As I said last week, I have lots to talk about. I’ll split it into sections to help you out. If you didn’t read last week’s textdump, that’s cool, whatever, I didn’t care anyway. But Section 1 will touch on the most important fallout of the historiography that I wrote.
1. Season 2 Backtrack (Bring Back those Bouncy Blonde Babes!)
So it turns out that Jennifer and Mary Anne (Sagittarius) were intended for only one appearance–the one in Season 2, Episode 2, “Hunks Like Us”. Whether it was due to Linn-Baker and Pinchot arguing for their return because they felt they had good acting chemistry, or if it was just the studio audience reaction, the women were brought back as recurring characters. And then ABC started moving the episodes around; they placed “The Unnatural” right after “Hunks Like Us”, and my guess is that this was to assure home audiences that the women would stick around. But damn, that’s some rapid prototyping! I’d believe that Rebeca Arthur tested well with audiences, but Melanie Wilson? I just don’t see the appeal of the Jennifer character, other than as something for Larry to cry about. And if ABC was willing to bring actors back because of a strong first showing, perhaps they got rid of actors for the opposite. But this explains all of the confusion of why they were suddenly neighbors, and why they were suddenly stewardesses. Jennifer became Linda, Mary Anne was added so we could have some nutty upstairs roommates, and Gorbachev? Mary Anne was so dumb that she put him in the washing machine on hot and added too much bleach.
I was so angry at so many things when I reviewed “The Unnatural”, as well as how the new women supplanted my beloved Susan (“The Rent Strike”), and how they were so obviously intended as the leads’ long-term girlfriends, I overlooked how their continuation answered one of my other gripes. There were scant few recurring characters in season 2 (basically, Gina and the Twinkacetti offspring, Here Today and Gone Tomorrow). So Season 2 did give us recurring characters, but I’m still unsatisfied, because I feel that they were overused. I could have used some more Schlaegelmilch, or maybe the one guy, or even that other guy, in “The Rent Strike”; and why couldn’t other denizens of the Caldwell have been on the Ritz Discount Royals? If anything, ABC put too much faith in these two women. Did they give Melanie Wilson a 5-year contract, only to realize that she didn’t have much screen presence and shuffled her off the stage as quickly as they could get away with? Or is it simply a side effect of the fact that bringing her back as a stewardess robbed Jennifer of the one part of her bio (working at a gym) that was unique to her alone? At any rate, as I forecast, ABC is eager to move things around, focus on them if they work, and ditch them if they don’t; it may make for a less than continuous experience, but it pleased the viewers. And if Season 3 was a disappointment in terms of the show not committing to either characters who showed up once versus people the cousins interacted with everyday, then I’m going to put that down to ABC trying to come up with the best formula for the new situation of the cousins working at a newspaper. Once Lydia showed up, she kept showing up. Mr. Burns ran out of the room enough times that the show finally let him go forever. Forget everybody else.
You know what? I’ll go a step further and say that not only was ABC trying to see what would work for recurring characters for this show; it was trying to figure out how to do a workplace comedy at all. I went to the trouble of clicking on every ABC sitcom from the 1980s in the Wikipedia list (up through the 1987-88 season, anyway), and it appears that ABC really did focus almost exclusively on households and families. The only shows I find that are definitely workplace comedies are Open All Night (1981-82), Off the Rack (1985), The Slap Maxwell Story (1987-88), and Just in Time (1988). These were set in, respectively, an all-night convenience store, a clothing store, a newspaper, and a magazine; and not a damn one of them lasted more than one season. Smack dab in the middle of these, time- and setting-wise, were dual versions of Perfect Strangers: the discount store with the character-of-the-week, and then the newspaper with fledgling attempts at a recurring cast.
