Finally, after 45 months of psychological analysis and Zappa quotes, after innumerable inaccessible literature references and tongue-in-cheek exegesis, after painstakingly cataloging every moment of Bronson Pinchot’s 30-year career, finally, two weeks before Perfect Strangers Reviewed ends forever, here’s a straightforward post that might actually find an audience bigger than the three content scrapers that visit this blog.
Four years of hard work is nothing compared to a quick post that tells you how you should feel about things. Just ask the writers over at Slate!
One issue with trying to figure out the “best” or “worst” episodes of Perfect Strangers is that, on a good week, the show was a fairly balanced mix of passably clever punchlines, impossible linguistic misunderstandings, cultural conflict, and a disappointing sweeping aside of secondary characters. (On a bad week Cousin Larry would get condemned to eternal damnation for pocketing a penny from the tray at the convenience store register.) Very few episodes–even the great ones–are free from the show’s more serious problems.
10. Eyewitless Report (Season 5)
Maybe this is a cheat, because I’m handing this spot to one-third of an episode. But I love parody so much, and this episode does it so well, that I’m perfectly fine bumping something like “Finders Keepers” or “A Blast from the Past” from the bottom of the list so I can include it..
Mr. Gorpley suffered the fate of all secondary Perfect Strangers characters: featured in only two or three stories before being reduced to a single character trait (in this case, that trait is being named “Gorpley”). Depending on how many episodes of the show audiences caught, they may or may not have known that he was Balki’s mean boss. Whatever you do or don’t know about Gorpley, taking him completely out of the work environment makes him a wildcard in a story about a work retreat to the mountains.
And then doubly so when the episode turns into Rashomon and he has to tell the police a version of how he and Larry and Balki squared off against an escaped psycho killer. Given that his usual take on things is how much the world has shit on him, it’s hard to guess how he might describe the events. His retelling is the only time Perfect Strangers deliberately engaged in self-parody, and Gorpley’s versions of the Cousins–brain-damaged, barely articulate children–reveals him to be even more petty and nihilistic than we suspected, willing to waste the police’s time just to get in some cheap digs and dirty jokes.
You have to ignore–as my commenters pointed out–that Gorpley wasn’t at all necessary, given that Jennifer and Mary Anne could have delivered just as effective a parody; but you have to ignore almost everything Balki says to enjoy the show at all, so.
9. The Defiant Guys (Season 3)
I almost put “Karate Kids” in this spot because it came so very close to making some kind of worthwhile cultural statement about the American (Caucasian) male’s warped idea of masculinity; but like so many episodes, it choked at the end, delivering the wrong lesson.
If “Karate Kids” failed to convey that talking through problems was the best way to resolve conflict, “The Defiant Guys” succeeded. Most episodes in Seasons 1 through 3 put Larry and Balki on common ground, where each thinks he’s an expert; but this is the rarer story where Larry is the only adult in the room, in his own way. Rarer than that, even: the secondary and tertiary characters take on actual roles in the story: Harriette doles out advice, Mrs. Van Weezer provides an obstacle, and Wainwright’s opinion of Larry actually still mattered. I’ve long suspected that Harriette and Lydia (like Twinkacetti and Susan before them) were meant to be advice-givers to Balki and Larry, respectively, and this episode is a window into how much better that version of Perfect Strangers could have been.
“The Defiant Guys” could stand next to any Season 1 episode, as both Cousins learn different lessons while handcuffed together: Balki to treat others how they want to be treated, and Larry to realize others will judge him fairly, even without the confidence a good flossing or a lucky pen will bring.
8. Pipe Dreams (Season 3)
The show’s regular focus on slapstick brought comparisons to Laurel & Hardy films, a similarity that Perfect Strangers–much to its discredit–leaned into on at least three occasions. I’m putting that too nicely: Perfect Strangers had no compunction about blatantly lifting scenarios beat-for-beat from far better media. But this was before that, when the show was still defining its boundaries and tone, exploratory but unified around Larry and Balki’s personalities. Tasking the Cousins with fixing a shower works as homage to 1930s slapstick because it’s a diffuse homage, and localized to the settings the show already had.
