OK, I've got this whole Square Pegs review thing totally psyched out. It all comes down to rambling on about my freshman experience for a few paragraphs, before mentioning that even though Square Pegs was ultimately just a sit-com, it was also a sincere, heartfelt cultural marker that was way ahead of its time, and too good for this world. No way it was that good, you say, not even with cleavage! But it was, friends, it was.
And now, finally, Gen-X'ers can relive some cherished memories that are sure to be better than their real memories of high school, as Sony Pictures Television has released all 19 24-minute episodes (including the 48-minute Christmas episode) on DVD in the 3-disc set, Square Pegs: The Like, Totally Complete Series ... Totally. The series aired for one year during the 1982 - 83 season, exactly one year before I entered high school, so maybe it wasn't completely on the money for me, but it sure gave me a ton to think about, pretty much dictated who I thought was cute in real life, as well as provided me with my first substantive role model, the awesome Johnny Slash.
Square Pegs follows two freshman girls, Patty (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Lauren, (Amy Linker) as they attempt to navigate teen social waters from dork-dom to popularity. Frequently clashing with pep-queen Muffy, (Jami Gertz) ultra-popular Jennifer (Tracy Nelson) and LaDonna (Claudette Wells) and Jennifer's boyfriend Vinnie, (Jon Caliri) the girls aren't helped by their outcast friends, new-waver Slash (Merritt Butrick) and class-clown Marshall (John Femia). Ensuing are a series of topical sit-com setups that both aim for non-serial facility that the average Joe Couch-Potato can enjoy, but which were also trenchant and spot-on in their knowingness of the high school experience - not to mention being subversive and dryly hilarious.
As a shot-on-location single camera television show, Square Pegs possesses a depth and veracity no other sit-coms can match. Soundstage sets like those on Saved By the Bell, etc. just can't compare with the sight of dozens of teens meandering down a long, asbestos-tiled hall lined with lockers. It's this three-dimensional quality that makes Pegs seem so real; even when Lauren and Patty are talking in class, principals and bit-players are always in the background, either reacting or doing their own thing. It's a lot of literal depth in service to stories that effortlessly combine cheap yucks with genuine emotion. Consider Lauren's weight, (something that was never an issue for me, as I thought she was adorable then and still do) many laughs come on the back of her eating habits, low blows that hint at but never overtly address any impact that issue might have.
And brilliant casting is what brings to life these pedestrian (though totally realistic) scenarios, such as; the drama teacher puts on a play; Lauren breaks her leg; Jennifer gets an after-school job; Johnny and Vinnie compete to be team mascot, etc. SJP and Linker are perfect as a pair of BFF geeks who'll do almost anything to get in with the in crowd or find senior boyfriends. Parker's bookish earnestness - sweet and na´ve but self-possessed nonetheless - makes one wish she'd never become a glamour queen (no offense, though, the wife and I love Sex and the City!) Meanwhile Linker's wide-eyed moxie makes a savory counterpoint; the girls seem like real friends who could get into a lot of trouble whether via desperate ingratiation or whatever else might have become of them. Femia's mini-Groucho Marx thankfully comes tempered by charm - he's the type of kid you'd go out of your way to avoid (so many lame jokes!) even though you know he'd be your most faithful friend. Merritt Butrick (R.I.P.) crafts Slash with delightful twitchy man-child earnestness. As the grain defying new-waver he's the oblivious rebel-against-nothing I wished I could have been (and in fact modeled most of my freshman year after - even to the extent of wearing a skinny gray leather tie with Japanese flag motif.)
My crush, though, is Nelson as Jennifer Di Nuccio, the Valley Girl fashion plate too cool for school, or, like, anything except the mall. Like pretty much every other cast member, she wasn't the obvious choice. She certainly doesn't look like Farrah or Heather Locklear, but her doe-like eyes, Romanesque nose and pouty lips still strike me as gorgeous, and float her ' I don't care' sarcasm and detachment on a lake of wounded mystery. She's a standout among standouts, modeled not after Moon Unit Zappa, but real life Valley Girls she knew long before the song became a hit. She always seems to be having a great time, even when, like, bored to tears, and it's her enjoyment, as well as that of everyone else on screen, that really makes Square Pegs a joy to watch.
In addition to a fabulous cast, Square Pegs also features a number of excellent cameos in a short time. Bill Murray does his bit as a substitute teacher. Martin Mull guests as a teen quiz-show host. Father Guido Sarducci does a walk-on. Drummer for The Doors John Densmore plays in Johnny Slash's band, and later when we discover Slash is a baseball slugger, Dodgers star Steve Sax scouts him. Devo plays for Muffy's bat mitzvah, and of course The Waitresses (creator of the catchy theme song) play at a high school dance. It's like a who's who for 1982!
As far as comedy goes, Pegs isn't a laugh-a-minute sit-com modern viewers would recognize. Most of the humor is derived from the way the students react to each other, as opposed to easy or prurient one-liners in the vein of Two And a Half Men, for instance. There is plenty of subversive, far from PC stuff to enjoy; the history teacher's constant reminiscence of his days as a pothead for instance, or racial cracks based on the Native American Weemawee mascot or LaDonna's blackness, (none of which are really offensive, mind you) but the best stuff is reserved for the kids' deadpan sniping at themselves or each other. And of course 25 years-on the topicality of the show is positively quaint, with numerous shots at Reaganomics, weird things called computers, and Pac-Man. But comedy is only half of the package, with the rest being a type of primer on how to survive school and keep friends through near-daily changes; as an out-dated time capsule, Square Pegs is a Gen-X gem.
In the end, the Square Pegs story is a tragedy: a show that would have ideally run four years was cut short by suits who didn't like the weird autonomy that location-shooting in Norwalk, CA afforded the show's creators (a setup that also reportedly fostered on-set drug use and shielded an inexperienced staff). How awesome would it have been to see what happened to Lauren, Patty and the rest as they came into their own before graduation? (And how much harder would it have been for Reese Witherspoon to steal her entire Election shtick from the character of Muffy Tepperman?) But it's probably not cool to get all nostalgic for a little high school sit-com. Like, gross me out the door, OK? I won't even get into asking for Tenspeed and Brown Shoe. But thanks to show creator Anne Beatts and Sony Television for the rad gift of Square Pegs. Now if only I could find that leather tie and my linen sports coats ...