Monday, May 29, 2017

One size does not fit all


One of the pitfalls in revisiting TV shows from the past—alluded to in the famous Peter DeVries quote at the top of the blog—is that some series simply aren’t as good as you might have remembered.  I have found this to be the case with many of the cartoons I dutifully watched as a young sprout, though I surmise that this is by design: kids will watch any kind of crappy animation provided there is some semblance of movement.  (Some of these cartoon shows that immediately come to mind are The Mighty Hercules, Cool McCool, and Milton the Monster; on the live-action side, I was disappointed that Sledge Hammer and The Greatest American Hero weren’t as great as when I watched them initially—though I still think Robert Culp’s character on Hero was a 24-karat gem.)

As such, it came as a most pleasant surprise when, after purchasing Square Pegs: The Like, Totally Complete Series…Totally recently at Oldies.com, I watched the show in its entirety (totally) over the weekend and was delighted at how well it still holds up.  (Oldies.com still has a few copies available at $4.98—and these are the original 3-DVD sets that came out in 2008.  The 2-DVD Mill Creek reissue is also available…but for $7.98.   I am nothing if not S-M-R-T when it comes to shopping.)  I was a huge fan of this sitcom during its original run in the 1982-83 season, and was a bit bummed when I learned it was not going to be picked up for another year because I thought it was a bright, funny look at high school angst.  (I suppose, in retrospect, that I should not have been surprised a smart series like Pegs was cancelled too soon…there’s a reason why we call that device “the idiot box.”)

Amy Linker, Sarah Jessica Parker
But on the off-chance that anyone reading this was cryogenically frozen during its original run, Square Pegs was the stirring saga of two young girls entering their freshman year at Weemawee Penitentiary High School: Patty Greene (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Lauren Hutchinson (Amy Linker).  Patty was, according to the write-up TV Guide gave the series in its 1982 Fall Preview issue, “the smart, skinny, nearsighted one” while Lauren was “the one with baby fat and braces.”  The girls wanted nothing more than to “click with the right clique and we can finally have a social life that’s worthy of us,” as viewers were reminded in a voiceover that opened the show each week.  (Patty: “No way—not even with cleavage!”)  “This year we’re going to be popular…even if it kills us,” Lauren assured her pal.  This quest for popularity would prove to be a daunting task.

Jon Caliri, Tracy Nelson
Pourquoi est-ce donc?  (Tish!  I spoke French!)  Well, the girls quickly found themselves at cross purposes with the high school’s popular clique, made up of vacuous Valley Girl Jennifer DiNuccio (Tracy Nelson), her BFF LaDonna “L.D.” Fredericks (Claudette Wells), and Jennifer’s none-too-bright boyfriend Vinnie Pasetta (Jon Caliri), memorably described on one occasion by one of Pegs’ characters as a “walking gland.”  Shunned by the “in crowd,” Patty and Lauren were forced to associate with misfits like themselves: class clown Marshall Blechtman (John Femia), who had an endless repertoire of bad celebrity impressions and jokes to go with them, and Johnny Ulasewicz (Merritt Butrick), whose fondness for New Wave music earned him the nickname “Johnny Slash.”  (People often mistook Slash for a punker but he emphatically insisted that New Wave was a “totally different head—totally.”)  The remaining member of this motley bunch was Muffy B. Tepperman (Jami Gertz), the annoyingly vivacious preppy who was constantly imploring her fellow classmates to show the proper school spirit (she was chairperson of Weemawee’s “Pep Committee").

