Welcome back to Perfect Strangers Reviewed! I’m getting tired of this shit.
I’ve sat down here to try to answer the tough questions I need to think about, and it’s hard. I don’t want to do it. In fact, I’ve already taken off my pants in an attempt to distract you all.
In the past few months, I’ve felt some fatigue setting in. Now, a lot of this has to do with my own personal world over the past year. I… well, I had a shit year professionally, and it was enough to make me miss two weeks on this blog; let’s leave it at that. Some of my fatigue with ending season 5 has to do with coming off the high of ending season 4 and doing the Larryoke stream with y’all. That was the highlight of my year, by far, and that wouldn’t have happened without readers and friends pitching in so much. Someone even asked me to do another one next Spring, and that was good to hear. It won’t happen, unfortunately. I mean, there’s not enough raw material to do another set of songs yet. You’d get “Marvin Berman Eyes”* and that’d be it.
And some of it certainly has to do simply with reviewing a show for this long. I credit Philip “The J is for Jingle Cats” Reed for inspiring me to do this blog, and he mentions fatigue at the end of reviewing three seasons of ALF. Even Billy Superstar was complaining about how much further there was to go by the end of season 5 of Full House. How Sarah Portland isn’t dead after five years of reviewing Star Trek I’ll never know. I don’t know if this is true for other reviewers, but somewhere in the course of reviewing season 5, my reviews jumped from 2,400 words on average to around 3,500. Maybe I’m getting sloppy and less concise; or maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’m carrying more and more baggage of what’s come before each week.
But a hell of a lot of it has to do with Perfect Strangers itself. Like I said last week, finishing up each season has so far felt like an accomplishment. With two-ish seasons still ahead of me, this feels like having my 22nd birthday all over again.** And it doesn’t help that Perfect Strangers didn’t do anything to differentiate this season from others. Full House had specific throughlines, additions, and events that were season-specific: Jesse & Joey working at a radio station; Jesse & Becky’s kids being born; Danny having a steady girlfriend; Michelle dies in the last season. ALF’s latter seasons were distinguished by prolonged visits with new characters. With Perfect Strangers seasons can be told apart first by workplace, and then by Balki’s haircut.
I hope you’ll forgive me for this extended penis-measuring against other shows, but like I’ve done a few times this season, I’m trying to disclose my thinking process to show how I get somewhere. It occurs to me that Full House was bad because it was very good at what it set out to do (be incredibly saccharine, annoying, and endearing to self-centered little girls), and that ALF was very bad at what it set out to do (depict the often-heartwarming relationship between a brash-if-wise alien and his adopted nice everyfamily).
Obviously my considered opinion is that Perfect Strangers is bad, but what the fuck is it trying to do? (And does that matter?)
I know by now I can’t judge season 5 by the original, more intellectual premise of the show (you remember, like when Larry was trying to get upskirts of Dolly Parton) in terms of two people with radically different worldviews bringing their varying knowledge and misconceptions to adult situations like jobs, and dating, and the various contortions that social and gender codes force us to make. It had mostly ditched that by season 4. But I think it’s worth discussing another aspect of the show’s premise. Like musician Jesse Frederick said (in last week’s post), ABC wanted a theme song about winning. Perfect Strangers is still a show about chasing one’s dreams, though at this point that aspect is certainly treated differently.
For about 30 episodes, Larry Appleton wanted to make his way in the big city as a photojournalist, navigating an adult personal and professional life with the skills he’d learned in college. Balki wanted to live the generalized “American dream”, which in practice boiled down to a number of specifics (baseball, credit cards, driver’s license, high school degree, not fucking a blonde for four years). The potentialities of where the cousins might go in life have collapsed into the eigenstate of working at the Chicago Chronicle. The dreams are smaller. Larry used to worry that he would never get a girlfriend; now he worries that he won’t be able to keep one. I look forward to Larry starting psychotherapy when Jennifer indicates she doesn’t like the bathmats he bought.
I suppose Larry’s goal now is to be part of an investigative team like Marshall & Walpole, who were mentioned only once this entire season; and that’s a fine goal to work towards. And I guess Balki getting citizenship would be an endpoint for his arc. Season 5 gave Larry enough wins to make it believable that he could eventually be a journalist, but it didn’t truly advance that story. RT (Reporter Tease) Wainwright pops up a couple times to dangle the possibility of Balki and Larry working together as a team. It would be a kick in the nuts for that to happen since Larry is actually doing the real work. And since, as we learned last week, two more full seasons of Perfect Strangers was basically a foregone conclusion, I can see the possibility that this kind of arc (for at least Larry) was planned to take up this much time. But going down that road of conjecture ends with another complaint: Larry’s arc is gradual, and episodes can be strung together to form a story with “Larry is trying so damn hard” as its backbone.
