To me, one of the most interesting shows to revisit is a show that failed but became the template for many other, greater shows to come. He & She, which I talked about a few weeks back, is a show like that, a one-season flop that didn’t have time to reach the heights of the later sitcoms that copied it. And another show like that is Square Pegs, a 1982-3 cult flop starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Amy Linker as two smart, geeky, awkward high school freshmen trying, and failing, to get into the school’s cool clique. Sony released the complete series on DVD today — we have SJP’s Sex and the City movie to thank for that — and it’s reasonably-priced for 19 episodes (including one hour-long special) and new interviews with the creator and nearly the entire cast, including Parker. This show has been borrowed from so much that it’s practically like watching the next 25 years of “teen” entertainment in embryonic form. Other reviews call it “An awful show”; I don’t. It’s not a great show, though it might have become one if it had run longer, but it’s a very important one, and quite fascinating to watch.
Square Pegs was created by Anne Beatts, one of the founding writers of Saturday Night Live; like almost all the other writers and actors, she left after the fifth season and went to L.A. looking for new worlds to conquer, and her agent suggested that she write a show based on her experiences as an unpopular smart girl in high school. So she did, and Square Pegs came out before Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club, before Head of the Class, before The Wonder Years, before Buffy the Vampire Slayer (the movie or the TV series), before My So-Called Life, before Clueless, before Freaks and Geeks, before Election, before Napoleon Dynamite, before the WB network started and before the WB network ended. There were very few high school shows of any kind; the TV adaptation of Fame had started earlier that year, but that was about a different kind of high school. And there was the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which came out after the pilot of Square Pegs was shot but before it was picked up, but that was about sex and drugs in high school (hence, Fast Times); it was, in a way, a brilliant comic take on a sub-genre of high school entertainment going back to Rebel Without a Cause, showing us the sordid truth about what really goes on in high school. Another type of high school entertainment was the show from the teacher’s point of view; this gave us The White Shadow and that first Bill Cosby show that nobody remembers. (He was a high school gym coach.) And then there was high school as pure comic fantasy, like Dobie Gillis (and why isn’t that on DVD, for Pete’s sake? It’s got Bob Denver, Warren Beatty, Tuesday Weld) — basically the old-fashioned college comedy transplanted to high school.
Square Pegs was something different at the time, though it doesn’t seem that way now. It was not about the seamy or sexy side of high school: Beatts recalls in her DVD interview that she was able to assure networks that the show wouldn’t have any untoward content because: “These girls don’t have sex and they don’t do drugs; they only wish.” It was not told from the teachers’ point of view and had few adult characters of any importance at all. It emphasized the idea that high school is about cruelty, heartbreak, and constant scheming to get in with the right crowd. The lead characters can’t get the boys they want and they don’t want the boys they can get. It is, in short, the template for the type of high school show that we have seen over and over again since then: the “bittersweet” high school show, where you spend 1% of your time studying and 99% of your time trying desperately to fit in with the cool crowd, where episodes always seem to be leading up to a dance at the gym, kids have unnaturally hip taste in music, and the stories usually end in failure followed by a little bit of life-goes-on uplift. If you compare the end of the pilot of Square Pegs (with guest stars The Waitresses, a New Wave band that did the theme song and also performs their own song “I Know What Boys Like”) with the dance-at-the-gym ending of the Freaks and Geeks pilot, while the shows are very different — for one thing, Square Pegs is a sitcom with a laugh track and Freaks is an hour-long dramedy — there are similar story beats and a similar idea of how to structure a story: your characters don’t get what they want, but they’re happy and smiling at the end because they make the best of what they have. “My life is over — I might as well dance with Johnny Slash” is a line that, filling in a different name, any character on any teen show after Square Pegs could have said.
As a show, Square Pegs is, like most sitcoms in their first seasons, notable more for its potential than for what it achieves. If it had been allowed to continue, it would have gotten better, and the excellent cast and writing staff would have developed the characters beyond the basic stereotypes. But first-year sitcoms are almost never as good as they can be, so what you’re seeing here is the blueprint for what could have been a great series, certainly not a great series in itself. (A digression here, but my theory is that shows that are very premise-dependent are usually at their best in the first season, while shows that are character-dependent are never at their best in the first season. A procedural show is often, not always but often, at its best in early episodes because the writers are using their best ideas early and the formula is still fresh and new. Whereas a sitcom, or a very character-dependent hourlong show like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, always improves in the second season when the characters’ relationships have developed further.)
