October 26, 1986
CUTEST OF THE SITCOMS
by Joanne Ostrow
The Denver Post
Situation comedy cannot help
itself; the manic form displays mood swings from unbearably simple-minded to
rather witty. While television drama plods methodically through one
mediocre hour after the next, sitcoms manifest wild highs and lows.
On the high end of the
spectrum is the proven (if exhausted) hit "Cheers." At the
moronic low end is "Amen," Sherman Helmsley's latest jive.
Between extremes is the cute zone, and for 22 minutes' diversion there is
nothing wrong with that. Applied to television, "cute" is a
The cutest of the current
crop is "Perfect Strangers," Wednesday night on ABC.
The premise: Culturally
opposite male cousins aggravate and educate each other to the tune of a laugh
track. Mediterranean sheepherder Balki Bartokomous moves into the Chicago
apartment of his yuppie American cousin Larry Appleton, and the resulting
culture clash rivals that of Mork and Mindy.
If the writing mirrored the
formulaic patter of most sitcoms, the premise would be a wash. But the
situation is rich enough and the co-stars strong enough to hold our attention.
Bronson Pinchot and Mark
Linn-Baker are funny-faced baby-boomers who look less like "stars"
than any other duo on the schedule. Yale Drama alumus Linn-Baker starred
in "Doonesbury" on Broadway; his breakthrough film role was "My
Favorite Year." Yale College graduate Pinchot's first feature film
was "Risky Business," followed by his scene-stealing as the art
gallery snob in "Beverly Hills Cop." He is currently making
bucks in coffee commercials.
Their chemistry is
remarkable, especially considering that the pair met at the screen test.
Strangers," they owe a debt to Patty Duke's identical cousins as well as to
Mork, Harpo Marx and a host of screen favorites. Their angry outbursts
mimic Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton, their physical shtick seems borrowed from The
Three Stooges, and their domestic disasters recall Lucy's.
Nobody said a formula had to
be new; it only needs a unique reading.
is unique in its contemporary tone, refreshing for its interjection of 1980s
urban reality between punch lines. The characters can be endearingly inept
without being stupid. Their humor flows from warmheartedness but never
deteriorates into corn.
"America! Land of
my dreams, home of the Whopper!" Balki exclaimed in the premiere last
March. He loves baseball, particularly sliding while playing right
field. His English is rough, his malapropisms rampant. He learned
not to be a quitter, not to "throw up the towel." But when he
finally got his driver's license in episode four, the studio audience
roared. Home viewers, too, want him to succeed in the land of his dreams.
The immigrant jokes are well
below the surface, unlike the raw stereotypical jabs in "What a
Country" (a new syndicated sitcom). Yakov Smirnoff has made a
brilliant stand-up comedy career out of cross-cultural weirdnesses, but his
sitcom debut in "What a Country" is less than promising.
Strangers," a foreigner's innocence is celebrated rather than itemized in
In the first six episodes,
Balki's innocence played well against the fussy impatience of his upwardly
mobile Midwestern cousin. While Pinchot was initially the star attraction,
Linn-Baker has developed slowly as a comic presence. Now the two are on
equal footing. Their characters work at a discount store for Twinkacetti,
an explosive boss, and their sparring is classic sitcom.
Conflicts steer clear of
topical humor, relying instead on personality differences. "You like
to jump into the swimming pool of life without even checking to see if there's
water," cousin Larry observed. "I like a life guard, a test for
algae, I dip my toe in and call it a day."
His caution and Balki's naive
enthusiasm are rubbing off on each other, of course, and the result is a
peculiar pride in America. As Balki's handmade sign reads in the opening
credits, "American or Burst." If nothing else, that tells you
"Perfect Strangers" is a literate show.