Parties and Games
Do you realize I’m not even halfway done? I’ve reviewed four out of 8 seasons, but only 72 out of 150 episodes.
I say this not to complain, or even to talk about the arcane topic of how networks decide on how many episodes to order each season. I mention this because I feel like Perfect Strangers has pretty much decided what it wants to be. I mention this because I’m worried that I have 78 episodes left, and that this show isn’t going to try to surprise me with anything. It’s almost like there’s a party this show will never get to…
One thing the show has decided is that it wants the softest of resets every episode. No matter how many times Larry and Jennifer show affection to each other (I think there were two scenes with that this season), Larry still worries about whether she even know he exists. I’ve called Larry a baby before, but this is a serious problem with:
Psychology sidebar: Object Permanence means, basically, the point when a child realizes objects persist in reality even when outside their field of vision. Its absence is part of what makes peek-a-boo fun; its presence can demonstrate nascent math abilities. Say, for instance, you have three teddy bears sitting on a table that the infant can see; you hang a cloth between them and the child, remove one bear, lift the cloth, and the little crotchfruit gets confused. It knows there were more of them previously.
It’s basically a shift from being the one-dimensional Linelander to being a two-dimensional Flatlander. It usually occurs by about age 2. Larry is a 27-year-old man. I take it back; that’s not a reset, that’s a regression.
No matter how many times Balki and Mary Anne (Sagittarius) kiss (or implicitly have sex), it’s never established that they are a couple. I mean, I would have expected a stronger reaction from her than “resigned” when Balki was getting married. I’d be screaming and crying about how he can just DUMP me without a second fucking GLANCE and shack up with that LITTLE ISLAND WHORE. But she’s so dumb she didn’t understand love.
You can send Balki to high school, you can even send him to college, but his malapropisms never improve. (That is, they never go away and they’ve mostly ceased being funny.) He never gets appreciably smarter. Really, neither does Larry. He was hired because they were short-handed, and then he was promoted to a position where he’s underutilized. Again, these halts in development seem even worse when, as the show has stated, Balki and Larry been together for a number of years >1.
I’ll even admit it was nice that there continuity along the lines of “Larry screws things up on trips”: that’s continuity that progresses along a certain path. Otherwise, though, Larry barely gets a promotion, the cousins don’t get a maid, the cousins don’t win a bunch of money, Balki doesn’t take up a hobby, Larry’s always dumb, Balki’s always wrong, Lydia’s always a sex addict, and
Sometimes jokes work, and sometimes they don’t!
We’ve still been getting clunky set-ups which don’t always lead to good jokes. The show seemed to have a better track record with this in the early seasons (that poster of G. Gordon Liddy on Twinkacetti’s office wall), but now has lost its touch. We literally have to have characters doing un-natural, almost asshole kinds of things to set up a punchline (Larry and Mary Anne giving Jennifer the same sweater plus the demand that she open Mary Anne’s first).
We even get clunky episode setups (“Games People Play”, for one), confusing setups (“High Society”), and even confusing episodes (“Crimebusters”).
So why is this happening? What caused this mix of playing out the same arguments and lessons (compare “Better Shop Around” to “Car Wars”; compare “Piano Movers” to “Prose and Cons”)?
We have one indication in the set of interviews from a couple of weeks ago, when Mark Linn-Baker told Regis that “the simpler the stories are, the better it gets”. This completely explains why, in some cases, we do get quick setups (“Games People Play” and “Prose and Cons”). The longer setups involve more than one moving piece (“Blind Alley”, “Come Fly With Me”, “Seven Card Studs”). At any rate, the showcase each week is whatever physical comedy Larry and Balki get into. And wasn’t it worth it to see Larry’s blanket get stolen?
And I find myself wanting to blame Mark Linn-Baker here, because he’s the one who stated that philosophy. But was it his? Was it an agreement on his and Bronson’s part? And this probably isn’t fair either, but I find myself wanting to think that it was the actors who simplified things. Maybe. Or maybe they got good ratings the more they did it? Or maybe the writers just stopped trying to make dialogue-heavy scripts after awhile?
Was it that hard to retain a few lines of dialogue to keep the part where RT (Rosy Testicles) Wainwright was attracted to Larry in “Just a Gigolo”?
Maybe it’s all of those in different portions. But I don’t want to ignore that part of it must be due to the nature of sitcoms in the 1980s. I’ve read that some writers swear by the idea that all good writing must involve conflict. So, sure, Balki and Larry have to fight each week about something. Moreover, sitcoms back then tended to focus on their gimmicks. It wouldn’t be Perfect Strangers if there weren’t some cultural misunderstandings. Some of the better episodes to me still retained those: “Come Fly With Me”, “The Gift of the Mypiot”. And the even better ones were the ones with both internal and external conflict: I’m going to go back a season and mention “The Defiant Guys”, but “Wedding Belle Blues” is the best example of this from season 4. You had the cultural differences (Larry and Jennifer believe in true love, Balki believes in tradition) and the internal struggle (Balki is torn between his old culture’s dictating ways and the American fealty to love, trying to figure out how to make the fewest number of people sad).
