In the second part of a two-part interview with Awkward. creator Lauren Iungerich, we consider the choices she made once she realized she was writing her final episode of the series (which I reviewed at The A.V. Club here), as well as some of the plans she had should she have remained involved with the show in its fourth season. You can find part one of the interview, where Iungerich reflects on her decision to leave the series, here.
[Spoilers for “Who I Want To Be,” the third season finale of MTV’s Awkward., throughout this interview.]
The final voiceover in the finale is very plainly stated, and feels like a definitive statement of your purpose with the series. Was that something that came out of the emotions regarding your departure, or was that always where you saw the series heading?
Lauren Iungerich: It was always where I saw it going in the season, but writing those actual words…there was a personal love letter to each one of the actors who played those characters, and the fans who loved those characters, who I wanted to do right by. Truth be told, I was writing that at two in the morning in my office, three days into prep of that episode, with my husband—who has been my silent collaborator for a long time—and one of my dear friends Joe Nussbaum. It’s hard to run a show when your heart is broken, and it was heart wrenching to finish that script, so I implored Joe to stay because he was a consultant and writer and director, and god love him he stayed until two in the morning to basically hold my hand and pitch jokes. I remember when I finished that, we pulled up music—there was a different song that ended the episode originally, and we played it to see if it would work as I spoke the voiceover and cried my eyes out. And then when we got it into post, it was my husband who said we should use the Passion Pit song from the pilot, and that it really says it all: she’s coming full circle, back to that moment at the end of the pilot. I thought this was ingenious, and everybody who had been making that pilot who watched that bawled.
So the final voiceover didn’t change dramatically once you knew it was really your “final” voiceover?
LI: That final voiceover was truly indicative of how we broke this season. I was always saying I didn’t want her to wind up with either boy, I wanted her to be in this place of knowing who she was, and this beautiful journey with the teacher and herself and figuring out who she wants to be. I wanted her to get to that final point where she’s like “I wanted to be the girl who didn’t need a boy, I can dance all on my own.” What an awesome statement that is for girls who tuned into this show for the love triangle, as really, in that moment, Jenna is saying “I love myself.” And it’s not narcissism, but it’s rather self-preservation, of the best kind. She’s going to be empowered and she’s going to go on and do great things, and you don’t need a boy—you only need yourself to be happy. There is so much pressure for girls these days to feel like “If only that boy liked me my life would be made, I would be happy.” I was trying to say no: you can be happy on your own. It’s not about another person, it’s about yourself. And the fact that she comes to that realization by looking at all the people in her life who have affected change and taught her something, and she seeks to see what they’ve taught her; it’s truly the most selfless moment in the entire series. It’s so validating and beautiful, and I truly wrote it with love for all of those people that I had worked with.
The scene between Lacey and Jenna before Jenna goes to prom also felt like it had a sense of finality. Was that always a scene you intended to close out this season?
LI: I had an original end where I was taking the show in season four, and I felt like season four would probably be the end of the show. And I had an idea for the end that was really a mother-daughter scene, so I wanted to write that mother-daughter scene in the finale and bring it full circle. It wasn’t divined to have the letter come into that scene—that came in the writing, when it was like “Oh my God”: to have a moment where mother and daughter are looking at that letter together would bring such amazing closure on the letter for me, because that’s where it all started.
When watching the scene I felt like the rearticulation of the season three arc really fit with the letter incredibly well—so that wasn’t planned at all?
LI: No, it was not planned. It was in a moment. The idea was that she would get to a place where she would have to go on this journey; once the idea came to put the letter into that scene, it was right there. “Did I become this person?” was right there. And again, I have to credit my husband, who was the genius behind that realization and we talked out that scene during one of my late nights while writing it. It was there for the picking: sometimes you go in and you have a very clear notion of what you’re writing towards, and sometimes the most brilliant idea comes in the writing. Of course, it’s brilliant to me because I felt it put the whole journey together and was this amazing moment, and I feel so proud of it because I really got to write my series finale. Like, the show for me ends: not only because I don’t work on it, but just in terms of the storytelling for me personally as the person who created these characters, that is where I want Jenna to end up. I want her to end up happy by herself.
It did feel like an end.
LI: I just looked at the season finale as my series finale. I took the opportunity to convey the feeling I wanted to leave behind as the creator of the characters and the universe. It’s where I wanted my story to end. And I think it’s a beautiful end. I don’t know the new showrunners, so my Awkward. chapter is done, and a new one is starting. It is a show that is moving on without the creator, so while it may still be great there is no doubt it will feel different. It would be impossible for anybody who doesn’t know me, or hasn’t worked with me, or isn’t me, to understand and write the voice and tone of the show as I would write it. It was so specific to me. That’s just a fact. But the characters are now firmly established and laid out so other people besides me can write their jokes and tell their stories. They’ll just be told through a new lens—that said, I wish everyone still working on it all the best.