Linker and Parker
Created and produced by former National Lampoon/Saturday Night Live writer Anne Beatts, Square Pegs premiered in the fall of 1982 to positive critical buzz and very impressive ratings in its debut time slot Monday nights on CBS (though its competition was formidable: the popular ABC [non]reality series That’s Incredible and NBC’s Little House: A New Beginning).  Had the network kept the show around on Monday nights, Square Pegs might have continued for a season or two (Little House was in its last year, and CBS had a fairly strong Monday lineup despite M*A*S*H also calling it quits).  But the show shifted to Wednesdays later in the season, where its lead-in was the terrible Zorro and Son (Beatts notes in a segment included on the DVD collection that’s when she knew there was little hope for her creation), and the network was also discouraged by the small numbers in male viewership (which was one of the reasons why Beatts persuaded Bill Murray to guest star in one episode…more on that in a bit)—the fact that it was popular with practically every female member of the viewing audience was of little comfort to them. 

Merritt Butrick, Parker, Jami Gertz, Linker, John Femia
After the show’s May 1983 cancellation, TV Guide published an article entitled “Anatomy Of A Failure: How Drugs, Ego, And Chaos Helped Kill A Promising Series.”  I don’t believe the piece is online, but it is referenced in this well-written article by Gwen Ihnat at the A.V. Club.  I remember reading the TV Guide article at the time of publication and thinking there was something mighty hinky that—save for Beatts, who acknowledged: “I think that certainly, there was some drug abuse or drug traffic that may have happened, because I would say that that is norm for a set”—no one in the cast or behind-the-scenes would go on the record for attribution.  (You can argue, of course, that with minors on the set, folks might be a little reluctant to engage in a little cleansing confession.)  As to Beatts’ observation, Anne may have been thinking about the history of substance abuse on SNL, which has been soldiering on for over forty years now despite this pharmaceutical handicap.  (I also got a chuckle out of the “ego and chaos” mentioned in the article.  I mean, that must have been a first for show business, huh?)

Butrick
Many former members of the cast are interviewed in “where-are-they-now?” segments on the Square Pegs DVD collection (humorously titled “Weemawee Yearbook Memories”) and the drug abuse on the show is not remarked upon in any of those features either (which is certainly understandable; Gerald Casale, the bassist/synthesizer with Devo, recalled for Heeb in 2009 that he snorted coke with Jami Gertz and Sarah Jessica Parker in their trailers during the time the New Wave band guested on a classic episode, in addition to observing a lot of sexual activity).  But I’m not going to continue to dwell on the “sin and vice” aspect of Pegs because a) it’s boring, and 2) it doesn’t seem to have interfered with the truth that Square Pegs was a hell of a funny show.

The actors—and creator Beatts—are unanimous in their assessment that Square Pegs was a show that was ahead of its time.  I think in some respects this is accurate, but what I’ve noticed in many of the articles I’ve read about the series is that they ignore that Pegs was essentially an 80s version of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.  There are differences, to be sure; the protagonist (Dwayne Hickman) of Dobie Gillis wanted little more out of high school (and later life) than “a girl to call his own.”  Patty and Lauren on Square Pegs desperately strived to be popular, and the romantical aspect wasn’t quite as prominent (though some Pegs outings did play on the “puppy love” trope—Lauren gets a major crush on the hunky janitor in “The Stepanowicz Papers,” for example).  What both shows had in common was the notion that it was okay to be a non-conformist in an atmosphere that unceasingly pressures kids to be and think alike.

Parker, Linker, and Nelson
Johnny Slash was the son of Dobie Gillis’ Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver)—a spacey, sweet-and-innocent manchild who marched to the beat of a different drummer, and who listened to that beat through his ever-present set of headphones.  Patty Greene was a slightly-less-obnoxious Zelda Gilroy (Sheila James) in that while her intelligence may have posed a handicap where the opposite sex was concerned (in “It’s Academical,” Lauren convinces her friend she needs to “play dumb” if she’s to have any chance with a senior on the quiz bowl team), any guy would be lucky to be with such a bright, funny girl.  Jennifer DiNuccio wasn’t as devoted to the pursuit of money as Dobie Gillis’ Thalia Menninger (Tuesday Weld), but she was every bit as superficial and drop-dead gorgeous (Jennifer was already being looked after—her father owned a successful auto dealership—but in one of my favorite episodes, “Hardly Working,” she’s forced to become a waitress at the gang’s hangout due to slumping sales brought on by the Reagan recession).  The dynamic of the popular and unpopular kids interacting with one another was present on both sitcoms; Dobie and Chatsworth Osborne III (Steve Franken), for example, normally didn’t travel in the same social circles but when they did it made those episodes of Dobie Gillis that much funnier—the same is true of Square Pegs, with the episodes in which the cliques must form “alliances” (“Working,” “A Cafeteria Line,” “To Serve Weemawee All My Days”) being the ones that remain in the memory.

