Season 3 Reviewed

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

Perfect Strangers (1984)

This week I have a really special treat for all of you. I’ve turned up what is essentially the lost pilot for Perfect Strangers!!!! No, not the one with Louie Anderson as “Cousin” Louie Appleton. It turns out that almost two years before the pilot with ABC, Larry Cohen wrote and directed the first pass at the essentials of what would become the beloved 1980s sitcom that we all sort of remember watching. Two males beginning a relationship in the big city, finding not only commonalities of interest, but also friendship; a conflict of backgrounds, one driven by the greed and various other evils of modern America, the other the picture of innocence; and lastly, the message that the importance of family should trump all else. But first a word about Larry Cohen.

Larry Cohen got his start in writing for television, mostly with one-off pieces for anthology shows. His earliest screenplays deal mostly with the criminal world, though he later branched into science fiction as well. By the 1970s, he was writing films. He dipped his toes a bit here and there, but seems to have felt most comfortable writing action/thriller/horror pictures (I think it completely fair to refer to these genres as “cousins”). If you’ve seen any of Cohen’s work at all, it was either It’s Alive or, more likely, The Stuff, a horror/sci-fi/comedy film about people consuming–and then being consumed by–an alien substance similar to Marshmallow Fluff. His earlier comedic effort – Full Moon High – left me unsatisfied, but The Stuff is a wonderful genre blend. Perfect Strangers was released in the years between these two films, and while it has a definite comic sensibility hiding within it, I don’t think we can blame Cohen for not committing to a full-blown genre mashup.

Anyway, I’m getting too wordy! This is an exciting find, so let’s get to it! (n.b. the characters’ names are different here, so I’ll refer to them by their sitcom names so it’ll be less confusing.)

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The film opens with shots of a trashy, lonely, seemingly empty city. Empty, that is, but for the shadow people on the building walls. We are meant to think of the shadows left behind by the victims of nuclear explosions; we are meant to understand that this city has no life, at least on the metaphorical level. It’s been burned out already by the capitalist and militaristic excess of 1980s America. Larry is introduced standing directly in front of not only one of these shadows, but also the message to “keep out”.

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Remember how Cousin Larry was so happy to have an apartment all to himself? How little he wanted the intrusion of Balki? In his first encounter with another person, Cousin Larry turns word to flesh, killing the intruder.

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This act of violence is witnessed by one of the newest arrivals to this country – Balki, age 2. Here, Susan is Balki’s mother, rather than a friend. But, ever the protector, she tries to shield Balki from the horrors of the grisly scene and pulls him back into the house (or, the “mother country”, if you will).

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She pulls a Tommy on him, telling him he didn’t hear it, he didn’t see it, he won’t say nothing to no one, he’ll never tell a soul what he knows is the truth. However – and here is our first fledgling sitcom setup – Larry knows that Balki saw him. He stops another child of similar age, trying to gauge the child’s memory capabilities. Larry fears how knowledge of his crime will be handled by the innocent. (Note how a church – an institute of judgment – looms large in the background.)

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We then meet Larry’s boss. While Twinkacetti’s mob connections were only humorously hinted at through the first and second seasons of the show, here they are out in the open. But, similar to the first episode of Perfect Strangers, Balki has fouled up regular operations, and Larry must fix it or lose his job. And I’m not familiar enough with mob movies to know if a lot of them do this, but damn if telling an employee that his ass is on the line while walking through a cemetery isn’t effective for making your point.

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And, similar to how sitcoms spend the beginning of each scene recapping the last, we’re treated to a minute straight of Larry tailing Susan and Balki on a bicycle while the news on the radio tells us what we already saw: that Larry killed a dude. But what’s not similar is how much time we spend with two women in the same scene with no guys around. Well, okay, Balki’s there, but he’s mesmerized by the toys on the shelves. But this scene takes place in a resale shop; Susan restores clothing and sells them to stores. Plus, like, look at that funky tuxedoed mannequin! Probably the funniest part of this movie and it didn’t make it into the show. Stupid ABC execs.

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Anyway, Susan and Other Susan have some conversation about turning the guy in, and whether it would be different if the murderer had been a woman; Other Susan sees the world through a “men vs women” framework. The resale shop, the mob boss, the “culture” war… similar to the recent BB-8 movie, there are a lot of similar pieces here that feel out of place. But then, we’ve seen ABC do lots of shuffling; sometimes you just move things around until they fit. The conversation also lets us know that Susan is separated from Balki’s father, Mypos. Balki begins to cry for Mypos when Other Susan brings up the topic of radiation and pollution.

