What if Awkward. had been an hour-long show from the beginning?
It never would have happened: MTV was early in its investment in original programming when the series was ordered, and half-hour comedies are a much safer investment than hour-long programming. And for most of the first two seasons, the show seemed well-suited to the half-hour sitcom rhythm, telling focused stories that centered on Jenna and her personal journey.
However, throughout the third season, the show has been testing the limits of half-hour storytelling. Watching “Karmic Relief”—the first hour-long episode the series has ever produced as an actual hour-long episode (rather than two episodes put together by MTV)—it’s imagine how that extra time could have bolstered the season’s various storylines. Not only could there have been more room to lay the groundwork for Jenna’s transformation, but there also would have been more time to highlight the side stories and relationships for characters like Ming, Tamara, and Sadie. The series has always displayed a desire to multitask when it comes to characterization, but it has always had to contain such multitasking within an inherently limited structure. Even when those limitations were handled well (which is most weeks), there is always that sense the show could really blossom if it were to break free of the half-hour shackles.
At first glance, “Karmic Relief” would appear to prove this theory, using the extra time to handle a number of complex narrative tasks without ever feeling burdened by any one of them. It is ostensibly—as was predicted in the comments last week—the third in a trio of apology episodes, as Jenna follows up making amends with her mother and her friends with a one-woman crusade to get Valerie her job back. And yet the episode also tasks itself with bringing Ming’s time as head of the Asian Mafia to a close, while simultaneously setting up the stakes for next week’s finale as “Prom Ask” season gets into full swing. Although you can imagine telling condensed versions of each of these stories, you can also see how the elements that make these stories work in the context of this episode would also be the scenes most likely to be cut.
It has been a long time since we’ve seen any real insight into Val’s personal life: While details emerged in her friendship with Lacey—I specifically recall her New Year’s drop-in on Jenna in the second season premiere—for the most part Val has existed as a force of nature within the confines of Palos Hills High. Even if she moved outside of that space, it was in service of another character, and not necessarily a storyline about her. And so it makes sense that we had never been to Val’s apartment, a fact “Karmic Relief” uses to great effect in an extended sequence. Between the wall of vision boards, the multiple cat pillows, and the fun of not knowing if you’re eating cat treats or human treats, Val’s apartment is a window into her character, the kind of affirming detail you want to see about a character whose life has always remained something of a mystery.
I expect Val’s apartment would make it into a shorter version of the episode, but part of what makes it work so well is how long we get to linger there, and how it’s previewed by Jenna, Matty, and Bailey running into Val at the liquor store. The scene even gets to rope in Lacey’s depression at losing her one-month gig as a school nurse—a fun juxtaposition with Val losing her livelihood, and something that a shorter version of the episode may have struggled with. Val has been and will always remain a character that pushes at the edges of the series’ realism, and there were certainly elements of her home and her eventual hearing that were on the sillier side of the series’ universe. However, the additional time allowed the show to find real moments in the chaos, whether it’s Sadie admitting—albeit indirectly—that Valerie helped her get her life back on track or, to go in the opposite direction, the sheer anger and frustration of Val telling Jenna to go fuck herself. There was a version of this story that hinged solely on Lacey using her Law & Order knowledge to win Val’s case in Kangaroo Court, and at times the storyline gestured toward that potential. But at the end of the day, this successfully told the story of Jenna grappling with the last relationship she broke that she feels responsible for fixing.
But Jenna’s story would have been fairly similar—if less grounded—if it had anchored a shorter version of the episode. Ming’s ouster from the Asian Mafia most benefits from the extra time, as it legitimately feels like a major storyline for maybe the first time in the series’ run. Part of the cleverness of the Asian Mafia storyline is that it could be easily integrated and hinted at in stories like the election, where Ming’s loosening grip over the organization was foreshadowed in their irregular voting patterns. However, as I’d accepted this status quo for supporting characters’ storylines, it was almost thrilling to see Ming getting an extended story of her own in “Karmic Relief.” There was something particularly freeing about Ming’s decision to meet her fate “in the dead of night” without her friends, as it meant that we weren’t just seeing Ming’s world through its connection to Jenna’s journey; this was the end of Ming’s journey, and given the proper time to feel as such.