Also, I’m having trouble putting a strict timeline onto these things. Are these episodes happening close together in time? Are they meant to be one a week? Do they just cover the months of August to May for the cousins? Whether 10 months or 12, 22 arguments between two men doesn’t seem terribly excessive. But some time does have to pass between episodes, so it’s jarring to me when relationships don’t deepen in the interims. But for audiences at that time, I can only guess that was the nature of sitcoms. (And probably still is? I don’t watch sitcoms aside from Fuller House these days.) You see these two funny people in a funny situation. You either come for the feel of the show or because you like the actors, or because you like the jokes. You can count on this show being this flavor every time.
And now I’m realizing that the show doesn’t make up plots that you don’t see, to just scatter into conversation (“Balki, last week you ruined my posters by washing them because they looked dusty. I am NOT going to let you wash my car!”).
Maybe I’m spoiled because I’ve experienced shows like Arrested Development and League of Gentlemen and Bojack Horseman and Rick and Morty, where past events have repercussions for later episodes. Or maybe those shows are written for adults.
I was a kid when I watched Perfect Strangers and Family Matters and Full House and Out of This World. (I was also a kid when I watched Murphy Brown, but in that case I didn’t understand most of the jokes.) I think it’s a fair statement to say that Perfect Strangers was being written for children by this point. And if kids were by any margin the target audience, we should expect these trends to continue, and to grow, in the next few seasons.
And looking at it this way sheds some light on what we’ve seen this season. The pat lessons that mid-20-somethings should have learned long ago. The fact that Balki’s like a hyper child, and that Larry can’t believe that one woman will like him when no one else has his whole life. They’re both individual cases of arrested development, with Larry turning into a baby almost every week. Seriously, though the lesson of both “Piano Movers” and “Prose and Cons” is “you did good, even if it amounted to nothing”.
It explains why there’s an episode built around the concept of “Double Dare”. It explains why the cousins act like children. And it explains why they’re slowly turning into cartoons before our eyes. Consider the cartoon logic of a badly-repaired car in “Car Wars”, or how someone can get hypnotized from across the room in “The King and I”.
Psychology Sidebar: Games People Play by Eric Berne. I almost got into this in the review of the episode with the same name. Let me rebuild Berne’s thesis here. Human relationships are based on “strokes”. A stroke is when one person says “Hello” to another; two more happen when the other responds with “Hi! How are you?”. Strokes acknowledge your existence; not getting the expected scripted response means you aren’t getting stroked back, making you despondent and upset. The “games” people play are ones to cheat the system, to get strokes by some shortcut. I can affirm that my alcoholism isn’t a problem if I can get someone to drink with me. I can pull in a third person to be a psychiatrist/judge when I disagree with someone, because I want to feel that my opinion has validity. I can get into fights with my spouse to avoid intimacy, which I’m afraid of. It’s all variations on the idea of getting what you want from others without putting in the actual work for it. If you’re still not getting the concept, watch any episode of Seinfled to see it played out.
The only strokes Balki and Larry are interested in are… nah, that one’s too easy. You all knew I was going to say “on their penises”, right?
What I’m getting at here is that I think Perfect Strangers has been getting good ratings with what’s approaching a minimum of effort. I mean, goddam, “Piano Movers” should be proof of how far is too far along those lines. The most interesting thing about that episode, other than Lydia’s smile, is the factoid that it’s a ripoff of Laurel and Hardy. Yeah, it gives you something to say about the episode, but no reason to watch it, compare the two, or even want to live anymore.
But what does effort look like, you ask? I’d say it’s using all the pieces at your disposal. There are, what, 8 characters on this show now? As much as I enjoyed Harriette and Lydia bickering with each other, it was never central to the plot. As much as I enjoy seeing Rebeca Arthur, she hardly ever has an impact on the plot (it’s arguable in “Wedding Belle Blues” as she’s mostly there to be hurt or not hurt). Harriette was originally presented as the character with knowledge from the streets; but she barely did or said anything in her last few appearances. Lydia was originally a tightly-bound set of neuroses. Now she just really, really likes sex, which is a wrong thing to like. Gorpley was presented as a mean guy who had power over Balki’s job. Now he’s a mean guy when he bowls, comes to a Christmas party, or plays poker. To go back to season 3 again for a moment, how the hell did he not have a bigger role in “Couch Potato”, when Balki was literally missing hours of work? I’ll have a lot more to say about jerk characters and jerk dialogue at some point; remind me if I haven’t done that by season 8.
