Being a teenager is often a miserable job: There’s no sleeping in during the week, you spend all day feeling scrutinized, sitting through one agonizing class after another, attempting best you can not to humiliate yourself. A day without an embarrassment is a victory, even if the nights are often sleepless as you grapple with the potential for a thousand small humiliations the next day. In the past, the one place a teenager could always escape the daily grind was media, but it’s more complicated now than it was once for Generation Click. You have to compete on the Twitter and Facebook, where social anxieties are 24/7. You’re always on the spot, almost incapable of escaping. With school, phones, and the Internet, it would feel like there’s almost never any downtime from simply being a teenager.
In previous generations, teenagers could at least escape into movies, where they could often find — in the films of John Hughes, Steve Holland, Amy Heckerling or their ilk — like-minded teenagers dealing with similar problems on a broader, more formulaic scale. Until the 90s, genre shows for teenagers were a rarity, and when they arrived in the form of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” et. al, it felt refreshing. Now, it must feel oppressive. Films targeted at teenagers are all superheroes, vampires, and werewolves. Television is similarly limited. Popular shows right now range from “The Secret Lives of Chloe King” (about a teenage girl with feline superpowers) to a “Teen Wolf” reboot on MTV to “Pretty Little Liars,” a “Desperate Housewives” melodrama for teens. Problems endemic to teenagerdom are still covered, but they’re filtered though superpowers and gloomy, obsessive love triangles, making it all the more difficult to relate.
What’s missing are movies like The Breakfast Club or Can’t Hardly Wait or Clueless or even as something as superficial as She’s All That. Who needs a Pygmalion make-over movie when you can turn on the television and watch teenagers transformed by the power of obscene amounts of money and cosmetic surgery? What’s also missing, sadly, are shows like “The Wonder Years” (unless you watch “The Inbetweeners” on BBCA) or “Freaks and Geeks.” MTV’s new show, “Awkward,” might be the answer to that. “Awkward” is good and honest and funny, and it manages to be current without trying too hard to be so. It’s suburban teenage angst (minus the emo) condensed and edited into 22-minute story arcs, and it captures so well the humbling experience of waking up each morning a teenager.
It centers on Jenna Hamilton (Ashley Rickards), a typical suburban teenage girl recently relieved of her awkward stage. She’s pretty but not too pretty, and in the opening scenes has attracted the attention of a one of the more popular guys in school. They go out back, she loses her maidenhood (in a terrifically funny scene), and he tells her not to tell anyone because she’s who she is and he is who he is. Later that night, through one fantastically hilarious mishap, Jenna falls and breaks her arm in what is confused as a suicide attempt. And thus, her nonentity status in high-school is erased, but not in the way she wanted; now she’s the girl in a semi-permanent high-five cast who tried to kill herself.
The tone of “Awkward” is sarcastic and witty, and while it is funny, there’s an undercurrent of sweetness that manages to make Ashley more sympathetic than the likes of the raunchy, clunge-obsessed foursome on “The Inbetweeners.” It’s too early to say, of course, but there is certainly a more female-centric “Freaks and Geeks” vibe coursing through “Awkward,” with nods to Heathers and the more recent Easy A. There’s also an antagonist — a slightly overweight cheerleader — that slightly dodges teenage movie conventions.
I’m hedging my bets because it’s only been 22 minutes, and “Awkward” could yet devolve into a mess of teenager stereotypes. Jenna Hamilton could even develop vampire powers in the second episode. Nevertheless, through the pilot episode alone, “Awkward” is best reason to watch MTV since “Daria” left the air.