The Pittsburgh Press
Fall 1986

Two Actors Make 'Perfect Strangers'
By Robert Bianco

Apparently, ABC thinks that good things come in pairs for "Perfect Strangers," its newest comedy.  The show has two stars, Bronson Pinchot and Mark Linn-Baker, and this week it returns to the schedule with two episodes, Tuesday at 8:30 and Wednesday at 8 p.m. (its fall time slot).

"Perfect Strangers" tells the story of Larry Appleton (Baker), a small-town boy with a big family who has just moved to Chicago to make it on his own as a photojournalist.  Before he can unpack, Balki Bartokomous, a distant cousin from a fictional Mediterranean island of Nipos (sic), shows up looking for a place to stay in the New World.  Larry, of course, takes him in -- or we wouldn't have a series, would we?

Balki is the proverbial fish out of water, an innocent abroad for whom everything in America is brand new and exciting.  He's like Gracie Allen with a thick accent; underneath the fractured logic and optimism is an underlying shrewdness.

The show's three executive producers, Dale McRaven, Thomas Miller and Robert Boyett, say Balki was inspired by the Olympics in Los Angeles.  They thought a foreign character could constantly re-create the "it's great to be an American" feeling prevalent during the games.

But "Perfect Strangers" is really about two fish out of water -- Larry is as unprepared for life in the big city as Balki.  Balki bounds through life; Larry is like a tightly wound spring, ready to unravel at any moment.

As Larry says to Balki after a disastrous visit to a singles bar, "You jump into the swimming pool of life without even making sure there's water.  I check for water and a lifeguard, I test for algae, then I put one toe in and call it a day."  He is helped by Balki as much as he helps him; it's a nice balance.

In its enjoyable mix of comic situations, physical humor and broad characters, "Perfect Strangers" may remind you of "Mork and Mindy," "Laverne & Shirley" or "Bosom Buddies."  And well it should: Miller and Boyett worked on all three shows.

And like those shows, "Perfect Strangers" is a buddy show that works because of the talents of the buddies.  Initially, the producers say the networks weren't interested in their happy foreigner -- the idea sounded too similar to "Moscow on the Hudson."  It was only after they added the buddy concept, and hired Pinchot, that ABC bought the show.

Pinchot starred in NBC's short-lived "Sara," but is best known for his role as Serge, the haughty art gallery clerk in "Beverly Hills Cop" (who, by the way, was modeled after an Isreali make-up woman Pinchot knew).  Watch him sing "What's Love Got to Do With It" in that Third World accent while dancing with a feather duster, and you know he's a major find.

Baker, meanwhile, managed to hold his own against one of the screens greatest scene stealers, Peter O'Toole, in "My Favorite Year."  He gives the show a sane center, and together, they form TV's funniest male friendship.

Not that "Strangers" is perfect.  Balki has curious gaps in his American knowledge -- he knows about Burger King, Dolly Parton and "Nine to Five," but he's never heard of Levi Strauss and never seen a pop-top can.  His reactions are often funny, but if the writers don't control their tendency to go for the cheap, easy laugh at the expense of character development, the character will turn into a walking laugh track.

And the supporting characters are weak, the same flaw that helped destroy "Mork and Mindy."  Twinkacetti (Ernia Sabella), the boys' employer, is a heavy-handed humorless rip-off of "Louie" from "Taxi."  And their best friend, Susan (Lise Cutter), has been given little to do but smile and say, "Isn't he cute."

"Perfect Strangers" has no relevant social messages, though there is a moral to every story.  Usually Larry learns that Balki's benevolence is more to be copied than mocked, but the lessons aren't taken too seriously.

At one point, after both characters have been taught an important lesson in self-respect, Balki says, "Too bad we didn't learn it sooner, we could have gone to the movies instead."  Tuesday and Wednesday, skip the movies and try "Perfect Strangers."