Will you watch?
LI: The truth of the matter is you can’t love something the way I have loved the show and not see it through a really critical lens, and I don’t think that’s fair to the people writing the show. It’s also not fair to me: that show was my first baby. It would do no one any good.
Turning back to the finale itself, it offered us one final glimpse at Collin, another divisive part of the season. For you, what was Collin’s role in the story? Was he an idea? A catalyst?
LI: He is the amalgamation of all these guys. I had this guy I had a moment with in college: I had one moment with him, and then everything he did that sucked past that moment I ignored, or didn’t really investigate or question, because I would go back to that moment we shared and say “That’s who he is.” So Jenna and Collin have a moment together, a tingly feeling of attraction to him when they’re at the coffee shop in “EPISODE 8,” and then when they’re at the party in “Redefining Jenna,” she’s just had this experience with Matty. Matty has lied to her—the biggest lie, that he wasn’t embarrassed of her—and that is so painful for a girl. I don’t care how old you are, but especially being a teenager, to hear that the person you thought you knew is not that person is hard. Part of the reason she loves Matty is that she got to a place that he wasn’t embarrassed of her, and it’s the thing she’s been afraid to confront until “A Little Less Conversation”: “Were you embarrassed of me?”
You don’t want to know sometimes when someone has said something about you, and in that moment he tells a white lie, and then in the car in “Redefining Jenna” he tells her the truth in that real conversation. They’re both feeling vulnerable, and it rocks her world, and she’s on a tizzy, and she goes in there to Collin who at that time was nothing more than an idea. She’s having feelings because she’s questioning her relationship with Matty: it’s not that Collin’s the answer, it’s that he’s the bandage to point to the problems she’s feeling about Matty. She doesn’t know, because it’s all subconscious. When Matty lies to her, it gives her permission to be open with Collin in that scene. In that scene, Collin says to Jenna about Angelique that he realized “I wanted to be with someone like you.” In the wake of Matty being embarrassed of her, here’s a guy breaking up with a girl to be with her.
Or, rather, someone like her.
LI: Or to be with someone like her. He didn’t know her. The way we thought of Collin was, he’s the kind of guy for whom Jenna is a project. He isn’t that sinister or premeditative, but he’s a rich kid who went to a private school and is not at a public school, and we always thought it was a kid who probably got kicked out. We wanted to see he wasn’t dumb, and he wasn’t a terrible person, and we didn’t want it to be a clichéd good boy vs. bad boy or whatever: he’s just a kid with money, who is definitely interested in writing, and connects with Jenna because he probably admires her writing and is attracted to her, but who ultimately sees her as a project. So it’s not that he’s fully invested in her, although she’s reading into it that he’s seeing the real her, and he’s giving her some worldliness because they shared this moment at this fancy art party and they’re talking about photography and she’s feeling like an adult. She’s feeling mature, and she’s seeing a live that she hasn’t quite led yet. So it’s seductive.
And then here’s a character in Jenna who—while a narcissist, and self-involved like every other teenager and is always self-interested—in her head has made selfless choices doing nice things for other people, and so when Collin gives her support she feels okay with it. It’s a momentary thing, but we’d been setting up her subtle discontent for the whole season, so I don’t see Collin as a douchebag so much as he represented to her an idea that she thought she knew. He became the answer to her problems when they became too outrageous, and he also becomes her scapegoat toward the end. She’s so mad at him, and he says to her “You made those decisions, not me.” And it’s powerful, because it’s true.
Another catalytic character is Bailey, played by McKaley Miller, introduced in the final set of episodes. How did she fit into the puzzle both for the season, and for the show moving forward?
LI: My notion was that we had no idea how long the show would continue. I was trying to set a stage to bring in younger characters, because our kids were going to be seniors next season. And one of the things I really loved was the idea of bringing complexity to the Jenna/Matty relationship. It needed a new friend, I needed to find a new conduit into that dynamic, so the goal was always to make Bailey Matty’s new girlfriend, and to be able to tell stories where Jenna and Matty are not right back together in season four.
Given that Miller has booked a regular gig—on the new FX Kelsey Grammer/Martin Lawrence series Braddock & Jackson—and thus likely won’t be coming back for season four, could you share some of what that story would have looked like?
