When Awkward.—which I cover for The A.V. Club, and which returns on Thursday at 10:30/9:30c on MTV—made its debut on MTV last year, creator Lauren Iungerich was transformed from a television writer into a television showrunner. While recent events have led many publications to shine a light on the rise of female showrunners and/or creators within television, Iungerich has unfairly flown under the radar in those conversations. Working outside of the network system with a cable channel still searching for its identity in original scripted programming, Iungerich was given something that some other creators aren’t given: the opportunity, and the challenge, of playing the role of showrunner for her first series.
I had a chance to chat with Iungerich last week, and I’ll be sharing that interview in two parts. The first part, found below, details her experience as a first-time showrunner, her approach to Awkward.’s development, and her plans for its evolution—accordingly, it may be of interest even to those who haven’t watched the MTV series. Meanwhile, part two of the conversation—which is now up—will focus more specifically on the series itself as it heads into its second season, with topics including the show’s central love triangle and its Palos Verdes setting in California.
Given that this was your first time as a “showrunner,” how did it compare to your expectations?
Lauren Iungerich: It was way harder. [Laughs] What’s hard about being a showrunner—to break it down, there are two things that are really tough. First, you can’t just be the artist: you also have to be the producer, so it’s like art and commerce get mixed together so you have to be fiscally responsible; you have to really work with your network to make sure you can really produce the show and yet at the same time maintain the artistic integrity of your vision. And those are two things that sometimes don’t work in concert with each other.
The other thing that’s really hard is teaching other writers to write your voice, and other directors to direct it how you wrote it, getting people to be really singular with your vision. I’m a really emotionally sensitive, nice person who prefers to be the person talking about the boss, not being the boss. I think it’s really hard to manage other amazing creative people: you hire people you admire, and then you have to say “I don’t like what you did” or “It’s not there yet” and it’s an impossible job for anyone to mindread what you would do. Those are things that going in I didn’t expect to experience, and I’m still sort of mitigating my feelings about them. But I feel incredibly proud of that first season.
This isn’t your first time as a “creator,” though, given your work on “My Two Fans,” a 2009 web series. What did you take from that experience when moving into series production?
LI: It’s a completely different universe because the entire budget of that series was $35,000 instead of like over ten million dollars [for Awkward.], and a crew of 15 instead of 150. But what “My Two Fans” did give me was that I was able to do everything: I wrote, produced, directed my show, and edited with my editor. It was a singular vision, and Awkward. is the same thing just on a bigger scale. Through that, though, I knew who I was, and I knew when to ask for help from people who know more than I do. I know a lot now – this season I directed my fifth episode, and it’s so crazy. I’m so blessed, and it couldn’t have happened anywhere else.
Related to “anywhere,” what has been your experience running a show for a network in transition? MTV isn’t known for its scripted programming, but Awkward. is a key part of an expanded effort – with the successful Teen Wolf and the failed Skins – to break into that space; how much do you think this has shaped your experience with MTV?
LI: What’s really interesting is if you look historically at the careers of top young TV talent like Kevin Williamson, Greg Berlanti, Ryan Murphy, they got their starts on The WB. It was a fledgling network, and a ripe opportunity for them to run shows. When you look at those opportunities, they were there because they were on a network that probably couldn’t get the bigger guns, and they gave the opportunity to original voices who can now mark that as a turn in their careers. There was a need, and they filled that need.
Same thing with MTV – they were new, and they have caps on what they can pay [Laughs]. So it’s not like they were going to woo in all of these fancy showrunners, and they were trying to do things differently, so they were looking for original voices. When I sold this show to them they hadn’t even made Hard Times [of R.J. Berger] yet. So I saw the opportunity as such that if I could make my show, and really run my show, and have the belief in myself—not that I even knew I was going to do a good job, mind you. But I had a gut feeling I could probably do a pretty good job, and I believed in myself and the idea. I had a feeling that if I could do that, and be a part of branding a network—this is, again, before my pilot was picked up—I knew it would change my career. After the fact of some of these successes, they’ve lured in the Doug Limans [executive producer of recently canceled I Just Want My Pants Back] and the Craig Wrights [of the forthcoming Underemployed], fancy people, way fancier than I am. I got in at a good time, you know—I just had a feeling that if you’re part of a movement, and you’re part of a change, and you can be identified as someone who helped create that change and create that success, it stays with you for a long time, Again, like all of those other TV writers who now have very flourishing, impressive careers, who are sort of like icons and moguls.
