Awkward.: “Redefining Jenna”
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Awkward.: “Redefining Jenna”

“Redefining Jenna” is a strong, satisfying episode of Awkward. The dialogue crackles, the characters have clear stakes, and the central relationship between Matty and Jenna reaches one of its most complex and interesting scenes yet. The themes of the season fall into place effectively, nearly the entire cast—both supporting and lead—is present, and conflicts introduced in the season première are paid off effectively to transition the show from the first half of the season to its second.

It’s a satisfying end to what has been an often unsatisfying half-season, one that does a better job contending with elements that to this point in the season have been unfortunately underdeveloped. My issues with “Redefining Jenna” primarily revolve around Collin, but I don’t know if I have any real issues with how Collin’s character functions in this midseason finale in theory. The idea that he offers Jenna a glimpse into a different life than the one she leads with Matty? And that his level of sophistication appeals to a part of herself Matty struggles to relate with? And that the idea of being with Collin is an exciting unknown, in contrast to how her relationship with Matty was always caught up in their complicated origins? All of that works in the abstract for me, and the idea of Jenna not wanting to be with Matty and letting herself be selfish is a believably teenage way to respond to the uncertainty she feels in her relationship.

My problem is that the season has not sufficiently developed Collin in this role, choosing instead to construct the character through broad gestures and romantic clichés. The episode seeks to reframe Jenna and Collin’s relationship in these terms, but I struggle to get past the creepy touching and the whisper talking that Jenna calls him out for at the start of the episode. As the episode began I found myself hoping that Jenna putting her foot down would make him more self-aware, that we would move beyond Collin’s insurrection as was suggested last week and maybe start to understand Collin’s motivations, but instead Collin turns into even more of a Lothario. He breaks up with his girlfriend, he offers Jenna advice on how she should be selfish, and he offers the “Do you think the hunt is better than the kill?” question that eventually pushes her into a full-on makeout session with him in the front seat of his car. And I spent all of it wanting to punch him in the face really, really hard.

What’s frustrating for me is that if we better understood where Collin was coming from, I think the storyline could have worked in terms of how it reframed this experience for Jenna’s character. Her conversation with Matty as they sit outside of the art show is one of the show’s best, featuring both characters putting their cards on the table: Jenna feels Matty isn’t willing to extend out of his comfort zone, but Matty feels like all he ever does is try to make up for how their relationship started. She thinks her more sophisticated interests will embarrass him, whereas he was only mortified when he thought he was the reason she tried to commit suicide. In a single scene, the weight of their complicated path to being in a real relationship is dumped on them; it’s not a sudden revelation about some entirely new event, but rather new perspectives for thinking about what we’ve already seen. Jenna just presumed Matty didn’t want to talk about his situation with his parents; in truth, he felt she was selfish for never asking him about it. It’s a simple issue of communication with a multitude of consequences, consequences that Jenna carries with her as she goes into the art show alone.

It’s particularly effective because it forces Jenna to see her life from another person’s perspective. I’ve talked a lot about how the show’s voiceover can force us to see the world through Jenna’s eyes, and how recent events have emphasized that Jenna is not a reliable narrator of her own story. To see that called out so clearly, and for Matty to bring to light questions I’ve had as an audience member, shifts issues of reliable narration from subtext to text, paying off some of the admittedly frustrating characterization of Jenna in previous episodes. Her self-awareness reframes these questions within her own agency, giving her new information she’s able to act upon (as opposed to information that acts upon her).

I wish I could say I was able to follow Jenna’s agency during the remainder of the episode, but it was swallowed up by Collin’s inescapable seduction. If Jenna had walked into that party and connected with someone on an honest level, it shows how her choice to go in alone builds on her conversation with Matty and the uncertainty it creates about their relationship. However, she doesn’t connect with someone on an honest level so much as she ends up in Collin’s—and thus the plot’s—crosshairs. The character feels engineered, to the point where some last minute tinkering with the character’s wiring makes him single and on the rebound just in time for Jenna to let down her defenses. I understand Jenna’s motivations, but I also have trouble locating them beneath the plot of it all.

