As portrayed on TV, teenage girls from the cocktail-swilling sophisticates of "Gossip Girl" to the divas-in-training of "Glee" -- often seem older than their years. What happened to coming-of-age stories such as "My So-Called Life" and "Freaks and Geeks" that captured teens in the awkward limbo between child and adult?
MTV steps into that gap with the aptly named "Awkward," the sometimes painfully funny story of 15-year-old Jenna Hamilton, who is struggling to get through high school (and attract the attention of a special boy) without dying of embarrassment. It airs at 10 p.m. Tuesdays.
Here's the setup: Jenna, played by Ashley Rickards, thought of herself as invisible, especially after an intimate encounter with jock Matty (Beau Mirchoff) at camp.
"Nobody can know that I like you," he told her afterward.
Then Jenna got an anonymous letter telling her "you could disappear and no one would notice." Sometimes, she wrote in her blog, "being a teenager makes you want to die."
The ensuing chain of events, including a fall, a hospital stay and a comically ridiculous shoulder cast, managed to get Jenna noticed for the first time, because everyone (including her parents and counselor) thought she attempted suicide.
As a result, she has resolved to stop fading into the background, and instead of "Invisible Girl," she has christened herself "That Girl."
"Awkward" debuted last month to positive reviews, and critics meeting in Los Angeles were delighted when MTV rounded up the cast and creator Lauren Iungerich for a Q&A session.
Jenna was born from "my awkward, embarrassing experiences as a teenager," Iungerich acknowledges. "I wrote this show to my 15-year-old self."
She doesn't think she has reinvented the wheel with this show.
"I've just tried to write something that's truly honest," she says.
Rickards, best known as Sam on "One Tree Hill" in the 2008-09 season, fell for "Awkward" because "the writing was so unique and so realistic, [and] none of these characters can be stereotyped."
Matty, the boy Jenna loves, "is much more than just the jock," she says. (There's another boy, too: Jake, played by Brett Davern, who would be perfect if he didn't already have a cheerleader girlfriend.) "My mom is much more than just the mom. All of them have incredible depth."
Characters will continue to surprise in the course of the season, Rickards says.
"We are going to see Matty go to lengths that we didn't think he could go to, good or bad," she says. "[Jenna will] go to lengths that test the boundaries of friendship, of relationships."
Like other characters, mean-girl Sadie (played by Nikki DeLoach) isn't the typical TV mean girl, and the facade surrounding her plus-size popularity dissolves in a future episode.
Even the boys are portrayed with rare nuance.
But the heart of "Awkward" is Jenna, and the message is her message. "The empowerment of this show is that she finds and defines herself for herself," Iungerich says.
Potential viewers shouldn't assume "Awkward" is sappy sweet or squeaky clean. Remember, this is MTV, and programming boss David Janollari has scheduled "Awkward" at the unusually late hour of 10 p.m.
Comedy, romance, depth of character development and potential scandal -- no wonder "Awkward" is an early hit. And no wonder Iungerich, whose slim writing credits include "10 Things I Hate About You," is so popular at MTV that Janollari has picked up a second season of "Awkward" and a second series from Iungerich.
"Dumb Girls," about twentysomethings who are smart about almost everything except the pursuit of the opposite sex, will debut next year.