“A Very Special Episode Of Awkward.”
Jenna Hamilton has changed.
It’s a simple fact that Awkward. has spent much of the back half of its third season demonstrating, unflinching in its desire to make us question Jenna’s choices. While there have been glimmers of the old Jenna, they’ve been extinguished by her choice to commit to her relationship with Collin and everything it represents.
However, I wouldn’t say that Awkward. has become a show about her fall from grace. Rather, the third season has evolved into the story of how the people in Jenna’s life became aware of this change, whether it’s Tamara and Ming realizing they couldn’t support her relationship with Collin as Jenna wanted, or Lacey realizing Jenna’s deception and no longer giving her the benefit of the doubt. “A Very Special Episode Of Awkward.” makes this point clear, transforming Jenna’s change into an after school special, and acknowledging the cliché of Jenna’s reckless behavior (here escalated through her upgrade from smoking pot to popping Ritalin to stay awake to write assignments).
It’s a welcome reminder that Awkward. can still be an incredibly fun show even as it takes Jenna to a dark place, with Sadie’s sadism combining with Valerie’s creative spirit to create the rather wonderful “What Are We Gonna Do About Jenny?”; much like “Over My Dead Body,” a standout in the show’s first season (and one of the first episodes we reviewed here at The A.V. Club), Valerie’s love for prescriptive entertainment is co-opted by one her students who sees the potential for a larger statement. In this case, Sadie uses the forced after school activity as an opportunity to ridicule Jenna, but Tamara, Ming, and Jake get roped in while trying to help Jenna, and when Jenna herself gets involved it becomes the world’s most confused intervention (at least until the following episode). She knows this is her story, and resents it in every way imaginable, but she’s being confronted with sincere concern and biting commentary simultaneously, and the crossing of wires proves productive for no one.
Jenna resists the intervention, and Matty’s well-meaning concern in the hallway afterwards, but “A Very Special Episode Of Awkward.” isn’t about these relationships: it’s important that her friends have transitioned from anger to concern, and that Matty may have lost hope that his friend—and girlfriend—is still inside the new Jenna, but it’s most important that Valerie Marks finally realizes that Jenna has changed. Valerie has never been a character to be taken particularly seriously, often popping up to deliver legitimately terrible advice and make comments that are highly inappropriate for someone in her position. However, she’s also still a guidance counselor, and someone who has taken a direct interest in Jenna’s story since the beginning of the series. It is, indeed, a bit strange that she would remain so fixated on Jenna as the series went on, but I’ve sort of come to see Valerie like that person who gets too invested in a television show and begins to treat the characters as though they’re real: In Valerie’s case, she has become invested in the rollercoaster of Jenna’s life, and has come to treat Jenna like a friend as opposed to as a student or pupil.
“A Very Special Episode Of Awkward.” acknowledges that Valerie is a woman of whims, so caught up in the A.S.S. of it all that she has to watch the video to realize that it was about Jenna all along. However, for as clueless as Valerie is, she’s still the kind of person who’ll respond when someone she cares about needs help. Valerie still believes she’s the person who can get through to Jenna, that they share a special bond that isn’t as corrupted as her relationship with her mother or her friends. She goes to Jenna’s door to try to make a difference, but she doesn’t realize that their relationship has never been truly mutual. She doesn’t realize that Jenna has never fully respected her, or that her sincere desire to help Jenna would be masked by her loopy personality and the resentment over the suspension. Put more simply, she has so transitioned into treating Jenna as a friend that she’s unable to think of her as a teenager, who has whims of her own that even sincere concern won’t be able to reach. Desi Lydic has always been a way for the series to make a quick joke, and I wish there had been space in previous seasons to give us a more substantial glimpse into her life and what makes her who she is. Here, however, Lydic gets to show us Valerie’s rare self-awareness, and begins to explore a storyline where her humanity—and not her lunacy—is the primary focus.
Valerie is the last bridge Jenna has to burn, and the conclusion of “A Very Special Episode Of Awkward.” has Jenna doing her best to burn it. It’s symbolic of the change in the character, as it reinvigorates her writing as a tool with which Jenna can express herself. However, whereas once this was a constructive exercise, it too has transitioned to deconstruction, to further digging a hole from which she will struggle to escape with no one to throw her a rope. There is no greater sign of Jenna’s change than the fact that even Valerie is forced to acknowledge it; it’s a dark conclusion to a light episode, a turning point in a half-season that is now heading toward its conclusion.
- What do you think Amanda Bynesville is like? Is it dark there? I feel as though it would be dark there.
- Has Awkward. always been part of the Let’s Potato Chips multiverse? I can’t remember them appearing before now, but something about the back-to-back appearances here and in the following episode made it very apparent to me.
- “I know how to make fake blood. It totally looks real. It even smells real. But it’s not.” I’m happy Kyle is back, being Kyle. I also enjoyed the “Jenny Lives” callbacks.
- “Drama. Intrigue. Suicide. Drugs. Depression. Friendship. Love. Alcoholism. Freeze Frames”—Valerie, explaining after school specials, which she would later have to contextualize as “Lifetime movies for teens.”
- While I think the Piledriver and the Dirty Santa Claus make logical sense, I too have questions about the Backwards Jellyfish.
- “Only if we end up doing porn star runaway or eating disorder”—Valerie’s conditions for Lissa playing the lead in the A.S.S.
- “Eh, not so memorable”—I love a good Jake burn, Valerie, and this was a nice one.
- “Maybe my side-braid was cutting off the circulation to my brain, but I couldn’t stop doing dumb stuff I would regret later”—My favorite kind of meta-commentary is hair-related meta-commentary.
