In their first interview since taking the reins of MTV’s Awkward, Chris Alberghini and Mike Chessler exclusively tell BuzzFeed what’s to come in the show’s rejiggered new season.
After Awkward creator Lauren Iungerich left the series in June following Season 3, MTV was on the hunt for the proper person (or people, as it were) to take over the critically acclaimed teen dramedy.
In August, the network handpicked Chris Alberghini and Mike Chessler, who previously created So NoTORIous and wrote for 90210 — and now, more than half a year later, their take on Awkward is just about ready to make its debut (on Tuesday, April 15, at 10 p.m.).
In their first interview since accepting the job, the co-showrunners reveal to BuzzFeed the conversations they’ve had with Iungerich, their plan for Season 4, and which characters will not be returning to Awkward.
Prior to being offered the job in August 2013, had you seen Awkward?
Chris Alberghini: Yes, we were both fans. I loved its subversive humor. I love anything with a good underdog, and Jenna Hamilton [Ashley Rickards] is the perfect underdog. She was in a situation that you could absolutely understand. I instantly related to her.
Mike Chessler: The show had these big, comedic flourishes that were very earned. It felt grounded in a way that made it resonate. It’s such a cliche to say a show “has heart,” but it had a core relatability that I deeply liked. It was really funny, yet heartrending at the same time. That made me fall in love with the show.
Did being a fan of the show make it harder or easier to think about taking over showrunner duties?
CA: It makes your life so much easier when you get to actually write something you would actually watch on your own time. It’s such a rarity to experience as a writer. It’s a joy.
MC: I was so thrilled to be able to work on something that, creatively, I found very easy to engage with. These are characters that are so evocative and fleshed out and fun and flawed. It was a really nice opportunity.
Do you know Lauren Iungerich? Did you speak with her before, or since, taking over the show?
CA: We don’t know her and we have never met her, but she sent over several boxes of doughnuts. There was a nice card saying “Congrats” and “Best wishes.” We exchanged emails after that. She was very gracious.
MC: I felt like that was her way of passing the torch. I feel like she had closed the door and was leaving it to us to do what we could with it. Even the way Season 3 ended, it felt like Jenna’s arc had come to a close: She was single, determined to make it on her own, and it was a great place for us to pick up and start telling the story of what’s going to happen to Jenna in her senior year, which is when Season 4 starts.
That said, Iungerich created a very specific vernacular for the show. How did you find the line between honoring and copying that?
CA: We feel we’re writing Lauren’s characters as close as we can to how they’ve always been. We don’t find the characters hard to write. Tamara [Jillian Rose Reed] has a pretty unique take on the English language that we’re trying to continue. I would say the only thing we approach a bit differently is we’re trying to open the world up a little bit. We made a conscious effort to give stories to a lot of the supporting characters, not just Jenna and Matty [Beau Mirchoff]. We’re doing as much of that as we can, and taking the characters on different journeys that we’ve envisioned for them.
What was the first step for you in writing Season 4?
MC: We sat down with each of the [actors] to get their point of view on their characters because they’ve lived with these characters a lot longer than we have, so they have strong points of view that help us when we’re writing. We’re very collaborative.
Since Season 4 is a fresh start, is there anything or anyone from the first three seasons that will not be a part of this new season?
CA: There are a few things. There’s a couple of cast changes, Jessica Lu [who plays Ming] is not returning. She wanted to move on. [Also not returning are The Asian Mafia and Nolan Funk’s character, Collin Jennings.]
MC: It wasn’t about deliberately making choices about what did or didn’t work; it was more about thinking about what senior year looks like. What I love about senior year is that it’s such a specific time where, in a lot of ways, everything blows up. You’re making decisions about what you’re going to do after high school, and it’s a time when the sky is the limit. You start going out more in senior year, so we blow out the world a lot more. We go out on the town. We go on college visits. Jenna might meet a cute college guy and enjoy a relationship with an older man.
CA: It’s a year where the possibility exists for you to get into the most trouble you’ve ever been in, and it’s also the time when you really have to hit the ground running, and get your shit together, because the rest of your life is about to start.
MC: There’s a lot of interconnectedness in this group, so this year is all about how those relationships and friendships blow up and come back together.
By the end of Season 3, Tamara and Jake [Brett Davern] were the major romantic relationship still intact. What’s your opinion of that couple?
CA: It’s a relationship that has worked, but, without giving anything away, this is a time when you start reevaluating what works about a relationship. Also, as you become older, your tastes become more sophisticated, and you become more discerning about what you want in life. I think that carries through to the relationships on our show this year.
MC: There were some things that happened in Season 3 with Jake and Tamara that needed to have some ramifications. Like, when she ran for president and won, I think she usurped part of his identity, so that’s something we’re going to play out this year.
Some fans struggled with Jenna dabbling in drugs and going down a very self-destructive path last season. By the end of the year, she’d come to a very positive “I choose me” place. How did that come into play with your plans for the character?
