Awkward. has been successful with MTV’s key market, drawing significant fan response for its relatable teen characters among young female demographics. It’s a show that fits comfortably into expectations for a show in the age of social media, eminently hashtaggable, and it’s become a key cornerstone in the channel’s original programming efforts.
However, it would be wrong to reduce Awkward. to its hashtags. In a diverse first season, creator/showrunner Lauren Iungerich explored a wide range of storylines, balanced characters from different age groups, and successfully managed to keep a love triangle from becoming either a foregone conclusion or a waste of time.
In this second part of my conversation with Iungerich—you can find Part One here—we explore what worked in Awkward.’s first season, how that’s changing in the second season, and a slight digression into the show’s southern California setting.
Is there a story in Awkward.’s first season that you felt best captured the show you were trying to make? The moment where it all clicked for you?
LI: The moment in “Queen Bee-atches” with Sadie, where we really sort of humanize her, where we understand her powerlessness to her weight, was something I was really proud of. The moment in “Fateful” where Lacey gives her daughter that dress, that sort of recognition of acceptance of her kid, and realizing she had made a lot of mistakes. The journey of Lacey in the first season was about going through the five stages of grief, and that was her coming to that phase of acceptance, of realizing how much she loved her daughter, and how precious she was. In “My Super Bittersweet Sixteen” when Matty shows up at the back door on her birthday, on this terrible birthday, and wants to be more than her friend. That is such a romantic tenet. And Dead Stacy [in “Over My Dead Body”], being able to take something and not make a particular TV trope, to do something that hadn’t been done before. That’s a real tenet of our show: we try not to do anything that’s super tropey.
Did you approach the second season as a chance to build on those moments, or as an opportunity to capture something else entirely?
LI: I think I just wanted to get more complicated with the emotional integrity of the show and the characters. This season is a really funny season, but it’s also way more heart wrenching and emotional for all of the characters. I wanted to let the audience know that Lacey was not a vapid character, I wanted to really redeem her character, which I feel I did this season. People said “Oh, the adults are so cartoonish,” which I took personally because Lacey is the most complicated character in the entire show, and I needed to prove why. And I think I did this season.
Turning to that thought, as a teen comedy Awkward. always has to contend with how to balance the teenagers central to the story and the adults who operate within their universe (in this case Jenna’s parents and Valerie). What would you say is your approach to integrating those characters into this high school world? And, perhaps speaking to Lacey’s redemption, is your approach changing this season?
LI: This is how these kids see these adults: they see them in these kind of larger than life ways. Jenna sees her Dad from an emotional place, and she rolls her eyes at her Mom, her Mom’s sort of out there. This season, Lacey is still incredibly funny—it’s a comedy, so Mom’s got to have a bit of a screw loose—but we understand why she is the way she is, and we really see the “real” side of Lacey.
We also see some real moments with Valerie this season, which I think were really earned. Valerie is based on someone in my life: she’s a real person, she’s weird, and those weird people do exist who cross boundaries. But Valerie starts to intersect more in [Jenna’s] personal life than her school life, and we explore why.
It’s hard when you’re writing a teen show to please everyone, especially with the adults, but I love these adults, and they’re integral to the show and the storytelling. And we have some new adults come into the show this season, and Ally comes back. I know you were not a fan of Ally last season–
Well, I wouldn’t say I wasn’t a fan…
LI: The actress feels you’re not a fan of hers!
LI: Oh yes, Barret Swatek, one of my favorite actresses. But you’ll like her this season – she’s got a three-episode arc, and I really humanize her, so I think you’ll appreciate it. You really sort of get more invested in Ally, who becomes a window into who Lacey and Kevin are as a couple.
Turning to teen side of the show, the central love triangle has been one of the key takeaways from the first season. While it inspired some boilerplate fan allegiances—the Team Matty, Team Jake dynamic—
LI: What team are you?
I don’t have a team.
LI: You’re Team Jenna?
[Laughs] Yes, I guess that’s accurate. What was most interesting about the show’s love triangle for me was that there didn’t seem to be a clear hierarchy between Matty and Jake, with each having their pros and cons for both Jenna as a character and the viewers picking sides. Was this sort of balance something you set out to do at the beginning of the storyline, or something that evolved as you pursued the love triangle in more depth as the season went on?
LI: I knew I wanted them to both be contenders—I didn’t want to write cliches. It’s so hard, and I don’t think I’m brilliant, but I didn’t want Sadie to be skinny and perfect, I didn’t want Matty to be the bad guy—seemingly, at first, he seems a bit douchey, but then as you get to know him you realize he just doesn’t know what he wants. But he’s never dishonest to her, he’s totally honest the whole way through. He clearly has feelings for her, but he’s not yet able to think beyond thinking with the team.
