There’s a new sitcom on television!
It’s lively, funny, and has a brilliantly surreal streak despite touching on some actually quite realistic issues!
It stars one of the best collections of new talent ever assembled in one cast!
It’s one… “amazeballs”?
I can honestly say I’ve laughed out loud at every episode I’ve seen so far, all the way through- and there are very, very few shows I can say that about.
Tell me more!
Okay, it airs at 4.30pm, Thursdays on CBBC, and-
Aaaaand we’re done.
It seems that this scenario has played out on a loop for pretty much all my life. How many times have I raved about a show to friends? Promised them that it’s one of the best programmes ever put to screen? …Only for them to at best zone out, at worst publicly disown me, as soon as the magic phrase “kids’ TV” is mentioned.
And I really do mean all my life. I can still remember, at the age of thirteen, trying to convince my inner friendship circle that Young Dracula was revolutionising the fantasy genre, that it was probably the most unique show on television at the time, only for pretty much every single one of them, to tell me “I don’t watch kids’ TV.”
I mean, come on! Are you serious?! If you don’t watch kids’ TV when you’re a kid, then who the hell is it for? Bear in mind that I grew up in the noughties- the decade when CBBC was offering us Young Dracula, Ghost Hunter, The Story of Tracy Beaker, as well as the last, but by no means least, series of Byker Grove and Grange Hill. Looking back, it was a halcyon age for children’s drama.
And yet, even my closest friends refused to watch CBBC: it wasn’t proper TV, it wasn’t cool– as if we were remotely bothered about being cool when it came to anything else in our lives! One of the most frustrating things in my life was knowing that this plethora of fantastic television was out there, and having no one to share it with. I’ve gone through life knowing that CBBC is brilliant, that it’s always been brilliant (save that brief period around 2006 when they lowered the target age demographic and the whole channel went schizophrenic for a couple of years), and yet that opinion is treated with the same level of disgust and embarrassment as if I believed the BBC should have a new channel that showed Piers Morgan kicking a puppy 24/7.
The only show to have really broken the mould in recent years is Horrible Histories- but does that really count? It’s based on an already wildly popular book series that I used to collect and read religiously when I was young, but I’d argue it actually loses something from both its wit and its message in the transition to noisy, cluttered sketches that whizz by too fast to digest. To illustrate my point, this genuine conversation from two of my Uni flatmates on watching an episode:
FLATMATE #1: Ha ha, that was funny. But do you think that’s really true?
FLATMATE #2: No, that can’t have happened. They’ve probably made it up for TV.
Nevertheless, enough people grasped the point of the show to earn it a British Comedy Award. As in, an actual Best Sketch Show Award, up against actual grown-up shows for grown-ups! No one can deny that’s the most triumphant of triumphs, not only for Horrible Histories, but for kids’ shows everywhere.
And yet- and yet-
I blame Radio Times. I blame Radio Times for a lot of things about the industry at the moment, and why shouldn’t I? It’s poo. It’s poo, and yet it’s still the best listings magazine we’ve got. Except that it’s forgotten it’s a listings magazine, and has spent the last several years trying desperately to rebrand itself as some kind of lifestyle magazine encouraging you to eat like celebrity chefs, or go on holiday to some backwater village when a sex scene from The Killing was once filmed.
This has resulted in any actual television or radio listings being squeezed into increasingly small amounts of page space, with all children’s TV channels (that’s Milkshake, CBBC, CBeebies and CITV) all crammed into one quarter of a page. All we get is the names of the shows. No descriptions, no indications of genre or format, just the names. RT are also kind enough to offer a daily “Children’s Choice”: a blurry photo at the start of each days’ schedules, and a 20 word description. Weird brief snippets clearly copied and pasted from press releases, saying stuff like “Three socially awkward teenagers try to make sense of boys and life.” No indication of whether it’s a comedy, drama or documentary, no description of characters, nothing.
…Which is why I’ve only now discovered So Awkward.
See! We got there in the end! It only took me about 850 words to finish ranting and actually get around to the show in question! I’m great at this.
So Awkward is good. Really good. Not only is it the funniest thing I’ve ever seen on CBBC, it’s one of funniest comedies I’ve ever seen, and one of the best kids’ shows I’ve ever seen, period. Don’t let the totes radical, “OMG epic fail” title deceive you: this is not about a group of geeky teenagers and their constant screw-ups and embarrassments. This is about a group of geeky teenagers reacting to the constant screw-ups and embarrassments of those around them: parents, teachers, society in general. The three leads are all girls definitely and defiantly entrenched in their own personalities, looking out a world that wants them to go to parties and have makeovers and get boyfriends for reasons they can’t fathom. It’s a view of life you won’t find anywhere else on TV, and it’s pitch-perfect.
