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October 4, 2015

Catching Up With the Best New Comedy of the Year: MTV's 'Awkward.'

by Maureen Ryan, posted Sep 1st 2011 12:00PM
Surely this wasn't MTV's goal, but the network's excellent new(ish) comedy 'Awkward.' puts me in a nostalgic frame of mind.

Just as today's twentysomethings yearned to bask once again in the glow of the Nickelodeon shows they watched in their tween years (and that prompted TeenNick to unleash its successful "The '90s Are All That" rerun block two months ago), I've been missing the glory days of the WB and the early CW for a while now.

Back in the '90s and early aughts, those networks gave us plucky, verbally dextrous, sarcastic heroines in slightly dorky clothes who studied hard or solved crimes or fought vampires, young women who wanted the guy but didn't want to lose their self-respect and whose neuroses only made them more appealing.

And that's pretty much what 'Awkward' is, but in brisk, sitcom form and with more hilarious euphemisms for sex. It may not sound professional, but somehow it feels appropriate to say that I totally have a crush on 'Awkward.'

Some elements of 'Awkward.' are a bit too broad, but it does so many things right that it is, at this stage, my favorite new comedy of the year. Most of the broadcast network comedies that will be premiering in the next couple of months, by contrast, seem even more strained and pallid in comparison to this lively, raunchy, romantic show.

I think half the reason I enjoy 'Awkward.' so much is because the half-hour format suits its modest ambitions, yet it still has the stealthy sincerity of those old-school WB shows. Unlike those programs, however, 'Awkward.' doesn't have to fill out a full hour with conflicts and incidents that could, on those hourlong shows, feel contrived. Without commercials, each episode of this high school comedy clocks in at just over 20 minutes, so there really isn't time to get bored, and the show's pace is so breezy that even the clunkier moments flit by quickly.

The high school years of the lead character, Jenna (Ashley Rickards), weren't exactly going swimmingly when she had a physical mishap that resulted in the rumor that she'd tried to kill herself. She hadn't, but her unwanted notoriety complicated not just her day-to-day life but her secret romance with a popular guy named Matty, a sweet but rather lunkheaded dreamboat she met at summer camp.

Without a doubt, Jenna's acerbic voice-overs and the show's sharp dialogue are its main draws. I got a hand cramp from writing down my favorite lines as I caught up with the show's first season (for some reason, the line about ellipsis being "the sluts of punctuation" just killed me). The show owes a clear debt to 'Sex and the City' (Jenna has even used Carrie's "I couldn't help but wonder" phrase), but Jenna's personality is distinctive enough to make her voiceovers more of an homage than a rip-off. But, as the HBO show did at its best, 'Awkward.' does a good job of making you care about Jenna's small-scale goals and setbacks, which, within the cauldron of insecurity and competition that is high school, can seem overwhelming.

Jenna's smart yet insecure persona was easy to latch on to from the show's first scene, and though her journey from powerlessness to something approaching confidence is familiar, that arc has been thoughtfully depicted. Some of the show's supporting characters aren't as well-constructed, however. Hewing to an old TV trope, the adults in her life (especially her mother and a school guidance counselor) often act in ridiculously lame or inappropriate ways. Jenna's mom is one of those predictable TV airheads who thinks that plastic surgery or skimpy outfits can fix just about any problem.

I don't necessarily think 'Awkward.' needs to make the adults extremely dumb or grasping in order to ensure that Jenna looks better (and more mature) by comparison; she'd be interesting no matter what. In any event, recent episodes have begun the process of giving the mom and Jenna's cheerleader nemesis, Sadie, a little more dimension. The socially inept guidance counselor and Matty could add more to the show, but one has too many quirks and the other is almost a blank slate (all we really know about Matty is that he's hunky and sniffs his armpits when he's nervous). It's not that Matty isn't mildly charming, it's just that we don't really know why these two are interested in each other. I certainly wouldn't mind a few flashbacks to summer camp.

And I must confess, I'm a little confused about the blog that Jenna writes -- I'm not sure if anyone else reads it or if she's writing it anonymously (though it wouldn't be anonymous for long, given the identifying details that are presumably on it). Sure, the blog is just a device that allows Jenna to confide her hopes and dreams in someone other than her hypercaffeinated friend Tamara or her more serious friend Ming, but it'd be nice if there were more clarity there. (A good mystery, on the other hand, is the identity of the person who sent Jenna an anonymous note telling her in almost cruel terms to get her life together.)

The wobblier elements of the show give me pause occasionally, but they're quibbles, for the most part (and there's no reason to believe that the show won't address these things in the second half of its first season or in its second season, which has already been ordered). 'Awkward.' is heightened in ways that make it funny, but it rings true when it comes to the important stuff. It acknowledges that teenagers experiment with sex and drinking and that they're constantly texting and editing their online identities, but the show honestly depicts their confusion about all those things. Whether it's Rory Gilmore or Jenna Hamilton on the screen, there's a universality to the conundrum of being a teenager. As I recall from this older (but perhaps not much wiser) perch, some days I felt smarter than everyone else, other days I felt much dumber.

Ultimately, there's no reconciling all the conflicting moods and modes that teenagers go through, but 'Awkward.' does a good job of finding the funny in all those collisions and, yes, awkward moments.

'Awkward.' airs 11PM ET Tuesdays on MTV, and all seven episodes that have aired are available here. Also, Ryan McGee and I talked more about the show in this week's Talking TV podcast.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Not as funny as the Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, IMO. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nIVa9lxkbus

September 05 2011 at 10:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Julia Mathias

I also loving awkward, it's just a fun show, without being dumb. And about the blog, I think it's a secret blog, like you can only acess it if you have a password. I used to have a blog like that, more like a diary, so I think hers is the same.

September 01 2011 at 1:55 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Julia Mathias's comment
Mo Ryan

Oh, I get it. You'd think I'd have thought of that, given that I've been blogging for 10 years. But it's weird that at one point Tamara said "you won't let me read your blog," or something like that. If she's not giving the password to her best friend, who *is* reading it? But thanks for clarifying!

September 01 2011 at 2:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Mo Ryan's comment
Myles McNutt

Basically, my question is why she doesn't just keep a journal, like a normal person.

Maybe she has terrible penmanship. It was probably on the letter.

September 02 2011 at 1:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down

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