In case you thought I was kidding about the Dobie Gillis comparisons.  Femia and Butrick strike familiar poses.

Caitlin Adams
Square Pegs even had funny teachers like Dobie Gillis.  In the place of Dobie’s Leander Pomfritt (William Schallert) and Ruth Adams/Imogene Burkhart (Jean Byron), you had history instructor Rob “Lovebeads” Donovan (Steven Peterman), popular among the students because of his unconventional teaching methods (there was a running gag on the show in which Donovan would reminisce about his “radical” college years and always stop short when he was about to mention his partaking of weed).  Caitlin Adams played Allison Loomis, a liberated feminist (her area of teaching expertise varied from episode to episode) who was bitter about her ex-husband and hilariously called her class to order by running her fingernails down the chalkboard (the girls have a slumber party at her house in “Halloween XII,” another favorite of mine).  The principal, Winthrop Dingleman—you can probably guess what unfortunate nickname he was saddled with—was portrayed by sad sack actor Basil Hoffman as a golf-obsessed authoritarian, and Craig Richard Nelson turns up in several episodes as John Michael Spacek…who, despite the usual drama teacher stereotype, was married and had several kids.

The Pegs cast pose with Devo
Unlike Dobie Gillis, Square Pegs chose not to focus on the characters’ parents too much (preferring to reference them in jokes) though there were two exceptions: Leave it to Beaver’s Tony Dow plays Patty’s divorced father in “A Child’s Christmas in Weemawee”—a Yuletide-themed episode that ranks as the show’s low point (they try to stretch a half-hour show into an hour, with disastrous results; also, too: because this episode was split into two for syndication, it’s assumed there was twenty total episodes in the entire series when there was really just n-n-n-n-nineteen).  They fared better with introducing us to Muffy’s parental units in “Muffy’s Bat Mitzvah” (the Devo episode); character veterans William Bogert and Marj Dusay are Alan and Beverly Tepperman (Dusay also played the snooty ma of Lisa Whelchel’s Blair Warner on The Facts of Life—so this was a walk in the park for her), and as a bonus we get Dena “Mother Nature” Dietrich as Muffy’s hip aunt.  (Aunt Vida is quite taken with Johnny Slash, and much hilarity ensues.)

The cast of Hello, Larry (shudder)
I loved all the Square Pegs characters except for Marshall—it’s not that I found him pestiferous (I was the same kind of kid in high school, a pop culture-obsessed wiseass), it’s just that I wasn’t a fan of the actor who played him; I remembered John Femia from the loathsome sitcom Hello, Larry—a show I despised with the intensity of a thousand white-hot suns despite the presence of Kim Richards.  But my favorite character on Square Pegs was Jami Gertz’s Muffy Tepperman, chiefly because my graduating class was packed to the rafters with Muffies, male and female.  I thought Muffy hysterically funny because of her cluelessness (in one episode, she responds to one of Marshall’s barbs with “I’m going to ignore that…because, frankly, I don't get it”) and considered her one of the show’s most intriguing personas in that, unlike Pegs’ protagonists of Patty and Lauren, Muffy wasn’t motivated to be accepted socially—she was just driven by her constant need to take charge.  There was also an interesting streak of villainy in her character; in “To Serve Weemawee All My Days,” it’s Muffy who stirs up trouble (as head of the “Morals Club”) by trying to get Mr. Donovan fired when it’s revealed that outside of class he’s in a relationship with an unmarried woman (quelle scandal!).

