TV Review: MTV's 'Awkward' returns for Season 2
High school comedy makes a polished return, but is that a good thing?
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MTV's "Awkward" premiered last summer as a diamond-in-the-rough.
On every imaginable level, Lauren Iungerich's comedy was ragged around the edges and that was part of its charm. Early storylines were without-a-net daring and the dialogue was laden with "Throw against the wall and see what sticks" jargon and neologisms. The performances were relaxed and natural and the production values weren't especially high, which all contributed to the appeal. Very few critics bothered to review those early episodes and that was OK, because MTV didn't have a clue what to do with "Awkward," burying it at 11 p.m. after airings of "Teen Mom," which was both a hilariously incompatible lead-in, but also the best the network could do under the circumstances.
In my review of "Awkward," I described it as a "proudly lewd and rude and big-hearted comedy." I gave "Awkward" a B-minus, but it was a fairly positive B-minus, as such things go and the write-up spoke of a fresh show with ample potential for growth and maturation.
"Awkward" returns to MTV on Thursday (June 28) night in a slightly more amenable 10:30 time slot and with a good deal more promotion and press.
And, having seen the first two episodes of the new season, I can confirm that "Awkward" is, indeed, growing and maturing.
You'll notice, though, that the B-minus grade remains unchanged. It's still a positive B-minus, reflecting the copious amounts of talent and potential on display here. I'd still recommend the show and I'd strongly emphasize how "Awkward" is very close to doing the thing that I mentioned last week has been so seemingly impossible for ABC Family and The CW: It's a comedy that aims at young female viewers, is welcoming to older viewers of both sexes and actually manages to be funny.
So what's my problem? "Awkward" has grown and matured, but I don't think I love the direction that MTV and, presumably, Iungerich have chosen to push the show. The show that was once rough around the edges is, at times, too polished suddenly. And the show that was once daring is feeling a little too conventional at the moment. I don't think that "Awkward" Season 1 was the perfect realization of what the show was aspiring to be, but in many ways, its imperfections were admirable and felt like they weren't the result of careful reading and rereading of Twitter and message boards.
The new "Awkward" episodes feel too crowd-sourced for my liking, but there's a strong chance that means that the crowd will embrace them.
More after the break...
"Awkward" picks up the second season with Christmas and New Year's Eve approaching. We pick up with Jenna (Ashley Rickards) in a fairly happy place. She and Jake (Brett Davern) are reasonably couple-y and she's aces with best buds Tamara (Jillian Rose Reed) and Ming (Jessica Lu). A couple plotlines from last season still linger, though, complicating matters. For one thing, it's not that easy for Jenna to forget about Matty (Beau Mirchoff) and she hasn't found a way to confront her mother (Nikki Deloach) about the care-frontation letter from last season. Plus, because the mystery of the care-frontation letter was a good narrative device last season, we've introduced a very similar device for this season: You know Jenna's blog, which always seemed confusingly frank and public and yet nobody was aware it existed? Well, she's got a new anonymous commenter who's mighty insightful.
The primary thing that I responded to in "Awkward" when it launched was the character of Jenna and the show's unflinching look at the high school humiliations that were central to her life and impacting her spirits. In the first few episodes, Jenna experienced enough different serious bumps in the road to scar any normal teen, but as hurt as she was, she persevered. I loved Rickards' performance, which felt to me like the rare depiction of high school awkwardness that didn't come across a twentysomething model slumming as an outcast. The developing love-triangle between Jenna, Jake and Matty was far from invisible, but I didn't get the impression that "Awkward" was trying to tell me that the secret to adolescent discontent was finding the right boyfriend and being able to make out with him in public.
In the early going of Season 2, "Awkward" seems to be evolving into a show about a pretty girl trying to choose between two pretty boys. The original Jenna was trying very hard to fit in, but sometimes she was inadvertently a disaster, much to the chagrin of her mother, who desperately wanted to relive her high school glory days through her daughter. New Jenna hasn't become a flawless glamazon or anything, but her fumbling attempts at self-presentation aren't causing embarrassment for anybody. That Jenna hasn't fully morphed into The CW's equivalent of a hipster nerd is, at this point, a tribute mostly to Rickards. I said very nice things about her in my Outstanding Lead Actress Emmy gallery and I stand by them.
