When a substitute teacher turned Square Pegs into The Bill Murray Show

When a substitute teacher turned Square Pegs into The Bill Murray Show

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. The next three installments focus on episodes featuring “interlopers.”

“No Substitutions” (Square Pegs, season one, episode 18; originally aired 2/14/1983)

In which the part of the cool teacher of the week will be played by the future Dr. Peter Venkman

Phil Dyess-Nugent: In terms of the evolution of the sitcom, the 1982-83 TV season is probably best remembered for the first season of Cheers, but when the new shows were debuting that fall, many people were more interested in the prospects of Square Pegs, a CBS show about high-school kids that was scheduled at the top of the evening—where the teenyboppers could find it. The show was created and produced by Anne Beatts, a former National Lampoon writer who was part of the original writing staff of Saturday Night Live. Like a lot of people who worked on SNL in its early years, Beatts was hot when she left the show, because network executives thought she might have had the secret formula for tapping into the zeitgeist audience. She brought a new level of hipness to the high-school sitcom, but for those who know her previous credits, the big surprise is how much gentleness and sweetness she brings to it. In its combination of absurdity and openhearted sympathy for the lonely and acne-plagued, Square Pegs is a little like Awkward. with a network-enforced purity ring.

I’m concerned that some people who’ve never seen Square Pegs before but have heard good things about it may look at the series now and think, “I guess you had to be there.” Actually, even when we were there, this was a flawed show, but it’s flawed in an interesting way, because you can see the network’s fingerprints on it. (And it’s still being tampered with: The show was notable for its use of the popular music of the moment, and that aspect of it has been lost in the episodes on DVD because the company didn’t want to pay for music rights. You’d think that anything that enhanced the series’ potency as a time capsule would only increase its market value. The bizarre fake-Joe Cocker thing that plays under a dance scene here is a replacement for “Dancing With Myself.”) Beatts had to spend a lot of time dealing with the network executives’ incomprehension of teenagers in general and teenage girls in particular, and she was also forced to hire one of the writers who worked on this episode, Andy Borowitz, because otherwise, to the network’s horror, she would have had an all-female writing staff. But even if this episode were officially credited to Salman Rushdie, the authorship of the script would be an afterthought. This is the one with Bill Murray.

Murray plays Mr. McNulty, an actor who is so unmoored from conventional attitudes toward things like responsibility and career that substitute teaching is his day job, and he rolls into the classroom cloaked in Murray’s signature fake sincerity. Though he was handed the assignment to teach the kids about real life by teaming them up in compatible mock marriages, Mr. McNulty tears up the rulebook and matches them in ways designed to get them thinking about the lives of those different from themselves. Johnny Slash (Merritt Butrick), the show’s new-wave space cadet, is pretend-married to the school’s resident Tracy Flick, Muffy (Jami Gertz), and quickly gets into the spirit of things, becoming instantly, faithfully devoted, while she is clearly repelled. Lauren (Amy Linker), the pudgy girl in braces who craves a spot on the popularity A-list, is joined to the meathead Vinnie (Jon Caliri). There are limits to Mr. McNulty’s sadism: When LaDonna (Claudette Wells), the show’s token sassy black girl, protests, he proclaims her a widow, thus sparing her the bother of having to put down her hand mirror long enough to work out a fake budget with some dude, and at the same time sparing CBS the mortification of having even a pretend interracial teen marriage on a show that only has one black person on it.

Mr. McNulty picks out Lauren’s best friend and fellow social reject, Patty (Sarah Jessica Parker), to stand in for all the single losers in the adult world. But rather than subject the poor thing to actual loneliness, he decides to hang out with her, even entering into an off-the-books mock marriage with her. After Lauren has spent the day discovering that it isn’t as easy as she’d imagined to “marry into popularity,” Patty further bums her out by rushing in to tell her about the fun she’s been having with Mr. McNulty—an actual cool person, as opposed to the kind of self-made stereotypes that the people at the bottom of the social ladder in high school are meant to feel jealous of. (Patty reports that she and Mr. McNulty made snow angels together, and the viewer gets a reminder of how much things change in pop culture when she says “like in Love Story” at the exact moment than anyone watching this in 2013 will automatically think, “OMG, like in Groundhog Day!”) Meanwhile, nobody is enjoying Mr. McNulty’s visit less than Mr. Donovan (Steven Peterman), the usual holder of the title of “cool teacher” at Weemawee High. That role is typically unchallenged, but for this week, he’s about on the same level as, well, the standout actor on a TV show the week that Bill Murray guest stars.

