There was nothing like Square Pegs on television until Square Pegs arrived on television. Honestly, it felt like there was nothing in the world quite like Square Pegs, a sitcom about teenage girls trying to “click with the right clique,” until it showed up on CBS in September 1982.
In the late 1970s and ’80s, other TV series did feature young girls as protagonists or significant side characters. There was Laura and her sisters on Little House on the Prairie, Joanie on Happy Days, Julie and Barbara on One Day at a Time, the students at the all-girls Eastland School on The Facts of Life, and every TV character played by Janet Jackson, meaning both Penny on Good Times and Charlene on Diff’rent Strokes. But there were not young women like Patty Greene (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Lauren Hutchinson (Amy Linker), two smart, awkward high-schoolers constantly strategizing about how best to navigate the sociocultural thicket of teenage life. When I say that teen film and television as we know it might not exist without Square Pegs, it’s really not an exaggeration. Mean Girls, Freaks and Geeks, all the John Hughes movies, PEN15, My So-Called Life — all of it owes a significant debt to a groundbreaking series that, in what would become a depressing tradition for great teen television, was canceled after one season.
That groundbreaking series was created by Anne Beatts, who, prior to launching her own series, was a Saturday Night Live writer in the show’s earliest days, when she was one of few women making comedy in a male-dominated funhouse. Beatts died this week at the age of 74, and in her honor, it feels necessary to remind people, once again, what Beatts contributed to popular culture with Square Pegs.
I say “once again” because in 2020, we published a series in New York Magazine called The Lost Canon, celebrating artists who, over the years, had not been given their proper due for their work. I chose to write about Beatts and much of what is in that piece helps explain why Square Pegs was such a fabulous anomaly in the early 1980s. Beatts staffed the writers’ room with all women and only one man, Andy Borowitz. Of the 20 episodes that made it on the air, half were directed by women.
Square Pegs also didn’t look like the sparkly, three-camera family sitcoms that dominated the medium at the time. It was shot single-camera style, in the abandoned Excelsior High School in Norwalk, California, the same place where Grease 2 was shot during the same era. The things the kids were concerned about — dating, getting invited to parties, becoming addicted to Pac-Man — were mined for comedy but also taken seriously. As Beatts explained in a Rolling Stone feature published in April 1983, there was a bit of herself in all the characters on the show, but especially Parker’s Patty.
“I had a best friend like Lauren, and we both had very dry senses of humor,” she told the magazine. “Sarcastic. I remember a teacher saying to us that she was sick and tired of our blasé, cynical attitude. We were in seventh heaven. It didn’t matter that we had no tits — we were blasé.”
As James Wolcott noted in a review of Square Pegs for New York, what one teacher termed blasé came across as intelligent in the context of Beatts’s series: “In the Saturday Night Live tradition, smartness on Square Pegs means being deft, off-hand, ironic, in-the-know — in a word, media-hip.”
Square Pegs and its characters were definitely media-hip. They regularly made references to contemporary movies and music. The Waitresses sang the theme song and Devo showed up to play at the bat mitzvah of Muffy Tepperman, a type-A school leader played by Jami Gertz who regularly clapped her hands and said, “People,” as if everything she said was a major announcement. Another character, Johnny Slash (Merritt Butrick), whose personality was best described as “into New Wave,” wore his Walkman headphones in every scene. His best friend, Marshall (John Femia), was a comedy nerd long before comedy nerds had become acceptable in the mainstream.
The idea that these kids talked about pop culture so much and with such interest was something, and I cannot stress this enough, that was not happening on television at the time. That may sound inconceivable to anyone whose memories of pop culture start in the 1990s or later, but the early 1980s was a less meta time. You didn’t see many characters doing that in film or TV, period, let alone teens. To say that I personally felt very seen, to the point where I recapped every episode to my friends the next day at school whether they wanted to hear about it or not, is an understatement.
In the piece I wrote about Beatts last year, I mentioned a TV Guide article that was published after Square Pegs’ demise. The headline on that article: “Anatomy of a Failure: How Drugs, Ego, and Chaos Helped Kill Square Pegs.” After my piece ran, Beatts wrote an email to the magazine, thanking us for the nice tribute but also clarifying what that TV Guide headline got wrong. I always wanted to follow up and talk more about Square Pegs, but regrettably, I never got around to it. So instead, I’ll let her speak for herself via that letter. Even in a simple email, her writing remained as sharp and “media-hip” as ever.
Dear New York Magazine:
Many thanks for the unexpectedly complimentary and perceptive evaluation of my career in your issue of January 6–19th. However, I would like to set the record straight on one point. Despite TV Guide’s sensationalist exposé, drugs, ego, and chaos did not kill Square Pegs. Low ratings did.
The highest audience share Square Pegs ever received was a 24, which now would make you the queen of Hollywood, but was considered inadequate for CBS, then the leading “Tiffany network.” In ratings competition Pegs was facing Little House on the Prairie and Monday Night Football, both certified ratings-grabbers. When Harvey Shepherd, a top CBS executive who had always had a fondness for Square Pegs, decided to “save the show” by moving it to 8:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, with a “wonderful new show” as lead-in called Zorro and Son, NBC promptly counter-programmed by moving its hit The A-Team to 8 p.m. opposite both shows. Such were the days before DVR and streaming.
When I phoned CBS for the overnights the next Thursday morning, the chipper young girl on the phone told me the share was 12, so we had lost roughly half our audience in one week. Then she asked me for a job. I should have told her, with timing like that, stay out of the comedy business. I knew the show was doomed, proving the accuracy of what Lorne Michaels had told me when I asked why his show was called Saturday Night: “So the network can remember when it’s on.”
The cancellation was confirmed a month later when NBC’s Dick Ebersol kindly phoned me at Jane and Patrick Curtin’s country house to confirm the news. Patrick brought me a rather large Irish whiskey to console me. I appreciate that there was no place in your article for an elaborate recounting of internecine broadcast struggles from the distant past, and it’s true that by that point my ego was in chaos, but no drugs were involved.