Square Pegs: The ’80s TV series that starred Sarah Jessica Parker, from its much-buzzed beginning to its surprise demise

Square Pegs TV show stars

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Square Pegs is one of the season’s best series (1982)

Watch out. The kids are hopping and bopping at Weemawee High School’s freshman class orientation hop.

“Rock Lobster” bubbles from the sound system. Then The Waitresses take the stage to sing “I Know What Boys Like.” And everything is cool, everyone is smiling. Except over there in the doorway, Patty Greene is having an anxiety attack, jousting with the fall’s first personality crisis.

Patty has a crush on a senior, Larry Simpson. “The one who looks like Laurence Olivier before he got old and did those camera commercials,” she had commented earlier upon first sighting the dreamboat.

A problem. Patty misunderstood and thought they had a date for the dance.

Square Pegs sitcom on Amazon

BUT DREAMBOAT Simpson turns out to be a nice person. He gently explains the foul-up. And she deals with the hurt in a pleasantly self-aware way. Smart girl, Patty Greene. And very, very witty.

“My life is over,” she says with theatrical self-deprecation to best friend Lauren Hutchinson. “I might as well dance with Johnny Slash.”

So off pogos Patty Greene with Master Slash, designated new-wave-punk boy of the freshman class. He’s nice, too. In fact, everyone at Weemawee High is a whole lot of fun. Not to mention a whole lot of funny.

And that’s the reason you should enjoy “Square Pegs,” a genuinely witty situation comedy about growing up absurd in the 1980s.

“SQUARE PEGS,” a CBS series that debuts at 8 tonight (Channel 2 in Detroit), is the creation of Anne Beatts, who won two Emmy Awards as one of the sharpest comedy writers for “Saturday Night Live.”

Cast of Square Pegs TV show with Sarah Jessica Parker

Though squarely aimed at a younger audience, the series is blessed with the sort of zingy intelligence that typifies the best sitcoms, such as “Taxi” or “M*A*S*H.”

It never condescends to its audience. The writing is pointed and carefully crafted. And the characters, ideally cast, are brimming with life.

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“Square Pegs” revolves around the friendship of Patty Greene (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Lauren Hutchinson (Amy Linker).

They are anxious ninth graders who are determined that they not be perceived as out-of-it nerds. And so they chase full tilt after popularity, only to eventually realize that they aren’t so uncool after all.

Patty and Lauren are not cartoon caricatures.

Dynamite Magazine cover - Square Pegs TV show with Sarah Jessica Parker

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WHAT A RELIEF. Their breezy good humor and self-deprecation is often used as a defense mechanism against the insecurities of being 14 vears old. Like the children on NBC’s fine new series, ‘Family Ties,” these young people relate in a very natural, human way.

Beatts, with her tight, aware writing, has seen to it that most of the humor in “Square Pegs” grows out of the situations, and out of the characters and their teenage emotional uncertainty. These kids say revealing, funny things that never sound like they escaped from some hack gagwriter’s stale typewriter.

To be sure, there are the stereotypical support characters:

THE NEW WAVER, Johnny Slash (Merrit Buttrick). A class clown, Marshall Blechtman (John Femia). A preppy head cheerleader, Muffy Tepperman (Jami Gertz). And even a Valley Girl, Jennifer DeNuccio (Tracy Nelson).

But these characters are deftly drawn and performed. The parody is always affectionate and knowing. And as a result, there’s an undeniable appeal to the members of Weemawee High’s freshman class.

Plus, the finger-popping energy level of “Square Pegs,” with Patty and Lauren spraying zingers and laugh lines at a crackling pace, is frankly infectious.

New comedy series premiere Square Pegs - September 1982

THESE KIDS may wisecrack like they’re in training to go to work in the creative department of some bonkers ad agency. But they aren’t too old for their roles. They look like teenagers and talk like teenagers with real teenage brains.

And rather than being fashionably cynical or jaded, they are blessed with just the right dose of healthy skepticism about the modern world. Which makes for some very bright, attractive situation comedy.

“Square Pegs,” easily one of the year’s best new series, is a winner.

New TV show: Square Pegs (1982)

The square pegs are Patty Greene (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Lauren Hutchinson (Amy Linker). Patty’s the smart, skinny, nearsighted one; Lauren’s the one with baby fat and braces. The round hole is Weemawee High, which they’ve just entered.

And that grinding noise you hear is the sound of these two kids trying desperately to fit in. But how? Patty and Lauren are not jocks, preppies, eggheads or creeps. You know what group that leaves: the popular kids.

The girls have already met the class beauty, Jennifer (Tracy Nelson, the daughter of Ricky Nelson); the class New Wave freak, Johnny Slash (Merritt Butrick); and the class clown, Marshall (John Femia). All they need now is a class act. Will they ever click with this clique?

Meanwhile, Lauren’s still waiting for her first kiss. Patty’s waiting for cleavage. But she’d settle for contacts. CBS.

