“I told you, this year we’re gonna be popular.”
Square Pegs might have lasted only 19 episodes before its cancellation, but it was nonetheless well-liked when it debuted in 1982, and has a decent cult following today. It launched the careers of Sarah Jessica Parker (Sex and the City) and Jami Gertz (E.R.), guest starred big names like Bill Murray, and featured performances from the Waitresses — who also provided the theme song — and Devo.
Beyond that, though, the show was groundbreaking in an important way. It was among the first to depict girl nerds. Before Square Pegs, nerds on TV shows and movies were always guys. Square Pegs showed the world that girls can also wear unflattering glasses, be socially awkward, and spend every Saturday night dateless. Without Square Pegs, there never would have been a Lisa Simpson, or a Willow Rosenberg, or a Liz Lemmon.
Patty (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Lauren (Amy Linker, D.A.R.Y.L.) have decided that this year, their freshman year at Weemawee High School, will be the year they become popular, living the life of shopping, parties, boys, and fun, fun, fun.
Standing in their way are the actual popular crowd — the snobbish Jennifer (Tracy Nelson, Father Dowling Mysteries), the tough but dimwitted Vinnie (Jon Caliri, V) and the sassy, jive-talkin’ Ladonna (Claudette Wells, Barnyard). Also disapproving of our heroes is the always-perky Muffy Tepperman (Jami Gertz), chairperson of the school’s pep committee.
Patty and Lauren’s only allies in this class struggle are wannabe stand-up comedian Marshall (John Femia, Hello, Larry) and Johnny Slash (Merritt Butrick, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), who’s a totally different head.
Right from the start, it’s clear that Square Pegs is more than an ordinary sitcom. It’s filmed single-camera, as opposed to the in-front-of-a-studio-audience visuals of most TV comedies. This allows for a movie-like look, with the characters able to get outside and into different locations if the story demands it. Compare this to other sitcoms of the era, when characters rarely left their living rooms or classrooms. This makes the show a little more believable, which is saying a lot considering how goofy the plots are. The crowded high school hallways look like real crowded high school hallways (turns out they were), scenes in the auditorium are filmed in an actual auditorium, and so on.
Make no mistake, though, Square Pegs remains a sitcom at heart, with a lot of sitcom-ish plots, such as all the characters auditioning for the school play, appearing on a cheesy TV quiz show, or mayhem breaking out during a Halloween party. But don’t mistake this for a cookie-cutter show. This series is a nearly perfect time capsule for 1982-83. Episodes are loaded with pop culture references from the time. For example, one episode has a running joke about the Budweiser Taste Buds, referring to a commercial that I don’t think anyone remembers. Stuff like this happens throughout the entire series. And let’s not forget everyone’s hair and clothes are extreme 1980s as well.
Is the show funny? I’m going to say yes, with the caveat that it’s more chuckle-inducing than it is belly laugh-inducing. Each character has one or two traits that get milked for laughs every episode — Vinnie is dumb, Jennifer is self-absorbed, Johnny Slash is weird, etc. That being said, the series also depicts a heightened reality of sorts, which lends itself to over-the-top plots such as Marshall building a futuristic love detector, the girls starting an all-female football team, or joining the school newspaper as “Woodward and Stringbean” to investigate a mystery. Pretty much anything goes in these characters’ crazy word, so when Devo appears to play at a Bat Mitzvah, it isn’t questioned, but accepted as part of yet another goofy misadventure for Patty and Lauren.
The titular “pegs” have an interesting friendship. It appears that Lauren in the one with the true desire to be popular, and yet most of her plans to do so involve Patty. This sets up a dynamic where Lauren has to convince Patty to agree to some scheme to get “in” with the cool girls. As the scheme inevitably backfires in some ridiculous way, it’s Patty who gets the brunt of the humiliation, with Lauren watching from the sidelines. And yet, they remain friends by the end of the episode. Although it appears at times that Lauren is just using Patty for her own purpose, it’s clear that their friendship is stronger than a crazy scheme. This is mostly due to the performers. Both Parker and Linker play their characters with such earnestness, it’s hard to believe they are anyone but the two socially awkward but still likable girls we see on the screen.
Then we have the cool crowd, the reigning titans of Weemawee High. Hey, remember that song, “Valley Girl” by Moon Unit Zappa? So did the Square Pegs writers, because the Jennifer character is quite obviously modeled on that song. Her dialogue is randomly peppered with “like” and “you know” as often as possible for maximum comedic effect. Jennifer is also requisite mean girl, often making cruel put-downs at Patty and Lauren’s expense. There are a few times, though, that Tracy Nelson lets the character’s humanity shine through, and we see a girl terrified of losing her boyfriend and/or her social status. Vinnie and Ladonna don’t benefit from as much character work. Too often, he’s just there to make the standard “dumb guy” joke, and she’s there to make the standard “sassy black girl” joke.
Muffy exists in a strange place in between the two groups. She’s not a friend of the cool girls or the nerd girls. This means she is someone in the school that both groups can make sarcastic comments about. Somehow, being annoyed by Muffy is what unites the two groups. Muffy’s annoyingness is the great peacemaker, apparently. (Maybe they should send Muffy to the Middle East on a mission of pep.) Unlike Jennifer, though, we never get to see Muffy’s human side. There are never any cracks in her non-stop “pep” persona, which does indeed make her character a little on the annoying side when watching several episodes in a row.
The girl nerds aren’t the only nerds in this show. On any other sitcom, Marshall would be “the nerd,” but here, he’s a supporting nerd. His “unfunny stand-up comedian” shtick gets tiresome quickly, but he gets some of those human moments as well. He has a crush on Lauren, which gets played out in some episodes. He also proves himself a good friend for the girls overall, always backing them up on whatever kooky plot they have brewing.
That, ladies and gentlemen, brings us to the one, the only…Johnny Slash!!!
How to describe the greatness and glory that is Johnny Slash? He’s twitchy and kind of awkward, and he sometimes has a look of fear or bewilderment when caught up in the middle of each week’s adventures. And yet, he’s also supremely cool. Always armed with his sunglasses and walkman speakers, Johnny Slash is all about the music. He’s always there to remind us that he’s not into punk, but new wave. It’s “a totally different head.” That’s Johnny Slash’s catch phrase, and as the series progresses, pretty much anything is “a totally different head” in his eyes. He’s a fun, unpredictable character, and he provides a lot of the show’s retro charm.
Square Pegs suffers from the worst comedy device in the history of bad comedy devices — the laugh track. It’s supposed to help us laugh along with the comedy on screen, but, instead, it’s a distraction, and actually takes away from the jokes. An alternate track without the fake laughs would have greatly improved this DVD set.
All 19 episodes are here in a three-disc set, and they look excellent despite their age. All the colors are appropriately bright and vivid. The 2.0 sound doesn’t boom like a 5.1 track would, but it doesn’t have any distracting flaws. The highlight of the extras is “Weemawee Yearbook Memories,” which are interviews with the entire cast, as well as creator and executive producer Anne Beatts (Saturday Night Live). These are excellent, with discussions of the casting process, story ideas, production anecdotes, and more. A segment about Merritt Butrick, who died of AIDS in 1989, features the rest of the cast reminiscing about working with him. There are also bonus episodes of two other ’80s comedies, The Facts of Life and (ugh) Silver Spoons.
As straightforward comedy, Square Pegs is sometimes hit or miss. The real fun of the show is as a nostalgia item, where it rocks and rolls with pure ’80s pop culture awesomeness.