TELEVISION REVIEW: "Awkward."


I have been reviewing arts for over three years now, and I’ve covered a wide variety of media.  Over the past year I’ve written about both visual arts on- and off-campus, interviewed artists and musicians, and reviewed both live and studio music efforts for the Phoenix. Additionally, in previous years I have reviewed dance performances as well as a film and a book.   This week, I’m taking the plunge into television, a medium I have yet to engage in my reviews.
Sometimes the best discoveries are accidental.  Some time ago, iTunes was giving away free downloads of the pilot episode of MTV’s Awkward., a show I knew little to nothing about.  I figured that I had nothing to lose from a free download, so I took advantage of Apple’s magnanimity, figuring I’d stumble upon this episode later in the future in my iTunes library. 
When I finally got around to watching the pilot episode, I was charmed and surprised by how much I enjoyed Awkward.  High school dramas as a television genre have never piqued my interest.   I tend to prefer to procrastinate with crime procedurals where the leads’ smoldering sexual tension or pure comedic interactions overshadow the actual crime fighting (looking at you, Psych, Bones, and Castle), early Aaron Sorkin walk-and-talk fests, smart, absurd comedies, and with some of the BBC’s intermittent offerings.  Degrassi was before my time; Gilmore Girls never hit my radar; The Secret Life of the American Teenager was maudlin and poorly acted; 10 Things I Hate About You formulaic and short-lived. 
Awkward., while fitting squarely within the clich├ęs of high school drama, proves compelling and thoroughly entertaining (as of writing this review, I am on episode seven) due to its snarky, relatable lead character Jenna, ably portrayed by Ashley Rickards.  The show centers on her romantic and non-romantic trials and tribulations.  Jenna is self-possessed, yet realistically insecure about herself; she is the only seemingly sane character in a world populated by comically oblivious teenagers, parents and other so-called authority figures.   When she is thrust into the school spotlight due to a series of comically surreal misunderstandings and unfortunate coincidences in which it appears as though she has tried to commit suicide, Jenna must continue to navigate the everyday trials and tribulations of high school, all the while dealing with her low social status and her confusing relationships with the well-meaning but unreadable Matty (Beau Mirchoff) and the more open, uneasy Jake (Brett Davern).  Jenna must also grapple with hilariously incompetent authority figures such as the school counselor (Desi Lydic), who, with her Kristen Wiig-esque mannerisms, just wants to be as hip as the teenagers in her charge, as well as the designated cheerleader antagonist Sadie (Molly Tarlov).


(mtv.tv)
While Awkward. may well indeed seem like a formulaic high school television show, it is notable and worth watching for several reasons.  Firstly, it’s refreshing to see a show about teenagers in high school dealing with sexuality in a way that does not pass judgment on the participants.  There are no plot-required teenage pregnancy arcs a la Secret Life. Jenna is the product of a teen pregnancy, but the show uses this fact to justify her clueless, hilariously well-meaning parents rather than attempt to spread a sex-negative message to the audience.  Sex is a big part of the show, but it is not portrayed as the be-all end-all.  Secondly, while most of the characters and plots make use of high school stereotypes, the denouements of episodes sometimes veer in unexpected directions, adding an offbeat flavor to the comedy.   There are the big bonfires and house parties that populate every television and/or film high school.  There are the love triangles, the rumor mills, and the other hallmarks of classic high school shows.  But often the way these plots tease themselves out are just witty enough to let you know that the show writers know what they’re doing.  Thirdly, the show makes a rather poignant choice in the characterization of the villain of the show, the popular cheerleader Sadie.  Whereas most stereotypical high school cheerleader antagonists are blonde, sample-size nymphs concerned with using their sexuality as part of their power, Sadie is not conventionally attractive and is shown to struggle with her body image and weight, as well as maintaining male interest.  It’s a part of her character that is ultimately relatable to nearly everyone who has made it through high school.  In high school, no bully is as flat and under characterized as their television counterparts so often are, and presenting Sadie with all her insecurities makes her more complex and less of a stereotypical villain.
Lastly, as I mentioned before, this show derives much of its charm and humor from Jenna, who, with her voice-over wit and identifiable position as a beacon of sanity in a fictional world of randomness, is as true a heroine as I could hope for.  Growing up, instead of watching high school TV dramas, I read quite a bit of “young adult fiction”, and was often disappointed in the different kinds of story lines created for teenage girls.  Teenage boys, such as Tom in Frank Portman’s King Dork and Greg from Me, Earl and the Dying Girl were allowed to be what I felt was realistic to my experience as a high school student; they were allowed to be preoccupied with dirty jokes and hormones, to cuss and swear, and to really be snarky.  In contrast, I found that many of the “high school genre” books centered on a female protagonist did not reflect my experience; the girls who populate Sarah Dessen’s and Susane Colasanti’s novels are more concerned with earning the love of a boy in deeply sentimental and often saccharine storylines. These heroines were never the truly realistic, hormone-addled, insecure protagonists with whom I identified.  I wanted something close to a female Holden Caulfield.  Awkward.’s Jenna has enough edge and humor to her that she manages to be the kind of female protagonist I had been seeking in both TV and written offerings—she has a clear sex drive, she makes mistakes and suffers realistic heartbreaks, and she isn’t preoccupied with finding her “soul mate” at age fifteen.
Of course, as to be expected, the show has some flaws.  The lack of diversity both racial and sexual in the cast is disappointing, and the shallowness and thoughtlessness in the behavior of Jenna’s so-called best friend, which is played for laughs, makes you wonder why Jenna even keeps her around. 
Overall, though, the strength of Ashley Rickard’s portrayal of the deadpan, sardonic Jenna, and the absurdity of her interactions within her world, make the show worth watching.  Luckily for me, and for my readers, the first two seasons of Awkward. (whose third season premieres on MTV on April 16 at 10 PM) is available for streaming on Netflix Instant.  For the twenty-minute bites of entertainment it provides, it is a rather delicious guilty pleasure.

Comments

  1. Nicely written. I like the fact that you review the show in such a personal manner...showing why it rings true for you and likely many others who have been on the look out for realistic teenaged portrayals in tv and literature. GREAT JOB.

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  2. Great review - yay for sex positivity and complex characters!

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