The Monday Morning Quarterback

I Feel Awkward

Last week, the United States Supreme Court, in a stunning 5-4 decision, affirmed the Affordable Care Act, which was signed into law by President Obama in 2010. I’ll write about the ramifications of this next week, because I’ve got a bigger topic to cover this week: the second season premiere of one of TV’s best shows this Thursday at 10:30 pm.

Awkward is an MTV half hour comedy about suburban high school life that is at once so real and so absurd that it seems real. A generation after My So Called Life (which lasted a single, golden, giddy season) Awkward carries the torch and bears witness to those difficult years of high school that, for some, were the best years of their lives, but for others were, well really awkward.

The extraordinary expansion of entertainment TV networks over the past decade has created a generously wide array of options for viewers. Choices range from sexy pay cable offerings like True Blood, to frank and dark comedies on FX (Louie), alternate networks are proving themselves up to the “challenge” of mainstream shows like Hawaii Five-O or How I Met Your Mother. Now, with  Awkward, it’s clear that the big four networks plainly can’t keep up. If MTV, for gosh sakes, can make such a great half hour comedy, anyone can.

But not anyone can make Awkward. Keep in mind, these teenagers aren’t vampires. Sex is not the first thing on every kid’s mind. Awkward instead, is distinctly a PG-rated show, and a lot more sophisticated than all those other teen enterprises. The show centers on Jenna Hamilton (played by the wonderful Ashley Rickards). Jenna’s a very pretty girl who’s a high school outcast with a silly, narcissistic mother who got pregnant in high school and used her college fund for breast implants. Jenna’s mother constantly implores her daughter to wear shorter skirts and be promiscuous, which even Jenna considers to be bad advice.

At school, Jenna endures sessions with the nutty guidance counselor, a pretty, young, self-involved ditz who behaves more like a 13 year old than an adult advisor. The parents, the guidance counselor and other adults in Awkward do not come off well, and instead are portrayed as big fat wastes of space. The adults have some funny lines, but in general they are much like the bleating offscreen horns in Peanuts cartoons. Necessary, because they pay the mortgages and unlock the school gates, but ultimately, they’re cannon fodder.

The show is not about cliché. There are no “special episodes”. When there is hugging (and there’s actually quite a bit of it) it’s Alanis-Morrisette-ironic.

Last season, Jenna had an accident that was misconstrued by all as a suicide attempt. Instead of compassion, she was met with ridicule in her school as she wore her broken arm in a comical cast contraption. She slept with a guy in summer camp, but didn’t become pregnant because, as her witty voice-over pointed out, “This isn’t going to be some dumb show about getting pregnant, because getting pregnant when you don’t want to is essentially for losers.” (This was a sly and jab at My So-Called Life, where the opposite happened.)

Instead of being about the lessons of high school, Awkward is about something TV rarely portrays very well: longing. Longing to fit in. Longing for love. Longing for a future. There is longing in the green-lawned, late-century homes of Awkward’s neighborhoods – longing for peace, love and understanding.

Jenna has two girlfriends, Tamara and Ming, a pair of goofy girls, one of whom performs a subversive act that upends Jenna’s life in the first season. And she has two sexy boyfriends, Jake and Matty. Jake desires her and Matty maintains a certain … distance. She repeatedly ignores bland and blond Jake and throws herself at aloof, dark and kinda dumb Matty.

All of the performances are relaxed and charming. Awkward is a comedy with a big heart and an underlying lewdness. But it’s really Jenna’s show due to the unrelenting, unblinking look at her daily humiliations. Jenna experiences the kind of serious bumps in her high school road that would scar any teenager, but hurt as she is, she perseveres, and it looks like the real thing. Of course, the look is a big part of what makes Awkward work: these kids look like high school students, not 25-year-old Broadway professionals slumming in Hollywood.

Awkward is really a rare thing, and I hope it survives on MTV. Breezy and quick (each episode clocks in at a super-quick 20 minutes) Awkward’s first season was funny, smart, nasty and, at times, heart-breaking. As its sophomore season begins this week, I hope Awkward maintains the edgy quality and keep up the ragged, anything-goes attitude. It was well worth watching the first season. I know I’ll be watching every minute of the next. If it turns out the second is not so good, well, that would be awkward.

– Art Reker, Account and Creative Executive