But Jenna's reduced maladjustment weakens dramatic pulls elsewhere. She's no long a stationary target, which reduces the clout for Molly Tarlov's deliciously wicked-yet-insecure Sadie and her bubble-brained henchwoman Lissa (Greer Grammer). The change in Jenna's worldview has also forced the writers to ratchet up the eccentricities for Desi Lydic's Valerie and as much as I like Lydic, I worry that the character may be teetering on the wrong side of the "cartoonish" balancing beam at the moment.
When you reduce the usefulness of those character connections, you're putting more and more and more pressure on the love triangle. And guess what? I've never been emotionally invested in Jenna-Jake-Matty 'shipping. And I know that many viewers are really into those relationships and I saw their feedback on Twitter last year and I guess that Iungerich saw it as well and decided to double-down on the triangle.
One of the responses I heard most frequently was that this was a love triangle in which people either couldn't or didn't want to take sides in, because they could be happy with either option. See, that's not good. If Elena chooses Stefan or Damon, she's picking between two fundamentally opposing characters. The reasons she would choose one are polarized from the reason she'd choose the other. Bella's reasons for plausibly picking Jacob over Edward spoke to primal differences between her vampire boyfriend and her werewolf bestie.
The reason why you don't care if Jenna picks Matty or Jake is because there's no jeopardy to either choice. In both case, she's picking a pretty, popular guy who can provide her with security and status at her school. The only reason to have a preference involved Matty keeping Jenna as a dark secret last season. But even that point of clarification is moot, because the armpit-sniffing insecurity that made Matty interesting and contradictory when we met him is basically gone. In a good love triangle, the person in position to choose has to be responding to yin and yang tuggings of the soul, while Jenna's choice is reduced to preference of height or hair color. Whoever Jenna chooses is going to say almost nothing about her as a character, so it weakens the character that there's nothing else defining her at this moment. Unless we're going down a "Threesome" or "Chasing Amy" path on "Awkward," I don't have any preference on Jenna's choice, so prolonging it generates mostly fatigue.
Jenna and "Awkward" badly need a third option and the show barely has time for two simple options like these. I don't know why MTV's programming blocks are shorter than network programming blocks, but every single episode of "Awkward" disappoints me with its shortness. On one hand, that's a good thing, because I've yet to watch an episode of "Awkward" that was too slow or dull or too long. But if you're a comedy that only gets 20 minutes -- as opposed to 22-ish minutes for network comedies -- and you commit to your show basically being consumed by a love triangle, there just aren't enough minutes for enough other things.
And I want more of Jillian Rose Reed. She's very funny and the show badly needs to push her beyond the confines of her not-quite-relationship with Ricky Schwartz. Maybe there's a limit to how much Tamara you can have because of the character's foul mouth? Nah. That doesn't make sense.
And I want more of Jessica Lu. In the season's second episode, Ming has a full subplot and I practically threw a tiny parade in my living room to celebrate the liberation of the frequently limited character.
I also want Iungerich taken out of shackles, though I really don't know if she's shackling herself (or if it's intentional at all). The season-opening episodes are notably tamer in terms of both implied and depicted teen content, even if there may be a few more bleeped expletives. The new episodes also don't require the kind of Iungerich-speak glossary that MTV actually wrote up last year so that press would know what "DTR" or "TIA" meant. The two episodes I've seen use a couple recycled catch phrases, but I didn't jot down a single new expression in my notes. Do Iungerich and MTV want the show to be more acceptable and palatable this season? Shrug. The dialogue is still quotable and catchy, but the unique voice and rhythm is reduced, if not altogether gone.
I'm pleased to have "Awkward" back on MTV and I hope that it attracts more viewers in its second season. But what I really hope is that it becomes a big enough bona fide hit to give Iungerich the freedom to refocus on her leading lady and or spice up the perfunctory love triangle. Last year, my B-minus was a B-minus of pleasure and surprise. This year, it's a B-minus of pleasure and minor disappointment.
"Awkward" premieres at 10:30 p.m. on June 28 on MTV.