'Awkward,' 'Defiance': Strangers in a strange world

Grant Bowler ("Desperate Housewives") stars in SyFy's latest series "Defiance." The series premieres Monday, April 15.
Grant Bowler ("Desperate Housewives") stars in SyFy's latest series "Defiance." The series premieres Monday, April 15.
Posted: April 16, 2013

* AWKWARD. 10 and 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, MTV.

* DEFIANCE. 9 p.m. Monday, Syfy.

I USED TO be embarrassed that I watched so many shows about high school - until I realized how many people watch high-school shows without having to cop to it.

Tune in to MTV's addictive "Awkward," which returns for its third season Tuesday with back-to-back episodes, and you'll know where you are: lockers, cafeteria, drama in the bathroom stalls.

But the things that go on in "Awkward" - from the love triangles to the timeless dilemmas of "nice" girls who want to have fun - don't require a high school.

"Grey's Anatomy" gets by with a hospital. "Scandal" does it in the White House. Even the shifting alliances and mean girls (and boys) of "Survivor" carry a whiff of adolescent insecurity.

Take any show whose main characters have been involved romantically with more than one of the other main characters, and I'll argue that didn't start with "Friends" but with high school, where the pool of potential partners might really be that limited.

Adolescence is also a time when the outsized expression of emotion doesn't seem as out of place as it does among, say, surgeons or lawyers, which may be one reason that some of the better TV shows ever made - "Friday Night Lights," "My So-Called Life," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" - were set in high school.

"Awkward" traffics in a few too many stereotypes to be quite at that level (and it lacks a Hellmouth). But amid the heightened reality that makes it a comedy, it has an honesty that sets it apart from a show like "Glee" (whose episode last week about a high-school shooting scare represents a new low for a show that's been heading downhill for a long time). And its appeal to fans of the late John Hughes isn't likely to be hurt by the addition of "Sixteen Candles" alum Anthony Michael Hall in a recurring role.

Ashley Rickards stars as Jenna Hamilton, who, after losing her virginity to a guy she barely knew at the time, became notorious because of an accident widely rumored to be a suicide attempt.

Naturally, she has a blog - which is to say, "Awkward" has a voiceover - to which she confides things she might not tell her closest friends.

In Tuesday's season opener, Jenna's starting her junior year in what seems like a better place than she was two years ago. But she's still keeping secrets. And an unexpected death triggers some equally unexpected reactions.

'Defiance' stands alone

TV show or video game?

Syfy's billing its latest series, "Defiance," as a "revolution in storytelling . . . an epic drama that will unfold both as an epic drama and as a multiplatform video game." I got a brief look at the game at a Syfy event in January and wasn't wowed, but then I'm not the target audience.

"Defiance" the TV show may not break new ground in its two-hour premiere Monday, but it does stand on its own as a watchable sci-fi series, with a Wild West vibe mixed with a bit of "Farscape"-meets-"West Side Story."

Set on a terraformed Earth, 33 years after the 2013 arrival of aliens - so there's still that to look forward to - "Defiance" stars Grant Bowler ("Liz & Dick") as Joshua Nolan, a nomadic type whose adopted daughter, Irisa (Stephanie Leonidas), is a member of one of the alien races now sharing the planet with humans.

(Irisa should have her own high-school show. She's great.)

After a carjacking, the pair find themselves in Defiance, a town built on what used to be St. Louis, where the new mayor (Julie Benz, "Dexter") oversees a community dominated by rival factions, one led by Rafe McCawley (Graham Greene), the other by the very pale Datak Tarr (Tony Curran). Mia Kirshner ("The L Word") plays the mayor's sister, who runs some sort of equal-opportunity brothel.

It should surprise no one that "Defiance" will find a way to keep Nolan from moving on. I'm not sure how long I'll stay myself, but there's enough happening here to warrant a second look.

Phone: 215-854-5950

On Twitter: @elgray

Blog: EllenGray.tv

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