Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 5, 2008)
In another backwards move ala my viewing of Firefly and Serenity, I decided to take a look at Strangers with Candy the TV series after I’d watched Strangers with Candy the feature film. In the case of Firefly, I went back to check out the episodes because I liked the flick so much. Although the Candy movie didn’t enchant me, I thought it had potential and heard good things about the series.
That was enough to plop me in front of the set to watch all three seasons packaged in this release. A recap of the premise: junkie ex-con Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris) dropped out of high school at 14. 32 years later, she returns to complete her education.
Strangers with Candy: The Complete Series includes all 30 episodes spread across its six discs. I’ll check them out in the order presented here. The plot synopses come straight from the DVD’s packaging.
DVD ONE (Season One, Part One):
Old Habits, New Beginnings: “Jerri uses her knowledge of drugs in a bid to become popular, killing a cheerleader and her pet turtle in the process.”
I can’t imagine how audiences reacted to “Habits”. As the first episode broadcast, you’d expect more set-up for the premise. Instead, Jerri gives us a brief intro at the start and that’s it. We get very little info about any of the characters or situations, as the show simply throws us in without warning. I don’t know how I’d react to that if I’d not already seen the movie; it acts as a “prequel” that clearly delineates all of the issues.
Despite the lack of exposition, “Habits” launches things pretty well. It conveys the main characters pretty smoothly as it hints at various personality trends. It also makes sure we grasp the series’ dark comedy right off the bat. The show is shot and performed like a melodramatic Afterschool Special but goes for a considerably nastier – and funnier – tone. “Habits” starts us off nicely.
A Burden’s Burden: “In order to teach students the responsibility of taking care of a baby, Coach Wolf (Sarah Thyre) gives each student a baby.”
“Burden” brings in a significant new character: Jerri’s classmate Tammy Littlenut (Maria Thayer). She plays a big part in the movie, so I assume she’ll pop up a lot here. She creates a nice counterpart to Jerri due to her innocence and willingness to please, though it’s tough to see how they’ll become friends given their antagonistic start. Jerri’s complete inability to develop any sense of responsibility – and the clearer emergence of her lesbian side – help make this an amusing show.
Dreams on the Rocks: “Jerri’s starring role in the school plays stirs up a dangerous cocktail of jealousy and regret in her stepmother Sara (Deborah Rush).”
“Dreams” didn’t need a story to succeed; they could’ve just played the super-dated Raisin in the Sun and it would’ve been just as funny. Some of the gags don’t seem inspired on paper – like the casting of whites in the roles despite the presence of so many black actors in the high school – but they work in reality. Add to that a wonderfully bizarre ending and the episode does well for itself.
Who Wants Cake?: “Jerri is told she must help Principal Blackman (Greg Hollimon) out by turning snitch and rooting out the school retard of she wants to go on the school trip to Good Time Island.”
As someone who works with intellectually challenged kids, I should probably be offended by this program’s ludicrous claims about the mentally retarded. However, the program clearly uses them to mock those who fear anyone out of the norm and it does so with hilariously absurd concepts. Those elements allow this one to be fun.
Bogie Nights: “Jerri falls for a transfer student and later discovers the terrible secret that will keep them apart forever.”
After one episode about ostracized students, we get another. Yeah, it twists things so it doesn’t become a carbon copy of “Cake”, but it still seems a little too close for me. Though it throws out some laughs, “Bogie” doesn’t ever really get moving.
DVD TWO (Season One, Part Two):
Let Freedom Ring: “Flatpoint High is up at arms to find out ‘whodunit’ after someone scrawls a racial slur on the wall.”
This episode manages to combine the usual warped “Afterschool Special” vibe of the series with a mystery. Tim Meadows offers a pretty good guest turn, and the theme allows the show to poke fun at excessive sensitivity. Add to that Principal Blackman dressed as a squirrel and the program works.
Feather in the Storm: “Jerri finds her calling on the debate team, but can she make it through the dangerous physical training for the big competition?”
Here we find a typically irreverent take on eating disorders. I like the ways in which the adults pressure the kids to be thin, as those add a little extra bite to the show. It’s hard to beat the annoying eating disorders song Jerri constantly hears, too.
To Be Young, Gifted and Blank: “Noblet (Stephen Colbert) discovers that Jerri is a violin prodigy and ruthlessly grooms her to become the star he always wanted to be.”
Despite a smattering of laughs, “Blank” doesn’t really go anywhere. Maybe the series can’t handle such a heavy concentration on Noblet. Some of his flashbacks are moderately amusing, but too much of the show falls flat.
