Saturday, June 23, 2012

My Love Letter to Lauren Iungerich and MTV's 'Awkward'...

The advice everyone seems to give writers is to write what you know. When you come from a place of authenticity and vulnerability, you can't help but connect with your audience because undoubtedly a good portion of them have gone through similar thoughts or experiences, or even if they haven't had first-hand accounts, they will respect and sympathize with the material for being so open and honest. To that note, Lauren Iungerich has said that creating her MTV teen comedy, Awkward, was an act of creating a love letter to herself, but then that must make Iungerich an "every woman" if there ever was one because she gets right to the heart of important issues (regardless of place in adolescence) that has transformed the teen comedy genre from simple love triangles and uncomfortable moments to a place of nurturing. If we could all go to Iungerich's school (of writing, or just of life), we'd all be better people.

(Disclaimer: This may get gushy. It's a personal blog, my personal opinion, and I offer no apology for that. If it's not your cup of tea, you can find my professional articles (read: episode reviews and interviews with cast and creator), by clicking here.)

The strongest kind of writing seems to be the kind that can hit you with the "one, two punch" of emotion. One minute you may be holding your breath as a character breaks down on-screen, and the next you exhale in one big laugh as another character says something so quippy or off-the-cuff it catches you off-guard with its drastic tonal change. Sometimes it works the other way, too, as you're neck-deep in some wacky antics that take a surprising turn for the serious. When these moments are real and raw and earned, they remind you just how complicated characters, let alone the lives and worlds they share, can be. Iungerich does this every week on Awkward, mostly utilizing the mother-daughter relationship to punctuate the deepest emotions. In some ways it seems a commentary that romantic relationships in high school-- no matter how powerful you may think they are at the time-- really aren't all that big a deal. 

Guys will come and go-- hell, even other girls may come and go in your friendship circle-- but your family, especially your mother, is supposed to be forever. Yet what high school aged girl didn't butt heads with her mother most of the time, even if only over stupid, petty things? I can only speak for myself, but I can remember full weeks where my mother and I didn't say one word to each other. It wasn't even always a result of a dumb fight, either; sometimes it was simply because I didn't have anything to say to her. I didn't confide in her; I didn't think we had much in common; and she wasn't the type to pry about non-superficial things (and believe me, prying about superficial things was what sparked most of our arguments because honestly, who cares if I didn't want to go to a dance or only ate Pop-Tarts for lunch again!?).

What is so beautiful about Iungerich's writing in Awkward, to me at least, though, is how carefully Iungerich has arced out her characters and her plot points for the whole season, not just episode to episode. It is no secret how I feel about straight-up situation comedies, but somehow, with a teen show, my expectations were admittedly pretty low going into Awkward. I expected it to be funny, but I expected it to be pretty simplistic and easy to anticipate, as well. The fact that Iungerich has blown my expectations out of the water and consistently made me laugh and cry is one thing. The fact that she respects her actors, and her audience, enough to challenge them is a whole other.

The perfect example of this is again with the mother-daughter relationship. The fact that Lacey wrote the carefrontation letter to her daughter speaks volumes about how Lacey feels about herself, as well as how she feels and what she wants for her daughter. For many showrunners, even those who work on much more mystery-based shows, telling the culprit who they were could have been a last minute thing. Hell, deciding to commit to who the culprit was could have been a last minute thing. But Iungerich had a plan from the beginning, and she stuck to it, letting little clues pop out all along the way, but perhaps much more importantly, letting the character with the secret process the action in her own way all along the way. Iungerich has explained Lacey's season one arc as "going through the five stages of grief," and she pointed to specific episodes to highlight key moments that embody them. From anger, when Jenna doesn't want to join the Knickknacker, to acceptance, when she finally gives Jenna the dress in the first season finale, if you go back and (re)watch season one, the signs are all there. 

Iungerich doesn't underestimate her audience-- however young those who are watching may be. And because of this, Awkward ends up challenging every other teen show that comes after it to do better, too. Writers don't have to pander, and Iungerich is proving that you can teach and inspire while still having fun. Absolutely what makes Awkward unique are also the specific voices of all of the characters, and the color Iungerich has infused in very typical behavior. Come on, the uber-confidence in those who don't really deserve it; the stereotyping of kids who can't be bothered to get to know the other kids; questioning everything from love and sex to race and religion-- all themes explored in just about every high school project. But each character in Awkward feels one hundred percent original, despite literally hundreds of amalgamations of the same "type" having come before it. Certainly the lexicon Iungerich creates helps set them apart, but honestly, simply fully fleshing the characters out means they're so much better than the mold, too.

Take Matty and Jake, for example. Both are jocks, but neither are your usual, run-of-the-mill high school movie jocks. Neither is just out to hook up with Jenna and move on. And the fact that we know that-- because we actually get to see their side of the story-- is unique in and of itself. Awkward centers on Jenna and could very easily be written solely from the female perspective, but the show goes one step farther and explores what guys in high school are going through, too-- at least, these guys in this high school. We get to know Matty and Jake on an intimate level outside of their interactions with Jenna, and though they both mean well, they're at different levels of maturity (as throw a stone and hit any two high school guys in the real world would be), and therefore they both have their own issues and shortcomings.

Iungerich also considers those who are no longer of high school age but still very much dealing with insecurities held over from that time. We see it with Lacey, of course, a woman who's been stunted by having a child while still in high school and therefore being forced to grow up too fast in some areas while still being suspended in adolescence in others, but we also see it with Valerie, a woman still trying to fit in well past the point that she should care about things like that. And it is being hinted at that in season two, we will see it with Kevin, too. After all, he may seem like he has it all together, but those are the people who usually crack, aren't they? He became a dad young, too, and maybe the "emotional anchor" the character is considered to be is who he has had to be, not who he really wants to be.

None of these things should be remarkable or revolutionary. They should be the norm with stories as intricate as ones told over ten or twelve or twenty-two weeks on television. Yet, these days it seems like writers like Iungerich, especially in this genre, can be in the minority when it comes to the kind of thought and preparation put into their shows. Awkward truly is Iungerich's baby right now, but the love and care she takes with it just makes me want her to adopt me! Awkward gives us great parallels between the "kids'" journeys and the "adults'," that you can be rounding thirty, like I am, and enjoy the show unironically or as a just a pleasure, instead of a "guilty pleasure." It's the kind of show that should make actual teenagers today glad to still be young-- because they have a solid role model to look up-to, on-screen and off.

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