I was in 8th grade when the television show Square Pegs premiered in the fall of 82 and became an instant hit with the Gen-X crowd. Rather than sending us off to the School of the Performing Arts and thereby implanting dreams and fantasies of stardom in our little minds (which was also a fun escape), Square Pegs was set in our young 1982 realities. Kids in my class talked about it constantly, and the girls started saying “like” and “totally” regularly, despite the fact that we lived in New York—like, the totally opposite coast from where the valley girl phenomenon began. But add to that the popularity of the Moon Unit Zappa song “Valley Girl” and the movie of the same name, and 82 and 83 would be forever marked as the “Valley Years” in my school history book. Gag me with a spoon—because I totally loved it.
In fact, Square Pegs seems like it may have been the inspiration for so many 80s teen movies, including the John Hughes films that came after it. There are more new wave songs and references used in this short-lived series than there are in The Last American Virgin and Fast Times at Ridgemont High combined. The show’s resident valley girl Jennifer DiNuccio said “gross me out the door” a year before Deborah Foreman played an adorable ‘Val’ in Valley Girl. Jennifer also dropped the geek bomb nearly two years before the release of Sixteen Candles. Johnny Slash was hanging out regularly at a record store four years before Duckie in Pretty in Pink. And of course there are the constant battles between cool and uncool, popular and unpopular, themes also central to, you know, just a couple of John Hughes films (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Some Kind of Wonderful, Weird Science, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off…).
The great thing about Square Pegs is that all the main characters are likable and endearing. Jami Gertz is the preppy and snooty yet scatterbrained Muffy Tepperman, who is just as often the brunt of jokes as the geeks but a bit more oblivious to the fact.
Sarah Jessica Parker is perfectly cast as Patty, who really doesn’t care so much about how popular she is, but mostly humors her embarrassingly desperate friend Lauren, played by Amy Linker, whose delusional daydreams about being popular cause her to make self-centered decisions but also reveal just how insecure she is in her own skin. Marshall is so bad at his comedy act that he is the epitome of class clown (you’re more often laughing at him than with him)—a geek indeed, but so unaware of it that it actually comes across as cute. Johnny Slash is so cool in his “different head” as a new waver that you find it hard to believe he wouldn’t be embraced by supposedly bitchy val’ Jennifer DiNuccio and her friends. But Tracy Nelson plays Jennifer as partly naïve and ignorant, which softens her snobbery and also shows that she’s just as flawed as the others. Her boyfriend, proud guido Vinnie Pasetta, is never so tough to be threatening to any of the geeks, and is usually more than willing to talk to them. And Jennifer’s best friend, LaDonna, is the token black chick, totally on top of her game in that role, poking fun at racial stereotypes because she’s self-aware of being surrounded by a bunch of crazy white kids.
So bad it’s funny, or just too ahead of its time?
When I first watched my DVD set, I was shocked at how “cheesy” the show is, although I was absolutely in love with how 80s it is. I still am, having just rewatched the entire series again. But this time around, I listened more closely, and damn does this show have some seriously subversive and funny humor. It was absolutely targeting a teen audience when it was originally aired, but most of its funniest jokes were probably over all our heads back then. What doesn’t help is the ridiculous, inappropriately placed laugh track. The DVD would have been better if they had REMOVED the one-note laugh track. Shows like Scrubs are absolutely hysterical, and we’re never told when to laugh. This series could benefit from the same golden silence. Either that or replace the canned laughs with a REAL audience that could gasp in shock at the truly filthy moments of the show.
So exactly what are these subversive jokes of which I speak? The reason they aren’t so obvious is because most of the time they are being delivered by teenagers who are not trying to pause for comic effect or to let the joke sink in, but just talking like kids talk. You blink an ear, you miss the joke. There are obvious jokes, of course. In episode 1, we learn the principal’s name is Dingleman, and within minutes, Vinnie is calling him “Dingleberry,” which has Patty pointing out to Lauren how predictable that comment was, because of course an audience of that age was totally thinking it. Principal dingleberry—I mean, Dingleman—refers to a case of vandalism as “VD,” a surefire comment to get a giggle out of an adolescent audience. And in an arching storyline, Lauren crushes on a radical teacher who could very well be Sean Penn’s Spicoli character if he had became an educator, because he’s constantly slipping up and inferring how great it is to smoke pot.