2. Changes (and not) in character and setting (Reuse, Remix, Repeat)
We got two (three?) new bosses for the cousins, an elevator operator, a neurotic advice columnist, and the return of everyone’s favorite lovable ethnic scamp, Vince Lucas. I think that the show could have gotten away with only a handful more stories set at a discount store, so it’s good that we’ve moved on. And just as we saw last week that the actors’ stories shed details to fit a strong narrative, so did the show. Twinkacetti gets all of one mention, and slowly the whole idea of a landlord is lost, though we do get echoes of other neighbors (Schlaegelmilch). Another thing reading through all those articles told me is that Thomas L. Miller saw this as a friendship show. I guess maybe I’ve just never watched many of them to know if this is standard, but seasons 2 and 3 were firmly, strictly that. Other characters existed solely to provide something for the cousins to fight over. Once that conflict is established, does anyone else really need to be on screen or have any impact on anything?
I’m realizing that some of the episodes I like best are the ones where the external world is more than just a vague hint. In “The Rent Strike”, when we got to see the other apartment dwellers; in “Get a Job”, where a restaurant serves as more than mere backdrop. An apartment building seems like an easy environment to flesh out. But a likely-constantly-in-the-red junk shop? Well, some cops came by once. But a baseball team? A racketeer? These things extended the world along minor linear paths (Twinkacetti’s greed, maybe? Balki’s interest in Spider-Man?), but they didn’t feel like they fleshed it out.
But Season 3 has given us a workplace that automatically and instantly builds the world of Chicago-1. Not only is the Chicago Chronicle a microcosm unto itself, but it connects the cousins with the city and beyond. We met an out-of-state psychic, the cousins’ ultimate boss is well-traveled, and Larry is given reporting jobs that take him to low-profile events. Some connections with the outside world are problematic, though. “Just Desserts” is a physical comedy high point, but it too forces our sense of the show’s reality in multiple ways. Food chemistry aside, why has Larry put aside slowly working toward his dream of photojournalism so he can try to sell stuff to chefs? “Taking Stock” is character-driven, but Balki forcing a company to reduce its profit margins is too fantastic to be taken seriously. But the smaller story of Larry and Balki causing Bob’s Market to operate at a serious loss for its first month does a better job of connecting the cousins to the world around them. That the ad in “To Be or Not to Be” gets on the air at all is unbelievable, even if the process of making the ad was character-driven. “Karate Kids” is character-driven, too, but again we’re on the smaller scale: Larry thinks he can pick a fight with a guy at a bar because brains, he assumes, win out against brawn. I get that Balki’s lack of sense of barriers and hierarchy makes meeting the Quaker Oats man and John Henry possible, but it’s still not probable. Between the two cousins, we begin to see shades of Homer Simpson meeting George Bush and Ken Griffey, Jr., Homer going to space, Homer running a snowplow business, Homer working as a Monorail conductor….
So it seems that the bigger the scope and the higher the reach of a Perfect Strangers plot, the worse it fares in terms of reality. Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, because the Chronicle is meant to be the #1 newspaper in the U.S. But the cousins do work in the basement, where they are underpaid for being overworked on menial tasks.
A large part of what I think makes the Chronicle setting work is the characters, not only in and of themselves, but also in terms of the roles they step into. Harriette is a strong character all on her own. I don’t know enough to say whether her acting is any sort, or level, of African-American caricature (that is: I suspect, but I’m a white guy), but she’s there to talk truth to the cousins. And JoMarie Payton has presence. And so does Belita Moreno, but you already knew that. She bursts onto the scene with such energy and knowledge of character that we know who she basically is within seconds. What’s more, she’s also there to talk truth to the cousins. I mentioned way back my impression that Susan and Twinkacetti were there to act as angel- and devil-on-the-shoulder type characters for Balki and Larry, respectively, pulling them further in their respective directions; or, if mixed and matched, to pull/repel them closer to center. Harriette and Lydia serve a similar purpose: Harriette to reinforce Balki’s experience-based knowledge, and Lydia to affirm Larry’s booksmarts. It doesn’t always play out that way (cf. Harriette’s advice in “The Defiant Guys”). And it may never be fully realized, given this show’s reliance on breaking established character for laughs. But it’s there, and the fact that these two often rub each other the wrong way* makes them–and the show–that much more fun to watch.
