'Awkward' EPs on Season 4 Restart, Blank Slates and Senior Year Changes (Q&A)
The Jenna and Matty relationship is "the core of the show," co-showrunner Mike Chessler tells THR, "so whatever's going on, on some level, that'll be a big part."
MTV's Awkward is ready for a new start.
The half-hour comedy kicks off season four with changes in front of and behind the camera: Mike Chessler and Chris Alberghini take over the reins from creator Lauren Iungerich, while new characters take the place of old ones.
For Chessler and Alberghini, producing partners on a wide range of projects that include soaps (90210, Cashmere Mafia) and sitcoms (Reba), the new episodes mark a reset in the aftermath of the offbeat comedy's drama-laced season-three run. With Jenna Hamilton (Ashley Rickards) entering her senior year of high school and eyeing college, Chessler saw her as "a little bit of a blank slate" with the bulk of season four also dealing with the consequences of her junior year screw-ups.
Chessler and Alberghini talk to The Hollywood Reporter about exchanging emails with Iungerich (the three have never met), putting their own stamp on Awkward, what they wanted to move away from and the reason they decided to bring on two pivotal new characters.
When you guys came on board for Awkward, what was your first act of business?
Mike Chessler: The first thing we did was watch every episode again -- we were already familiar with the show because we were both big fans of it -- and try to understand the characters as well as we could. We had a bible created with all the details and facts to make sure we were going to be consistent with what has been in the history of the show and in the characters' backstories and really immerse ourselves in it because as huge fans and admirers of the show, our goal for season four was to feel like an organic continuation of what has been so brilliantly established in the first three seasons by Lauren.
Did you have discussions with Lauren prior to arcing out the season?
Chris Alberghini: No. We've never actually met Lauren. We've never spoken to Lauren on the phone. We've exchanged a few emails. She sent over a couple boxes of donuts the first week to say congratulations and good luck. No, we have not had any creative conversations with her whatsoever.
Chessler: Lauren made it clear that for her the book was closed. In our one of exchanges, she very nicely gave us her blessing and said, "You should take the show on from here on out and do as you see fit." That's what we're trying to do -- not change the show at all, but continue building on what she did so brilliantly. The biggest thing for us creatively was that this is the characters' senior year and senior year of high school is such a specific, evocative, momentous time for everybody who's been through it. You just feel like your life is hanging in the balance between living at home being with your parents and your adulthood, whatever that's going to be. Almost everything that happens in your senior year of high school feels larger than life. It's fascinating and I think most people still remember their senior year of high school very vividly. We loved the challenge of dramatizing a year in most people's lives that is inherently really big.
In your rewatch of Awkward, what did you want to move away from in season four?
Alberghini: I don't think there was ever a conscious decision to "move away" from anything. There were certain changes that were happening that we didn't have anything to do with. Jessica Lu decided that she would not be coming back for another season, so that any possible Ming stories were no longer going to happen. I would say that the only thing we're approaching a little bit differently, and this just has to do with senior year more than anything, is getting them out of school a little bit more.
How did you decide which ancillary characters you would be doing away with?
Alberghini: With Jessica, that happened without us. For Colin (played by Nolan Funk), it felt to us very much like his story played out and Jenna was in a place where she realized some of the mistakes she made and was moving on with her life. That seemed like a natural departure. We just thought about what kind of characters we haven't seen and what could we add to the mix here. We liked the Clarke character that was on in previous seasons; the actor moved on and had other opportunities and we brought on Theo (played by Evan Crooks) and Cole (played by Monty Geer), who are very much based on some friends of ours to get a glimpse into a different kind of gay student in high school.
Chessler: We are bringing back -- and want to continue to bring them back as we can -- characters that are familiar from the pilot. [Characters like] Kyle, played by Wesam [Keesh] -- he pops up a lot. The other side of the coin is we spent time talking to high school kids and kids from the actual Palos Verdes High School; what is really interesting is that in our fictional high school, which probably has 350 kids in a class, there are a lot of different subcultures and social groups we haven't delved into yet. We're going to continue to meet people from different cliques that perhaps we haven't intersected with yet.
So we should expect to see Jenna and Co. away from the Palos Hills High setting more regularly?