That’s not to say this episode had any real conflict–cultural or otherwise–between the Cousins. In fact, this was one of only three Season 3 episodes that gave Balki no motivation at all. (Think about it: life on a relatively isolated farm meant that household skills were probably possessed by all family members. Balki was less likely to seek out an expert Myposian roofer because that guy might live a day or two away.) Larry assigned himself the role of boss for a simple plumbing job, with Balki as assistant. And though it grated at the time, Balki’s rapid cycling through stupid, devious, sad, and disturbingly delighted earned the comparison to Stan Laurel.
“Pipe Dreams” hit all the right notes for the tried-and-true physical comedy scenario of failing to fix a house. It promises very clearly that it will end with water spraying everywhere, and delivers. It also marks the very last time that Larry would try to impress Jennifer without it feeling incredibly tired.
7. That Old Gang of Mine (Season 4)
In Perfect Strangers’s middle period, the setup was often dispatched as quickly as possible to get the Cousins into the scenario of the week. In many cases that impulse robbed the show of sense-making dialogue, but here, fuck yeah show me 12 minutes of Larry and Balki in over their heads at a biker bar.
(I’m going to go on record as saying that biker gangs are the United States’ single greatest gift to movies and television. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure wouldn’t be the same without those jolly badasses, and neither would The Garbage Pail Kids movie. Every sitcom should have an episode where the characters have a run-in with the local Hells Angels chapter.)
Another bad habit of the show was to get everybody but the Cousins off-screen, but here even that pays off when Balki asks a *ahem* well-hung Larry to pretend he’s the Scarecrow. It’s the only time in his entire career that Bronson demanding to make a Wizard of Oz joke was additive.
Unfortunately, the framing story for this is Balki’s girlfriend Mary Anne giving up a considerable promotion and the chance to live in London, where people don’t shun you for being smart. And Balki is invited to fuck the biker version of Smurfette. It’s a disappointing double-punch, and I’ll admit that other episodes about women (say, “Maid to Order”) had less problematic endings… but when it’s not being misogynistic, “That Old Gang of Mine” is a hell of a lot of fun.
6. The Rent Strike (Season 2)
Like “The Defiant Guys”, this is another view into a viable path Perfect Strangers could have gone down. I suspect that the final two Susan episodes were leftovers from the scripts developed for Season 1*, which goes a long way towards explaining why this episode sticks out so much from the rest of Season 2.
Larry and Balki were both ready to take on the whole of America, but were trapped in dead-end discount store jobs, selling the dregs of the capitalist system. This was the first indication that they weren’t alone, that there were more supports around them than they thought, and that they might have more agency over their situation than they realized. The show would never again show you the other non-girlfriend residents of the Caldwell Hotel, but for this one brief moment, Larry and Balki were part of a community. It’s baffling that any sitcom could throw away a grouchy old woman as beautifully named as Schlaegelmilch, but Perfect Strangers made an art form out of squandering secondary characters’ potential.
ABC could easily have thrown out “The Rent Strike” since it was written for a version of Perfect Strangers that had already been left behind, but I’m sure glad they didn’t. It foregrounds the Cousins’ fraught and complicated relationship with their boss/landlord Donald Twinkacetti, and realizes the prop comedy potential of a junk shop in a way that very few episodes did.
*more on this next week HINT HINT
5. Wild Turkey (Season 7)
One of the worst choices Perfect Strangers ever made was to turn uptight, anxious, sarcastic, jaded Larry Appleton into a manipulative, opportunistic, insulting, pathological liar. The writers finally realized the shift had pushed Larry out of the realm of family-friendly sitcoms and solidly into cartoon territory… and so they spun turds into gold*, finding a new type of comedy by leaning into that very incongruity.
(Maybe this happened because of a Q&A session after a taping, where an audience member asked Mark Linn-Baker how he felt playing an asshole. Or maybe it was because Bronson would openly abuse the craft services people with a shepherd’s crook for asking if he preferred Perrier or S.Pellegrino, and needed the audience to think Mark was the mean one.)
Larry trying to make money by selling second-hand turkeys reads as a gentle lampoon of his earlier get-rich-quick schemes, but otherwise the episode appears to be heading down the well-worn path of the “lost wedding ring” story. The rug-pull comes when the Cousins find themselves face-to-face with the equivalent of a sitcom family–all named after Happy Days characters–and Larry basically transforms into a demon, creating one of the show’s single funniest sequences. He offers false prayers to God, he screams at children, he steals food, and finally he breaks an old man’s ribs.
