On Being Too Young for Square Pegs, and Loving It Anyway

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In 1982, Square Pegs hit CBS. Created by Anne Beatts, who previously wrote for National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live, the sitcom depicted the antics of high school kids trying to get, or maintain, their popularity. At the center of it were two angst-y freshman, schemer Lauren Hutchinson, and shy, talented Patty Greene. Unlike, say, Daria and Jane, these two young women wanted the popular life. And the harder they tried, the more likely they were to fail. Accompanying them on the misadventures were equally misfit boys Marshall Blechtman, an aspiring comedian, and Johnny Ulasewicz, AKA Johnny Slash—a new wave guy who dreamt of being in a band.

Square Pegs relied on a concept that has peppered television throughout the late 20th century—take a group of kids, stick them in high school, and watch them figure out who they are. Like other teen-centric shows that followed, it didn’t last long. Square Pegs was canceled after one season. However, unlike My So-Called Life or Freaks and Geeks, this short-lived sitcom has somewhat faded from the collective conscious of TV watchers. Today, it’s perhaps best known as the show that kickstarted the careers of Sarah Jessica Parker (Patty Greene), Jami Gertz (Muffy Tepperman), and Tracy Nelson (Jennifer DiNuccio). In its time, though, Square Pegs was an incredibly hip show, filled with quick banter that mixed social commentary with pop culture references. Take, for example, “Hardly Working,” the episode where rich girl Jennifer has to get a job. Clueless do-gooder Muffy wants to help, much to the chagrin of Patty and Lauren. That all leads to the following exchange.

Muffy: As one who has reaped the benefits of Reaganomics, it’s incumbent upon me to help those who have been shattered by them.

Patty: Muffy, whatever you do, don’t trickle down on Jennifer.

I was in kindergarten when Square Pegs aired, too young to get the Reaganomics joke, but old enough to understand than when Devo played Muffy’s Bat Mitzvah, in the episode of the same name, it was the coolest thing ever. My mom was a Square Pegs fan, and she would always let me watch it with her. I loved it instantly, for reasons that only I can only explain now as an adult.

My memories of the 1982-1983 school year are vague. I can recall running around the playground singing the big radio songs—”Our House” by Madness was a favorite—with my best friend, until we would get benched for being too rambunctious. I wanted to be a Go-Go, and had developed a crush on all the members of Duran Duran. Not long after winter break, my brother was born, and I was now the big sister to two little kids. There’s a great burden to being the first born, even when you’re six. You’re expected to teach the younger ones all the important things in life, like how to be cool, and how to get around mom and dad’s rules. But the downside is, there’s no one to teach you those things. During its short run, Square Pegs was the home of my fictional, surrogate older sisters, Patty and Lauren. They may have been the dorks of the series, but I thought they were phenomenally cool. Patty would say things that went over the popular kids’ heads, but made the adult viewers of the show laugh—she was too smart for high school. Lauren wore outfits that stood out from the crowd. The other kids just didn’t get her. Why Patty and Lauren wanted to hang around with the popular kids, I could never understand. Especially when their friend Johnny Slash was far more interesting.

Johnny Slash, played by Merritt Butrick (who died in 1989), was a rebel in the best way possible. He didn’t care about popularity, unless it meant getting to see his “ninth favorite band,” Devo, play live. He avoided conflict with the other cliques. Instead, Johnny walked around campus, half-asleep with headphones plugged into his ears. He was a dreamer, and he didn’t let the grown-ups at school kill those dreams.

But he also wasn’t your typical pop culture caricature of a rebellious teenager. On my list of crushes from that time, Johnny Slash was just about tied with the members of Duran Duran. He wasn’t punk. He was new wave and that—as he often explained—was a “totally different head.” He dyed his hair purple in the school bathroom, played with his band in the middle of a grocery store, and spoke as if he spent his time hanging out in neat places in “the City” where high school kids didn’t normally go. Years later, I still think Johnny Slash is one of the coolest characters to hit the small screen—an aspirational figure for anyone who longs to not give a shit, but still believes in being a decent person.

Square Pegs encapsulated everything that I came to associate with the 1980s: a mishmash of new wave tunes (The Waitresses provided the theme song), Saturday Night Live-influenced comedy (guest-stars included Bill Murray and Father Guido Sarducci), and questionable fashion choices. At the same time, though, it was a forward-minded show. In Square Pegs, the weird kids were a heck of a lot cooler than they thought they were. And even for someone like me, who was nearly a decade too young to live the life I saw on TV, that made an impact.

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