Pictured (front, l-r): Sarah Jessica Parker. Amy Linker; (rear, L-R): Tracy Nelson, Merritt Butrick, John Femia.

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Square Pegs in TV Guide 1982

Square Pegs theme & opening credits

YouTube video

High school sitcom creator was a ‘square peg’ herself

“The ‘square pegs’ of high school never change. It’s not so much that the more popular students are really that special, it’s the perception of the less popular that makes them seem so. The popular kids don’t even know what they’ve done to be popular.”

That’s how Anne Beatts, creator-producer of CBS’s Monday night prime time lead-off series “Square Pegs,” perceives the age-old high school dilemma which most of us have gone through.

Now, make that funny and you’ve got a hit show, maybe. Anne Beatts accepted the challenge, and to everyone’s delight, she has carried it off.

“Square Pegs” is one of the few truly witty shows on the tube. There are lines in every half hour that you find yourself repeating the next day, and no one has to tell you how rare that is with most sitcoms.

Square Pegs creator Anne Beatts with Sarah Jessica Parker and Amy Linker

Anne Beatts came to “Square Pegs” after serving a long and fruitful association with “National Lampoon” and “Saturday Night Live” (when it was still funny — the one with Gilda, Belushi, Aykroyd).

After “SNL,” Beatts was beckoned by Hollywood and given the auspicious assignment of writing a new version of Clare Booth Luce’s “The Women” for MGM (Barbara Streisand was being mentioned for one of the leads).

As is the case with most Hollywood scripts, however, that one never saw the light of cameras.

Ms. Beatts then turned back to TV, something she knew more about, and decided to create a show about those unhappy teeners who hover in the outer circle of the high school in-crowd.

In the series, Sarah Jessica Parker and Amy Linker are the square pegs who yearn for acceptance.

By her own admission, Anne belonged to that group herself when she was in high school — her own description — “I was self-consciously flat-chested, wore glasses, and was painfully thin.”

Like most “square pegs,” however, Ms. Beatts survived (actually she admits, in retrospect. it doesn’t seem half as painful).

Amy Linker and Sarah Jessica Parker on Square Pegs vintage TV show from the 80s
Columbia Pictures Television

The idea for “Square Pegs” was a relatively easy sell. Anne said that CBS went for it almost from the first meeting. “I had a good feeling about the series getting sold when the people at the meeting started talking about their own high school experiences.”

Embassy TV jumped on the bandwagon, agreeing to produce it and, at one time, there was even a chance of doing it in New York.

However, concessions had to be made, so the Big Apple was out as the “Square Pegs” site.

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One thing Anne insisted upon was filming the series rather than taping it in front of a studio audience, which is the way most TV sitcoms are done these days.

Here, she won on almost every point and even got Embassy and CBS to agree to film the series on location at an actual high school that wasn’t being used (it’s located in Norwalk, Calif., and it’s perfect in every detail).

The principal’s office now doubles as Anne’s command post, and the corridors are always bustling with crew and cast.

Anne Beatts is really in an enviable position. There aren’t that many women producers of weekly TV shows. She’s the boss right down the line. (She claims little interference from the network as to the show’s content and dialogue).

The extras say good morning to her when she enters a room (probably hoping to fill a guest-student role in upcoming episodes) and the regulars listen attentively when she has something to say.

Anne is working harder than she ever has in her life, but it’s all worth it … the show has received rave reviews for the most part, and it looks as if “Square Pegs” fittingly will be around for a long run.

Stars of vintage TV show Square Pegs - Amy Linker and SJParker

Sarah Jessica Parker has a love-hate tie with TV

LOS ANGELES – When the series Square Pegs was canceled, Sarah Jessica Parker was told it was going off the air because, “It was critically successful, but otherwise unsuccessful.”

Her interpretation of that statement is: “Square Pegs didn’t have one sane adult. There were millions of kids watching all over North America, but no adult with half a brain wanted to watch because they didn’t want to see some idiot human being representing them.

“It was a kids’ show, told from the kids’ point of view, and in this case, the kids thought grownups were weird.”

Even though the 17-year-old Parker played the lead, as the straightlaced Patty, she didn’t actively pursue the part. “I only did TV by mistake,” she says.

“I didn’t really even want to do the show, but my agent thought it would be a good idea to audition and I had a space to fill between two midterm exams, so I did it. When I got the part, I tried everything I could think of to lose it.

“So, I told my agent to keep asking for more money. I figured that way I wouldn’t have to do the show, but I wouldn’t be slamming the door on my future in television.

“But, I was given more money every time I asked for it. In fact, it got so ridiculous that at one point they were going to buy out my performance in a play I was doing. It was crazy, so I did it.

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Dynamite 1983 - Square Pegs TV show stars

“I’m not going to tell you exactly how much I made, but it was between four and six thousand dollars per week and we shot a full season of 26 shows!

