“I was a user, loser and a boozer…” And so begins Strangers With Candy, the raunchy, satirical post-modern twist on after school specials. It’s like if Degrassi took place in The Twilight Zone; an anywhere-USA alternate universe where issues like teen pregnancy are dealt with in health class by students being given a real baby to care for for a week.
Inspired by a very real PSA from the ’60s called “The Trip Back,” creators Stephen Colbert, Paul Dinello, and Amy Sedaris crafted a brightly-hued psycho sitcom universe around the bawdy, incorrigible Jerri Blank. The show follows Jerri, who is just another 46 year old, ex-junkie whore trying to get through high school.
Let me explain.
Blank was a teenage runaway and is picking up right where she left off: Grade 9. The brilliance of the show is that everyone treats her like another high-school student despite the crows feet and love handles. The rest of the cast includes her revisionist history teacher Mr. Noblet (Stephen Colbert), her flaky-hack of an art teacher Mr. Jellineck (Paul Dinello), her megalomaniac principal Onyx Blackman (Gregory Holliman), her evil stepmother, her brutish half-brother, and the revolving denizens of Flatpoint High.
Flatpoint is like a twisted fun-house version of Archie Comics’ Riverdale. The highschool is cartoonishly bright with immersive set dressing that can only ber appreciated through multiple viewings. Every classroom is dressed to the nines with “student work,” hand-drawn club posters and the omnipresent image of Principal Blackman.
It’s Jerri’s closet, however, that steals the show. For those who know Sedaris as Carrie Bradshaw’s publisher on Sex in the City, or from her recent career turn into hospitality and crafting, it’s a little jarring to see the petite blonde who is usually decked out in vintage party-dresses transform into her junkie ex-con alter ego with such ease. With a seemingly endless supply of synthetic knits, turtlenecks, mom jeans, garish animal prints, spandex, rhinestones, and leather in all its possible iterations, veteran costumer Vicki Farrell crafted thrift shop nightmares for Jerri to wreak havoc in episode after episode. She even created sagging “bosoms” out of sweet potatoes for Sedaris to wear under a swim suit in one scene. Sedaris mentions in the DVD commentary that she [Vicki] was “always putting little things on me…she hid little animals and things that the audience couldn’t see. But it was so important for her,” and its this detailed work that makes Jerri’s world that much more grounded despite her ineptitude as a human being.
Squirrel print blouses, unseemly camel-toes, and occasional cult robes aside, Sedaris also wore a custom fat-suit she had made in real life (any fan of her brother’s work has likely heard the story). Her wigs add the final punch in Jerri’s ex-con chic, as they evolve over the three seasons to eventually “defy gravity” in the third, as noted by Colbert in the DVD commentary.
Strangers With Candy sometimes feels like it could be a companion piece to John Waters’s work; it’s brash, it’s campy, and it’s hilarious. But at the show’s heart, it’s about someone trying to do the right thing—just in the worst way possible.
text //Cayley James