Revisiting MTV shows on Hulu is ... ‘Awkward’

Jenna Hamilton, played by actress Ashley Rickards, as a high school sophomore in the first episode of MTV's TV show Awkward.
Jenna Hamilton, played by Ashley Rickards, as a high school sophomore in the first episode of MTV’s TV show “Awkward.”
(Courtesy of MTV)

Ah, remember the good old days of MTV — when “Video Killed The Radio Star” by The Buggles debuted in 1981, creating the first 24-hour video music channel?

Well, I don’t. My millennial MTV memories are full of reality, celebrity and competition TV shows. Hate on it all you want, but once music videos made their way online in the aughts for the Internet generation, MTV was forced to pivot.

And now entertainment is at another crossroads. With streaming services replacing cable for many viewers, networks have raced to launch their own platforms or sell off their old shows to the streaming giants. Which is how I recently stumbled upon some MTV classics from my formative years while browsing Hulu, including the scripted comedy-drama “Awkward.”

The show, which ran from 2011 to 2016, has a standard story line about a teen girl navigating high school, an identity crisis and a suicide rumor. Though it was nominated for a few awards — and even won the People’s Choice Award for “Favorite Cable TV Comedy” in 2013 the show was not groundbreaking. “Awkward” didn’t turn any of its stars into household names, and is probably not the first show that comes to mind when remembering the 2010s (aka “the teens”) MTV era.

Yet something about the thumbnail on Hulu’s browsing page spoke to me. Jenna Hamilton (played by Ashley Rickards) stares off to the side of the screen, looking disgusted by the world. The focal point is her arm, sticking straight up into the sky, wrapped in a large cast from her accidental fall/alleged suicide attempt. A very 2020 mood.

I remembered watching the first few seasons back in high school, and there was something comforting about returning to an old show from my past during a time when present day, well, stinks.

Though I was only planning on watching a few episodes, I quickly got hooked. So for three weeks in July, I indulged in a quarantine marathon and binged all five seasons. (For those counting at home, yes, that’s 89 episodes ... in less than a month. Still not sure if I’m proud of that accomplishment or not.)

The first four seasons felt like a much-needed escape. Wrapping myself up in a blanket and clicking that “continue watching” button felt like crawling into my high school boyfriend’s hoodie, or zipping up my sleeping bag at a best friend’s slumber party. Just like Jenna, I was 16 again.

And at 16, I was in high school and immersed in the drama. I was in a familiar but far away land: ducking the popular kids in the halls, having trivial fights with friends that ended in gummy worm apologies, and impatiently waiting for a promposal in the senior parking lot.

When Jenna’s high school experiences matched my own, the episodes often prompted physical reactions. I sweat through her AP tests that she hadn’t properly studied for, bit my nails while she waited for the class rankings to be posted, and cried every time she got her heart broken.

Sure, these episodes brought me some stress, but the drama paled in comparison to today’s reality. I’d happily plug back into my mediocre high school years if it meant I could mentally escape 2020. Plus, watching the outdated trends of the early “teens” decade — like the side-swept bangs, brassy highlights and cold-shoulder cut-out tops — was both entertaining and humbling.

But the problem with “Awkward” is that high school is only four years. So when season five rolled around, the characters were confronted with life outside the campus halls. Every episode included a conversation about colleges and jobs, with plot points that furthered and jeopardized those futures. Eventually the characters were whisked away to these plans, from dorm rooms in Maine to soccer fields in Berkeley.

“We have our whole future ahead of us” was a line of dialogue said one too many times.

Suddenly, the magic vanished and I was thrust back into 2020. I was still holding the remote, but my hands were 26 again. (Could hands age in a decade? I paused my episode and spiraled down a WebMD rabbit hole.)

Each episode became more and more painful to watch. I couldn’t get high-school-me out of my head. I kept wondering what she would think of 2020 ... but also what she would think of me. I was distracted by a lingering question: Was resorting to 40 hours of a scripted MTV show to escape the present and relive the past an acceptable way to be living my life — even during a pandemic?

Safe to say, things got awkward.

I begrudgingly “continued watching” the last season and begged for the show to end. But as I neared the series finale, “Awkward” shifted. When the characters returned to their hometown for summer break, they spent more and more time reflecting on their past four seasons (I mean ... years). They found lessons in failed relationships, redemption in rejection and comfort in realizing what it truly means to come home.

I realized that — when done in moderation — reliving the past isn’t such a bad thing. No matter how much time goes by, the past finds a way to stick with us. Spending a few hours in quarantine indulging in those experiences can help remind us who we are, how we got here and where we want to go. Maybe a trip down memory lane is exactly what we need while the world is on pause.

So while I don’t recommend bingeing 89 episodes of an old MTV show on Hulu, I also don’t discourage using your past to deal with our present. You may find some solace knowing that life wasn’t always this bad, or recall obstacles you overcame and unique ways you handled terrible situations. Remember how everything in high school felt like the end of the world?

And if nothing else, it may remind you of a funny story to tell your family at the dinner table over takeout.