LI: There were new challenges for Jenna in that season four. Where I left off in season three it was very concise and clear that she was okay and wanting to be on her own. We didn’t want to see her hook up with Matty again right away. That would be too easy and on some level disappointing for us and really for the fans. Having them hook up right away would undercut the tease of why the audience tunes in. What people don’t realize is that the show got more criticism when Jenna was with Matty in season three then when she was not with him. That’s because the audience loves the chase. But if that chase is always the same old same old, it gets boring. So we wanted to rebuild that romance in a really clever way. We had worked out some really awesome twists and turns. We were going to see things on the show that we had never seen. Erin and I had talked out quite a lot before we left. We knew what that season was going to be and it was going to be an epic senior season. We would’ve set Jenna up to be the underdog again like she was the first season but…with perspective.
The reality of budgets and show running times is that there were often supporting characters who missed out on the spotlight in a given episode or season. Looking back, was there one character for whom you had the biggest plans that never quite got their due?
LI: We did have bigger plans for Sadie. We had a big storyline for Sadie, and by a function of the storytelling and the time limits that was always truncated. It was never intrinsic to the A-story, always part of the B-story or a runner, and those are always the first ones to be nipped and tucked because they aren’t keeping your story on track. This show was designed to be governed by theme, and when in doubt we’d theme it out: it was always about what is going on, why are we telling this story, what is going on in Jenna’s head, etc. If a story with Sadie wasn’t tied to that thematic premise enough, it would become a vulnerable story. So I wish I had done a little bit more for her: one of things I loved about this season was getting to see the humanity of Sadie through what she’s experiencing as a person. We never got to step out, and I wish we had, but we just didn’t have the opportunity to do it.
So was there usually some trepidation when you tried to stretch out beyond Jenna’s central narrative?
LI: Any time we would do anything creative to get off of Jenna’s story to tell other stories—and we told so much more this season than in past seasons—there was always a “conversation.” In “And Then What Happened” and “A Very Special Episode of Awkward,” we’re very light on Jenna. Jenna was part of the story and a thrust of the story, but she wasn’t in the story as much, and that was out opportunity to step out of the show. I had always wanted to her voiceover form other characters, but how do you make that work when the show has a definitive template to it? How do you step outside of that?
Did you feel those episodes lived up to the challenge?
LI: I thought we did a really cool job with those episodes, with the structure of them; with the after school special, someone’s writing about Jenna as an after school special, and it was amazing to see Molly Tarlov in that role. The brilliant Erin Ehrlich wrote the script, and it was a collaborative effort of our team to break that episode; we break stories in the room as a team, and then someone will go out and write it. We had such an amazing team, and Erin really delivered and executed a really cool break of a story that was really difficult to put together. [Laughs] And then you add Molly Tarlov and her interpretation and what she brought to it, how she executed certain things like that one beat where she’s like “Noooooooooooooooo.” [Laughs] And her “oooo” is just so fake, and her acting is so bad as Sadie as Jenna, and she looks in the camera (Desi Lydic did the same thing).
We got to do some really incredible stuff with the structure, and we were hoping that in doing so we’d get to meat out our other characters. Awkward. truly is an ensemble: it’s not just Jenna’s show, it’s these characters. Jenna is the conduit like Carrie Bradshaw was in Sex and the City, she’s the conduit to the world. But the world sort of eclipses her at some point, and I really think in season three it does.
Did having a full hour for the final two episodes let you explore those characters more effectively?
LI: I think having the last two hour-long episodes helped, and getting to go home with Valerie was representative of that, which was something we’ve wanted to do for years. Here we have this opportunity, so let’s get in there and really see it: she’d have a lot of dream boards, and she’d have a craft center for sure, and that was really fun. We had always been wanting to see her as a real person, even though she’s crazy; we actually had this really dark ending where we really fired Val, where she was fired fired. We were going to have real consequences and bring her back into a really interesting way outside the school. But you know, you can’t do that.
Would it risk affirming the flaws that you spend so much time balancing with characters like Valerie?
LI: These characters are all flawed, and they’re all good at the same time, including Sadie. She cares, because she has this relationship with Matty—it’s a friendship, not a romantic entanglement, and they’re old friends. They’ve gone through a lot, they know a lot about each other, and there’s a line—I think in season one—that suggests their mothers are friends, so they’ve been in each other’s lives for a long time. She carried a torch for him until their kiss in season two, and then it was just like “Oy. That’s all it is? I’m over it” Which I think is real: when you really harbor feelings for someone, you sometimes discover the hunt is better than the kill.
Is that something that you feel you’ve explored in other elements of the series as well?
