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Was ‘Perfect Strangers’ Actually Any Good?
Don’t be ridiculous.
Back in the ’80s, I considered Perfect Strangers to be one of the funniest shows on TV, if not the funniest. My sister and I watched it every week during TGIF, and we frequently reenacted the Dance of Joy.
Keep in mind, I was also born during the ’80s, so my comedic judgment was perhaps still developing. I hadn’t watched the show in many years, but then my sister informed me that all eight seasons were now available on Freevee.
There’s no earthly way I’m ever watching all 150 episodes of Perfect Strangers during the 21st century. Pretty much any series that ran from 1986 to 1993 was never meant to be binge-watched. Do not attempt. You will fry your brain.
Instead, I watched the first few episodes. Then I went on IMDb, looked for the top-rated episodes, and watched some of those. I picked out some highlights from seasons 2-4, when the show was at its peak, and that’s plenty for a while.
But that little “best of” sampling I watched? It was actually kind of fun.
I can’t objectively say it’s some brilliant, profoundly clever show or any sort of masterpiece. It is, however, a nice show. It exists to deliver good-natured entertainment, and that is precisely what it accomplished.
For those of you born after the ’80s, Perfect Strangers is a modern version of The Odd Couple. (It was modern at the time!) In the pilot, Balki Bartokomous (Bronson Pinchot) has just moved to America after spending his entire life as an aspiring sheep herder on the simple, technologically primitive island of Mypos. This innocent, naïve, free-spirited Myposian moves in with his much fussier cousin, Larry Appleton (Mark Linn-Baker), an aspiring photojournalist who always likes to plan ahead and has difficulty letting loose.
A typical episode depicts Larry showing Balki the ropes of American life, but then Larry also winds up learning an important life lesson from Balki. Both guys come to rely on each other as these codependent cousins navigate all sorts of wacky situations. Sometimes Larry’s the one getting them into trouble, and sometimes it’s Balki, but they’re always in it together.
Some actors were born to play a particular role, but Bronson Pinchot and Mark Linn-Baker were born to play off each other. The chemistry between these two is remarkable, and it’s the main reason any of us still remember this series. They quickly establish a perfect rhythm, no matter how silly the dialogue or situations, and they both excel at physical comedy, which the show frequently employs. I would almost believe they shared some kind of psychic rapport.
You can often see the jokes coming well in advance. And once you know the episode’s premise, you know generally where it’s headed. But the journey remains fun thanks in large part to the quality of the acting.
But it’s not only the acting. The show maintains a positive, feel-good attitude. Nearly all the comedy stems from the flaws of Larry and Balki. There’s no pointing and laughing at anyone else, no smug superiority, no nihilism. Larry and Balki serve as our clowns, taking all the pratfalls for our amusement and learning lessons along the way. No need to make fun of anyone else.
Perfect Strangers has heart. It’s built on friendship. It’s innocent. And despite Balki’s catchphrase, it’s so incredibly ridiculous.
Here are some of the episodes I watched:
“Knock Knock, Who’s There?” (season 1, 1986)
The pilot episode was a little rough, as many pilots are. They oversell the “Don’t be ridiculous” catchphrase, absolutely pummeling it into the ground. Maybe Balki should have said it a few more times, just to make sure we got it.
Larry, at this point, works at a store run by the tightfisted Mr. Twinkacetti (Ernie Sabella, before he became the voice of Pumbaa in The Lion King). In this episode, Larry needs to rush out to pursue a photography opportunity, so he asks Balki to watch the store until he gets back—yes, the Balki who has only just arrived in the country from barely-on-the-map Mypos. Did Larry think there was any possibility of this turning out well for them? Oh, Larry. Larry, Larry, Larry …
Also, the interminable theme song was very much a product of its era, and in the first couple of seasons, it ran especially long. Just when you think it’s finally wrapping up, it keeps going. The lyrics “Nothing’s gonna stop me now” were apparently a threat.
