Supremely Awkward.: why MTV’s teen sitcom is vital television
TV has struggled to make a great show for a new generation of teens, but the call has been answered in the form of MTV sitcom Awkward.Laurence Barber explores how this bright and brassy show came to sit alongside the best comedies on television.
In the first decade of the 21st century, it proved somewhat difficult for television creators to accurately portray teenage life. For many of us, some of the first shows we might think of when trying to imagine great teen-oriented TV form a varying but distinguished list: My So-Called Life, Freaks & Geeks, iterations of Degrassi, Press Gang, The Adventures of Pete & Pete, Beverly Hills, 90210, Daria,half of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and so on.
The uniting factor is that the only show in that list that began post-millenium–Freaks & Geeks–was set in the 1980s. And when you cobble together the best examples made for or about the demographic–Veronica Mars, Skins, Joan of Arcadia, the rest of Buffy–you start to get a picture of what works for teens and what doesn’t.
Not that these are the only examples. Series like Gossip Girl, The O.C., One Tree Hill, and more recently Pretty Little Liars and Glee have all had huge success with teen audiences (as well as adults). Then there are the younger-skewing sitcoms, including Miley Cyrus’ star-making vehicle Hannah Montana, Miranda Cosgrove’s iCarly, and That’s So Raven, as well as the warm, funny animated series As Told by Ginger.
Most of these shows are either chiefly dramas–My So-Called Life, Degrassi–high concept or genre-inflected–Joan of Arcadia, Buffy, Veronica Mars–unattainable, escapist fantasies of teenhood starring actors playing characters ten years younger than them–Gossip Girl, The O.C.–or shows more interested in crafting a phenomenon than good television–that’d be Hannah Montana or various other Disney star-spawning machines.
So what of the teen-oriented, high school sitcom?
This is where Awkward. comes in. Premiering in 2011, Awkward. feels like the true ancestor of many of these shows. While it trades in tales of the outcast, girls pining over boys, boys being confused by girls, and all the requisite clichés, it feels like the first series tailored for a new generation that aims chiefly for comedy and sticks the landing.
Plenty of the aforementioned shows trade in humour, from Kristen Bell’s smart-mouthed teen detective to Joss Whedon’s now world famous wise-cracking, but Awkward. is a 21-minute sitcom in the truest sense of the word. In the first episode, Jenna Hamilton (Ashley Rickards) receives a “care-frontation” letter which tells her that she could disappear and no one would notice. She has an accident that is misconstrued as a suicide attempt and shifts from invisible to an oddity to be gawped at.
Through all of this, Jenna has lost her virginity to her crush Matty McKibben (Beau Mirchoff) at summer camp but he—a popular jock—refuses to publicly acknowledge her. Jenna takes these events as a sign to change and, through her regular blogging and with help from friends Tamara (Jillian Rose Reed) and Ming (Jessica Lu), starts to live her life to what she is told is her potential.
Fast-forward to its third season and things look very different. One of the series’ overarching themes is the nature of change in high school; their friendships shift, relationships ebb and flow, parents and popularity come and go. It’s particularly commendable that the most powerful, organic relationships on the show–those between Jenna and her mother Lacey (the terrific Nikki DeLoach), and Jenna and Tamara–are the ones most crucial to how the show operates. This may seem like fairly stock teen show stuff, but it’s less the ‘what’ and more the ‘how’, the ‘why’, and the ‘haha’.
The series revolves inextricably around Jenna, and her blog–think a modernised, youthful version of Carrie’s column in Sex and the City, with probably fewer puns but more pseudo-Heathers lexicality–helps to underscore the show’s themes as well as factoring into its narrative. The series embraces technology as a core component of teenagers’ lives and treats it as real and tangible; more than can be said for most TV shows. The only immediate analogue is the recent, much-mourned Bunheads.
The fact that the series airs on MTV works very much in its favour; it means that the show needn’t censor its own content to appease parental advisory boards, for a start. In Awkward.’s universe, sex is natural and a given. One need only compare it to teen-ish network sitcom Suburgatory to see the benefits of not caring about more puritanical audiences, a series which generally prefers not to acknowledge the more overt aspects of its teenage characters’ sexuality.
Where dramas like My So-Called Life seemed like they were charting this territory, Awkward. simply inhabits it, infusing it with many of the same sexual anxieties as you might find on an adult show. If the characters seem preternaturally mature, it’s because it’s interested in intelligent, nuanced teenage characters. Even the series’ villain, Sadie Saxton (played deliciously by Molly Tarlov), both inhabits and subverts cliché; a mean cheerleader bitch with the malicious catchphrase, “You’re welcome,” Sadie struggles with her body image under the pressure of wealthy, uncaring parents.
