Lots of TV shows have shown the awkwardness of high school, those moments where if the poor kid only had a “How to Navigate High School” handbook, he or she would’ve been fine. “Awkward.” (10 p.m. Central Tuesdays on MTV) is the first show I can think of that actually does provide a guide of sorts.
Jenna (Ashley Rickards), who calls her blog “Invisible Girl,” gets a list of tips from “A Friend” on how to not be invisible. She takes the first item, “Stop being such a (wimp),” to mean she should volunteer for a wheel-spinning game at a pep rally. When she wins the game (who can exchange outfits with their teammate the fastest), despite having a cast on her entire left arm, she gains the respect of the school. Classmates start talking to her rather than dismissing her.
I love this premise, although the first item and its execution aren’t as entertaining (or awkward) as they could’ve been; maybe that’s something to work on in future episodes.
Jenna’s closest fictional forbearer is probably Juno, except that while Juno is labeled as “pregnant,” Jenna is labeled as “suicidal.” (It’s actually a misunderstanding; she slips on the bathroom floor and breaks her arm, spilling a bunch of pills in the process.) And while Juno makes wry comments to everybody, Jenna makes wry comments in voiceover narration. In that way, I suppose “Awkward.” is like an R-rated “Clarissa Explains It All” or “Lizzie McGuire.”
“Daria” also comes to mind, although Jenna isn’t a contentedly sardonic wallflower; she’s a wallflower who wants to become — not necessary cool, but someone who comfortably fits in. Rather than letting herself be labeled, she labels herself (but she’s seeking positive labels, unlike Emma Stone’s character in “Easy A,” who socially martyred herself to make this same point).
Ostensibly a comedy, “Awkward.” isn’t laugh-out-loud funny; truthfully, it whiffs on all its jokes in the first episode. For example, I knew the start of the classroom scene showing Jenna sitting in the back, her left arm permanently raised in a cast, would end with the teacher thinking she was raising her hand. And so it did.
Still, Jenna is so subtly and consistently put upon that she’s a stand-in for everyone’s high school days, and she’s worth rooting for. Her parents think she’s suicidal, her guidance counselor eats her breath mints and tries on her lipstick and — in a rather too mainstream plot — her sort-of-boyfriend refuses to be seen with her in public. It’s all so psychologically exhausting.
I wonder if “Awkward.” should be an hour-long show instead of a half hour. Thirty minutes gives us time to soak up the raw experiences with Jenna, but it’s all emptier than it should be.
Jenna is a sympathetic character due to what she has to endure, but she’s not a lovable character yet because we don’t really know her beyond “put-upon high schooler who had some unfortunate breaks.” And although her self-centeredness can be forgiven because she’s the main character, it is worrisome that none of the supporting cast pops off the screen at all.
The pain of high school is a universal experience, yet every high schooler is an individual person. After one episode, “Awkward.” totally grasps the first point, but not the second. And I’m also a bit worried about that boyfriend who can’t be seen with her; high schoolers are image-conscious, sure, but that’s such a generic TV plot, and I think this show can do better.
Still, “Awkward.” gets the backdrop right, and Jenna is appealing enough, so I’ll stick around for another episode.