By Lanford Beard
Updated April 16, 2013 at 07:15 PM EDT
Credit: MTV

When Awkward. wrapped up last September, the gang had finished their sophomore year: Jenna (Ashley Rickards) had resolved her mommy issues and DTR’d with Matty (Beau Mirchoff). Jenna’s BFF Tamara (Jillian Rose Reed) and ex-boyfriend Jake (Brett Davern) were sparking en route to a European class trip with TMI-prone guidance counselor Valerie (Desi Lydic), who’s been putting the pal in Vice Principal since an unexpected promotion. And, for just a moment, it seemed all would be well in Palos Verdes. Not so fast!

Tonight’s season opener (a two-episode kickstart to this year’s supersized 20-episode run) is called “Cha-Cha-Cha-Changes” for a reason. “A lot has changed, and a lot will change,” Rickards tells EW. “Last season was about change, and this season is deciphering if that change is the change you want. It’s figuring out ‘Where does the past fit into the present, and where does the future work with where I am now?'”

Series creator Lauren Iungerich agrees that season 3 will see the teens embarking on a more introspective phase of their lives. “This season is junior year, where you start to think about college. It’s the Thursday night of high school,” she says. “You have to start really thinking about your future. So this season is really examining ‘Who do I want to be?’ With that comes a lot of complication for Jenna and the rest of the characters.”

From the jump, Jenna is confronted with shifting dynamics all around her — including uncertainty in her friendship with Tamara and shocking death in the second episode — that take her to a dark place. “Last year, I think I told every outlet that I just couldn’t believe where Jenna would go,” says Rickards, “and I kind of feel duped because that was true then, but this time it’s very true. I’m genuinely worried for my character. The theme of the season is ‘Who do I want to be?’ and she is figuring that out in every way possible. We’ve got 20 episodes to get into it, and she goes into some dark places that, as an actress, I’m really excited to play.”

Iungerich notes, “For the first time, we’re going to see Jenna become an underdog of her own volition. The first season, she was an underdog by circumstances that other people had placed her in. The second season, she was an everygirl — she had a cool boyfriend, she was accepted. For season 3, we really wanted to challenge it and make Jenna more and more human.” She continues, “I think you’re going to root for her even more this season because she’s going to exhibit more human moments that we all can relate to — she’s not so perfect. By ‘perfect,’ I mean she’s [always been] such a moral do-gooder.”

With Jenna suddenly in a place of having it all in her relationship with Matty, some of that moral fuzziness could arise with the arrival of a new classmate named Collin (Nolan Funk). Rickards obliquely teases, “When we introduce a hot guy to the show, drama’s going to happen.”

Whether that drama shakes up Matty himself, Iungerich says there’ll a lot more on the handsome jock’s plate regardless. “I really wanted to make Matty the new Jenna on some level,” she says, though she won’t say what exactly that means. “I love exploring the boys. Typically in teen shows, the boys are sort of cookie-cutter, and they’re there just there to be the love interest, you don’t really get to know them. We’re really going to get to know more about Matty’s life, the things that he struggles with, more of why he’s with Jenna, and that he’s not just this good-looking guy. On many levels, Matty is one of the biggest elements of the heart of the show. You’d think he’s just a dumb jock, but he’s not dumb. He might even be more insecure than Jenna.”

NEXT: What season 3 holds for Jake, Tamara, Sadie, and Valerie — plus a teen icon plays a new character

Though it’s no surprise Jake will continue to challenge Matty — they did fight over Jenna for two seasons — the way that Jake (who’s now lips-deep in a relationship with Tamara) throws a wrench into the works is unexpected. Jake and Jenna “had a very special relationship,” says Iungerich. “Jake communicated better with Jenna than Matty communicates with Jenna. Therein lies a really interesting dynamic of complication for Tamara and Matty when they all hang out together.” She continues, “For Jake, we wanted to see this sensitive guy kind of put on the pants this season. He’s not going to be just an easy-going guy who’s a pushover. He’s with Tamara, she’s a handful.”

Though Jenna’s mentor Valerie spent the summer bonding with Jamara, she’s not going too far out of Jenna’s life. “Valerie has a big arc this season that is interwoven with Jenna’s arc in some respects,” says Iungerich. Adds Rickards, “Valerie’s always been an integral part of Jenna’s sphere. She’ll still be in there. They’ll still have weird conversations and that incredible advice Valerie gives her.”

We can also still expect Val’s trademark oversharing, promises Iungerich: “The fun of writing for Valerie is, like, ‘How many ways can we get her to cross inappropriate boundaries? How can we complicate her and work her in?'”

Alas, that oversharing won’t be related to Mr. Hart, a new writing teacher played by John Hughes favorite Anthony Michael Hall. Initially, Iungerich and her writing staff “did want to have a love story for Desi and Anthony Michael Hall. We tried, believe me. We thought it was so funny, but we couldn’t make it work.”

The acerbic teacher will instead factor more heavily into Jenna’s life. Says Rickards, “This class will provoke to get a little bit more metaphorically naked. Jenna is pressured to become a little bit more vulnerable and to really experiment with her writing.” That experimentation will definitely have an impact on her primed-for-conflict friendship circle. Matty, Jake, and Tamara have always been “in her blog so, without fail, they’ll be involved” in her writing this season, Rickards promises.

Sadie also turns up in her writing class, and she’s up to her old tricks as Palos Hills High School’s resident mean girl. “Jenna’s always going to be hopeful,” says Rickards. “She’s always going to put her best foot forward, be the nice girl, the bigger person. And Sadie’s not. That doesn’t change.” One constant in a sea of change? You’re welcome.

Awkward.‘s hour-long season 3 premieres tonight at 10 p.m. ET on MTV.

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