Season 2, Episode 15: Beautiful Dreamer

Boy oh boy have I got a special treat for you this week!  I’m friends with a real live literature professor, and he has graciously offered to supply me with a real live literary-type analysis of this week’s episode.  Unlike me, he’s smart enough to not want to be identified in connection with this blog, so I’m just going to refer to him as Professor M.  I don’t blame him; he’s got a family and a solid bibliography.  Without further ado, here’s Professor M’s take on Perfect Strangers!

’Pataphysics and Perfect Strangeness: “Beautiful Dreamer”


The episode opens with Balki rearranging his living space. Chairs moved and cushions strewn about, something is amiss where our ever-transient and always-foreign Balki dwells. The voice of Larry breaks into the dark: “Balki, Balki — is that you?” Here we might hear the faintest echo of Hamlet’s opening line: “Who’s there?” And here, as there, we find ourselves dealing with a fundamental question of identity. Balki, however, can only respond to this question of identity by turning out the light, leaving us all in the dark.  And, so, perchance to dream?


Season 2, episode 15, “Beautiful Dreamer,” investigates identity in the strangest of ways. It opens windows into what we are told is Balki’s subconscious and leaves us wishing for greater resolution as our beloved protagonist finds himself a body divided by the demands of capitalism. In short, the episode is about the destruction of his past self as he seeks to lose himself in the American dream. “America or Burst,” the baggage on the opening credit’s wagon had comically phrased his destiny. But this episode does more. The luggage slides from physical to psychological, and Balki never does cross over into his new home. America, perhaps, and burst.


“Why are you rearranging furniture in the middle of the night?” Larry continues, tripping over what he can no longer navigate somnambulistically. Balki’s dodge – a weak gesture toward aerobic exercise – quickly fades under the darkening cloud of Mr. Twinkacetti’s “monthly going out of business sale,” which looms only four hours away. We are left to ponder: why this capitalist interruption in Balki’s living space? Could it have something to do with this wandering Mypiot soul?


But we are quickly called back from our musings to another faintly comic feign. Balki projects his dilemma in terms of a “friend who cannot sleep.” He has, in other words, divided self from self, speaking from a distance of his own problem. This “friend, [his] best friend.” And if these perfect strangers are the cousins who live in uncomfortably close quarters, Larry’s response – “I am your best friend” – lays down the true stakes: Balki is the most perfect stranger unto himself.

We might slow down to think about the episode’s problem through the terms of vulgar Marxism: we are here discussing the alienation instituted by capitalist labor, though it is here confused all the more by Balki’s inability to experience the unattainable American dream. At the heart of the episode is Balki’s struggle with insomnia.

Larry: What you’ve got is a classic case of insomnia.

Balki: Oh, no. I knew it was something terrible. Give it to me straight. How looong have I got.

Larry: Fifty or sixty years.

Balki: Fifty or sixty years? Oh my God, a slow death.


Welcome to the machine.

Should we pause for a minute, we could note that our episode’s writer, Paula A. Roth, spent a good deal of time writing for a German sitcom based on sarcastic insights into daily life. (I’m not kidding.)


When he learns it “just” means he can’t sleep, Balki swings his legs childishly and reverts to memories of youth and safety—to, that is, a time before his travels. We learn of Princess Riva, who keeps the youth asleep in her protective arms. And, as Balki puts it, this fantasy “don’t come to America.” No, Larry acknowledges. Not at all. We have the Sandman—the man who temporarily blinds his victims.

Balki refuses the Sandman. He refuses to let go of his past, and, in his refusal, longs to continue in his childish state. But the problem remains: how to put him asleep? How might cousin Larry allow him to experience the American Dream™?


And so how do we achieve the dream? We go to sleep. We separate ourselves, and Larry teaches him just that: to “put [his] body to sleep.” He teaches Balki to itemize his body, saying goodnight to each part individually, beginning with his toes. Then feet, then legs. Then fingers—Balki’s fingers, which point to himself and he snaps unconscious. Asleep he no longer can respond to Larry calling his name. He is Balki no longer; he is an identity lost elsewhere in the ether of dreams (“where would this kid be without me,” asks a looming Larry).


But Balki is not ready, and his dream ends with an abrupt cry for “Mama” and a screaming clutch to his chest. A short exchange finds Larry’s offer of solidarity in wakefulness batted away. So Larry explains to his cousin that his body will eventually tell Balki when he needs to sleep, and Balki, misunderstanding with the insight of genius, reverts to a primal self that only knows its bodily hunger.

