Square Pegs

Sarah Jessica ParkerGiven the current surge in nostalgia for the 80s, it’s a good time for Hulu to reintroduce the world to Square Pegs. From 1982, the show centers around two geeky high school girls trying to fit in. It stars Sarah Jessica Parker, even before Footloose and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. Her co-star is Amy Linker who, according to IMDB hasn’t done anything since 1985. What I remember about this show is that the two lead actresses were on the cover of Dynamite magazine. Anyone? Dynamite magazine?

The show begins with the two of them talking, in voiceover, about their intentions to infiltrate the right cliques. “This year we’re gonna be popular,” the one with a slight Northern accent declares, “Even if it kills us.”

The pilot opens, as you might expect, on the first day of school. As the opening scene unfolds, at a pep rally, we learn that the one offering popularity instructions was braces-wearing Lauren (Linker). Glasses-wearing Patty (Parker) is her willing follower on the road to coolness. (See that? Glasses and braces are universal shorthand for geeky. Apparently Linker was also wearing padding to make her look fat, but she is only Hollywood fat, if anything.)

Lauren’s superior knowledge of who’s who gives the audience a chance to learn some names and ranks. The dreamiest guy in school is Larry Simpson. The most popular girl is Jennifer (Tracy Nelson – one of those Nelsons), who has a Princess Diana thing going on. Being popular also means talking with a Valley Girl accent, peppered with ‘like’s and ‘ya know’s. “Gross me out the door” she declares in once scene, prompted by nothing.

The pep rally scene also introduces Jami Gertz as Muffy Tepperman, the Patty Simcox of the group, and the token black student, L.D. The latter performs a song-and-dance number with the hideousness only the 80s could conjure.

For some reason the kids are dressed like it’s February, but forgetting that, the fashion paints us squarely in the 80s. Not in the send-up way that shows depict the 80s today, but realistically. )Seriously, we didn’t wear Madonna gloves and stirrup pants every day.) There are some really specific references to pop culture of the time too, like to a particular Budweiser commercial.

It takes a few scenes to get a feel for the tone of this show. Although it’s a half-hour comedy, it doesn’t feel like a sit-com. It’s single camera, with a lightly used laugh track. There’s a weightiness to it that would be seen in later shows like Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life, and still later, Glee. It’s nice to see high school girls drawn as intelligent and articulate, even if they do still turn to butter in the presence of dreamy senior boys. Although Patty is heartbroken to learn that Larry isn’t into her, she responds with, “Larry, you needn’t reproach yourself.” Actually, much of the episode’s humor derives from her intense seriousness.

Oddly, we never see any of the characters’ home lives. In a show of this kind, we expect to see fights with parents, rule breaking and groundings. The pilot takes us from the pep rally, to lunch, to gym class, and finally to a school dance. As a side note and further sign of the times, the Waitresses appear as the band playing the school dance. It’s as if the writers are letting us know that school is these characters’ whole world, which is how it often feels at age 14. “My life is over,” Patty observes at the end. And we know her life will end in some little way every week, because that what happens in high school.

Sex and the City

I have long held mixed feelings about Sex and the City. I never watched it regularly, but caught it here and there. There is something about it that holds my interest and makes me want to watch reruns that I catch while flipping channels; maybe it’s the gorgeous clothes, the excitement of New York City. At the same time, there is something that I really hate about this show. It’s a gut feeling; something primal. The feminist in me screams that something is very wrong, despite the fact that the show purports to be about independent, sexually liberated women.

To get to the bottom of this I decided to watch the pilot, which I had never seen before. I’m going to talk about the pilot as if I’ve never seen another episode, and this is all new. It’s June 1998. Sarah Jessica Parker is known to me as the chick from Girls Just Want to Have Fun… (cue flashback fx)

A narrator, our protagonist, speaks to the audience in voiceover. The story starts out seeming to be about an English journalist who moves to New York and finds love, then loses it. She turns out to be a sort of everywoman, representing single life in today’s New York… and the stereotypes start flowing. Women all want to get married, men don’t. Women are really, really picky about men. All single women are willing to spend $400 on a pair of designer shoes (news to me, but I don’t live in New York).

The information that will ostensibly form the rules of this TV world is delivered in the form of brief monologues by various New Yorkers. We know which ones are going to become regular characters, because they get their names, job titles, and marital status subtitled on the screen. The only guy who has anything remotely non-assholish to say about women, is naturally a computer geek with glasses and awful hair. It’s implicit that single women are friends only with other single women. Or a token gay man.

But, we’re told, a new age is dawning. In 1998, women “get” to treat men as sex objects. Objectification is a gift you give yourself. The four main female characters form a continuum of thought on this subject from bang-anything-that-moves to romance-is-still-possible. They talk about it and talk about it.

At the midpoint, our main character has sex “like a man,” getting hers with someone she hardly knows and then leaving with a thin excuse before he is satisfied. She is chagrined to find out, a few days later, that he’s okay with it. None of the other women fare too well on this particular evening, either. So we’re told that this is what the show is going to be about: women who try to be like men, only to find out that they’re still, you know, women. Through it all, Carrie keeps bumping into a business mogul whose name I don’t ever remember hearing, so we figure this will be a source of sexual tension to last the season, if not the series.

And what’s with all the smoking? Maybe it’s a New York thing. There was that fad in the 90s of women smoking cigars, but is Kim Cattrall with a giant stogie hanging out of her mouth attractive to anyone? At least to anyone who would watch a girl power show?

So here it is, the problem. The show is not really about single life in New York. It’s about the single life of upwardly mobile, hot women with hundreds of dollars to blow on shoes, who feel they’re being empowered by having sex. Now, whether or not promiscuous sex is empowering is, I suppose, a matter of personal opinion. And, Carrie very responsibly has a purseful of ribbed condoms, so we can supposedly write off concerns about safety. But are there only extremes? Hook the guy and start reeling, or simply hook up? We hope the show will be about finding the balance.