But couldn’t these people be used more? Couldn’t Larry and Balki threaten RT Wainwright’s position in some important meeting where they fight over Sweet n’ Low packets? Couldn’t Balki’s industriousness lead to greater work being put on Gorpley’s plate, work he can’t delegate, and so he tries to slow Balki down with the mail? Couldn’t Harriette be upset about doing the same job for years and talk shit about her boss, which Balki then repeats (either in the sense of “why, you’re not a tyrant, Mr. So-and-so” or by making the gripes sound worse than they are through Balki speech), or which he tries to fix? Couldn’t Lydia come into work drunk and keep talking to Larry about her woes, making him late in turning in an article? Couldn’t Jennifer and Mary Anne do their best to stop Larry from fighting in a restaurant? While everybody’s trying to make this show simple, it ends up pushing everybody else from the room. These two atoms, Balki and Larry, form a helium gas that keeps expanding, leaving no room for anyone else. No time to think about hydrocarbons. No time to think about glycerides.
And when I say everybody else, I do mean the women, primarily. This season was the absolute worst in how it treated women, with three definite and terrible examples: “That Old Gang of Mine”, “Maid to Order”, and “Wedding Belle Blues”. Part of what makes these so disappointing was how good the setups were, just to be ruined by jokes or how issues are resolved. At any rate, women appear to exist in a lesser role than men–not just in terms of how often they have large roles (god I miss Fat Marsha) on this show, but also in terms of the show’s philosophy towards them. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that a show about two men touching each other’s faces ends up giving women short shrift. At the very least, Robert Blair, author of two of those episodes, isn’t coming back.
For all that I’ve been making it sound like the show has stagnated, I feel like we finally got some movement on the “ABC keeps trying to retool its shows” front. Season 2 gave us one episode with the cousins working a different job “Get a Job”, and somewhat of another in season 3 “Just Desserts”. Despite the numerous possibilities there are for stories taking place at a newspaper, or for any workplace in general, we only get a handful in season 4 (“Assertive Training”, “High Society”, “Crimebusters”, and “Prose and Cons”). But we seem to be getting more and more episodes where the cousins are put into situations that have nothing to do with home or work (“That Old Gang of Mine”, “Come Fly With Me”, “Car Wars”, “Seven Card Studs”, “Just a Gigolo”). “Come Fly With Me” and “Teacher’s Pest” are the clearest examples of putting the cousins in a new work situation, which to me reads that ABC was testing things out. After two seasons of not trying to give Larry a clear role at the Chicago Chronicle, someone seems to have decided to see how audiences would like him working in a classroom. And hey, I wouldn’t have minded that! Not only would it have given him a student-of-the-week to deal with, but maybe it wouldn’t even be Balki sometimes! And “Come Fly With Me” is an example of both cousins working in a different job setting. These two episodes together are definite forays outside the norm for the cousins.
Other times, the show keeps experimenting with lifting a story from somewhere else and seeing how well it goes. Season 3 gave us “Just Desserts”, which had an I Love Lucy homage as its reason for existing. I take it that one had good ratings–after all it continues to be a fan favorite–because they tried two more such episodes this season. “Piano Movers”… let’s not talk about “Piano Movers” again. But “Aliens” is just a poorly done homage to the “It May Look Like a Walnut” episode of The Dick Van Dyke show. The only joke this show could come up with on its own was that everybody wore vests like Balki.
I fully expect to see more episodes like these from season 5 on. I’m sure ABC will keep trying them because, hey, sometimes it may not work, but sometimes it does. Larry will always see things one way, and Balki will see things another*. The cousins will continue to be gay. They both will still have a long way to go.
Of course they will, don’t be ridiculous.
I think that’s all I have to say about season 4 for the moment. Now here’s the part where I give you a list of the best and worst things from season 4, and you all have to accept it as the final word.
Worst episode: choke on your own scripts, Robert Blair
Best episode: Games People Play, but Assertive Training and Maid to Order are tied for second.
Best one-off character: Cobra, just because he knows his late-night comedians; but Mrs. Bailey did have thoughts and feelings of her own, and Carl Winslow acted like a real person, so let’s say it’s a three-way (heh) tie.
Worst one-off character: fuckin’ Walt
Best Balki-ism: um, none?
Worst Balki-ism: “perversion” in place of “promotion”
Season 4 catchphrase count: Balki (12); Larry (7)
Season 4 boner count: Balki (1); Larry (1)
Cumulative catchphrase count: Balki (71); Larry (21)
Cumulative boner count: Balki (12); Larry (14.5)
Dance of Joy running total: 14
Join me next week for another Perfect Strangers review!
*In all fairness, breaking that standard was one of the best parts of “Just a Gigolo”.