Speaking of filling roles, Twinkacetti’s gall was a whole divided into three parts. We had (and lost) Eugene Roche as Harry Burns, the disinterested Twinkacetti. We have Sam Anderson as Mr. Gorpley, the mean Twinkacetti. (Larry got the greed.) Even though we saw more of Eugene Roche, it’s Sam Anderson who’s returning for season 4. I personally like the idea of a boss who tries to avoid his employees as much as he can, but I can see how a boss who constantly tries to find a way to fire a perfect employee makes for better sitcom conflict.
So we have new characters settling (sort of) settling into what were (sort of) puzzle piece roles, and ABC was constantly tinkering with things. I feel like the group of characters is close to being cohesive, but the addition of so many decent actors who have their own personalities and, in Harriette’s case, a family outside the show, just makes Jennifer look more and more, well….
3. Old TV shows are great! (Remember, Don’t Watch)
To sum up what we’ve seen this season about television:
–The Golden Age of Television was just that: perfect in every way
–When you’re dealing with an addiction, say, for instance, to television shows, it’s important to remember that addictive personality disorders don’t exist. America’s culture of excess (cable television) is what causes addiction, so be moderate
–The bar for a good TV show lesson is anything deeper than Ward Cleaver telling Beaver he loves him no matter what
–Getting on television is an admirable goal
—Newhart is a pile, but gee, wasn’t The Bob Newhart Show great?
–It’s important to pay homage to the Golden Age of Television, even if you’re selective with your memory
Shoot, hold on a minute, it’s late and my eyes are getting tired. Let me put on my glasses so I can pick out the next screengrab–
Ooh, okay, maybe not.
4. Money & Death (Choose your own season finale!)
There sure were a lot of episodes about money and death, huh?
Money: “Your Cheatin’ Heart”, “Night School Confidential”, “My Lips Are Sealed”, “Just Desserts”, “Better Shop Around”, “My Brother, Myself”, “You Gotta Have Friends”
Death: “The Horn Blows at Midnight”, “Future Shock”, “The Break In”, “The ‘Pen’ Pal”, “Bye Bye Biki”
I remember enough (little enough?) about I Love Lucy to associate get-rich-quick schemes with it, so if Perfect Strangers was still trying to honor that show, the trope is well-placed. And it fits with Larry still refusing to give up on the idea that there are shortcuts to success.
And as far as threats to Larry, sure, we had job (3), girlfriend (5), and ego (22). But are there so few things going on the cousins’ world that they needed to dip into the well of Larry possibly losing his life (or at least, his future) three times? And what did Balki stand to lose this season? His work buddy, his job (2), his innocence about the business world, his meager earnings to a counterfeiter, his work ethic, his cousins’ faith in him, and his grandmother. Sure, both cousins are dealing with real threats that real humans experience.
But in one way, that’s glaringly bad. It’s unbalanced: the stakes are too damn high for Larry. In another way, it’s perfect for the cousins’ personalities. If Larry thinks in terms of getting rich quick, he likely also thinks in terms of losing it all quick. Okay, sure, Balki was a dick in “The Horn Blows at Midnight”. He should have known that Larry’s blood pressure was already elevated from his diet, and that convincing him he would soon die could only make that worse. In most cases, however, Larry makes the stakes high for himself, and the answer is usually along the lines of
–you just have to be upfront with your feelings
–you have to be upfront about your embarrasing situation; someday you’ll look back on it and laugh 3 minutes later
–you don’t have to impress someone who already likes you (remember? you and Jennifer struck a deal in “Future Shock”)
For Balki, on the other hand, this is the first he’s ever faced some of these threats. To a child, whatever is right in front of you (or was, just a moment ago) can become your whole world. Perhaps it’s not so imbalanced after all.
