It’s the word that MTV never allows you to hear in “Surprise!” It’s also a word used more often than usual, a punctuation mark for an episode filled with—wait for it—awkward situations the characters aren’t sure how to handle. It’s also the final word spoken, as Lacey realizes her success at throwing Jenna a surprise party has come with unintended consequences.
When Awkward. completed the first half of its third season, it did so after marching toward an inevitable and disagreeable conclusion. From the moment Collin smoldered his way into Jenna’s life, Jenna—along with the show—was almost uncontrollably drawn to him. He represented an intellectual alternative, someone who she could desire without the complication and history of her relationship with Matty (which only grew more and more complicated the longer the two went without communicating with one another).
It was a frustrating storyline to watch because it was so easy to choreograph: Collin always registered as a plot contrivance, and nothing in the first half of the season fleshed out the character or his motivations to make him a viable character. It wasn’t until the mid-season finale, “Redefining Jenna,” that Collin’s role in the storyline worked. Gone were the tentative half-measures where Jenna flirts with Collin, or shares intimate moments with Collin, or makes googly eyes at Collin; this was Jenna making out with Collin immediately after having a real, honest, complex conversation with Matty about the state of their relationship, a full measure by any definition.
“Surprise!” benefits from the concrete nature of Jenna’s affair, something worthy of the oft-repeated exclamation quoted above. Jenna knows that what she did was wrong, and she knows she wants to stop it, but she also comes to understand that she can’t. Whereas last season Jenna lacked significant self-awareness regarding her connection with Collin, here she has her mind on straight up to the moment when she tries to break it off and finds herself making out with Collin again, and again, and again. Collin isn’t necessarily any more a character now than he was before, which remains my central criticism of the storyline, but he’s more than just an idea; He’s something that is happening, and that has happened, and this allows Awkward. to really focus on consequences for the first time this season.
Mr. Hart puts too much of a bow on it, but “Surprise!” wants us to consider Jenna through the lens of the anti-hero. Jenna doesn’t want to cheat on Matty, whom she loves. She also doesn’t want to keep seeing Collin, because it would hurt Matty, whom she loves. These are basic facts that Jenna herself states, that are repeated to her by Tamara (and to a lesser degree Sadie), and that are likely the understanding of the average audience member. That Jenna keeps making out with Collin regardless of these facts is never played as romantic, but it also isn’t played as illogical: Being inside Jenna’s head makes us aware that she understands the consequences of her actions but is going to indulge in them anyway. She goes to Collin determined to break it off, but then is crushed when he calls it off himself, having not prepared herself for the disappointment that she had been planning to force onto him. Jenna and Collin spend the episode saying everything they’re supposed to say, and doing everything they’re supposed to do, except that every gesture of friendship or dissolution ends with snogging.
“Surprise!” commits to Jenna making decisions we disagree with, and accepts that much of the audience will judge her for these decisions, and makes a concerted effort to make the show funny despite this. It succeeds by allowing the humor to function around Jenna, quickly looping Tamara into the secret and developing Lacey’s inability to throw a surprise party as a strong runner throughout the episode. There is nothing funny about Jenna cheating on Matty, but there is something hilarious about Tamara blurting out old secrets to make room for new ones or Lacey getting caught climbing into a window with birthday balloons (my favorite of the montage of ruined surprise parties). Similarly, Ming’s abuse of her Mafia power is Jenna’s story with a lighter touch, touching on similar issues of selfishness and identity with a few more magically appearing cappuccinos.
Up until the episode’s final scene, “Surprise!” felt like it was building a new framework for the show moving forward this half-season. It’s easy to imagine a show drawing out the affair for multiple episodes, playing out Jenna’s cheating and Matty’s ignorance as a dramatic scenario that would continue to weigh on the character. I was onboard with that decision given how well “Surprise!” managed to find the comedy and resonance of that story, and so I was legitimately surprised to see Collin and Jenna mack their way into a surprise party. After an episode of Jenna doing everything she could to hide—and hide from—her betrayal, it comes out into the open in one fell swoop, Matty’s expression switching from elation to heartbreak so quickly you wonder if he’s even had time to process what just happened.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. What Lauren Iungerich understands about anti-hero stories—and which Mr. Hart doesn’t outline as overtly as he outlines their complexity—is that the problem isn’t that they exist so much as the way they are dwelled on. “Surprise!” never expects us to like or even understand Jenna’s decisions, and it quickly makes her accountable for those decisions first with her friend, then with her enemy, and then finally with her boyfriend and the rest of her family and friends. Jenna is never comfortable playing the anti-hero, nor is Awkward. ever entirely comfortable with having an anti-hero at its center, but it’s a useful displacement for the character and a reminder that most teenagers probably embody the principles of the anti-hero. Mr. Hart’s speech about anti-heroes is a bit on the nose, sure, but it forces Sadie to consider her own story relative to Jenna’s, and generalizes the overall plot within natural patterns of teenagers making mistakes and not immediately or intuitively knowing how to fix them.
Awkward. still hasn’t fixed its most glaring problem, which is the characterization or lack thereof of Collin, who was marginally more human here but still mostly defined by stock character traits. But picking up where the mid-season finale left off, the show has acknowledged Jenna—and by extension the show—has a problem, and has committed to confronting that problem effectively. It transitions swiftly from betrayal to heartbreak, stopping just long enough to find the comedy in a dangerous secret before quickly exploding that secret for maximum dramatic effect and committing to a half-season of consequence.
- I liked that it was Ming and Fred, and not Tamara and Jake, who got the B-story slot here. Tamara is more useful in closer orbit to Jenna, and it offered a nice parallel the episode got some good, lighter comic mileage out of (like, for example, Fred being in the tracksuit at the surprise party).
- I also really dug the way the “Next Time on Awkward.” showed the moments directly after the end of the episode—made for an effective transition, and built interest in next week’s episode (which, unlike last season, isn’t airing immediately after).
- You’ll note the image above directly parallels the image chosen for the midseason finale. You’re welcome. [/Sadie]
- As always, my notes while watching an episode are a fun insight. A highlight from the end of “Surprise!”: “Oh Jenna, what are you doing?!” I’m a totally sane person.
- Which Val One-Liner Did You Prefer?: “My middle name isn’t ta-da for nothing” vs. “Who knew gay men wanted to see boobs on a dude.” Go.
- “Under my watch, we get them local”—Ming, trimming down the excess of the Asian Mafia one Lobster Procurement Policy at a time.
- On a more serious note: As some of you know, since we last talked it was announced that these final ten episodes would be creator Lauren Iungerich’s last with the show (a decision she reflected on in the comments here at The A.V. Club). It’s a piece of news that undoubtedly places the show’s future in a different light, and certainly something we’ll confront as the season comes to its conclusion. However, in the interim, I’m choosing to focus on the show itself, which at least for nine more episodes remains her story. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it; for now, let us enjoy the rest of the season on its own terms.
- Edit: Along those lines, since the premiere I chatted with Iungerich about Season 3 and the path ahead, which you can find here.