Awkward.’s third season ended on a moment of self-empowerment: Facing the consequences of her self-destructive actions, Jenna (Ashley Rickards) makes a clean break from Matty (Beau Mirchoff), choosing to take to the prom dance floor alone. It was a moment that paid off the season’s sometimes-rocky characterization, transforming a series of mistakes into a set of lessons that would guide Jenna Hamilton moving forward.
Awkward.’s fourth season opens on a moment of self-pleasure, in which Jenna’s lessons of self-empowerment are resituated as Harlequin fantasies that have no ties to her material reality. An act that was once about separating herself from Matty is now reimagined in a dream as a siren’s call, in which the benefit of self-empowerment is that men—including Matty—will throw themselves at you.
It’s a rough transition, although it was always going to be rough. Aside from the fact that creator Lauren Iungerich left the series and was replaced by Chris Alberghini and Mike Chessler (90210, So Notorious), the third-season finale felt like a series finale. If Iungerich had been at the helm of a fourth season, there would have still been challenges attached to returning Jenna and the show’s characters to the everyday rhythms of a high school comedy defined by its romantic entanglements.
And yet it didn’t have to be this rough. In the hour-long premiere, Alberghini and Chessler demonstrate a surface-level engagement with what the show Awkward. has been, as though they were submitting a spec script based on only half-watching the first three seasons. The characters are mostly all there (Ming has been written out between seasons), and the memo on the quippy dialogue and censored swearing was clearly received, but the delicate calculus of broad comedy and character development is a consistent struggle for the series’ new showrunners.
It’s true that Alberghini and Chessler have not yet had time to develop long-form narratives and engage in character development of their own, such that writing off the entire season would be shortsighted. However, the premiere’s attitude toward previous character development is telling. One of the key developments of the third season was a resistance to boiling down the series to its love triangles, but the quick “recap” of the show offered by the new producers—presumably to appeal to new viewers, but also revealing their own read on the earlier seasons—focuses exclusively on Jenna’s romantic life. It’s a reworking of the show’s thematic footprint, which throughout the episode reduces the characters to serve a more generic set of situations.
The premiere relies on plug-and-play storytelling in which the show’s characters are dropped into stories typical for a high school comedy—College Application Pressure! Sexual Discovery! The stories make basic sense on paper, but in practice they lack specificity to the characters involved. Jenna is retconned into an academic failure so she has to struggle with her admissions essay, conveniently forgetting for most of the episode that she is an accomplished writer; Tamara isn’t being satisfied during sex with Jake (reimagined as a shaggy guitar bro for no particular reason), but needs a worldly new girl—Eva, played by Elizabeth Whitson—to illuminate the specifics of sexual pleasure, as though she had never Type A’d her way into that knowledge previously.
One imagines a back-to-basics approach was part of Alberghini and Chessler’s pitch to MTV, and the impulse makes sense: It will take them time to get a read on the characters, and clear narrative structures—like a “senior sleep-in”—offer guideposts to keep the train on the tracks. The problem is that “back-to-basics” goes against what made the series stand out among teen comedies, and leaves a number of the show’s characters—Lacey and Valerie, in particular—slotting into archetypal dynamics with Jenna that work against the very things that made those characters interesting. It would be easier to accept that if the writers were instead focused on establishing the shades of new characters, but the cadre of new students are introduced with no subtlety: the gay guys are the gay guys, the new girl is the new girl, and the exchange student is the exchange student, with neither the writing nor the performances inspiring interest beyond the most basic curiosity.
The reality is that Awkward.’s fourth season is thus far a close-enough facsimile of the series’ first three seasons that MTV hopes its target demographics won’t notice anything has changed. This is still the story we started out with in the pilot, as Jenna pines for Matty, pals around with Tamara, is antagonized by Sadie, and faces the everyday challenges of high school just like every other teenager in America. The problem is that Jenna wasn’t like every other teenager after three seasons of development, and reframing her as such goes against so much of what the character has stood for. It also just often feels wrong: The show’s voiceover has been reconfigured to become her internal monologue (rather than her blog), and there’s a scene where it is suggested Jenna forced Matty to watch Twilight, an excuse to make a “topical” pop culture reference at the expense of every piece of evidence regarding Jenna’s taste from previous seasons.
There are few jobs in television more scrutinized than taking over someone else’s series, as David Rosenthal, Moses Port, and David Guarascio know all too well. It creates an almost impossible set of expectations, and makes those aware of the change more likely to nitpick small details. Accordingly, there’s laundry list of creative choices that grate in the premiere, including an overreliance on stylized slow-motion sex sequences, some weird non-diegetic sound mixing, and an almost offensive camera hold on a collection of massagers as though the audience weren’t observant enough to see them clearly in the background and get the masturbation joke on display.
Individually, these are small details, which one could potentially adjust to over time. But none of the changes made to the series feel productive (outside of perhaps some shading to Sadie’s ongoing storyline), and none of the new storylines or characters introduced are taking the series into a more meaningful or funnier direction. The problem is not that Awkward. is a different show being run by different people—yes, it is damning that MTV considers the creator of the show disposable and chose not to hire someone from within Iungerich’s writing staff to continue on in her absence, but that’s a basic reality of the channel and a bridge that we must cross. Rather, the problem is that there is overwhelming evidence in this first episode that it is a lesser show being run by showrunners with a weaker hold over these characters, this universe, and the rhythms of television comedy more broadly—wherever this new version of Awkward. goes in the season ahead, it is starting with a significantly lower class rank.
Showrunners: Chris Alberghini and Mike Chessler
Starring: Ashley Rickards, Beau Mirchoff, Jillian Rose Reed, Elizabeth Whitson, Nikki DeLoach, Brett Davern, Molly Tarlov, Desi Lydic
Returns: Tuesday at 10 p.m. Eastern on MTV
Format: Half-hour comedy series
One episode watched for review