Yes, children of the ’80s, on Sept. 27, 1982, the high school comedy “Square Pegs” aired for the first time on CBS. Given that the show was canceled after its inaugural season, it may not have been a super-monumentous occasion. But if you were a kid walking the Earth then and are still reeling from the arrival of MTV 13 months prior, this seemed like another youth culture game-changer.
“Square Pegs”looked very different from everything else on television. As envisioned by creator Anne Beats, a former “Saturday Night Live” writer, it was a single-camera series when almost every other sitcom was a multi-camera, shot-live-before-a-studio-audience deal. It was a show starring young, not always model-pretty characters — from nerdy pals Patty (Parker) and Lauren (Amy Linker) to tweaked-out musician Johnny Slash (the late Merritt Butrick) to hyper-overachiever Muffy Tepperman (Jami Gertz) — who talked in a language peppered with references to Pac-Man and the Clash.
It was a show about not fitting in that hit the zeitgeist long before “My So-Called Life,” “Freaks and Geeks” or, yes, “Glee” would attempt to insightfully explore similar terrain. It was like a weekly John Hughes movie, before the Hughes movies had come out. (Clique — I actually learned that word from listening to the “Square Pegs” opening titles. Another word I learned from those titles: cleavage.)
A re-watch of any “Square Pegs” episode — available on DVD and streaming on Amazon — confirms that this show soaked heavily in its ’80s juices. It still featured that God-awful retro laugh track. People regularly used phrases like “Gag me with a spoon!” and “barf.” Jennifer DiNuccio (Tracy Nelson) — the popular Valley Girl who said “like” at a ridiculous level of frequency intended to be comedic but that now seems less comedic because everyone talks that way — actually wore a zigzag-print leotard and leg warmers in one episode. And her best girlfriend, LaDonna Fredericks, was often relegated to saying either “girl,” “Chile” or, most often, “Girl, I hate that.” Catchphrases were extremely important back then, which is why, in addition to LaDonna’s signature dialogue, Johnny Slash also was required to say, “Totally different head — totally,” at least once per episode.
But the fact that “Square Pegs” was of its time, in its time, was what made it so great to watch and, for those who wax nostalgic about that era (who, me?), great to watch again.
What other show back then was hip enough to have Muffy host a New Wave bat mitzvah, a theme she chose after rejecting her original “Poltergeist” bat mitzvah idea because she had already been to a “Star Wars” bar mitzvah and a “Rocky 3” bar mitzvah, and the movie theme seemed played out? This was the episode in which Devo performed. I can’t say this emphatically enough: No other show before or since has had the brains to persuade Devo to play at a bat mitzvah.
What other show was brave enough to confront the dangers of video-game addiction in an episode titled “Pac-Man Fever”?
What other show featured a killer theme song by an awesome-sauce of a pop band like the Waitresses?
What other show cast Bill freakin’ Murray as a substitute teacher who totally and inappropriately hit on Parker but got in zero trouble for doing it because he was (and remains) Bill freakin’ Murray? (Fun fact: The night before shooting the episode, Murray attempted to scare the heck out of Beatts. “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 explains in an interview on the “Square Pegs” DVD. “Of course, he was in Los Angeles, where he was supposed to be. Of course. That was Bill.”)
Admittedly, a lot of the “Square Pegs” jokes now land with more of a thud than we may remember. And Vinny, Jennifer’s lunk-headed boyfriend? Not all that cute and also, way too old to be in high school, which makes sense since he was 22 in real life.
But none of that matters. What matters is that “Square Pegs” mattered to us when it counted, when we were at that age when a kid needs to hear, from someone or something, that it’s okay to want to fit in, but it’s also more than okay to zig against the popular kids’ zag. You know, the same way that, years from now, a preteen will feel when he or she looks back fondly on the years of “Glee.”Yes, even the subpar seasons.