For three seasons, Awkward. was a surprisingly great show that stood out on MTV, not just because it was a scripted comedy among reality programs but also because it was an honest and nuanced gem on a network that values dishonesty and sensationalism. What began with an iffy premise — Jenna loses her virginity to a popular jock and then a series of mishaps is misconstrued as a suicide attempt — turned into a funny, touching, and, yes, awkward tale of navigating high school when you’re not quite popular but not quite an outcast, either. It was about first relationships, strong teen-girl friendships, and the countless insecurities that plague us through adolescence and never go away no matter how old we get. In Season 4, with a new showrunner at the helm, Awkward. seemed to realize it was on MTV, destroyed complex narratives, and went for cheap tricks. Can it redeem itself during the second half of senior year? Possibly.
Awkward. was certainly never the most original teen comedy to pop up on television — its central plot is a love triangle that inspired “Team Matty” and “Team Jake” T-shirts — but it was more complex than the average fare, largely due to the show’s commitment to balancing Jenna’s (Ashley Rickards) identity issues with her silly boy troubles. The pilot’s hook was an anonymous “carefrontational” letter detailing steps Jenna should take to better herself (“Stop being such a pussy” and “When you’re pretty, you’re happy. And clearly you’re not happy”), which leads her into an identity crisis (one that becomes even worse when she learns her childish mother wrote it).
While Jenna often debated which boy to date (#TeamMatty forever), she also spent a great deal of time struggling with who she is as a person, how people perceive her, and whether or not she needs (or even wants) to change. She gradually becomes more confident but remains somewhat insecure; she becomes more comfortable with her writing but rightfully freaks out when her blog is discovered. Although there are a lot of twists, the heart of the show is never found in a big-gasp finale shocker; instead, it’s in Jenna’s self-aware narration, the very realistic up-and-down friendship between her and Tamara (Jillian Rose Reed), and the subtle moments when popular girl Sadie (Molly Tarlov) walks the a tightrope connecting her vicious bullying and her own self-doubt. Even when the show went big, there was no doubt it would reel itself back in.
Season 4 premiered in April with two new showrunners, Chris Alberghini and Mike Chessler, replacing creator Lauren Iungerich. It obviously takes some time for new writers to fall into a groove with a show they didn’t create, but it was clear early in the season Awkward. was starting to become a shell of itself: the characters were there, the hilariously obnoxious Tamara dialogue was there, and the Matty/Jenna background drama was there. But everything else was different, more broad and expansive, more reminiscent of vintage WB dramas’ sweeps-weeks plots than the intelligent narrative we were used to.
Matty suddenly learns that he was adopted. Lissa falls in love with her own adopted brother. Matty and Jake spend a night in jail. Tamara is a lesbian for one night at a college party. One episode was titled “Sophomore Sluts,” and you’d have ended up in the hospital if you’d drank every time they called a teenager a “slut.” Most egregious of all, the series introduced Eva, a con-artist character with a fake name, made-up backstory, a full-on crazy wall, and a positive pregnancy test — Matty’s going to be a father! It was all sensational plots with no real narrative threads, just shit thrown at a wall.
Tonight, Awkward. begins the second half of Season 4 and the second half of senior year. The two episodes sent out to critics are still shaky, but the intentions behind them seem to be clear: to steer this show back to where it was in the earlier Iungerich years (though the showrunners have remained the same). There are plenty of lingering problems, such as Lissa’s secret relationship with her brother (and a “shocking” twist involving her family), but it feels a bit more like home.
Without spoiling too much: The big Eva issue is dealt with pretty quickly (though I’m wary of whether it’s totally over), and Matty and Jenna once again because the center of the show, sort of, as they dance around each other way they have been for years. School is another focus, as the premiere centers around finals (and not in the fleeting way that Jenna’s low class ranking was brought up and then shrugged away), and everyone worries about the last grades colleges will see before sending out acceptance letters. The second episode mostly takes place at a New Year’s Eve party — one of those high school parties where someone just randomly shows up with a keg. It’s very reminiscent of early Awkward. parties, weaving throughout these various social groups (and parents!) and remarking on the surprising relationships that form at the drop of a hat.
Awkward. isn’t ever going to feel the way it did in those first years, but at the very least, it can rein itself in and go back to exploring the interpersonal and internal conflicts that dominated the show and made for thoughtful viewing.