But does Balki recognize his true hunger?


We fade out, hungry for more.


We awaken in the land of discounted merchandise: Ritz Discount. After a brief and insistent exchange, we see the crowd pressing against the doors of the closed shop, which we infer since it tells us “Open.” What is closed to the consumer, that is, is now for us to view.


“Not open,” screams a pig-faced Twinkacetti, only to paw sweatily through the crowd, slam the door, and exclaim with a comical slouch, “You’d think I was having a real sale.” A Real Sale. Twinkacetti reveals more than we were led to expect; we dwell suspended in the urgency of capitalism, a superegoic demand that Jacques Lacan once boiled down in Television to a simple dictate: “Consume!” Balki’s hunger is thus neatly contrasted with the drive of the pressing crowds, which we now see from the inside. “People are,” in Twinkacetti’s next words, “so gullible.”


So there is a lesson for us all who view from inside the television frame—well, all of us except Balki, who, amidst the truth of the day, has finally fallen asleep. Symbolically achieving the death enacted within the capitalist machine, Balki lies covered like a cadaver on a table full of price-slashed pastel shirts—and has slept through the conversation with Twinkacetti.


A protective Larry tries to shield him from the grim American reality and return him to his true home. “This is not a good place to nap,” declares the good cousin as he cradles him like a guardian Riva before trying to shuffle him from the store.


And Larry, who cannot bring him into the light of day (he tries to walk him out of the store but fails amidst the throng), can only place his displaced cousin under the “Help Wanted” sign. He is “Out To Lunch,” as we are told by the sign placed in his lap.


And Larry, midwife of truth, is left holding the television—until the pressing demands of his boss, who pokes him aggressively, encourage it to fall from his hands. Twinkacetti: “You broke it, you bought it.” His slogan-ese matches the signs that crowd the shot, reminding us that he is a mouthpiece for the capitalist system that stands with authority over the shattered remains below. There shall be no more reflection on the operations of this land of merchandise.

*End Scene*


Larry, after dropping his college Psych books:

“We have to find out what’s causing your nightmare. The answer is inside your head. We have to get in there and find what we’re looking for.”

I’m not even kidding. We’re about to go explicitly psychological. And, hungry for a joke, we are given the typical Balki dish of literality. “Does this involve cutting?” Yet the psychological stakes signal something greater, stakes that are, in a sense, just as violent and deadly—on our journey as viewers, we now recognize the failure of literality and must seek a deeper, allegorical answer. .

We are to look for ways, in Larry’s not-so-air-tight phrasing, “to get into the subconscious,” which begins expectedly with a game of word association. In tune with the title, we are offered what are purportedly perfect opposites – in/out, up/down, black/white, short/tall. But then:

Larry: Door

Balki: Eggs

Larry: Eggs?

Balki: Chicken

Why a door, Larry? And before we laugh at Balki’s strange response, we should ask, what would be the antonym for door? A wall? Does Larry’s question reveal a deeper problem of barriers?


But now Balki must explain, which he does through a typically regressive account of his past. His Aunt Sophia (name deriving from “Wisdom,” of course) was wounded by a closing door—a failed opportunity to enter another space that clearly runs in the family—and the doctor had to be repaid by bartered eggs. Balki clings to a pre-capitalist past that nearly drives Larry from his side. “That’s it, I’m outta here,” says Larry, who tries to slide away. “We have to try something else.”


What that something else is: a return to the dream state. Balki empties his mind and returns to his dream. With Larry’s empathetic responses excluded for brevity, this is that dream:

I see little white cars… They’re, ah, they’re coming toward me. Their, um, their, their engines are roaring like thunder… And. I want to run but I can’t move. And they’re coming closer to me. And. They’re going to crush me.


“Woah, Baby!”

Damn right, Balki, damn right! The dream clamors with apocalyptic thunder, but Balki still cannot make its content manifest. He refuses to discuss the dream and runs to his personal sanctuary: the washroom haven. Are we ready to discuss it yet?

*End Scene*


Whatever it is, it requires backup. Larry has brought in a crack squad of dream interpreters—Mary Anne and Jennifer, flight attendants known for their ability to escort people to new lands. Now there’s popcorn on the table and we’re ready to project the film of Balki’s subconscious.


“Dreams are nothing more than windows to our subconscious that should be opened to let in the fresh air of reason,” says Mary Anne to the surprise of everyone. The laugh track makes it clear that those were big words.


