“Awkward.” Overcomes Teenage Cliches

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 the episode when browsing my iTunes library.

When I finally got around to watching the pilot, I was charmed and surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  High school dramas as a television genre do not pique my interest.   I tend to prefer procrastinating 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 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.

While “Awkward.”, fits squarely within the clichés of high school drama, it 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 laughably surreal misunderstandings and unfortunate coincidences, 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, wants to be as hip as the teenagers, while dealing with the obligatory cheerleader antagonist, Sadie (Molly Tarlov).

Though “Awkward.” may well 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. There are no plot-required teenage pregnancy arcs  à 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 its 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’s writers know what they’re doing.

Thirdly, the show makes a rather poignant choice of villain in Sadie, a popular cheerleader.  Whereas most stereotypical high school cheerleaders are blonde, sample-sized nymphs who use their sexuality to further their power, Sadie is not conventionally attractive and is shown to struggle with her body image and weight, as well as trying to maintain male interest.  It’s a part of her character that is ultimately relatable to nearly everyone who has made it through high school, where no bully is so flat as their television counterparts. Presenting Sadie with all her insecurities makes her a more complex and less 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, is as true a heroine as one 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 storylines created for teenage girls like myself. 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 preoccupied with dirty jokes and hormones; they cussed, swore, and were really 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 in Sarah Dessen’s and Susane Colasanti’s novels (“Along for the Ride” and “When It Happens”) are more concerned with earning the love of a boy in sentimental and often saccharine storylines. These heroines were not the truly realistic, hormone-addled, insecure protagonists I felt us (teenage girls) to be.  I wanted something more like a female Holden Caulfield.  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 writing — 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 cast’s lack of diversity in the realms of both race and gender is a disappointment, and the shallow and thoughtless behavior of Jenna’s so-called best friend, which is played for laughs, makes you wonder why Jenna keeps her around.

Overall, though, the strength of Ashley Rickard’s portrayal of the deadpan, sardonic Jenna, and the absurdity of her interactions with her world, make “Awkward.” worth watching.  Luckily for me, and for my readers, the first two seasons (the third season premieres on MTV on April 16 at 10 p.m.) are available for streaming on Netflix Instant.  For the twenty-minute bites of entertainment it provides, “Awkward.” is a rather delicious guilty pleasure.

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