LI: The same thing happened with Jenna this season: she finally had him, and he was great, and he was everything, and she was like “Is this it?” You make something into something: Matty had the privilege of allowing himself to get to know Jenna, and let her get to know him, and in the process really fell in love with her and grew from that relationship. Because Jenna always had feelings for Matty, she wasn’t challenged as a person until she hurt him, and then she realized “Holy shit, I just ruined this relationship that was real. That was what love was.” But she got a little too big for her britches, which is what happens: she was this everygirl that was a cool girl in some sense with two boys fighting over her, but how do you make her an underdog again, where she started from? This time, though, it was by her own making: it wasn’t a rumor, it was like “No, she made the mistakes that made her an underdog.” It’s more powerful. So that last few minutes of the finale resonate back to the pilot, where she’s going to appease her heart and move on and survive on her own.
At the time, what I was reconciling in my own life was having no control over anything but my attitude. I was having these profound feelings about things I had no control over in my life, and it was so beautiful that it married with what I was writing about Jenna. In that moment she can’t control the fact that the boy she’s in love with is now not in love with her and she fucked that up. What she can control is that it’s not going to bring her down or define her that she’s not his date. And for me that was also me saying I’m going to move on; as much as I don’t want to, I have to, and I’m going to be okay.
You said above this is an ensemble show, and the finale certainly reflected that, with small moments for a lot of characters and clear storylines for the main ones. Was this one of your goals?
LI: I was trying to write for everyone in that episode: I wanted to include Kyle in the class, I wanted to include Fred Wu and Ming (I love Kelly Sry, who plays Fred Wu). Unfortunately I couldn’t write for Clark because he had booked a big NBC show at the time, otherwise he would have been in the finale too. I wanted to bring Ally back, a character I love that I created, and I wanted to give a few little roles to background actors that I loved who were both incredible talents themselves and had been so loyal and committed to the show. We had to ask background actors to commit to the entire season so they could be faces in the class, and that’s a lot to ask. So Marissa and Scott, the two who have lines in the finale, are priceless in their reactions; they’re wonderful actors, and I just wanted to give them a role and a name and say thank you. And Ricky, who plays the jock in the finale in the quick pops, he’s fantastic. And yes, I know all their names, because I love them like they’re part of my family.
Did you feel you did the family justice?
LI: I just could only do so much with all of the characters. I’ve said this a million times before, but the show started as a mother-daughter show, and I wanted to end it there too. The relationship between Lacey and Jenna is the foundation of the show, and no one plays Lacey like Nikki DeLoach, and she just exceeded my expectations. Of all the actors on the show, I really, really wrote for her. She was the actor that I would carefully think about giving her scenes and writing her scenes; I don’t think there was a Lacey scene that was never touched by me. Probably my favorite character on the show is Lacey. That takes nothing away from how awesome the other actors are, and how awesome the other characters are, but that character just resonated with me. I don’t know why: I’m nothing like Lacey, but she’s the tragic heroine of this show, and this unsung journey of mother and daughter. And so to give that scene, that beautiful scene between Lacey and Jenna, that was just…I really wanted that scene in the show, in the finale.
The other major full circle moment in the finale comes through Anthony Michael Hall’s Mr. Hart and the reveal of his novelist past. Was this always the plan for the character?
LI: It was always designed for that scene to happen, that she was going to read the book and find out it was him and see that it was the method to his madness. I thought that reveal would be really cool, and that we wouldn’t really see it coming.
I had tried to Google the book when it was first introduced, but nothing came up, which got me suspicious at the very least.
LI: [Laughs] His name—Russell Jonathan—is a combination of my dad and my brother. When I was writing that scene I knew I was leaving the show, and here I was: this is my first show, I’ve won awards and earned lovely critical praise, and knew I was writing this scene about Mr. Hart. This was always his character from the beginning, he was a guy who was a one-hit wonder who got full of himself and ruined his life and found himself as a teacher. So to write that scene, and to be in a place where I felt like a failure, and I was feeling really hated as a person the way he felt—that scene was maybe the most personal scene I ever wrote on the show. And what’s so funny is that—[laughs]—the director, when he read that scene, came into my office and he goes “Did you write that about me?!” [Laughs] And then many people on the set after reading that scene came up to me and said it spoke to them, and felt like I had written about them. It said that on some level we all feel like frauds, and we all feel like one hit wonders, and we all have that vulnerability, and it was maybe the most connected I’ve ever felt to the show and to the crew.
You’re usually like “Oh, my hair department never reads my scripts, or enjoy them at least.” It’s like work. And so to have one of my makeup artists who I love, come up to me and just say “I loved this script, it’s such a beautiful way for you to go out”…People really took the time to come talk to me, and it was just cathartic and beautiful. All I can say is that scene and the letter scene and that final voiceover montage at the prom: that’s me. Those scenes are me. That’s what I brought to this show. Those were my heart.