Balki’s progress, however, has been more like marking items off a checklist. Balki gets a job, Balki graduates high school, Balki gets into college. Season 3 barely cared about Balki in high school, other than right at the end when the show realized it had a graduation story due and stayed up all night writing it. But at least “The Graduate” threw up some natural obstacles for Balki. In season four Balki gets into college and takes one class. There’s little enough story between those two events that he wasn’t even needed for one of the episodes; and for the other, it wasn’t actually about Balki striving–or even experiencing–something as life-changing as college. All we’ve gotten is a narrow look at how Larry and Balki interacted on two separate days of his now two years in college. Larry’s struggle is against the barriers that lots of people face: bad bosses, competition, trying to prove oneself, and trying not to let his neuroses get in his own way. Balki generally sails through life succeeding at whatever he tries, with Larry as his own real stumbling block. For Larry to hinder himself is comic; for Larry to hinder Balki is tragic.
Season 5 has been trying desperately to give Balki something else to do since he achieved his lifelong dream of staying a virgin at the end of season 4. And as a result, it comes across as though the newspaper itself doesn’t know what to do with him. He’s been given various other extra responsibilities (“The Newsletter”, “Here Comes the Judge”, and acting as Larry’s research assistant in “Poetry in Motion” and “Digging Up the News”), and we can assume that those are ongoing, but they haven’t changed his main job at the Chicago Chronicle, which I guess is “jukebox” at this point. (Gee, if only they’d come up with a character to be his boss…) At the very least, we do get a couple of indications that Balki has a life past what we get to see. He’s still in college according to “Poetry in Motion”; and he volunteers at the hospital in “Disorderly Orderlies”, making good on his graduation promise to give back to America . But we haven’t heard Balki talk about what he wants out of his life, or out of America, for a long time now. Is it every shepherd’s dream to oversee multiple flocks? Does he want his own farm? Does he want children? Does he want to gather up nine other guys so Mary Anne can give birth out in the field, and then come cook for them? We’ll just assume Balki has some reason for wanting to go to college, but otherwise I guess it’s hard to come up with long-terms goals for a character once you’ve committed to giving him his every desire 22 minutes after he voices it. Or the show simply isn’t interested in exploring Balki’s life. Could be that.
At any rate, what I’m trying to say about dreams is that Perfect Strangers has lost much of its general striving tone, but replaced it with goals that are specific (enough) to
the characters Larry and the situation. And as much as I want to make that a compliment for season 5, it’s applicable more to the series as a whole, and that only because I know that we have 50-odd episodes left. And whatever goals in mind the show has left for the characters–being an investigative team, buying a house, marrying, having kids–two years seems like a reasonable amount of time to achieve them.
But I could have said the same thing a whole damn season ago.
Back to what I was saying earlier, that season 5 doesn’t have much to distinguish it from season 4. I suppose it would be unfair to say that it should. Other shows have run much longer without shaking up their central aspects. (I mean, I haven’t watched The Simpsons for a few years now, but the only major thing that changes is which voice actors die, right?) Just like season 4 was a succession of parties, I could say that season 5 had a relatively high number of episodes about family members (“Lie-Ability” & “Home Movies” (sorta), “Because They’re Cousins”, “Hello Ball”, and “Father Knows Best???”) and sports (“Good Skates”, “Lie-Ability”, “Everyone in the Pool”, “Hello Ball” again), but that’s only true of the first half.
