The penultimate episode of Awkward.’s second season, “Once Upon a Blog,” was a brief foray into speculative fiction for the series. It explored the potentialities of Jenna’s choice between Team Matty and Team Jake, a way to give fans a chance to see not just what story Awkward. had told but also the stories they might have wanted Awkward. to tell.
However, the episode felt empty, serving more to remind viewers of Jenna’s predicament than to necessarily shed new light on it; it was enjoyable, but it wasn’t an episode that stuck in my head when thinking back on the strongest moments of the second season. Despite this, I recently caught the episode as part of one of MTV’s marathons after having seen tonight’s one-hour première, and I was struck with how an episode I had dismissed as ephemeral resonates with the third season’s major plot development.
Jenna’s pregnancy scare is indeed a major plot development, the kind of plot development that risks swallowing everything else around it. There’s an additional risk in doing a pregnancy storyline on an MTV series in the wake of the channel’s cultivation of the teen pregnancy subgenre: Even when a storyline makes narrative sense for a series, it can feel like a case of corporate synergy, which isn’t anyone’s fault so much as an occupational hazard for Lauren Iungerich and the Awkward. writing staff. As discussion turns to how having a baby would affect Jenna’s life, and how this reflects on her responsibility as a woman, these are the themes that have become synonymous with a brand of MTV programming from which Awkward. has generally disassociated itself.
However, as guilty as I am of making these connections while watching the première, we also need to acknowledge that teen pregnancy is—in reality—something that risks swallowing everything else around it. In “Once Upon a Blog,” Jenna’s pregnancy—in her version of events where she uses a fake pregnancy to keep Jake around after their relationship goes south only to discover she’s actually pregnant—is a comic punishment, a worst-case scenario Jenna imagines as she weighs her decisions over the course of the season. However, it’s a worst-case scenario that can be the result of a single risky decision, a single lapse in judgment that could change your entire life. In a show that has been driven by choices and the consequences that follow, Jenna’s pregnancy scare isn’t so much about teen pregnancy as it is about those challenges we face that force us to reevaluate our futures.
“Cha-cha-cha-changes,” which based on past precedent was designed to air as a half-hour première, plays differently when you watch it a second time. On first viewing, the fact Jenna is the one who thinks she might be pregnant seems to take the episode in a new direction, away from the more straightforward—but still complex—exploration of reconnecting with friends after a summer lost to a relationship. Looking back, it’s possible to see the episode as a trick of sorts, lulling you into a false sense of security for the sake of a shocking reveal. Iungerich lays out plenty of clues to suggest Jenna could be pregnant, but which could also be read as part of other stories: She isn’t cycling with her friends, she offers support to Sadie when Sadie faces her own pregnancy rumors, she’s anxious around Matty, and she has something she desperately wants to discuss with Tamara that their summer separation keeps them from discussing. It’s just vague enough to make it something that slipped under my radar while simultaneously making me feel stupid for not picking it up the first time when I sat down to rewatch it.
However, beyond simply keeping the audience in the dark, the subtextual subterfuge of it all naturalizes teen pregnancy within the anxiety of being a teenager. Tamara’s excitement after returning from France is about the thrill of becoming a different person, but change is terrifying, particularly if you’re still caught in that in-between space of your junior year. While becoming pregnant as a teenager is a huge change, becoming a different person on a degree that will forever alter your life, it’s part of the same anxiety that comes with friends drifting apart, and with the realization that you’re going to be forever transforming into a different person for the rest of your life. Mr. Hart’s creative writing class may not be the subtlest of plot devices, what with its convenient assignments about greatest fears and what not, but it nonetheless accentuates that sometimes things we’ve come to see as contrived plot developments are simply ways to help understand and explore human emotion and human behavior.
The première is hampered somewhat by the choice to air the two episodes back-to-back, as their similar premises would work better with a week between them. Ricky Schwartz’s death follows a similar principle, serving as a catalyst for characters to explore their relationships with Ricky and their relationships in general. The only major difference is that, while Jenna’s pregnancy is treated as something real and grounded, fitting for the show’s protagonist, Ricky’s death is an opportunity to explore the humor of life-changing events and their impact on our lives. There’s only so much reverence one can have for the debaucherous little shit that was Ricky Schwartz, and “Responsibly Irresponsible” pushes Tamara and Sadie to their breaking points, eventually giving all of Ricky’s past loves—Clark included—the catharsis of admitting that he was a horrible person who made their lives miserable.