And let me continue my Star Wars references here. Remember how in A New Hope, we cut from Obi-Wan talking about the power of the force to a scene with Vader using it on someone? Here, we switch immediately to see that radiation and pollution – symbolized by the shadow graffiti – have a common origin in Larry Appleton.

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Larry: Who is that? Who is that? That’s me! That’s me! That’s me.

At this point I really have to admire the economy of the sitcom format. What it took this movie 12 minutes (and me 600 words) to establish in terms of situation, the sitcom version takes only the length of the theme song.

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Larry continues to “shadow” Susan and Balki through the city until he finally gets up the nerve to ask her out. And like, geez, we get it, he’s an extension of the evil city itself, a shadow come to life, what a wacky life it will be when he and Balki get together, blah blah blah. Let’s fast forward a bit, because there’s plenty of padding here.

Larry and Susan and Balki go on a date; Balki recognizes Larry but, as always, cannot express himself perfectly; Mypos is absent; Larry goes to a mob-owned barbershop where he’s again threatened. The plan: Cousin Larry must seduce Susan so that he can get close enough to kill Balki.

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The next day, during a subplot about a Take Back the Night Rally that no sitcom would ever have done, Balki is kidnapped! Oh no! It’s not quite a physical comedy bit, but Susan does run around a lot until she finally chases down Mypos, who is played by Joe LoTruglio’s dad.

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Then the Take Back the Night Rally subplot is here and gone just like that. It’s basically a way for Larry to lie about caring about women and their problems; if ABC had been willing to touch that kind of topic, this 30-second scene could easily have been a two-parter.

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Later, back in the apartment, Larry and Susan are putting Balki to sleep, and… holy shit! Larry starts talking about how messed up it is to soothe a child by singing about a different child plummeting to its death (“Rock-a-bye Baby”), just like in “Two Men and a Cradle”!

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What’s even more messed up is how this discussion turns Susan on. Does she secretly harbor a wish to kill Balki as well? Does Larry even really need to seduce her? Anyway, Larry and Susan go off to bump uglies, and then we cut immediately to

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I guess this is symbolizing some sort of loss of manhood, or at least, the Sicilian Mafia version of it. Larry is trading his meat monolith for a more balanced meal of meat, bread, dairy, and juice; he’s trading “the” family for “a” family.

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There’s a short scene with Larry and Ur-Tina, which is pretty pointless, and just for the purposes of exposition; understandably we don’t see Tina again for the rest of the movie. Just think how different the 80s would have been had someone told Cohen how much potential he had for sitcom writing!

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Then there’s just some more padding and repetition with Larry and Susan and Balki in a park, Larry and Susan having sex, Balki cleaning the discount store and singing the Hokey Pokey.

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We get a few more glimpses of things to come now. First, the scene where Mypos kicks and pisses on Larry’s beautiful car (here a Bonneville instead of a Mustang) prefigures the weekly culture war between Mypos and America.

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Second, the scene where Balki’s on a merry-go-round on the back of a truck, and Larry’s chasing him around. The barrier between Larry and Balki here indicates how even Cohen knew that physical comedy didn’t work unless the actors were really, really good at it.

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Then Stephen Lack from Scanners shows up as a toned-down gay stereotype of a police detective; he sounds a lot like Scott Thompson. Again, Cohen knowing that this story needs some comedy, but not committing to it. Anyway, it’s another pretty pointless scene, just more padding so that Balki can look at the police photographs and recognize Larry. Balki picks his nose, Susan sends Stephen Lack away.

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The visit from the police detective – a reminder of the degradation and crime in modern America – prompts Susan to make a reconciliation with Mypos, for Balki’s sake. Note how Mypos is an artist; Mypos is the purer culture, from whom flow natural expressions of emotion and joy. But, as we’ve seen throughout seasons 1 and 2 of the sitcom, even Mypos has a limit (cf. “A Christmas Story”: “now you’re making Balki mad”).

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Mypos has hired a German private detective (man, Perfect Strangers and its ethnic stereotypes, amirite?) to trail Larry and find out why he’s hanging out with Susan. Mypos talks about his feelings: he feels like he’s similar to a character in a movie who’s died, but has come back to look at his life. He can see everything and everyone, but he’s invisible to them. (Note how we’ve not seen the island Mypos on the show.)

perfect strangers reviews

Also, good grief, Perfect Strangers and its restaurants. Restaurants are the third location, like, every four weeks on the show; this is the third one for this movie!

