Saturday, November 5, 2011

Raunchy Humor's Comeuppance Is In Repetition: Strangers With Candy The Complete Series!

The Good: Price, Humor, Some of the DVD bonuses, Bundle pack does not punish fans.
The Bad: REPETITIVE!, Lack of character development, repetitive quality, Comics perform more than act, Sense of repetition
The Basics: When Jerri Blank returns to high school at age 46, she finds herself getting into all sorts of new problems over and over again in Strangers With Candy The Complete Series.

For those who read - and presumably enjoy - my DVD reviews, they will likely know that I have a real problem with television complete series boxed sets. Yes, my reviews are somewhat serialized or have the recurring theme that production companies that release boxed set DVDs of an entire series after first releasing each season are punishing loyal fans who have bought all along when they include addition DVD material. Paramount this week released Star Trek: The Next Generation - The Complete Series (reviewed here!) to attempt to milk Trekkers for all they are worth by including a disc with less than ninety minutes of new material. Happy 20th Anniversary! Conversely, boxed sets like The West Wing - The Complete Series (reviewed here!) where bonus materials are simply collectible things like scripts and do not offer any additional DVD content, I applaud. These offer "last-minute" buyers the opportunity to get everything all in one place - usually saving space in the process - without punishing those who bought all along with incentives that true fans are likely to want. Strangers With Candy - The Complete Series on DVD falls into the latter category.

And that's quite possibly the last comparison you'll ever see between The West Wing and Strangers With Candy.

Strangers With Candy - The Complete Series is a bundle pack comprising the previously released six discs of Strangers With Candy Seasons 1- 3. The six discs are the same pressings as before with packaging that is a little slimmer than the three season sets when previously sold separately. There is no additional content on the DVDs; these are the pressings as they were originally made repackaged as one complete series. This boxed set does not include the feature film. For those unfamiliar with Strangers With Candy, this short-lived television show appeared on Comedy Central for three ten-episode seasons, making the collection thirty-one episodes including the pilot. The unaired pilot was essentially reworked as the fourth episode, but both appear on the DVD. The show is largely episodic; episodes do not build consequences, so every episode essentially restarts the series. Here's a thumbnail of the concept:

Jerri Blank is a forty-six year-old ex-prostitute, ex-drug addict, and ex-jailbird. She has returned home to her parent's house to reform her life after getting out of jail for the last time. Thus, she enrolls at Flatpoint High as a freshman to restart her life and try to fly right. However, she runs into obstacles in the form of the other students, her own vices and the often crazy teachers and administrators whose indifference or destructive advise often steer her back toward the life she left behind. Her family life is not much better; her father does not speak, her stepmother loathes her and her half-brother is an abusive jock.

What follows, then, is Jerri's attempts to fit in. In order to try to make friends or plea bargain away from other crimes she's committing, she spies on students to see if they are mentally retarded, befriends a new student, develops an eating disorder, rediscovers her love of drugs, buys back her virginity, and learns to read. As well, Jerri joins a cult, becomes obsessed with getting the popular sneakers, contracts syphilis, learns about her Native American heritage, takes steroids, starts an advice column, and deals with bullies.

Strangers With Candy is essentially a spoof of after school specials from the 1970's and 1980's. I wish I could call it a satire, but the truth is, it seldom rises to anything quite as smart. Instead, Strangers With Candy is mired in the crudest forms of humor one might imagine, with fairly constant humor about Jerri's excessive and indiscriminate libido, past, and drug additions. There are an inordinate number of gay jokes, which - in part - stems from the fact that Jerri is sexually indiscriminate. It's the type of humor that references donkey shows . . . repeatedly. My point here is not that the show is not funny, but rather that it is emblematic of a certain juvenile humor that is either an acquired taste or just something most adults grow out of.

Strangers With Candy - The Complete Series suffers then because it is the same type humor over and over again. Is it funny to watch Jerri Blank take on a topical issue like steroid abuse? Sure. After school specials were so schmaltzy and predictable and obvious - despite their noble message - that they are ripe for parody. The problem with this series is that it attacks virtually every problem, every topical issue, the same way, leading to a remarkable sense of repetition between the episodes and making the series seem very repetitive, a weakness that becomes quite obvious when one sits and watches all thirty half-hour episodes in a short timeframe.

