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Behind-the-scenes chaos derailed Square Pegs’ new-wave promise

Not even Devo could save the show from itself

Some TV shows never even make it past the first season. Maybe a series lacked the ratings to match its artistic accomplishments, or maybe it floundered its way into the network crosshairs, but it’s time to look at one-season series outside the immediate context of ratings and renewals. One-Season Wonders, Weirdos, And Wannabes considers the merits of these short-lived shows.

When the popularity of Saturday Night Live took off in the late 1970s, it was the biggest thing to hit television comedy in years. In an attempt to harness some of that crazy energy to revitalize flagging primetime lineups, broadcast networks poached SNL writers and performers and gave them carte blanche. In 1982, that included 34-year-old SNL writer Anne Beatts. One of the only women on the SNL staff, Beatts created a new situation comedy for CBS: Square Pegs.

The show appeared promising at first. Produced by Norman Lear’s Embassy Television, Square Pegs was billed as a show “about the problems, joys, and experiences of being young and in high school” (Beatts based the series on her own adolescence). Unlike previous high school shows like Happy Days, which was nearing the end of its run at the time (and featured adults in the adolescent roles), Square Pegs not only spotlighted actual teens, but different peer groups that resembled actual ’80s cliques: valley girls, nerds, preppies, class clowns, and new-wavers. The young cast was populated by promising newcomers: Sarah Jessica Parker played one of the leads, bespectacled nerd Patty Greene; Jami Gertz was preppy school leader Muffy Tepperman; and Tracy Nelson, (daughter of Ricky, granddaughter of Ozzie and Harriet, sister of hair-metal twins Gunnar and Matthew) was Jennifer DeNuccio, popular mean girl.

The show received decent reviews right out of the gate, and was dubbed a “thinking kids’ sitcom.” In New York magazine, James Wolcott opined, “Watching Patty and Lauren navigate the slopes of puberty should be more entertaining than almost anything else scooting our way this season.” The series premiere won its Monday-at-8 timeslot—a ratings victory that was a first and last for Square Pegs. Adding to the show’s uphill battle: It aired the same night as CBS juggernaut M*A*S*H (in its final season) and eventual powerhouse Newhart (in its first), which had significantly older audiences than the fledgling sitcom. Never again replicating those strong debut numbers, Square Pegs was over after 20 episodes.

Which is too bad, because Square Pegs had a special kind of new-wave potential. Most episodes involve Patty and her best friend Lauren Hutchinson (Amy Linker) trying to crack the popular clique at fictional Weemawee High School, which was akin to the castaways getting off of Gilligan’s Island: If that happened, the show would be over. The two main characters remain unflappable in the face of almost constant cruelty from the popular crowd: Jennifer’s best friend LaDonna Fredericks (Claudette Wells) calls them “that fat girl and that fat girl’s friend.” Muffy refers to them as the “gruesome twosome” or “Stringbean” and “Fang.” Flying in the face of these rejections, Parker effortlessly fires off one-liners that foreshadow the wisecracking of Carrie Bradshaw. When Lauren gets to marry a hunk in a fake-marriage class assignment, for example, she says: “Great, you get to marry Vinnie Pasetta, and I get to learn life can be cruel. I could have learned that in gym.” (The gum-chewing Nelson also brought a breathless ennui to lines like, “Ugh, I’d rather go coat-shopping with my mother.”) Patty and Lauren’s fellow misfits were standup comic wannabe Marshall Blechtman (John Femia) and perhaps the most memorable character of all, Johnny “Slash” Ulasewicz (Merritt Butrick), who was quick to point out the vital differences between “punk” and “new wave.”

Beatts was young and savvy enough to know what her intended audience was enjoying and listening to. Decade-appropriate pop-culture references abound in the dialogue, from Kristy McNichol to the Eagles; one episode involves Marshall getting addicted to Pac-Man. Witty running gags include Muffy’s efforts for the class to send random gifts, like culottes, to Rosarita, the Weemawee High-sponsored Guatemalan child. The Waitresses appear in the pilot, and sing the Square Pegs theme song:

Most Square Pegs half-hours offered entertaining interplay between the high school social structure, like Patty getting cast in a school play opposite Jennifer’s boyfriend or Marshall creating a love-meter to test the various affection levels of the class. The (mostly) inventive and relatable storylines also offered ample opportunity for zingy dialogue by Beatts and her writing staff. Thanks to her SNL connections, the creator brought in guest stars like Bill Murray (fresh off of Stripes and Tootsie, playing a rebellious substitute teacher) and Don Novello (as his most famous creation, Father Guido Sarducci, who helps Marshall break his video game habit). She even drafted Devo to play at Muffy’s bat mitzvah.

A vibrant cast, a talented writer at the helm, cool guest stars and musical acts: And yet, a year after Square Pegs’ May 1983 cancellation, TV Guide ran a story on the show titled “Anatomy Of A Failure: How Drugs, Ego, And Chaos Helped Kill A Promising Series.” Based on a six-month investigation, the article explored the specific reasons for the once-promising show’s quick demise. Part of the problem, according to the article, involved putting the inexperienced Beatts in charge of the entire production. Youthful and hip, she was also volatile, making friends with some cast and crew members and alienating others. Even she admitted, “I snapped people’s heads off. But I usually regretted it afterwards.”

