Strangers with Candy: The Complete Series and the movie (review)

Old School

In the neverending slate of movies about obnoxiously gorgeous teenagers having ridiculous amounts of sex and, oh, making killings on the stock market or getting killed by crazed axe murderers or whatever… Strangers with Candy is so far off that adolescent scale that it exists in its own demented parallel universe. No, scratch that: there’s demented, and then there’s the plain sick and twisted tastlessness and hilarious audacity of this afterschool special gone horribly, wonderfully wrong. It’s all the awful nightmare of high school shrink-wrapped and served back to us piping hot with snark and dripping with a secret sauce of extreme warpedness.

Now, if you’ve seen even some of the 30 afterschool-specials (that is, episodes) that constituted the 1999–2000 Comedy Central “sitcom,” the misadventures of 46-year-old Jerri Blank — “boozer, user, and loser” — will be less of a perverse revelation than if you come to its wild absurdity fresh. A teenage runaway for 32 years, Jerri is making up for lost time by going back to high school, where no one seems to notice her advanced age but everyone can peg her exact level of uncoolness to the nanometer. Strangers with Candy the TV series gave us Jerri already in the dreadful thrall of high school interpersonal politics, desperately vying to become one of the popular kids, while the movie rewinds just a bit to show Jerri’s return home — to the decades-comatose father (Dan Hedaya in the film); witchy, bitchy stepmother (Deborah Rush); and jock stepbrother (Joseph Cross), all of whom despise her with a casual passion — and initial dumping into the snakepit of cafeteria-table jockeying and science-fair machinations. But with the complete TV series just out on DVD, one of those suspicious “coincidences” of synergy marketing, those discovering this delicious oddity in either form can feast on the other — the few differences between the two incarnations aside, it’s all of a kind, and you either appreciate its uniquely off-kilter comedy or you don’t.
It comes down to buying comedienne Amy Sedaris (Chicken Little, Stay) as Jerri, whether the performer’s own deep strangeness makes you laugh or makes you uncomfortable… or if it doesn’t disturb you if she does both at the same time. Hidden under faux-fat padding and hideous makeup (electric-blue eyeshadow!), Sedaris navigates a weird realm somewhere near the intersection of pathetic, poignant, and parolee as Jerri, and her reeking desperation to be “normal” — and to let the world define for her what “normal” is — is as outrageous as it is more than a little sad. The world around Jerri — created for the TV series by Sedaris, Paul Dinello (who directs and costars here), and Stephen Colbert (also costarring) — is a wicked sendup of the artificial ecosystem of high school and the particular self-centeredness of teenagers, an incisive portrait of universal, individual myopia on the part of students and teachers alike, people so consumed with their own neuroses that they might as well be living in hermetically sealed bubbles. (Ironically, though, the one can’t-miss extra on the DVD set is a startling retro public service announcement dating from the early 1970s featuring a real-life Jerri Blank imploring kids not to go down that long road of drugs and drink and mindless sex — the character sprang from one woman’s desire to share her pain and keep it from others. Here the comedy springs from that pain, if in a twisted-in-on-itself kind of way.)

A few minor changes from the TV series reflect the changes the world has gone through in recent years, new venues ripe for satire — Colbert’s idiot history teacher in the TV series has morphed into an antiscience evangelical science teacher whose classroom blackboard features an equation that includes in a formula “WWJD.” (And it’s worth noting that Colbert’s performance in the film is ratcheted up a couple notches from his work in the series, perhaps a sign of a new confidence as he has ascended to the halls of snark valhalla with his Colbert Report.) Strangers in its new manifestation remains aggressively subversive comedy that pushes buttons and ignores barriers.

Bonuses in the series DVD set include commentary on some episodes, and director’s cuts of others; the unaired pilot; bloopers; and the aforementioned PSA. The “Trapper Keeper” packaging is as clever as DVD containers come, though it is a bit precarious when it comes to actually keeping the discs in pristine condition.

Strangers with Candy: The Complete Series
viewed at home on a small screen
not rated but recommended for mature audiences only

[buy at Amazon (Region 1)]

Strangers with Candy (the movie)
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for sexual content, language and some drug material
official site | IMDB

[buy at Amazon (Region 1)] [buy at Amazon (Region 2)]

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