The show is loaded with sexual innuendo not even heard on “racy” shows of the time like Soap or Three’s Company. A female teacher pushes for a girls football team, claiming it’s a male conspiracy to keep women from touching each other. In science class, Vinnie says he’ll puke if the teacher talks about crabs again. When Muffy solicits “a box with a slot in it” for student complaints, Vinnie throws her quite a perverted and sly look as he walks by. Vinnie suggests that the guys bring the “hot dogs” to a Halloween party. When Jennifer tells Vinnie her Christmas present “better be bigger than a bread box,” he hugs her close to him and drops a deadpan, “It is big.” Did we get this kind of humor at 12 or 13 years old? Probably not. Were our parents watching this teen show with us? Probably about as often as parents bothered watching Saved by the Bell with their kids in the 90s. So all this clever “adult” writing was being wasted on a bunch of kids. But that didn’t matter to us, because the adults writing the show were also incredibly tapped into the trends that made kids go gaga nearly 30 years before there was a Lady GaGa.
Were the 80s that obvious that early?
This is one of those shows that is SO aware of its place in time that it feels like it’s a satire of the decade rather than a product of it. It definitely brings me right back to that era, and what’s so cool about it is that its placement on the 80s time line lands right on the cusp of the explosion of the new wave phenomena on MTV and mainstream radio. When this show began in 82, new wave music was mostly heard (by very few) on “new format” radio stations that had just begun taking a risk and daring to be different. The number of new wave songs that had entered the upper pop charts had been minimal—songs by Blondie, The Police, Human League, The Go-Go’s, and Devo some of the few, which is why it was so cool for new wave character Johnny Slash to constantly point out that new wave was a “totally different head.”
But by September of 83, the one year anniversary of the show’s premiere, artists like Billy Idol, Kajagoogoo, A Flock of Seagulls, Duran Duran, After the Fire, Thomas Dolby, The Tubes, Men Without Hats, and Eurythmics were dominating the charts in the U.S. While many artists of the new music movement would remain staples only of alternative radio for years, the seed had been planted in my generation’s psyche. Even people who didn’t think they were into new wave were actually into it. Established artists dating back to the 60s were giving their music a very 80s, very electronic drum and synth based spin to score chart hits. And MTV of course took a foothold in 83, thanks in part to the draw of Michael Jackson.
Unfortunately, this is a landmark that Square Pegs never got to explore because it only lasted one season. By the time “Billie Jean” and “Beat It” were in heavy rotation on MTV in the spring of 83, all episodes of Square Pegs had already aired. In fact, even though MTV premiered in August of 81 and was already a hit with kids, from the day Square Pegs premiered a year later, and through its 19 episode run, it never mentioned the channel once! I can’t imagine they could have ignored its existence if the show had returned in the autumn of 83 for a second season! And would the show have embraced complete dedication to the 80s and worked the giant careers of MJ, Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, and Tina Turner into the show if it had continued on a few years more, even though none of those artists were new wave, the show’s defining characteristic? We’ll never know.
The new wave music is just the beginning of how 80s Square Pegs was. The fashions are out of control. Skinny ties abound, although lead character Lauren often sports a fat tie with her suspenders. Johnny Slash has a tail so long sprouting from the nape of his neck that he even has baby dolls hanging from it at times. He even runs for WeeMaWee High Indian mascot with hopes that the principal will finally let him get a Mohawk. Head bands, leg warmers, and Ray Ban sunglasses are other major fashions on the show, as well as Vinnie’s tight Jordache jeans. That was a sight for my 13 year-old-mind to behold.
Speaking of, 80s visual stimulation is all over the place on Square Pegs, waiting to tickle your senses. Johnny Slash is always wearing a walkman, and can even be seen manually rewinding a cassette. An entire episode (the third episode) is dedicated to comic-wannabe Marshall becoming addicted to Pac Man when a machine is brought into the school, along with an Asteroids and Star Castle machine. We are treated to authentic screens of the game as he plays, and at the end of the episode, Lauren finds herself drawn to a Ms. Pac Man machine. And what’s more 80s than Jennifer sipping on a can of saccharin-loaded, cancer-causing Tab?
