Jun 12, 2013

Awkward: Season 3.0

By Josh Oakley

As Awkward, a show with surprising depth, humor and character development for an MTV sitcom, has become more ambitious in certain regards, it’s fallen behind, retracing its own steps in other ways. The show’s first half of its third season is the worst collection of episodes yet, though it plants enough seeds for a potential back half of a season that could bring an entirely new layer. The main question separating hope from dread: how self-aware is the show? Has it done certain things on purpose, with a thematic and narrative purpose, or lost its way? I have faith in the former, as this is a show that defies judgment of its conventions, but Collin, man. He fucking sucks.

Collin is indeed the centerpiece of Awkward’s largest missteps throughout its third season, and the cliffhanger involving him (he shares a kiss with Jenna) is a potential dead-end. We’ve traversed the love triangle ground before and it’s not a place I’m dying to return to. When the writers of the show promised that the Jenna-Jake-Matty triangle was settled for good, they neglected to mention that Jake would be replaced by Collin and the trope would continue chugging along.

There’s a way to fix this. In the half-season’s penultimate episode, “Reality Check”, the Collin situation is given three potential trails to follow:
  1. Merely a love interest concocted by the good-looking and personality-less gods
  2. A gateway to an artistic world for Jenna to explore, unlocking a more complex person behind her public high school demeanor
  3. A sign that Jenna was terrified of becoming settled with Matty, and that comfort would lead her into the arms of another

The episode itself positioned #3 as the clear answer, whereas the earlier episode “That Girl Strikes Again” wandered into #2 territory. Either of those would be far more interesting than the #1 Awkward seems to accept in its midseason finale.

There is still the idea floating about, as reinforced by the particularly mediocre photography seen in the finale, that Collin serves as a window into a world of cocktails and conversations on the merits of Gogol. But this seems trumped by his being a hunk, which is incredibly dispiriting. Obviously in high school (and, unfortunately, beyond) crushes and the love that follows can tear us from logic and well being, or shift our attention away from more important matters. But we’ve seen Jenna dealing with the decision between two boys before. I saw one tweet defending the cliffhanger as Jenna finally living for herself (defending it, of course, as a narrative choice, not necessarily a moral one), but she chose between Jake and Matty, twice in fact. We know she’s capable of agency in her romantic life. But what about the life that extends beyond that? We’re about halfway through Jenna’s junior year of high school, and her future should be knocking a little harder than it is. It’s not that high school shows must emphasize the post-graduation stressors, but a larger acknowledgement would be nice. I understand this is probably being saved for a senior-year based season (or two), but Jenna’s rediscovering of herself can exist outside of both boys and collegiate aspirations.

The line in the finale that concerns me the most is spoken by, shockingly, Collin, when he tells Jenna that now is the time to be selfish. Jenna’s narration responds: “Choose me, it was a new concept.” If this is meant to paint Jenna in a negative light, than maybe the rest of the season can pull itself out of the tailspin it may be headed towards. My issue is that Jenna has been lead down this self-absorbed path all season. It seemed to culminate in the finale’s best scene, an honest conversation between Jenna and Matty where he, in a move I’ve been waiting many episodes for, questions why she never asks about his parents. After he was kicked out of his house earlier in the season, lived with the Hamiltons for an episode, and moved back home, that matter was largely dropped. It’s a damn shame, because not only was it the most dramatically intriguing material of the season, but it brought even more shades to Beau Mirchoff’s performance, which is quickly becoming my favorite on the show (after Nikki DeLoach as Lacey, Jenna’s mom, the show’s consistent MVP since the letter revelation). When Jenna decides to “choose me”, it’s jarring, because it’s seemingly incomprehensible that she thinks she’s done anything for anybody but herself this entire season. If the show utilizes her hypocrisy, it could be effective, but I’m worried that her making a selfish decision was meant to play as a strong moment for the character.

So much of the problem with Jenna’s story can be resolved in ways that render my argument useless on the whole (if still valid for this half of the season). This would be less of a problem if the show’s supporting cast was more heavily utilized, but season three has, so far, been incredibly wonky in that regard as well. Tamara and Jake’s relationship has largely been a dud, as it lacks any real drive and the participants lack purpose. The midseason finale’s B-story attempted to pretend that their arc had been concerned with Tamara’s bossiness and Jake’s subservience. This idea didn’t come out of the blue but certainly hadn’t been built enough to have any dramatic heft here. And it’s resolved by the episode’s end after Tamara has a seemingly out-of-nowhere realization. It’s fairly lazy writing, which is a shame as both actors have proven themselves even with weaker material.

Others are treated just as poorly; while Lacey Hamilton works wonders while encroaching in others’ stories, she and her husband were underserved, odd after season two almost split them up for good. Ming has become the head of the Asian Mafia in a plot that still has comedic value, but was so sporadically used that its conclusion didn’t feel earned. And, worst of all, Sadie, played by the great Molly Tarlov, was almost given an actual arc, as seemingly promised in season one, but it petered out, hopefully to return in this season’s second half.

The nature of the half-season leaves me more willing to forgive certain narrative flaws than if this were supposed to be a complete vision. And despite the problems I had, you’ll notice I singled out many of the show’s cast members (and didn’t even mention Desi Lydic as Valerie, or the show’s lead Ashley Rickards, who is great, but was given a lot of repetitive material this season). Anthony Michael Hall gave a great guest performance as Jenna’s creative writing teacher, though I hope this device is gone soon, as it is often far too pat in making themes explicit to be even halfway realistic. Above all, Awkward is still a show worth watching, a program that builds upon itself, never forgetting where its characters came from (even when it chooses to go to that exact place again). The jokes are funny, the performances often outstanding, and occasionally Rickards and DeLoach will sit and laugh over a non-positive pregnancy test and great television is made. Those tender moments have been less so far this season, and the humor occasionally off. But the big picture is still there to be constructed, and I ultimately have faith that the end product will be worth sticking around for, even if that faith has been tested tremendously. If it were time to DTR between Awkward and I, I’d have to go with “It’s Complicated”, but don't count us out yet.

(Temporary) Grade: B-

  • Tamara’s lingo is often my least favorite aspect of the show’s humor, but the one that got me this season was “fifty shades of cray”. I’m not proud of it, but Jilian Rose Reed is getting better at selling the material.
  • As far as jokes in the finale, I was most entertained by Valerie and Lacey’s Black Friday war stories. Can we get a spin-off of the two of them shooting the shit and beating up holiday shoppers?
  • Seriously, Beau Mirchoff deserves all of the awards for what he’s done with Matty over the course of the show. He could have been a generic character but Mirchoff has infused him with an authentic quality that rears its head in the finale, when he heartbreakingly admits that he was once concerned that he caused Jenna’s (fake, but he didn’t know that at the time) suicide attempt. But instead of taking that to heart, Jenna just complained about her lack of self-esteem (which I’ll reiterate once more is realistic, but it is not a good thing to do, morally. Please remember this distinction, Awkward. See you soon.)

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