The Asian Mafia storyline was always one of Awkward.’s more playful flourishes. Ming’s exit comes complete with the mystical elderly Asian woman ushering Ming into the changing room, where a lecherous dude sets up a meeting in the dead of night, and where a returning Becca strips her of her position. The episode makes good use of act-outs to make Ming’s story feel more substantial, and Becca’s return is treated like the climax it is. And yet when Fred and Ming finally free themselves from the storyline, they share a really earnest, charming conversation about their relationship that does a lot of work to bring Ming back to reality. After a season where they were caught up in a larger-than-life meta-drama happening around the central storyline, Ming and Fred ponder who they are outside of the chaos. The conversation suggests they will be just fine as they re-enter into the day-to-day of high school life.
That’s the goal of much of “Karmic Relief”: although its two primary storylines are each ending chapters, its other task is to transition the show’s third season from a very specific journey for Jenna to a more general high school experience. While Jenna is still seeing her life through the lens of her mistakes, prom has the other characters thinking about moving forward. From the moment Matty and Bailey were first introduced, the potential for some kind of relationship was told in Beau Mirchoff’s performance, in which you saw the confident, friendly, good-natured guy who Jenna first fell in love with. As this episode unfolded, meanwhile, Bailey revealed herself to be perhaps the most normal, laid-back character that’s ever been part of the series, settling into the show’s rhythms on a very basic, human level, in contrast to someone like Tamara. That Matty would take an interest in Bailey doesn’t feel like the plot twist it becomes for Jenna, as it represents what happens when two compatible people find chemistry while hanging out in a more casual setting. The scene of the two finding a way to turn a “G” into an “L” is friendly without ever really becoming flirtatious, and from our perspective it only makes sense that Matty would connect with someone so genuine.
However, from Jenna’s perspective, she never saw it coming. In “Karmic Relief,” we’re seeing the start of something new happening before our protagonist is ready for it, as Jenna is too busy paying for her past to think that things could be moving so quickly forward. Last week, Jenna said she needed to stop trying to pretend things hadn’t changed and acknowledge that it would take time to reestablish her relationships with her friends, but with prom beckoning and a month having passed, Jenna’s heart moves faster than her brain wants it to. She sees the dress, she sees the tickets, and she pieces together an fantasy that would make for the perfect happy ending to her journey; it’s also an fantasy that wasn’t meant to be, as Matty nervously makes sure she’s okay with him asking Bailey to the prom.
“Karmic Relief” resolves one of the show’s wackier storylines and foregrounds its wackiest character, and there are moments where the tonal shifts involved highlight the way those stories at times lost track of the series’ center. However, in that final moment, the shifts in tone make sense. With Jenna’s life on the upswing, she begins to imagine a perfect narrative arc in which she gets the guy, loses him as she struggles to find her true self, and then returns to win him back and have the Prom date she could have had in the first season, if only they had each better understood both themselves and each other. That this isn’t to be dislocates Jenna’s point of view, much as the Asian Mafia dislocated the series’ dramatic/comic balance, and sets the stage for a finale that has become much more unstable—in the best possible way—than it was set to be when the episode began.
I imagine this basic goal could have been achieved in 20 minutes—but for it to be achieved with this level of success, it definitely needed 40.
- We don’t know a whole lot about Fred, but I liked the details we got here, like his love of magic and his moral opposition to electronic dog fences. It’s a fun character, one that blossomed with the additional length of this episode.
- I enjoyed both that Ming thought “coup d’etat” meant fancy brunch, and that Tamara had “despot” at the ready for the subsequent conversation. Wordplay!
- Lacey’s dream jobs: Real Housewife of Palos Verdes, Figure Skater, Project Runway contestant, Motivational Speaker, Life Coach, Top Chef, Playing a Lawyer on TV (although with Classic and Criminal Intent canceled, that only leaves Sexy Style if she wants to be on her beloved Law & Order).
- Valerie: Not into allegorical dog and pony shows, super into literal shows featuring dogs and ponies. I imagine they’d be on the vision boards featured on the vision board of the vision boards Valerie is going to envision one day if she ever dreams again.
- “Remember when you wrote me the letter!”—a bad example, Jenna, but a good reminder of something that can often be forgotten on an episode-to-episode basis.
- It feels like a long while since we had our last montage of student testimonials, which were a staple in early seasons, but a brief one popped up here, and there’s another in next week’s finale.
- Yes, after finishing off this review I moved onto the finale, which MTV made available in advance. We’ll be back next week to cover the end of this chapter of the series—I’m looking forward to discussing it with all of you.