How MTV’s ‘Awkward.’ and ‘Faking It’ Overcame Gimmicky Beginnings by Telling Authentic Teen Stories

The most frustrating thing about the endless repetition of “But MTV doesn’t even play music anymore!” jokes — besides the fact that they’re totally played out — is that they implicitly write off the fine programming  that MTV does have to offer.

Granted, there is a lot of mess on the network (it’s definitely time to retire Teen Mom and all related shows), but there’s also a handful of great, teen-centric programs. Teen Wolf has been a big success, Scream has been… interesting, at least, and Finding Carter has wavered between surprisingly emotional teen drama and totally ridiculous but entertaining thriller. The two best scripted shows on the network are Awkward. and Faking It, both of which return tonight.

Both are teen sitcoms that are marketed to tween and teen girls but remain consistently entertaining and smart for adult women as well, though neither exactly had an auspicious start.  Awkward.‘s strange pilot featured a perceived suicide attempt, a harsh letter, and, well, awkward sex with a popular guy. Meanwhile, Faking It had a cringeworthy and somewhat offensive premise: two teen girls pretend to be lesbians in order to become popular. But both shows twisted around their original loglines to become something deeper, smarter, and more meaningful.

Awkward. is on its way out (the upcoming fifth season is apparently its last, though who really knows), and while it’s true that its quality has been steadily declining, especially since the departure of its original showrunner, there are still some great moments here and there. While last season devolved into bizarre storylines about evil, psycho classmates with legitimate crazy walls and pregnancy traps, the show has dialed back the thriller aspects and returned to its high school roots.

The episodes sent to critics deal with typical senior year mishaps: senior prank day, trying to buy booze while underage, and — of course — love triangles, which is basically what Awkward. was built on (teen clothing company dELiA*s even sold Team Jake and Team Matty T-shirts; the only thing that stopped me from buying one was that I just couldn’t decide). It helps that this season takes place during senior year, meaning the series can hit all those fun milestones: prom, graduation, college plans, etc. Awkward. is best when it sticks to the smaller aspects of high school life: dealing with your too-fun-loving parents, having intense crushes on a million boys, and just trying to keep up your grades when you’d rather fuck around with your friends and smoke weed under the bleachers. Returning to these elements could bring Awkward. back to the show it once was — just in time to send it away on a high note.

Screen Shot 2015-08-28 at 3.38.22 PMWhile Awkward. is sailing away, Faking It is just picking up steam. Again, that show started off a bit rocky — I very much disliked the first few episodes, which hinged entirely on Karma and Amy faking being lesbians. But Faking It slowly grew up and away from that by incorporating some reality, some exploration, valid depictions of various types of queerness, and even an intersex character (who only becomes more popular once the school learns about the identity she’s been keeping secret).

Once the series focused less on their ruse and more on Amy’s questioning — is she gay? Straight? Bi? In love with Karma or just super close to her best friend? Only queer for Karma? — Faking It became truly great. It approaches teen sexuality with an open mind and delicate writing, really getting into the grittiness and confusion that come along with questioning when you’re in high school. The wide range of characters — straight Karma, bi Amy (she still finds herself attracted to men), gay Shane, intersex Lauren, etc. — is not something that you see often on television, especially in a teen comedy.

The first few episodes of Faking It‘s third season further this dedication to teen sexuality. Karma is trying to have a strictly friends-with-benefits situation with the boy who is in love with her (and who she is likely in love with too), Lauren is dealing with the school knowing her secret while also being student council president, Shane is trying to ignore the fact that he basically outed his MMA fighter boyfriend so they could be seen together, and Amy is trying to have a solid relationship with another girl who may not be cool with her bisexuality, instead wanting Amy to be 100% gay.

MTV has found success with these teen sitcoms, exploring specific aspects of high school life without coming off as pandering or out of touch. Sure, some of the dialogue (especially in Awkward.) will make you groan, and both series still tend to go overboard with outlandish storylines (there’s a narc character in Faking It posing as a high schooler, a major drug bust, and a storyline about Karma’s family’s financial troubles). But Faking It and Awkward. are shows that deal carefully and respectfully with teen life — and the best way to create a teen sitcom is to treat teenagers with respect.