You’d expect Larry to get a wrist-slap from Balki at the end of the episode, but “Wild Turkey” refuses to explicitly comment on his terrorizing of a whole family at all. No one standing up to a man blatantly disregarding social constraints is a stronger explanation for Larry’s behavior than “girls didn’t like me in high school”. It’s downright amazing this aired the same night as Urkel convincing a girl to stop putting out for everyone–or really on TGIF at all.
*Like in the fairy tale Rumpelshittin
4. Better Shop Around (Season 3)
Perfect Strangers‘s second full season still had something to prove. Outlandish plots like Balki becoming a rapper, or negotiating the sale of land on his home island, were still years away. “Better Shop Around” keeps the stakes virtually non-existent, opting instead to imagine how Balki and Cousin Larry would approach an “invisible” part of American life: the weekly grocery trip.
The episode brings Balki’s agricultural background to the forefront, contrasting it against America’s plenty. And the USian trend towards total disregard of the human aspects of commerce plays out in both Balki’s story (the cashier doesn’t want to chat, and she’s on the verge of being replaced by a self-checkout system) and Larry’s: when the Cousins are rewarded for being loyal customers, Larry sees an opportunity for personal wealth instead of community. For a show about a dumbass immigrant, Perfect Strangers was occasionally this smart.
One of the show’s strongest aspects early on was its handling of catchphrases. Full House gave each of its characters a catchphrase, though none of them revealed their peronalities.* Uncle Joey would tell people to “Cut. It. Out.” and DJ would exclaim “Oh Mylanta”. Tells you everything about them, doesn’t it? Similarly, I’ve yet to figure out what, exactly, poses “No problem” for ALF. But the best Perfect Strangers episodes understood Larry and Balki as reliable sets of responses to scenarios, and developed multiple catchphrases and catchphrase-a-likes to make that point. “Better Shop Around” is larded with them, with not only two instances of “Don’t be ridiculous”, but a “Where do I come up with them?”, Larry’s “Watch… and learn” and “I have… a plan!”, Balki running and jumping on the couch, and the Cousins playing catch with dead poultry.
*save for Danny Tanner’s “I like to get high off these cleaning supply fumes.”
3. Games People Play (Season 4)
I doubt any of you are surprised that three of the dead-bird-throwing episodes are in my top 10.
The very first televised game show was British, but I’d argue that the format is a distinctly American institution, interlocking with the Tocquevillian idea of socioeconomic mobility as a central support of democracy. (I mean, barely anyone in America changes social classes since the 70s, when the billionaires took over, but it was nice to dream for a couple hundred years.) A game show episode is very nearly a sure thing for any sitcom–Season 8’s “The Baby Quiz” proves this by showing how hard you have to work to fail at it–because it typically involves the characters bringing their personal beefs into a fun low-stakes situation. Television viewers are already experts at being a home game show audience, and know exactly how transgressive a sitcom’s characters are being. And this episode gives us that, but that’s not what makes it great.
The Banana Strippers are what make it great.
It was serendipitous that a sitcom essentially about slapstick and live stunts happened at the same time as the heyday of game shows with larger-than-life physical games like Double Dare, Nick Arcade, Finders Keepers, and Fun House. “Games People Play” is one of the few examples where removing logic from the setup turned out to be fully justified: Bronson Pinchot and Mark Linn-Baker had by this point built up their physical comedy skill to the point that you could fill a third of an episode with it. Having grown up on Double Dare, this episode scratched my own personal nostalgia itch the most.
2. Stress Test (Season 7)
Given how dreadful some late-era episodes could be for any longrunning 80s/90s sitcom (you’ll notice no Season 6 episodes made it onto this list), the fact that Perfect Strangers’s 140th episode made it into my top 10 is a testament to just how well the Larry-Balki relationship could work when the writers understood it.
A psychologist putting Larry and Balki into stressful situations for his own and others’ amusement is about as metatextual as you can get. Since it’s a good bet the Season 7 writers felt the show was ending, it feels like a closing argument: no matter what tests life gives the Cousins, the results will be exactly the same. They’ll work together, they’ll fight, they’ll take turns wheedling and crying, and somedamnhow they’ll work showtunes* into it. “Stress Test” celebrates the fact that Larry and Balki don’t get along, asking you to pardon the earlier excessive missteps of discord (say, any time Larry made Balki cry) as something out of their control.