“That’s really good money, don’t you think? I mean top stars don’t get that kind of money on Broadway unless they have their names above the title of the play!”

Parker ended up having a lot more fun on Square Pegs than she expected, but the experience scared her. She is a child of the theatre, and is terrified she is going to be seduced by the money and the fame.

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She says: “It is frightening how much money there is in television. I came from a family of eight kids, and while we never went without, we were taught that money is not all that important. I don’t want to lose that teaching.

“I know that may sound like a cliche since I now own my own townhouse in Manhattan, but I want to act for my whole life. After only one season on TV, people namely agents, were thinking of me as Patty. I think it’s unfair because I have already done five years on Broadway and I can be lots of people.”

Columbia Pictures Television
Young Sarah Jessica Parker – Columbia Pictures Television

She first appeared on stage at age 11 with her older brother, Toby, in the Broadway production of The Innocents, with Claire Bloom. The next year, the whole family moved from Cincinnati to New York where Parker played Annie for two years.

An extremely talented young woman, Parker has even sung and danced with the Metropolitan Opera Company. She adores theatre, and every conversation is filled with Broadway gossip about who is being cast in what play.

Parker is a paradox. Part sophisticated actress, part giggly schoolgirl who is only slightly embarrassed to talk about the crush she has on the star of her current film Footloose. She claims to have acted “goofy” around Kevin Bacon.

“You see, when I was cast in Footloose, I didn’t know who else was in the film and I had a real ‘thing’ for Kevin Bacon,” she says.

“I used to watch him on The Guiding Light, and I went to see Diner four times — the first time to see the movie then three more times to look at Kevin. I had Diner posters on my bedroom wall, and I had all his reviews pasted in a book.

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“So when I got to the set of Footloose, this person was introducing me to everybody and she said: ‘And behind you is Kevin Bacon. He’s the star of the film.’ Well, I almost lost it! My heart was pounding so fast, I thought I was going to fall over.”

Parker now has a Kevin Bacon wall in the Manhattan home where she lives with her brother.

This time, she has a fit of giggles as she tells me: “I took more pictures of him than you could imagine. I was like a grandma in Florida. Every time he turned around, there I was with the camera.”

Square Pegs promo 1982 - SJP Jami Gertz Amy Linker - Patty Muffy Lauren

Rusty, the beautiful rebel Parker plays in Footloose will give her public and the casting agents another perspective on her acting abilities. “TV gave me this image as a square kind of weirdo, so I did Footloose because it shows me as the opposite,” she says.

Towards the end of our meeting, Parker almost completely confuses me by confiding that, despite this hour-long confession about her television fears, she is about to do a made-for-television movie called No Man’s Land, which will probably become a series.

Her simple explanation for this seeming contradiction is: “I couldn’t resist the story. It’s a Western about a woman who takes over as town sheriff when her husband dies.

“She has three daughters. The two oldest are really beautiful and the youngest — me — is a tomboy who wants nothing more in life than to be a deputy. She solves a big crime to prove to the town that she should get the job, even though she is only 15.”

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Why Square Pegs was canceled: Confusion killed TV comedy series (1984)

From The Evening Sun (Hanover, Pennsylvania) June 5, 1984

RADNOR, Pa. (AP) — TV Guide magazine has blamed poor management, conflicting egos and drugs on the set for the demise of the promising CBS television comedy “Square Pegs,”

In its June 9 edition, the magazine said a six-month investigation revealed that the short-lived show was a “case study in all that can go wrong.”

Despite critical praise for its originality, the show ran for just 20 episodes between September 1982 and May 1983, when it was canceled.

The show was created by “Saturday Night Live” writer Anne Beatts and was produced by Embassy Television.

“There were clashes of egos, of generations and of special interests; there were pitted people misused, abused and chronically confused; there were accusations of financial chicanery and of Machiavellian power plays — all at the sacrifice of creative quality. And there were drugs,” the magazine said.

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The magazine also reported that Michael Grade, then president of Embassy, ordered his own investigation after he received numerous reports of drug and alcohol use on the set. His investigation, he said, found no evidence of any wrongdoing.

It was not until later, the magazine said, that Grade learned Michael Brown, a crew member, died of a heroin overdose.

Ms Beatts denied, when asked by TV Guide, that drugs affected the show or that she personally used drugs. She also attributed problems to Grade, saying she really didn’t know why they couldn’t get along.

Set decorator Tom Cost said drugs were definitely present and Sarah Jessica Parker, who played one of the leads, said: “They knew, the few people who were doing it, that it would put the show in jeopardy.”

The magazine also quoted an unidentified writer for the show who said drugs were why the scripts came apart and the show died. “If you’re not sober, you can’t write good scripts,” the writer said.

But drugs did not totally kill the show, TV Guide said. The magazine said its investigation found “chronic disorganization resulting from” the producer’s “obsession for total control, plus late scripts, a breakneck production schedule, inexperienced personnel and a general atmosphere of paranoia on the set.”

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