Paramount/MTV Home Entertainment
BY MICHAEL BERICK
The past decade has been a particularly hard time for MTV’s non-reality TV show. Remember Zack Stone Is Gonna Be Famous? I Just Want My Pants Back? The Hard Times of RJ Berger? Probably not. Sure, Teen Wolf is okay but there’s really one show the network can be proud of – Awkward. Besides not having an awkwardly long title, the show succeeds as a smart look at teen life that appeals to both kids and adults and has been praised by critics and People’s Choice voters.
For the uninitiated, Awkward is the story of high schooler Jenna Hamilton – a classic outsider who wants to fit in. The series starts in the aftermath of two major events in her life: she had sex for the first time (at summer camp with one of the popular boys at school) and her entire school believes she tried to commit suicide (when actually she just had an embarrassing accident at home). The show follows her various ups and downs as she negotiates that particularly treacherous times of life in high school. (Below: the trailer for Season 1)
Awkward doesn’t try to do reinvent the high school TV series. The plotlines often cover the familiar high school topics (like who’s dating who, peer pressure, embarrassing parents and self esteem) and the characters populating Palos Hills High School are the familiar typical types: the mean cheerleader, the boy-crazy best friend, the popular, hunky jock and the nice guy. Watching Awkward won’t make you forget similar shows like (since it’s MTV) the great, animated series Daria or even today’s teen-coms such as Subpurgatory, along with any number of high school movies, from Sixteen Candles to Easy A. However, what Awkward has going it – what places it in the Honors level of high school tales – are two main things: it has a distinctive voice and strong acting.
Show creator Lauren Iungerich researched Southern California high schools before doing Awkward and it is evident in how she is able to satirize high school life while also making it feel quite authentic. The dialogue features the best use of teen slang since Clueless as characters casually toss off hilarious phrases like “prima bitcharina,” “gift of the vagi” and “he’s Anne Franking you.”
Beyond the clever wordplays, Iungerich also has drawn her high school characters with a deceptive level of depth. Although each character falls into a type, none are mere stereotypes. Every character has virtues and flaws. While Jenna is an appealing lead, she isn’t immunity to acting selfishly like any teen. A drunken night at a party results in Jenna kissing her best friend’s boyfriend, which fractures her longtime friendship. Similarly, Jenna nemesis, cheerleader Sadie Sexton is an aggressively mean “mean girl”; however, she isn’t the clichéd cheerleader type. Sadie, who is even more cynical than Jenna, wields her power with Machiavellian skill yet draws some degree of sympathy over her struggles with weight issues and her dysfunctional relationship with her mother.
The acting is uniformly excellent (particularly if you don’t worry over whether the actors are age appropriate for high schoolers). Ashley Rickards (who actually was a teenager when the show started in 2011) stands out as Jenna, portraying the right blend of smarts, insecurities, sarcasm and sincerity. The actors playing her fellow students also create highly believable characters, exhibiting that uneasy mix of invincibility and vulnerabilities that makes the teenage years such an awkward time. (Below: Season 2 trailer)
While the show focuses on the kids, it also features two extremely memorable adult characters. Jenna’s mother thinks more like a teenage than Jenna does. Her idea of good parental advice is that Jenna would improve her looks if she went braless and sharing the Golden Rule of party-going: “Beer before liquor never sicker, liquor before beer, you’re in the clear.” The other flawed “adult voice of reason” is the school counselor Valerie Marks, who is more emotionally needy than the high schoolers. She constantly crosses the line of appropriate behavior in her comically inept ways that she tries “help” her students (especially Jenna).
Awkward deftly portrays the emotional roller coaster that is high school life. The humor can be clever, dumb and cutting as are its emotional moments. It’s grounded in enough reality to feel honest yet it tied to being a My So-Called Life-like series. Highly appealing, although not without a few flaw, Awkward ranks among the top of current class of high school series. If you missed it on MTV (an easy predicament if you haven’t programmed it into your DVR), this 4-set covering the show’s first two seasons is a wonderful way to binge out on life at Palos Hills High.