We also got solid guest-star casting with George Wyner’s third appearance. Wyner’s first two appearances as mob accountant Marvin Berman were among Season 5’s highest points, and it’s easy to imagine he was called back to help elevate another good episode. And whether or not it was intentional, that he would have been a familiar face to Larry and Balki added to the mindfuck elements of psych tests.
*Hey, I’ve never claimed that they were the straightest gay couple on television without evidence for it.
1. Get a Job (Season 2)
SHE’S A PARTY GIRL
Pushing characters out of their regular environment is a nice treat–as long as it’s not (ahem) overdone. Later seasons would dip into that well too often–the Cousins as caterers, stewardesses, hospital orderlies, and in Season 11, air traffic controllers–but this was the very first time, and driven by existing circumstances in the show’s scenario. The Cousins were still down on their luck, and broke besides, and when Twinkacetti fires them, they’re desperate enough to take the first shitty job they can find.
Part of Perfect Strangers’s original thesis is that neither one of these guys could make it in the modern world on the strength of their individual knowledge or skills, and needed each other. Putting them in a situation where they were truly out of their depth–where even their combined efforts were futile against characters more out of control than they were–is a rewarding subversion of that thesis that the show explored far too rarely. (And with variable results: “Since I Lost My Baby” and “A Catered Affair” are worthwhile, but “Prose and Cons” would be in my Bottom 10 if I could remember a single thing that happened in it.)
Perfect Strangers regularly cast good actors in one-off roles–such as George Wyner, Holland Taylor, James Hampton, Kimmy Robertson, and Leslie Jordan–who could match the show’s just-shy-of-zany tone. Susan Kellerman, here playing Fat Marsha Manning, is the only one who elevated a guest role to something more than what was on the page. The script appears to have portrayed Fat Marsha as a disgusting, frightening part of Chicago’s working class; but Kellerman plays her as a woman in control of her own life, personally and socially and professionally. Being fry cooks at Fat Marsha’s Burgers would never be right for Balki and Larry, but damn if I wouldn’t have loved seeing her as somebody’s boss every week.
I’d stop the post here if I could, but for every great Perfect Strangers episode, there were two or three pitiable ones.
I’ve faced tougher decisions to make than picking out only ten worst episodes of Perfect Strangers, but not many. (For instance, one of my college philosophy courses actually set up a live “trolley problem”. I’ll never forget the screams, the screech of steel, the smell like rotten barbecued pork.) To an outsider, Perfect Strangers fandom would suggest that the show was delightful, charming, and heartfelt, and suffered only from coming at the wrong time in television history, pitted not only against ratings powerhouses like Full House or Family Matters, but also against a “meaner” trend in sitcoms. This show’s fans long for the simpler days, when nice characters like Cousin Larry would bring nice characters like Balki Bartokomous to tears with threats of deportation. So it was a surprise that so many full episodes–and many, many more individual scenes–left a bad taste in my mouth.
10. You Gotta Have Friends (Season 3)
20 minutes of Balki telling you Carl Lewis is going to show up, and one minute where Carl Lewis shows up.
Was this real? Was there really a time when Olympic athletes were so important that a sitcom would do anything to have one guest-star? And were they so universally loved you could just write absolutely nothing but their name over and over again and get away with it? And are either watching one perform, or meeting one personally, the only two possibilities for stories about athletes?
The 80s truly were a simpler time.
9. Here Comes the Judge (Season 5)
Seasons 5 and 6 were, overall, the show’s lowest points*, and there are very few episodes I’d recommend from either. If Season 2 suffered by making Balki an angel, Seasons 5 and 6 suffered by making Larry a devil.