By the time this episode was made, Murray had already starred in Stripes and followed that up with his supporting role in Tootsie. Not only was he a movie star, he had served notice that he’d be the first SNL-spawned movie star who wouldn’t casually destroy his own career by making too many bad, rash decisions driven by ego and an urgent need to pay the coke dealer. Some of his moments here, especially with Butrick (who takes fake sincerity so far that it becomes sincere again, while remaining faintly extraterrestrial) and with John Femia as the catchphrase-dropping aspiring comic Marshall, have a special piquancy. The late Butrick had clearly learned something about comic acting from watching Murray, and Femia’s character thinks he’s learned something about comedy from memorizing bits of Saturday Night Live. At other moments, Murray’s stardom—not just his talent, but the fact that he’s Bill Fuckin’ Murray on this little podunk network sitcom—may make him an interloper here in ways that are harder to pin down. Does it seem strange, now, that Mr. McNulty doesn’t hesitate to lay hands on his students, never mind that he picks out special ones to make snow angels with? I remember thinking it was normal enough at the time, but I was very young, and as prepared as anyone to assume that anything Bill Murray was doing was normal by definition.

Ryan McGee: I’ll go ahead and say it: This is one weird freakin’ episode of television.

I’m not too familiar with the world of Square Pegs, but it was certainly easy enough to get all of the basic dynamics from this single episode. In that sense, it’s somewhat like shows such as Saved By The Bell or even Head Of The Class, where easily identifiable archetypes made the students and teachers identifiable. That technique also ensured that anyone dropping in on any episode wouldn’t have to worry about anything that came before or after it. In a way, that’s a necessary thing: Who wants heavy continuity in a show like Square Pegs? On the other hand, the “same as it ever was” approach also feels appropriate given the show’s setting. There are always the same basic cliques, no matter what school nor era. 

But Murray’s interloper is so damn inappropriate at all times that I felt extremely uncomfortable watching almost every minute of “No Substitutions.” This isn’t the type of queasiness I feel when watching an episode of The Office. This is “I’m waiting for someone to call the police on this pedophile” queasiness. It would be one thing for Patty to develop a crush on Mr. McNulty without him realizing the power of his personality. But he overtly courts her affection at every moment, making each interaction between them damn near criminal. To make matters worse, the one other teacher present in this scenario thinks this is wrong only in that it usurps his traditional position as the cool teacher. This is less a school-based sitcom and more a sci-fi world in which statutory rape doesn’t exist. Am I overthinking things? Almost certainly. But without Murray’s star power, does this episode ever make it to air?

Erik Adams: Ryan, if you think this episode is strange, you should check out the one where everyone at Weemawee worms their way into Muffy’s bat mitzvah in order to catch a live performance by Devo. (Barely obscured by Mark Mothersbaugh’s hair in that clip: the French-fry-plus-donut imagery that kept “That’s Good” off of MTV in 1982. So CBS Broadcast Standards And Practices couldn’t have been that strict back then.) I think you’re onto something about Murray’s particular type of charisma, though: The aloof Peter Venkman schtick excuses a lot of behavior that wouldn’t be above-board if exhibited by another actor. Imagine it’s Dan Aykroyd bopping into the classroom wearing a pajama top in lieu of a dress shirt and the whole enterprise takes a U-turn toward the Festrunk brothers’ swingin’ bachelor pad. Besides, the physical boundaries between all of Square Pegs’ characters are so negligible—Johnny carries Muffy over multiple thresholds—it’s as if the Weemawee administration is pumping some form of vaporized MDMA through the vents.

It’s also important to keep in mind that McNulty’s just an actor playing a role, as committed to mock-marrying Patty as he is to mugging his way through the jingle for the Bolivian tourism board. There’s nothing untoward going on here—it’s just the infectious energy of the performance (on McNulty’s part as well as Murray’s). As a substitute teacher, he’s serving as the high-school equivalent of a February sweeps guest star, shaking off the mid-winter doldrums while giving his charges reason to think outside the love-and-marriage box. Patty and Lauren will return to longing for popularity next week, but this week they’ve had that desire tempered by a refreshingly grounded crash course in romance.

You have to be invested in Square Pegs leads to come away from “No Substitutions” with anything resembling a moral, though—even as a fan of this show, I found my eyes glazing over any time the camera took leave of Murray’s tangled halo of Ghostbusters-era hair. McNulty softens the blow of “dumping” Patty by saying she’s a magnet and he’s a refrigerator, but there’s no arguing that Murray’s the one with the actual magnetism in this equation. He doesn’t just steal the show—for 24 minutes, he is the show. That might not have the most positive effect on our memories of a high-school comedy that only aired 19 other episodes, but in terms of crafting an installment that remains watchable some 30 years after the fact—Cristina Ferrare allusion be damned—you can do far worse than temporarily hand the reins over to one of the funniest guys to ever step in front of a camera. You could hire Robin Williams, for instance.