I don’t think this is so much a distinction as it is the further drift of a rudderless ship, but season 5 leaned much more into kiddie fare than season 4. In Billy Superstar’s season 5 review of Full House, he noted that the show’s palette had switched to brighter colors that season. I’m still watching VHS rips, meaning that the colors I see are the muted browns, yellows and greens of a COPD patient’s purulent sputum. But we’ve all but left lessons behind. Don’t get me wrong, the cousins still had to navigate a few tricky adult situations. They explored whether lying was appropriate when trying to bolster a cranky old man’s ego (“Hello Ball”), whether making money was worth causing others pain and suffering (“Season 5”, haha, gotcha! Seriously, though: “The Selling of Mypos”), and tackling a nationalist’s attempt at undercutting affirmative action (“He’s the Boss”). Those were brief elevations of maturity that I was thankful to get, even if two out of three of them spent a hell of a lot of time on Balki singing & dancing or swinging a golf club around. But we had episodes where the cousins rolled an overweight man around for 10 minutes straight, flung a coworker around like a ragdoll (“Almost Live From Chicago”), put on animal costumes, and even one where a grown-ass man was scared of the dentist. Most relevant to this point, though, is that the plots are becoming simpler. Larry can’t skate and learns to. Balki is afraid of the dentist but then Larry is, too. Balki loses a bird and then he gets it back. The cousins get kidnapped, and they escape. The gang goes on the worst trip ever, and then it’s over. You could take any of those scenarios and get a great episode of television. But Perfect Strangers took those scenarios and didn’t build on them, storywise. I know some of you just read this blog, and some are familiar with the episodes, but tell me, either way: can you, without going back and looking, tell me anything more about those stories that isn’t the physical comedy portion?
We learned in the interviews for season 4 that a rule of thumb for Perfect Strangers was “the simpler the stories are, the funnier it gets”. So the show is achieving what it set out to do. But I think it’s doing it unevenly. Nowhere was this on display more than “Almost Live in Chicago”. Lydia Markham’s character is that of an advice columnist whose multiple neuroses keep her from getting her personal life in order. A story where one specific fear stands firmly in the way of career advancement–think someone as popular as Dear Abby suddenly becoming as popular as Oprah–should truly have been a character-defining episode for Lydia. Instead of Lydia making her own decision, on her own terms, the cousins run up on stage and Looney Tunes her into quitting. Perhaps the combination of a character-driven story, and the fact that the writers couldn’t have Lydia turn down the new job on the basis of dating one of the cousins, was just too much for the show to handle.
Speaking of neuroses, and simplicity, Cousin Larry has lost some nuance. We’ve been seeing that for a couple of seasons now when it comes to his inferiority. Formerly, he had plenty of stories about how miserable his youth was, and how that translated into specific public behaviors (not wanting to dance in public because of a heldover “imaginary audience” in season 1’s “First Date”; still hung up on high school social hierarchy in “Hunks Like Us”). But it’s been the case for a long time now that Larry will weep at the mere thought that Jennifer might not like him, that Jennifer’s family might not like him, that Jennifer might find someone else who is better at clipping their nails. To be fair, we did get three stories this season where Larry’s behavior was tied to his past. “Father Knows Best???” was a standout for the a major aspect ultimate origin of Larry’s inferiority complex; “Nightmare Vacation” was a good way to keep Larry’s worries fresh by having their root in past episodes; “Almost Live in Chicago” does a lot to explain why Larry is so ready to jump on every single opportunity to advance professionally, socially, romantically, or financially. But that appears at the broad level of looking at this season, not for individual episodes. When Larry’s behavior isn’t tied to some sort of trauma, or unproductive way of thinking, he’s just mean.***
I try to give credit where it’s due, and Philip J Reed has likened Larry to George Constanza. Much like Socrates prefigured Jesus, Larry has tried to game social situations to his advantage. I mentioned Eric Berne’s “Games People Play” in my season 4 review, and it’s worth bringing up here as well. “Games” are when someone tries to exploit a flaw in the way the world works to get more than they put in, be it at a broad societal level, or at the interpersonal level, or within specific domains of systematized behavior. George Costanza uses “it’s not you, it’s me” to break up with women to avoid repercussion for mentioning another’s flaws (and, potentially, to get the woman to tell him he’s not that bad); he gets away with acting like he works in an office for weeks because in most cases, your co-workers never see your hiring paperwork or interactions with human resources. Larry is a prototype for this behavior, but even that feels like it’s been slipping. In season 3 and 4, we saw Larry manipulate Balki by appealing to various aspects of his personality and American values, take unfair advantage of both a shopping spree and a bar’s happy hour, obscure the full story of Balki being “in line for the throne” to gain access to rich people, and overuse a decentish social tactic that he learned in an assertiveness training class. I don’t think that season 5 has given us fewer of these types of episodes–”Lie-Ability” is certainly of the “and they let you just get away with this?!” variety, and “Hello Ball” & “Disorderly Orderlies” just barely count. When Larry’s poor behavior isn’t rooted in his past, he’s got no excuse; when it flat out ignores social rules instead of gaming them, he becomes an outright asshole. He tears up the apartment for a mere $25,000; he’d sell other people’s land without a thought for their needs; he takes over Balki’s video letter to home for no discernible reason or apparent personal gain; he blatantly ignores the conditions of the people he interviews. Perfect Strangers has proven that it can write a nuanced Larry, and still tries to two or three times per season, but it certainly doesn’t seem to be interested in it.