Balki getting assigned to the Chicago Chronicle’s grievance committee, and Larry having a grievance filed against him for stealing office supplies, should have been a walk in the park for the writers. To their credit, they at least knew that Larry should try to weasel out of it, but everything else about the episode fails. That it has almost nothing to do with the fact that they work for a newspaper is only the tip of the iceberg here. We’re given hints that Balki might have to face some sort of dilemma around the fact that his coworkers are also his friends. The possibilities of Lydia’s anxiety or Gorpley’s vindictiveness playing a part are dangled before us only to be instantly ditched. The episode is incredibly un-self-aware and thus unmoored from continuity, overlooking or forgetting how often Larry had to bring his work home. Another season’s Larry might have tried to pump Balki (hehe) for information on who ratted him out; but Asshole Larry humiliates him in front of their coworkers, who in turn don’t comment on it.
Like with “Eyewitless Report” above, I’m cheating just a little. “Almost Live in Chicago” would have taken this spot but for the fact that I wanted one episode that was all-around disappointing, where at every point you can only think of the episode it could have been.
*Some would say Season 7, and I half agree.
8. The Unnatural (Season 2)
The initial six episodes in Perfect Strangers’s first season met my expectations that the show would be a mix of fun and bland, but with Season 2, ABC ushered in a brand new era of upside-down “morals”.
This marks the first time the show went out of its way to fellate Balki. Cousin Larry is one game away from winning the Greater Chicago Locally-Owned Business Baseball Tournament Jamboree, and Balki sees this as an opportunity to guilt trip him. The issue: Balki doesn’t realize Larry thinks he’s terrible at baseball, nor does he bother to tell him he was actually good at it on Mypos. One person being presented as a villain for daring to care about their own goals would prove to be Full House’s most-visited well. It was annoying enough there, even if you’re able to swallow that kids are too young to understand perspective-taking; but to see it play out between two grown men is worse. This show couldn’t even go ten episodes without infantilizing the very foreigners it wanted to praise as crucial to American society.
By setting up the double standard that Balki was allowed to not care about Cousin Larry’s goals, but that Cousin Larry had to give into every one of Balki’s demands, Perfect Strangers made some serious headway towards ditching the relatively intelligent aspects of the talky comedy it started out as.
7. A Horse is a Horse (Season 6)
Man look this one starts out with the Cousins doing the Humpty Dance and ends with Balki resurrecting a dead horse with Mrs. Dash. At one point Larry sucks on a barber’s dildo. I don’t fucking know.
6. Aliens (Season 4)
Ideally, sitcoms offer an interesting umbrella premise, or a unique voice, through which everyday situations can be filtered; and presumably they get renewed because audiences respond to those two aspects. So an homage episode–where one or both of those might disappear–is a shaky proposition to begin with, and the bar is higher. A sitcom taking on the look and feel of another piece of media needs to do more than ask “Wouldn’t it be funny if one character dressed up like another?” It needs to ask if there’s something interesting to explore about its own characters, or if there’s some comparison or contrast it can make with other shows or films. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s “Old Lady House” poked fun at how laugh tracks try to transform the often toxic behavior between sitcom characters. Community explored one character’s break with reality through stop-motion animation in “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”. Roseanne’s “The Fifties Show” contrasted Roseanne with television housewives two generations prior.
When you think of Perfect Strangers, your mind immediately jumps to The Dick Van Dyke Show, right?
As if it weren’t bad enough to outright steal the 1963 Dick Van Dyke Show dream episode “It May Look Like a Walnut” beat for beat, without any indication that it was doing so, Perfect Strangers turned it into something far, far worse by removing all of the things that made the original work.
For one, it made virtually no effort to localize the plot to Larry and Balki and co. Instead of coming up with a way for anyone’s existing character traits–Lydia, Harriette, Jennifer, Mary Anne, Mr. Gorpley, RT Wainwright, Old Man MacDuff, Big Scooter, Li’l Scooter, or Chimpanzos, the Myposian Ape, to toy with Larry’s sense of whether he was going crazy… they just all wore vests. The vests themselves were the other problem. “It May Look Like a Walnut” offered a visual pun on the oversized pods in Invasion of the Body Snatchers; “Aliens” detached the plot from its central joke and forgot to find something to reattach it to.
Imagine how much fun it would have been if Perfect Strangers had parodied some contemporary alien film, say, Cocoon, or They Live. Instead we got this shit.