Because each episode the topic being mocked changes, the constants that define the series are the characters. The essential characters for Strangers With Candy include:

Jerri Blank - At forty-six, she's looking to get away from her life of crime, drugs and prostitution and start over as a high school student. This brings her back to her hometown high school, Flatpoint High. There, she tries to fit in by befriending Tammi Littlenut and ethnic minority Orlando, but she finds this is not enough to make her popular or fit in. Tormented by her younger half-brother, she usually finds herself confiding in Mr. Noblet or Jellineck or rushing home to her home to her indifferent stepmother,

Principal Onyx Blackman - Flatpoint High's dignified, yet lecherous, principal, he rules the school like his own private fiefdom. He is oblivious to most of what his students do until it reflects upon him and he spends his time trying to maintain the image of Flatpoint High with as little interaction with its staff and students as he can afford,

Mr. Noblet - Married, but having a homosexual affair with Jellineck, Noblet is Jerri's history teacher. Bored with students, he is self-centered and conniving, often lecturing about values but displaying nothing so solid as a moral core from himself. He frequently uses Jerri to meet his own needs,

Mr. Jellineck - The art teacher and a fairly effeminate stereotype of a homosexual, he is possibly the most self-centered teacher at Flatpoint High, often dispensing the least useful advice to Jerri. He is flaky and pretentious, often steering Jerri toward following her instincts (which, considering Jerri's instincts, usually leads to disaster),

Derrick - Jerri's half-brother. He's basically a dumb jock who is far more popular than Jerri and delights in abusing his older sister,

and Sara Blank - Jerri's stepmother who would rather drink than deal with Jerri or her problem.

On the commentaries and at the Museum of Television and Radio presentation on the DVDs, writers, creators and actors Paul Dinello, Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert and Mitch Rouse all talk about how the characters were intended to be entirely selfish and that much of the show dealt with how every character's self-absorption led them to be unhelpful to Jerri. None of the characters truly listen and as a result, Jerri is often left to flounder on her own and she falls into her old habits more often than not, which is unsurprising given her lack of mental fortitude.

As for the acting, most of it is truly hard to judge. The old adage that great casting makes for great performances certainly applies with Strangers With Candy. Stephen Colbert essentially plays the same deadpan satirical character that he portrayed on The Daily Show and now The Colbert Report. That is not to say Colbert is not talented; he is. But on virtually all of his Comedy Central enterprises, he's filling the same comedic niche and while he does it well, it's nothing new.

Greg Hollimon plays Principal Blackman and his performance is noteworthy in that it often involves delivering the most offensive or nasty lines with a dignified tone. Hollimon is an expert with his poker face and rigid posture. He has an exaggerated leadership quality that makes his role work perfectly and he executes the part quite well.

But it is Amy Sedaris as Jerri Blank who is charged with carrying the show. The indication of her ability is evidenced mostly through the behind-the-scenes footage. Sedaris is nothing like the horrible little troll that she portrays Jerri as. Much of this is the function of wardrobe, make-up and hairstyling, but the truth is Sedaris keeps her posture and voice consistent for the entire series. Her transformation into Jerri is pretty nasty, but she is convincing as the whiny, malformed Freshman. But her biggest acting challenge is in establishing the character. Once Sedaris created Jerri, the role did not call for her to evolve Blank and as a result, Sedaris' biggest leap as an actress occurs in the first episode and never truly progresses beyond that. She just keeps recreating her initial performance over and over again without altering it.

On DVD, the series has some decent bonuses. There are nine commentaries and they are amusing for one listen, but are not particularly insightful or entertaining. Most of them degenerate into the cast and crew simply watching the show and patting themselves on the back. There is the unaired pilot, a number of deleted scenes spread over the three seasons, and a featurette. The best bonus is the interview with the cast and creators at the Museum of Television and Radio. But even that repeats some of the material from the commentaries.

And that truly is the death of Strangers With Candy. Any one disc would be a fine, entertaining and worthwhile form of entertainment. The problem is, it simply repeats itself. Every episode follows the same formula presenting an issue from an after-school special and then tearing it apart with the indifference and mockery viewers come to expect from the series. But they tear every issue apart the same way, making similar jokes along the way, until the viewer is numbed to the humor because . . . well, we've seen it before.

It is no surprise the show only lasted thirty half-hour episodes; the only surprise is that there was enough of a market to sell that repetitive experience to its fanbase to watch over and over and over again on DVD.

For a more complete idea of exactly what this bundle pack contains, check out my reviews on the three individual seasons on DVD, reviewed at:
Strangers With Candy Season 1
Strangers With Candy Season 2
Strangers With Candy Season 3


For other television reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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