In last week’s première, Awkward. eschewed plot-heavy storytelling in favor of a simple New Year’s Eve party. While there were plots, they were driven by characters rather than external forces operating on those characters, a decision that allowed for a strong reintroduction to Jenna’s situation as she moves forward into the second season.
By comparison, “Sex, Lies And The Sanctuary” tells a story rooted more in sitcom tradition than in teenage experience. While it is certainly possible that teenagers could be caught on a security camera exiting a known rendezvous point for illicit activities, its function here is less observational and more confrontational. The potential that Jenna and Matty could appear on the tape exiting the Sanctuary puts both Jenna’s relationship with Jake and Matty’s friendship with Jake in jeopardy, forcing to the surface anxieties that are inevitable when you choose to keep a secret of this magnitude. The footage becomes the equivalent of Poe’s Tell-tale Heart, lying under the floorboards waiting to break Jenna and Matty’s resolve just as the secret of the letter hangs over the dinner table as Jenna sits with her parents. When you know something could become public at any moment, that a well-meaning yet ignorant third-party—which includes both Jake and Kevin in this instance—could be destroyed by the secret being kept, it weighs on you.
Of course, that weight is exaggerated by the introduction of the sanctuary footage, a quick conceit designed to force the issue as it relates to this theme; it feels artificial, especially compared to last week’s more naturally occurring party setting, and it turned me off at first. What makes “Sex, Lies And The Sanctuary” work in spite of this is that it spends roughly seven seconds on the setup: we learn the camera was pointed at the Sanctuary, we confirm that Jenna and Matty at one point got down and dirty in the Sanctuary in a flashback, and Jenna quickly lays out the implications. The speed at which we’re introduced to the idea does little to hide its utilitarian function in the episode, but it also allows the episode to transition into what its presence will do to these characters. While I would prefer episodes that felt slightly more organic, even the most artificial constructs can work if the storylines generated end up clicking.
And click they do. Specifically, the parallel between Jenna and Lacey offers a nice grounding element to the whole situation: There’s one too many voiceovers reminding us of the connection, but it’s a nice way to keep the letter mystery present in the episode without having it overwhelm the more rapid-fire comic side of the series. We only get a few scenes with Lacey, but Nikki Deloach makes the most of them, running the character through both problematic attempts at trying to erase the secret entirely and heartfelt attempts to confront it head-on. We never learn why she wrote the letter beyond a vague “I was trying to help,” but it’s almost better that she’s not defensive. She knows she did something terrible, and that she so quickly transitioned from pretending it never happened to revealing it to Kevin suggests that she is on the right path to making amends (as slow and complicated as that path might be).
For Jenna, meanwhile, we get a variation on the love-triangle situation in “Resolutions,” to the point where I’m open to arguments it’s getting a bit repetitive. I saw some concerns about the love triangle overwhelming the rest of the show in the response to the première, and it certainly plays a prominent role here as well. What works about the storyline is how it replicates how teenagers would respond: Jenna and Matty’s panic might be tied to the Sanctuary footage, but Jake’s apprehension about Jenna not being a virgin is an honest depiction of how a teenage boy would react to the news that ended “Resolutions,” while Matty’s stubborn determination to win Jenna back is activated whenever he thinks he’s finally solved the problem (or identified what the problem was, which is his biggest obstacle). It’s repetitive, yes, but only because they’re teenagers who obsess over issues or act impulsively instead of carefully thinking through their actions. That the two characters work this out with one another—as Jake turns to Matty for advice that the latter subsequently uses as inspiration for his latest romantic Hail Mary—is a fairly simple use of dramatic irony, but I thought it brought out some good shades in both characters and the actors portraying them.
While it’s pretty much the same structure as the première—with Matty’s effort to win Jenna back proving unsuccessful and Jenna working things out with Jake through an honest yet nonetheless withholding response regarding her romantic past—I think it says a lot about both characters. Matty believing that “I love you” will solve everything is naïve and—to me—insulting, but the way he rushes to tell Jenna suggests a real desire to fix things, which makes his heartbroken—yet late—realization that he made Jenna feel bad about herself something that could change his approach in the future. Similarly, the way Jake can barely function as a human being says something about his earnestness, even as his struggle to accept a de-romanticized version of his relationship with Jenna suggests he’s also naïve in his own way. The characters might have gone through similar paces in “Resolutions,” but I felt I learned something more about them here, and the dimensional nature of the love triangle continues to expand rather than contract the further we get into the season.
While part of me was disappointed that Tamara, Sadie, and Lissa are all sidelined —with Lissa not even appearing in the episode—I’ll admit that I was happy to see the show expanding Ming’s role, as well as the diversity of the school population. I had some initial reservations about the Asian stereotypes, based mostly on the lazy Oriental music selection chosen to soundtrack the scenes—which I have been informed was removed from the aired version, which was a smart call—and that dead-end dragon joke, but Becca is among the show’s most well-developed student characters, embodying the stereotypes in a self-aware and empowered fashion that’s charming and funny. It helps that we see the storyline through the eyes of Ming, a character I’ve wanted to spend more time with and whose connection with, yet estrangement from, the “Asian Mafia” gives a valuable perspective on the race issues at work here. It’s a sharp expansion of the world of Palos Hills High, which is a good thing for the show to explore early in the season, and something I hope we return to sooner rather than later.
In terms of pacing, “Sex, Lies And The Sanctuary” does risk repeating some of the same beats as the première, but the show is doing a nice job of sustaining momentum while still delivering key reveals. Although Jenna and Matty still haven’t told Jake about their relationship, Jenna did tell Kevin about the letter, meaning that one of Jenna’s worlds is about to change dramatically even as the other one remains in a similar place to where we left it last week. By allowing one storyline to advance while the other explores the current state of affairs, Awkward. is able to keep the status quo within spitting distance while not avoiding the consequences so important to advancing the story forward.
- Although I appreciated how it tied back into the Asian Mafia in the end, I thought the Valerie storyline was the one that felt the most artificial as it related to the Sanctuary footage. I’m intrigued by the new dynamic with Valerie as vice principal, and can see why the writers might want to move her out of the guidance counselor position, but that really read as an excuse to make the change rather than an organic function of the storytelling.
- As for the Asian Mafia, I noted—and asked Lauren Iungerich about—the citing of demographic data in their introduction. I like that Iungerich's commitment to represent her hometown (of Palos Verdes) is extending into the racial dynamic of the community—not something all shows are committed to.
- I'm not too bad when it comes to figuring out the show’s slang, but I had to Google “OMGDF” to figure out what the DF stood for. I was dissatisfied with the answer (“Damn Fuck”), so please offer alternate phrases with a bit more creativity in the comments.
- “I am completely and totally invested in you”—I know Jake was glad to hear this in the moment, but that’s not love, dude.
- Speaking of dudes, I was glad to see Jake questioning his masculinity as he obsessed over this whole situation. Not because he should be, mind you, but rather because that’s—again—a realistic thing for a guy in high school to go through.
- “You taste like pie”—that's a good thing, right? (I also loved Jenna taking the entire pie—she was still angry, but that wasn’t going to stop her).
- Bitenuker raised the question of Matty’s new hair in last week’s comments, and I didn’t have an opinion until this episode, where it caused some serious cognitive dissonance in the flashback. I thought for a minute that Jenna and Matty had recently hooked up in the Sanctuary, as opposed to weeks earlier, and it took me a while to realize it was simply a failure of hair continuity. Accordingly, I’m officially on “Team Matty Needs A Haircut.”