TV Review: MTV’s ‘Awkward’

Perhaps it’s just my way of celebrating my last year in the network’s core demographic, but I feel like I’ve been watching more MTV this summer than any time since college.

That isn’t really saying all that much.

Mostly, in fact, it just means that against my better judgment, I’ve continued to watch “Teen Wolf” long past when any reasonable person would have thrown his hands in the air and stepped away.

In early interviews, series creator Jeff Davis promised that there would eventually be plenty of humor. On the assumption that he meant “intentional humor,” that’s a vow that hasn’t come true. “Teen Wolf” remains leaden and mopey and I’m not sure that leading man Tyler Posey has more than one facial expression. Amazingly, we’re seven episodes in and the main character hasn’t fully wolfed out and, in fact, we’ve seen only the bare minimum of footage involving fully transformed werewolves (and what we’ve seen hasn’t exactly been a tantalizing advertisement for more). There have been a lot of glowing eyes, growing claws and hormonal glowering. So much glowering. All anybody does on “Teen Wolf” is glower, with the possible exception of female leads Holland Roden and Crystal Reed, who flirt winningly and sometimes cry.

And yet “Teen Wolf” has exhibited a decent ability to deliver a vaguely suspenseful set piece, even if they’re mostly generated by an aggressive and overbearing musical score. And nobody’s played lacrosse for weeks, though there was some werewolf bowling a couple episodes ago.

It’s still a bad show. 

It still shouldn’t be called “Teen Wolf.”

But the danger of the summer months is that I commit to shows like this and then I find it hard to shake them, even if I’m not enjoying them. 

The result of watching an hour of “Teen Wolf” each week — other than the laundry I get folded or the Emmy photo galleries I was able to build — is that I’ve tragically become able to identify at least one Teen Mom and I’ve seen the same one or two ads for “Awkward” over and over and over again, enough to get good and predisposed to dislike MTV’s new 11 p.m. comedy.

The purpose of this introduction is two-fold: The first was to note that “Teen Wolf” hasn’t gotten better and the second was to set the conditions under which I watched two episodes of “Awkward” and found myself pleasantly amused. If you can exactly reproduce those circumstances, you too could find yourself chuckling at this proudly lewd and rude and big-hearted comedy. If not? Your results may vary.

Full review after the break…

Created by Lauren Iungerich, “Awkward” is the appropriately titled saga of 15-year-old Jenna (Ashley Rickards), a less-than-popular girl whose blog is named Invisible Girl Daily. Through a series of humiliations, she’s about to ask that timeless teen question: Is it better to be invisible or to be visible for the wrong reasons?

MTV is airing “Awkward” at 11 p.m. and that probably ought to be a warning for those with delicate sensibilities. This is a series that begins with the main character losing her virginity in a supply closet to an armpit-sniffing popular kid (Beau Mirchoff) and uses what appears to be a botched suicide attempt (it’s not) as its key inciting event. Apparently after 11 on MTV, you can get away with occasionally saying “s***” and you can unload all manner of veiled and not-even-slightly-veiled innuendo, even involving teens. I suspect that if I hadn’t been instantly annoyed with and dismissive of “Skins,” I might already have known this.

I decided to lead with the risque nature of some of the “Awkward” material, but that’s not really where “Awkward” lives and breathes. This is exactly the kind of show groups like the Parents Television Council like to protest, focusing on material over message. The material in “Awkward” is racy, but the message is very clearly about the idea that high school is a nightmare and that the best way to survive is to stand up for yourself and to own your identity, no matter what it happens to be. The show features sexuality and hints at other illicit behavior, but what it actually endorses is making sure you have somebody to talk to, whether it’s a friend or a parent or the Internet and making sure that you define yourself rather than letting cruel people define you. The message, occasionally buried under a sea of too-cool-for-school references and slang, is pretty empowering.

I wasn’t surprised to see Iungerich’s primary prior credit was an episode of “10 Things I Hate About You.” “Awkward” almost feels like it takes place in the same universe as “10 Things I Hate About You.” The smart kids, the ones able to craft their lives around a very loose interpretation of a Shakespearean narrative, were on “10 Things I Hate About You.” The cool kids and the mean kids and the outcasts have found their way to “Awkward.” Of course, even “10 Things I Hate About You” proved too edgy for the ABC Family audience, as the network canceled it after one season and has retreated to the bland, multi-cam familiarity of “Melissa & Joey” and “State of Georgia.” ABC Family and The CW would never dare anything as edgy as “Awkward,” but I bet this MTV comedy will resonate with the audience those two networks crave.

“Awkward” has a cast of people I recognize from shows I’m embarrassed to admit I watch. 

On “One Tree Hill,” Ashley Rickards came across as The Missing Panabaker sister, but here she effectively embodies the Everygirl vibe required for the part. She’s got good timing, decent physical comedy chops and there’s no ego to this performance. As Jenna’s best friends, Jillian Rose Reed and Jessica Lu are perhaps a smidge too chirpy, but they have some good moments as well.

But back to the people I’m embarrassed to admit I recognized, I made it almost the whole way through the pilot without realizing that Jenna’s mom was played by Nikki DeLoach, who I last remember seeing in blonder and more bikinied form as MJ on FOX’s “North Shore.” It’s weird to see MJ as the mother of a teenage girl on “Awkward,” but her character was a — wait for it — Teen Mom. 

Also getting laughs, and also seeming a bit too young and perky for her role, is Desi Lydic as one of those TV/movie guidance counselors who would rather be friends with the kids than give guidance (John C. Reilly is playing a classic version of this archetype in the current limited release “Terri”). Lydic’s character is funny and good a bridge for potential older viewers who maybe didn’t go to high school in a world in which sexting and Facebooking proliferated. 

Yes, that last statement is meant to strongly imply that “Awkward” made me feel old. Very old. But despite being too old and too male to be in the audience MTV wants for this one, I still found ways to relate (and having the male component going for me didn’t make me particularly like that high school big dick comedy that’s probably MTV’s ideal counterpart for “Awkward”). Not only are high school horrors pretty universal, even if the specifics change, but I can find a way to fit “Awkward” into a tradition of hyper-literal high school comedies like “Pretty in Pink” or “Heathers” or “Mean Girls” or “Juno” or “The In-Betweeners” (if your taste runs to British TV). It’s not as good as any of those, but it’s not as bad as “Jawbreaker,” which is in the same tradition.

So yeah… Watch 7 episodes of “Teen Wolf.” Then watch “Awkward.” It’s MTV’s nefarious, and needlessly elaborate, plan to make everybody enjoy this spunky new comedy.

“Awkward” premieres on MTV at 11 p.m. on Tuesday, July 19.

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