Earlier today, Vulture posted a piece about the charms of MTV’s Awkward. Incidentally, I wrote a similar piece on my own blog last week. In both cases, the basic thesis was attempting to explain why a show that seems unassuming, that seems like cliché piled on top of cliché, is deserving of closer attention by viewers who fall outside of narrow definitions of the “MTV Demo.”
It’s telling, I think, that these pieces come after the show was already renewed for a second season. Normally, we see these kinds of pieces when a show is in danger of cancellation, but there’s no sense of urgency with Awkward. Those of us advocating for the show are doing so because it’s fun, and charming, and because we think people who have written it off might actually end up really enjoying what it has to offer (and can enjoy if online, where MTV is streaming all of the episodes.)
The challenge, though, is trying to capture this without running into the presuppositions that have kept many away in the first place. I don’t think this is a case where people don’t understand what the show is about, like with FX’s Terriers (may it rest in peace); instead, this is a case where potential viewers need to be convinced that a show about being a teenager and struggling through life and love is capable of being something more than a trifle, especially given the stigma that comes with MTV in the Teen Mom/16 and Pregnant/Jersey Shore era.*
*For the record, I raise these shows less as an example of how horrible MTV is — a discussion for another day — and more to point out that they do not indicate a network with a strong track record in nuanced storytelling or character-driven comedy.
Here at The A.V. Club, we think the best way to do such a thing is to consider the show more carefully, which is why we’re covering “Queen Bee-atches” tonight and why we’re considering adding Awkward. full time. While this is perhaps not the show’s strongest episode to date, it continues a few trends that reflect the show’s interest in something beyond its basic premise. Although the show remains focused primarily on Jenna Hamilton and her teenage struggles with mean girls, poorly defined relationships, and her own identity, “Queen Bee-atches” emphasizes the show’s willingness to extend that focus to other characters. While those other characters remain broad enough that calling the show a close character study would be overselling it, that Awkward. is interested in fleshing out its mean girl, or integrating Jenna’s mother, or giving the male characters a chance to interact on their own, reflects some of what has elevated the show to date.
On some level, “Queen Bee-atches” is the first episode that really isn’t about Jenna at all. While other characters like Tamara have played central roles in previous episodes, we have been seeing the episodes from Jenna’s perspective, and the lessons we take away from the episode have largely been a reflection on her post-non-suicide existence. This week’s episode ends with Jenna realizing the fickle nature of power, figuring out how to shift the agency within her relationship with Matty after having shifted the balance of power in her war with Sadie, but the episode is more interested in the consequences of her actions. We spend more time on Matty stealthily interrogating Jake about the kiss he shared with Jenna than in Jenna thinking about Matty, while we spend more time on Sadie and her battle with her weight than on Jenna and her battle with Sadie. Perhaps the actual “time spent” is more or less even in the latter case, but Sadie’s side of things is considerably more complex, and shows us new facets of her character that to this point have been merely hinted at; we may have spent as much time with Jenna, but we learned considerably less, and our takeaway is definitely more with the mean girl than with our heroine.
It’s a good position for a sitcom to be in at this stage in its first season, as the world around the central character begins to grow more complex. The show has its basic rhythms, with numerous setpieces that can mark an episode’s progress: You have Jenna and her blog, you have Jenna visiting with Valerie, and you have the usual high school conversation settings (including the “hallway with lockers” and the girls’ bathroom). Those were put into play here, as they have been in previous weeks, but around them were moments that broke out of that pattern. The Knick-Knackers moved away from the high school setting, creating a new space where Jenna has to adopt a different position and where the show needs to adapt accordingly in order to harness the parts of the show that have been working well - the tone, the sense of humor, the emotional honesty - while still embracing this new setting.
They achieve this by allowing Jenna to take a supporting role, with her mother Lacey and Sadie both taking on more prominent roles in the story. The show has done a pretty good job of integrating Lacey’s parents to this point, using the young age at which Jenna was born to position them as adults still trying to keep in touch with the teenagers they used to be (and the adults they could have been had Lacey not gotten pregnant at a young age). However, Lacey has been more broadly drawn than her husband, suggesting Jenna should get breast implants and promoting going bra-less to allow for backless shirts. There’s some good humor to be found there, especially given how much Jenna resists the kind of culture that her mother represents, but it was a pretty basic conflict that was given little depth.
Here, though, the episode really becomes about why Lacey is the way she is. She’s the one who wants to be a Knick-Knacker, not Jenna, and what we learn throughout the episode is her desire to “belong” despite having never gone to college, and having never become the person than she might have been. Given her position in life, playing the desperate housewife is her own form of identity crisis, and Jenna is right to observe that mean girls (which Lacey clearly was back in high school) grow up just like everyone else. It’s always tough for shows about teenagers to find a way to address the older generation, but I think the parallel here makes a lot of sense: A young stay-at-home mother who craves being part of a social order would struggle much the same as a teenager, and letting her drive the Knick-Knackers storyline (with Jenna as her reluctant wingdaughter) was the best storyline yet in terms of drawing her character to the surface.
Sadie, meanwhile, was given the time necessary to flesh out how her bullying is the result of her own insecurities. Admittedly, the show’s pilot already made this point, her humiliation over being unable to fit into Matty’s clothes drawing attention to her anxiety over her weight. That’s become a running theme (like when her shirt was tucked into her underwear), but the close focus on Jenna has resisted showing us Sadie at her most vulnerable, so the addition of her mother and a few key scenes did a nice job of contextualizing her mean girl routine. Admittedly, what we see is not exactly a revelation, but Molly Tarlov did a nice job of doing justice to the themes of another teen show, ABC Family’s Huge, on which she appeared last summer. There was a little humor break in there to discuss her frustration with plus-sized dress stores, but Tarlov sold the emotion of the scene and the reality of her struggle, and the show was able to tick off the “humanize antagonist” box.
