There is only so much that 20 minutes of television can accomplish. While I would ultimately argue that Awkward.’s short running time is a benefit, allowing the show to smooth out its rough edges with its breakneck pacing, there are definite challenges when balancing multiple storylines within such a short period of time.
While I thought last week’s episode did a nice job of using a single major event to bring everything full circle, “The Adventures Of Aunt Ally And The Lil’ Bitch” ends up following a different approach. Opening with the major event, a raging party thrown at Jenna’s house, the show embraces the sitcom trope of reconstructing a night of debauchery that our protagonist has no concrete memory of. It’s a familiar trope and one that the episode deploys fairly well, but I do wonder if it didn’t reveal some of the concerns that have emerged over the course of the first season before eventually reaching an intriguing conclusion.
The problem, I’d argue, is that the episode starts off in an incredibly broad space. Lacey is at her least mature when she’s inviting her B.F.F. Ally into her home and allowing her to throw her 15-year-old daughter a kegger. While the show has established that Lacey is not exactly the most mature mother in the world, her complete willingness to allow this party to take place is a pretty big logical hurdle for me. Ally is similarly broad in her characterization, to the point where she never really feels like a character, instead manifesting as an object of carnage that helps justify the speed at which the episode goes from zero to 60 drunk teenagers roaming the house. Yes, eventually, the episode delves into the point at which Lacey disapproves of Ally's behavior (in that drugging her 15-year-old is totally uncool), but the start of the episode lets Lacey go too far down the path towards utter incompetence.
Once the episode’s focus shifts to Jenna waking up after the party with a fuzzy memory, the episode is on more solid ground, although I don’t necessarily think it was particularly funny ground. Now, to be clear, I thought the dramatic elements within this storyline were the best part of the episode, nicely capturing how Jenna’s behavior threatened her relationships with both Matty and Tamara (which I'll get to in a minute). However, because the episode started off in such a broad place and because this particular trope is often associated with humorous embarrassment as opposed to the more dramatic approach we saw here, there was definitely a point where the episode switched off the “comedy” button more than I had anticipated; it was not unwelcome, but it was unanticipated, which created a slightly awkward viewing experience. Rewatching the episode and knowing where it would eventually end up, the whiplash isn’t as bad, but the shift did make for an awkward balance of comedy and drama in the second act, which kept me at a distance.
The other point of awkwardness is that Jenna is often left to talk to herself, which makes this a particularly pointed episode in terms of voiceover. I understand why the voiceover is a necessary component of the series, as Jenna’s worldview is something that the audience needs to understand, but there were moments in this episode where it felt entirely pointless. As much as her inability to talk with Tamara became an important plot point, I do sort of wish that Ming could have been a more active participant or that her mother could have redeemed herself by becoming a confidante earlier in the episode (although she fulfills the role in the final scene). Yes, the episode needs to be told from Jenna’s perspective, given that she’s piecing together her own memory, but the episode performs that too often. There was no need, for example, for the start of the second act to start with a blog post: Jenna sitting in front of her computer, checking her photos/notifications, tells us everything that the voiceover established without a single word. I’ve had issues with the voiceover to this point, but the redundancy was more notable here than in previous episodes in part because of how isolated Jenna was from other characters.
However, while I had some issues with the episode throughout, I do think that the sudden shift toward a more dramatic and serialized narrative was incredibly effective. While Jenna’s conversation with Jake more or less maintained the status quo, as even drunk (and drugged) Jenna’s lecture has only emboldened Jake’s unwillingness to forget about their stolen kiss, her relationship with Matty took on an entirely new complexion. The previews suggested that the episode would be focusing on the love triangle as a source of conflict, but this has less to do with the triangle and more to do with Matty’s insecurities and drugged Jenna’s inability to sense them. What Jenna says isn’t entirely unfair, as it’s certainly a potential reading of the situation, but in her impaired state she isn’t able to see that he’s hurt by this characterization. I’m not shocked that Matty has feelings (as the show has been building toward this for a while), nor am I necessarily shocked that Jenna would let her frustration with his insistence on secrecy get the better of her in this situation, but seeing it play out was a real turning point in their relationship. What looked like a bawdy situation turned into a resonant one, and the episode’s shift towards the dramatic was established.
The follow-up, meanwhile, broke open the show’s serialized arc in a major way, despite the fact that the early parts of the episode gave no indication of this. Sure, it should have been a hint that Tamara wasn’t taking Jenna’s phone calls, but the eventual reveal that Jenna was making out with Ricky Schwartz is followed up by the reveal that it was actually Tamara who wrote the letter (which, at the risk of tooting my own horn, I sort of called two weeks ago in the Stray Observations). While Jenna’s memory about Jake turning out to be a false alarm gives the impression that this will be your basic episodic sitcom plot, resolved with a lesson learned and a return to the status quo, her interactions with both Matty and Tamara break the storyline wide open; I expected that box of donuts to work, which is why it was that much more effective when it didn’t. Her best friend and her secret boyfriend have suddenly turned against her, and what had the potential to be a confirmation of her growing social status has led to losing the foundations on which that status was built.
It’s an incredibly intelligent move for Awkward., shaking things up before the show gets too complacent and giving more depth to both Tamara and Matty in terms of their relationships with Jenna. In truth, the episode around this isn’t as successful, with Lacey and Ally’s parallel relationship never quite finding the right gear. I saw what the writers were going for, drawing a clear parallel between the two generations of BFFs, but the relationship between Lacey and Ally was too thin to sustain itself. As a result, “The Adventures Of Aunt Lily And The Lil’ Bitch” is a strong step in the right direction for the show, even when the step itself was a bit wonky. While I do hope that the show finds a better way to balance Lacey’s maturity level and I do sort of wish that we could dial back the redundant voiceover, the macro-level storytelling that closes the episode is a strong and confident move that gives me great confidence about the show as it moves towards the end of its first season.
- Playing off the brief scene we got with Matty’s brother in last week’s episode, I’d say that his delay before answering his favorite type of beer and his generally more-or-less sober behavior at the party would suggest an aversion to alcohol. He still plays the role, getting beer for Jenna back during the kickback and offering to bring beer to the party, but you get the sense that he doesn’t actually drink much of it, which further nods towards the sensitivity angle.
- Major props to Jillian Rose Reed for stepping up in that final scene: A lot of Tamara’s character traits have required really broad performance elements, and I thought she nicely channeled those elements of her personality into a darker and more resonant space. It didn’t feel like a different character, but you could sense the change that had taken place, which worked very well.
- Speaking of that scene, I like that Tamara calls Jenna on her “I would never make out with Ricky Schwartz” line. It nicely ties in with her discussion with Matty about popularity, and it also demonstrates that “I was drugged” isn’t necessarily going to fix the problems underlying this situation. It wasn’t just what she did; it was how that reflected on her recent behavior in general, which is a far more interesting and rewarding storyline to delve into in future episodes.
- Enjoyed the slow motion party shots as we fastforwarded past them, in particular the slow-motion cell phone picture in which Tamara’s eyes are closed the entire time. Great little effect.
- “Is it possible my mother let a guy sleep in my bed? Dumb question: Of course it was.”
- “What does that look like to you?” “Boobs.”
- “You’re like a puppy.”
- “I’m sorry I drugged you… and that I peed in your closet.”