When I dropped in on Awkward.’s fourth season premiere in our TV Reviews section, there was some concern regarding whether it was fair to render judgment on a single episode. It’s understandable: It was the new showrunners’ first hour of the series, and it is inevitably going to take two writers with no experience writing the show’s characters time to get a feel for what kind of show they want to make.
The problem is that I went into the premiere with an open mind and saw nothing but red flags. New characters were introduced with no subtlety; characters’ personalities were changed for no reason; plot developments that had been moved past in the previous season—see: “Matty + Jenna = One True Pairing”—were returned to with zero transition. Even beyond a story level, there were small things—like a lack of care in post-production—that signaled the series that once surprised us with its nuanced storytelling and attention to detail had lost those factors in the transition following creator Lauren Iungerich’s exit.
Our choice to stop weekly coverage was primarily driven by low readership, which had always been mitigated by quality that was absent from the premiere. At the time, I committed to returning after the first half of the season, but there was always the option to drop in if there had been a particularly strong or momentous episode. And so the fact that this is the first time I’m writing about Awkward. since that premiere does say something about the first half of the fourth season.
I’ve been glad not to be writing about the season, not because it was abjectly terrible, but rather because I have no idea what I would have had to say about most of it. For a show that was once committed to being about something, Awkward.’s fourth season has ping-ponged from storyline to storyline with no particular interest in stopping to reflect on the big picture. It would’ve been no fun to write about how Jenna’s big challenge for the season—her low class rank—was entirely solved offscreen with Jenna never stepping foot in a classroom. I don’t know what I would’ve had to say about Matty’s crisis over being adopted, which emerged out of nowhere and resolved without a truly memorable scene to showcase Beau Mirchoff’s ability to convey emotion. And while I think it’s important we call the show out for its bizarre xenophobia in its peer counseling storyline, I can’t say I’d have been happy to have to dwell on the show’s failings in that area in a season where they lost their only non-white cast member (and did only tone deaf colonial ignorance with Lissa’s brother, and have now introduced a Latino character who randomly inserts Spanish words into sentences because that’s what all Latino people do on television). Each review would have been the same disappointment in the lack of anything meaningful, and then a set of bullet points about weird story decisions and a weekly complaint about how untethering Jenna’s voiceover from her blog has made the voiceover infinitely worse.
The one major consistent problem with the season that I’d likely have found things to say about has been Eva (Elizabeth Whitson), introduced as a cultured transfer student whose worldliness was a threat from day one. Although largely a free agent in early episodes, it was no surprise when she was positioned as Matty’s new love interest, and Whitson’s generic mean girl performance had laid the groundwork for her being enough of a social climber to use photos she took of Matty and Sadie innocently sleeping in the same bed as a way of pushing Sadie out of the picture. The character lacked any real justification, but the mean girl thing fit into the genre reasonably well, and so I didn’t find it that strange.
However, in last week’s episode, things escalated. Eva purposefully endangered Matty’s chances of getting into college just to screw with his friendship with Jenna, and then she put her panties in Jenna’s bed to make her think she and Matty had had sex in it. At the time, I felt the show was pushing it a bit too far: If the problem with Jenna’s college boyfriend Luke was that he was so milquetoast he registered more as a prop than a character, the problem with Eva was that her actions were escalating with no sense of what motivating them. This didn’t feel like a show that could handle a sociopath, or at least this didn’t used to feel like a show that would go in that direction.
After “Snow Job,” I feel pretty safe in saying I don’t know what show Awkward. is anymore. Allow me to recount my reaction to Eva’s storyline in this midseason finale for you. Not content with Eva being your garden-variety sociopath, it’s first revealed that she stole someone’s identity (Lisa Rinna, in a ten-second cameo). “Okay,” I said, “that’s a bit of a stretch (More on that in the Stray Observations), but I’m sure we’ll find out why she did it.” And then Sadie’s short order cook’s father—who is a cop, this is important—found out Eva’s real name (Amber), and they go to her house to find a grandmother living in a house from Hoarders. “Okay,” I said, “maybe a little overdoing it on the sympathy thing, but there’s still some room here.” And then Sadie goes downstairs to the basement, where she discovers… do you know what, let’s look at it together.