It does have some real virtues that make it enjoyable. The topical early ’80s feel — one episode is about a character getting addicted to Pac-Man — is often seen as a fault, but I think it’s an advantage; most teen shows before and after were very culturally non-specific, and the fact that this is an early ’80s time capsule is, to me, a good thing. (One of my many problems with My So-Called Life was that it portrayed a teen culture that was so generic, like the creator really didn’t know or care what the ’90s were like.) Beatts was the first female show creator to assemble a mostly female writing staff, which, as she says in her interview, was problematic because there were so few female comedy writers at the time, and that gave the comedy a different feel from most shows of the time, if only because so much of the humour was from the point of view of female characters. And one other thing it has that most subsequent high school shows didn’t, and that I wish somebody else would try, is that it minimized — all but eliminated, really — the roles of the kids’ parents. Most high school shows always make the hero or heroine’s parents into important characters, necessitating a lot of scenes at the dinner table where the parents just don’t understand what high school is like today, subplots about the parents trying to get the groove back into their marriage, and so on. I don’t think it usually adds very much. This show had adults in it but it was almost like a Peanuts type of world, where the kids are living in their own self-contained world of school and after-school hangouts.
But then there are the flaws. These are mostly the usual first-season flaws: the characters haven’t moved beyond the basic stereotypes they started with, especially the cool kids, who display the same traits every time we see them: the “Sassy Black Girl” character LaDonna, the “Airhead Valley Girl” character Jennifer, the “Jewish American Princess” character Muffy. The production values are clearly cut-rate (you’re basically going to be seeing the same hallway and classroom over and over). And the plots aren’t the most interesting, though that’s partly because every teen show has used many of these plots — mock marriages as a class assignment, for example — over and over again after Square Pegs did it first. There’s also some “humour” that’s really downright icky: Guest star Bill Murray, playing a substitute teacher, invites the sassy black girl to dance by saying “Okay, chocolate lady, do your thing to me.” I can think of at least five reasons why he should have been fired or imprisoned on the spot.
And finally, there was the laugh track. This was a single-camera comedy in a time when the only popular single-camera comedy was M*A*S*H, and if CBS wouldn’t let them do without a laugh track, they sure weren’t going to let Square Pegs do without one. I don’t hate laugh tracks and don’t object to them for some shows (frankly I think M*A*S*H plays better with the laugh track than without it, because without the laugh track you notice how clunky a lot of the timing is), but the Square Pegs laugh track couldn’t have sounded more inappropriate if you dubbed in a crowd of rabid hyenas. You can’t do a gentle high school comedy when the laugh track keeps reacting as if it’s Alice and every line is “Kiss my grits.” (By the way, one scene in Square Pegs has characters arguing about what “Kiss my grits” actually means.)
So we’re talking about a show with a lot of potential, that was not given a chance to fulfil its potential, but nonetheless allowed other shows do do what it was trying to do in 1982-83. Just because you do something first doesn’t mean you necessarily did it best; in entertainment, in fact, it’s likely that the pioneer is not the best, because others can build on it, and the subsequent imitators have the advantage of learning from the successes and failures of the show that came first.
The show had a lot of New Wave-y songs played on jukeboxes and radios, making it one of the first teen shows to play contemporary music. The set preserves the performances by bands The Waitresses and Devo, as well as all songs sung by the characters. Most of the recordings are played at such a low level that it’s hard to know what they are, and I’m not an expert on early ’80s music anyway; Sitcoms Online identifies a scene where a Billy Idol song was replaced, but DVD Talk notices some real songs, by The Cars — so it seems like Sony has shelled out for most of the real music. The transfers are decent, sometimes grainy but they look as good as can be expected for a low-budget 1982 filmed show. The interviews are interesting and they get a lot of points in my book for showing long interviews with each person, rather than cutting them up into a “making-of” documentary. “Making-ofs” are always the same; it’s much better to just give us each interview as a separate (if edited) unit.