But Balki is not ready. The ladies leave, and Balki threatens to do the same. Larry is left to find a way to get the truth, as our twenty-five minutes are coming to a close. He pretends to find interest in the book before him, which is a temptation that Balki cannot ignore. He is lured back to the analyst’s couch.


Larry tries to learn more after some devilish temptation. Balki bites. Larry will share the book with the answer to only one question:

Larry: Where are the cars in your dream going?

Balki: Aaay. Into a big garage….

Larry: …Why are they going there?

Balki: I don’t know why they’re going into the barn.


First apocalypse, and now revelation! The quick exchange reveals that the cars represent sheep that bring us back into the memories of his childhood and the fears of his liminal self: an annual sheep-shearing ceremony on Mypos that he is now missing. Not there to help them, Balki worries that his family will not get enough work done to barter for the food they need. They will go hungry. Perhaps they need to consume differently?

But the new development also encodes a detour: we thought the cars were coming toward him? Wasn’t that the first version of his dream? Balki must still be in the barn!


And so it’s time to make a call to the one phone in Mypos. (Let’s not go into the ideological mirror that this imaginary island of Mypos provides for America.) Balki feels somewhat better, at least—though he is now homesick. But more, Balki is sick for a home. He is dwelling in the past, unable to meet the new demands of the machine. His mind his troubled, a Globe-like theater to which we play audience, and which is distracted by demands to leave his youth and unity of self behind. Hamlet, haunted by the superegoic demands of the new ghost of his old father, puts it thus:

                       Remember thee!

                        Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat

                        In this distracted globe. Remember thee!

                        Yea, from the table of my memory

                        I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,

                        All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past

                        That youth and observation copied there,

                        And thy commandment all alone shall live

                        Within the book and volume of my brain,

                        Unmixed with baser matter.

But Balki fails to wipe his mind clean, and writhes under the sponge (perhaps that is what he does in the bathroom). And Larry does not know enough to help—for how does one help in this situation? What does it mean to keep that door open, rather than slam it shut? Can you be led through, Balki?


So Larry offers him instead an escapist fantasy—an imaginary return to Mypos, the loving arms of Riva, and a seat at the family table:

Larry: Why don’t you call home more often? You won’t be in the chair but at least you’ll hear voices.


And so Balki is back in the chair—wishing to be home while still in America. He has been left divided, even schizophrenic; he is shattered, disrupted—the furniture of his mind rearranged but unliveable, tripping up the stranger with whom he lives. Capitalist demands rush at him like roaring thunder, substituting his beloved sheep (they are treated like people in Mypos, Balki has explained, and remain linked to a pre-capitalist society) with the alienated objects of mass production.

In the end, Balki and Larry seem to find the tentative resolution. But are Balki’s struggles to be continued? The episode concludes with him once more falling asleep, prematurely. “Balki, Balki, is that you?”



Holy shit, folks! How am I going to follow that one next week?  I’ve only ever purchased Jacques Lacan’s books for the library where I work. I’ve never read one. Good thing Professor M didn’t make any boner jokes, so I’ve still got that going for me.

Join me next week for “Tux for Two”!


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

Catchphrase count: Balki (4); Larry (0)

Season 1 Reviewed

Season 1 was only six episodes, which seems a little strange for old ABC sitcoms. What’s more, they aired these episodes at the tail end of the 1985/86 season, sandwiched between Who’s the Boss and Moonlighting.  I have to imagine that ABC would do this with shows or actors they weren’t sure of.  For instance, take those other two shows.

who's the boss

Who’s the Boss debuted in Fall 1984 with a full 22-episode season.  But it starred Tony Danza, who I’m guessing was fondly remembered for his role as Tony Banta on Taxi.

Moonlighting TV Series starring Cybill Shepherd, Bruce Willis and Allyce Beasley - dvdbash.wordpress.comMoonlighting, on the other hand, starred Cybill Shepherd and Bruce Willis, both of whom (judging by their IMDB pages, what am I, an 80s TV expert?) had been doing mostly low-profile movies and bit parts on TV shows; it also had a six-episode first season in Fall 1985.  So then comes Perfect Strangers, starring “Serge” from Beverly Hills Cop and, you know, that guy who followed Peter O’Toole around in My Favorite Year (which I watched solely for Jessica Harper, but that’s another story).  So, yeah, I would’ve hedged my bets on Perfect Strangers as well.  The downside of a short season, though, is I don’t get to say that I’m 1/8 of the way through this project.  I’m actually only 1/25 through, which worries me.  I mean, I’ve lived a pretty comfortable life and eventually I’m going to run out of painful experiences to share when Balki makes that face.