In case you were worried that the homosexual undertones (with their inherent pederastic complications due to the Balki the Kid theme) wouldn’t show up, here you go:

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Larry gives Balki a bath and asks if he wants to look at some magazines with him. Is this about to turn into that Spider-Man public service comic I had as a kid?


Larry talks to Balki about E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, asking if he remembers how E.T. was kept a secret so he wouldn’t get hurt. Geez, movie, if you’re trying to land the child abuse metaphor, WE GET IT.

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Then the German private detective eats some pizza while following Larry, and then Larry kills him. End of that subplot, I guess. I think the pizza and the murder were supposed to symbolize Larry’s relationship with the Mafia at this point in the movie? Cohen might be getting a little too brainy for me. But I can tell that, just like how sitcom Cousin Larry has to learn the same lesson about lying over and over again, movie Larry still has a long way to go, cut-up sausage or not: when he kills the detective, he is once again a silhouette, a shadow against the walls of the city.

Then in the next scene–

perfect strangers reviews


Cousin Larry has brought Balki back to his apartment, and gives him the hard sell on the American way of life, telling him about being rich and “getting things” and how in America, you just have to take what you want. Shades of Vegahhhssss are clearly evident here. Doesn’t Balki want a room at the Ritz? Wrapped in velvet, and covered in glitz?

perfect strangers reviews

Balki drinks a Coke and Larry drinks his beer, but then some of Twinkacetti’s goons show up. Larry has to hide the fact that he hasn’t killed Balki yet! The goons keep wanting to look around the apartment, and Balki has escaped from the bedroom! Oh no! Balki has comically misunderstood Larry’s admonition about taking what he wants and has grabbed one of Larry’s beers! Oh double-no! How is Larry going to get out of this one? There’s such a solid sitcom sensibility here that, The Stuff aside, I think Cohen missed his calling. I mean, how many episodes of Full House were there where the daughters try to hide something from Danny and the Uncles?

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Anyway, Larry just makes the goons leave. I don’t know whose work that is on the wall, so I’ll leave it to commenter Sarah Portland to tell us all if Cousin Larry’s taste in art changed between this and the show.

perfect strangers reviews

Later, we get a preview of “The Unnatural”, but before anyone can break a lamp, the police detective shows up again and starts talking to Balki through a fence. Is this just how things were in the 80s? Did every grown man act really creepy around little kids?

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The detective grills Susan again about whether she’s seen any of the people in his photographs; this is a nice mirror of the bathtub scene. The character standing in for justice is trying to spark memories with photographs; the criminal uses them to force others to suppress memories. Anyway, Susan intentionally fingers the wrong crook (hehe) to get the detective off her back (hehehe). This is sort of an unrealized sitcom setup. I mean, Seinfeld would have handled this nicely (like, the other criminal would have been the guy who supplies combs to the Mafia barbershop or something). I guess we can’t really blame Cohen for not being as innovative as Larry David five years before Seinfeld was even a thing.

perfect strangers reviews

Cousin Larry and Twinkacetti meet up in the cemetery again, and you know, for all that it meant that the Other Susan character got dropped, I’m glad that they put Twinkacetti in the shop for the show, even if, by the end of season 2, the Ritz Discount store setting was really kind of played out. Unless you’re The Munsters Today, cemeteries just didn’t lend themselves well to the 1980s sitcom aesthetic. Anyway, similar to the plot of “Get a Job”, Twinkacetti is firing Larry and has hired someone named “Carl”.

perfect strangers reviews

Restaurant scene #1,317: Cousin Larry tries to convince Susan and Balki to come away with him. Has Larry given up on killing Balki? Is he beginning to actually treasure what family can offer, even if there’s no traditional family ties involved? We’ll have to wait for the music to come on to find out, because Brad Rijn is really not a good actor. The script here is supposed to make us think that Larry is softening and falling in love, but Rijn just can’t seem to express any emotion other than “80s hair”. Just like a politican after getting the party’s nomination, Larry is moving towards center; but so is Balki. But in his typical literal-minded way, Balki comically misunderstands.

perfect strangers reviews

Larry: Balki, how’m I gonna get that cop off my back?

