As portrayed on TV, teenage girls — from the cocktail-swilling sophisticates of Gossip Girl to the divas-in-training of Glee — often seem older than their years. What happened to coming-of-age stories, such as My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks, that captured teens in the awkward limbo between child and adult?
MTV steps into that gap with Awkward, the sometimes painfully funny story of Jenna Hamilton, 15, who is struggling to get through high school (and attract the attention of a special boy) without dying of embarrassment.
Here's the setup: Jenna, played by Ashley Rickards, thought of herself as invisible, especially after an intimate encounter with jock Matty (Beau Mirchoff) at camp. "Nobody can know that I like you," he told her afterward.
Then Jenna got an anonymous letter telling her, "You could disappear and no one would notice." Sometimes, she wrote in her blog, "being a teenager makes you want to die."
The ensuing chain of events, including a fall, a hospital stay and a comically ridiculous shoulder cast, managed to get Jenna noticed for the first time, because everyone (including her parents and counselor) thought she had attempted suicide.
As a result, she has resolved to stop fading into the background and, instead of "invisible girl," she has christened herself "That Girl."
Awkward debuted last month to positive reviews, and critics meeting in Los Angeles were delighted when MTV rounded up the cast and creator Lauren Iungerich for a Q&A session.
Jenna was born from "my awkward, embarrassing experiences as a teenager," Iungerich says. "I wrote this show to my 15-year-old self."
She doesn't think she has reinvented the wheel with this show.
"I've just tried to write something that's truly honest," she says.
Rickards, best known as Sam on One Tree Hill in the 2008-09 season, fell for Awkward because "the writing was so unique and so realistic, (and) none of these characters can be stereotyped."
Matty, the boy Jenna loves, "is much more than just the jock," she says. (There's another boy, too: Jake, played by Brett Davern, who would be perfect if he didn't already have a cheerleader girlfriend.) "My mom is much more than just the mom. All of them have incredible depth."
Characters will continue to surprise in the course of the season, Rickards says.
"We are going to see Matty go to lengths that we didn't think he could go to, good or bad," she says. Jenna will "go to lengths that test the boundaries of friendship, of relationships."
Like other characters, mean-girl Sadie (played by Nikki DeLoach) isn't the typical TV mean girl, and the façade surrounding her plus-size popularity dissolves in a future episode.
Even the boys are portrayed with rare nuance.
But the heart of Awkward is Jenna, and the message is her message.
"The empowerment of this show is that she finds and defines herself for herself," Iungerich says.
Potential viewers shouldn't assume that Awkward is sappy sweet or squeaky clean. Remember, this is MTV, and programming boss David Janollari has scheduled Awkward at 10 p.m.
Comedy, romance, depth of character development and potential scandal: No wonder Awkward is an early hit. And no wonder Iungerich, whose slim writing credits include 10 Things I Hate About You, is so popular at MTV that Janollari has picked up a second season of Awkward and a second series from Iungerich. Dumb Girls, about 20-somethings who are smart about almost everything except the pursuit of the opposite sex, will debut next year.