How many 80s references can you count?
Name dropping is another big component of the 80s allure of the show. Muffy envisions a Poltergeist themed Bat Mitzvah, and Johnny references the film, saying “They’re here!” after Marshall’s eyes glaze over from playing too much Pac Man. Lauren and Patty, after playing a prank at school, fear they are going to be grounded until the release of Poltergeist 2 (which would become a film in 1986) or worse, until the release of E.T. part 12 (that film didn’t even get one sequel). And speaking of sequels, Vinnie (the lovechild of a threesome between, John Travolta, Adrian Zmed, and Joey from Friends) is eagerly anticipating the sequel to Saturday Night Fever, which is to be directed by one of his heroes, Sylvester Stallone (said sequel came out in the summer of 83, right after the show’s demise). Jennifer tells Vinnie to pick out his own clothes like Richard Gere in American Gigilo. Marshall, of course, ends up with Pac Man elbow, an epidemic that was as real as Rubik’s thumb for teens of the era. LaDonna tells Jennifer she has a lot more to offer Vinnie than Donkey Kong. Marshall imagines Muhammad Ali taking out the cast of The Facts of Life (a jab at what would become the most popular teen sitcoms of the 80s). And Johnny mentions making fish food from Pop Rocks (cruel but funny!).
Just Can’t Get Enough New Wave Hits of the 80s: Square Pegs
If only Rhino had released such a volume in their popular 80s CD series, much like they compiled a Valley Girl soundtrack years later. Square Pegs deserves a soundtrack—because it’s the soundtrack to a generation. Whoever was responsible for the musical decisions made on this show was way ahead of the curve, and the new wave-centric atmosphere could put most John Hughes films that would come a few years later to shame. Before I even get to the classic tracks used in the show, let’s talk about the posters that appear on the walls of the radio station at the school where Marshall and Johnny Slash spin all the hottest new wave records. This is just a list of the posters I was able to note throughout the season’s episodes:
A Flock of Seagulls
Fun Boy Three
Killer Pussy (a poster for the song “Teenage Enema Nurses in Bondage,” select words carefully covered by other posters for censorship)
Men at Work
Tom Tom Club
The musical references abound as well. When trying to get Johnny and Patty to write a song together for his band to perform at a grocery store, Lauren calls songwriters like Elvis Costello the poets of our time and points out that the Plasmatics sang jingles. Johnny Slash wears a B-52’s “Mesopotamia” shirt. Patty and Lauren translate “Valley Girl” into Guatemalan for the child that Muffy always talks about sponsoring. Muffy is forced to change the location of her Bat Mitzvah due to fear of slam dancing, the same reason Johnny Slash’s band is booted from Saturday Night Live. Johnny Rotten’s name appears in graffiti on a bathroom stall door. Eerily, in a spring episode, Jennifer mentions watching Marvin Gaye on Merv Griffin, which would have been only a little more than a year before his death in April of 84. Johnny Slash mentions knowing a roadie for the Clash, says the crowded diner (simply called “Grease” by the teens) reminds him of the Go-Go’s dressing room, and refers to Debbie Harry as the sexiest girl when asked. LaDonna describes Jennifer as a Pat Benatar without chipmunk cheeks (there were also Pat Benatar look-alikes referenced in Fast Times at Ridgemont High the same year) and complains about being dragged to four Olivia Newton-John concerts by Jennifer (this was just as “Physical” was about to tear up the charts). LaDonna also brings her Grandmaster Flash records to the Halloween party (to which Muffy makes a seriously early jab at rap that still exists today, asking why she didn’t bring any groups that sing). At the same party, Johnny wants to ask a Ouija board what the lyrics are to “Brass in Pocket” by the Pretenders.
It’s not all music talk at WeeMaWee. The new wave songs used in this show could fill a couple of soundtracks and were as important to its tone then as are the songs used in Glee today. Unfortunately, for the DVD release, the rights were not secured for a good amount of the songs used in Square Pegs. Is it really that expensive to license these songs—songs that appear on dozens upon dozens of 80s compilation CDs that sell for like 8 dollars? This is some spilled milk I absolutely will cry over because many of the original songs have been replaced by generic substitutions. I’ve been able to piece together some of the original titles used in the show that have been replaced on the DVD thanks to Google, but not all of them. First, here are the songs that are retained on the DVD:
The very first episode is pretty crucial, because The Waitresses actually appear on the show, performing both “I Know What Boys Like” AND the show’s theme song “Square Pegs,” both of which are intact on DVD.