cousinlouieSomething I didn’t know until after I started this blog and read up on the history of the show is that Louie Anderson was in the pilot as Lou Appleton.  I can only imagine how different this show would have been.  For one, Louie Anderson reads as being from Madison, Wisconsin much better than Mark Linn-Baker, who reads as so very, very Jewish.  But on the whole, I think it was a good move.  80s media was rife with negative depictions of overweight characters, and all the ways that Cousin Larry (or Louie, if you will) is emotionally and mentally fucked up might have ended up as a hackneyed reinforcement of the idea that overweight guys are socially lacking.  Also, Louie Anderson’s got some height on Bronson Pinchot, not to mention a wider build (that’s not a fat joke, look at his shoulders).  The scenes where Larry gets upset with Balki might have ended up tonally different if it was clear to the audience that one guy could totally beat the other up.  But Mark Linn-Baker’s a puppy dog; not someone you’d believe would win in a fight against anybody, even if he did get up the nerve to try.

The main group of people that shepherded Perfect Strangers into existence is a group of TV veterans: Miller-Boyett Productions had Mork & Mindy and Bosom Buddies under its belt; Paula A. Roth had been one of the major writers for Laverne & Shirley; and William S. Bickley, Jr. & Michael Warren had both been writers and producers of The Partridge Family and Happy Days.  So insofar as this season does a good job of stating its thesis about Larry and Balki, I attribute it to the combined experience of all of these writers.  And I seriously hope that someone reading this has watched more of any of the above shows than I did every now and then when I got to see Nick at Nite at my grandparents’ house 20+ years ago.  It would be great to know whether, and to what extent, Perfect Strangers was rehashing, or upturning, familiar buddy sitcom tropes.  I’d like to believe that these people knew what worked in a sitcom, but I’ve also worked alongside colleagues who have stagnated in their approach to their job.

So, anyway, let’s recap this season!  If TV shows get to rehash old plots, I get to rehash old posts, so let’s find out!



First, we learned just how easy it was in the 80s for undocumented immigrants to come to this country, move into someone’s apartment based on vague assurances of blood ties, take jobs that real Americans needed without even being required to undergo a formal interview process or present work visas, and openly lust after our women.

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Next, we learned just how lax hotel restaurant staff could be in responding to people who, after loudly stating their intentions to invade the privacy of their paying customers, then proceed to engage in physical altercations.

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We witnessed a very particular strain of surrealism that could result in, among other things, places of businesses billing themselves as singles’ bars but fulfilling neither aspect of their categorization. Note also the multitude of trophies and strongman imagery near the entrance in the background, sure to instantly demoralize any single man upon entrance.

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We had a two-pronged case study in support of the truism that “death begins in the colon”, the first major warning sign of which is being perpetually cranky to well-meaning foreigners.

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We got what was perhaps the boldest statement ever of the idea that masterful manipulation of social capital can trump–as well as direct–patterns of financial capital.

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Lastly, we learned that mid-80s Chicago was THE place to be if you all of a sudden wanted to party in the middle of the night, especially if you were into bondage and roleplay.


The 80s sure were a different time, huh?

Really, though, I do appreciate the way that this short season functions as a multipart introduction to its ideas.  It’s also a nice selection of situations that an immigrant to America would experience, and which fit hand in glove with the dynamic of a shy know-it-all control freak living with what is basically an unrestrained, overgrown inner child.  Sure, Larry and Balki are a textbook example of a very oversimplified narrative of cultural differences in terms of values & knowledge. Balki only ever had his work and his family and his knowledge comes from experiencing high levels of social interdependence; Larry, despite having a large family, seems to have grown up in an environment where resources had to be competed for. Heart vs head; give vs take; nurture vs impress.  The oversimplification is problematic, though, and uses its criticism of our modern culture (we just don’t love enough; we’ve forgotten the faces of our fathers, etc.) to obscure its criticism of ones less technologically developed (what’s wrong with us if we can’t even do X as well as those who are so clearly beneath us?).  Although I will say that Balki’s “hey mommo” line is a good cautionary tale that, after machinery, electronics, and oil, coded racism is America’s 4th largest export.  And you know, whatever, maybe “oversimplification” is too easy a criticism.  It is a sitcom, after all.  But the narrative is what they went with for Perfect Strangers, and for what it’s worth, they did a good job of getting it across.  While in broader, societal terms, the narrative doesn’t hold up, it works well enough here on a two-person level.

