The central moral of “Over My Dead Body” is that when you find yourself getting the wrong kind of attention, the best thing to do is to change the conversation. If you’re getting attention for something that creates a stigma (like a suicide), it’s not a bad idea to gain attention for something that titillates high school students (like, for example, a same sex kiss in the middle of a drunk driving awareness day stage play). It’s common knowledge, really.
As Awkward. enters the back half of its first season, and as we officially start weekly coverage here at The A.V. Club, it isn’t interested in changing the conversation. “Over My Dead Body” is still centered around the love triangle between Jenna, Matty, and Jake, and it's still focused on Jenna’s struggles to adjust to life in the limelight. By putting her on stage in front of her peers, and by having her share that stage with one-third of that love triangle (Jake), the episode builds an episodic scenario that feeds directly into the themes and storylines the show has been interested in to this point.
There will become a point where this is a liability, should they drag on the love triangle too long or should Jenna’s life become a never-ending cycle between public humiliation and public redemption. However, right now, this conversation is still pretty new for us, or at least it feels pretty new; in truth, we’ve seen these kinds of storylines many times before, but the show has found ways to turn the conversation towards those parts of the show that make a much better first impression. Its goal isn’t to change the conversation so much as manage it, following the same course as previous episodes but working to avoid stagnant storytelling through large doses of personality and glimpses of untapped potential.
“Over My Dead Body” sells this by slowly but surely expanding the boundaries of the conversation, letting “Crash’d” (Counselors Raising Awareness For Students Who — the W is silent — Drink) reveal various elements that expand both the comic and dramatic spheres in which the show intends to operate. Although much more Jenna-centric than last week’s episode, which spent a lot of time fleshing out Sadie as a character, “Over My Dead Body” is ultimately interested in broadening the world that Jenna lives in.
Some of this is subtle and dramatic, as evidenced by Matty’s obnoxious drunk brother. Well, okay, so maybe subtle isn’t the right word given the presence of a drunk brother in an episode about drunk driving, but it wasn’t as though the episode suddenly became about Matty when the brother was introduced. While “Queen Bee-atches” became an episode about Sadie, this detail was simply there to suggest that Matty is, in fact, an actual character who has issues unrelated to our protagonist. It’s a realization that Jenna doesn’t really have: While I’ll give her the fact that Matty’s reluctance to introduce her had something to do with his general anxiety regarding the relationship, it was pretty clear that his relationship with his brother is itself fairly complicated. It’s one of those quick little moments where the show, despite being primarily interested in Jenna, offers a brief glimpse into another character’s life as if to say the show could become about them at any particular moment.
It’s something that is quite common early in a show’s run, and it’s something that Awkward. has done without it seeming too, well, awkward. There’s little bits of it thrown into the episode, whether it’s Matty’s brother (who was, of course, first introduced two weeks ago as Liv’s on-again off-again off-screen boyfriend) or even that phone call Valerie gets from her mother (which feels like a season two idea if I've ever heard one). The episode doesn’t spend a lot of time with them, abandoning both pretty quickly, but they’re threads that they could pick up, conversations that they could have in the future. One of them will be picked up sooner rather than later, considering that Matty’s brother is played by a person I recognized (Zachary Abel, from ABC Family’s Make It or Break It), but the more these moments accumulate the more substantial and “real” the show’s world becomes.
Now, while Matty’s drunk brother may be a point of dramatic interest that fleshes out his character, Tamara’s rise from relative obscurity is far more interested in the comic side of the show. To this point, the character has been quippy but insubstantial, never being given a storyline in which she didn’t seem like a sidekick. While she had her own narrative surrounding the house party and the subsequent pink eye, it seemed like the show was going out of its way to devise comic scenarios for her which happened to take place within Jenna’s orbit. Tamara's identity shifted to fit the situation, resulting in a character whose only real characteristic was her desire to be the center of attention (which is fine, I guess, but not exactly anything to write home about).
What I like about Tamara’s storyline here is that it does nothing to make the character more complex but it does everything to make her character traits more comically substantial. She is still someone who demands to be the center of attention, but the historicization of this particular trait is a really deft move. While we’ve seen evidence of this ourselves based on its recurring nature, the introduction of a “Theater Conspiracy” perpetrated by the balding Mr. Wilkerson indicates just how long this has been going on. The episode also did a nice job of following through on the joke: The idea is fun when it’s first introduced, but it’s funnier when Valerie confirms it to be true, and it’s an important (and really quite funny) component in the satisfying climax. It isn’t just a joke thrown out for the sake of giving the character something to do, it’s a little piece of history that expands the show’s timeline and better contextualizes a character’s comic contribution to the series (which, here at least, was a lot of fun).