There’s a lot of plot in “Redefining Jenna,” although it probably only feels that way because of how light the rest of the season has been in this area. In the case of Matty and Jenna, the lack of plot in the season was effective, achieving a real catharsis as Matty and Jenna finally stop simply skating through their relationship and address the issues that have been bubbling beneath the surface. However, whereas that scene helps to give meaning to a season that often felt untethered, the rest of the storylines—Collin’s specifically—lack the same kind of substance to connect with. Rather than enriching the half-season that came before, it mostly props up dangling story threads to announce the series could be doing more with them in the back half of the season.

Those story threads come together nicely in the structure of the “After Mall Ball” that happens concurrently to Jenna and Collin’s art-show date, giving all of the show’s supporting characters both a chance to interact and personal stakes; it’s also a reminder of how long it’s been since we’ve had an episode that achieved this. I liked Jake and Tamara coming to terms with their respective roles in their relationship, for example, but it might as well have come after the season’s first few episodes as opposed to the ninth given the minimal agency either character had this season (with Tamara’s desire for social mobility mostly dropped after her cheerleading adventure). I enjoyed Ming taking over the Asian Mafia, but the storyline has been so inconsistently scattered throughout the season that it’s hard to feel much in the way of resolution. And while Lissa acknowledging her role in Ricky Schwartz’s death is a nice return for the character, that plot thread—or rather the tangential comic exploration of that plot development—took place exclusively in the MTV.com webisodes.

All of these storylines work in “Redefining Jenna,” an episode that feels like it restores the series’ rhythms and gets the narrative back on track, but this doesn’t change the fact that those storylines didn’t work within the half-season as a whole. That might seem a contradictory statement: How can a half-season be a whole? However, 10 episodes is almost a full season by the series’ previous standards, and those 10 episodes ultimately don’t add up to as much as they could have. This world is compelling enough that just hanging out within it is enjoyable, and so seeing Matty and Jenny sketch out their relationship or work through their problems in “real time” remains an enjoyable way to spend a half-hour. None of the show’s ability to combine mature investigations of adolescence with broad comedy has disappeared—it was present in a number of strong episodes—but as the half-season comes to a close, the balance has felt off. Collin’s character lacks nuance, the often-absent supporting players made it feel like the show was on the penalty kill for much of the season, and “Redefining Jenna” ends up feeling a few episodes too late to keep Jenna’s selfishness from overflowing to the point of turning me against the character.

That the half-season comes to an effective, complicated conclusion is a testament to the strength of this episode; that this restorative work was necessary speaks to a half-season that was inconsistently calibrated to Awkward.’s strengths.

Stray observations:

  • The scene where Tamara explains her involvement in the After Mall Ball is a really great example of how the show’s style deals with exposition: lots of acronyms, lots of great comic rhythms, and enough bizarre details—like how Rehab Julie is actually Tessa who just looks like Rehab Julie—to make you want to go back and rewatch it.
  • We only get the one scene for Lacey and Valerie, but I loved Lacey’s inability to contain her distaste at Val’s Afghan sweater—both a nice way of definitively placing the episode during Black Friday and getting in some laughs.
  • I’ve been hard on Jake this season, and I still wonder if Jake and Tamara will ever not feel like just a parallel relationship to Jenna and Matty’s this season, but I laughed a lot at him storming off and then coming back to help Tamara off the ladder. It spoke a lot to who the character is, and their conflict—schmoopy as it was here—was the best that relationship has been handled all season.
  • “I’m enjoying being kept”—you have no idea how much I cringed at that line. I think I’m supposed to, mind you, but still.
  • I enjoyed that they never let “The Accountant” speak, dubbing Ming’s narration over the conversation instead. Plays nicely into the almost unbelievable nature of the stories, which even helped the blatant Chevy product placement blend in.
  • “A bitch without money is just a bitch”—we really haven’t done that much with Sadie’s new lack of financial power, but seeing her bumped for Tamara here was a nice way to bring that back to the surface.
  • We end on a “To Be Continued” as Jenna manages to avoid being caught making out with Collin, and as I write this earlier on Tuesday we still don’t know when it will be continued: We could be on hiatus until January, or we could be back as soon as September, depending on how MTV wants to handle things. My guess is we’ll be back to discuss the rest of the season by the end of the year, but we’ll talk in the comments if MTV throws up a more specific timeline at the end of the episode broadcast.

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