And I’ll admit I enjoyed the acting, too!  I’ve never read up on what makes for good acting, on television or otherwise, but I think it would be safe to say you at the very least have to make the character believable.  I watched a lot of Roseanne as a kid, and for years I could never see John Goodman in anything without my mind instantly seeing him only as Dan Connor.  I’m sure that both Linn-Baker and Pinchot benefitted from not being overexposed in movies and TV at that point; if anyone associated any characteristics to either of them, it was to Pinchot. And one one-dimensional indeterminate accent with legs is much like another, so even if audiences had seen Beverly Hills Cop, Pinchot wasn’t swimming upstream against expectations.  For better or worse, Serge and Balki are the roles for which Pinchot is best remembered.

Framing these six episodes as a “pilot” season, I do get the impression that the writers were testing out different Balki modes (Balki the Kid, Sexually Aggressive Balki, Roger Rabbit Balki, etc.). But that doesn’t mean we don’t know who Balki is, right?


There are plenty of Balki consistencies: assuming others are as generous as he is, loving the semi-dregs of pop culture, BEING LOUD. So for right now I’m going to put down the inconsistencies in Balki’s character as the quirks of writing a short first season.

Mark Linn-Baker, on the other hand… I completely am willing to believe that this little Jewish-looking man came from a Midwestern proto-Quiverfull household that fucked him up in ways that may take 3 or 4 seasons to completely reveal, and that he’d end up in a shitty dead-end job with very little hope of ever fulfilling his dreams. Balki is basically an avatar of his culture; anything I can think to interpolate for his character is based on whatever weird things I assume isolated Mediterranean folk do for centuries when no one else stopped by from the mainland to tell them to cut it out already; and any interests I can come up with past what the show tells me are guesses at what weirder aspects of 1960s-1980s American pop culture reached other countries divorced from their greater contexts.  But Cousin Larry? Dude finishes super-quick when he masturbates & goes into a shame spiral afterwards, and will likely die from a heart attack by the time he’s 37.  Although, I will say that this interpolation/extrapolation doesn’t seem entirely out of place: the characters are meant to be different.  But it wouldn’t be the first time that bad writing or characterization looped around and unknowingly commented on itself, ouroboros-style.

As far as characters like Twinkacetti and Susan?  Well, shit, based on how quickly they say their lines and leave, I get the impression the show has not made up its mind on whether it wants to keep them around.  Obviously the writers needed to pick at least one character type from column A, and one from column B, and settled on these two as the most expedient for the six stories they chose to do. (I’ve been watching It’s Garry Shandling’s Show lately, so that sausage-making aspect of television is sort of at the forefront of my mind.)  Also, as I’m writing this, I’m realizing their potential as devil-and-angel-on-your-shoulders types of characters; if I missed this aspect in any of the episodes so far, I’ll have to rely on all of you to tell me, because I’m sure not watching any of these again.

And that’s not a “boy this show is shitty” joke–I mean that.  There’s nothing from this season that I ever think I’ll get nostalgic for as a TV viewer.  There are certainly things I liked about these six episodes, and they’ve been an interesting study.  For one, they’re problematic, which means I can actually say smart things instead of just jokes about Larry’s bowels and how Dmitri wasn’t always able to stand on his own (the joke is that he is filled with dried semen).  But I’m realizing just how out of my depth I was when I began writing my webcomic. I just launched right in with trying to tell stories, when I really should have spent time figuring out my characters first, and my lead’s characterization has suffered for that ever since. So while this has been helpful to me, these are lessons learned, not experiences “enjoyed” (like, the way I enjoyed the shit out of early Simpsons and will forever return to it every few years).  I don’t tend to read academic works twice, and I try not to have to learn lessons more than once.

Which, I suppose, is why I will never be a sitcom character!

Anyways, you didn’t come here to listen to me go on forever, you came here to see the boner count totals for Season 1.


Season 1 Totals

Catchphrase count: Balki (9.5); Larry (4)

Boner count: Balki (3); Larry (1.5)

Dance of Joy count: 3


It was Balki. Balki had the most boners in Season 1.

I guess I’ll throw in that my favorite episode of this season was “Check This” because it was firing on all cylinders, what with Balki the Kid supporting the “male brotherhood” throughline, the pairing of Ernie Sabella and Belita Moreno, and the surprising G. Gordon Liddy payoff.

Worst episode? “Happy Birthday Baby” because they just didn’t seem to know what to do in the middle of the episode, and that godawful joke with the cop and Lou.


Thanks for sticking with me for the past 8 weeks.  We’re six episodes down, 144 to go!

See you all next week when I’ll review “Hello Baby”!