Sadie discovers Eva’s Psychopath Lair, complete with her conspiracy boards on each character with Jenna’s eyes blacked out and a giant X over Sadie. She also finds scores of fake IDs, all laid out in a creepily pristine bedroom that would appear to have barely been touched since she became homeschooled at the age of 9 after stabbing someone (I’ve put some more pictures on Tumblr). It’s straight out of one of the myriad serial killer dramas on television right now, and it works to reframe every one of the character’s actions as a fiendish scheme to infiltrate the friend group and wreak havoc.
I like the production design for its audacity, but it’s a terrible story development on so many levels. It explains Eva’s behavior, sure, but it also confirms that what the writers thought the show was missing in previous seasons was a psychopath, whose every interaction with every character is framed around the fact that they’re a psychopath. The show weakly angles toward genre parody, using horror stings in the soundtrack and not-so-subtly evoking Psycho later in the episode, but it’s not nearly enough to justify something that tears away at the fact that beneath the hyper-stylized dialogue this is—or was—a grounded show about real teenagers. While standalone stories like the bizarre “Jake And Matty Go To Prison” interlude earlier in the season demonstrated the writers’ willingness to break out of the high school setting, that was isolated to a single episode. Framing Eva as a psychopath is a whole other level of nonsense.
And yet “Snow Job” keeps steering into it. The episode appears like it’s heading to a point where Sadie and Jenna get to Matty and tell him about Eva, but it turns out he doesn’t believe them because Eva has told Matty she’s pregnant. And then you presume Matty—presented with overwhelming evidence by his lifelong friend and his long-term ex girlfriend that Eva, whom Matty has known for a few months, is a psychopath—will realize that she’s crazy and get some distance, but instead, he decides to trust her because she’s his girlfriend, and because he can’t imagine his kid being put up for adoption. And then you presume—pray, even—that the inevitable pregnancy test will confirm she’s faking it and we can all move past this nightmare, but then the test comes back positive, which means that getting pregnant was part of her psychopath plan all along, and you realize that the dream of being done with Eva before the second half of the season starts were just that: dreams, washed away with the realization that the writers believe they can pull this off.
I now feel confident I’ve seen enough of the new Awkward. to say they can’t. Whitson struggles mightily to find a different gear once we know the truth about Eva, failing to capture the magnetism that would justify Matty taking her word over Sadie’s or Jenna’s (which has been a problem all season, but the show has never had to rely on it until now). It doesn’t help that the rest of the episode demonstrated the fundamental lack of character development in the season to date. I couldn’t have told you Theo and Cole’s names if the episode hadn’t used them so blatantly, so it was hard to be invested in their “Straight-to-Video American Pie Sequel”-style antics during the senior ski trip. And given that the only joke the show has had for Lissa’s “brother from Africa” is Lissa’s fundamental ignorance (which is the worst), there are no stakes in her losing her innocence to him beyond a lazy Flowers In The Attic joke. Meanwhile, the choice to keep Kevin and Lacey separated from Jenna but still part of the episode results in generic storylines about aging and being parents that mean nothing, and could have happened to any parents in any teen show that has no idea how to integrate the parents into episodes like this one.
Jake and Tamara have the episode’s most consistent story: After spending the season at war following their breakup, they spend a night together playing video games—where did they get video games at a ski resort?—and coming to terms with their friendship. But without that, who are they? Why would I care about Jake being interested in Lissa again, completely out of the blue? Remember when Tamara had sex with a woman, and wrote it off as nothing and it hasn’t been mentioned since? While it’s nice to see two characters acting like reasonable humans, resolving their conflict means that there is literally nothing else going on in their lives. The only narrative left at the end of this finale that the show seems at all interested in exploring is entirely wrapped up in Eva the Psychopath, which is not even close to what made me invested in this show previously.
