I did see it coming a mile away.

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The problem, though, is that this episode forgets who Larry is. Used to, we’d get a progression where Larry’s theory-based claims of mastery over adult life buckle under their own weight, leaving him no option but to beg for the Myposian way. Here, the show has forgotten that that was once Larry’s whole character. He and Jennifer are desperate for any sort of affirmation that they’re doing well, stating answers as questions, asking if they answered right. When Larry expresses discomfort with the test, Balki makes it clear Larry’s fate rests in his hands. He lays it on thicker than a Casey in an opening shot.

Perfect Strangers Reviewed will be right back after I send an email to OKCupid letting them know how they should change their matching questions.

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Later, some guy points at the Caldwell, and the camera follows his arm. Just think, if he’d pointed any other direction, I wouldn’t have to watch the rest of this.

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I complained that we only get to see one question and one feat of manly strength, but honestly there’s simply no time for it. Bronson decided this scene called for a suddenly pompous demeanor and that dragging out his lines makes him sound smart and condescending. Exactly what viewers tuned in for, right? Balki seems to oscillate more wildly these days between “incredibly competent” and “wears a hat”, and these past two weeks might be the furthest sweeps of this phenomenon. He’s neither talking nor acting like the Balki we first met; is this the same guy transfixed by a shaking leg five minutes ago? You can argue that Balki is acting this way to play on the mood of the scared couple, but come on. This whole test would still work with a playful, loving Balki at the wheel, holding his cards close to his chest and matter-of-factly dismissing any skepticism.

Balki is bordering on smug, which makes it feel like Bronson is also smug for thinking this is the right direction to take Balki.

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I’ll give him this: the plot does allow it to be clear, albeit after the fact, that Balki is playing a role. But the script breaks Balki in a different way when it tries to establish his credentials as a “Nupitiki Dr. Ruthiki”.

The fucking fuck? Why is it never enough that Balki did something on Mypos, but that he also must be the best at it? Balki was supposed to be 21 years old when he arrived in America (at MOST he was 22 if you want to fold season 1 into season 2) and he was a pre-marriage counselor, even though brides are a birthday gift when you turn 25? Don’t get me wrong, I love math (my credentials: I got highest individual score in a middle school intermural math team competition), but god damn I hate having to waste it on this shit. Further, I have to imagine that Balki’s dad is never once going to be mentioned on the show, and I suspect that Bronson wanting nothing to do with his own father had a lot to do with that. Most of the audience wouldn’t have known that, but in addition to Balki not mentioning any authority other than a title, I’m left wondering how in the fuck a teenage Myposian wouldn’t get soundly ridiculed by people even a few years older for trying to act like an expert when he doesn’t even get to observe his own parents’ relationship. I mean, I don’t care how constantly babies shit, I sure wouldn’t trust one to advise me on purchasing the best toilet.

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Larry repeats Balki’s title, and then repeats Balki’s clarification of same, which is the type of stellar writing you only get when you give a room full of writers ten whole months to come up with good jokes.

And now they’re just talking about sheep and pigs happily fucking and–

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AAAHHH! Sorry, the way Jennifer just jumped up like that startled me. Completely forgot she was there.

Jennifer: Just because the test has never been wrong before doesn’t mean it can’t be wrong now.

Poor thing, they really don’t let her on stage enough or she’d know that Balki is Never Wrong™.

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Luckily, irony isn’t a total blind spot for this show, as Larry says he’ll still marry Jennifer… after a couple of years of intense study.  For all this episode’s faults, that one line still lands beautifully. Since the quick escalation to five years’ postponement is misplaced from the better version of this episode, it only functions here as padding. (And why the fuck did the show wait until now to even bother to remember these people have parents?) But that split-second of hope that Larry figured out the lesson before reverting back to avoidance was the only part of the episode that actually had a positive emotional effect on me.

