I’m not punk, I’m new wave. Totally different head. Totally. — Johnny Slash
I’d like it if they liked us, but I don’t think they like us. — Square Pegs theme song, The Waitresses
To say that most early- and mid-’80s sitcoms resembled processed cheese is, on reflection, an insult to processed cheese. Even Velveeta may have tasted fine at one point in time. But there’s just no nutrition or joy to be had on catching up with Facts of Life in adult life.
Fortunately, the same can’t be said for Square Pegs, a little sitcom about misfit teenagers that ran for about 19 episodes in the 1982–83 season, and then promptly disappeared from view, leaving behind only fond but fuzzy memories for geeky Gen-X’ers and occasional source material for ’80s’ trivia questions. Looking at the show now over a quarter of a century later (in a long-overdue DVD release), it may not stand to be counted among television’s great shows, but for a show that premiered in the same season as epic, youth-skewing cheese like Knight Rider and Silver Spoons, Square Pegs is practically Playhouse 90 by comparison.
The rare ’80s show that treated adolescent outsiders as its stars instead of comic punching bags, Square Pegs followed the travails of a pair of gawky geeky girls who wanted nothing more than to be accepted by their high school’s in-crowd. Evincing a bright spark of perfectionism that would often elude her in later roles, Sarah Jessica Parker played Patty Greene, a nerd with big glasses and an acid tongue. Her best friend is Lauren Hutchinson (Amy Linker), fitted with one of the most frightening sets of braces ever witnessed (for an entire season, no less) by any television audience. In dialogue that runs over the opening credits for every episode, Lauren lays out to Patty her plan for social domination: “This year, we’re gonna be popular … Even if it kills us.”
The foils for Lauren and Patty’s rise to popularity are a trio of cooler kids. They’re led by the ne plus ultra of Valley Girl chic, Jennifer DeNuccio, played by Tracy Nelson as a hilariously blank-faced, blank-minded, gum-popping mall rat who can frequently make up entire lines of dialogue out of “totally”, “like”, and “you know”. As a consolation prize, Patty and Lauren have a couple of male sidekicks, one being the great “Johnny Slash” (the sublimely spacey Merritt Butrick), who natters on in non sequiters when not listening to his Walkman.
What’s refreshing about Slash is not just that he’s a music freak of a kind rarely seen on network TV (he hangs out at a record store mostly so he can talk with a guy there who used to roadie for the Clash, and later in the show forms his own quite convincing New Wave band), but that he’s sweet. In a medium (sitcoms) where actors are often little more than mechanical spouts for one-liners of cruelty or cuteness, Slash’s innocent demeanor stands out with a rare kind of vulnerability.
An outlier to the cool/nerd conflict is Muffy Tepperman, an ultra-peppy busybody embodied with a preternaturally mature brightness by a seventeen-year-old Jami Gertz. Always sucking in her cheeks with disapproval at her fellow students’ lack of school spirit, Tepperman also provides the impetus for the show’s musical highlight.
Determined to throw a bat mitzvah like nobody’s ever seen — it should also be noted that at a time when network TV barely acknowledged any ethnicity or religion, except occasionally when it was a Very Special Episode, basing an entire episode around a bat mitzvah was ground-breaking in a small way — Tepperman enlists Devo (playing themselves) as the entertainment. (In the battery of cast and crew interviews that comprise most of the DVD set’s extras, it’s the rare one who doesn’t reference the Devo cameo with wide-eyed nostalgia and amazement.)
With moments like that — not to mention cameos by the likes of Fr. Guido Sarducci and Bill Murray, an entire (lame) episode devoted to Pac-Man fever, and all the Valley Girl slang — Square Pegs can very easily be slotted into the nostalgia industry’s profitable ’80s category. But even given its easily dated references, and occasional missteps (the canned laugh track is not only horribly timed but entirely unnecessary) there’s certainly more going on here than the viewing of a cultural time capsule, even disregarding the big hair and theme song by The Waitresses.
Show creator Anne Beatts was a long-time Saturday Night Live writer, from a time when the show still had its anarchic ’70s energy. Her influence is clearly felt in the surprisingly funny material (crafted by a number of SNL vets), which took its viewpoint as the outsider looking in, something not often done in a medium and time that emphasized conformity above all.
In effect, the show can be seen as a bridge between the previous decade’s National Lampoon “slobs vs. snobs” comedic style (Animal House, etc.) and the modern nerd-comedy genre that had its roots with John Hughes (Sixteen Candles came out two years after Square Pegs began) and later fully bloomed with Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks in 1999. Not every sitcom would have one of its stars, after hearing somebody quip “boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses,” grumble, “Thank you, Dorothy Parker, for ruining my life.”
In the final analysis, it shouldn’t be held against the great Andy Borowitz, who wrote material for several Square Pegs episodes, that he then went off to work on the far inferior (but far more popular and long-lasting) Facts of Life. After all, at the time, the assembly-line manufacture of televisual processed cheese was pretty much the only game in town.