SQUARE PEGS: The Like, Totally Complete Series…Totally DVD Review

     May 14, 2008



Reviewed by Brian Orndorf



THE SHOW



Lauren: “I’ve got this whole high school thing psyched out. It all breaks down into cliques.”


Patty: “Cliques?”


Lauren: “Yeah, you know. Cliques. Little in-groups of different kids. All we have to do is click with the right clique, and we can finally have a social life that’s worthy of us.”


Patty: “No way! Not even with cleavage.”


Lauren: “I tell you, this year we’re going to be popular.”


Patty: “…Yeah?”


Lauren: “Yeah. Even if it kills us.”



In one of those extraordinary zeitgeist moments of pop culture, 1982 was something of a banner year for teenagers to be represented in the media. The gold standard was set with the August release of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” but the television series “Square Pegs” had more time to explore the early-80s plight of the awkward American teen. Only here, a reflection of reality was tempered by a desire for laughs.



Entering their freshman year at Weemawee High School, best friends Patty Green (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Lauren Hutchinson (Amy Linker) are hungry for popularity, hoping to break into the hipster clique, run with an iron fist by valley girl Jennifer DeNuccio (Tracy Nelson), her thug boyfriend Vinnie Pasetta (Jon Caliri), and African-American BFF LaDonna Fredericks (a dreadful Claudette Wells). Finding Patty’s glasses and Lauren’s braces a hindrance to acceptance, the forlorn girls find comfort in Weemawee’s other social rejects: future stand-up comic Marshall Blechtman (John Femia) and dim new waver Johnny Slash (Merritt Butrick). Together the teen losers spend their weeks trying to achieve acceptance, only to routinely fail, forcing them to pave their own unique way through the nightmarish high school experience, lorded over by pep-powered Muffy Tepperman (Jami Gertz).



Here’s the dirty little secret “Square Pegs” holds: it’s an awful show.



Created by former “Saturday Night Live” writer Anne Beatts, “Square Pegs” is a single-camera comedy program looking to cash-in on the booming, edgy teen culture of 1982, but written in a style more suitable for a Lucille Ball sitcom. It’s rarely funny, features some truly detestable performances, is often mean-spirited and borderline racist, and has some of the clunkiest timing I’ve ever seen on television. On the air for less than a single season, “Square Pegs” was a flash in the pan; a “Saved by the Bell” without the florescent gloss and melodrama. At times, it’s downright unwatchable. So what could possibly make this DVD a worthwhile purchase?



Well, “Square Pegs” also happens to be an enchanting time capsule of a specific era, with enough retro pixie dust sprinkled over the proceedings to often forgive the abhorrent production quality. That might be damning the program with faint praise, but “Square Pegs” is a kick to watch at times, whisking the viewer away to a slightly less complicated era of teenagerdom; you know, just before the internet ruined everything. The show is undemanding, direct, and riddled with relics of the moment, and for those reasons alone, “Square Pegs” is worth the effort to watch.



After a pilot episode fueled with the lustful wishes Patty and Lauren hold for hallway supremacy, “Square Pegs” took off in a myriad of directions over the course of its short 19-episode run. Perhaps Beatts grew tired of her heroines, since the adventures of the awkward lead girls were quickly set aside to follow the more colorful (and dated) supporting characters and musician cameos that contributed greatly to the show’s enduring legacy as a pure shot of ’80’s cheese.



The cast is truly a mixed bag when deconstructing “Square Pegs.” Certainly Parker and Linker share a common bond of geeky enthusiasm the show molested to great effect, while also looking the part of slightly nerdy outcasts, yet their energy grows toxic quickly. The same could be said of Butrick’s punk-detesting, new wave-adoring Johnny Slash (“It’s a totally different head…Totally.”), whose pursed lips and borderline mentally-challenged routine grows thin immediately on contact.



The finest moments of the show belong to Femia as the impression-loving, one-liner machine Marshall, who steamrolls over the rest of the cast with his enthusiasm and gawky professions of love for Lauren. The actor perfectly encapsulates the line between earnest and annoying, while also remaining in charge of the show’s more witty references and love for edgy comedy. Nelson also deserves kudos for her take on ice queen indifference as Jennifer; introducing America to the cutting ways of the privileged valley girl, wielding “like, totally” as though it were a sniper rifle.