Chessler: The first part of the season -- the season 4A finale -- is going to be the senior ski trip. You're going to see all the gang outside of school on a senior ski trip and all the fun that happens.
Alberghini: There's a road trip, which is something that, as a senior, you do a lot of.
Because Awkward had a distinct voice in its first three seasons. How are you ensuring that that continues and what are you bringing that we haven't seen?
Chessler: As a writer, you aspire to get inside of every characters' head and I know there's a lot of typecasting, like women can write women and men can write men. Chris and I are both gay men; writing women is something we've done a lot of and [something] we really enjoy doing. That isn't something that felt like a barrier or an obstacle in any way. I guess what I'm really trying to say is we don't typecast ourselves as writers. We hope that we can effectively get inside lots of different people's heads.
Alberghini: This is what I would add to that -- you mentioned the distinctive voices. That makes your job so much easier in many ways. We didn't create the show, but we have the gift of really distinctive voices with those characters so we already know who those characters are, we already know what we're working with and our job is coming up with new stories for them and trying to keep the voice of the show as close to what it started out as. Obviously we're not Lauren, so we can't recreate it, but we can give you our best version of it using all of those characters she created and adding a few of our own.
The third season, which some considered the show's darkest, was polarizing for some fans. Was there a concerted effort to return to Awkward's season-one roots? Is it fair to say that the new season is a reset of sorts?
Alberghini: It was interesting in season three to watch Jenna to go down the path that she went down. I thought the storytelling was completely valid. I thought it was well done, in fact, but what was nice was the season ended with her realizing that she had made some pretty questionable choices and damaged some relationships in her life. It was nice to be able to pick up from there because we had a Jenna who had suddenly learned a lot of very hard lessons.
Chessler: It actually was nice also that season three ended with Jenna with a little bit of a blank slate -- single and being her own person, not entangled with anybody and having reached the end of this dark journey. Certainly we're doing our best to pick up where that left off and some of the ramifications of her behavior in season three are still going to be [in play].
You're introducing a few new characters, most notably Eva and Tyler. What was the thinking behind the creation of those particular additions?
Alberghini: With Eva, you always want conflict in storytelling and we thought, "What's a fun female character who's a high school senior we can bring in and cause a little trouble and impact our existing characters?" That's how we came up with Eva.
Chessler: Tyler was an idea that came very organic to the world and what Lissa does. It was a fun idea that we had of an unlikely person coming to the school via Lissa and her mother, Lesley, who we're going to meet for the first time this season and possibly her father, as well.
What is Jenna and Matty's path this season?
Chessler: That's hard to answer without spoiling it! (Laughs.) I would say it's going to be ... interesting.
Alberghini: Any time you have a past with someone, especially a romantic connection or a relationship, let's just say it's an ever-evolving relationship.
Chessler: What I will say about the Jenna-Matty relationship is it's the core of the show and it's very important, so whatever's going on, on some level, that'll be a big part -- whether they'll be a couple, whether they're friends. It's always central to the show.
The season-four premiere introduces a very tangible mystery, if you will, with the student rankings. Was it intentional to have something like that going for an entire season so viewers can track how each character is doing?
Chessler: Yes. College admittance is a big part of many students' [lives], those who are lucky enough to be thinking about college. We want to track that that's something that's on all of their minds and for Jenna specifically, the fact that she messed up her junior year is something she's going to make up for somehow and that's going to be another pressure on her for senior year.
Tamara and Jake have an interesting obstacle to get through this season. What can you say about how their relationship moves forward?
Chessler: With Tamara and Jake, there was some big things that happened at the end of season three that are going to have ramifications in season four. The biggest one being when Tamara ran for president, she took away a big part of Jake's identity as the student body leader. That's going to continue to have impact on their relationship and there are some other issues, as well. They're not connecting in some other ways. (Laughs.)
You hinted that Eva will be causing trouble at the high school. Does that mean she and Sadie will be on the outs?
Alberghini: Sadie is a girl with a very strong personality who's very very smart and very opinionated and is new and has ton of experience. They may not always be on the same side.
Chessler: Another character we have a lot of affection for, Austin (played by Shane Harper), is going to be back. We love the Sadie and Austin relationship and we'll be seeing more of that in the first half of the season.
Awkward returns at 10 p.m. on Tuesday with a one-hour premiere on MTV.