Just like the first half of season 5 felt like nothing but sports & family members, much of the back half of this season came across to me as a series of attempts to push parts of Perfect Strangers in definite directions and see what worked well.
And I want to make clear that this is all my conjecture based on reading between the lines. It’s not like I have documentation that this was the intent. If I didn’t already suspect ABC of doing this, I might not have interpreted it this way. I’ll admit to binge-watching just about every other show I’ve been into, and patterns appear to me when I do. When I watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I got the impression that seasons 4, 5, and 6 were all written with the assumption that each would be the final season (I mean, maybe Whedon planned to dedicate a whole season to the Trio, but it sure wasn’t as compelling as what came before). Full House seemed to make these kinds of changes across seasons as well, probably most obviously when Julie Smollett showed up briefly at the end of season 5 and came back in season 6. And you’ve heard of backdoor pilots, so I won’t go into that.
The most obvious episode like that for Perfect Strangers was “This Old House”. Certainly if the show were to go on much longer, at least one cousin would be married and need to move out of the Caldwell Hotel. But I think the show is also trying to find out if audiences prefer the cousins having separate responsibilities (“Here Comes the Judge”, “He’s the Boss” (kinda)), or working together as an investigative team, regardless of Balki’s qualifications (“Digging Up the News”). Both “Because They’re Cousins” and “Blast From the Past” seemed at the time like the show testing out a third character to bring back from time to time; similarly “Three’s a Crowd” and “Eyewitless Report” could both be read as experimenting with allowing an established secondary character more than 30 seconds on screen. Both of these could just be wishful thinking; and god damn do I wish the show would find success with some character that wasn’t one of the cousins.
And here’s my main gripe, one that you can already guess if you’ve been following this season’s reviews: Perfect Strangers has no interest in using most of the characters it has at disposal.
I looked back over my previous season reviews while writing this, and I sure was fucking naive when I finished up season 3. I was willing to dismiss a lack of focus on the other Chronicle employees as simply evidence of efforts to figure out what characters worked best and, on a more basic level, how a workplace sitcom would function. A symptom that I mistook for piece-moving has become a full-blown disease. Can you believe we’ve been three seasons with Lydia, Gorpley, and RT Wainwright at this point? Can you believe that Gorpley and Lydia were in 12 and 13 episodes respectively this season?
Say whatever you want about how the focus of the show is the relationship between Larry and Balki, but when Bronson Pinchot himself voices discomfort at that focus, don’t you think that means there’s a problem?
Perfect Strangers gave itself girlfriends, a new workplace, and four regular Chronicle employees, and still it wants to bring in new characters for the cousins to interact with. For arguably 10 out of this season’s 24 episodes, the cousins had to deal with a new personality disrupting their lives for a little bit. Don’t get me wrong: I’m happy we got to see Larry’s dad, Marvin Berman’s second appearance was surprisingly worthwhile, and having Balki be able to respond in an unexpected (if consistent) way to an even more wet-behind-the-ears Myposian felt like a necessary story. Plus, James Hampton as Mac MacIntyre was the best guest character since Fat Marsha.
But shouldn’t we, in the meantime, have gotten to know more about the recurring characters? And since one of them left at the end of last season, shouldn’t that have increased the amount of time we see the others? Sure, we got some gossip about Lydia and Gorpley in “The Newsletter”, but it was gossip in isolation that served no other purpose than to quickly demonstrate that Balki had caused trouble. We saw more of Gorpley in season 4, even if only in situations outside of the workplace. But at this point, I’m wearing out this joke about Gorpley’s shitty Christmases, since all he did this season was stand around and eat. And Harriette’s gone, so we’ve lost the bickering between her and Lydia, flavoring that it so desperately needs now. We got one factoid per season about RT (Receding Throughline) Wainwright in season 3 and 4; this season nothing.
Worse still are how the show handles the cousins’ girlfriends. Sure, Jennifer and Mary Anne were in 18 and 19 episodes respectively, but I’ve taken pisses that lasted longer than their collective screen time. Even “Three’s a Crowd”, the episode that was about their fight, managed to have Jennifer absent for most of it. Larry and Balki spent more time with a men’s room key and an iron than their own girlfriends. Obviously Melanie Wilson’s and Rebeca Arthur’s (and Belita’s, and Sam’s) agents got them contracts stipulating a specific number of episodes, but the show only ever does the bare minimum to fulfill those obligations. I finally realize why we had so many fucking parties in season 4: it’s an easy way to get characters in an episode without them having to say anything or do anything. Did having both girlfriends, Lydia, and Gorpley all together in the basement in “Father Knows Best???” accomplish anything other than repeating the gag of accidentally shutting a locked door?