The challenge is that, as a viewer, there’s no time for Jenna’s own catharsis to settle in. It’s not that I doubt there would be reverberations regarding her pregnancy scare even after it proved to simply be a scare: It makes sense that Matty could find out, and that her newfound concern would be in contrast to his horny ignorance. The episode does a good job of drawing out this conflict, Matty’s “YOLO” instincts following Ricky’s death are an accurate and funny depiction of how a 16-year-old might respond to a fellow student’s death. However, the episodes airing back-to-back robs us of that time to explore Jenna’s experience without also having to think about the plot developments necessary for Matty to find out, and for this to become a roadblock in their relationship rather than simply a roadblock for Jenna on her larger personal journey to adulthood. These developments are logical and meaningful, but I can’t help but feel they’d be more meaningful if we had experienced them a week from now after having time to process the storyline more effectively.
At the same time, however, having the two episodes back-to-back does maximize the more general pleasures of Awkward., in that we get more time to spend with the characters and their world. It’s hard to fault MTV’s logic from that perspective, as the series’ absence—while shorter this season due to the 20-episode order—has only increased my appreciation for its charm. There are lots of great small moments, like Matty smothering Jenna—and Jake—in his “YOLO” phase, or Tamara’s sudden affection for world languages, or most of Valerie’s interactions with other human beings. I was specifically excited to see Kyle return for a more prominent role, his creepiness well suited both to the space of creative writing and to the morbidity of a classmate’s passing. While I know I normally spend most of these reviews discussing plot developments and narrative structures, this is a fun show to sit back and enjoy, and I can see why MTV would want you to be able to experience 42 minutes of that instead of 21 in celebration of its return.
The challenge is that everything gets accelerated, to the point where plot becomes the dominant takeaway. Jake and Tamara barely have time to return from Europe and they’re already saying “I love you” a half-hour later; Jenna hides her pregnancy scare from Matty, but then he learns about it before you can really take in her decision to keep it a secret. There are some effective character shadings there, particularly with Jenna, and the question of whether or not Matty bears any responsibility for the pregnancy scare is a complicated one that got short shrift coming without any time to think it through between episodes. Perhaps there’s something fitting in the lack of processing time, given that you can’t just take a week off to recover from a pregnancy scare or a classmate’s death, but there was just so much happening that a bit more room to breathe might have helped the two episodes as individual stories.
This all being said, however, the two episodes still represent a promising start to the season. There may be too much plot crammed together for one hour, but it’s interesting plot that pushes characters toward interesting places. Matty continues to oscillate between well-meaning doofus and wounded soul, but that’s a refreshingly teenage way for a character to act in these circumstances. Jenna continues to show herself to be someone who makes mistakes and works through the consequences, never “fixing” her life so much as surviving for another day. Tamara’s relationship with Jake might be rushed, but the episodes still give her a personal trajectory, something that Jake seems to lack at this point in the story. Whereas the second season was clearly settled into love triangle mode from the point it began, here we see a graduation of the series’ eponymous awkwardness to a situation still driven by the complexity of romantic entanglements but with a less certain path forward, something that opens a lot of doors for the season to follow.
- I’d be curious to know whether or not the pregnancy story in “Once Upon a Blog” was purposeful foreshadowing, ala Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s “Restless.” I say this mainly because I still suffer from PTSD from the time Whedon fans got a little annoyed with me for not comprehending how important “Restless” was. Which I contend is nearly impossible to know when watching it for the first time.
- Okay, this could just be me, but isn’t Lacey’s argument about Jenna being forced to take full responsibility letting Matty off the hook too easily? Now mind you, I think taking every precaution possible as an individual is important in any sexual relationship, and I was honestly surprised that Jenna hadn’t gone on birth control as soon as the relationship became more formal (which is not a judgmental statement, but rather something I would have presumed Jenna would do). However, asking the dude to take his share of the responsibility seems both logical and fair to me. Am I just overestimating the maturity of the average 16-year-old male? Possibly.
- I’m always surprised high school-set shows don’t use specific classes more often, as they’re a really effective framing device; they can also be a really tired framing device (there’s more than a few creative writing tropes the writers will run into), but Anthony Michael Hall swearing at people should help avoid that pitfall.
- Nolan Gerard Funk—best known perhaps for his recent turn on Glee—doesn’t get a whole lot to do as Colin, and there’s an uncertainty about that that I find refreshing.
- Sadie’s characterization gets caught up in the misdirection of the first episode, but her family being broke means we’re getting another variation on her personal struggles; I’m hoping the larger order allows them to return to the character—and others—for a full spotlight episode sometime this season.
- My favorite small detail in the episode: the way everyone in the creative writing class looks at Jenna whenever anyone mentions suicide. The way that sticks with her is a running joke at this point, but it’s a dark running joke, something I appreciate.
- Kyle’s Korner: I know I mentioned it above, but Kyle was really just the greatest in this episode. Favorite two moments: his knowing nod when confronted about his masturbation fear, and his instinctive firing of the flare gun. Comedy gold.