So much comedy on television is as lifeless as dead skin cells. Tired sitcom after sitcom. Sketch comedy shows where maybe one performer out of a cast of ten shows some promise. So, I am thankful for when Exit 57 creators Amy Sedaris, Steven Colbert, Mitch Rouse, and Paul Dinello came up with the concept of lampooning after school specials featuring protagonist Jerri Blank, who is a 46 yr old former drug addict (among other things), "a boozer and a loser", who has returned to high school for a fresh start in life. She is an odd mix of complete adolescent innocence yet informed with years of amoral street knowledge. So, as she undergoes the troubles off teen adolescence, she can go from our tread-upon sensitive victim to a lascivious villain in the blink of eye. And, boy is it funny.
Episode One: Old Habits, New Beginnings, Jerri tries to ingratiate herself with Flatpoint High's popular student Poppy Downs. Given the advice of "Go with what you know", she tells Poppy she can make drugs, the next day producing a green Vaselinelike substance called Glint (aka. The Devil's Hairlip). The Glint leads to Poppy's death and a manhunt for her supplier, or as Principal Blackman states when he interrogates Jerri, "Are you the one who supplied the drugs that tore the life from Poppy's frail yet popular body?" By the end, Jerri doesn't learn too much. Her closing line sums it (and the series) up, "I'm still doing the wrong things, but at least I'm doing them for the right reasons."
Episode Two: A Burdens a Burden features Jerri being given an actual 10 pound baby in Health Class so she can learn about motherhood. Naming it "Dizzy", her first thought is of its worth on the black market, and she is soon given a partner, Tammy Littlenutt with Jerri assuming the role of an abusive husband in their relationship. Episode Three: Dreams on the Rocks in this drunken parent parody, reminded of her faded glory as an actress, Jerri's stepmom turns to the bottle after Jerri is cast as "Mama" in the schools
all-white production of "Raisin in the Sun". With the help of her play co-star, Craig Snow, Jerri attempts a support group for children of alcoholics that meets in the basement of a bar and whose motto is- "Live and Let Blame". Episode Four: Who Wants Cake? (a personal fave) has Jerri turned snitch, spying on a fellow student to determine if she is retarded. As the libraries audio info tape, Retardation: A Celebration narrated by Wilford Brimley, teaches Jerri "The retarded don't rule the night. No one does..." and "...They all want cake." Episode Five: Bogie Nights. Jerri really likes the new kid, who everyone else doesn't because, well, he's new. She wants to invite him to the school dance, but doesn't want to be unpopular. Everyone suggests she take one of the violent students, the aptly named Spike Jabber.
Episode Six: Jerri is only skin deep. Jerri wants to be homecoming queen and rigs the competition so she is up against an equally ugly girl. However, since the girl is someone who is nice and everyone likes, Jerri must learn a lesson about "inner beauty." Episode Seven: Let Freedom Ring. Someone writes a racial slur on the school wall (guess who) and the only semi-witness is Paul Cotton. Jerri befriends Paul, both because he's cute and to see if he's going to rat on her. Paul becomes the subject of suspicion from the students and staff. Episode Eight: Feather in the Storm. Jerri wants to be on the debate team but is told she doesn't have the right body and "95% of debating is physical appearance. At this weight, your arguments are going to come off a little puffy." Naturally, to solve the problem, she becomes bulimic. Episode Nine: To be Young, Gifted, and Blank. History teacher Mr. Noblet discovers that Jerri is a violin prodigy. Intent on exploiting her talents, he becomes her obsessed Bobby Fischerish mentor. "I am the only one who can help you realize my dreams of yours." Episode Ten: The Trip Back. It is final exam week and Jerri's strong "D" grade means she could pass her freshman year. Then she begins hanging out with the school potheads, getting baked, and laughing at the surgery channel. Meanwhile, a narc is roaming the hallways of the school, further putting Jerri in jeopardy of failing.