As mentioned before, “Square Pegs” was radical evening entertainment in 1982, riding the popularity of new wave to speak to younger audiences more directly. There’s pleasure to be found in the show’s refusal of melodrama, instead marching ahead with slapstick and cultural references to keep the show as light and snappy as possible. It’s the quality of the material that’s debatable: all the Ronald Reagan references, Devo performances, and “Facts of Life” mentions in the world can’t save the show from a deadly pace, puzzling depictions of high school strife, and a laugh track so bafflingly frail and ill-timed, it’s a wonder why they even bothered at all.



Well, at least there’s a fantastic theme song from The Waitresses to savor.



EPISODE LIST (Synopses taken from packaging)



Disc One



“Square Pegs Pilot”


At Weemawee High, freshman Patty Greene and Lauren Hutchinson vow to click with a popular clique. Meanwhile, Patty attracts the attention of a cute senior.



A Fonzie and “Jaws” reference kick off this pilot episode, which closes with a performance by The Waitresses.



“A Cafeteria Line”


When Patty snags the romantic lead in the school’s homage to “A Chorus Line,” she starts to believe that her leading man Vinnie may actually like her.



“Pac-Man Fever”


After budding comic Marshall becomes obsessed with a video game, his friend Johnny Slash plans an intervention with help from Marshall‘s favorite comedian.



Video games invade network television! A cameo by Father Guido Sarducci!



“Square Pigskins”


Patty and Lauren get roped into playing all-girl football by gung-ho LaDonna. But LaDonna’s best friend Jennifer isn’t thrilled about it.



Seriously, who told Wells she could act?



“Halloween XII”


When pep committee leader Muffy convinces their teacher Ms. Loomis to host a slumber party on Halloween, the girls are targeted by a possible stalker.



A very strange “Halloween” homage runs throughout the episode, but the highlight here is Marshall‘s hilarious Doug McKenzie costume.



“A Simple Attachment”


Marshall sends away for a “love detector” and plans to use it on Lauren. But Weemawee’s social order is thrown into chaos when the gadget goes haywire.



“Weemaweegate”


Inspired by Watergate, school reporters Patty and Lauren try to uncover who might be trying to sabotage Vinnie’s campaign to become the school mascot.



My, how Native American sensitivity has changed over the years.



Disc Two



“Open 24 Hours”


Johnny Slash gets songwriter’s block after Marshall books his band their first gig – performing at the opening of a supermarket’s new deli counter.



Doors drummer John Densmore cameos here as a member of Johnny’s band.



“Muffy’s Bat Mitzvah”


Muffy’s “new wave” celebration is Weemawee’s hottest ticket. When Devo cancels, Muffy enlists Johnny’s band to fill in. But then she finds out Devo can make it after all.



The famous Devo episode. Perhaps the hipster highlight of the entire series, the boys offer a pleasingly Devo-ish performance of heavy electronics and staring. Plus Johnny Slash gets a full-court-press from a cougar at the party. An extremely strange episode.



“Hardly Working”


When Jennifer is forced to get an “uncool” job due to the recession, Muffy spots a new cause and plans a telethon for Jennifer, with Marshall emceeing.



For reasons unexplained, the writing starts to grow hostile toward Lauren here with an outbreak of fat jokes that continue on for the rest of the series. Very distasteful.



“A Child’s Christmas in Weemawee (Parts 1 and 2)”


After Lauren makes plans for them to crash all the popular holiday parties, Patty finds out she has to spend Christmas with her estranged dad. Lauren then has trouble getting into the holiday spirit without her around.



Perhaps the closest the show even came to drippy sentiment. Plus a Tony Dow cameo.



“It’s All How You See Things”


Lauren convinces Patty to remove her glasses so she will attract guys; but then Patty trips at Muffy’s bake sale and breaks Lauren’s leg.



“Merry Pranksters”


Patty and Lauren think pulling pranks will increase their popularity. However, after the duo graffiti the hallways, Vinnie gets the credit and the blame.



Disc Three



“It’s Academical!”


While competing on a local TV quiz show, Patty and Muffy also compete for the attention of their attractive teammate.



“The Stepanowicz Papers”


With the janitor out sick, his handsome son fills in and has an immediate effect on all the girls in school, particularly Lauren and Ms. Loomis.



“To Serve Weemawee All My Days”


Popular teacher Mr. Donovan may be fired from Weemawee High due to his “unconventional” teaching methods and “radical” lifestyle. The gang takes a cue from the ’60s and stages a sit-in.