Do you want to be an icon and a mogul?
LI: I don’t know if I have the capacity, I’m way too sensitive. I just want to do good work, I want people to like me: that’s all I care about. I keep thinking that I’ll never get another job again, so I kind of hold on tight to this one. If you can show consistency in a show over a span of a few seasons, you continue to get work—people will think you know what you’re doing. I hope people think I know what I’m doing, but more importantly I hope they like the stories I’m telling.
With last season’s finale—“Fateful”—bringing the mystery of “Who wrote the Letter?” to a close, that story shifted from an ongoing mystery to a specific conflict between two characters. Is the narrative structure of a serial mystery something that you wanted to replicate in the second season, or something the show has left behind?
LI: We have a small mystery this season, but that mystery ebbs and flows in key moments. What I didn’t want to do is…look, a show needs to evolve. And I think you set up the first season and it had a mystery, and I have a little bit of a mystery this season, and I have no idea if there will be something like that in a third season. I knew coming in that I was going to do that with season two, but I don’t necessarily think that the show needs it, and I think your readers at The A.V. Club would be annoyed if I was just constantly retooling and being like “Well, that’s the letter in this season!” If you look at a great show—are you a fan of Friday Night Lights?
LI: That’s one of the most brilliant shows ever on television. You look at those five seasons—and I was so lucky as to watch it after it was off the air and got to watch them all back-to-back so I could really process the brilliance of that series—where the ability to…evolve the show in real ways was so evident: while that could be considered revolutionary by some standards, [the events] were merely evolutionary by real life standards. Everything that happened to Eric and Tammy was legitimized and motivated from a real place. If you look at other shows, everyone’s in the same town—nobody leaves, nobody moves, nobody evolves. I will tell you this – as long as I work on the show, Awkward. will never be that show. Awkward.’s not going to continue on and they all go to college in the same town, or whatever. They’re all very different people, they all have different lives ahead of them.
For that reason, the show and the storytelling have to evolve too as the characters evolve. That becomes the question: I have some really good ideas—well, I like them!—for season three and what I’d do there. There’s a couple of things that I hope will feel very earned but might also feel revolutionary for the show. But, I feel it will be evolutionary to who the characters are. They’re real people in my head, so they have to evolve in real ways and make mistakes in real ways. I’d really like Jenna to make a mistake on her own as opposed to having it happen to her, and being reactive to it; I’d like her to make a mistake that she has full knowledge she’s making of her own volition, and then have to deal with the consequences of it.
In our post-Diablo Cody era, there is a certain stigma attached to the use of slang and vernacular within popular culture, and I know some people expressed some reservations about its presence in Awkward. Was this something you consciously deployed, and what role did you see it playing in the show’s identity?
LI: Well, most of the slang is specific to Tamara (Jillian Rose Reed). Tamara speaks like I do—I have my own lexicon, and that’s where it really came from, and in fact I didn’t even know if we could find somebody who could speak like that. In my personal life, I speak in this rapid fire sort-of bizarro lexicon and I have my sort of trademark things that I wanted Tamara to have too. But they don’t all speak like that, just an occasional influence here and there where other characters rock out a piece of slang, which is normal—it’s how kids talk. I just wanted it to feel real. So I didn’t go into it saying like “I want to be Diablo Cody,” as I feel we’re very different writers. I have tremendous respect for Diablo Cody, but I am not her, nor am I an imitation of her. But I will say this: kids do speak with a lot of slang. Anybody who says there’s a backlash against her or whatever: they don’t know real kids. Do you know a kid? Do you know an array of kids? I go and focus group with them every year. If you actually talk to Jillian Reed, she speaks like Tamara. And she’s still a teenager. So you tell me. You take it or leave it—you don’t like it, don’t watch my show.
Although Awkward. features a large cast of characters, it rarely gets the chance to operate as a true ensemble sitcom given the close focus on Jenna’s point-of-view and the steadily decreasing time available to half-hour comedies. How did you approach breaking stories in that environment?
LI: You write a pilot and it’s in its own vacuum. And then you get picked up to series and you’re like “Holy shit, how do I write more episodes?” [Laughs] For us, what we found—and we found it halfway through the writing of the first season, and then we had to throw out a bunch of episodes—was that there are a lot of shows where you can start from the A-story, and then just cut to the B-story, and the B-Story and the A-Story never intersect really: they’re just two separate stories and you cut back and forth. When our scripts worked was when Jenna was the through line, and even if there could be a completely different B-Story, it would always intersect with the A-Story. And so that became sort of the formula for the show.
