Awkward debuts tonight on MTV at 11 p.m. Eastern.
Now, this could be the long, unusually empty summer talking, but I kind of dug the first two episodes of Awkward, even as they’re in a genre I increasingly have little use for, the “loser high schooler narrates his or her life and shows how much cooler they are than the cool kids” genre. At the same time, I think that’s probably just good craftsmanship. Creator Lauren Iungerich is good at making you think you’re watching that kind of show at the very beginning of the pilot, but she quickly maneuvers the story into territory that might be one of my favorite sub-genres of a sub-genre: the “something unexpected happens to someone and they’re forced to make drastic, though surprisingly positive, changes in their life” sub-genre. (There’s probably a better name for this on TV Tropes. Don’t worry. I’ll wait.) And at the same time as that, I think most of it just stems from the effortlessly charming lead, Ashley Rickards.
First, let’s count all of the strikes this show should have against it. For starters, it’s narrated by said lead, Jenna Hamilton, in a voice-over that veers toward droning far too often and is ostensibly drawn from her blog posts, a device that passed up cliché long ago and headed toward “please God make it stop” sometime in 2009. It’s filled with generically pretty white guys who are most likely impossible to tell apart unless you’re a 16-year-old straight girl. (I certainly was baffled most of the time.) And for all of Iungerich’s strengths at loose, shaggy plotting, the show simply as funny as it needs to be to justify a lot of the caustic dialogue. The show tries to mostly find humor in suburban satire stereotypes—like Jenna’s blithely unconcerned, self-centered mom—and supposedly “hip” references—like one of the characters growing bored with a conversation and saying, “I’m hitting shuffle on this topic.”
And, yeah, the opening five minutes or so of tonight’s pilot try a little too hard to set the plot wheels into motion and have to wheeze and groan to get there. Jenna is one of those girls no one really notices, but after a sexual encounter at summer camp and receiving a nasty letter, she writes a draft of a blog post that could be construed as a suicide note, then, through a wacky set of downright Rube Goldberg-ian circumstances, she ends up passed out on the floor, surrounded by pills, a hair dryer electrifying a sink full of water. Her parents and doctors conclude that she tried to kill herself, no matter how much she tries to say that she was just having a typical teenage moment of being overly dramatic. She ends up with a cast that keeps her arm in a permanently raised position, as though she’s always asking to be called on, and news of her “suicide attempt” spreads rapidly through the school, causing whispers to follow her everywhere she goes.
It’s here, mercifully, that the show lets go of trying too hard and just settles in, confident that its cast is, for the most part, a lot of fun. Jenna finds teachers calling on her because of her arm. (She seems like the only one who’s paying attention.) And she discovers that since everyone’s already looking at her, she should probably just take the bull by the horns and go out there and do all of the big and crazy stuff she’s always been afraid to try. She volunteers. She gets roped into things. She pursues the boy from camp with an appealingly hangdog puppy look. She finds herself somehow becoming someone people know at her school, even as she never really wanted that attention in the first place. The show saves itself by not being a narrative of how the dorky loser girl became popular; it’s a narrative about how the closed-off girl opened herself up to new experiences, and that makes all the different. (Next week’s episode, about a photo of Jenna’s naked chest circulating through the school, isn’t as clever in this regard, but the characters are more settled in, and there are a handful of pretty big laughs here and there, particularly when Jenna discovers she’s gone from her cast to something even worse.)
Holding all of this together is Rickards, who’s apparently been bumping around the teenage guest star circuit for a while now but hasn’t really caught my attention until this part. She’s doing something very difficult. She has to play the “too cool for school” teenager without making that character insufferable, and she has to let us see that, yeah, much of Jenna’s attitude is a complete façade, designed to cover up just how unconfident she is. She’s bluffing, to be sure, but so is everybody else, and the more she realizes this, the more she starts to relax into her new persona. I was also taken with Molly Tarlov (late of the much-lamented-by-me Huge) as an unexpectedly catty and evil cheerleader, and Jillian Rose Reed and Jessica Lu as Jenna’s two friends who start out discouraging her steps into uncharted waters and end up thrilled their friend is trying new things they’d never be brave enough to try. Nikki DeLoach tries her best as Jenna’s mom, while Desi Lydic is often very funny as the school’s guidance counselor. (In general, I also like the fact that these characters don’t fall into easily defined “cliques.” The quirky girls hang out with quirky girls and the cheerleaders with cheerleaders, sure, but they all know each other and interact and sometimes get along.)
But this is Rickards’ show, and the way she slips from cool sarcasm to genuine vulnerability is impressive without seeming showy. She underplays every moment here, even as it would be very, very tempting to play every single one of Jenna’s mood swings for all it was worth. Iungerich and her writers send the plot hurtling forward at warp speed (a few things I assumed would take all season to foment actually happen in week two), and Rickards is very good at playing just how Jenna’s one incident has caused her to take bigger and bigger chances, to seize more and more of her own destiny. It’s almost as if Walter White on Breaking Bad were a teenage girl, and instead of heading toward very bad things, he headed toward taking more of an agency for good in his own life. OK, it’s not really like that at all, but it’s roughly the same story structure.
And, look, because this is MTV, there are the usual annoyances that come with the network’s programming, like the wall-to-wall pop music on the soundtrack and the way that too much of the show can come off as flip here and there. But somewhere deep inside of Awkward, there’s an appealingly earnest, good-hearted little show about a girl who starts taking chances and finds it hard to stop. Awkward probably won’t be for everyone (and if you’ve read this far already, you probably already know whether you like the show or not), but between Rickards and the fact that it doesn’t seem to involve vampires or werewolves in any way, shape, or form, this is the most appealing new teen show of the summer. And if nothing else, the fact that this thing is only a half-hour should be indication enough that it could end up being a lot of fun in the end. For the first time in a long time, there’s a teen show that dares argue, “Don’t take this shit so seriously. It’s only high school.”