Ashley Rickards stars in the MTV series "Awkward." (Elisabeth Caren / MTV )
To oversimplify — though not by all that much — MTV's new high school comedy "Awkward." (the period is part of the title) is a female twist on the network's phallocentric "The Hard Times of RJ Berger," though in the same way that teenage girls are more mature than their male classmates, it is less sophomoric and sex-obsessed than its predecessor. Created by Lauren Iungerich, it has the spirit of "Juno" behind it rather than the ghost of "Porky's." If "Awkward." doesn't always listen to what that spirit is saying, it gets that head start nonetheless.
Our heroine is 15-year-old Jenna (the excellent Ashley Rickards), who sees herself as "a nobody" and writes a blog called "Invisible Girl" in which she ruminates upon her so-called life. Poor self-image and a relatively low place in the high school pecking order notwithstanding, she is, of course, of all objects in this comedy the most desirable: smart, sensitive and, through a thin scrim of dorkiness, beautiful.
We begin on the last day of "summer camp." (It's just a bunch of kids in a gymnasium, but they are all wearing identical T-shirts). Jenna clumsily loses her virginity to Matty (Beau Mirchoff), a hunky doofus with a habit of sniffing his armpits, on whom she has the customary cross-clique crush.
"You're the [word for excrement that paradoxically means 'wonderful'], J-town," Matty tells her, "but nobody can know that I like you." (The popular kids — their lives are no freer than ours!) Insult is added to injury when Jenna receives an anonymous letter that begins, "As you are now you could disappear and no one would notice," with a list of corrective suggestions; we shall see more of this list. Then a complicated accident is interpreted as a suicide attempt, and when Jenna returns to school and the stares of her peers, it is in a cast that keeps her arm raised in an attitude of greeting.
Iungerich hasn't roamed far from formula in creating Jenna's world, and where the formula is altered — the mean girl (Molly Tarlov) is, for example, fat — it only reaffirms the formula. There are the customary two best friends, the privileged antagonist, the boys only apparently beyond her reach. In this cartoon world, cheerleaders always dress in uniform and adults are nearly all useless — which is, to be sure, how the target demo largely views them. (In her "I'm Rockin' My Day" T-shirt, Desi Lydic is particularly funny as a chattering guidance counselor.)
With its growing roster of scripted fare about and aimed at older teens, MTV clearly wants to be the place kids turn their eyes when they graduate from Nickelodeon or the Disney Channel. ("Awkward." runs at 11 p.m., out of the reach of any younger children who don't know how to program a DVR.) Shows like "Awkward." and "RJ Berger" are built upon the same tropes as the Nick and Disney tweencoms, but with sex sliced in, and Jenna's dilemma and dreams are as old as Cinderella's. So it's no surprise this story is being told again — and for the most part, it's told pretty well.