Season 4, Episode 18: Car Wars

Dammit, I had to go and skip the one about cars last season, didn’t I? The show found out and now it’s forcing me to watch an episode where Larry’s wrong about cars.


At the Caldwell Hotel, we find Cousin Larry once again losing his shit because of an over-dunked cookie. As we learned a month ago, milk ruins everything.


Balki rushes in excited because he raised up enough money to buy a car. Remember, kids, this was the 80s, back when “a car” cost a specific amount of money. Balki cashed his paycheck, withdrew all his savings, and gathered up a bunch of homeless people and forced them to sell their plasma.


Cousin Larry tells him he has to do research in Consumer Reports and know what he wants in a car before buying one.  Balki responds with a move called “The Price Searcher”.

Balki has decided that he wants to buy a car from a place he saw on television: Honest Achmed’s Used Car Caravan.

Larry: How can I say this tactfully…

I’ll do it so you don’t have to, Larry. Arabs are crooks because they are foreigners and worship a false god! And if that’s not bad enough, they have brown skin and wear weird stuff on their heads!

Nah, j/k, this show isn’t racist at all: Larry explains that “Achmed” is just some weasel named Burt. He offers Balki the Appleton Used Car Rating System (AUCRS), telling him that if he carefully follows all of its commands, he’ll receive blessings; but if he does not, curses will overtake him.


Evidently the “looking into the future” thing has become another running bit. Seems like this week’s secret word is “appropriation”, kids.  Burt appropriates another culture’s dress and mannerisms; Larry has stolen Claire Hayden’s soothsaying. In both cases, minorities are disrespected in service of the white man’s goal: lie to a different minority. There’s a good chance I might not like this episode.


Cousin Larry says that in the future, he will have some sort of medical emergency in the middle of the night (burst appendix, toxic levels of calcium in his kidneys from too much Bismol, prolapsed rectum) and that Balki’s car won’t start and he’ll die.  Balki starts screaming, because


and he can’t stand the thought of losing anyone else so soon.

Psychology sidebar: promotion vs prevention focus. After almost four seasons, Balki having multiple lifelong dreams has allowed for them to follow a generalized arc. Graduating high school/entering college; playing with dinosaur toys/riding a motorcycle; putting someone in jail/going to jail.  Sure, there’s a loose theme of doing “American” things (karate, putting fish down your pants, buying a typewriter), but Balki mainly wants new experiences that Mypos could never offer him. He usually couches his approach as wanting to have “fun”, but to Balki, this often means “new”. And America has been the perfect place for him to do this, as he’s found very few obstacles to getting the major things he needs and wants (housing, a job, a pudgy tummy to rub at parties).

Larry, on the other hand, has struggled to get everything he’s ever gained.  He may only be 27, but when he’s not crying about how someone pushed him on the playground, he acts like someone in their late 40s.  Cousin Larry is trying desperately to hold onto what he has, and is hypervigilant about threats to what he’s trying to achieve.  You’ve probably heard some variation on the saying “If you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, but if you aren’t a middle-aged conservative, you have no head.”  I take serious issue with it, but I think it does reflect a small-t truth: that what’s important changes to you as you age.

What I’m getting at here is that Balki is promotion-focussed, essentially a teenager, understanding risks but putting much more weight in the rewards.  Larry is prevention-focussed, already middle-aged, understanding too well how many forms risks can take.  Here, at least, it is actually true: Balki sees things one way, and Larry sees things another way.

But if you think I’m going to unequivocally compliment this show, hello, welcome to this blog.  It’s all fine and good that Larry try to convey to Balki what the risks are, but shouldn’t they be real risks?  He’s banking on Balki not remembering that ambulances exist, or that other people live in the same building.  Larry’s being an asshole instead of telling Balki that he’s wiped out his savings for a used car, leaving him no money for repairs (not to mention next semester’s textbooks); instead of telling Balki that he has a bank account and can get a loan; instead of telling Balki how cool it’s going to be having any car.

Larry’s not done being an asshole yet.  He’s forced Balki to beg for that sweet, sweet AUCRS, and then demands that Balki hand over all his money.

I mean, I realize that an episode where Larry says “Hey, let’s use the Blue Book” would take approximately five minutes, but can’t Larry just explain how his dad’s rating system works?  I mean, he’s back to deliberately not explaining things to Balki again.  Sure, in this scene alone, we get the impression that Balki needs everything explained to him (he wants a personalized license plate with a message 13 words long), so maybe Larry’s tired of it. But at least he could– no, wait, sorry, having Balki misunderstand things is funnier than Larry explaining things. My apologies.

