It’s not exactly easy to introduce an element with the potential to fundamentally change central relationships in a series, but it’s definitely easier than following through on it. While Awkward. delivered a compelling and well-executed moment in the fracturing of Jenna and Tamara’s relationship and the reveal that it was Tamara who wrote the letter, the real test is the way the show moves beyond that initial explosion in order to explore the aftermath.
While I certainly wouldn’t say that “My Super Bittersweet Sixteen” fails that test, I did find that the episode’s understandable change in rhythm proved a barrier to its success. Things are supposed to feel off when all of the central relationships on the show have been fractured, with Jenna on the outs with both Tamara and Matty, and I get that the show wanted to take Jenna back to the pilot’s ostracized position just in time for her birthday (what with the public embarrassment of the title’s unnecessary punctuation manifesting itself biologically and the iced coffee incident). However, many of the characters involved in this situation have evolved considerably since that point, and the episode feels somewhat reductive, as opposed to cyclical, given their marginalization from the central narrative.
While this is the first instance where we’ve spent time with Tamara outside of her relationship with Jenna, and that is something that I appreciate, her side of the storyline never quite clicked for me. My biggest problem was that we never learned who her new band friend even was, which wasn’t helped by the fact that she didn’t seem to have any sort of recognizable personality. I’ll also admit that I actually found myself turning against Tamara, as her quirky acronym-laden dialogue no longer had the more naturalistic Jenna to bounce off of. This being said, Jillian Rose Reed’s performance remains solid, and she was particularly great in finally lashing out against Ricky Schwartz after punishing Jenna (whom she still refers to as her best friend) almost exclusively for the kiss at Jenna’s party. However, I ultimately felt that we didn’t get enough insight beyond Tamara’s attitude towards Jenna: While that was well-established, we don’t get any real insight into her character beyond her inability to withstand the charm of Ricky Schwartz, nor do we understand why she might have written the letter or where the character might go from here.
Things are more consistent in Jenna’s storyline, but it was a bit frustrating to see characters like Jake and Sadie revert to their most basic character traits without any real sense growth or development. Jake steps back from the love triangle and reverts to friend mode for a week, all the better to put Matty and Jenna in the same place to help facilitate their reconciliation at episode’s end. The conversation about Matty’s brother didn’t feel like a casual chat between friends; it felt like a delivery method for a reconfirmation of Matty’s brother issues (and a chance for Matty to subtly push it back onto Jenna). Sadie, meanwhile, loses any nuance gained in “Queen Bee-Atches” and turns back into a straightforward mean girl because the show needs Jenna to feel as humiliated as possible.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that this is out of character, but it was strange that both characters were dialed into modes that were convenient for the storyline being told. While previous episodes have given us insights into Jake and Matty’s friendship or Sadie’s life at home, this episode was so wholly focused on Jenna’s point of view (outside of the Tamara asides) that we never got to see where these character motivations came from. While the fact that it is Jenna’s birthday might give Sadie an excuse to exact revenge for the events of “Queen Bee-atches,” there’s not even a subtle reference to such a thing, and the narrowed focus felt like a notable downgrade after the ensemble had been fleshed out so well in recent episodes.
That might sound like a complaint about the character of Jenna, but I’ve really enjoyed Ashley Rickards’ performance to this point, and I like that Jenna has been allowed to make human mistakes while charting her way through this social reinvention. I also thought that the material with her mother here was among the more nuanced takes on the relationship, with the idea of Lacey living vicariously through Jenna nicely rendered through the bedroom makeover. And when we get to the end of the episode, and Jenna cries her way through Sixteen Candles right up until her knight in shining armor comes to her door and declares his like like for her, I’m right there with the show in that there is something very satisfying about seeing her hit bottom (losing Tamara, losing Matty, losing the ability to keep clothes from getting stained) before finally collecting her reward. Yes, the ending suffers from a bit of over-narration, and the “moral” laid out is a bit on-the-nose, but there’s something poetic about Jenna ripping up the letter while simultaneously taking it to heart, sort of like repatriating a constitution.
What I was ultimately missing, though, was the sense that this show is about something more than Jenna. We had a Tamara subplot, but it was a Tamara subplot about Jenna; we got to learn more about Matty, but it was only in regards to his relationship with Jenna. I thought Beau Mirchoff actually gave what was his strongest performance to date, capturing the nuance of Matty’s insecurity and his disappointment—as opposed to anger—that Jenna thought he was ashamed of her. And yet, because of how the episode was framed, he almost ended up reading more as Jenna’s fantasy or the love interest in the ending of a Molly Ringwald movie than a character in his own right when he showed up at her door yet again. This season may be built around Jenna’s character arc, but the show has evolved into something beyond it, and so it was slightly deflating to see some of that put on hold while we reflected on the journey so far; I missed those other perspectives and hope that they return in full force in the remainder of the season.
The episode was, as its title indicates, bittersweet: As much as Jenna’s story fulfills the expectations and desires laid forth by the pilot, our lack of additional perspectives means that the episode does less to flesh out the rest of the characters. While I think the show is less adventurous when it’s in sitcom mode, as it was in “Over My Dead Body,” I also think it’s more diverse in terms of its perspective. While narrow perspective can work fine, as it did here, the show is more rich and rewarding when multiple threads are dovetailing together. Here, it was as if all of those threads were suspended in air or twisted around to fit into the main thread that the episode needed to accomplish. This can be effective, but it can also be reductive, and “My Super Bittersweet Sixteen” walks that fine line throughout its brief running time.
In the end, it comes down on effective based on the strength of the show’s characters and the sense that this terrible “awkward” day was a turning point for Jenna (and, by extension, the show). However, as with the episode that created this problem to begin with, (partly) resolving it briefly took Awkward. away from what it does best, if not so far away that the show won't be able to find its way back.
- I’ve been following mentions of the official MTV account for the show all week, so I’m aware that there are teams for each respective love interest, but I’m curious to see whether the intense romantacization of Matty at the end of this episode combined with Jake’s flirtations barely getting beyond a slightly too-long glance as he checked out her weird outfit might shift the balance in that triangle for the time being. Or are the teams too entrenched at this point? I should know better than to try to get into the heads of shippers.
- I’m hoping this is the end of the “Val thinks Jenna tried to commit suicide” line of comedy. It seemed like it returned with a vengeance here, given Sadie’s “Death Pool” comment as well, and I’m definitely waiting for the point where we can move past the Letter entirely and settle into a more naturalistic framework.
- Some definite brand synergy with this week's title.
- “It wasn’t my fault; the dude had hook hands.”
- “That was me, quoting myself.”
- “It is football, right?”
- “As far as I was concerned, 15 can suck it.”