Balki: *swings knife through air*

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Cousin Larry takes Balki to a small city park and puts him on the swings. The temptation to sacrifice Balki to the city is clearly laid out: Larry can push him high enough on the swings that he flies off and lands on the spiked fenceposts. Typical Larry. Thinks he’s fixing a situation when really he’s just preventing Balki’s dreams from coming to fruition. Luckily, Mypos comes in to save the day, stopping the swing.

perfect strangers reviews

Larry and Mypos shout at Balki, and then they start fighting. Susan stops them, and Larry grudgingly admits that he was wrong. Susan tells Larry to stay away from her and Balki, so Larry runs away, I assume to ask Gus for some hot tips. Then Susan gives Balki some advice – Balki’s lesson for this story. She says that daddies don’t always win their fights, but it remains Balki’s job to safeguard his daddy. He alone must preserve the culture he comes from, no matter how many body blows it takes while in the big bad American city.

perfect strangers reviews

At this point, we’re about 80 minutes in. We’ve had numerous restaurant scenes, Larry threatened multiple times, the same basic scene between Susan and the detective twice, metaphors hammered into the ground. I mean, here we are again, with Balki on the tiny merry-go-round, endlessly passing by the same scenery. So I’m very happy to see Larry steal the truck the merry-go-round is on the back of, seeing if he can make this circular story actually get somewhere in the end. (Note also the red-and-blue colors on the truck; very Spider-Man, no?)

perfect strangers reviews

Cousin Larry drives the truck to a warehouse, passing a graffiti silhouette on the way. Is he leaving it behind or has he driven into its neighborhood?

perfect strangers reviews

Larry: Come on, Balki, don’t look at me like that. I’m still your buddy.

perfect strangers reviews

Larry and Balki play hide-and-seek one last time; Larry’s hope is that Balki will have an accident and that he, Larry, will remain blameless. Remember “Babes in Babylon”, where Larry kept trying to convince Balki of the evil of Vegas, when really the evil came from the lies Larry told himself? Larry wants Balki to lose, when they live in a world where everyone can win if they just commit to the idea of family. Larry catches Balki, holds him over the water, and apologizes.

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Back in the apartment, Susan is offered moral support by all of the Other Susans.

perfect strangers reviews

After they leave, Susan, finally looks at the stack of police photographs, and just like every episode’s finale, Larry’s lies reveal themselves. And dammit if this movie doesn’t have sitcom logic down pat. The police had a photograph of him, so he HAS to be a criminal! Let’s just ignore the fact that, if they had any hard evidence on him, he’d have been put away by now.

perfect strangers reviews

But oh no! Now Larry’s at the door!

And then Mypos shows up outside the building! But ultimately, battle of the sexes or not, he’s “kept out” of Larry’s city by Other Susan. She may recognize the large and problematic male/female dichotomoy, but the gun in her hand has blinded her to the fact that she acts as a tool of the American Way.

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Mypos: You’re all crazy!

Even if, as I suspect, Cohen at least knew on some subconscious level that he was developing a sitcom, he had already committed to the medium of film. There could be no joke right before the credits. There could be no soft reset the next week. There could be no running joke about Wayne Newton. He had to finish this up in a way that the crime/thriller genre demanded.

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Larry comes in the apartment, Susan stabs him. He falls, revealing Balki. But as much as he pouts, this version of Balki will never again get what he wants from Cousin Larry.

perfect strangers reviews

Larry may have learned the important lesson about family, but it did him no good in the end. His sin – thinking about killing a child – was too much. It’s understandable now why sitcom Larry’s sins are so tame (lying about going to the gym, accusing the wrong person of stealing his bicycle, hesitating to testify in court); we must crucify sitcom Larry weekly for minor foibles, lest he revert to his movie persona and think about committing atrocities so heinous that we would have no choice but to kill him once and for all.

Moreover, I think it’s easy to see how this movie came to be a popular network sitcom that ran for 8 years. You’ve got the solid situation comedy setups, plus the core element of a carefree, innocent child-at-heart who tries to rescue the everyman from the criminal pressures of trying to make it in 1980s urban America. Even the minor elements – Susan, Twinkacetti, and the discount store – are present; all it took was for ABC executives to rearrange them and give them a little spit-and-polish to make them more palatable to mass audiences. I kind of have to laugh. Full House had some of its minor elements changed season to season to match what tested well with audiences. Perfect Strangers has the distinction of being the only sitcom to have that done to it before it even went on the air! I think I can see, also, why Larry Cohen didn’t want his name attached to Perfect Strangers once it finally began its television life: it might have negatively impacted how theatergoers reviewed It’s Alive III, or Wicked Stepmother.

I hope you enjoyed this look into one of the rarely-seen corners of sitcom history. Next week we’ll move on to the season 3 opener: “All the News That Fits”.