If I had a nickel for every Friday night I spent as a youth glued to the ABC sitcom powerhouse known collectively as TGIF, I’d be richer than the King of Siam. The inherent corniness of shows like Full House, Family Matters, and Step By Step was strangely comforting in a world where Magic Johnson could get AIDs and the Vice President couldn’t spell potato.
Of course, had I known most of these shows would be syndicated for the next 20 years, maybe I would have spent more time outside the house, away from such mind-polluting insanity as the Steve Urkel robot and hockey-haired Canadian import Dave Coulier (or as I like to call him, the Man of Three Voices).
One TGIF program that hasn’t been completely hammered into our collective subconscious via reruns is Perfect Strangers, the show that was the cornerstone of ABC’s two hour family-oriented schlock block for at least five years. This wacky, fish-out-of-water yukfest was totally absent from the cable landscape for years, puzzling legions of TV fans across the globe who were sure there was once a program in which that dippy art dealer from Beverly Hills Cop tormented the guy from the Peter Pan peanut butter commercials.
It’s almost as if Perfect Strangers was purposely being suppressed, perhaps for reasons of cultural sensitivity. Even though the small island nation of Mypos doesn’t actually exist, it wouldn’t surprise me if a few left-wingers banded together to keep the zany Balki Bartokomous under wraps just in case his frequent dancing and fringed vests were a broad caricature/crude stereotype of the proud and fictional Myposian people.
Well, the good news is, humanity needn’t fret another day over the Perfect Strangers absence, for the first two seasons have just landed on DVD. The amazing part is the how well the show has aged. Sure, the premise is pretty hokey – wacky foreigner invades uptight American cousin’s life with strange customs and plenty of hi jinks – as are a number of the jokes, but the combined talents of Bronson Pinchot and Mark-Linn Baker elevate what could have been just another Working Stiffs.
The two actors had a great Abbott & Costello-type comedic rhythm that helped coast Perfect Strangers through eight crazy seasons. These guys played off each other so well that writers and producers never had to throw a sassy little kid or a talking dog in the mix to liven things up. All they needed was Pinchot’s free-spirited Balki, Baker’s uptight Larry, and some small problem the pair could amplify to DEFCON 2 proportions.
Seasons 1 and 2 find Balki and Larry still getting acclimated to one another; the simple sheepherder can’t believe the miracle of pop top soda cans and color television, while the jaded American can’t believe his cousin considers these simple things miracles. The real brilliance in Perfect Strangers is that you find yourself identifying simultaneously with both characters. Balki’s excitement over the mundane and general upbeat attitude is palpable and, in a way, invigorating – why does his grouchy cousin always have to be such a spoil sport? At the same time, you know you’d probably be just as wound up as Larry if some vaguely Greek weirdo was leaping around your living room in Spider-Man pajamas at three in the morning, or forcing you to do a jig every time the morning paper came.
You love and hate them both. They really do need and care about each other, though, and the episode that best displays this is the surprisingly sweet and touching “Falling In Love Is…”, in which Balki is duped by a beautiful woman he is sure truly loves him (despite Larry’s numerous warnings). The closing scenes where Larry comforts a crestfallen Balki over a pint of ice cream are neither corny nor pained nor overly maudlin. They’re just nice.
A forgotten character from this early incarnation of Perfect Strangers was Donald Twinkacetti, the cousins’ cantankerous boss at the antique shop where they both worked. “Twinkie”, as he was colloquially known, often got in some of the show’s best barbs at the expense of the two leads (he loved calling Larry a “turnip”, which is funny no matter how many times you hear it). It’s easy to look upon Twinkie as a low-rent version of Danny DeVito’s character from Taxi, but let’s be frank: Balki is just a low-rent version of Andy Kaufman’s character from Taxi.
I guess that makes Mark-Linn Baker the Judd Hirsch of this equation. Makes sense. They kind of look alike. But I digress. Twinkacetti was masterfully played by Ernie Sabella, whom you may remember as the voice of Pumbaa in The Lion King (he was also the nude guy on the subway in that one episode of “Seinfeld”). It’s a shame he didn’t stick around beyond two seasons of Perfect Strangers.
There are a couple of issues with this long-awaited DVD treatment of the Miller-Boyett production team’s least annoying sitcom: for starters, there are a number of what look like video tape snags throughout the episodes, almost as if the VCR tried to eat up Cousin Larry and his Myposian roommate. I don’t expect Criterion Collection-type quality here, but maybe next time don’t let ol’ Pappy doze off while he’s converting the tapes to digital?
Also, there’s a shocking lack of extras. We, the Mark-Linn Baker nation, wait over a decade for our curly-haired messiah’s pinnacle work and we can’t even get one lousy commentary track or behind-the-scenes featurette? What a disappointment. The only extra the suits pony up to is a montage of all the times Balki and Larry did the “Dance of Joy” during the first two seasons. Amusing, but far from satisfying.
It’s hard to complain, though, now that Perfect Strangers is out there on the open market, ready to prove to the world it was just as funny as any of its TGIF contemporaries. May the world discover Balki, Larry, and their shared adventures anew, leading to a comeback hopefully not unlike the late ‘80s Monkees resurgence. I smell made-for-television reunion movie. Someone get Thomas L. Miller and/or Roger L. Boyett on the phone immediately.