Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Square Pegs: A Review

Decades before Sex in the City, Sarah Jessica Parker won a degree of renown for her leading role in the CBS television sitcom Square Pegs. A time capsule of the early Eighties, or at least some version of it, the show is nearly forgotten today. Adding a degree of cred, it was created by former Saturday Night Live writer Anne Beatts. Beatts brought along to her new project the tinted and toned photographic montage she'd used for the first several seasons of SNL’s introduction. She also wrote the screenplay of roughly a third of the first and only season.

Though occasionally willing to think outside the box, Square Pegs in many ways is a conventional teen sitcom. Those that followed in years to come were edgier, tighter, and more realistic. A decade later, the ABC network sitcom My So-Called Life pushed the envelope for the whole genre, focusing on realism rather than easy laughs. Roughly around the same time, MTV gave rise to a popular animated series, Daria. Square Pegs mines similar sitcom territory common during its time, including horrible one-liners, awkward teenaged romantic interludes, and lots of talk about boys.

This series passes the Bechdel test, for the most part. Much conversation involves boys, but its primary obsession is popularity. Daria’s main character and Angela Chase of My-So Called Life could care less about their social status. Popularity is not stressed, or if it is, it is mocked. The anti-hero pose of protagonists reflects the social norms of a different era. In Square Pegs, best friends Patty Greene (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Lauren Hutchinson (Amy Linker), are two awkward teenage girls desperate to fit in at high school.

In this day and age, punks and new wavers circumnavigate the periphery, though most kids dress the same as everyone else. One of the regular cast, Johnny "Slash" Ulasewicz (Merritt Butrick), proudly identifies as new wave, down to the skinny ties and solid color shirts. Arcade games are the showcase of one episode, a reminder that there was a time where Pac Man and Donkey Kong were the obsession of many teenagers.

The band The Waitresses, best known for their song “I Know What Boys Like”, contribute the theme song for the series. During the pilot episode, they are featured in person at the tail end of a school dance. Like this show, The Waitresses are nearly a cultural afterthought today, though at the time they were a promising group. New Wave bands had a relatively short shelf life, even the witty, sarcastic ones.

Only Sarah Jessica Parker rose towards greater fame, and hers did not occur overnight. Here we see her at age sixteen, not yet a scene-stealer, but with great potential. She holds her own with the rest of the cast. She would have fit well into the brat pack of a John Hughes comedy, her immediate contemporaries. Where she would not have fit well is the cornball pre-adolescent Saved by the Bell, which aired a few years after Square Pegs’s twenty episode run was canceled in 1983.

Unusual for its time, the writing of Square Pegs was completed almost exclusively by women. Being that the two main characters were female was part of this unusual distinction, but not all of it. Young women on screen are usually the most active participants, though the roles of male characters are equally crucial to the action on screen. Though at times a few scenarios are silly and fatuous, the show retains just enough veracity to keep the attention of its audience.

The best way to describe Square Pegs, from episode 1 to episode 20, is cute and gentle. A few situations involve race, but these are glancing blows without moral platitudes. Teen melodrama is the show’s bread and butter, as is the convoluted relationships between heterosexual couples, since apparently queer characters didn't exist then. It should be said that the series was filmed 32 years ago. The sweetly jovial is the pervasive mood. There are no best friends with drug addictions or unwanted pregnancies. What we see before us is escapist fun, never intended to be deep and complicated.

Today’s audience might find it a fascinating historical document. I was two years old when Square Pegs was showed, far too young to watch it myself. Speaking honestly, I see us now in a more cynical media age that began in the 1990’s and has continued since then. The same cute jokes were no longer enough, and audiences were no longer willing to suspend their disbelief. We clamored for the real world, and as much as the small screen ever could, it gave it to us.

See for yourself. The full series is released on October 21.

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