“Hunks Like Us” (season 2, 1986)
This episode introduces future long-term girlfriends Jennifer (Melanie Wilson) and Mary Anne (Rebecca Arthur), who I don’t think were ever given last names until they married the guys in the later seasons.
Larry and Balki join the gym the girls work at so Larry can impress Jennifer. But in typical Larry fashion, he goes overboard by a factor of a hundred. The gym equipment provides all sorts of new opportunities for physical comedy, and while you can pretty much guess the scenarios, the execution is on point. This is merely the setup, though.
Thanks to Balki’s not overthinking things, they secure dates with Jennifer and Mary Anne. But when the date time rolls around, the guys are sore nearly to the point of immobility. Balki prefers to be honest about the situation, but Larry doesn’t want to reveal how unaccustomed to exercise they are. So they go to great lengths to conceal the fact that they can barely move. Wacky antics ensue.
It’s so silly. But it’s exactly the right silly for this show.
“A Christmas Story” (season 2, 1986)
Balki’s first Christmas in America. He’s missing home and his usual holiday traditions, such as decorating the Christmas turtle. Larry, however, is looking forward to going home to enjoy all the usual festivities with his family. But a snowstorm strands the guys in Chicago, so, just like Balki, Larry must learn to adjust to new traditions.
It’s a heartfelt episode that cements the bond between the two guys, demonstrating what a nice show this can be.
“Your Cheatin’ Heart” (season 3, 1987)
Balki and Jennifer conspire to buy a nice gift for Larry, but Larry thinks they’re having an affair. A farce results, which suits this series.
But it especially works because the show remembers the heart of it all. Larry screws up by accusing his best friend and girlfriend of having an affair when he really should have known better. He still deserves forgiveness, though, which Balki gives him. (The reconciliation with Jennifer occurs off-screen. The series is apparently always about Larry and Balki, even when other people are involved.)
“Just Desserts” (season 3, 1988)
It’s a perfect Perfect Strangers recipe—lots of physicality, an abundance of alliterative tongue-twisters, and the characters getting in over their heads. The classic pie-in-the-face gag even makes an appearance. It’s telegraphed well ahead of time, but the cast sells it nevertheless.
Balki introduces Larry, Jennifer, and Mary Anne to a Myposian dessert called bibi-babkas, and they all love it. Larry gets the bright idea of selling it to restaurants, and when one is interested, he overpromises, leaving the group with a single weekend to bake two thousand bibi-babkas.
The cast nails not only all the physical choreography but also the absurd dialogue, whether it comes at a rapid clip or needs to slow down. Not once do they blunder or break during the bibi-babka banter as they embark on the backbreaking work of baking bunches of bibi-babkas so their business doesn’t go bust before it even begins. Perfect Strangers often features a small cast, but they’re always a cast of solid pros.
“Piano Movers” (season 4, 1988)
I remembered this as one of my favorites at the time. And while it’s not nearly as hilarious as it seemed when I was five, it remains a fun romp nevertheless.
This time, Balki is the one who overpromises, as he agrees to deliver a piano for co-worker Lydia (Belita Moreno). Unfortunately, the piano doesn’t fit in the elevator, so the guys have to carry it up ten flights of stairs.
The episode features a grand total of four humans. But the bulk of it is just Larry and Balki trying to get a piano up the stairs, which is basically Perfect Strangers stripped down to its essence.
By the time the piano starts rolling back down the stairs, apparently under its own volition, the show reveals its true colors—it’s a cartoon in live action.
Maybe that’s why I enjoyed it so much as a kid. Perfect Strangers provides an excellent gateway to transition from kids cartoons to grown-up sitcoms.
I’m not sure the series would resonate much with later generations, but for my fellow ’80s kids out there, Perfect Strangers holds up as good clean fun.*
I think that deserves a Dance of Joy.
*Provided you stick to the best episodes. Always consume responsibly.
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