The movie Strangers With Candy opens with the 46-year-old protagonist Jerri Blank (Amy Sedaris) riding the Corrections Department shortbus away from her latest stretch in prison and earnestly musing in her banjo twang, "Can we chaynge?" This is a fundamental question in western narrative, and it has probably never been pondered by a soul less capable of change than Jerri.
Strangers With Candy was originally a sitcom created by Sedaris, Stephen Colbert, Paul Dinello, and Mitch Rouse that ran for three seasons on Comedy Central starting in 1999. The concept is that Jerri, who ran away at 14 and has bumped along as a junkie prostitute for 32 years, returns home and resumes her life as a high school freshman. Though worn from hard use, she experiences all the dewy hopes and crushing disappointments of a blushing teen.
The series is a twist on After School Specials, which set young people in dramatically pointed dilemmas at the end of which they learned important lessons. The character of Jerri, however, was based on Florrie Fisher, a middle-aged recovering junkie prostitute who in the '60s and '70s had a career as a motivational speaker. In a 1970 Public Service Announcement entitled "The Trip Back" (which has attained cult status), Fisher hectors a group of high schoolers, croaking that if they smoke one joint they'll end up like her. (That PSA is available on disk 3 of the complete Strangers With Candy series DVD.) The incorrigible Jerri always learns a lesson — and announces it straight to the camera — but the lesson is always a perversion or misapplication of the expected bromide (e.g., "I guess what I learned this week is that only losers do drugs … unless it helps you win. And in that case, only winners do drugs."). Strangers With Candy starts from a parodic concept but is so deeply ironic it digs way below parody.
You don't have to have seen an After School Special to get that the writers and performers are undermining our belief in human perfectibility. Perfectibility may be a noble ideal, but if it's your governing concept of human nature then way too much behavior becomes inexplicable. Did all the backsliders and recidivists, all the Mel Gibsons and Marion Barrys of the world, simply not hear enough uplifting slogans? In other words, the series is an expression of total irony, implicitly answering Jerri's question about whether we can change with a resounding "No" (and taking in "improvement" as well as "perfectibility").
This, for instance, is Jerri's explanation of why she won't identify a fellow student as a "retard," even though it means Jerri won't be allowed to go on the school trip to Good Time Island: "I've changed. People change.… I'm not the same Jerri Blank who informed on those blind orphans. I'm not the same Jerri Blank who revealed the hiding place of those Guatemalans … such as yourself. And I'm not the same Jerri Blank who took a crap in the Fleishmann's holly bushes … last night." She changes, all right: after the principal is unmoved by her speech, she changes her mind, rats the "retard" out, and takes the girl's seat on the bus.