MTV // 2011 // 264 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // December 28th, 2011
It's about the specific incidents in our formative years that define us.
Television makes an interesting index of technological change. Just a few short years ago, Carrie Bradshaw narrated Sex and the City while writing a column for a legitimate newspaper. Since then the female voice-over narrator has been a common trope in TV (see Gossip Girl). However, where once the heroine needed to be writing for a dead-tree publication of some circulation (which implied an urban setting, a certain age, and socioeconomic status), the introduction of blogging has given TV writers a new tool for introducing characters. Because anyone with internet access can have a blog, the voice of a female narrator has moved from the confines of Manhattan's expensive locales to anywhere USA's high schools. That's the setting and premise of Awkward, which promises to be another shallow and snarky look at high school from a young person's perspective. The show is saved from cliché by smart writing, strong performances, and a weird sense of humor.
Jenna Hamilton (Ashley Rickards, Gamer) likes to blog, mainly because her life isn't going the way she wants it to. Towards the end of summer before her sophomore year, she finally gets to have sex with the guy of her dreams, but he can't publicly acknowledge her. Then she receives a mysterious letter in the mail telling her all the things she needs to do if she wants to matter in life. She complains about it on her blog before going to the bathroom to take some aspirin for a headache. When she stumbles, the pills go everywhere, she falls over, bumps her head, and breaks her arm. Everyone thinks she tried to commit suicide, and now the girl who no one noticed is getting noticed by everyone...for all the wrong reasons.
Of course, the whole voice-over narrator is older than the Internet age; it's roots traced back through the use of diaries and letters in fiction. And there's a reason that Sylvia Plath and Andy Warhol's journals sell like hotcakes while others languish in archives: they were interesting people who led interesting lives. The first thing that Awkward gets right is giving its central protagonist an interesting personality. Jenna is smart, has a few good friends, and suffers the slings and arrows of high school with dignity. She's given a semi-unrequited love, a crazy mom, and an understanding dad. Most importantly, Jenna is easy to relate to. She's not a totally privileged upper-middle-class white girl living in one of the greatest cities in the world whining about not being able to afford a(nother) pair of Louboutins. On the flip side, the show isn't a gritty look at the realities of being a teenager in intimate detail. This isn't a show about the horrors of teen pregnancy and drug abuse.
Nope, Awkward is another comedy about the difficulties we all encounter in high school, and not much about that experience has changed in the last 60 or so years. This works in the show's favor because most people can relate to the situations, but it's also a pitfall because we've seen countless high school comedies (many of them quite good) over the years. Awkward distinguishes itself from the pack by going for dark (and slightly surreal) humor. How many teen shows open with the mistaken suicide attempt of the main character? It perfectly balances the ironic detachment that allows for humor, while also recognizing this is all deadly serious...from the heroine's perspective.
Casting puts Awkward over the top. Ashley Rickards steals the show as Jenna. She's smart, a little awkward, and has good comic timing. But she's a standout in a cast of other excellent actors, especially Desi Lydic as the inappropriate counselor and Nikki Delouch as Jenna's young (and vain) mother.
Awkward: Season One is pretty strong release. The standard definition 1.78:1 anamorphic transfers are as bright and clean as you'd expect from a contemporary show. It's not a set to push the limits of your theater setup, but detail is fine, black levels are consistent, and fleshtones look spot on. The show's Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack keeps dialogue front and center, well balanced with the ambient effects and music.
Bonus features begin with a set of webisodes attached to the show. We get 15 minutes of counselor Valerie, seven minutes with Sadie's anger management, and another seven minutes of "morning announcements" for the school. They're cute little additions and do a great job of highlighting specific characters. Next up are 15 minutes of behind the scenes featurettes, including a tour of the set, discussions about the characters, and life on the production. Then, there are 10 minutes of "character intros," where the cast discusses their character, and finally two and a half minute "about the show" that plays like a trailer.
The world did not need another high school comedy. Although I enjoyed Awkward, I am getting tired of watching shows where a pretty young woman has to bitch about how unnoticed she is. The show does a good job making her social invisibility about Jenna's personality rather than her looks, but it's still a trope that needs to go away. Obviously, if you have no interest in high school or its difficulties, this isn't going to change anything for you.
It's also worth noting that Awkward is "expected to play back in DVD Video play only devices, and may not play in other DVD devices." The discs have a manufactured-on-demand look to them, so if your only DVD player is a computer drive, then consider giving this set a rental before purchasing, to make sure they're compatible with your system. Also, the show is inconsistently "censored" in the audio track. Some naughty words get bleeped and sometimes the same word doesn't get bleeped consistently. The subtitle/closed captioning is often bleeped more (and differently) from the audio. It's not a huge deal, but it is strange.
I was not predisposed to enjoy Awkward, but its weird humor, large heart, and strong performances won me over.
It might be Awkward, but the show is not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 264 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site