Jerri Is Only Skin Deep: “Desperate to become homecoming queen, Jerri concocts some unique strategies to eliminate the competition.”
Season One rebounds a bit with “Deep”. Jerri’s pathetic attempts to become homecoming queen are good, and some of the goofiness at the pageant also succeed. It doesn’t turn into anything amazing, but it entertains.
The Trip Back: “Jerri reverts to her old ways and succumbs to drugs in an attempt to win the affection of a beautiful female stoner.”
We end Season One with a story that brings Jerri full circle – and finds a way to keep her in 9th grade again for Season Two. Some of Jerri’s dope-smoking escapades become the best parts here, and the show finishes the year on a good note.
DVD THREE (Season Two, Part One):
The Virgin Jerri: “In this episode, Jerri reclaims her virginity and fights her animal instincts, as a date with a notorious cherry popper threatens to end her mission of purity before it’s begun.”
It’s hard to top the concept of a re-virginized Jerri. She’s the sluttiest of the sluts, so her futile attempts to fight her intense interest in sex provides plenty of opportunities for comedy. Granted, it’s hard to imagine studly Drake would go for an old scag like Jerri, but it works for the show.
Behind Blank Eyes: “Jerri falls for an ambitious blind boy named Alan who despite staunch opposition from the school, aspires to play football for Flatpoint High.”
Though “Eyes” entertains, it doesn’t fit all that well with our notions of Jerri. She seems too nice and understanding, as she’s not the one we’d expect to be so supportive of the handicapped kid. Yeah, her sexual desires appear to motivate most of her actions, but I still don’t think it makes sense for her. A few funny moments help with the show – especially when the intolerant football players taunt Alan - but it’s a bit below average.
Yes You Can’t!: “During Career Week at Flatpoint, Mr. Jellineck (Paul Dinello) quits to follow his dream of being a painter, while Jerri tries to discover just what her dreams are.”
Am I the only one who finds Jellineck to be a dull character? He does little for me, so that makes an episode with so much focus on him come across as ordinary at best. Some of the parts about career choices are pretty good, though, so they help redeem the show.
The Goodbye Guy: “The Blanks are stricken with a death in the family, and now Jerri must learn how to deal with the loss of an important figure in her life.”
Even if “Guy” stunk, I’d like it just because it gets rid of Jerri’s dad. The gags about his frozen status got old many episodes ago, so it makes me happy I won’t have to endure any more of them. Jerri’s attempts to deal with grief add perverse levity as well and make this a solid episode.
The Blank Page: “With dreams of becoming a cheerleader, Jerri attempts to learn how to read and overcomes the shame of her illiteracy.”
Isn’t it a little late for Jerri to be presented as illiterate? It seems to me we must’ve seen her read in prior episodes, and now she can’t even recognize her own name? Not that this is a series that prides itself on seamless continuity, of course, and it musters some good laughs at Jerri’s expense.
Hit and Run: “Jerri and Mr. Noblet must deal with intense guilt after playing a part in a horrible hit and run accident that has robbed Mr. Jellineck of his most prized possession, his face.”
Given my dislike of Jellineck, it pleased me to hope that maybe this episode would kill him off. That doesn’t happen, unfortunately, but at least the show brings out quite a few good laughs. Oh, and it throws in some really hot girls in bikinis, which makes it a classic for me!
DVD FOUR (Season Two, Part Two):
To Love, Honor and Pretend: “The lines of reality begin to blur together during a fake marriage exercise in health class led by Coach Wolf and Mr. Jellineck, who act as an example of a ‘good marriage’ for students – including a clueless Jerri – to follow.”
To my surprise, the Jellineck parts of “Honor” work the best. The tension between Jellineck and Noblet becomes quite amusing and makes this episode a good one. Jerri’s side has its moments as well, but expect the Jellineck material to be the funniest.
The Blank Stare – Part 1: “Looking for love in all the wrong places, Jerri drops out of Flatpoint High to join a freaky cult.”
Whenever I confront a two-part episode, I save my comments for the discussion of the second part. So go there now!
The Blank Stare – Part 2: “The Flatpoint faculty kidnaps Jerri in a desperate attempt to deprogram her from a cult clone back to a high school drone.”
How odd is it to see a story in which Jerri is the one who espouses common sense? That’s what happens in the pretty entertaining two-part show. We find a fun guest turn from Alan Tudyk and many amusing moments. The extra length stretches the premise a bit thin, but the show’s still a winner.