Meanwhile, Jake thinks for himself: He came out of the womb totally knowing who he was, and is unabashed about it. But he’s not squeaky clean—he cheats on Lissa, he kisses Jenna and he’s still in a relationship, so he’s still not the dorky good guy next door, because I feel like nobody lives in those boxes. You can understand why they’re friends with each other: they’re both cool, and they’re both good, but in different ways. It makes for a more complicated choice for her, and also at the same time gives me more room to play with who they are.
How would you say this situation is evolving in the second season, where the love triangle plays a more prominent role?
LI: Season Two is continually a struggle for Jenna, as it is for them, but I will say this: that love triangle is not going to be the center of the show beyond this season. There has to be a new love situation. I won’t say that it won’t continue to complicate their relationships, and what happens this season will continue to have after-effects, but I will say it’s not exactly what you think it is; it never is when it comes to matters of the heart. Along what I said before (in Part One): if the show moves forward, we have to be able to evolve the love triangle as much as we evolve the characters. It’s still a really important, valid part of the show, the romantic entanglements—I just want to do some more interesting things with them. I feel like we did everything we could do with these two guys this season. [Laughs] Not to say that, again, there won’t be some residual things—just like the letter was from the first season to the second season, it’s still there and present and has some residue. The love triangle between Matty and Jake will still have residue as we move forward, however I do have to take these shows and ”Friday Night Lights“ them and pull in new people.
There has been some online chatter about the depiction of Palos Verdes, where you grew up, and there’s a point this season where you draw from the demographic makeup of the town in populating the show’s world with some new characters. Is the authenticity, if not “realism,” of the show’s setting something you consciously deploy within the series?
LI: Yes. I wanted to put it in Palos Verdes because that was where I could draw some of the real things in these characters, like Lacey being a product of Palos Verdes herself or Ally being a product of Palos Verdes: those are the girls I went to high school with. They’re the Mom. Lacey and Ally and Kevin – that’s my generation, so I could have some fun with that making fun of those girls, of those people, and there would be some authenticity there, and a sense of humor about it.
For Jenna and the kids coming up, that’s why I go back to my old high school every year. I love having real things to point to, and a real community—this is based on a real experience, and there’s an authenticity to it that enables me to be like “Nah, that would never happen there” or “Here’s something that’s part of the culture there.” “TIA” is an expression purely in that high school – “This is Awkward” is an expression the kids all say at Palos Verdes High. So, that was important to me —do they say it all over the country? No—maybe some kids do now, because of the show. Authenticity was incredibly important to me.
One of the comments in particular took umbrage with your depiction of the power-hungry, social climbing parents in “Queen Bee-Atches.”
LI: There are these very elitist people that make people feel like shit [in Palos Verdes]. I did not grow up in a house like that, but I had friends and their mothers like that, but yet at the same time I can say that not everybody from PV is a bad person. Jenna’s from Palos Verdes, is she a bad person? No. So is Tamara. So is Tamara’s Mom. So is Lacey. Yes, Lacey is a little vapid as it pertains to her social standing, but a lot of good people have that sort of vapid quality. It doesn’t make her a bad person.
Beyond character traits, though, the setting of the show hasn’t played a huge role to this point: As someone with little knowledge of southern California geography, I didn’t know Palos Verdes was a location, and doing research I read about beachside views and other details about the area we haven’t seen on screen. Did you ever think about location shooting, or establishing shots, to more clearly place it in Palos Verdes?
LI: Well, we shoot in the Valley, so I’m not anywhere near a beach. [Laughs] It’s predicated by budget. And for me [the setting] was all in the subtext, instilled in their clothing and the design of the show. The high school looks very much like my old high school—well, it looks like Rolling Hills High, which was my old rival high school, which is why I called the high school Palos Hills. I just wanted to bring a little authenticity, even if it was just sort of an inside joke between me and my community and all of my friends I grew up with—even if it was just that. But everybody I grew up with feels like there’s a tremendous authenticity to the show: that this is what it feels like to grow up in Southern California. For my departments it gives them something to draw on as they are looking for locations and things like that—they know Palos Verdes, or they’ll go up there and look at it and take pictures and come back looking for locations. They can sort of marry that universe. It would be awesome if we could go to the beach, but that’s a tall order given where our stages are. [Laughs]