So far in our look back at Strangers With Candy, Jerri has grappled with big, scary issues like drug addiction, peer pressure, and teenage motherhood. In “Dreams On The Rocks,” our protagonist comes face to face with the harsh realities of alcoholism, but for once she’s not the one with the problem: Instead, it’s her stepmother, Sara, who’s on the sauce.
Like “A Burden’s Burden,” “Dreams On The Rocks” is an all-time great episode of Strangers With Candy, one that culminates in a vivid set piece (Jellineck’s unorthodox production of Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin In The Sun) while hitting all the essential notes along the way. (Racial insensitivity? Check. Disproportionate and seemingly instantaneous reactions to broadly drawn emotional triggers? Check. A moral “lesson” that endorses unhealthy drug and alcohol consumption and all-around bad behavior? Check.) But while Amy Sedaris really stole the show in “A Burden’s Burden,” this time around it’s Deborah Rush as Sara Blank who is the episode’s MVP.
“Dreams On the Rocks” begins with a rare triumph for Jerri: She’s landed the lead in the school play. Despite being skinny and white, she’ll be playing “Mama,” a character Jellineck describes as a “poor but proud, heavy-set African-American woman.” (As Jellineck announces the parts, Jerri anxiously clutches a slightly overweight black female classmate who cheers ecstatically when she hears that Jerri has landed the role, rather than her. It’s yet another example of how all the characters in this show inhabit a skewed alternate universe, one where no one objects to a skinny white woman playing Mama.) Even though she has to gain 40 pounds for the part—Jellineck nixes her suggestion to “wear a fatty suit”—Jerri is ecstatic. She rushes home to share the happy news, only to find her stepmother, Sara, paging through her old high school scrapbook and reminiscing about her glory days starring in Peter Pan and a one-woman production of 12 Angry Men.
Sara assumes Jerri has landed a bit part and is patronizing—“You’re going to make a wonderful raisin”—but as soon as she hears that Jerri will be starring as Mama, a part she also played, Sara’s expression changes. She warns Jerri that her dreams of stardom will eventually be “crushed by the needs of others,” then takes a swig from a tumbler full of something. It’s hard to miss what’s going on here: Jerri’s budding acting career stirs up feelings of loss and resentment in Sara, who turns to alcohol to dull the pain. Obviously Strangers With Candy is making fun of the clumsy, didactic writing of after-school specials and various “very special episodes,” but in a way I also think the forced characterization and rote storytelling actually help balance out the show’s aggressive weirdness. The narratives are obvious and easy in a way that its sense of humor isn’t. By the next morning, of course, Sara’s case of the blues has already snowballed into full-blown alcoholism. Jerri wanders into the kitchen to find her stepmother blithely swigging her breakfast of rum cake (“We ran out of flour,” she explains). Because Sara’s also neglected the laundry, Derrick is stuck wearing a bed sheet.
Worst of all, it’s also parent-teacher conference day at school, meaning that Sara causes lots of embarrassment for poor Jerri. Totally soused, she indelicately puts the moves on “Mr. Goblet” and complains to Principal Blackman that Jerri’s homecoming destroyed her dream of returning to the footlights. Playing drunk may be one of the most difficult challenges in the actor’s repertoire, but Deborah Rush is just phenomenal here—hilariously funny but also entirely believable. She never oversells it. Rush is also physically so perfect for the part, with her blond hair, thin physique, and narrow, angular features. She’s an attractive woman, to be sure, but also a little terrifying. Sara Blank is the woman I imagine Claire Dunphy will be in a few more years.
Jerri’s co-star, Craig Snow, tries to have a heart-to-heart with her about Sara’s behavior. As he tells Jerri on the bus, his parents are both alcoholics too. Out of embarrassment, maybe, Jerri is resistant to his overture of friendship (one thing we’ve already learned about Jerri is that she can be a real jerk to the few people who are actually nice to her). Even after they discover Sara passed out on the kitchen floor, Jerri refuses his offer to help. “Can’t you see how embarrassing this is supposed to be for me?” she screams. What “Dreams On The Rocks” spoofs so well is the tendency to portray alcoholism as yet another way for parents to humiliate their teenagers, rather than a corrosive and deeply rooted psychological problem. Even though this episode is said to have been inspired by the ABC Afterschool Specials “Francesca, Baby” and “She Drinks A Little” (alas, neither of which I’ve seen), but what it reminds me of more than anything is the unforgettable episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 in which Kelly Taylor’s coke-addled mother ruins the mother-daughter fashion show.