"People..."
Addressing her classmates with an elongated “People…” and punctuating her vocabulary with “It behooves me to say” and “It’s incumbent upon me,” Muffy was also at the center of one of Square Pegs’ funniest running gags: her tireless fundraising efforts on behalf of “Rosarita,” Weemawee’s “adopted Guatemalan child.”  By the time “Hardly Working” aired, Muffy was soliciting fundage so that Rosarita could get cable television, and when Patty inadvertently lets slip to Muffy that Jennifer’s having to take a job waitressing she laments to Lauren: “When’s the next flight to Guatemala—I hear they have cable now.”  (Muffy goes completely over-the-top by organizing a “telethon” to help Jennifer out—something that meets with Marshall’s enthusiastic approval because it appeals to his show biz ambitions.  I’d like to think that had there been a second season of Square Pegs the show’s writers would have gotten around to fashioning an episode where we would be presented with a more vulnerable Muffy.)  Like Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City), Jami Gertz had a prolific acting post-Pegs acting career, appearing in such films as The Lost Boys (1987) and Less Than Zero (1987) and sitcoms like the schlubby-guy-with-a-hot-wife Still Standing (2002-2006) …but nothing ever made me laugh harder than the actress’s turn as Tepperman.  (“Why are you calling that woman Muffy?” my mother asked one night as she was watching 1996’s Twister, in which Gertz plays Bill Paxton’s girlfriend.)

Bill Murray's character (here with Gertz and Steven Peterman) has a lot of fun at Muffy's expense (calling her "Muffin," "Muffler," and "Mothball") in "No Substitutions"...but Gertz reminisces that Murray called her "Chicago" when not filming and that he let her road-test his rented Mercedes.

Claudette Wells (with compact), Butrick, Gertz
Bill Murray plays a substitute teacher (he’s an actor who teaches in-between thespic gigs) in “No Substitutions,” which is inarguably Square Pegs’ finest hour.  He pairs up the kids in Ms. Loomis’ class in a “marriage experiment,” much to Patty’s dismay because Lauren ends up wedded to Vinnie while she remains single (“Great—you get to marry Vinnie Pasetta, and I get to learn life can be cruel…I could have learned that in gym.”).  Murray’s Jack McNulty offers to “marry” Patty, which makes Lauren jealous…and that jealousy spreads to Mr. Donovan, who resents how quickly the kids have made McNulty the most popular teacher on the Weemawee campus.  Now, having Bill Murray guest star on any episode of any sitcom would reap tremendous comedy benefits (Nelson recalls that Murray never did scenes a second time in the same way, and Beatts laughs when she relates how the actor called her up the night before shooting to tell her he was incarcerated in a Tijuana jail…yet he was actually calling from Los Angeles) but this episode is also falling-down funny because the stick-up-her-ass Muffy is paired off with the laidback Johnny Slash, much to her undisguised contempt.  After four days of misery, McNulty agrees to divorce the students—something Muffy is delighted about, but Johnny is mortified (“I think we ought to have a baby”).

Square Pegs' pop culture references (this one is from "No Joy in Weemawee" -- you might have to enlarge this to get the extra joke in the byline) have been frowned upon by a few critics...but a classic movie fan like myself finds them irresistible, with sequences riffing on everything from Frankenstein to The Godfather.  In fact, the funniest bit in the terrible Christmas episode occurs when Patty has a vision of herself in her dad's ice fishing cabin, devouring a shoe like Chaplin in The Gold Rush.

