Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Learning To Dance Alone: The Jenna Hamilton Story...

I am notorious for speaking out about how shows change (and rarely for the better) once a creator/showrunner leaves the helm in a late season. Even when someone who has been working with that creator/showrunner all along steps up to fill the position, the resulting product is never the same show with which we first fell in love. The behind-the-scenes shuffle doesn't always mean the new show will be bad, but it will be different. It has to be simply for the fact that the person who created it poured so many unique intricacies into it that only he or she can do because it came from his or her brain. His or her absence leaves big shoes to fill for whoever takes over in tone and voice and sometimes story itself (see Supernatural's Eric Kripke literally leaving one of his characters in hell when he departed from the show in season five). There can often be a sense of "where do we go from here?" And it is in those moments that absolutely anything is possible. Magic can be made or a once great show can fall flat on its face.

That is exactly the position MTV's Awkward is in now that creator Lauren Iungerich has departed with the end of season three to create new comedies for more major networks. When Awkward first started, Jenna Hamilton (Ashley Rickards) was a young outcast just hoping to fit in. Her journey consisted of her falling for a boy who at first didn't want anyone to know they were hanging out to becoming more popular and having two cool guys interested in her and between whom she had to choose. She made mistakes along the way; she kept one eye on what she didn't choose even when she supposedly had everything she wanted (in that "the grass is always greener" sort of way); she even cheated and spiraled down a dark, depressingly stereotypical hole of teenage angst that resulted in short-term alienation of friends, drug use, striking out at authority figures, and general douchebaggery. But what was always so interesting about Jenna, even when she was doing things you didn't like let alone condone, was how complex she was written-- to the point of almost tricking the audience into thinking she was a role model when really she was just relatable as any high school girl. And no high school girls are real role models because they all have a lot of growing up to still do. 

Iungerich created Jenna with an air of maturity because she was dry witted and she liked to write self-reflexively alone in her room, but when you saw her-- really saw her-- she was just as insecure (if not more so) than everyone else in high school. She desperately wanted to be accepted-- marked most notably by Matty (Beau Mirchoff)-- and because of that she measured her worth based on how he (and select others) treated her. Even her writing, when you looked closely enough, was less honestly self-aware and more therapeutic for the kid who needed an outlet. There was a reason she freaked out so hard when she realized her blog accidentally went public: sometimes you spin things, even to yourself, to make you feel better about your position in them and in the world. There's nothing wrong with that, but it can work towards keeping you stunted.

In Iungerich's final season at Awkward she took Jenna on a roller coaster ride of self-destruction and spiraling to expose the lost little girl that was hiding inside the character this whole time. It's funny how the moments you posture the most are the ones in which your true colors really shine. Iungerich let Jenna be raw and emotional and vulnerable, but she didn't leave her there for someone else to rebuild, either. Instead, in the end she gave Jenna the one thing you couldn't watch this show and not root for: real confidence. Awkward was about Jenna finding and accepting herself and at the end of season three she succeeded and completed that journey. Where do you go from there?

Jenna didn't graduate from high school at the end of season three, so season four still has a lot of room to play with the high school hierarchy and shenanigans that come along with it, especially in senior year when friendships are at the risk of being torn apart by states separating their colleges, and especially when there are old loves you may want to rekindle. But those are all external stories that can feel really empty without deeper meaning for the characters. Iungerich healed Jenna by the end of season three: she not only gave the character complete self-awareness, but she had the character acknowledge it and actually take the step to better herself because of it. The Jenna at the end of season three was happy in a way she had never been before: she was happy with herself. To have that only be a fleeting moment-- and therefore have Jenna regress in season four-- would be a huge mistake because of how much good work it would undo but also for the positive message it would destroy for the younger audience who is looking to shows and characters like this for guidance.

I do not envy the new Awkward showrunners for being in this tough position, but I would hope that they would use it to their advantage and continue Iungerich's late-series thread of turning the focus off sophomoric, external love triangles and putting it more on introspection and actual growing up. Jenna has learned to like herself, but we need to see more of that exhibited to prove it's permanent and true growth. Only then can we even begin to accept her trying to get into another relationship-- whether it's again with Matty or this time someone new. Her journey isn't really over, it has just greatly shifted. But it wasn't just Jenna who came a long way: she was the center of the show, but Iungerich smartly mimicked the same theme in every character and chose to express them unique and specific ways for the other individuals. Tamara (Jillian Rose Reed) and Ming (Jessica Lu) had to learn to give up control; Lacey (Nikki DeLoach) learned to forgive herself and find her own place in the world; Val (Desi Lydic) who learned boundaries-- sort of; Sadie learned humility and how to let others in; and Matty, too, learned to stop caring what other people thought. These characters weren't always on the same page at the same time, but they are all getting to the same destination, and the important one is not high school graduation or college acceptances but self-acceptance. Because more than anything, that is what will set them up for success in love, in friendships, in families-- in life.

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