Harriette has brought Lydia to the basement to watch Larry do his thang–*cough*–sorry, hair in my throat, I’m not racist–his thing.

Cousin Larry has used two different computer programs: one to create a list of every used vehicle in Chicago; and another to apply criteria to narrow the list.  Remind me why this spends his time buying sandwiches for bosses who’d rather let him rot in prison than give him an actual writing assignment?

But because it is Larry who has prefigured car-locating websites by about 20 years, Harriette’s treating it like a sideshow and Lydia asks if he wet the bed as a child. There’s a short discussion about whether it’s important to like the car, or for the car to last a long time, and I’m glad that the show chose this set of people to have the discussion. It wouldn’t have made any sense for Balki to take a position opposite Larry’s.  Anyways, we find out that Larry’s dad picked out the Mustang for him; if season 1 is still canon, he evidently made Larry pay him back with any change he picked up off the sidewalk.

I’m really going to side with Larry on this system, but, you know, I have been in a couple of positions where I sort-of managed people.  No matter how perfect your system is, you really do have to get buy-in from the people who will carry it out.

Balki runs in and says he found the car of his dreams in the parking garage.  He likes it because it’s red. I mean, if you’re going to have a phallic symbol, why pretend that’s not the goal?  His other reasons are that the car has mudflaps*, an antenna that leans back, and a Garfield toy in the window. But what good would it do to explain to Balki that you can paint a car and buy after-market accessories? He just had a stroke.


Anyway, that car didn’t pass the AUCRS. Blah blah, having fun/having a good car. Balki asks if Larry was breast-fed.


Larry tacitly and shamefully admits that even his mom wouldn’t let him near her tits.


We break for commercial and we come back at the top floor of General Motors headquarters, where Balki is forcing the CEO to count the number of bolts in all the late-model Oldsmobile Cutlasses.


Oh, no, wait, it’s the Chronicle. They come out of the elevator into the parking garage, where Cousin Larry has parked Balki’s used car.


There are only two cars in the parking garage, so Balki looks at the wrong one.


Balki tries to hump the car, and then starts jumping up and down about the car being a convertible.

So, here’s some Perfect Strangers thinking for you: Larry and Balki have a fight about postal fraud, so half the episode takes place at a car dealership. Larry gets into a fight over a parking spot, so the entirety of their interactions takes place in the basement office of the Chronicle.  Larry buys Balki a used car, so most of the episode is in the parking garage.


And again Larry has trouble with keys; typically we see him keyless, but here, his repeated attempts to press the wrong/unwanted car keys into Balki’s hands fail.


Larry, giggling like the excitedly unaware father he is, leads Balki to the car.  When Balki starts it, it begins to smoke.


We return after the break to the most important car garage in the US, where we learn that cars work exactly the same at showers: Cousin Larry evidently intends to fix this problem with a single wrench.


Balki can’t start the car, so Larry’s appendix bursts.

Nah, j/k, Balki wants to take the car back, but Larry refuses because his pride is on the line, plus his belief in his father’s supremacy is being challenged by Balki’s insults.


Larry suggests that they touch screwdrivers (hee) to the battery’s terminals to see if it has any juice left.  Women in the audience start doing some “oh no” noises** and laughing about what’s going to happen next.


Balki explicitly mentions how closed circuits work. Then he touches his cousin and they get electrocuted.

Like, are handles of their screwdrivers made of some conductive type of metal? And also did Balki fucking leave the key turned in the car? There’s no way this could work, but there they are, jittering like two master Elvis impersonators. I’m beginning to not like this episode.


I’m laughing out of sheer incredulity that the camera keeps zooming in on the Chronicle. I mean, there wasn’t even a commercial break there.  I mean, if you want to indicate the passage of time


Okay, they’ve changed their clothes, but–

Have a coworker walk by and say goodnight on their way out! Have Harriette make fun of them! Have Larry hastily try to justify himself to RT Wainwright by saying that he’s working to expose shady used car dealerships! Jeeeeez.

Larry says that he’s done so much for Balki, and Balki says that it’s his fault so much has gone wrong.  And, you know what? As much as it would have been a repeat of that episode I didn’t watch last season, I would kind of prefer an episode where Balki is naively deflecting the car salesman’s questions about what he wants. Can you picture it? Balki asking why all the dealership says that every single car is an “Asis” when he can clearly see that they are Toyotas, Hondas, Chevrolets, etc.? Balki, during the test drive, taking the salesman to his college campus to see how it looks parked; or going to Bob’s MARKET to see how well the backseat safety belts will hold his grocery bags.