In Episode 8, Johnny Slash’s band perform their own “original” song called “I’m Tired,” a pretty cool Devo-esque/B-52’s-esque track. Too bad there never was a Square Pegs soundtrack album released. “I’m Tired” may not be as cool as the awesome new wave song “The Gimme That” performed on Fame by Doris and Montgomery the same year, but it would still be awesome to have in my record collection. (how gay am I?)
Episode 9 is dedicated to Devo, who perform at Muffy’s Bat Mitzvah, so their songs are present. Johnny listens to “We Are Devo” while dying his hair pink and the band performs my all time favorite Devo song, “That’s Good,” at the party, with the entire cast actually dancing in rhythm to the song! Hot.
In Episode 12, Marshall is spinning in the radio station and introduces the song “He Could Be the One” by Josie Cotton (better known for her track “Johnny Are You Queer”), and the song is actually used on the DVD.
In the final Episode (technically Episode 19 since the Christmas episode was an hour and considered two episodes), several of the songs from Berlin’s awesome Pleasure Victim EP are featured, including “Sex (I’m A)” (just the intro), “World of Smiles,” and “Tell Me Why.”
That’s some major exposure for the band. Billy Idol’s “Come On, Come On” is also used in the episode, and the rockabilly band Jimmy and the Mustangs performs two songs (they never made it big even on the new wave scene, although they did have a record released).
That’s the good new wave news. Now for the bad no wave news. Here are some of the songs missing from the DVDs. If anyone has any info as to what I’m missing with these tracks, please leave me a comment to let me know. Thanks.
In Episode 1, there was originally a B-52’s song played outside the dance. Not sure what song was used (it may have been “Private Idaho,” my all time favorite song by them).
In episodes 2, 10, 14, and 17 there are scenes at the Grease that had different songs playing when the shows originally aired, replaced on the DVDs. Don’t know what the original tracks were.
In Episode 6, Marshall introduces two different songs by punk band Armed Response. I’m not sure if either is actually by Armed Response because I’ve never heard anything by them. In another episode, he introduces a Minor Threat track, but the track is not used on the DVD.
In the Christmas episode, “Christmas Wrapping” by the Waitresses was originally used. WHY they secured the rights to the two songs in episode 1 but couldn’t include this Christmas classic makes no sense.
In Episode 13, a song has been replaced in a hallway scene. Many have noted that the song on the DVD sounds like the Cars (it totally does), but I can’t imagine them getting the rights to a song by the Cars any cheaper. Or maybe it’s one of the Rick Ocasek solo tracks from that era. I’d have to listen to the song on the DVD and then skip through EVERY one of my Cars CDs to see if I can find it. Knowing me, I’ll probably end up doing that.
One scene at the Grease in Episode 14 originally used “Hot in the City” by Billy Idol, replaced by an unknown song on the DVD. Billy Idol’s “White Wedding” was used three times in Episode 16, now replaced. Again, they used one Billy Idol song on the DVDs (in the final episode) so why not get rights to all of them? The worst offender is replacing “Dancing with Myself” in Episode 17 with a slower song. If you watch the DVD, you can clearly see that the kids are all doing the typical white person skip-dance to the faster tempo of the Billy Idol song.
In Episode 18, the use of “The Metro” by Berlin during a scene at the Grease is replaced on the DVD, but again, WHY, considering they used nearly every other song from the Pleasure Victim EP in the final episode on the DVD? Was “The Metro” really that much more expensive to use?
Who didn’t have Vinnie Fever? (and other sexy boy moments of Square Pegs)
Yes, my 13-year-old mind was hot for Vinnie and his hot Jordache jeans when Square Pegs originally aired. The show definitely tried to paint him as the next Vinnie Barbarino (Welcome Back, Kotter) or Arthur Fonzarelli (Happy Days), with references to both John Travolta and the Fonz made in the show. Whenever Vinnie does something involving his body on the show, all the girls on screen hoot and holler. We get to see Vinnie pumping iron, and more importantly, dance around in a skimpy Indian costume when he is in the running to be the new WeeMaWee mascot. And in the Devo episode, Vinnie slips into some serious leather and chains! Wow. I’m surprised there was no reference made to the movie Cruising!
