Perfect Strangers: A Christmas Story (1986) and The Gift of the Mypiot (1988)

Despite not having seen an episode since the early nineties, I actually remember Perfect Strangers fairly well. I recall the main characters' names, their relationships, and even the plots for several episodes. All that's a roundabout way of saying I was a little worried going into this - I have some lingering positive associations with this show from my childhood, and I was more than a little worried they were about to be shattered.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that wasn't the case. Overall, I found both these holiday-themed episodes enjoyable. More significantly, Lindsay - who's never seen an episode before and is thus free of the clutches of nostalgia - agreed.

All that being said, it's worth taking a moment to acknowledge the show's problematic aspect: Balki Bartokomous is an immigrant played by a white American using a heavy, intentionally absurd accent. He hails from the fictitious nation of Mypios, but for all intents and purposes he's Greek. All that is a little uncomfortable.

But there's another side to the coin. His character may be played for laughs, but he's also the heart, soul, and even the brains of the show. The series is telling the story of an immigrant coming to America and improving every life he touches. That doesn't excuse the jokes about "funny foreign things," but if you can overlook that (which will likely be harder if you're of Greek descent), there is something to be appreciated here.

A Christmas Story (1986)

This episode opens with Larry excited to be heading home for Christmas with Balki in tow. Just as they're getting ready to head to the airport, they find out their flight's been cancelled due to a blizzard. Larry becomes increasingly desperate to find a way home as the episode progresses, but buses aren't running and his car won't start.

Eventually, he gives up and sinks into depression. The third act revolves around Balki putting on a Santa suit and trying to cheer him up, only for his attempts to be angrily dismissed. Finally, Balki points out how selfish Larry's being - neither is able to spend the holidays with their families, but only Larry's refusing to make the best of what they have.

Between that and a generous handmade gift from Balki, Larry sees the error in his ways.

The Gift of the Mypiot (1988)

This episode focuses largely on Mr. Gorpley, Balki's supervisor. The character is widely despised by everyone at work, but Balki takes pity on the curmudgeon and invites him to a Christmas party. There's a fairly tedious section where Balki hedges on admitting this to Larry, who'd outright forbid Balki from inviting him.

Once the other guests arrive and learn Gorpley's coming, they conspire to keep him out, but Balki succeeds in getting him in. His behavior is no better than expected, though, so the guests swarm him and attempt to remove him with force.

Eventually, Balki calms them down, and Gorpley - in a display of defiance - reveals snippets of a hard backstory full of awful Christmases. Balki gives him a valuable present his mother sent him, and the gesture touches Gorpley deeply.

I've offered synopses without delving too far into the episodes' strengths and weaknesses because - despite being two seasons apart - they share most of the same merits and flaws. I've already hit on the biggest issue: the problematic portrayal of an immigrant by an American actor playing the character's cultural heritage for laughs. I'll add both had sections that fell a little flat. More of the humor worked better than I expected going in, but it was still hit-or-miss all the way through.

The episodes also had a similar structure and style. The characters (not just the main characters - all of them) were basically written like they stepped out of a cartoon. Emotionally, these were simple, childlike characters. Shockingly, I wouldn't describe this as a flaw. Normally, sure, but the show embraces this wholeheartedly and thanks to some solid performances manages to convey a sense of sincerity that sells the whole thing. Does it feel like a kid's show? Sure, but it feels like a compelling, sweet kid's show.


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