5. The Break In (Season 3)
This episode–where Larry and Balki save a coworker from suicide by reminding him that he has a wife and kid–tried. It really did, I’ll give it that. But like imagine if it was somebody’s childhood dream to be a doctor, and after years of not going to medical school or going in for a regular checkup, they perform surgery when they’re at the grocery store and the checker has a heart attack. They tried, they really did.
This began as a lighthearted, wacky story, where everything Larry and Balki do to fix a mistake gets them in worse trouble. It was on its way to being a good episode right up until they meet Frank, the crime beat reporter, about to leap to his death to escape the horrors of the modern American city. I suspect the sudden swerve was to make Larry rethink how seriously he was treating his relatively minor problems, but the episode didn’t bother to make that clear. Aside from the tonal mismatch, it’s hard to believe that the Cousins–who can’t even handle hackneyed sitcom shenanigans–would suddenly be able to talk a man down from the ledge.
And then they go and gripe about how draining it was to save someone’s life. Fuck this one.
4. Piano Movers (Season 4)
“Piano Movers” aired one week after “Aliens”, and when I reviewed it, I thought it had a shot at being the absolute worst episode of the show. I struggled to find anything to say about it and was reduced to making repeated whimpering pleas that it end.
And then I found out that it too was a complete theft, this time of the Laurel & Hardy short film “The Music Box”. It’s some sort of impressive that this is both the only Perfect Strangers episode I hated twice as much after I had finished reviewing it, and the only one I have even less to say about now than I did then.
It was very difficult to not include “The Gazebo” or “I Saw This on TV” in the Bottom 10. But in retrospect, both of those episodes were honest about being homages. Plus, I can cut the latter some slack because I know seeing Mark and Bronson as Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton brought a smile to Jo Marie Payton’s face.
3. Duck Soup (Season 6)
Recipe for Myposian duck soup
- 6 raw duck leg/thigh pieces
- 16 cups low-salt chicken broth
- 1 large onion, peeled, halved
- 6 tablespoons finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 handfuls of semisolids from the nearest Five Guys dumpster
Step 1: Mix all items in large pot
Step 2: Place pot, covered, in trunk of car
Step 3: Book 3-week trip to Panama in late July
Step 4: Park car in uncovered parking at airport
Step 5: Upon return, climb into trunk of car, close trunk lid
Step 6: Top with sour cream
Voilà! You have put in more effort, and created a better end product, than the writers, actors, and producers of this episode. I can’t think of a bigger “fuck you” to an audience than sex noises and saying dinosaurs still exist.
2. Yes Sir, That’s My Baby (Season 7)
Oh wait I can it’s this doodoo hole. It’s a master class in almost every problem a sitcom can have.
Not only was this a fantasy episode; refused to answer its central question of what kind of fathers the Cousins would be; offered immense tonal discord by promising you that both Larry and Balki would go to jail for life for gross child neglect; never came up with a story; and made me wish I was watching “Piano Movers”, because it at least had Lydia; not only all that but it made damn sure you knew that Jennifer and Mary Anne’s sidelining from most episodes wasn’t actually a side effect of the show’s focus on physical comedy. Either the writers were deliberately excluding Melanie Wilson and Rebeca Arthur, or they couldn’t be bothered to give a shit that week at all. Oh AND you could make the case they were stealing from Laurel & Hardy again. Jesus.
An episode whose highest aspiration was putting Larry and Balki in diapers could have been almost anything; instead it chose to be nothing at all.
1. Season 8 (Season 8)
I hate it.
The three times that Bronson Pinchot was given any sort of control over a sitcom–Meego, The Trouble With Larry, and Season 8 of Perfect Strangers–are maybe the only extant examples of complete abdication of the responsibilities of television storytelling. Or at least, they’re the only ones I can think of, and there’s no way I’m thinking about this season a single minute more; the time I wasted watching these episodes would have been better spent gargling bleach. Perfect Strangers had always pushed the limits of how much necessary story it could chip away, but Season 8 set to the task of removing bricks from the show’s foundation with gusto. And it did this by allowing Bronson Pinchot–who hated the show by that point himself–to take as much time with his derivative “comedy” monologues as he wanted.
ABC was so ashamed that it even made these six episodes that it did everything in its power to ensure as few people as possible saw them. ABC put a lot of crap on the air, so it’s welcome to see that even they could recognize pure dreck.
In two weeks: goodbye
In one week: I have one final gift for you