Not to be out-studded, our modest Johnny Slash also tantalizes with the flesh. He looks more like Billy Idol in his “Indian” outfit, with leather pants and a black tank top, but he is much more revealing in an actual boys locker room shower scene in which we see him showering from the chest up! This may have been the first boys shower room scene ever on a TV show! It definitely feels like something right out of an 80s teen movie.
Maybe these square pegs were just looking for sympathy?
If the bullying done at WeeMaWee High was the extent of it in the high school experience, there would never be any school shootings. I mean, Jennifer and LaDonna were incredibly easy-going bitches. Lauren just seemed hyper-sensitive from the start. Hell, I would guess that her insecurities are the very things that caused LaDonna to refer to her as the “that fat girl” and to Patty as “that fat girl’s friend.” In the final episode of the series, when Patty asks LaDonna if she knows their actual names, LaDonna openly admits she does (although she pronounces Lauren’s name wrong). Even though the writers may not have known they were writing the SERIES finale and not just the SEASON finale, they did a really good job of tying things up—the snobs prove not to be all that exclusionary, but definitely exclusionary enough for Lauren and Patty to realize maybe they don’t need to hang with Jennifer’s crowd to be cool because they have each other, Marshall, and Johnny Slash, who has enough connections to score them a private party with the band that played at Jennifer and Vinnie’s anniversary party—the party they were not invited to but were so desperate to get into.
Simply because she wants to fit into the “high school experience” and on the heels of that, because she hates being teased for being fat and having braces (neither of which was real on actress Amy Linker, who wore fake braces and fat pads), Lauren spends the whole series trying to become popular. Most often, her plans for popularity involve Patty as the pawn because of her strengths and talents like singing and writing (and constantly removing Patty’s glasses—a geek symbol that can be taken off, unlike her own braces). Ironically this isn’t a sign of Lauren just using Patty’s friendship, but points to Lauren actually being proud of her, respecting her, and looking up to her. At the same time, Lauren is blinded to how she treats others just as she doesn’t want to be treated, as she is constantly looking to shun the unconditional friendship of Marshall and Johnny Slash—who seem to have crushes on she and Patty, respectively. She kind of realizes her hypocrisy at the end of the season, but surely if the show had continued, she would have fallen back into those old habits. After all, she’s a teenager who desperately wants to be liked.
The truth is, Lauren inflates the bullying to something it really isn’t. I’ve never seen such pleasant bullies in my life. I mean, let’s be honest. While they’re always SAYING they don’t want to be seen around Lauren and Patty, Jennifer and LaDonna talk to them in every episode and usually end up at the same social gathering as them! Hell, when I was in school, cliques didn’t interact AT ALL and there was some very cruel loathing involved, plus plenty of vicious treatment of the kids labeled as the geeks. However, what’s great about Square Pegs’ flawed concept of cliques is how it demonstrates that while there are desperate Lauren-types who want to fit in, in reality, the majority of a class is comprised of the non-popular or non-geek kids who really don’t give a shit about the popular crowd, much like Marshall and Johnny (and usually, Patty).
The hang up in this show is almost exclusively Lauren’s. Patty’s laid back nature actually does draw people to her. She nearly scores with a very cute senior from week one as a freshman, and there are also some intense moments with none other than Vinnie, who seems to have a place in his heart for her. Her slightly veiled confidence shines through and makes her attractive, glasses or not! I’m sure if the series had continued, they would have created some complications involving a secret fling between she and Vinnie (which would have been a great storyline), but in the end, I’m almost positive Patty would have ended up with Johnny Slash.
Unfortunately, I don’t know that Marshall would have ever stood a chance with Lauren. We can only ponder the possibilities of the characters’ futures and simply rewind season one again and again (okay, reinsert Disc 1 and start over—I was going for a retro VHS moment there).