A Price Too High for Riches: “When an expensive sneaker takes Flatpoint by storm, a financially challenged Jerri learns that sometimes money is a girl’s best friend.”
After a few consecutive positive programs, we hit a dud with Season Two’s final episode. “Price” suffers from a predictable theme and a general lack of inspiration. Even the Flairs commercial parody seems forgettable. A few minor laughs emerge here, but don’t expect much.
DVD FIVE (Season Three, Part One):
Jerri’s Burning Issue: “Jerri learns the hard way that ‘chlamydia is not a flower’ – just in time for the big school dance.”
If “Issue” is an indication, Season Three finds Candy going for broader comedy than ever. While the series never resided in the world of reality, it becomes even more over the top here. Perhaps the rest of the year will work better, but “Issue” goes a little too nuts for its own good. The show telegraphs so many of its potential laughs that fewer than usual connect.
Is Freedom Free?: “Jerri’s nude self-portraits ignite a censorship showdown at Flatpoint High.”
If I hoped that “Issue” would be atypical, “Freedom” proves me wrong. It goes with gags as broad as those in the prior episode, and it stretches logic to do so. All of a sudden Jerri’s obsessed with a Marilyn Manson-style rocker called Buddah Stalin out of nowhere, a factor that acts as a blatant plot contrivance. The show’s a bit funnier than “Issue”, but it’s still a disappointment compared to the higher quality of the first two seasons.
Trail of Tears: “Jerri must confront her racist views when a secret from her past reveals surprising news about her heritage.”
After some lackluster shows, “Trails” rebounds with its relentlessly non-PC content. It throws out a nonstop parade of amusing idiotic racist material. Add in a good guest spot from Will Ferrell and this one’s a winner.
Invisible Love: “Jerri learns the key to self-respect: keeping your boyfriend happy - while making out with him in a trash can.”
In terms of story, “Love” feels scattered. It throws in subplots with Noblet/Jellineck as well as Stew, so things become too cluttered. In addition, the Noblet/Jellineck thread feels a little tired, though it does muster some laughs. The show works acceptably well but doesn’t thoroughly succeed.
Is My Daddy Crazy?: “Jerri learns the value of sanity when Stew (David Pasquesi), her mom’s meat man, goes nuts.”
I think Stew is one of the series’ least interesting characters, so an entire episode based around him doesn’t work for me. This makes “Crazy” rather blah. There’s just too much Stew and not enough story.
DVD SIX (Season Three, Part Two):
Blank Relay: “Jerri tries to boost her track performance and gets trapped in a sordid world of steroid abuse.”
Ooh, steroids – like it’s been torn from today’s headlines! Unfortunately, the comedy doesn’t translate, so “Relay” gives us stale gags such as chicks with facial hair. The episode really drags before too long, as it stretches its one lame joke so thin that we quickly lose interest. This is a weak program.
Ask Jerri: “When Flatpoint High turns to Jerri for an advice column, Jerri turns to sex, drugs and rock and roll.”
Season Three rebounds a bit with the pretty decent “Ask”. It’s simply amusing to find Jerri as an advice columnist – one who dispenses with terrible recommendations, of course. The episode is too erratic to become a real winner, but at least it’s better than its predecessor.
There Once Was a Blank from Nantucket: “When Jerri finds herself the victim of sexual harassment, she must decide whether to put out, put up or shut up.”
It seems weird to get a new character after so many shows, but Jazzy the music teacher arrives here – and adds a lot to his only episode. He’s a good parody of the jazz musician stereotype and he makes the most of his time onscreen. It’s also amusing to see Jerri play victim when she actually likes the sexual harassment. This means “Nantucket” marks a good episode.
Bully: “Jerri and Jellineck have close encounters of the school bully kind.”
Two new characters show up here, both of whom appear for plot contrivances. Tidbits the homophobic substitute teacher is the more interesting of the two, especially when he dismisses much of history due to gay-related issues. Jerri’s attempts to avoid a fight are also amusing, though Edie the new girl in school is too ordinary to make an impact. Still, it’s a generally good episode.
The Last Temptation of Blank: “Jerri falls in with the cool crowd as part of a makeover bet, while Flatpoint High is slowly turned into a strip mall.”
Guest star alert! Winona Ryder does a nice job as super-cool but bitchy Fran, and Paul Rudd throws in a good bit as a popular boy. A few other guests help make this a fine conclusion to the series. It’s one of the best episodes in a while.
By the way, is it just me, or is it oddly unsettling to see Jerri post-makeover? Sedaris still plays her with all the same grotesque facial tics, but these seem more disturbing when seen on an attractive Jerri.