Earlier today I showed my students a clip from “I Think We Should Have Sex,” the first season episode of Friday Night Lights—covered by our own TV Roundtable—where Tami Taylor confronts her daughter Julie after seeing her boyfriend buying condoms. It’s one of the series’ iconic scenes, taking a trope of teen drama—the sex talk—and adapting it for the more naturalistic, down to earth setting of the series. It is visceral, honest, and also lacks a clear resolution: as much as the intensity of Tami’s speech shapes Julie’s behavior later in the episode, it is ultimately more about building those characters and their relationships on a level beyond the specific event in question.
“Let’s Talk About Sex” explores similar territory, although it’s a bit strange that it’s coming this late in the series. Awkward. began with Jenna losing her virginity, and so the show has more or less been having the “sex talk” throughout its entire run, and there was a brief moment when Kevin’s anger at the birth control was inconceivable to me. Wasn’t he the one who bought her condoms? Wasn’t he the one who has been very cool with both Matty and Jake? Is he so naïve as to think that his daughter was still a virgin after what feels like a long time since he first believed she could become sexually active (even if the amount of story time that has passed is less than the time since the series premiered)?
Just as I was writing those notes, however, the show answered my questions with two simple facts: Kevin is a father, and Kevin is human. There is a difference between preemptive “Cool Dad” condoms and the cold, hard reality of your daughter having sex. Although Awkward. is a broad show compared to Friday Night Lights, they share the belief that the thought of your daughter having sex for the first time awakens something inside of you. Kevin’s decision to add broadcasting to the five stages of grief creates the episode’s plot hijinks—Matty’s parents coming to dinner to talk about their kids’ sex lives—but it ultimately starts with a very human reaction, if one translated into the show’s broad comic style.
Speaking of the show answering my questions, “Let’s Talk About Sex” helps explain why the show has laid out its sexual politics in the way it has this season. I said when reviewing the season opener that I was surprised Jenna wasn’t already on the pill, and there was some discussion in the comments about how much we were expected to be critical of Lacey’s approach to sexual responsibility. I still have some questions about the latter point, but the former now makes sense: Jenna couldn’t have already been on birth control because her decision to go on birth control needed to play out within the narrative to allow us to reach this point in the story. We needed to see Lacey take Jenna to get birth control because it would more effectively contrast Lacey’s parenting strategy with Matty’s mother, who judges Lacey for being so willing to enable her daughter’s “risky behavior” with her son.
Matty’s parents—played by Amanda Foreman and Matt Corboy—are not given enough time to develop as fully-formed characters, but they work as a way to put Kevin and Lacey’s response into perspective. Matty’s mother, not unlike Kevin, had to have known her son was potentially having sex: she found condom wrappers, for example, which is pretty damning evidence. However, her decision not to confront Matty demonstrates that she isn’t able or willing to confront him about it. In short, she resists the insistent title of the episode because she isn’t comfortable with the idea, more likely to hold in her judgment of her son until the point where she no longer has a choice. That she is confronted by parents who bought their daughter condoms and took her to get birth control offends her not simply because she disagrees with their methods, but also because their methods have forced her to confront her own relationship with her son (and, eventually, throw him out of the house).
As much as that final development feels a bit over-dramatic—especially happening off-screen as it does—and registers as a plot device to get Matty under the Hamilton’s roof, it nonetheless offers a valuable frame through which to view Jenna’s relationship with her parents. She resents her dad for being angry about her having sex, but at least he cares enough to be willing to talk to her about it; she dislikes her mother’s over-sharing, but at least her mother is willing—if sometimes too willing—to be upfront and honest as it relates to these kinds of issues. The show has often explored the awkward comedy of that dynamic, but here it also demonstrates its real, emotional value to its characters. The Lacey/Jenna relationship may be painted in slightly broader strokes than the Tami/Julie relationship, but it’s nonetheless an important foundation for the Awkward.’s female relationships, one that was only strengthened through this shared experience (and remains one of my favorite parts of the show).
