The Good: Seriously, I'm at a loss here.
The Bad: Not funny, Lame catch-phrase based comedy, Mediocre acting, DVD Bonus, Characters are "types" only, Slapstick
The Basics: A disappointing and ridiculously predictable comedy, Perfect Strangers comes to DVD in one of the least inspired releases to date.
When I was much, much younger than I am now, I had a pretty unsophisticated palate. Yes, I cringe now at some of the things that once entertained me. To be fair, when I was into Perfect Strangers, I was ten (less when it started) so one hopes youth may be used as a reasonable write-off here. I remember being a kid and my brothers and I getting the choice of what we wanted to watch and we would all vote for "Balki And Larry!" which is what we called Perfect Strangers. By the time I learned about the existence of Star Trek, I was cringing at the predictability of the jokes in Perfect Strangers.
Now on DVD in a four-disc set spanning the first and second seasons of the series (all twenty-eight episodes), Perfect Strangers - The Complete First And Second Seasons makes one instantly question: "Why?!" There are other, vastly more popular and culturally relevant shows that have been woefully underrepresented on DVD (Murphy Brown leaps immediately to mind); was there truly such a strong market for Perfect Strangers that this set was brought into the marketplace?
Judging from the DVD extra, which is a simple clip collection of Balki and Larry doing the trademark "Dance Of Joy," Perfect Strangers - The Complete First And Second Seasons offers almost nothing that is not available by catching the episodes in reruns on cable or other rerun stations.
For those unfamiliar with Perfect Strangers, the concept is simple enough: Balki Bartokomous leaves the island nation Mypos for the United States, where he ends up in Chicago on his distant cousin's, Larry Appleton, doorstep. Larry sees that Balki is naive to American ways and is eager to protect him from being taken advantage of and he takes him in, helps him get a job at the drug store his landlord owns and the two begin to work and live together.
An aspiring photographer, Larry is occasionally distracted by his desire to pursue his ambitions and Balki gets into trouble on his own. Larry tries to help Balki assimilate into American culture by encouraging Balki to get his driver's license, enter the dating scene, helping him get a checking account, joining a gym together, and avoiding getting run down by taxi cabs. Along the way, Larry hunts Dolly Parton for a photograph, Balki becomes Larry's personal servant, accidentally swap a friend's baby for another, and the two lead a tenant strike over repairs that are remaining undone in the apartment building they live in.
Unfortunately for viewers, there are several very familiar plots used in this boxed set that are essentially the seminal sitcom plots reworking into the context of Perfect Strangers. So there's the "guest that won't leave" episode ("Since I Lost My Baby") wherein Balki and Larry take in their boss who then won't get motivated to leave. There's the honesty in public situations episode ("Tux For Two"), the importance of telling the truth moral episode ("Can I Get A Witness?"), the obvious reversal of bad habits episode (in "Babes In Babylon," Larry and Balki go to Las Vegas with Larry determined to keep Balki from becoming a compulsive gambler, which leads Larry himself to a gambling problem), and the date gone awry plot ("Ladies And Germs").
The point is, Perfect Strangers is a remarkably obvious comedy that is so canned it is not funny. The basic premise is obvious ethnic mismatch comedy. Balki - performed by Bronson Pinchot - speaks in wild, energetic tones and a heavy accent. Larry is more sedate and trueblue American, even as he is seldom right about the circumstances he attempts to educate Balki in. The punchlines can be called about two episodes in advance and the laugh track on the DVD is especially disturbing. While the laugh track usually labels jokes, it seems both desperate and troubling in this case. I sat through all four discs and I did not laugh once. Ever.
Admittedly, I am not a huge fan of slapstick or physical comedy, but Perfect Strangers relies so heavily on that for laughs that it seems to label its lack of substance constantly. So, when Balki is not speaking with an exaggerated sense of emotion and a gangly body language that is meant to be funny, he is bugging out his eyes for several beats before or after delivering a punchline and the result is that the jokes are labeled and desperate and have the physical element to bail them out. And it is hard to be amused by that half hour after half hour constantly. There are only so many times Bronson Pinchot can bug out his eyes or level his eyes on his costar and say "Don't be ridiculous."
That's another problem with Perfect Strangers; on the DVD is becomes quite clear that the show was working toward franchise. There are lines that become catch phrases for Balki and Larry that start to turn up in almost every episode and the effect is that the unpredictability that makes humor funny is quickly diminished.
In order to better understand Perfect Strangers, it helps to understand the principle characters present in this boxed set:
Larry Appleton - The ultimate straightman, an aspiring photographer who is stuck working at his landlord's drug store while he develops his photography career. He has a kind heart but is arrogant about his knowledge of how things work and he often tries to teach Balki things he does not know nearly as well as he thinks he does. Often intellectually at odds with his boss, Mr. Twinkacetti, he mentors and cares for Balki and starts dating Jennifer,
Balki Bartokomous - A native of Mypos and a sheepherder there, he speaks with a thick, odd accent and is largely ignorant of American ways. He looks to Larry to teach him how to survive in Chicago. He goes to night school to learn enough to pass his citizenship test. He works with Larry at the drug store, as well. He is naive and simple and yet often more perceptive than Larry. He begins to develop a relationship with the very similar Mary Anne,
Donald Twinkacetti - Larry and Balki's landlord and employer at the store. He is a stereotypical grump and he often roots for Balki's failure or delights in tormenting Larry,
Edwina Twinkacetti - Donald's wife, her superlative action is to throw Donald out when he forgets their anniversary,
Susan - Larry's upstairs neighbor whom he is friends with, but that Balki has a crush on. Very much a supporting character, she is written out as Balki and Mary Anne become closer,
Jennifer Lyons - Mary Anne's best friend, she is a perfectionist and essentially a female counterpart to Larry. She and Larry begin a relationship. She is an stewardess and lives with Mary Anne. Hard to impress,
and Mary Anne Spencer - Jennifer's best friend, she is as naive as Balki and pretty much the archetypal blonde.
The problem with the characters is that they are all types. It's all about mismatches. So, Mary Anne and Jennifer and the scatterbrain and the perfectionist, respectively. Twinkacetti is the curmudgeon to Balki's youthful enthusiasm. And Larry is the brains to Balki's heart. It's all very contrived and very much the sitcom construct. Larry is all about planning and efficiency which fails and Balki stumbles into situations where his charm and kindness win out.
Larry is portrayed by Mark Linn-Baker and he's a very solid straightman. The problem with this boxed set is that Linn-Baker is not given the chance to stretch beyond his initial characterization. He plays insecurity adequately, but once one has a bead on the character, the challenge is to grow the role. Instead, Linn-Baker stagnates as the smart, but not as smart as he thinks, half of the duo.
Bronson Pinchot strives to hold the series together by his use of a funny accent and broad physical comedy, but his schtick soon wears thin. There are only so many times one can watch Pinchot screw up his face in glee or naive disgust/curiosity or do his native "Dance Of Joy" before the viewer is tired of it. Pinchot's performance is remarkably consistent, but unremarkable.
On DVD, the series is utterly unremarkable. There are no commentary tracks, no genuine featurettes, nothing save the clipshow of the Dances of Joy. In other words, if one wants to watch dull, predictable ethnic mismatch comedy from the mid-1980s, Perfect Strangers - The Complete Seasons 1 & 2 works.
If you want more, though, this is definitely a set to pass on.
For other classic television reviews, please check out:
Family Ties - Season 1
V - The Television Series
For other television and movie reviews, please visit my Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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