Roy Tang

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Perfect Strangers

While digging through some old stuff recently I found a copy of the late 80s/early 90s US sitcom Perfect Strangers and decided to binge through all 8 seasons of it (really more like 6 and a half, since seasons 1 and 8 were an abridged 6 episodes each).

I grew up watching this series, on live tv even, before we had cable or Netflix or anything like that. During the binge-watch I remember a good number of the episodes from the first season all the way up to the end of season 7, which implies almost all of it was broadcast on local TV, kind of a rarity I think? Of course, given the primitive nature of broadcast tv (i.e. needing to be there at the time the show is on), a lot of the episodes were new to me too.

If you're not familiar, the premise of the show is simple: Balki Bartokomous, an immigrant from the small Mediterannean island-nation of Mypos, comes to America to pursue his dreams and somehow convinces his distant-cousin-that-he-has-never-seen-before Larry Appleton, who himself has just moved to the windy city of Chicago, to take him in and let him live with him. The series largely relies on the contrast between the two leads for its humor: Balki is portrayed as a naive, unassuming foreigner, honest and open and prone to hugging strangers, while "Cousin Larry" sees himself as this street-wise, savvy guardian who must introduce Balki to the realities of modern American life.

As it turns out, Larry is actually terribly neurotic, deceptive and manipulative, even to his closest friends. He often gives Balki advice that gets both of them into trouble; he typically overreacts to the situations they find themselves in; he is prone to being taken over by his greed when the opportunity presents itself. And when he does get the two of them into some trouble, his first instinct to try to lie and cheat his way out of the situation.

I remember enjoying the series a lot when I was young, and have a fond recollection especially of the theme song, which I consider one of the best TV show theme songs of all time:

That being said, the show isn't particularly deep, as can easily be seen during a binge-watch. Most episodes will have a plot along the lines of:

  • Balki says/does something naive
  • Larry says "Balki, Balki, Balki" and gives some advice or some other action that gets them into trouble
  • hijinks ensue
  • Optionally: Larry overreacts to the hijinks and lies or something getting them into even deeper trouble.

I'd say Larry is at fault maybe 80% of the time, though he does have some good/redeeming moments too.

The show's overall story arc follow the two cousins as they grow both in terms of careers and relationships; they start out working as clerks in a used furniture store, and later move on to jobs at the presitigious Chicago Chronicle. Along the way, they form relationships with a pair of flight attendants (with decidedely 80s hair) who live in their apartment building, whom they eventually marry and have kids with.

That last part is a bit problematic for me, as I feel like Larry's fiancee and eventual wife Jennifer deserves much better; Larry constantly lies to her and have put their group in mortal danger more than once. Although, once they are married, Jennifer does exhibit many of the same neurotic behaviors Larry has, including trying to lie her way out of bad situations, so maybe they deserved each other. I would guess this character arc is largely a product of its time, a time when society (and thus TV shows) focused on values such as building a career and a stable relationship and eventually a family (as opposed to the Friends era, where the characters would often be jumping across relationships constantly.)

One thing I did learn during this binge-watch run (and the accompanying Wikipedia check) is that Perfect Strangers spawned a spin-off show, Family Matters, that went on to be one of the longest-running shows on US tv. I don't think that show ever aired on local tv.

That being said, it was a reasonable binge-watch, good enough for watching in the background while doing other stuff. My nostalgia is not damaged, I never assumed it was a deep show. The best part remains the theme song, which I still somehow feel compelled to sing out loud with each episode.

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Last modified at: Dec. 5, 2020, 8:54 p.m.. Source file