It ticked it off well, though, and it did it without necessarily softening the character too much. We see Sadie’s moment of emotional vulnerability, but Jenna doesn’t, and even the food journal that points to that vulnerability also features hateful attacks on our heroine. While she and Jenna have established a détente of sorts, Sadie still has the capacity to be a horrible person and still represents a stock mean girl figure. However, given that this is a sitcom, there’s nothing wrong with character archetypes so long as they are used well, and so long as we’re shown enough to know that how they might occasionally be used does not represent the whole of their character. “Queen Bee-atches” helped confirm this for Sadie, and Lacey, which suggests good things for the show’s longevity and for the depth of the show’s ensemble.
Perhaps the largest archetype the show is dealing with is the love triangle at its center, and I think it has surprised me most of all. Now, as soon as Jake was introduced, you could sense that the show was angling for a love triangle, so it hasn’t been surprising to see Jake and Jenna share some time together while Matty resists spending time with her in public. What I’ve found surprising, though, is how the show has let the two love interests remain decent human beings. It would have been easy for Matty to turn into an enormous douchebag, ignoring Jenna in public and badmouthing her to his friends while sleeping with her in private. However, Matty is generally a pretty decent guy, and his resistance to a public relationship has manifested as nervousness more than the preservation of his social status. He spends time with Jenna at school without pretending he doesn’t know her, even complimenting her as they had lunch last week. Jake, meanwhile, is just a decent guy who has a girlfriend but shares a real connection with Jenna and is thus torn up about it.
Her relationship with both is complicated, but the show is letting us see why it’s complicated for the male characters instead of turning them into character types that would artificially complicate Jenna’s situation. Watching Matty try to learn more about the kiss while trying to hide his reason for being interested nicely captures the struggles between his feelings and his insecurities, while Jake opening up to Matty and admitting his mixed feelings about the meaning of the kiss shows that he’s just as confused as Jenna was. I’m not suggesting that these are wildly three-dimensional characters unlike any we’ve seen on television, but they’re being given dimensions, and the show has left the love triangle refreshingly open in terms of who viewers are expected to root for or against.
It allows the love triangle, like the rest of the show, to be about themes and characters instead of situations or resolutions. The point isn’t which guy Jenna ends up with so much as what the characters involved learn about themselves in the process, the love triangle positioned as part of a larger discussion of what high school ‘drama’ can represent in our lives. That sounds kind of dorky when I write it out, but that’s the mark of a good show set in high school: At the end of the day, it has something to say about high school. It isn’t just using high school as fuel for narrative development or a point of reference for a younger audience; at the heart of Awkward. is a desire to show teenage insecurity as a multi-dimensional state of being rather than a convenient story engine.
This week, that got extended further beyond Jenna herself, to the show’s benefit. While I sort of missed the focus on Jenna, given that Ashley Rickards remains the highlight of the show for me, the expanded focus presented a strong case for the big picture that Lauren Iungerich and her writing staff are painting at this point in the season. If this is going to be a show that runs for multiple seasons, it can’t just be a charming show about a quick-witted teenage girl, and “Queen Bee-atches” pushed the show into some new areas while never abandoning the style and charm that have defined the show to this point. It may not necessarily be interested in transcending its genre, but Awkward. is very concentrated on doing that genre justice, and that’s made for a very strong first half of the season.
And it’s also made a strong case for why people outside of the “MTV Demo” should be paying attention.
- As suggested above, we’re considering adding the show full-time until its October 4th finale, so let us know if you’re interested by reading/commenting/etc.
- The show is obviously interested in the idea of who wrote the letter, but it was no shock that it wasn’t Sadie: I’d argue it has a much better chance of being one of Jenna’s friends, but I’m not that invested either way. The letter is a convenient story engine (that went largely unused in the episode), but it’s not a big part of the show’s success.
- While not all characters will get the kind of development we saw here for Sadie, I do think Lissa is in a difficult position. The show has positioned her as both dim-witted and as a wet blanket for Jake, and I’ll be interested to see if they have plans to flesh out the character in the future.
- Admittedly, the thematic stuff got a bit out of control when Jenna’s comment about power so closely mirrored Matty’s warning to Jake (which comes back to bite him when he loses the power he was suggesting Jake might lose), but I thought the theme itself was smart enough to carry it.
- Given they had introduced the painting of Sadie earlier, I was surprised they didn’t have Lacey throw the cupcake at it.
- Any thoughts on the bleeped out swear words — obviously, the show is airing late enough that they can be a bit more risqué with content (and can thus gesture towards swearing in a thinly veiled fashion), but I’m interested in how people are responding to it. I know I had a regular commenter on my Office reviews who hated it, so perhaps more people have an opinion?
- “Do I look like a hooker? My Mom made me wear mascara.”
- “Go. Pretend to fit in.”
- “Is she mentally ill?”
- “Dude, how big is that horse?”
- “You suck at being anorexic — time to embrace bulimia! You’re welcome.”
- “Punch her in those big old funbags.”
- “Why did you have to pick a man with a fat gene?”
- “I’m not a hoochie and I don’t wear tangerine well.”
- “What’s the point? I’m too old to pledge a sorority.”