These ‘Square Pegs’ fit all along
A comedy about kids that was not made for kids but was not not made for kids, “Square Pegs” premiered on CBS in the fall of 1982; a quarter of a century later, it has come to DVD in its surprisingly modest, 19-episode entirety. But 9 1/2 hours is time enough to make a point, when you have one.
Starring authentically teenaged Sarah Jessica Parker and Amy Linker as Patty Greene and Lauren Hutchinson, unpopular high school freshmen trying to move from the outside to the in, the series was a precursor to, if not a direct influence on, such teen-weirdo comedies as “Freaks & Geeks” (set in the era in which “Square Pegs” was produced), “Malcolm in the Middle” and, lately, the underappreciated “Everybody Hates Chris” and “Aliens in America.” Created by Anne Beatts, the first female editor of National Lampoon (where she crafted the wicked ad parody “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be president today”) and an original member of the “Saturday Night Live” writing staff, “Square Pegs” had a bad attitude and a good heart.
Teenage entertainment has always been mainly the product of people who are no longer teenagers. In the early 1960s and before, adolescence was typically portrayed on television as a mildly aberrational phase on the way to a well-integrated adulthood. It was all milkshakes, sock hops and “Dad, can we talk?” In the ‘50s-obsessed 1970s, the corpse of this fantasy was revived as “Happy Days,” still in its decade-long run when “Square Pegs” went on the air.
By that time, even as the actual country was slipping into the lulling narcosis of the Reagan years -- itself a kind of ‘50s revivalism -- TV and film were being infiltrated by a generation whose own youth had been shaped, or unshaped, by the later 1960s. A new wave of teen flicks celebrated the discontent of adolescence, the outcasts and the ones who could not or did not want to go gently into the status quo, such as John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink” on the lighter side, and Francis Ford Coppola’s S.E. Hinton adaptations, “The Outsiders” and “Rumble Fish,” on the darker.
“Square Pegs” is the lively satirical embodiment of that spirit. It sacrifices likeliness for comment; most of what goes on at Weemawee High is improbable, and some of it is illegal, but the jokes still circle back to reality. Grounded in Beatts’ own teenage alienation, the show also looked out at the world: It’s full of topical references, underscored by such guest stars as Don Novello (as Father Guido Sarducci), Devo, the Waitresses (who also wrote and performed the series’ theme song), Dodger Steve Sax and Beatts’ “Saturday Night Live” pal Bill Murray, already a movie star, in a script-burning turn as a substitute teacher.
It was, unusually, a show dominated by women, on both sides of the camera. Writers included story editor Janis Hirsch (“The Nanny,” “Will & Grace”); Marjorie Gross (“Seinfeld,” “The Larry Sanders Show”); Beatts’ “SNL” writing partner Rosie Shuster (they created the Nerds together); Margaret Oberman, another “SNL” writer; Susan Silver (“Mary Tyler Moore”); and Deanne Stillman (now a busy journalist). (In an accompanying value-added interview, Beatts says that writer and co-story editor Andy Borowitz, who has since become a political humorist and stand-up comic, was hired to balance the scales.) Kim Friedman directed more than half the episodes.
Not surprisingly, the female characters are the richer ones, though they all begin, intentionally, in stereotypes. Patty (Parker) is the smart girl, more sensible than Lauren but also less sure of herself, making her ripe for her friend’s bad advice. Lauren, played by Linker in a fat suit and snap-on braces, lives in a romantic fantasy whose main outlet is Lauren -- living vicariously. There is a certain Lucy and Ethel-ness to their relationship, with Lauren the main author of harebrained schemes that will supposedly increase their popularity.
Their nemeses -- and the object of their social climbing -- are Jennifer DiNuccio (Tracy Nelson), built on Valley Girl lines but without the omigod!, and her friend LaDonna Fredericks (Claudette Wells), in the sassy black girl mode (“Halloween -- to me, white people in sheets is not a good time”).
LaDonna refers to Lauren and Patty as “that fat girl” and “that fat girl’s friend” -- there are, disappointingly, a lot of jokes made about Lauren’s weight and eating habits, even by Patty.
I love Nelson’s Jennifer, for the air of melancholoy that underlies the performances; there’s a sadness to her snobbery, as if she were resigning herself to a world that will never be quite good enough. This includes her thick but amiable boyfriend, Vinnie Pasetta (Jon Caliri), whom Lauren describes admiringly as “John Travolta, Sylvester Stallone and the Fonz rolled into slightly less than one.” But she bonds sunnily with LaDonna.
Jami Gertz, the second-best-known actress to emerge from “Square Pegs,” wonderfully plays oratorical, uptight junior varsity pep squad president Muffy B. Tepperman. Muffy is a vehicle for ironic political comment, a conservative stalking-horse given lines like “Too much open debate is bad for a free society” and a holy reverence for a textbook called, with double meaning, “The Forging of History.”
Patty and Lauren’s only friends, as far as we ever see, are class clown Marshall Blechtman (John Femia) and his “laid back and left back” constant companion, Johnny Slash (Merritt Butrick), a quiet oddball whose dark glasses, Walkman headphones and quiet manner would nowadays qualify him for an FBI watch list; we are meant to regard him as “new wave.” His catchphrase, “totally different head,” are the three words most will remember from the series. Although Marshall is intermittently portrayed as having a crush on Lauren and there is a daft, Harpo Marx-like sweetness to Johnny, they are essentially cartoons, in the manner of Lenny and Squiggy.
The series was not renewed for a second season, leaving Patty and Lauren outsiders into eternity -- which is the way you would want it, in any case. We never root for them to succeed in their quest to be popular, because they’re after the wrong thing and courting the wrong people.
There is a winning eagerness in Parker’s and, especially, Linder’s performances, but the show itself is in any case too satirical, too little concerned with real emotion, to make their success or failure mean much. But it does catch a basic human urge: the desire to be desired by strangers, more powerful in its way even than the satisfaction of being accepted by those who already love us for our ourselves.
That this has it backward is a lesson learned in nearly every episode, and forgotten by the next. And it’s what has kept “Square Pegs” fresh through the changing fads and fashions of the intervening quarter-century. That and the funny jokes.