If you’re still in love with this show, and this is exactly the kind of twisty teen absurdity that you feel elevates the show, then I’m glad for you, even as I remain sad for the show. I spent this finale in constant conflict with the choices being made: I was questioning the logic behind plot developments, judging the sloppy editing, wondering aloud why it was “snowing” so heavily when it was clearly a beautiful sunny day (and whether the people responsible for adding snow understand how snow works), and generally crying bullshit on about 75 percent of what happened in this episode. I don’t like this, nor do I revel in it, because I want nothing more than to enjoy this show after the complex, nuanced storytelling it offered in previous seasons. Whereas I started the season cautiously optimistic and open to the show finding a different version of itself that could sustain the basic principles of what made it work, after 10 episodes I feel confident saying Awkward. has devolved instead to a shoddily-constructed show about nothing, featuring characters that deserve better.
Oh, and a pregnant psychopath who doesn’t appear to be leaving any time soon.
- I chose to refer to Eva as a psychopath since that’s the term the show itself used, but I’d love if anyone with more experience in the area could help diagnose Eva on the psychopath/sociopath divide.
- Someone help me here: the real Eva Mansfield—seriously, who wastes Lisa Rinna like that?—presents Sadie and Sergio with documents she claims indicate that her credit cards are being used by someone else, that the credit card companies don’t believe her, and then that the name of the person who stole her identity is redacted because he or she is a minor. How does any of this make sense? If someone knows who is stealing her identity, why wasn’t that person arrested? And wouldn’t the cops be the ones to redact someone’s name for being a minor, implying that someone was arrested? And why would she have forms that would ever have Amber’s name on them to begin with? How does any of this information make logical sense, except to reveal necessary information to justify the ludicrous plot circumstances that allow Sadie to discover the truth? (Yes, I answered my own question, but this is beyond “TV takes liberties” into “This makes zero sense” territory).
- “Lady, my dad’s a cop”—this wins a new award for blatant exposition. And the subsequent storyline—where Sergio’s cop father reveals sensitive information and gives Sadie’s tablet access to GPS tracking on someone else’s cell phone—adds to the believability nonsense.
- I didn’t mind Tamara catfishing Jake, but that we got a blatant effort at cross-promotion with Catfish: The TV Show without getting a cameo from Nev and Max is unforgivable.
- “This isn’t a good neighborhood for you”—if not for the random Spanish from Sergio that kept popping up, the nice back-and-forth exploring the class dimensions of different areas of Los Angeles would’ve been some solid race/class work for the show.
- How are those of you still watching feeling about the pretty blatant uptick in sexual references? Even if I get past my issues with how these high school students on a school-sponsored field trip were given enough unsupervised time to organize a key party, I think my tolerance was crossed with the casual toss-off of “amateur blowy.” It just seems unnecessarily crude, and not clever enough to get away with it.
- It had no impact on anything else in the episode, and continues to flatten her character, but Valerie realizing she only had a thing for the bear mascot when he had his costume on was maybe the most consistent storyline in the episode. It would have made for a decent E-story in a better episode.
- “Look at you, Museum of Tolerant”—this is the line where I realized that they’ve fundamentally lost any sense of Tamara as a character. Yes, it has the basic construction of a Tamara-ism, but what in the world would lead her to the Museum of Tolerance as a pivot-point, even if she were discussing Jenna’s tolerance for something?
- I’d love to hear from anyone else who’s been watching, and am sincere in wishing to hear from anyone who’s still really enjoying the show. I’m hoping that some time will help both me and the show settle down a bit, and we might drop in on the premiere and the finale of the last 10 episodes of the season when they arrive sometime either later this year or early next.