Sometimes, shows do us favors. Going into the mid-season premiere of MTV's Awkward., I was thinking of writing something about how the show's lead character Jenna had made enough questionable decisions that she'd become borderline unlikable. In my review of the show's summer finale, I wondered about how the show wanted us to view Jenna's behavior, and I expected that Tuesday's return would explore similar themes. Little did I know, however, that "Surprise!" would beat the audience over the head with those themes, with an on-the-nose speech from Anthony Michael Hall's Mr. Hart. Just as I was planning on comparing Jenna to the Don Drapers of the world, Mr. Hart went ahead and ranted about television's favorite character type, the anti-hero.
Is Jenna Hamilton, a high school junior who just turned 17, an anti-hero? She is often self-involved, mostly concerned with how the attention she receives from different boys impacts her life. Although she's far from fully responsible, her actions have pitted two good friends against one another. After choosing Matty, she quickly grew frustrated with their relationship, and found herself enjoying the flirtation with the still-barely-even-a-character Collin and eventually cheating on the former with the latter. Leading up to that choice, Matty didn't mistreat her; he mostly just annoyed her because he was facing problems with his parents. And throughout "Surprise!" Jenna tried and failed to put a stop to the cheating with Collin, while Matty worked to make her birthday as special as possible.
Don Draper or Walter White Jenna is not. If anything, her actions are representative of most teenagers, girls or boys, who don't know what they want, much less how to react when they get it. Still, Awkward.'s explicit use of that term, one that evokes all sorts of different and recognizable characteristics, is interesting, particularly in light of how the show decided to position Jenna's actions in "Surprise!" Awkward. has always puts its lead character out there for the audience to really understand, considering we get to be inside Jenna's head, at least partially experiencing the high school world how she experiences it. Jenna has constantly made mistakes in Awkward.'s three-year run, but the show has never let her hide behind them. Near the end of this season's summer run, it kind of felt like the show was losing that quality a bit; for the first time ever, Jenna seemed like a real brat who didn't deserve the kind of attention she got from any guy. So basically, I felt like Sadie.
What made "Surprise!" such a successful episode, both in its own right and with regard to the rest of the season, is that Awkward. really clamped down on Jenna's behavior and immediately presented the audience with the clear consequences of those actions. Although her cheating was kept a secret at first, she at least told Tamara immediately, which put the best friend in a crappy situation. Similarly, our view inside Jenna's head reinforced that she knew making out with Collin was the wrong thing to do and that's why she kept trying to stop it to begin with. But she couldn't, because Collin's so dreamy, because she likes feeling wanted, and all the other reasons we get tangled up in romantic situations. All told, the first 20 minutes of "Surprise!" reinforced one thing: Jenna is making bad decisions, she's hurting people, and that's frankly not cool. And then the last 20 seconds? Those meant that Jenna isn't going to skate by with the cheating. Everyone knows—worse yet, they've seen the face-sucking in the flesh—and the shoddy behavior isn't going to sit well.
Really, I have to hand it to Awkward.'s (outgoing) series creator Lauren Iungerich for being willing to A.) take her lead character to some unlikable places and B.) openly acknowledge that character's unlikable tendencies. Particularly in a show like this, with primarily teen characters who are going to be making decisions on an emotional whim, emphasizing the consequences of those decisions is pretty cool. It'd be easy for the show to get lost in its own melodramatic narrative full of constantly evolving romantic permutations—and at times during its second season, Awkward. did just that. It'd be easy for the show to keep Jenna sort of shielded from any tangible blame. But Awkward. isn't taking the easy way out, which can make it challenging to root for Jenna, especially when we're always all up in her head, working through the dumb choices together.
It's become really, really easy for dramas, particularly cable dramas, to rely on the anti-hero character. Shows like Ray Donovan and Low Winter Sun have their bright spots, but they're also so beholden to the idea that the easiest way to achieve capital-Q quality is to make us feel conflicted about their leading men. That kind of stuff doesn't work as well in 2013 as it did in 2006; Walter White took us about as far as we can go. Jenna Hamilton isn't an anti-hero any more than any high school student is, but her characterization illustrates that it can be just as effective (if not more) to take a likable character down weird, uncomfortable paths. Whereas shows like Low Winter Sun and even Breaking Bad, to a certain extent, want us to celebrate portions of their anti-hero's personality, Awkward. is forcing us to question and/or dislike Jenna. That's not easy to pull off, particularly in a teen romantic comedy.