Did that formula adapt as the first season went on? And is it continuing to change in the second season?
LI: For sure, I was always trying to figure out ways in which I could better get to know our supporting ensemble. And so it was like, in certain stories, “How is Jenna’s story going to intersect here with Sadie, or intersect here with Valerie,” who aren’t in her everyday life all the time. So, it’s fucking hard, I don’t even know how to explain it. This season, I’m still exploring our other characters and giving them separate storylines, but how we break story is theme. They all have to intersect with the theme, and if the B-Story and the C-Story are on-theme even if they’re secondary characters, they’ll somehow manage to work back into Jenna’s storyline, and that’s when the storytelling is really working.
The simplest story we told last season was the Dead Stacy one [in “Over My Dead Body”]. It was a hugely popular story, and maybe the simplest story we told all season. It was just an A-Story, basically. Nothing complicated about telling that story – it was the easiest to break, the fastest written script, it was just the simplest. And yet, it was also very popular. I tend to like—and, to be clear, I love “Over My Dead Body”—the more complicated stories we tell, because I know the work that goes into them, and then I’m so proud of them. I loved “Queen Bee-atches,” and that was a very complicated story, and how digestible that was that it was all about power and feeling powerless for Jenna, and Sadie, and Matt and Jake, and Lacey, and how it all wove together was complicated storytelling. So those are the ones I tend to like a little bit more.
I definitely wanted to explore all the characters last season, but given the time we have to write the show, it was about making sure we found the show’s formula. Good shows have a formula: [the episodes] are not all the same, but they find what the tenets are of those shows. I was just happy we found them. [Laughs]
Turning to one of those tenets, what do you see as the function of Jenna’s voiceover within the series? While there is an obvious utility in terms of getting us in Jenna’s head, there are other moments where it seems to serve something closer to plot summary, and I’m wondering how you see the balance of those two roles playing out in the series.
LI: Well her voiceover is her blog, and it all has to tie into her retelling a story and working out her feelings. In all honesty, if I had to do it over again, there would be no voiceover. I had never written anything with a voiceover until I wrote this show—I’ve written a lot of stuff, and this is the first time I’ve ever used voiceover. Voiceover was ingrained in me as a very lazy tool, but you can see it work very effectively in a show like Dexter, as it gives you some insight. If I was going to use it, it had to come from something, so it’s connected to her blog—that was number one. We understood that it was connective tissue, and I like that she’s a blogger: I think it’s really interesting and gives us insight into the experience beyond what we see. I think that’s the reason why people really like her, and they like the show, is that they have more insight into her character.
Sometimes we use the voiceover as a narrative bridge if you need a little help with a transition, and sometimes it’s just the network being like “We must know this, remind the audience about this.” We try really hard—I’d prefer to use less voiceover, but sometimes it’s about coloring the moment. Some episodes have very little voiceover, and some episodes are a little bit more voiceover centric, and there are reasons: usually it has to do with connective tissue, and helping drive the story, and it’s part of our world and what we’ve sort of set up. Believe you and me, I know my audience is not stupid. In fact, I think that they’re so smart sometimes, and I know everything, so I’m like “Oh, they know everything.” But you do have to remind them. And, you know, MTV is a little bit more aggro about spoon-feeding than most networks, because they’re new. But you’re right: there are times when we just need a little narrative help. I would hate to say we’re lazy, but maybe we’re a little lazy sometimes. [Laughs]
Turning to your pending “moguldom,” what’s the status of Dumb Girls, the pilot MTV picked up last year?
LI: It is being retooled—the first incarnation lost its vision, so we want to rework it. So it’s “to be determined.” It’s not dead, and it’s not done.
Thinking about the recent controversy and conversation around HBO’s Girls, how do you think your show—also about twenty-something girls—relates to that discussion?
LI: Well my show is different from Girls. I think Lena Dunham’s really special, and I think the world she’s created is very specifically her. It’s a very affluent, entitled world that I’ve never experienced, so my world is a little bit off that path even though millennials tend to be entitled. If my show moves forward, there will be some major changes—and they’re driven by me—to make it feel very, very different from that show. And yet people who like that show would probably like my show too. It’s an extension of Awkward. in some ways – though there’s no voiceover! [Laughs] But it’s in the same genre of sort of dramedy, with a bit more emphasis on the comedy than the drama, but still in that world.