Over the course of nine episodes of Strangers With Candy, Jerri’s social status at Flatpoint has fluctuated more wildly then Oprah Winfrey’s dress size. She first returned to high school as a 46-year-old pariah, but managed to leverage the death of Poppy Downes in her favor. Jerri’s starring role in the school play represented the zenith of her popularity, which she proceeded to undermine through her reluctance to rat out the retarded, her fondness for racist graffiti, and her pear-shaped figure. Now, with the end of the season in sight, Jerri finds herself back at the bottom of Flatpoint’s social hierarchy. The opening scene drives this point home: In high school, is there any rejection more acute or more public than being picked last in gym class?
Encouraged by Orlando, Jerri impulsively nominates herself for homecoming queen in a bid to boost her popularity. Her dubious reasoning is she used to make a living off her looks alone; why not use put them to use once again? Thanks to Mr. Noblet, however, Jerri almost instantly regrets the decision. In class, he catches Jerri writing a note to Orlando:
My vagina is on fire. I’m trying not to scratch it Orlando, I’m afraid it’ll get infected. P.S. I just know I’m going to win homecoming queen. That’ll show those sons of bitches especially Noblet that hom….
Noblet is alarmed by the content of the note—not with Jerri’s gynecological health, mind you, or her insinuation about his sexuality, but rather with her desire to become homecoming queen. “You fall short on so many of the essential elements,” he explains. “Which ones?” Jerri wonders. “Beauty…yeah, well…beauty,” he replies.
After Jerri waddles off, we catch the history teacher in a moment of Norma Desmond-esque private anguish: He pulls a mirror out of his drawer, pulls his face taut like a vain old diva trying to hide her wrinkles, smiles manically, then breaks into tears. It’s the second time in as many episodes that Jerri’s personal struggles conjure up painful memories for Noblet. This time, however, Noblet’s breakdown is never really explained, which actually makes it all the more enjoyable; it’s one of the wild nonsequitors that makes Strangers With Candy the wonderfully bizarre show that it is.
As is his wont, Jellineck is more supportive of Jerri’s endeavors—if only just slightly. “If you really want to win the homecoming crown, it’s inner beauty that wins people’s hearts,” he says, while dodging baked potatoes lobbed across the cafeteria by Derrick and his goon squad. He suggests Jerri model herself after her chief rival, Becky Anne Bettecker. Despite looking like “a cave-dweller,” Becky's well-liked because of her kind, generous personality. And so Jerri faces a difficult decision: Cultivate her inner beauty, or face certain defeat. As she puts it, “I really do want to win but I don’t know if I want to help someone.”
Jerri ultimately decides doing nice things for other people is a price worth paying for popularity. Dressed as a clown, she wheels a “cripple boy” through the halls for all her classmates to see. “If a tree is nice in the forest and no one is there to see it, does it become homecoming queen?” she reasons. Unfortunately, Jerri’s obvious attempt to demonstrate her inner beauty backfires spectacularly when the play she attempts to stage—starring a chicken and a weasel—turns into a bloody massacre.
I’ve talked before about how the world of Strangers With Candy conforms to whatever it is Jerri’s going through in any particular episode; in “Feather In The Storm,” for example,” as Jerri battled an eating disorder, suddenly food was everywhere. (To me, this tendency seems like the show’s absurd way of satirizing the ham-fisted storytelling of Afterschool Specials, Very Special Episodes, and the like, but really, who knows?) In “Jerri Is Only Skin Deep,” our protagonist is grappling with insecurity about her looks, so it makes perfect sense that Noblet is lecturing his class about Helen of Troy and that all of Flatpoint’s faculty suddenly seems obsessed with their appearance. After the weasel incident, a disheveled Jerri—her clown makeup smeared grotesquely—finds Jellineck, Noblet, and Coach Wolf sunbathing in front of the school and discussing how Noblet would look as a strawberry blond. Principal Blackman, who wants to lay out until he is “as dark as en eggplant,” soon joins them. It’s Coach Wolf who gives the best advice in her quest to become homecoming queen. “Share what’s in here,” she says, pointing to her heart. “That’s where the true beatuy is.”
In a fateful twist, Jerri’s opponent also makes the very same recommendation. Just before going onstage to make her own case for being crowned homecoming queen, Becky tells Jerri, “Maybe sometime you’ll learn to use your horrible past to help other students avoid the same.” The suggestion clicks. Jerri takes to the microphone and delivers her most stirring speech to date—most of which is lifted directly from the mouth of Florrie Fischer, Jerri’s real-life inspiration. “How many of you wanna wake up in a public bathroom lying in a pool of what you hope is your own filth? Any takers?” Jerri begins. From there, she speaks about her addictive tendencies (“If bought a tan dress I had to have it in every color.—in bone, in beige, in tan”) and warns the students of Flatpoint that if they’re not careful, they may just “end up in a bus station earning junk money by turning tricks for Indonesian businessmen.” It’s a triumph for Jerri, who finally seems to have figured out a way to put her sordid past and her penchant for hyperbole to good use.
The crowd responds positively to Jerri’s cautionary tales, but even her new role as a motivational speaker isn’t quite enough to clinch victory. In the end, it’s Yasmine who wins the crown. “Clearly you have inner beauty If you could take that beauty, wrap it around your face like bacon around a filet, you’d have everything,” Blackman consoles her. Even Jerri can’t find fault with the outcome, and claims to have learned a valuable lesson from the experience. “Being beautiful on the inside may be its own reward, but it can never beat an ass like Yasmine,” Jerri says—and she’s probably right.
- You can watch this episode here.
- Written on Noblet’s chalkboard: “Rouge, eyeliner, concealer, foundation, lip gloss.”
- I tend to think the weasel-chicken fight scene, my least favorite part of this episode, is only here to satisfy the show's exotic pet-death quotient, but I could be wrong.
- Favorite moment in this episode that I almost didn’t catch: When Blackman strips down to a tiny blue Speedo, Jerri can’t help reaching for his bulging package. (See screengrab above.)
- Noblet: “An ugly woman is never a reward. Remember that.”
- Even though “Jerri Is Only Skin Deep” was the ninth episode of Strangers With Candy to air, it appears as number six on the DVD. My guess is it was produced earlier but then moved around because of the climactic nature of Jerri’s speech.
- Derrick asks Jerri if she wants a bone. She replies, “I want a meal, not a snack.”
- Jellineck: “Does everything have to be about you, Jerri?” Jerri: “Well, I may not be much, but I’m all I think about.”
- Ironically, given her struggle against superficiality, Jerri is more vocally racist in this episode than we’ve ever seen her, which is saying an awful lot. “Jeez, why are you people so sensitive about your resemblance to monkeys?” she asks Orlando. “They’re adorable.” Later she makes fun of his “coconut hair” then, after he corrects her for calling him Chinese, Jerri rolls her eyes dismissively. “Whatever lets you sleep at night.”