Cultural Checkup: MTV’s Awkward.
August 17th, 2011
In my head, MTV’s Awkward. has become this season’s equivalent of ABC Family’s Huge (which I covered last summer), although the two shows aren’t really that similar.
I mean, both are shows on teen-oriented networks that transcend their base demographics through strong execution and great casting, and both are shows that take potentially rote situations (summer camp and high school) and delve beneath the surface to show a different side of life as a teenager, and both find ways to involve an older generation without it seeming forced, but…well, when I put it that way, they sound pretty similar after all. Huh.
I think my resistance to my brain’s correlation between the two series is that while Huge subverted teen television stereotypes by embracing narrative complexity and featuring the kind of people (not characters) that you don’t normally see in these types of shows, Awkward. is more or less that type of show at the end of the day. While Huge was, at least in my mind, transcendent of its genre, Awkward. isn’t trying to be so bold: instead, it’s focusing on telling the kind of stories you expect to see, featuring characters you’ve likely seen before, just in a way that feels fresher than one might expect.
It’s a stealthier enterprise: while I felt pretty confident that people who gave Huge a chance would immediately see that it was going to defy their expectations (and encourage anyone reading this who hasn’t seen it to go buy the DVD – only 5 left in stock at Amazon, so they better be gone by the end of the day – and thank me later), I’m less convinced that Awkward. will be able to win over the skeptics. As much as I like the show, and as much as I appreciate what Lauren Iungerich is aiming for, and as happy as I am that the show is getting a second season, at the end of the day it’s a pretty basic sitcom about a teenage girl with teenage girl problems.
It’s also a helluva lot of fun, and probably the most enjoyable new show of the summer.
Awkward. has a few crutches that drive me a little bit nuts, the primary one being its over-reliance on internal dialogue. The fact that Jenna has a blog that she runs as an online diary (that I presume is private?) feeds too much signposting, where she recaps what has happened to this point. This is a character who has friends, and this is a character who has parents, and this is a character who has compelling conversations with all of these people that do a good job of bringing her emotions and reactions to the surface. The internal dialogue is fine in particular moments, and Jenna’s neuroses are such that it doesn’t just feel like a generic device when it’s done “in the moment,” but the blogs feel like a writing device in a way that bugs me when I stop to think about it.
It’s a good thing, then, that I don’t stop to think about it that often. Once you get past the pilot, honestly, the show’s structural devices more or less fade into the background: I might occasionally think about the logic of the blog format, which seems like it’s a blog just because MTV wants the show to appear hip and diaries are so twentieth century, but it’s never an actual detriment to the story being told. Similarly, it’s clear that the mysterious letter Jenna received which threw her for a loop by detailing her social failings is a sort of roadmap for the season (with various items from the list become episodic mantras), but because the list allows for a greater focus on developing Jenna’s character it’s hardly a point of contention. These are fights that a critic would pick if the show was lagging, or if a particular episode missed the mark, but those aren’t circumstances that Awkward. has really run into in its first five episodes.
Part of this is because the show is moving at a blistering speed. Although the show began with Jenna as the talk of the entire school, Iungerich immediately gave the character a sense of agency, letting Jenna take control of the narrative instead of letting it define her. Instead of having the “arm in cast” jokes carry on for multiple weeks, she’s into a sling by the second episode, and she’s more or less a normal teenager by the time you hit episode three. From a relationship perspective, the show wasted no time putting its cards on the table: Jenna and Matty were a summer camp hookup in episode one, a nascent (and secret) high school hookup in episode three, and faced the dreaded “define the relationship” question in episode four, while Jake was introduced in episode one, meet cuted in episode three, and kissing Jenna by the time episode five rolled around.
Pace is one of the reasons the comparison with Huge doesn’t quite jive in my head, but I think it’s also the show’s greatest strength. This is a twenty-minute sitcom, nor an hour-long drama, and everything about the show is finely tuned to fit with the genre it’s aiming for. The situations in each episode are -with one exception, episode two’s cell phone nudity story – simple and straightforward, typical events that would take place in a high school: a lunchtime school spirit event, a house party, a pep rally bonfire, detention. Even one of the show’s zanier elements, Guidance Counselor Valerie, is a basic structural element more than a complex narrative device. The show is then able to build around them, allowing the weirder story details (like Jenna’s stalker, Kyle) to exist on the fringe of the show, and more importantly ensuring that the awkwardness doesn’t corrupt the basic premise.
