In 10 Words or Less
Foreign people are different than us, and therefore funny
Loves: '80s sitcoms
Likes: "Perfect Strangers," that theme song
Dislikes: '80s fashion, Cousin Larry
Hates: Getting no retrospective extras
The fish-out-of-water concept was nothing new in 1986, but the idea of a fish-out-of-water in comparison to the general populace hasn't been seen too often, with "Mork & Mindy" being the only obvious example, as Mork the alien discovered life on Earth. Dale McRaven, a writer on the needs-to-be-released-on-DVD "Grand" and one of the creators of "Mork," went back to the well with "Perfect Strangers," turning the alien into the more human Balki Bartokomous (Bronson Pinchot,) a simple sheepherder from the fictional Greece-like island of Mypos. Apparently, it's a successful formula, as the show ran for eight seasons (four more than "Mork & Mindy") and earned a beloved place in many viewers' hearts.
At the time the show appeared on ABC, a decade before the proliferation of the Internet and overwhelming globalization, the world wasn't nearly as small as it is now. So the idea that a naïve young man from a small Mediterranean country would have no concept of American culture (yet would be able to learn Slightly broken English in a matter of weeks) was actually believable. After all, it was at this time that Yakov Smirnoff made a career out of making fun of the differences between the U.S. And Communist Russia (and not so coincidentally had a short-lived TV series about foreigners in America.)
Of course, if all the show had going for it was a bunch of stupid foreigner gags (of which there are plenty) it would be about as funny as Smirnoff's pre-Berlin Wall material is now. But the story of Balki and his travels to Chicago to find his cousin Larry Appleton (Mark Linn-Baker) are simply an excellent situation to allow the leads to practice a near-perfect brand of physical comedy with well-written gags that holds up well over twenty years later, despite the presence of some very dated references.
Pinchot and Linn-Baker work tremendously well together, resulting in some brilliant takes on the theme of "The Odd Couple", led by legendary TV director Joel Zwick (My Big Fat Greek Wedding,) who helmed nearly every episode, helping to develop a brilliant sense of timing on the show. Combining a surprisingly mature sense of humor with slapstick and set pieces worthy of the classic comedy duos from the early days of film, the show crafted some memorable moments out of very ordinary sitcom concepts. Part of what makes it work so well is the excellent portrayal of child-like innocence by Pinchot, which makes the more adult jokes shine in comparison. In some ways, it works the same way as Andy Kaufman's Foreign Man did. The simpler a character seems, the more interesting it is when that character does something complex (like crack a funny joke.) It is sometimes so surprising that you can't help but laugh out loud.
The plots of the first season are textbook sitcom fodder, including the guys' dating troubles, getting a pet, problems at work, and other traditional stories, though each one is accompanied by something of a morale, of varying obviousness and seriousness, like a live-action version of the old "G.I. Joe" codas. But that's certainly not why anyone tuned in. The show's characters are its bread and butter, and not just Balki and Cousin Larry. The supporting cast gets a good deal of play, including the guys' overbearing boss and his wife, the Twinkacettis, and the guys' love interests Jennifer (Melanie Wilson) and Mary Anne (Rebeca Arthur) (Larry's platonic pal Susan was faded out early on.) Mary Anne is particulary entertaining as the standard ditzy blonde, though Arthur takes the stereotype to a whole other plane, serving as a female counterpart to Balki's goofball nature.
While the series is much funnier than anyone might remember, there are some stumbling points. The character of Cousin Larry is an utter ass, who is so easily dismayed by even the smallest amount of trouble that it's impossible to think he could accomplish anything in life, especially get a girlfriend like Jennifer. To root for him almost feels icky. Balki doesn't get away clean either, as the attempts to burden him with catchphrases cheapens the character-driven comedy. Each "Don't be ridiculous" is like nails on a chalkboard, while his accented singing of '80s pop hits is too cute for its own good. These stand out against the more nuanced comedy in the rest of the show, but sadly, it's the cheaper gags people remember. What they may not remember is how somber the show could get in each episode's final scene, as Larry or Balki learns a life lesson. They can be such a dramatic 180 from the show's laughs that they feel like they belong on another series.
The 28 episodes that make up the first two seasons of "Perfect Strangers" are spread over four DVDs, which are packed in two slipcased dual-hubbed clear ThinPaks (with nice two-sided covers that have episode descriptions and cast lists. The discs feature static anamorphic widescreen menus with options to play all episodes, select shows and adjust languages. There are no audio options, while subtitles are available in French and English. There is no closed captioning.
The full-frame transfers on this set aren't awful, but they aren't going to knock anyone over either, looking as old as they are. The colors are pretty bold, especially in the garish '80s clothes, and reds blur a bit, while the image overall is soft and lacks in fine detail. Aside from a few episodes with odd compression issues along the top edge of the video ("Falling in Love is..." being the worst offender) there's nothing much wrong with the transfers, though any outside scenes shot on film, namely the opening credits, suffer from a good deal of dirt and debris. Thankfully, the quality improves as you get further into the set, because for a DVD, the first season looks more like one of my old VHS tapes.
The audio is straightforward, delivered as Dolby Digital 2.0 tracks, but don't expect anything more than a right-down-the-middle presentation that keeps the dialogue clean, though for some reason the sound effects, including audience reaction, is excessively loud. The show's fantastic theme song, the very '80s "Nothing's Gonna Stop Me Now," sounds terrific as well.
I don't know what the "Dance of Joy" featurette is supposed to be, but the featurette has many clips from the first two seasons of the show. A theme? Not to be found. A purpose? Just as obscure. It's just overkill after watching the set and adds nothing for fans of the show. It doesn't even focus on the series' famous jig, and namesake of the featurette.
The Bottom Line
Perfect Strangers is by no means a perfect show, as time has taken some of the comedy punch out of the series, but the slapstick comedy, amusing writing and excellent teamwork of Pinchot and Linn-Baker makes a formulaic sitcom more fun than it really deserves to be. The DVD set is adequate, but hardly impressive, with an OK presentation and one meager, directionless extra. A rental should be enough for most people, who really ought to check this series out whether for the first time or once again.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.