The cousins hug and get electrocuted again.


Nah, j/k, I’m barely even paying attention at this point.  Larry said “oil” so you can all guess what happens next.


Evidently Larry has bought hundreds of dollars worth of car repair items: a Craftsman tool chest, shop towels, a mechanic’s creeper, and a whole case of motor oil. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to like this episode.

Balki starts to ask about putting in the oil, and Larry just shouts at him to get it over with and pour the oil on him


I used to have a car that used as much oil as it did gas, and here’s a tip for you: Balki’s holding the bottle the wrong way around.  You want the spout at the top when you turn the bottle sideways. This assures that the oil does not block the spout completely while you pour, and it won’t get everywhere. Not that this has any bearing on where the scene is trying to go.




Seriously, though, this is when Harriette should have walked in.

And the next scene takes place

Guess where

guess c’mon guess

Can you guess where?


We’ve spent 90% of this episode in the Chronicle’s parking garage.  The cousins say out loud a summary of the rest of the episode, lest they forget what they spent 36 hours straight doing.


The cousins get in the car, and Balki is so happy that he makes the same face I did when someone ran over my foot once.

Balki turns the key, and a mysterious metallic noise swells. The sound rises, and when it finds its voice through Larry Appleton, you know that an awful joke is coming.

The show even goes to the trouble to make sure that Balki verbally confirms that D stands for Drive so that you know exactly what the joke is.


The joke is that they put the car back together wrong because they are not good at cars.


But yeah, despite the fact that this is not how gearboxes work


and the fact that this is not how walls made out of cinderblock work


and the fact that you can see stuff behind the cinderblocks in one shot, but not in another


it was the funny thing to do… right?


I mean, it must be.

Balki points out that the crucial missing piece of the AUCRS is the ability to admit to failure.

*holds up mirror to half the episodes this season*

To me, because I am a real person, the lesson should be that any system is only as good as the information put into it. It’s not Larry’s fault that some dealer lied about a car, or that, by chance, some unusually high number of parts stopped working at the same time.  Some cars last longer if you drive them every day instead of letting them sit on a lot for months.  I think that the worst I can say about Larry’s system is he should have recalibrated it to give him more than one car.  This way he could have allowed Balki to have a say in the matter.

Later, at the apartment, we learn that they traded in the shitty car to Honest Achmed for something red (hee).

Larry apologizes and they talk about ugly cars for a minute. Evidently it doesn’t matter how well a car runs or how long it lasts, because if it’s ugly it sucks. This explains a lot about their girlfriends, doesn’t it?


Larry tells Balki to not admit to knocking down the parking garage wall, and Li’l Balki, the Most Honest Little Boy in the World just up and agrees.

Now that I’ve written all my thoughts (plus the requisite three jokes) about this episode, I find I have some more. “Car Wars” is actually a pretty good example of what Perfect Strangers has become in its fourth season.  Despite the sneaking suspicion that these plots are (ahem) reverse-engineered from the desired physical comedy scene, there’s still at least an effort to have it based in some sort of disagreement.  Here, there’s a decent setup for this show, and buying a car taps into Balki and Larry’s personalities–enough for me to suss out some realistic depth in what’s going on for them psychologically.  But the show made a decision this season to be The New Laurel and Hardy, meaning that the paths that situation could take were severely limited.  I’ll have more to say about this in the season review, but I just want to say here that the show took an easy route that allowed the cousins to do physical comedy around a single object.  You’ve got the basic setup, Larry approaching something the wrong way (even if it’s likely the smarter way), a token appearance by any two supporting characters, and then physical comedy until it’s time to go home.  Plus it’s got tropes that I remember from when I was a child. We’ve seen self-important game show hosts, biker gangs, overpriced camping equipment, expensive “self-help” pop psychology, and here, shady–and gimmicky–used car dealers.  But I’m pointing to this episode as a prototypical example of season 4 Perfect Strangers not because it’s good, or because it’s exceptional, or because it delivered on a good situation; really, it’s more that the most odious thing here wasn’t sexism, just that the writers assumed their audience was dumb enough to forget for a minute that screwdrivers usually have plastic or rubber handles. So what’s my take on a (ahem) middle-of-the-road episode of Perfect Strangers?


I didn’t like it.

Come back next week for “Just a Gigolo” where the cousins meet David Lee Roth!


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

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

*just like I like my women

**hey, I hear women mostly, there’s a guy or two laughing