DVDs: Bonus Points Movies

Early Review

Happily Heading Back to School With 'Square Pegs'

washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 6, 2008

"Square Pegs" was a TV show about nerds. But when it debuted in 1982, it immediately emerged as one of the hippest things on primetime TV.

The comedy about two unpopular high schoolers scheming their way up the social ladder was a rarity among adolescent series: It was honest, unconventional, infused with modern-rock music and filled with pop culture references. Shot in single-camera format and featuring offbeat humor crafted by a largely female writing staff, "Square Pegs" can be seen in retrospect as a pioneer, paving the way for later left-of-center teen fare like "Freaks and Geeks" and "My So-Called Life." Of course at the time, CBS didn't see it that way, which is why -- like "Freaks" and "Life" -- it was canceled after its first season.

Now the '80s classic, starring a young, bespectacled Sarah Jessica Parker before she blossomed into the glam Carrie Bradshaw, comes to DVD on May 20 ($29.99) ready to be revisited by anyone who fondly remembers listening to a Walkman, talking like a Valley Girl and loving the "Square Pegs" theme song by the Waitresses. Yes, as smart as "Square Pegs" remains, its charms will be most thoroughly appreciated by children of the '80s. I mean, one of the episodes is called "Pac-Man Fever." Another features a performance by the band Devo, who appears at preppy Muffy Tepperman's New Wave bat mitzvah. If you never spiked your hair or wore legwarmers, the sheer genius of such plot developments may be lost on you.

Still, some younger viewers may relish the opportunity to watch Parker in her pre-"Sex and the City" days. (The DVD's release surely was timed to capitalize on interest in the upcoming movie.) And some of the 19 episodes -- particularly an installment in which Bill Murray guest stars as a substitute teacher -- are flat-out funny regardless of any nostalgia factor.

Sony must have lacked a robust budget for this three-disc DVD release. That might explain the very basic design of the menu screens and the disheartening absence of commentary tracks or deleted scenes. But to the studio's credit, nearly all of the show's major players -- including stars Parker, Amy Linker, Jami Gertz, Tracy Nelson and series creator Anne Beatts, among others -- speak at length about their "Square Pegs" experiences in a series of interviews dubbed "Weemawee Yearbook Memories." Beatts delivers the best trivia tidbits -- who knew that Paul Shaffer came up with the name for Weemawee High School? -- but all of the participants offer fond, affectionate anecdotes about their days on the set.

The most egregious misstep in the collection are the minisodes of "The Facts of Life" and "Silver Spoons," five-minute versions of full-length eps from the pair of '80s sitcoms. Both shows focuses on young adults and were, like "Pegs," produced by Embassy Television, but that's where the similarities end. In fact, their presence on the DVD only serves as a reminder that "Pegs" really was better than most of the "processed-cheese" television, as Beatts calls it, that dominated the tube in the early '80s. Or, to put it in terms that the spacey Johnny Slash would use: "Square Pegs" really was a totally different head. Totally.

Best Bill Murray Bonus Point: Beatts recalls that Murray -- who worked with her when she wrote for "Saturday Night Live" -- was recruited to appear on "Pegs" as part of an effort to attract a more male audience. On the night before he was due to arrive on set, she received an alarming phonecall from the "Caddyshack" star. "He called me in the middle of the night and said, 'I'm in Mexico. I don't know how to get out. I'm in this motel in Tijuana,' and I nearly had a heart attack," she remembers. "Of course, he was in Los Angeles, where he was supposed to be. Of course. That was Bill."

Saddest Bonus Point: Several of the actors and crew pay tribute to late co-star Merritt Butrick in a yearbook entry; Butrick convincingly played Johnny Slash and, tragically, died of AIDS in 1989.

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One half of TomKat -- that's the Kat half -- stars in "Mad Money," on DVD next Tuesday. For a full calendar of what's coming in the weeks ahead, click here.

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  • Join Amy Adams and Frances McDormand in "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day," arriving Aug. 19.
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PHOTOS: 'Square Pegs' -- Sony Home Entertainment; 'The Hottie & the Nottie' -- Regent Releasing Via AP

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