*holds up finger as sign of warning*
But for every successive season, the show will be less and less able to get away with that kind of imbalance.
Speaking of stakes, I wonder what stakes the show felt it was facing. Season 3 had two–possibly three–episodes that could have worked as a finale. I’m saying three because for some of you out there who illegally downloaded** this season may be seeing “You Gotta Have Friends” as episode 22. It’s not finale material, but someone thought it belonged last for some reason. The one that aired last in the original run was “Bye Bye Biki”. But the story of “The Graduate” feels the most like a finale. It gives us that incremental success that we got at the end of both seasons 1 and 2. Balki graduates from Adult Evening Classes High School, and Larry makes a principled stand all on his own, virtually free of his own hang-ups. “The Graduate”, even with Balki’s statement that he now wanted to give back and make his own contribution to society, is very much a tying-things-up kind of show. Balki sees how he’d gotten so far, is grateful for it, and is ready to keep succeeding. “Bye Bye Biki” does the same: Balki must face that the past is just that, and accepts that he should now cast his gaze forward.
But, the difference here is that we’re juxtaposing success and death. And if you consider “You Gotta Have Friends”, we weave in the idea of money again. On the larger level, the show spent a lot of money for the cousins to see Carl Lewis; on the smaller scale, so did Balki.
I’m a writer, and ultimately my worries and feelings and thoughts and desires come out in what I write, both here and in my webcomic. So I have to wonder if, in aggregate, Perfect Strangers was worried about its own future. Would it graduate to syndication at some point? Would the shortcuts it took to “lessons”, or making food episodes that matched the physical comedy on I Love Lucy, succeed? Or did it indeed need some help from friends? Would the gamble of Carl Lewis work? Would a guest star like Perfect Strangers-brand cream-filled treats enough to agree to be on the show? Would the tiny gambles of character removal and tonal shifts it had been making all along pay off? Or would it misinterpret the lessons it learned early on about gambling (“Babes in Babylon”)?
Or would it die and leave an empty chair behind?
5. Video games (and other media)
Even though I only majorly dipped into the video game joke well a couple of times, it was very prominent in my mind throughout season 3.
Perfect Strangers seems to have suffered the same fate that ABC wanted for then-classic television. For the most part, it’s remembered vaguely; for anyone who remembers more than Balki’s catchphrase, it’s remembered fondly. Pardon my potential confirmation bias, but my take on the Perfect Strangers fan community is that it has a distinctly feminine bent–at least in its expression. Given, much of this has to do with the fact that, up until I started this blog and kept with it, there was basically only one website for this show; and it was (and is) developed and maintained by a woman. But even the Facebook groups feel the same way. And when I say feminine, I’m just going with the common, “thick” version of the concept; it’s problematic; here’s not the place I want to discuss the term or its connotations; and I’m not putting it down. There seem to be greater memories of feelings and moments, rather than memories of specific jokes or characters who aren’t Balki. But here’s the thing with confirmation bias: it’s easier to succumb to when there are fewer examples of a thing. It’s why minorities are criminals; it’s why redheads are sexy; it’s why I associate aviator sunglasses with dictators.***
The Perfect Strangers fan community is small. Full House got a reboot; Three Stooges got a movie; you will never, ever stop seeing Star Wars or Shrek. Sure, every now and then a fan will ask rights holders about further Perfect Strangers DVDs, or ask the creators about a reboot, but the answers were, respectively “You never know” from the first and “It has been mentioned” & “It could be fun” from the second. You never know! The DVDs could come out tomorrow! Somebody on a forum mentioned locking up all the gays, and you know, it could be fun! You never know!
