Awkward. is to My So-Called Life what Happy Endings is to Friends; that is, one in a long line of copycats but the one that has copycatted successfully. It’s got a great title, complete with punctuation, for starters. That made it worth checking out in my book.
The writers want you to know right off that Awkward. is not like other teen shows. One of the protagonist, Jenna’s, first lines sounds like a direct dig at the soapy AMC Family hit, The Secret Life of the American Teenager: “This wasn’t the inciting incident of some sappy teen special about how I got knocked up on the last day of summer camp.” It does open with our heroine getting it on in a utility closet adjacent to a gym with a blue-eyed popular hunk of hormones. You can practically smell the Axe Body Spray.
Jenna doesn’t fit readily into a particular social group. She doesn’t consider herself one of the “dorks,” yet she explains that she’s felt invisible since getting her braces off. She certainly not one of the cool kids — who would want to watch a show like that — but the show isn’t jumping on the “hip to be geek” bandwagon, either. Like Angela Chase, she’s somewhere in the middle of the popularity bell curve. Her Jordan Catalano is Matty. She actually finds it attractive that he sniffs his own armpits. Like Jordan, Matty has no visible redeeming qualities. Apparently, as the season unfolded, a relationship between Jenna (Ashley Rickards) and Matty (Beau Mirchoff) actually began to take shape, but my reaction to him based on the pilot is, “um, no.”
The opening sex scene has only a tangental bearing on the plot of the episode, which is that Jenna has an accident that is mistaken for a suicide attempt. Just after receiving a mysterious, mean letter, and blogging about wanting to die (in the way that teenagers figuratively want to die everytime something embarassing transpires), she falls in the bathroom. In the process, she also spills a bunch of asprin and knocks a hairdryer into the full bathtub. It’s a highly memorable, if over-the-top scene, which could have made a much better opening than closet sex. Jenna returns to school with her arm in a truly awkward cast, which props her arm up in a permanent wave of greeting. A montage of mockumentary shots lets us know what all the kids are thinking about her. “That girl” has everyone talking about her mental instability.
The most bothersome elements of the episode were the cartoonish and unsympathetic portrayals of Jenna’s mom (Nikki Delaoch) and guidance counselor (Desi Lydic), both the people you hope would keep the teen characters grounded. The counselor is paricularly grating. Then it occurred to me, that is how teenagers see adults — as charicatures. So I’ll give the writers the benefit of the doubt and assume that was their intention.
Conversely, I can’t help feel that these are Gen X writers trying to talk like they’re Millenials. Do today’s teenagers actually make Coke-and-Poprocks jokes? Do they even get the reference? That is just one example of funny but out-of-place bits.
As far as the teenagers, we get a pretty typical cast of characters — jocks, geeks, etc. There are some attempts at twists, like the Asian girl who doesn’t do well on standardized tests and the popular cheerleader who has anything but the cheerleader body-type.
Personally, I’ll take Freaks and Geeks or Veronica Mars, or even earlier, Growing Pains (as I would make the case that Angela Chase is a direct descendent of Carol Seaver). I even find Secret Life more watchable — in a train wreck sort of way — at least it appealed to Gen Xers with Molly Ringwald. But Awkward. has received plenty of critical acclaim and a loyal fanbase, and it was recently announced that it will return for a second season. So there you go. Teenage girls falling for cretinous boys will never get old.