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Balki tells them that their last hope is to take the “Nupitiki Spic ‘n’ Spanakopita” (Larry repeats it), the “marriage cleansing ritual”. In case you didn’t catch the joke, Balki then all but turns towards the audience and tells them that Spic ‘n’ Span is a cleaning product.

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It was obviously night outside the windows in the previous scene, which means that Jennifer and Larry did not take any time to talk to each other about this on their own. Fine, whatever, this makes them the perfect couple, I guess! Let their house be full of the blandest furniture, let them always give up on food discussions and order pizza, let them pass up every career opportunity, let them forever be scrambling to guess what the other doesn’t necessarily like or dislike, let them not name their child until it turns eight. I don’t care.

Balki, in Exidorean robe, has bid the couple stand in a plastic kiddie pool.

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Jennifer: Balki, it looks like the prop department really dropped the ball this week to the extent that I have to take a wildly improbable yet correct guess at the shape of your pendant which, by the way, the script has me, a woman, refer to as a medallion.

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Balki: You’re right Jennifer, it is in the shape of a lambchop, which coincidentally is also the shape of the island of Mypos. It’s enough to give you an overactive theory of mind, huh?

Balki points out his hometown of Podunki and fuck you and there’s a Six Flags over Mypos and fuck you and the blue part is a mood stone based on the state of Jennifer and Larry’s relationship and

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YOU OWN A HOUSE GOD DAMMIT

Balki dumps brown liquid over Larry and Jennifer’s heads. What does it symbolize? Reader, if you don’t know, I haven’t taught you anything.

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Balki declares the test a failure, that New Tina was doomed from the get-go, and that Larry and Jennifer should resign themselves to lives of solitary masturbation. Larry and Jennifer start blaming each other, and Balki encourages the discussion of their emotions.

Larry admits he’s afraid Jennifer will realize he’s not sophisticated; and Jennifer admits she’s afraid that Larry will learn she doesn’t necessarily have a personality.

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They affirm their mutual tepid feelings for each other, decide to marry in September, and tell Balki to shove his test.

Balki tells them they’ve passed the test, which is probably the only time I’ve seen the “learn your lesson and still get your reward” trope work. But then Balki reveals that he–he Balki, the man who never lies, not even once, no never–made up the part about drenching them in Ex-Lax’s final form because they were more neurotic than any couple he’d ever tested on Mypos. So, what, were the 100 other Myposians that Balki has told Larry stories about to illustrate Larry’s errors all made up too?

What if both of them had personalities that led them to believe in the power of tradition/organized religion, or just didn’t want to rock the boat? If they both back out of the marriage on that basis, wouldn’t that suggest a good match? You can’t set up traditions or parts of your state religion that you reveal to be false and admit that you were using it to get a certain emotional response. You give the whole game away, and this tactic makes it even more jarring that Balki was a marriage counselor years before he could even get married.

We started this season with the image of a torn, mangled chair unsuccessfully stitched back together, and it turns out to have been an apt metaphor. “See You in September” is simply the latest in a series of examples of the writers putting the available parts of the show in different ways from what came before. They hold together well enough within the episode, but try to place the weight of the show’s memory on them, and pieces fall off. Perfect Strangers is no longer quite the same show.

But you, O my readers, remember sometimes thy little Balki that was.

Cousin Larry pours the shit on Balki.

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Join me next week, when I’ll take a look at what these actors did between seasons!

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Catchphrase count: Balki (0); Larry (0)

Boner count: Balki (0); Larry (0)

Cut for syndication: At the very end of the episode, Tess walks in, pulls a lever, and a 16-ton weight drops on Balki, Larry, and Jennifer. Ain’t she a stinker?

*Which, as you may remember from Professor M’s review of “Beautiful Dreamer”, began as a symbol of fear

**Balki claims Larry is 1/64 Myposian

***The Man in the Tight Cousin

****Clark, K. B., & Clark, M. P. (1947). Racial identification and preference in Negro children. In E. E. Maccoby, T. M. Newcomb, & E. L. Hartley (Eds.), Readings in Social Psychology (3rd ed., pp. 602-611). New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

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