`Strangers' won't sugarcoat malice

Preview: Twisted Comedy Central entry has originality, and a mean streak.

April 07, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

One thing you can say about "Strangers With Candy" is that the premise of this new series from the Comedy Central cable channel is certainly original.

"Hi. I'm Jerri Blank. I'm a 46-year-old high school freshman," the lead character, played by Amy Sedaris of the Second City comedy troupe, tells viewers. "For 32 years, I was a teen-age runaway. I was a boozer, a user and a loser. My friends were dealers, cons and 18-karat pimps. But now, I'm out of jail and pickin' up exactly where I left off. I'm back in high school, livin' at home and discovering all sorts of things about my body. I'm finding out that, though the faces have changed, the hassles are just the same."

A 46-year-old former drug addict and ex-con as a freshman at Flatpoint High in Everytown, U.S.A? I have to admit I have not seen that one before.

The storyline, though, for tonight's pilot looked familiar at first: our heroine harassed by the Heather contingent at her high school. It included the obligatory scene of all the mean-spirited, popular girls laughing about Jerri just as she walked in on them in the bathroom.

But here's where the twisted sensibility of Comedy Central, the channel that brings us "South Park," starts to be felt. As she's being mocked, Jerri recalls the advice of a sympathetic art teacher; "Dig inside yourself to find out what makes you unique, and then just go with what you know."

What Jerri knows is drugs, and, so, she asks her chief tormentor -- Poppy, the homecoming queen -- if she'd like to try some. Poppy does, and then Poppy dies of an overdose.

Shocked? Comedy Central wants you to be. That is its way of cutting through the clutter of cable channels and grabbing our attention -- like shock jocks on the radio. If you shock easily, "Strangers With Candy" is not for you.

The series is designed to "twist the conventions of the classic after-school special to create a completely original comedy series," in the words of Eileen Katz, head of programming for Comedy Central.

Katz also says the channel is all about "attitude." The attitude of "Strangers With Candy" is to mock the lessons or morals that after-school specials -- those short dramatic films made by the networks and aimed at adolescent viewers -- attempt to teach.

Yes, the genre is riddled with hypocrisy, in that the networks sell sex and consumerism to young viewers in prime time and then try to position themselves as socially responsible by airing an occasional after-school special during a late-afternoon time period when some affiliates don't even carry the films. But I'm not sure this is the way to go about attacking such specials.

Tonight, Jerri not only finds popularity after causing the death of Poppy, she winds up with the late homecoming queen's boyfriend. Wait until next week, when Jerri is given a real live baby in health class and is told to take care of it until she learns "an important lesson."

"But I've had plenty of babies," Jerri protests. "It's just that none of them have been carried to full term."

Next week's episode opens with two male members of the faculty getting acquainted sexually with each other in the boys' bathroom.

I suspect all of this will seem funnier and less troubling to your average high school sophomore than to mom or dad. And I'll admit I have my own attitude toward Comedy Central's commitment to shock since hearing one of the "South Park" kids refer to the mom of another as "a dirty Jew."

But all television teaches -- not just after-school specials with their simplistic morals. And I wonder what the kids will be learning from "Strangers With Candy."


When: 10: 30 to 11 tonight

Where: Comedy Central

Pub Date: 4/07/99

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