In other words, it has allowed the show to transform from being a show about someone who is awkward to a show about how awkward life can be. I say “life” instead of “high school” because I think the show is doing a good job of going beyond that: Valerie might be a broad character, but the takeaway is that her life is no less awkward now than it was then. The same goes for Jenna’s parents, who have been one of my favorite parts of the show. I appreciated the scene in tonight’s episode, “Jenna Lives,” where the camera’s in the fridge as they discuss how they intend on reprimanding their daughter. As teen parents, they’re still sort of figuring out this whole “parenting” thing, just as Jenna is still figuring out this whole “relationship” thing, or this whole “high school” thing.
The situations in the show might be pretty typical, with your requisite love triangles and paranoia-driven misunderstandings and mean girl feuds, but there’s a kernel of something thematic within the show’s broader trajectory. The mean girls, for example, are struggling with their identities, whether they involve weight – there’s a Huge correlation that my brain has no trouble with, especially since Molly Tarlov was in the Huge pilot – or sexuality. The show doesn’t dwell on these for very long, mostly moving right along with a few one-liners, but it doesn’t feel like it’s ignoring them. “Jenna Lives” is built around a misunderstanding that you can see coming from a mile away, but there’s a few moments of honesty amidst the chaos that resonate even when Kyle is revealed to actually be the creepy stalker Jenna first thought he was and even after we learn that Olivia is Matty’s brother’s on-and-off girlfriend.
In other words, Awkward. doesn’t really need as much plot as it has, as it has the right approach to character development to spend more time just showing its characters playing off one another. In fact, I’d actually argue that one of its weaknesses is that it’s been too heavy on plot in these early episodes, leaving too little time for more subtle character work. However, the fact that it has nonetheless built Jenna into a compelling character, and that it has convinced us that her world is dynamic and compelling and funny, suggests a great deal of promise for the show’s future. Even while being burdened with a lot of narrative, narrative likely designed to hook more typical MTV viewers into the romance of it all, there has still been room/time for moments that make me think of Huge, and moments that bring out something deeper within the show’s premise.
Perhaps this is simply a case of lowered expectations: because it’s just a half-hour sitcom, and because it’s on MTV, I’m more willing to look past the roteness of it all. And yet I really don’t think this is the case, given that we’re five episodes in and I’m not really doubting my initial instinct. This is a show that has a clear sense of its own identity, developing a recognizable sense of humor that never overwhelms the show’s characters. Ashley Rickards is a tremendous find, likeable without feeling as though she is too perfect to be neurotic, and the cast around her has settled in nicely. There are parts of the show that grate when isolated, and the plot sounds might reductive if you were to write it out on its own, but when everything’s together it’s just a sharp and funny comedy that has me invested in its characters and their lives.
And while Huge might have been a complex and nuanced drama instead of a sharp and funny comedy, it inspired a similar sense of investment, which is perhaps what my brain was latching onto.
- I know it’s a little bit annoying that I kept bowing to the show’s bizarre punctuation by putting a period at the end of the title, but I am a firm believer that title punctuation exists for a reason – it’s why I would always love stumbling across A&E’s “Sell This House!” years ago, as it gave me an excuse to yell the title. This period is less satisfying, but I don’t want to seem a hypocrite.
- Based on the preview for next week, the mystery of who sent the letter is something they plan on investigating, but I’m not sure it’s something that I really think the show should focus on. It’s useful early on to get a feel for Jenna’s character, but after a while they won’t have it, and unless they send another letter (which seems silly) I’m more interested in what other story engines they have in mind. There’s a great foundation here, but with Iungerich moving on to develop another show, I’m curious how a second season confronts this.
- Desi Lydic, who plays Valerie, is someone I’ve never consciously seen before, but she’s having a lot of fun with a role that could spiral out of control quickly – probably the show’s silliest character, but she’s making it work.
- I’m not quite shipping any particular option, but I like the love triangle as it’s been defined: the sex (which the show has been pleasantly frank about) and its romantic contexts has her attached to Matty, but she’s connected more with Jake, if only because Matty struggles with relationships in a well-meaning fashion. You can pick a side without necessarily turning against the other, which is a good way to go with a love triangle (especially given the show’s willingness to show Jake/Matty’s side of things, based on the preview for next week).