|TELEVISION REVIEW |
Summer television reruns got you down? Tune into Comedy Central'sStrangers with Candy, which just kicked off a brand-spankin'-new season.
BY CHRISTOPHER McQUAIN
Strangers with Candy
You can get an autographed picture of Jerri Blank at http://comedycentral.com/swc/jerri.shtml.
There are people who plan to spend this summer doing admirably constructive things: vacationing with family, enjoying the sunshine, maybe even finally dusting off that unread Modern Library edition of the beach-read potboiler Anna Karenina. But what about those of us who dread having to spend a long, hot season in that arid desert of no new Simpsons episodes? Caught between Chandler's season-finale proposal to Monica and what are sure to be zany Friends wedding preparations in the fall, we lie awake at night, robbing ourselves of the precious sleep one needs to maintain a full television viewing schedule, fearing we may have to undergo a rerun of the Will and Grace episode with all the Tuesdays with Morrie references.
But not to fear! Sweet relief from the chills and shakes of summertime new-episode withdrawal is to be found in three little words: Strangers with Candy. (Obviously, Sex and the City is four words, and we all know that great show needs no further hype.)
Strangers with Candy has occupied the Monday night 10 o'clock slot on Comedy Central for about two years now; it began its third season June 19. Though its popularity lags behind that channel's more high-profile original programs like South Park and The Daily Show, its better episodes equal them for ingenuity and laughs.
SWC bills itself as "the after-hours after-school special" and gleefully exploits that genre's conventions--the maudlin music, the badly written, moralistic dialogue, the ludicrously melodramatic portrayals of teenage sordidness--to follow the ongoing misadventures of Jerri Blank, a 46-year-old ex-junkie, ex-hooker, ex-con who returns home to the suburbs in an attempt to reform. There, Jerri lives with her disdainful family and attends Flatpoint High, where the pecking order doesn't cut much slack for a 46-year-old who, with the harshness of 30 years on the streets and in jail apparent in her every physical attribute, "just wants to fit in."
Jerri is a sexually omnivorous tough cookie with no apparent redeeming qualities whose outward trashiness, aggression and hostility mask a deep-seated inner self-regard. She's played by Amy Sedaris, sibling of famous author and NPR commentator David Sedaris (with whom she has collaborated as a writer and performer). Having advised the wardrobe department that Jerri should "dress like someone who owns snakes," Sedaris embodies this character perfectly with an innately humorous Floridian/Valley-girl accent, teeth that make Austin Powers look like Ricky Martin, and hair that has the color and appeal of dishwater. The result is hideous, hysterical, and nearly Chaplinesque (like Charlie, Jerri is a hyper little oddball outsider struggling to get what she needs and wants, although she's infinitely more baleful than the little tramp ever was).
Sedaris' castmates--Paul Dinello and Stephen Colbert (as two married, homophobic Flatpoint teachers carrying on an indiscreet affair with each other) and Gregory Hollimon (as Principal Blackman, a black man)--play equally awful, self-absorbed people. Together, they're a more cutting, even less PC version of the narcissistic Seinfeld crew, but they somehow manage to make SWC's ruthlessly offensive skewering of bourgeois hypocrisy seem fun and even lighthearted.
The rule with SWC seems to be that the more unbelievably wrong the premise is, the better the episode. Though always well-written (cleverly parodying not only clichéd after-school-special dialogue but also the banality of everyday discourse), the series' funniest moments have occurred during such episodes as the one in which Jerri's illiteracy is discovered and she's shunned, or Principal Blackman attempts to weed out an undesirable retarded girl, or the drama teacher gives all the good roles to white students for the school production of A Raisin in the Sun.
By that standard, what I've seen of the show's new season seems a little tame, but subversive enough. In the first episode of the two-part season opener, Jerri, who has become so desperately lonely she's gone to the mall, is lured into a "collective cooperative community service operation outreach program project" called Safe Trap House, which she eagerly joins "as long as they're not a cult." Meanwhile, Principal Blackman shelters his students from the dangerous temptation of cults by hanging giant portraits of himself throughout the school, forcing the students to wear uniforms and employing mind-control techniques. In the second part, Jerri is simultaneously rescued and ejected from the cult; her bad behavior inspires Safe Trap House's benevolent leader to observe, "I'm afraid this is one little lamb we're going to have to let the wolves pick off."
But this program is proof that people behaving badly can be blessedly uproarious, at least on television. Those summertime rerun doldrums provide the perfect opportunity to give this brilliantly twisted, basic cable-dwelling satire a chance to steal some of the networks' mostly undeserved thunder. It's a long shot, but as Jerri Blank once wistfully said, "It's nice to hope for the thing you wish to want."
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