The situation at home continues to deteriorate at a precipitous rate. It’s so bad that Derrick has taken to eating uncooked lasagna noodles dipped in pasta sauce while Sara lies passed out in her Peter Pan costume, with old copies of Playbill and empty bottles of vodka strewn across the floor. No longer able to deny the problem, Jerri accompanies Craig to a meeting of his support group, Ala Coholics—held in the basement of Tippler’s Lounge, naturally. There, she happily discovers that her stepmother’s alcoholism is a great way to get attention, and that her problems are nowhere near as bad as they could be. As she puts it, “I cried when I had no shoes until I met a man with no feet. Then I laughed really, really hard.” (In the DVD extras, it’s revealed that Stephen Colbert came up with that line after seeing an inspirational piece of embroidery. He had to wait 15 years to use it.)
Emboldened by the meeting, Jerri confronts Sara, who in turn insists she can quit drinking anytime she wants—and proves her point by dumping all her mixers. Jerri is satisfied with the explanation, even though, as a former boozer herself, she should be able to see right through the excuses. But never mind all that; Strangers With Candy is not a show we turn to for its emotional insight. Besides, Jerri’s blind acceptance sets her up for the spectacular embarrassment of the episode’s final act, and that’s all that really matters.
On stage, Jerri can’t remember a single line of dialogue and continually has to turn to Jellineck, who’s curled up in a crate a few feet away, for cues. It goes like this:
Jerri: “He finally come into his manhood today, didn’t he? Line?”
Jellineck: “Kind of like a rainbow.”
Jerri: “Kind of like a rainbow… Line?”
Jellineck: “Of magnificent colors.”
Jerri: “Of magnificent colors. Line?”
It’s unclear whether Jerri is distracted by her domestic situation, or if she’s just naturally terrible. (My guess is the latter.) In either case, the audience doesn’t seem to mind. They leap to their feet and give Jerri a standing ovation. (Again, it’s another example of how everyone in the Strangers With Candy universe is a little off—not just Jerri.)
The triumph is short-lived: Sara drunkenly rushes the stage to present her stepdaughter with a ham, slams into Jellineck’s beautiful scenery (a cardboard sun with a giant raisin stuck to it), and is accidentally hoisted to the rafters, where she gleefully relives her Peter Pan glory. Jerri is humiliated, but eventually, with some help from Craig, she learns a valuable lesson. “Sometimes it’s better to be a happy, gin-soaked grape, than an anguished raisin in the sun,” Jerri says, resting her hands theatrically on her hip as music swells in the background.
The episode ends with a coda that’s kind of a spoof within a spoof: The music stops, Jerri takes a seat in a director’s chair, and a crew member removes her wig to reveal identical hair beneath it. “We had a lot of fun tonight with the idea of alcoholism,” Jerri says directly to the camera. “But the strange fact remains that eating disorders plague America’s children.” Of course, there’s really nothing in “Dreams On The Rocks” about eating disorders—unless you count all the cracks about Jerri’s weight—and the reference is merely another one of the non sequiturs this show just loves to throw around.
But the whole scene is also very obviously inspired by those celebrity direct-address PSA’s of the ’80s, in which stars like Jon Bon Jovi, Bill Cosby, Madonna, and, um, Joanna Kerns warned young people about the dangers of drugs, unprotected sex, and forest fires (another popular thing was to end a “very special episode” of a TV show with a brief epilogue in which a star would appear out of character and direct viewers to a 1-800 number or some such). What the scene nails is the whole “gettin’ real” vibe these PSAs strove for—in the ’80s “telling it like it is” always seemed to require sitting backward in a chair. It’s just like Brecht always said: The best way to get teens to heed your advice is by breaking the fourth wall.
- You can watch this episode here.
- Jerri repeatedly refers to a character called “Zobo” who’s actually called “Bobo.” (The way Sedaris pronounces “Zobo” may be the funniest things about her performance in this episode.)
- Guiltiest moment of laughter: Jellineck announces that he has had trouble casting the role of Walter, “the young, attractive-yet-troubled son,” so they eliminated it. Cut to a shot of three young, attractive black guys shrugging as if to say, “Well, that makes sense.”
- “Dreams On The Rocks” closes with Chuck Noblet giving a staged reading of the Langston Hughes poem that inspired A Raisin In the Sun , “Harlem.” In his most pretentious cadence, he wonders, “What happens to a dream deferred?” Then the lights come on and Jerri, Craig, and Jellineck join him in a robotic line dance.
- Pointing to her torso, then her hips, Jellineck gives Jerri some pointers on gaining weight: “Concentrate on this region. You’re selling it down here.”
- Principal Blackman introduces himself as “Onyx” at the Ala Coholics meeting.
- Noblet: “Following his violent revolution, Gandhi was devoured by his followers.”
- Sara to Jerri: “Get your filthy convict hands off of me.”
- Craig’s off-stage wardrobe is exactly what every vaguely artsy high school theater guy would have worn in the ’90s.
- Paul Dinello is also great in this episode as he transforms from mild-mannered art teacher into an abusive, egomaniacal director. I especially enjoy the scene where he lectures Jerri about her performance, piling three chairs on her various limbs so she can fully comprehend Mama’s “emotional baggage.”
- Sara: “Look at me. I’m a size 8!”