- While not quite after-school specials, my childhood was punctuated by the following Canadian Public Service Announcements that I feel should be shared: “Stay Alert Stay Safe,” “Don’t You Put It In Your Mouth,” and Astar, the most terrifying robot in the history of time. Enjoy!
“Less Than Hero”
Although not intended to air back-to-back, there’s a catharsis to “Less Than Hero” starting literally immediately after “A Very Special Episode of Awkward.” concludes. Valerie’s A.S.S. told the story of “Jenny” hitting rock bottom, dramatized in a scene where Jenny and Calvin accidentally kill a drug dealer, prompting Calvin to overdose. By comparison, Jenna has more been mired in that rung above rock bottom, clearly on the path to something self-destructive but always protected by the structure of those around her. She may have been rejecting their support, but her friends and family were still technically there for her, something that kept her from entirely throwing her life away.
“Less Than Hero” introduces Jenna’s rock bottom, although it wasn’t what I expected. In previous weeks, Jenna has severed relationships with the people she loves and who care for her, all in the service of her relationship with Collin, and so perhaps it makes sense that that low point that would inspire her course correction would involve Collin betraying her. There was just something so convenient about the way Collin’s ex-girlfriend Angelique was reintroduced, and the way their evening went from shots to ecstasy to threesome in exactly the way you’d imagine it would. As much as I’ve been a noted detractor of Collin’s since the character’s introduction, something about the way he was thrown under the bus struck me as false, a quick way to strip Jenna of the one thing she had been holding onto while burning everything around her.
However, in reflecting on it, I realized Jenna’s rock bottom wasn’t when she was caught in the middle of an unwanted threesome with her boyfriend, who subsequently continued making out with his ex once Jenna announced she was going to leave. Instead, it was when she found herself outside the bar, reeling from a romantic betrayal, and realized she couldn’t call any of the people she used to be able to call. It’s in many ways a reveal that Jenna has been at rock bottom for a while now, but she’s always had a reason for making her decisions; stripped of that reason by Collin’s douchebaggery, Jenna experiences a spontaneous intervention, one that she was never going to experience when confronted by Sadie and Ally’s insults or even Lacey and Valerie’s well-intentioned disorganization. That Matty would still be willing to play the hero fits his character well, and ultimately gives Jenna the rescue and comfort she needs, but it nonetheless leaves Jenna standing outside a house her parents barred her from re-entering and returning to a life she had vowed to leave behind.
I remain ambivalent toward Jenna’s downward spiral. I think it has been more useful as a structural mechanism for the season than a dramatic engine, with Collin more an activational tool—in more ways than one—than an active participant in the storytelling. Structurally, though, Jenna’s arc has always been the driving force behind the series’ narrative, and so the way the final episodes of the season are set up to focus on her self-reflection fits well with the themes that resonate throughout the series. Although there have been times where the emotional logic of the storyline has felt forced (if not necessarily unrealistic), the narrative logic has largely remained sound, and so the beginning of Jenna’s rehabilitation comes with an acknowledgment of the progress made.
“Less Than Hero” also gets moving on developing what appears to be the secondary engine for the last portion of the season, with Jake’s campaign for student council president running into Tamara’s love of puff paint. It’s unfortunate that MTV’s webisode promo jumped the gun and spoiled that Tamara would be running against Jake in the election, but it was the logical conclusion of the storyline: their fight—picking up on last week—is about more than the election, but it seems primarily motivated by a struggle over their respective individualism within the relationship, and a student council election seems like a strong way for the show to confront the issue—it’s a sitcom storyline if I’ve ever heard one, but Awkward. is a sitcom, and I enjoy any opportunity to witness Tamara pushing Jake to find inspiration in Don Draper when making high school student council election signs.
Awkward. can’t just move past what Jenna did and toward fun election stories, though. She can’t just walk back into her friendships, or walk back into her parents’ home, even if we can imagine that all of those people will eventually accept her return under the right circumstances. Her literary review piece about Valerie is the black cloud that can’t go away, the last gasp of “that” Jenna that will linger on after she’s made amends in other spaces. It seems unlikely that Jenna won’t move forward, but it’s equally important that she’s forced to keep looking back, lest the last season and a half have been all a bad dream.
- On the subject of the piece about Valerie (which, in Jenna’s defense, is entirely true): I’m confused why Mr. Hart would say he can’t stop Jenna from putting it out into the world when he has control over what goes into the magazine. I sort of presumed he was giving her the opening to publish it herself and that he was still refusing to publish it, but then his email suggested otherwise. Caught me by surprise.
- They should really put WWII propaganda-style signs in ladies’ bathrooms that say “SHHH! The person you’re talking about could be listening from the stall behind you!”
- @YourHarshTruth is a real Twitter account, and whoever registered it has listed it as belonging to Sadie Saxton, but it hasn’t actually tweeted anything. MTV, you dropped the ball on that one.
- Green on Orange?! You’re going to go with Green on Orange, Risotti? No wonder Tamara stepped in to try to save your campaign. That's just going to come out brown, and you should know that.
- “On the streets. Alone. With thugs. And rapists. Oh God, our baby”—I enjoyed Kevin and Lacey’s screwball efforts to discipline Jenna, which had a lot of emotional truth, a mild amount of phone destruction, and some fun moments.
- I would normally say that Awkward. is—or was—taking advantage of Nikki DeLoach’s pregnancy with that intervention top (and the subsequent joke from Sadie), but they’ve been making the same jokes from the beginning of the series, so the pregnancy is really just a bonus.