Genevieve Koski: So far in this series of Roundtable, we’ve been loosely defining “interlopers” as characters who come in and shake things up, and who reveal new sides or aspects of our main characters. I suppose Bill Murray technically does that in “No Substitutions,” but he really functions as more of a spotlight-stealer than anything else, as Erik points out. His “What have we learned here?” monologue explaining the point of his marriage experiment is pretty amorphous—sometimes people marry the wrong person so… whoops?—and his departure, in which he belts out the jingle for the Bolivia commercial he just booked, is as pointlessly silly as his short tenure. He’s sort of the anti-Mr. Bergstrom, a charismatic force of nature who opens a young girl’s eyes to new possibilities, but leaves behind a joy buzzer instead of “You are Lisa Simpson.” He’s chaos personified, an imp who delights in shaking things up for the sake of a laugh, never mind the effect it has. (In other words: He’s an actor, not a teacher.) In all fairness, that’s pretty much what Murray was known for at this point in his career. Knowing now what he’s capable of as an actor, it’s a little disappointing he doesn’t get anything more profound than “You’re a magnet, and I’m a refrigerator” to go out on, but Square Pegs probably isn’t the venue for such things anyway. (At least based on what I’ve seen in this and the one other episode of the show I’ve experienced.)

As to the alleged creepiness of Mr. McNulty’s behavior: Yeah, Murray’s charisma excuses a lot, but I also think most actors wouldn’t have chosen to play the character as creepily as Murray does. (Which is sort of the genius of Bill Murray, isn’t it?) Witness the moment after the magnet-refrigerator speech where he makes a slight lean in to Sarah Jessica Parker, as if awaiting a kiss. And his general air of disdainful cool lends him a certain burnout quality; he comes across like the slightly older, once-popular guy who hangs out in the parking lot after school to tell the kids what life’s really like, man. That’s kind of Murray’s shtick, and it works for him here, lending a barely perceptible air of desperation and sadness to his struggling-actor character. (The wild-man hair and schlubby, untucked wardrobe certainly helps.) No one else could have pulled it off without making it either corny or malicious; Murray rides the line between the two like no one else—which is what makes this episode more memorable as a Murray showpiece than an installment of Square Pegs. 

Todd VanDerWerff: One of the first rules that anyone who’s trying to write a spec script for an existing TV show—a script meant to suggest that an aspiring TV writer has the goods to mold their own voice to fit somebody else’s voice—is “Don’t create a guest star who takes over the show.” The spec script is meant to highlight how well its author can write for existing characters, not how well they can create their own characters to write for. You can probably see where I’m going, but “No Substitutions” struck me as the ultimate example of this. Bill Murray quickly takes everything over, in a way I enjoyed—hey, it’s Bill Murray!—but that also left me wishing we got to spend more time with Patty, in particular, whose crush on her teacher isn’t given the kind of room it would normally require. (I’ll sort of side with all of you in saying that McNulty is a bit creepy, but I think the script finds good ways to defuse the tension in the situation, while Murray does most of the rest by being so lackadaisical.) 

I’ve only seen a handful of episodes of Square Pegs, but I rather like the vibe of it all the same. It’s the kind of show that would have felt incredibly cool turning up in the network landscape of the early 1980s that now feels vaguely tame. (I read Ryan’s comparison of the show to Saved By The Bell and cringed a bit.) And yet this is a show that could land Bill freakin’ Murray. Yeah, some of that probably has to do with Beatts’ work on the show and SNL, but it still seems vaguely like that one time Sean Penn showed up on Friends (and possibly even weirder than that). I guess the equivalent of this might be if, say, Will Smith showed up on one of those innumerable kid sitcoms guided by the writers of old sitcoms like The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air (which was co-created by Borowitz). You can sort of understand how it happened, but it still feels incredibly strange. And that’s maybe the ultimate appeal of “No Substitutions”: It reminds us that this now-tame show was once cutting-edge.

Donna Bowman: I’m new to the show, although it’s always loomed large in our house. Beloved of my husband for its groundbreaking portrayal of actual contemporary high-school types (as opposed to the simplified, and usually decades-out-of-date, cliques of Hollywood’s usual imagination), and for its awesome Waitresses theme song, Square Pegs is a show I approached with more respect than some of the other Roundtable choices unfamiliar to me. And even though the sitcomminess turns out to be jarringly front and center, given that buildup, I absolutely get what this show must have meant to young audiences in the early ’80s. There’s an unmistakable John Hughes feeling to the way these teenagers get to have feelings and not just traits, and to the smart energy the young cast is encouraged to express. Despite the utter weirdness of throwing Stripes-era Bill Murray into the mix and trying to figure out where to goose the laugh track behind him (whenever there’s a cut from his mumbly Dean Martin schtick to Sarah Jessica Parker theatrically intoning her lines, it’s like an experimental filmmaker doing a found-footage mash-up), the emotions of the situation manage to remain in sharp focus. It’s compelling at a story level, not just at a pop-culture-curiosity level.