But the comedy is what sets Awkward. apart. Where teen shows tend to merely tap a vein of humour, Awkward. is a punchline-landing sitcom at heart. Much of the comedy comes from Jenna’s warm, superficial mother Lacey, a woman interested as much in being Jenna’s friend as she is in being her mother, and Palos Hills High School guidance counsellor Valerie (Desi Lydic), a deeply dysfunctional, lonely woman whose belief in her own gift for helping people belies her hilarious lack of boundaries. But as with many great sitcoms, a finesse for drama lies at its heart.
By retaining a focus on the lighter side of its subject matter, the series is able to explore issues–bullying, suicide, death, sex–from a completely different angle to shows before it in its lineage. Where most ‘00s teen sitcoms existed in the family-oriented stables of Nickelodeon and Disney, Awkward. enervates pat stories with a witty voice and brassy honesty. It is worth remembering, too, that it may have had company in MTV’s The Hard Times of RJ Berger (notable for its brief depiction of a closeted jock bully played by Jayson Blair) but for its cancellation by the network in 2011.
Hosannas for Awkward.’s significant creative and commercial success must fall at the feet of the writers and particularly its creator and showrunner, Lauren Iungerich. Iungerich’s steady hand and unique voice has guided Awkward. through its share of rough patches and emerged in the second half of its third season at its utmost compelling. Sadly, after disputes with the network (not least of which must have been their apparent refusal to not censor ‘swearing’ as benign as “pussy”), Iungerich will no longer act as showrunner after the third season’s end.
This is not good news for the show as it airs its most dramatically hebetic episodes yet. The first half of the third season was devoted to a systematic undoing of Jenna as she lapsed into the selfishness and egotism we all do as 16 year olds; as a new, ‘mature’ love interest Collin (Nolan Gerard Funk) entered the scene, Jenna began to question if the sweet, hangdog Matty was her be-all and end-all. Collin, a beige, smouldering type, is the kind of cipher a narrative must commit to in order to achieve an end. Jenna’s confusion over her own identity–as a woman, as a young adult, as a writer–become beholden to an ideal, and thus implodes the relationships most important to her.
It has been a brave move by Iungerich and her writers; some critics, including myself at the time, docked the season’s first half for seemingly introducing a new prospect for Jenna for no great purpose (she had already dated Matty’s best friend Jake, played by the adorable Brett Davern). However, it immediately became clear after the return premiere two weeks ago that Awkward. was playing a Heisenberg-ian long game. Jenna’s willingness to change for Collin, unconscious as it may be, perfectly captures the fluidity of teenage identity, the changing interests, the growing out of friendships.
Jenna convincing herself that there was necessarily more to this blank man of ‘substance’—he likes photography and takes creative writing classes with her—than there was to the person she had pined for, fallen in love with, and shared real life experiences with is a terrific way to develop the character, who remains compelling even if her actions are selfish and unlikeable. It’s no surprise that Jenna’s friends and family both knowingly and unknowingly take Matty’s side. It’s a human, mistake-prone side of a female character (and protagonist no less!) that somehow remains rare on TV.
Awkward.’s sophisticated approach to character and playful use of teen tropes seat it on the pedestal alongside the best sitcoms currently airing. Where the pubescents of Ja’mie: Private School Girl are teenspeak-spewing paper figurines to be mashed together in forced conflict, Awkward.’s creation and embrace a kind of neo-teen lingo feels more immersive than cursory; Iungerich, her writers, and the talented cast and crew are interested in plunging you into a world and letting you inhabit it. It’s not a perfect show; it often tends towards stasis (as reflective of reality as this may be) and the jokes don’t always land. But it’s alive and significant.
Even if the incoming helmers–two male producers of such oh-that-existeds as So noTORIous, Reba and Cashmere Mafia–sink the show from here (which seems depressingly possible), Iungerich has popped into the comments on Myles McNutt’s terrific reviews at The AV Club to say that “when you get to the end of this season [sic] you will see my full story told”. What this means for the various relationships held in thrall by Jenna’s mishegoss remains to be seen, but it’s pleasing that it will at least end on a note of reasonable finality just in case.
Calling it a teen sitcom is handy for categorical reasons, but this is a show that exists well beyond such limits. Awkward. is far more than the period in its title and far more than just its basic premise–it’s purely great television. So don’t be surprised when its name appears alongside the laundry list of shows in the first couple of paragraphs in a few years’ time. It will deserve to be there.