Once upon a time, ABC hosted a Friday night block of family-friendly sitcoms called TGIF – Thank goodness it’s Friday. For kids growing up in the 1980s and early 1990s, TGIF was a weekly introduction into the weekend. The sitcoms were aimed at families, so the humor was squarely middle-of-the-road and very hokey. Most of the shows also featured a sickly adorable or obnoxiously precocious child. Perfect Strangers was a bit of an anomaly in the TGIF roster because while aggressively safe and wholesome, it wasn’t a treacley show based on cutesy family situations. Instead, it was the classic Odd Couple story of two mismatched best friends who have weekly adventures.
The premise is simple: Balki Bartokomous (Bronson Pinchot), a recent emigrant from the fictional island of Mypos (based on Cyprus/Greece), shows up at the door of his Chicagoan cousin, Larry Appleton (Mark Linn-Baker), an aspiring photojournalist who punches a clock at a discount store. The humor from the show is based mainly on Balki’s fish out of water experiences: he’s nonplussed by all kinds of American pop paraphernalia like pink lemonade, baseball, Whoppers, and vibrating beds. None of the comedy is deep or profound, and Balki’s “What a country!” reaction feels very familiar for 80s babies who were around for the comedy of Yakov Smirnoff. While some of the jokes are amusing, it is a little insulting that the writers decided to write Balki’s native Mypos as a backwater land that time forgot (there is only one phone on the island, electricity is scarce, every man seems to be a sheepherder). Because there is no political base to the jokes (at least Smirnoff’s comedy – while milquetoast and dated – highlighted the stark differences between the U.S. and the Soviet Union), the level of the humor doesn’t rise above the old “aren’t foreigners funny?” trope.
But despite all this, I found myself laughing a lot, because Linn-Baker and (especially) Pinchot are wonderful physical comedians. Quickly the show’s writers made the show an old-fashioned I Love Lucy-like show, where the plots merely served as vehicles to get the two actors to perform some death-defying comedic stunts. The two actors make up an inspired, underrated comedy duo, which has unfortunately been all but forgotten – because the show’s writing was so bland, it’s easy to look past just how talented Linn-Baker and Pinchot are. The latter, who deftly stole his scenes in the Eddie Murphy classic Beverly Hills Cop is a find. Adopting a broad accent that lies somewhere between Greek and Russian, Pinchot completely disappears in his role (many fans of Balki get disoriented and disconcerted when Pinchot speaks in his regular voice in interviews). Pinchot often outclasses the mediocrity of the scripts, and manages to give depth to the child-like Balki. Linn-Baker, a theater vet, is the straight man, and therefore is often pushed into Pinchot’s shadow, but acquits himself admirably, supporting his more flamboyant costar.
The DVD set of the first and second seasons is great for binge watching. The episodes are structured like most TGIF shows – the setup, the climax, and then the denouement, during which a lesson is learned, and sappy music starts to play. Interestingly enough, the friendship between Balki and Larry is rarely played for homophobic jokes, even though the two guys are pretty demonstrative of their love for each other. There is something accidentally subversive about these two guys creating a tiny family unit, and the show is surprisingly open to examining the intimacy shared between Balki and Larry. In the Christmas episode, especially, we see how deep their friendship grows, when Larry is overcome by emotion after Balki gives him a quilt he’s been sewing as a gift. Balki has been sewing the quilt for over a year, starting on it the night Larry took him in – Larry remembers his mother’s emotional reaction to a homemade gift he gave her as a child, and is moved because he feels the same way about the quilt. While television sitcoms have examined the trope of family as friends, it’s been almost-exclusively female friendships, like in The Golden Girls, Sex and the City, or The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Male friendships on TV have been characterized by a masculine distance, so that even best friends feel uncomfortable expressing themselves. In Perfect Strangers that self-consciousness doesn’t exist – in fact, I was struck at how tactile and physical Balki is with Larry.
Reading over my review, I realize that it sounds like I’m giving the show more credit than it’s due. I’m not. It’s not a ground breaking show, nor does all of it age particularly well. Still, it’s comfortable and cozy and very undemanding on its viewers. It also feels a touch less corporate and cynical than the other TGIF sitcoms like Family Matters, Full House, or Step by Step, which all feel as if they’re written by a focus group. Perfect Strangers is definitely formulaic, but there are kernals of originality and inspiration sprinkled throughout the show.