Tamara and Jake losing their virginities is obviously a thematically relevant story, and one could argue it’s here in part because it provides a more resonant context for the larger discussion of sexual politics (given that Matty and Jenna’s first time happened so long ago). The one challenge is that I’m not particularly invested in their relationship: Jake’s sense of agency remains a mystery to me this season, Tamara’s impulsive agency is tough to pin down, and the alternate cheerleader/alternate girlfriend connection—while justifying Sadie’s C-story and setting up future dynamics—felt like a forced way to pull out Tamara’s sense of inferiority to Jenna. The story is coherent and well-executed, them falling into their first time while discussing how to make “their” first time—and not just “his” and “hers” as separate fantasies—perfect, but there’s something too clean about their relationship that is keeping me at a distance.
Awkward. is often at its best when it embraces its messiness as opposed to resolving it. One of my favorite scenes in the episode is when the two families are facing down in the foyer, and the parents keep stepping into complicated issues. Matty’s parents suggest nothing good comes from teen sex; Matty informs them Jenna was the result of a teen pregnancy. Kevin suggests that it isn’t like he’s buying the kids drugs; Jenna informs him that Matty’s brother went to rehab (which Matty’s mother isn’t happy that Jenna knows about). It’s a nice reminder that discussions about sex are never just about sex, but rather about how sex fits into a more complicated set of relationships, whether it’s mother/daughter, boyfriend/girlfriend, or anything else you could imagine.
Awkward. isn’t really in a position to explore this in the same way as Friday Night Lights—these are different shows at the end of the day, and with only 21 minutes there’s only so much time to explore the subtler sides of this subject. However, “Let’s Talk About Sex” makes the argument that even if the sitcom format makes it difficult to investigate these nuances, the characters are going to explore them off-screen and evolve accordingly. Jenna’s creative writing assignment may not be the same as her blog—and the voiceover that it represents—but like any great creative writing class it’s making her reflect in ways that could reshape her worldview. Although exaggerated for comic and dramatic effect, Awkward.’s version of the sex talk is grounded in how frank, open discussions about sex and sexuality shape who we are as human beings. It’s a strong growth moment for the show and its characters, and one that will continue to reverberate for the rest of the season.
- I realize the Sadie storyline was productive—Lissa’s injury, Tamara’s introduction to the cheer squad—and I like seeing Sadie in a role of leadership, but Valerie’s involvement contributed to a sort of aimless quality for the storyline as part of this particular episode.
- One of my favorite moments in the episode is when Matty announces he has had three sexual partners, and we see the characters all respond differently: Kevin is upset, Jenna is curious (she’s counting in her head), and Lacey’s all “Yup, seems reasonable.” It’s a subtle, yet funny, moment.
- Perhaps my issues with Jake and Tamara stem from him being so blind to the fact that it would be awkward to replay the same sex setup he used with Jenna with Tamara. Is he that daft? He never struck me as quite that daft.
- Mr. Hart’s one-word paper evaluations: Cancerous, nauseating, debilitating, self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, hopeless, ploddentorrid (because “piece of shit” is too mean), illuminating, promising, and titillating. I should note that I would never write any of these things on a student’s paper, in case they’re for some reason reading this.
- I wonder how many of Awkward.’s target audience immediately thought of this when Sadie mentioned Lissa getting hit by a bird on a rollercoaster? Do they know who Fabio is? I hope kids still know who Fabio is.
- Anyone watching the “Valerie investigates Ricky’s murder” webisodes? It’s interesting that they keep reminding us about Ricky’s death without making it a plot point, so I’m curious how the transmedia experience is framing the mystery for y’all (I haven’t had time to check them out, will do so before next week).
- Kevin’s view on parenting: “It doesn’t have to make sense to you. It only has to make sense to me.”
- Jenna on pre-dinner show-and-tell: “Can we put away the infected genitalia?”
- I’ve potentially never liked Lacey more than when she was defending her progressive parenting, and “What hippie do you know has fake boobs?” was a fine capper to that sequence.