Lear’s company tried to rein her in, but Embassy president Michael Grade complained, “I could see the show going down the drain right before my eyes.” Grade and Beatts each insisted that the other was to blame for the show’s short lifespan. The writing staff had no sense of continuity: Some episodes depicted Vinnie as a thug, others as a buffoon. And the painful laugh track, which appeared to be inserted after every single sentence, certainly didn’t help. (Although that was fairly standard at the time.)

The TV Guide article is full of show writers and cast members with comments about the series, but very few who agreed to go on the record. One writer described: “Some of the scripts looked like five drunk monkeys had written them and then thrown the pages up in the air.”

The series hit its low point with its two-part Christmas episode, in which Patty has to go ice fishing with her dad (portrayed by another player from sitcom history, Leave It To Beaver’s Tony Dow) instead of staying at home with her new freshmen friends. Beatts fought to have the episode extended into a two-parter, but she didn’t have an hour-long script. She hurriedly pulled something together and, one (unnamed) writer reported: “The first draft of that show was just the most terrible thing I have ever seen. It made no sense at all. And Anne was laughing. She thought it made sense. It made no sense.”

The Christmas episodes are bizarrely paced, as the actors seem to be dragging out their lines and scenes to fill the hour. Almost half the first episode is spent on a pointless scene in which a classroom is decorated, with random conversations between disparate characters like Patty and Vinnie, and Jennifer and Johnny “Slash.” Then even that slight momentum is squashed by Patty’s painful trip with her dad, which includes an endless in-car conversation. That unnamed writer from the TV Guide article could not have been more right; the episode undoubtedly sets the record for the number of repeated instances of the phrase “frozen eel chunks” (four). The Devo episode is downright Shakespearean in comparison.

Square Pegs definitely had ego and chaos, but there was possibly another factor fueling the show’s demise. The ’80s was a decade notorious for bloated excesses, and in the TV Guide article, Beatts comes right out and states, “I think that certainly, there was some drug abuse or drug traffic that may have happened, because I would say that that is norm for a set.” Even the relatively square TV Guide gets it: “[P]eople were using.” An anonymous cast member told the reporters, “Yeah, there were drugs… The thing that made it very dangerous and stupid in our case was that there were minors on the set.” In 2009, Devo’s Gerald Casale told Heeb magazine that he remembers the Square Pegs cast as, “out of control—they were doing drugs and they were making out and they were coming on to us in a big way… They might have been 15 or 16, but in their heads they were already 40. I don’t think there was a virgin on the set, except maybe a couple of the guys.”

Most Square Pegs scenes were shot in the abandoned Excelsior High School in suburban Norwalk, California, about 20 miles outside of Los Angeles, so it was difficult for CBS or Lear’s production company to know what was going on during shooting. Embassy received “recurring reports of and rumors of drug and alcohol use on a set where minors worked.” By the time Grade finally asked for an internal investigation in March 1983, Square Pegs had already finished shooting, and the final plug on the troubled show had been pulled.

It was a dark ending for a series that began with so much momentum. Many of Square Pegs’ stars followed that momentum to better gigs, Parker most successfully. Gertz appeared in ’80s youth movies like Less Than Zero and The Lost Boys before finding a home on such sitcoms as Still Standing and The Neighbors. You can spot Nelson on episodes of Melrose Place and Seinfeld; she also starred as the sidekick in Tom Bosley’s Happy Days follow-up, the Father Dowling Mysteries. Merritt Butrick appeared as the son of James T. Kirk in two Star Trek movies before dying of toxoplasmosis, complicated by AIDS, in 1989. Beatts went on to work as a producer on A Different World in the ’80s and The Stephanie Miller Show in the ’90s, as well as writing an episode of Murphy Brown and the unsold pilot The Belles Of Bleeker Street.

One of the sweetest interviews on the 2008 Square Pegs DVD release is with Nelson and Wells, who remained close friends after the show’s demise; they describe Nelson’s Jennifer DeNuccio wig as a “squirrel on her head.” They also explain how most of the cast (except for Parker, who had been on Broadway) were absolute novices receiving their big break, and they remain grateful to Beatts for giving so many unknowns a shot. (The DVD also features a touching tribute to Butrick by Beatts and the cast.) The Square Pegs cast and crew (unsurprisingly) don’t mention any of the allegations in the TV Guide article, just regrets that the show ended as soon as it did.

Because by the end of its only season, Square Pegs was finally beginning to gel. Scripts became less scattered; the cast seemed more comfortable with each other and played off each other more successfully. In the last episode, “The Arrangement,” Patty and Lauren again scheme to get an invite to one of Jennifer’s parties, throwing Johnny and Marshall under the bus in the process. Of course the plan goes awry, and in the end, the gruesome foursome just have each other, hanging out and watching a TV special starring magician Doug Henning. Then the band from Jennifer’s bash, friends of Johnny “Slash,” comes over to hang out, and the misfits get their own cool party after all. It was a fine final curtain for the show.

For kids of the ’80s who didn’t fit into any sort of clique, for the type of teen who would turn to My So-Called Life or Freaks And Geeks in later years, Square Pegs offered reassurance that high-school angst was real and temporary. It told the Pattys and Laurens at home that music could be better than what they heard on the radio, and that nonconformity was something to celebrate, as the theme song underlined: “One size does not fit all.” Square Pegs’ tarnished legacy leaves behind a show of unfulfilled promise.

One season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? A wonder of missed opportunity.

Next time: ESPN’s Playmakers, the scripted drama that got sacked by the NFL.