How did any of us survive high school? Forget grades. We're talking insecurities, anxieties and social terrors, which have rarely found such vivid comic voice as in MTV's wonderful comedy Awkward, which begins a third season of emotionally harrowing hilarity with back-to-back episodes (Tuesday, 10/9c).
It's junior year (or "the beginning of the end") for the show's self-consciously angsty narrator/blogger Jenna (the terrific Ashley Rickards), who you'd think might be in a happier place having spent the summer cocooned with full-time no-longer-secret boyfriend Matty (Beau Mirchoff). No such luck. With other friends having spent their off time in Europe, hooking up and changing their looks without keeping her in the loop, Jenna worries she's being sidelined, left behind, forgotten. It doesn't help that her sadistic tyrant of a new creative-writing teacher, the heartless Mr. Hart (Anthony Michael Hall), burrows into her fragile psyche with the very first assignment: "Write about your greatest fear." Where to begin?
Awkward tackles its thorny issues-of-the-week, including the sobering possibility of unwanted pregnancies and the shocking reality of a classmate's sudden death, with such garish and gamy exaggeration you can't help but cringe while laughing and laugh while cringing. This characteristic is most indelibly embodied by the villainous bullying of class ogre Sadie (the fearless Molly Tarlov), who ends each rant with an ironic, smug "You're welcome."
I'd personally like to thank Awkward for coining a new term, "mourn-mones," to explain how people of this uncertain adolescent age all grieve differently when one of their own is taken too soon. Survival guilt, guilt about not feeling guilty, expressions of anger and hatred, and the inevitable "YOLO" (you only live once) impulse to celebrate life with horny abandon: I guarantee you've never seen a wake quite the one that ends the second episode on a note of exquisite awkwardness.
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RACE AND MUSIC: I almost wish PBS had decided to flip its Tuesday schedule this week, leaving us with the harmonic and rhythmic uplift of "Memphis Soul," the theme of the latest In Performance at the White House special (check tvguide.com listings), filmed last week. Hosted by the First Couple in the East Room, this tribute to the sounds and '60s spirit of the Tennessee music mecca features guest performers including Queen Latifah, Cyndi Lauper, Alabama Shakes, Sam Moore, Mavis Staples, American Idol alum Joshua Ledet and the ubiquitous Justin Timberlake.
Most markets will follow this jubilant hour with the TV debut of the decidedly more sobering documentary The Central Park Five (check tvguide.com listings), a searing indictment of injustice in the racially charged powder keg of late '80s New York City. Produced and directed by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and David McMahon, the two-hour film recreates the climate of fear and prejudice that contributed to five young Harlem men being wrongly convicted, while demonized by an hysteria-prone media, for the 1989 brutal rape of a white woman in Central Park.
THE TUESDAY GUIDE: A new season of treacherous crab fishing gets underway on the Bering Sea as Discovery's Deadliest Catch (9/8c) returns for a ninth year, with the long-time captains facing challenges from younger upstarts. Following the lead of cable offshoots like Bravo's Watch What Happens Live and AMC's The Talking Dead, the network is milking Catch's popularity with a pre-game show, The Bait (8/7c), going behind the scenes and interviewing the captains to review and preview the big moments. ... Another signature cable "reality" series, A&E's Storage Wars, kicks off its fourth season with back-to-back episodes (9/8c), including an appearance by ventriloquist Jeff Dunham as a guest appraiser when one of the bidders encounters an actual dummy. ... The third season of A&E's American Hoggers (10/9c) opens on a note of Ewing-level Texan discord, as Boss Hogger Jerry Campbell's daughter Krystal decides to start her own rival operation. ... TBS knows synergy, which explains why The Big Bang Theory's Kunal Nayyar (Raj) is the first celebrity prankster featured on the disposable new Punk'd-style hidden-camera competition series Who Gets the Last Laugh?, which premieres (10/9c) amid a sea of Big Bang repeats. ... Joanna Cassidy is one hot momma. After playing Booth's estranged mom on Monday's Bones, she returns to ABC's Body of Proof (10:01/9:01c) as Megan's mother, as the determined doc inches closer to the truth about her father's suicide. Christopher McDonald, currently on Broadway with Tom Hanks in the Nora Ephron play Lucky Guy, guests as a fraudulent investment-fund manager who's kidnapped and possibly killed — unless he's faking that, too.