Friday, September 2, 2011
How I Spent My Summer: The Gleeful Awkward.; the Awkward Glee Project
To get this out of the way upfront: I'm not watching Breaking Bad yet. This makes me a bad person — or the type of guy who still can't take Bryan Cranston seriously after Malcolm in the Middle, his excellent work in Drive notwithstanding — but I'll catch up eventually, especially now that AMC has announced an end-date for the critically orgasmic series. With Bad out of the equation, Mad Men on budgetary hiatus until next year, and True Blood on the never-watch list, this summer was mostly spent catching up on The West Wing — now officially my the second favorite network television drama ever, behind only Friday Night Lights (and behind The Sopranos and Mad Men on the list as well). Hot damn, this is a great show! ("No kidding," says everyone.) The Aaron Sorkin years were the best, but even after Sorkin and Rob Lowe left, The West Wing was still a titan; only Parks and Recreation offers a better collection of likeable characters. You can't pick just one! (But if I had to, it would be Josh. Or Toby. Or CJ. Or Charlie. Or Jed. Or Sam.)
When it comes to shows that haven't been off the air for years, only one summer entry really stands out: Awkward. The MTV teen series became the Flavor of the Month for the critical cognoscenti in August, and with good reason: it's smart, funny and incredibly watchable. That it's on MTV feels almost criminal; why is the network that brings us Jersey Shore and Teen Wolf producing something that's actually good?
For those not hip to the charms of Awkward. (the period at the end of the title is intentional and stupid; the only misstep the show has offered thus far), it's about 15-year-old Jenna Hamilton (Ashley Rickards), high school nobody who has an accident that gets misconstrued as a suicide attempt. (Don't worry, it's played for lolz.) This leads her to become a bigger outcast, all while she carries on a sexual relationship with Matty (Beau Mirchoff), school hottie and Jenna' longtime crush. There's also her best friend Tamara (Jillian Rose Reed), another outsider hoping to get on the inside; Jake (Brett Davern), Matty's best friend who has a girlfriend and a crush on Jenna (oops); and Sadie (Molly Tarlov), the school's resident super bitch. Awkward. is derivative of Mean Girls and The O.C. — Jenna is a combination of Cady Heron and Seth Cohen, with a bit of Carrie Bradshaw tossed in for good measure (she blogs!) — but because of genuinely sharp writing and a fabulous star-making performance from Rickards, it feels fresh and borderline new. The key is in its simplicity; Awkward. doesn't try to be anything more than a light teen show; it's surrounded by air quotes and irony. With how incredibly hard some comedies try to make the audience laugh (Community, cough), this is a welcome respite. Hopefully Awkward. can carry this easy charm from summer to fall (the season finale airs in October), and then into season two. Just drop the stupid punctuation.
There was nothing light about The Glee Project, which featured much DRAMA. The Oxygen reality series that promised one lucky outcast the chance for a guest star arc on Glee was filled with weekly tears and cringe-worthy earnestness; there wasn't an episode where I didn't hide my eyes in sheer embarrassment at what was unfolding onscreen. The Glee Project was like watching David Brent dance for 40 minutes every Sunday. What saved it was Ryan Murphy's hilarious turn as "Ryan Murphy."
I've gone over my feelings about Murphy — in short, he's a compulsive liar and hack — but what he lacks in tact and logic as a showrunner, he makes up for as a reality television villain. Murphy was brutal on The Glee Project, cutting down contestants with Marie Antoinette-like insouciance. The structure of The Glee Project made this possible: after challenges, competitions and the positive reinforcements of Glee casting director Robert Ulrich and choreographer Zach Woodlee, Murphy would show up with little frame of reference and judge away. Hilarious! How is this even a reality show? The first 40 minutes of The Glee Project that you just watched? It doesn't mean anything because Murphy's opinion of the contestants rested solely on their "last chance performance" and the direction of the wind during that particular moment!
Murphy sold out at the end — embracing his inner Oprah, he allowed two contestants to win (Damian, FTW!), with two other contestants earning guest star stints — but for much of the season, The Glee Project was a showcase for his impossible attitude and comical wardrobe. (Need more Fidel Castro hats!) I feel sorry for anyone who has to work for this man, but their loss is our gain. Let him eat cake!