When I first saw commercials for Strangers, I thought it looked like a weak over the top Saturday Night Live chracter getting a sitcom. Its Pat: The Series. But, when I actually took my friends advice and watched it, I found it was far more clever than that.
Strangers with Candy hits all the right notes in terms of parody and character comedy. It is silly, offbeat, irreverent, has great wordplay, and is full of little things added to the background, like the Chairman Mao or Stalinlike portraits of Principal Blackman that are all over the school. There are memorable lines in every episode, like, "It's worth all the whiskey in a drunkards dreams", "The only thing we hate more than a racist is spics.", "You're only as ugly as we think you are.", "Some of these retards are extremely clever.", and "You did better than good. You did gooder." I was pretty much raised with after school specials and the dawn of their monolithic peak with the episodic teen angst series Degrassi Jr. High. Anyone with a fondness for those shows and acidic comedy in general will find Strangers to be right up their alley.
The cast is just great. From Jerri's teachers, Principal Blackman, Coach Wolf, to the secretly love-locked wry history teacher Chuck Noblet (Colbert) and talentless art teacher Geoffery Jellineck (Dinello), to her put-upon stepmother (Deborah Rush), her perpetually frozen father, who never moves- a nod to after-school specials completely ineffectual fathers, and her antagonistic, latently gay, jock stepbrother Derrick. And then there is Jerri's two sole friends, Orlando and Tammy (an actress I admittedly have my only tv actress crush on) who stick by Jerri's side despite (or because of) their naiveté and lack of understanding what Jerri means by "that time I did a donkey show in Tijuana."
The DVD: First off, nice packaging design, the two DVDs come in a fold-out case with slipcover.
Picture: Full-Screen. Standard. Well, this DVD is a far cry from my poor worn out tapes of the show and its broadcast on my cable. While it wasn't the highest budgeted show and its look needs to maintain a certain drabness like its after-school inspiration, the DVD image is actually richer than I though it would be especially in terms of sharpness. Oh sure, the color and contrast isn't outstanding and the transfer has some artifacts, but in terms of how it looked on tv as compared to the DVD, fans should be very pleased to have crisper versions of the show to watch. (Or maybe I just have bad cable reception.)
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. Not being a show about audio dynamics you cannot expect much. That said, the audio is centered, crisp, and clear, presenting the show about the best you can expect. My only grumble is the lack of subtitling or close captioning, the latter being something the show had when it aired on Comedy Central. I mean, c'mon, the deaf need to laugh too.
Extras: Episode Selection--- Comedy Central "Quickies", clips form South Park and Crank Yankers. Very weak clips, actually.--- Disc One has Audio Commentary by Amy Sedaris, Steven Colbert and Paul Dinello on four episodes, Old Habits New Beginnings, A Burdens a Burden, Dreams on the Rocks, and Bogie Nights. It is a fairly good commentary, though there are lapses. Still they make some jokes, point out things that changed, some behind the scenes tidbits, though one wishes they were a tad more thorough or pre-prepared some comments about how they got together or how the episodes were written.--- Disc Two features the Original Unaired Pilot for the series and is an interesting look at how the show evolved. It was far more stylized in direction. Sedaris wig is a jet black Audrey Hepburn number. Her mother is different, both in character and the actress (who would end up playing the gym coach in the series). There is also a strange side-plot with Jerri working after school at the Fossilton Rehabilitation Center. Also, neat to see how many pilot gags would find there way back into the series.
Conclusion: I highly recommend the series to anyone with "offbeat" tastes in comedy. Like The Young Ones or Mr. Show, Strangers was a series that lasted just long enough to keep it from getting tired, something you cannot say for 99% of American sitcom television. The DVD presentation is good, with nice extras, and fair enough pricing. If you are a fan, certainly pick it up. The replay value is pretty high. All I can say is, bring on season two and please release Exit 57 on DVD too.