CA: During her darkest times, she made some big choices, but, ultimately, was that the real Jenna Hamilton? Probably not. I think the real Jenna Hamilton was the girl who came to her senses at the end of Season 3. It’s been nice to take the girl who came to her senses and find out what she would do with all the knowledge she accumulated in the past three seasons.
MC: This year, she will discover there are still ramifications from her behavior in Season 3 that she hadn’t really expected. That throws her for a loop.
And what about Sadie [Molly Tarlov]? I am, personally, a very big fan.
CA: We were both immediately drawn to Sadie as well. She was a villain we hadn’t seen before in that she was a cheerleader, but the chubby cheerleader who was mean and that was great for us. And we’ve got some really fun stuff in store for Sadie this year. A lot of assumptions that Sadie wants us to make about her as a human being will be challenged this year.
MC: We love her relationship with Austin [Shane Harper], so we’re going to play that more. When that character, who is obviously the most heavily armored character you can imagine, is vulnerable, we find that really heartbreaking.
CA: One of my favorite moments in the show is that scene where Sadie tells her mother, “I tried.” I remember Molly’s acting in that moment, and what it meant for the character. I just thought it was such a touching choice.
MC: There are some interesting revelations about what’s really been going on with Sadie and what she’s been fronting.
CA: Interesting variations on her relationship with Jenna.
I’ve always felt that Jenna and Sadie had much more in common than either wanted to admit.
CA: I think so too. I think any time you truly detest someone, you have to wonder what that’s about.
MC: We explore that very thing this season.
Matty really opened up at the end of Season 3 when his parents split, and I found those layers to be really powerful. Will we continue to explore his home life this season?
MC: Yes. There’s going to be a big bomb dropped about Matty that will kind of shake his world up a lot. It makes him question a lot of things he’s long assumed about his family, which is very straightlaced. He’s always tried to be the good boy, but he’s going to start acting out a little bit.
Season 4’s 20 episodes will be split into two 10-episode mini-seasons. Do they cover the entirety of senior year?
MC: Season 4 ends with spring break.
So MTV didn’t approach you to create “the last season” of Awkward?
CA: They did not. They never mentioned the word “graduation,” and I choose to take that as a nice omen.
Do you think Awkward ends with high school graduation?
MC: It doesn’t have to. There’s definitely a show beyond graduation.
CA: I don’t know that everybody shares that belief, necessarily, though.
MC: I think you could follow some of these characters to college.
CA: There’s also the all-important summer between graduation and your first day at college. A lot of stuff can happen in that time.
Awkward has always done an excellent job of weaving the adult characters into this teenage world. Was it important to you that those characters continue to play major roles this season?
CA: Yes. It’s one of the things I really love about the show. Nikki [Deloach, who plays Jenna’s mother Lacey] is phenomenal; Desi [Lydic, who plays guidance counselor Val] is incredible; Mike [Faiola, who plays Jenna’s father Kevin] is great; and Barret [Swatek, who plays Jenna’s aunt and Sadie’s guardian Ally] is one of the funniest characters on TV. It’s nice to see that they’re not just props. They do hold a place in their children’s lives, and that, again, is different to us because we’ve been on other high school shows where it’s almost as if those kids existed in a vacuum. It was like Charlie Brown at times, with the parents like, “Wah, wah, wah.” It’s nice to be on a show where parents exist.
What new elements do you introduce this season?
CA: We wanted to bring in a couple of new characters in the absence of Ming. We always like the idea of having shit stirrers in the mix, so we brought in a new romantic interest for Matty, a girl named Eva [played by Elizabeth Whitson], who is a much more sophisticated version of a high school girl than Palos Hills has ever seen. She’s had lots and lots and lots of experiences; she’s sort of like a blonde Angelina Jolie and everyone is awed by her at first. Then we’ve got two gay characters named Theo [played by Evan Crooks] and Cole [played by Monty Geer]. As gay writers, it’s obviously important to us to have gay characters on a TV show, so we looked at what we hadn’t seen on TV yet, and we liked the idea of these gay guys whose sexuality wasn’t the most important thing in their lives. They are a bit obnoxious, kind of in the tradition of Stifler from American Pie or Beavis and Butthead — they just happen to be gay. Lastly, we have Tyler [played by Kofi Siriboe], a foreign exchange student from Africa.
When all is said and done, what do you hope fans of Awkward take away from Season 4?
CA: That we didn’t ruin the show (laughs).
MC: I would hope that fans of the show watch Season 4 and think it feels like an organic place to have gone after Season 3. We really are honoring and respecting what Lauren created. We love her show and we love her characters, we’re just taking them on the next step of their journey. It really shouldn’t feel like a change — it should feel like a continuation. We can’t say we’re doing what Lauren would have done with a fourth season, but we just want it to feel like the logical continuation of a show people love.