Of the three main characters, the only stereotypically “awkward” one is Lily, the slightly insecure, boy-fancying, over-reactor of the gang. Nevertheless, right from the word go, it’s clear that Lily is a girl who would resist any attempts by anyone else to change her. Life is hers to deal with as it comes. Her best friends, Jas and Martha, are even more rooted in their certainties: Jas as the get-your-hands-dirty, slightly unhinged schemer, and Martha as the science-mad, ultra-logical genius.
Fun fact: I almost typed “girl genius” there, until I realised how completely contrary to the show’s main message that is: none of the characters are remotely defined by their gender, only doing traditionally ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ things to make a point about society’s expectations, such as when Jas tries to give Lily a makeover at a sleepover (brilliantly, none of them know what they’re doing, and Jas end up buying a job lot of clown makeup).
It’s a very silly, borderline surreal show, always opening with a dream sequence, and usually with at least one more break from reality per episode. In truth, that’s probably standard for today’s CBBC, but So Awkward completely nails the tone thanks to the deadpan talents of the cast. If this isn’t the beginning of meteoric careers in comedy for Sophia Dall’Aglio (Martha), Cleo Demetriou (Lily), Ameerah Falzon-Ojo (Jas), Jamie Flatters (Lily’s crush Matt), and Archie Lyndhurst* (Martha’s chess club friend Ollie), it’ll be one of the worst wastes of potential since someone said “Hey, nobody watches that Firefly rubbish, right?”
I mention the two supporting male characters because, despite not being as integral to the show as the relationship between the three girls, they really do add a whole new dimension to the show. Lyndhurst is hysterical in every scene he’s in, whether it’s going to extreme lengths to protect a valuable telescope, or researching relationships in huge textbooks, and Flatters pretty much single-handedly reinvents a stock kids’ TV trope of a character.
The “hunky guy into sports and manly things who the girly girl fancies” is one of the most thankless roles in childrens’ fiction. Dumb, oblivious to girls affections, surprises everyone by having a heart of gold. You know the drill. Yet the writing once again beats us to the punch- Lily and Matt are on speaking terms: she knows he’s got a heart of gold already, and they both kind of know the other fancies them- it’s just they can never quite commit to a relationship.
And Jamie Flatters is hilarious, having mastered the “bewildered deadpan” just as well as the rest of the cast. He’s responsible for my favourite moment in the whole show so far: in episode 7, when Martha and Jas have had an argument, Martha brings Ollie to a meeting as her “legal representative.” In retaliation, Jas insists on Matt doing the same for her. When Matt asks “What do I do?” he is told “Just copy him,” prompting a mercilessly absurd sequence in which Matt copies every one of Ollie’s gestures and paper-shuffles in an insane mime, all the while looking completely helpless and out of his depth.
Which sums up the whole show; these are three (or possibly five) characters totally out of their depth with teenage life- as, of course, are all teenagers everywhere. Yet these are characters who adamantly refuse to change just because of the expectations of society or culture. It’s not Martha, Jas and Lily who are “so awkward.” It’s everything else.
There are a few weak links: most of the adults are played way too hysterical and over-the-top. I’ve no idea if that’s the direction, or the actors doing what they think is “kids’ show acting,” but it really jars with the more realistic scenes. The scenarios are what sells the surrealism, not the behaviour. But even this is offset by the casting of children’s TV legends Clive Rowe (Duke from Tracy Beaker) and Carla Mendoca (Sophie from My Parents Are Aliens) as Jas’s Dad and Martha’s Mum respectively. These are two of the most ridiculous characters in the show, yet these actors have perfected the ability to take their performances right to the very edge of panto, and no further, that it really is like watching artists at work.
So, there we go: So Awkward, my current favourite sitcom. If you want to try out a warm, clever, progressive comedy, I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you want those things, but you won’t watch it because it’s on CBBC, you’re only depriving yourself. Just because you’re not the target audience, it doesn’t mean you’re forbidden from tuning in.
As the Fourth Doctor once said: “There’s no point in being grown-up if you can’t be childish sometimes.”
*Yes, his father is who you think it is.