We’re all freaks, we’re all fragile, and we all survived.
As a person who literally has burned old (extremely tame!) diary pages to keep from having to ever suffer even one iota of adult onset first-hand embarrassment, the first and only thing I felt when offered the chance to review Netflix’s new public-embarrassment-forward comedic docuseries, The Mortified Guide to Awkward Romance and More, was prey animal panic.
Sure, my brain knew that the live shows that fed the six hour-long episodes are long over, and that everyone who stands up on a Mortified stage to share their candidly angst-ridden childhood writings and art in front of total strangers chooses very actively to do so, and that no one is going to reach through the screen and grab me and my livejournal by the lapels and force me to perform the infuriatingly vague virtual shouts of late teen loneliness I’ll never be able to burn away (20 july 2005—one of the saddest things i can think of is sitting alone in a dark room, crying and eating barbecued meat), but WHAT IF. What if the act of watching other adults with mature senses of perspective take the emotionally healthy step to release their teen fragility into the wild acts like some kind of spiritual truth serum and forces me to run into the streets screaming my, like, three teen secrets?
Put in those terms, it seemed like the only appropriate response was “I’ll do it” and the only path to personal perspective, mainlining all six episodes in one sitting.
Friends—this series is so wonderful. It is warm and supportive and clearly working to be actively thoughtful about who it chooses to highlight each episode to best reflect the matter-of-fact diversity that makes up the universality of the human experience. It is also is embarrassingly funny—as in, you will laugh so loud and hard and often with (never at) the Mortified storytellers that you will embarrassed to be anywhere with people who aren’t watching with you. (Solution: make them all watch with you!) And yes, it might make you want to run into the streets screaming your own teen secrets when you’re done. But once you see how cathartic the experience is for everyone doing so in this very specific venue, you may no longer consider that the worst possible outcome. I mean, I opened this review talking about burning my own teen journals, and then went ahead and quoted my self-owning description of depressed solo BBQ. And I’m cool with it!
It isn’t just the cathartic stories of youthful misadventure that Mortified pulls from its participants that make this docuseries so successful, though—if it were, you could just subscribe to the podcast and let the secondhand embarrassment flow straight into your brain. And that’s a perfectly good option! But there is something lost by not being able to see the nervous but well-adjusted adults standing on stage in front of blown-up images of their childhood headshots, getting their own moments of teen mortification off their chest while very tangibly exchanging positive, supportive energy with all the other formerly mortified teens in the audience.
While that sounds like little more than an advertisement for the live shows (I’m definitely getting tickets for April’s show in DC), it is an even greater endorsement for the docuseries, which not only gives the Mortified team the opportunity to turn a lens on whole themes of the grand(ly awful) teen experiment, but also allows for a kind of visual collage format that elevates the material in a viscerally affecting way, splicing the live performances with a kind of VH1 Behind the Music look at the very human contexts of both the storytellers’ fuller teen lives (told through a combination of faux school picture day talking head interviews and visits back home), the collectively awkward and joyful experience of the audience members in attendance (told through montage man-woman-person-on-the-street interviews outside the various venues), and a handful of judiciously deployed, often animated “Show and Tell” and “Re-en-AWK-ment” sequences.
The docuseries format also allows for the people-on-the-street interviewees to contribute to a visual montage of the show’s tagline—“We are all freaks, we are all fragile, and we all survived”— to put a fun and conclusive button on the end of each episode, and what results is a watch experience that is satisfyingly multidimensional soul-affirming, and which leaves one, despite any initial prey animal panic to the contrary, ready for more.
Hear that, The Mortified Guide? This fragile, diary-burning adult wants more. I hope to see you back with a follow-up series here next year.
The Mortified Guide is available streaming on Netflix beginning February 14, and is currently available to rent or own on Amazon.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She
can be found @AlexisKG.