At the risk of yet another too-convenient segue, I’d say the same about the “Dead Stacy” storyline that drives the majority of the episode. By building a mythology for Dead Stacy, with Lacey having won rave reviews for her own performance in 1995, the drunk driving skit feels less like a manufactured situation. It’s not the world’s most complex mythology, but we learn enough to know that it’s the kind of event where there’s a little buzz of excitement that ultimately gets swallowed by apathy. It makes us understand the challenge facing Val in her efforts to “modernize” the event (which gave Desi Lydic some great material that she did some fine work with), and it makes Jenna’s effort to “change the conversation” that much more pointed. Although the storyline is ideally designed to give Jenna her moment to take control of her own narrative, and although it offers plenty of moments for Jake to prove that his inability to avoid pressing his lips against Jenna is rivaled only by his inability to avoid expressing his feelings about her, those moments are operating within a framework that extends well beyond these characters.
There are some jokes that don’t land in this episode, little throwaways that ended up feeling a bit off (in particular an Asperger’s comment about Valerie that seemed out of character for Jenna). However, what has made the show so successful early on is how easily the show can move past those moments. By the time the show got to the big finale, with Valerie forced to adjust her narration to reflect Jenna’s script changes, I wasn’t sitting there taking notes about mythologies or histories; instead, I was entirely caught up in the moment, laughing quite a lot at Drunk (Mute) Natalie and Valerie’s repeated attempts to silence her. I’m always a sucker for sitcom episodes that come full circle, bringing multiple storylines together, and “Over My Dead Body” demonstrated the value of that particular strategy. Within a single scene, nearly every story thread in the episode was picked up in moments big (Jake dropping a “like like”) and small (Matty shooting a brief look of hangdog jealousy to the stage), resulting in a scene that manages to be both entertaining and, perhaps more importantly, functional.
The more of these scenes we get, the more charming and affecting and humorous the world of Awkward. is going to become, and the more often conversations about the show will be calling it the sleeper hit of the summer.
- A bit strange, I thought, that we didn’t see Jake eyeing Matty as he hugged Jenna at the end of the episode. It’s not yet clear what Jake thinks their relationship is: Does he think they’re just friends, occasionally having lunch or saying hello in the hall? If so, does he think they’re hugging friends? I haven’t gotten that impression, really.
- As with last week, I think Lissa’s nothingness is the show’s biggest liability. Between hanging off of Jake and not understanding what cliché means (although she wasn’t entirely far off, given how it’s often used), she’s a dull “other woman” that is too disposable at this point. Consider the chosen image a protest against her marginalization - I also demand Greer's half-sister Spencer to be involved in any and all efforts to expand the character in the future.
- While I noted above that this episode was more about Jenna than last week’s, I didn’t actually spend a lot of time talking about her. Ashley Rickards remains a find, but one thing I did specifically like here was that the character was allowed to appear self-centered by ignoring other possible reasons behind Matty’s awkwardness with his brother. I also thought this week’s story did a nice job of giving her some agency, emphasizing that her social reputation is in her hands as opposed to something solely threatened by others.
- I’m not shocked that Valerie won the wacky-off between her and Lacey, but I’m intrigued to see how the characters might play off against one another if paired more often. Yet another thread!
- Random aside, spurred on by Jenna’s desire to rewrite the script. When I was in high school drama, I was in a terrifying piece of theatrical tripe known as Christmas in the Land of Oz, which is exactly what it sounds like so long as you’re imagining a world where the Wicked Witch of the South is a country singer and where Dorothy needs to return to the land of Oz in order to discover the true meaning of Christmas (hint: it’s not presents). Anyways, our director wrote an additional scene to pad out the running time, and it featured Uncle Henry (that was me) yelling at Dorothy and Toto to “not go having parties in the barn.” That party? Dorothy and Toto on stage, talking (or barking) in a normal tone of voice. The moral of the story: Last minute rewrites are not always quite as successful as Awkward. suggests. They also don’t involve as much homoerotic tension.
- “Cliché means stupid, right?”
- “I have 911 on Speed Dial.” (Valerie’s attempt to appear casual behind the window is cracking me up as I rewatch this).
- “She played Tammy in Grease last year. There is no Tammy. They just made up a character so she could die in the first five minutes.”
- “It’s burning but not itching, you’re fine.”
- “And you wore underwear?”
- “I’d love a Zima…or nothing. Nothing’s good.”
- “YOU’RE DEAD.” (Also cracking me up on rewatch? Lydic’s Grim Reaper ADR.)
- “Cut the pickle, tickle tickle!”
- “They’re Christian.”
- “They’re loose.”
- “Oh, blood on the boobs.”
- “Drunk Natalie was a mute.”
- “Even homoerotic tension couldn’t bring Stacey back to life.”