“No Substitutions”


The hip new substitute teacher is popular with everyone. Jealousy rears its ugly head when the teacher favors Patty over Lauren.



Easily the best episode of the series, with guest star Bill Murray stomping all over the set as the spirited sub. Big laughs and creepy sexual tension are in large supply, and Murray breaks the series out of its stale comedic habits.



“No Joy in Weemawee”


It turns out Johnny Slash has a hidden talent. He can hit a baseball out of the park every time, and even gets scouted by Los Angeles Dodger Steve Sax.



“The Arrangement”


Jennifer and LaDonna mysteriously invite Patty and Lauren to Vinnie’s party. Convinced popularity is finally within reach, Patty and Lauren soon discover the invitation comes with a price.



THE DVD



Visual:



The full frame presentation of “Square Pegs” is far more generous than expected. We’re talking a cancelled show from 25 years ago, yet the image is remarkably clean, with only a few defects cropping up here and there. Detail is terrific, and the color blast that the show was known for is nicely preserved.



Audio:



The 2.0 Dolby Digital track isn’t much to get excited about, and oddly smothers the soundtrack selections, keeping the music levels down. Matters improve with stage performances, and dialogue is kept crisp and easy to follow.



Subtitles:



French subtitles are included.



Extras:



“Weemawee Yearbook Memories” are a collection of new interviews with the cast of “Square Pegs,” asking each of the participants to ruminate about their time on the set and the show’s unexpected endurance.



Sarah Jessica Parker (15:38) is heavily edited and glammed up, but she chats about: the audition process and the difficulty moving from New York to California to work on the show; how she related to Patty as a student and person; the connection between Patty and Parker’s “Sex and the City” character Carrie Bradshaw; and how “Square Pegs” was groundbreaking television.



Tracy Nelson & Claudette Wells (25:14) are interviewed together, to showcase their friendship which has lasted since the series ended. The duo discuss: the complications lighting different skin colors; their inexperience in front of the camera; where Tracy found Jennifer’s voice; the experience working with an irritated Bill Murray; how Wells found out about the show’s cancellation; and Tracy‘s least favorite day on the set.



Jami Gertz (19:14) is wearing more jewelry around her neck than Mr. T, but she’s an agreeable interview subject, recalling: her audition process; how her love for acting kept her away from more “professional” vocations; more wild Bill Murray stories; her friendship with Parker; and how the show kicked off her career.



John Femia (9:03) looks nothing like his younger self, but his goofy sense of humor hasn’t changed a bit. Femia reminisces about: his original reading as Johnny Slash; the transformation Marshall underwent from computer nerd to class clown; his isolation on the set; how people mistake him for Screech; and his admiration for Parker’s career.



Steven Peterman (10:56) played “cool” teacher Rob Donovan. Peterman shares thoughts on: his casting as a “sympathetic adult;” his extensive history with sitcoms; the age differences on the set; and working with the acting novice known as Steve Sax.



Amy Linker (14:52) could very well be the most honest and anticipated interview offered on this DVD. Linker reveals: her anxiety with teen stardom; how she shared rides with Crispin Glover; how much she and Lauren were alike; her regret that Lauren’s braces were not real; how her youth ruined the fun of being on the series; and the in-jokes enjoyed between her and Parker.



Meritt Butrick (8:46) died from AIDS in 1989, leaving this segment a tribute to the fallen Johnny Slash. All the talents offer thoughts on Butrick, sharing warm stories about the actor on and off the set.



Anne Beatts (16:36) offers a more behind-the-scenes perspective, talking up: the origin of the series; her difficulties working in a male-dominated industry; how the actresses found their look; where “Weemawee” came from; how she stumbled upon The Waitresses; and how authentic high school behavior and fashion was a critical component to the show’s artistic success.



Trailers for “Blonde Ambition,” “My Mom’s New Boyfriend,” “The Other Boleyn Girl,” “Sawwariya,” and “The Final Season” are offered.



Finally, “minisodes” (a.k.a. worthless short clips) for “The Facts of Life” and “Silver Spoons” are included.



FINAL THOUGHTS



Nostalgia is a funny thing. It can make rusted metal shine like silver, and it certainly helps to make “Square Pegs” digestible. Eventually the ’80’s mold of wasted teen years would be perfected in the seminal show “Freaks and Geeks,” but “Square Pegs” remains an important cog in the genre. It’s a worth a visit just for the haircuts, fashions, and snapshot of youthful television network innocence, right before it was lost to relentless opportunism.



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