I was distracted throughout, however, by Merritt Butrick. He plays his new-waver character as practically full-on gay, consistently and (I have to think) consciously, and with the full consent of the writers and directors, crossing the line that separates homosexuality from the prissy metrosexuality of the culture he’s ostensibly representing. Maybe it’s especially obvious in this episode because his worship of preppy Muffy is so completely lustless and sparkles with starry-eyed camp, but the completeness of the portrayal and the kind of jokes the writers give him indicate, to me at least, that we’re supposed to read Johnny Slash as gay in an era where certain cultures functioned as universally acknowledged, especially spacious closets.

And then, upon looking up Butrick, I discovered the rest of the story: that I knew him from his role as Kirk’s unacknowledged son in the Star Trek films Wrath Of Khan and Search For Spock; that he died at 29 from complications related to AIDS, at the height of the crisis that mingled health care with sexual moralism—a situation, one might argue, that gave birth (with the election of Bill Clinton in 1992) to the America we now inhabit. Knowing all that, it’s impossible not to feel a poignant yet bracing affection for the character he played here, which seems designed to nudge us gently away from the sissies and deviants that dominated the media’s depictions of gay men in decades past, toward something more generous and fully human.

David Sims: I, too, have heard good and bad things about Square Pegs, but I’d never seen a second of it. I guess I’ll say I was disappointed, but to my neophyte eyes, there are interesting elements, and I can see how the show might have had the gleam of something different in 1982. But it’s still forced into that hoary sitcom structure, with the flimsy laugh track, the uninspiring sets, the stilted framing of shots, blah blah blah. There are lots of zingy buttons to scenes, every supporting character slots into a one-dimensional stereotype (Jami Gertz was less uptight on Ally McBeal, for cryin’ out loud), and Bill Murray might as well have gotten a round of applause upon entering, although I was relieved that he didn’t.

Still, the show feels a little special, in that it’s about being an awkward teenager—even though on Saved By The Bell (which aired years later), being awkward just meant you were cartoon dork Screech. Amy Linker’s padded costume is a little ridiculous, but Sarah Jessica Parker is relatable. And even though her relationship with Bill Murray in this episode is pretty weird when you think about it, she sells the general concept of how unsettled teenagers can feel about things like crushes on teachers.

Mostly, this episode is completely dominated by Bill Murray in a way that basically ruins it. If you told me nothing about Square Pegs, skipped the opening credits, and sat me in front of this episode, I would have thought the show was about Bill Murray’s character wandering into some weird situation every week and changing everybody’s lives with his wacky antics. It’s not surprising that he so utterly dominates the proceedings, because he’s Bill Murray, but it’s pretty funny that he was allowed to. This is one of the last episodes the show produced, and it came after Stripes and Tootsie but before Ghostbusters—so he’s a major star, but not quite at the apex of his career. I know this is a ridiculous comparison, but I’m reminded of Ben Stiller’s guest appearance on Freaks And Geeks, which came too late to save the show from cancellation but was part of Judd Apatow’s effort to reach into his phone book and call on every ally he had to boost the show’s ratings. Was Anne Beatts trying the same thing?

Stray observations: 

The show was filmed in an abandoned high school, and man, it looks it. [PDN]

I’m sorry that Tracy Nelson, who plays the valley girl Jennifer DiNuccio, doesn’t have more to do in this episode. She’s an underappreciated actress, and I would say that she really should have had Jami Gertz’s career, except that then she would have to be in The Neighbors. [PDN]

R.I.P. Patty Donahue. [PDN] 

Having complained above, there’s probably a good story in here somewhere about a divorced actor trying to prevent these kids from making the same mistakes he did. “Don’t lose that sadness. It’s what life’s all about,” McNulty tells Patty at one point. It’s a surprisingly dark line for a show this sprightly. [RM]

I need to steal “You are the Three Dog Night of insanity.” I don’t know how/when I’ll use it. But I anxiously await the day. [RM]

Check out Murray wearing a red watch cap to the diner, a full two decades before he joined Team Zissou! [EA]

Another note that could dispel queasiness at the way McNulty interacts with the students: “No Substitutions” aired on Valentine’s Day 1983, so any suggestion of inappropriate relations between teacher and student could’ve been Beatts’ subversive response to a network mandate for a lovey-dovey holiday episode. [EA]

Given the show’s stylistic similarities to The Carrie Diaries, I kept expecting AnnaSophia Robb to round a corner, run into Sarah Jessica Parker, and cause the universe to explode. [TV]

Next week: Todd VanDerWerff breaks the game—just like infamous contestant Michael Larson—with a whammy of a Press Your Luck twofer. The Larson episodes of Press Your Luck are available on YouTube in five parts.) Then, it’s Reader’s Choice! Nominate your favorites here.

More TV Roundtable