I guess I can see now how it would take a group of eight writers huddling in tense conference to come up with a way to give a character two lines of dialogue without disturbing the rest of the script.
It would be far too kind to say at this point that Perfect Strangers didn’t know what to do with the workplace and apartment settings, or what to do with its supporting characters: it’s plain not interested. Just like I buy fruit from the grocery store and end up throwing it out two weeks later when it rots because I also bought a box of Pop Tarts, the show gave itself a lot of raw material and opted not to use it. Instead of exploring those characters, or at the very least letting them have any impact on a plot, we end up with physical comedy, Balki singing showtunes, Balki putting on funny hats and chanting. Cutting out these characters not only closes off potential stories, but potential ways to explore stories as well. It’s far too easy to think of better ways to use the supporting characters in episodes like “The Newsletter” or “Here Comes the Judge”; and when they aren’t used at all, Perfect Strangers ends up being drearily uninteresting. “Poetry in Motion” ended up feeling like a clone of season 4’s “The Lottery”. “Lie-Ability” teased a bunch of interesting stories in the first three minutes and then spent the remainder implying that Larry had talked Balki into wiping his ass. I know I watched “Everyone in the Pool”, and that’s about all I can say about it at this point. I’d put “Disorderly Orderlies” and “This Old House” in this category, too. And instead of an episode where Larry and Jennifer celebrate their anniversary, we got “Bye Bye Birdie”, which is one of the most unnecessary episodes of this show I’ve watched yet.
And lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also re-iterate what we learned in “Digging Up the News”. In the course of rewrites (or possibly during editing?), it appears that Perfect Strangers is willing to ditch the handful of dialogue necessary to avoid what I think of as “sitcom logic”. I’m not sure how often this is the case–and I may not try to investigate it in the future–but it’s certainly another piece of the puzzle of why Perfect Strangers is the way it is.
So, back to my initial question of “what the fuck is this show trying to do or be?” This season, it tried to explore that derive from the cousins at this point in their lives, personal and professional. It tried to build some story “arcs” that carried across more than one episode. It tried to touch on some serious contemporary topics like toxic waste and toxic leadership. It looks like it was trying to figure out what it might need to change as it entered its final years. It certainly wasn’t trying to be like other sitcoms. At times it tried to be a cartoon, and it even found some success when it leaned more into that (“Blast From the Past”, “Eyewitless Report”).
But ultimately what I think Perfect Strangers is trying to do is be both a sitcom and a kids’ cartoon. It’s a unique thing to try to do, and I think distinguishes it quite well from other family sitcoms of the time period. Whether good integration of those elements is possible is a different topic for another day. My point here is that they generally don’t work together in the the way Perfect Strangers attempts, and nowhere was this more clear than when the two collided head-on in “Almost Live in Chicago”.
One last word about my hopes for the next three seasons: I don’t have any.
You didn’t think I’d leave without a list, did you? I know you millennials love your fucking lists.
Favorite episode: “Eyewitless Report”
Episode that made me want to remove my own hemorrhoids with a used grapefruit spoon: “Almost Live From Chicago”
Best one-off character: Mac MacIntyre (James Hampton)
Worst handling of a one-off character: Mr. Vaughan (Travis McKenna) in “Disorderly Orderlies”
Best Balki-ism: haha you think I’m even paying attention to them at this point?
Worst Balki-ism: that time when he said something
Season 5 catchphrase count: Balki (17.5); Larry (10)
Season 5 boner count: Balki (6); Larry (4)
Cumulative catchphrase count: Balki (88.5); Larry (31)
Cumulative boner count: Balki (18); Larry (18.5)
Dance of Joy running total: 17
HONGI BONGI: HONGI BONGI
Join me next week for another Perfect Strangers review!
*He’ll come into your place / Scare you with dynamite / The hitmen know his face / He’s got Marvin Berman eyes
**The fact that that birthday party also included fursuits and oversized props is purely coincidental
***With the major fucking exception of dislocating Lydia’s shoulder because someone he knew in high school has a sugar daddy-in-law in “Almost Live From Chicago”