Anyway, I’m taking the long way to make a point about the video quality of season 3 onwards. For those of you reading in the year 2054 who had the masters of every TV show uploaded into your brains at birth 1) I’m sorry, and 2) the video quality on this season is not great, and it lent my viewing experience a surreal feeling. I had to go to a torrent site and download the rest of this show, which is criminal enough****, and I’m okay with that, but many fans don’t share my blase nature, so it’s a certainty that fewer people in the past decade have seen seasons 3-8 than the other two. Also, the rips came with no contextual information, in an order different from original airings, and a few of the filenames feature misspelled episode titles. When did they air? Who recorded them off METV? Did they leave anything out? Who can we thank for the one episode with all them dancing Santas? These episodes feel as fuzzy as I imagine most people’s memories of Perfect Strangers are.
What? Oh, video games, right. The Mario Cousins, Larrio and Balkigi. I had an NES and a Gameboy as a kid. I had a handful of games: Mario Bros/Duck Hunt; Back to the Future; Super Mario Bros 3; Fun House; Rad Racer; Spy vs Spy; and for the Gameboy: Tetris Blast; Star Wars; and Zelda: Link’s Awakening. I never beat any of those entirely on my own. Fourth stage on BttF was the best I could do; my cousin figured out how to get the initial sword in Zelda and I figured out the rest; fuckin’ fuck Fun House. SMB3 I beat only through use of a Game Genie: I’d start on World 4 as invincible sledgehammer Mario and go from there. On my own, I could get to World 3, and that was after a couple of years of throwing myself against World 2 (that damn pyramid, man). When I got there, I promptly lost my frog suit and gave up, because I hate hate hate water levels. Besides, come on, if you’re a plumber, and you’re underwater, doesn’t that mean you did something wrong?
I thought I could get away without talking about the other two Perfect Strangers review blogs that started roughly the same time as mine. I really don’t want to incriminate myself in those sites’ deaths, and you’ll have to find them on your own, but I feel successful that I alone achieved the escape velocity necessary to make it past season 2. Anyway, simply making it farther with this show, coupled with something that ought to have been 1st gen copy but looks like 5th, were enough to plant the seeds that bloomed into confirmation bias when season 3 plots and structures started resembling season 2’s. I broke into uncharted territory, I lost some of the protection I had in the form of jokes I thought would keep running, and I made it through the water stage alive. And in a few weeks, I’ll move on to World 4, which I imagine assumed itself a giant after the gambles it made over the past 22 weeks paid off.
I think the point I was trying to make here is this: Perfect Strangers season 3 is this thing that I imagine has been seen more rarely, which makes me think of a thing with a 3 that I saw but rarely, and then gave up on a lot. Also I may or may not have murdered two other websites in code blood.
6. Cue the synth clarinet, here’s your season 3 review in easy-to-swallow list form
Best episode: I still have a soft spot for the season 1 episode hiding inside “Karate Kids”, but “The Defiant Guys” wins here. It had Balki actually try out advice that worked for another person’s situation, but not his. Larry was sort of rude, but both cousins owned up for their part in the conflict. The fact that the physical comedy didn’t feel forced, but was a result of the conflict, was also good. Putting it at the end kept the focus on emotions and problem-solving, resulting in multiple lessons for different specific situations.
Worst episode: Never stop shoving hot pokers up your rectum, “The Break In”
Best one-off character: Ted McGinley as Billy Appleton
Worst one-off character: The homeless black guy they picked up off the street to play Carl Lewis
Best Balki-ism: “Cookies *grunt* cream”
Worst Balki-ism: the rest of them
Season 3 Catchphrase Count: Balki (18); Larry (7)
Season 3 Boner Count: Balki (2); Larry (3)
Cumulative Catchphrase Count: Balki (59); Larry (14)
Cumulative Boner Count: Balki (11); Larry (13.5)
Dance of Joy running total: 11
And for next week: I’ll look at what our actors did between season 3 and 4!
*don’t you fucking dare say it
**I just called the police on you, by the way
***seriously, though, Charles Nelson Reilly was probably a dictator at some point
****by this point you’re already in jail and the police won’t believe you if you tell on me