HALLOWEEN XII: the ultimate Square Pegs episode
Being me, I need to explore the brilliant Halloween episode of Square Pegs as its own entity. Why? Because it’s a blatant homage to slasher movies that was 14 years ahead of Scream. While it uses the 1978 film Halloween as its main source material, we all know that Halloween is an unofficial 80s film, because it literally was the mold from which all 80s slashers were created. When the Halloween episode of Square Pegs aired, slashers were all the rage. We’d been bombarded by dozens of them in a two year span, including three Friday the 13th films, Halloween II, Prom Night, Terror Train, Happy Birthday to Me, My Bloody Valentine, and various other knockoffs. The creators of Square Pegs either loved slashers as much as they loved new wave music, or did some serious homework to pretty much generate the slasher rules Randy would claim as his own 14 years later.
Once again, Square Pegs seems so attune to trends. Who could have predicted that when they playfully titled this episode “Halloween XII” that we’d be close to that many films in the franchise thirty years later? Then there are some FREAKY coincidences. While the class is watching a school filmstrip about Halloween safety, Marshall says to Johnny Slash, “just keep telling yourself it’s only a slideshow,” and soon after, their teacher, with a sadistic look in her eyes, scratches her fingernails slowly down the chalkboard! WTF? A Nightmare on Elm Street wouldn’t be released until two years after this, with Johnny Depp telling Heather Langenkamp to just keep telling herself it’s only a dream and Freddy scratching those infamous fingernails. Cue the Twilight Zone theme!
But back to the Halloween episode. LaDonna has one of the best lines when she tells Jennifer that “white people in sheets isn’t my idea of a good time!” But the rest of the freshman class laments that they are too old to Trick or Treat (ah, I remember the conundrum well). Muffy suggests that they all have a slumber party at their lonely teacher’s house (the slasher Slumber Party Massacre would be released a month later). So their teacher Ms. Loomis agrees. How CONVENIENT is it that her last name is Loomis, considering that was the name of Donald Pleasence’s character from Halloween! Awesome.
All the Halloween conventions are present. Vinnie tells Jennifer “Halloween’s a scary night. Better watch out for the boogeyman” before the gathering. In attendance are Patty and Lauren, Muffy, and Jennifer and LaDonna. Once the party is started, we see the Loomis home through the eyes of the “killer’s” mask. It’s all so familiar to Halloween fans, right down to a Jack-O’-Lantern sitting on the front porch. Before long, Vinnie calls to scare the girls with some heavy breathing then the lights go out. A knock on the door terrifies all the girls before LaDonna has her second classic line of this episode, when she nonchalantly makes a social comment on black people talking to the screen in horror films by exclaiming, “Child, you better grab that knife!” Again, this is like two decades before this kind of joke became a cliché in dozens of horror films and satires like Scary Movie. Patty smartly responds, “He probably brought his own.”
But alas, it’s only Marshall and Johnny at the door, who announce themselves before they are invited in by calling the girls babysitters. Marshall is dressed as one of the then hugely popular McKenzie Brothers (you hoser!). But Johnny definitely gets prize for best costume. In true Michael Myers style, he is wearing a sheet and glasses—Ray-Bans, that is! And conveniently, since one of his favorite words is “totally,” he drops it immediately, upon entering…and it just so happens that’s the same word Linda uses repeatedly in Halloween. Of course, she wasn’t so new wave until the actress who played her, P.J. Soles, starred in Rock N Roll High School a year later—although, the Ramones are more like punk than new wave. And that’s a totally different head. Totally.
Once inside, Marshall reveals that a patient has escaped from the mental institution, the teacher pulls out a Ouija board, and Marshall turns on Creature Theater. In true haunted house style, thunder and lightning strikes, leading Johnny to claim that “God’s bowling!” Holy! That parental lie is SO a memory of my youth.
Finally, Vinnie shows up at the party. With the gang all present, there’s one last knock on the door. Lauren sees this as an opportunity for her and Patty to gain cool cred by bravely answering it. As she drags Patty to the door, she promises her that the killers never kill virgins! How fricking unoriginal is Scream? The girls throw open the door to find the killer tangled up in some outdoor wind chimes. And the killer turns out to be…oh come on. Haven’t I spoiled it enough already with every last detail of the entire episode?