New Haven Register
October 26, 1986

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 compliment.

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.

In "Perfect 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.

"Perfect Strangers" 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.

In "Perfect Strangers," a foreigner's innocence is celebrated rather than itemized in one-liners.

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.