Square Pegs never had the luxury of a “series finale,” but the last episode, “The Arrangement,” is a pretty good capper to the sitcom.  Vinnie wants to throw Jennifer a six-month anniversary party, but he’s not going to get that opportunity if he doesn’t pass a crucial math test.  Jennifer and L.D. prevail upon Patty for help, and Patty agrees under the proviso that the two girls treat she and Lauren like people and not “lint” …and that they also get invited to the shindig.  (On Pegs, LaDonna always called Lauren and Patty “that fat girl” and “that fat girl’s friend.”  Muffy’s pet nicknames for the duo were “Stringbean” and “Fang,” but seemed blissfully unaware that L.D. referred to her as “that loud-mouthed girl.”)  Lauren can’t fathom why Jennifer and L.D. are being so nice to her (Patty has refrained from clueing her in on their deal), and their moment of social solidarity ends when the two popular girls tell our heroines at Vinnie’s party to amscray usterbay.  The dejected girls wind up at Johnny’s place, where they watch TV with Slash and Marshall…and then the cool band that played at Vinnie and Jennifer’s soiree shows up, because they’re friends with the Slashman.  “Arrangement” is an excellent example of Pegs’ underlying message that high school popularity is not the end-all and be-all.  I’d rather hang out with Patty and Lauren than the shallow and self-absorbed Jennifer and LaDonna.

Nelson's short, Pat Benatar-like haircut didn't pass muster with Anne Beatts...so she had to wear a wig "that looked like a squirrel."  Wells took the time to get hair braided and beaded...and wound up having to also wear a wig because the beads were the wrong color.  (Hair issues.)

Nelson and Wells, circa 2008
I mentioned earlier that there are interviews with some members of the Square Pegs’ cast included on the DVD set; I think it’s sweet that Tracy Nelson and Claudette Wells do their segment together because like their characters, they later became the best of friends (they explain they bonded because of “hair issues”).  (There’s also a nice tribute to Merritt Butrick—“Johnny Slash”—from those who participated; Butrick passed away in 1989 from toxoplasmosis and AIDS-related complications.)  What amused me about these segments is that all the interviewees (not too surprising coming from Beatts, who used her own matriculating experiences as the spark plug for the series) seem to identify with the Patty and Lauren characters and admit that they, too, were “square pegs” in high school—just once I’d love to see someone blurt out “Yes, I was phenomenally popular in high school; I spoke fluent cheerleader and made the other students’ lives a living hell.”  (If you think I’m exaggerating about my outsider status during “the best years of my life,” I have people who will sign affidavits as to my geekdom.)  Square Pegs would later pave the way for similar high school series like Freaks and Geeks and a gazillion lame Disney Channel sitcoms, but there’s a reason why I never embraced the cult show My So-Called Life like its devoted fan base—I’d seen teen angst portrayed much better on the earlier Pegs…and in a much funnier fashion, too.

6 comments:

Bill Crider said...

I loved this show, and I placed my order. Thanks for the tip.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

Mr. Crider looked up from the book he was writing:

I loved this show, and I placed my order. Thanks for the tip.

Bill, if my efforts help you to part with your hard-earned money...then my work here is done. On, Concord!

Rich said...

I never would've dreamed in a million years that a show like SQUARE PEGS would have even been on your radar, much less something you'd watch. Thank you for this.

rnigma said...

I had the Waitresses' album "I Could Rule the World if I Only Had the Parts," which I bought for "Christmas Wrapping"; it also featured their theme to "Square Pegs." The inner sleeve had the lyrics to all the songs except for the "Pegs" theme (there was a note that read "We're really busy right now, so make up your own words.")

Oh, and it's "Sex and the City."

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

rnigma grabbed the megaphone:

Oh, and it's "Sex and the City."

Yes, but mine is funnier.

Scott said...

This slipped under my radar (because it's a sitcom, and I hate the very word and all the horrors it represents) but my sister is a tasteful consumer of the form, and I remember her loving, and quoting this show at the time. But then, she was a geek who attended a high school run by bitchy rich girls and graduated in 1982, so she was about as good a representative of the target audience as you're likely to find (besides Ivan, of course).