Story 101: Don’t make your main character unlikable. But as they say, rules were meant to be broken.
Some of the most fascinating series have put antiheroes front and center. Just ask widely acclaimed Breaking Bad or Dexter or, well, mostly any cable series. The problem of course is that audiences are usually averse to the female antihero, as has been explored exhaustingly with Girls‘ critiques for over a year now.
I’m not saying the Awkward. writers made Jenna into Walter White or Dexter Morgan or even Hannah Horvath. But they certainly set up a fascinating and self-aware arc for their leading lady this season and executed it well. Writers can oftentimes fall into the trap of writing main characters into Do No Wrong territory in fear of the aforementioned rule. But the Awkward. writers trudged ahead by having Jenna disregard some of her boyfriend’s personal life issues, have a wandering eye whenever she didn’t feel appreciated, and eventually cheat with her creative writing classmate Collin.
Usually what happens when we discuss unlikable main characters on teen shows is that the character makes an assortment of unlikable choices, but no one in their entourage of supporting characters ever calls them out on it. Instead, the show treats that character as if they could do no wrong. And eventually, audiences get frustrated that main characters are treated as flawless beings.
No. We’re OK with seeing our leads get a little messy. We’re OK with watching them be a little selfish. And why not? Jenna is in high school. Some of the backlash I’ve read is along the lines of Jenna just being whiny and selfish — and fine, there will always be those people. But there is part of the community vocalizing that Jenna has yet to get her comeuppance.
I suppose I must first introduce you to Exhibit A, the midseason trailer:
It may not be best to use clips of yet-to-air moments from the show, but I think it’s safe to say that Jenna’s choices will have grave consequences for her. She will be isolated from those she cares about, even her own mother. So those waiting for the floor to be yanked from under her, you’ll get your day. Otherwise, let’s examine the situation.
At the end of season two, Jenna was prepared for a summer abroad, to dance on the dance floor. The only thing was that Matty was not so inclined, and she found herself being immediately limited with unexplored potential. The Matty and Jenna relationship thrives in the physical. Their first connection was sex in compromising positions. Throughout the entire first season, they mostly just hooked up. And whenever they wanted to talk things through during the first half of season three, conversations were more like make-out sessions. (Unless, of course, Jenna was weeping in Matty’s car, which seemed to happen a lot.) Hell, she never even asked Matty about his personal problems.
On the other hand, Jenna and Jake connected on an intellectual level; they were a bit kindred. Even when Jenna had committed herself to Matty and Jake was dating her best friend Tamara, it was still so easy for that connection to shine through.
We know Jenna is someone who is crazy insecure and an over-analyzer. But we also know she craves the spotlight, if it’s positive limelight of course. The idea of being “not-hot” — and too not-hot for Matty — given the nature of their relationship was too much to bear.
But something happened. She found people who appreciated her mind more than the physical. In fact, at Collin’s girlfriend’s party, even Matty was uneasy with the shift of attention. He’s always used to being the center of a discussion, but this crowd was not interested … and neither was he. I think we focus on Jenna’s cons too much and don’t take notice that Matty likes the unbalanced nature of their relationship to a degree. In a different atmosphere, it was Jenna who was out of Matty’s league, and she had never experienced this before.
She liked it. What teenager wouldn’t? Hell, who at all wouldn’t? It’s nice to be noticed. It’s nice to have your ego inflated. But Jenna’s inflated a bit too much. She hadn’t even realized Matty was a person with feelings, too. She gets so caught up in her monologues and blog entries, she forgets others have problems as well. Matty had been kicked out of his own home, but Jenna was more preoccupied with her own personal space (or lack thereof).
“What do you like about me?” she later asked Matty. Problem is, she couldn’t conjure up reasons she liked Matty fast enough that weren’t: abs, hair, teeth, abs. So, yes, I think a lot of Jenna’s allure for Matty is he was a popular guy who noticed her. And she wanted to be noticed. So when he tells her he was ashamed of her during the season one events, it confirms all of her fears.
So here she had Collin — a high school mystery boy cliché, but he was a popular, good-looking guy who was interested in the same things she was interested in and who she had sexual chemistry with. The timing was all off, but she may have found a blend of what she wanted. She may have also found more reason to feel wanted.
And no, Awkward. isn’t saying it’s all fine and dandy. Matty checked her on her lack of concern for his feelings. Tamara told her she couldn’t be revealing how comfortable she and Jake had gotten. And Collin basically told her to indulge in her selfish side right before they kissed in the midseason finale.
This season of Awkward. is exploring Jenna’s descent into her own mind. For many, it may be unsettling to watch. And I can understand why plenty have quit. But personally, it’s refreshing to have a series let its main character make some mistakes and learn along the way. Too often we’re shown the supposed infallible heroine, when what makes them three-dimensional is their roughness at the fringes. It’s difficult for a rapid-fire comedy like Awkward. to navigate, but it’s also ambitious. So, yes, I admire the people at Awkward.‘s fearlessness to develop this arc.
And depending on how the second half of the season pans out, it may be Awkward.‘s best and most fleshed out season yet.