by Jen Chaney, Vulture
The second season of PEN15 is going to break your heart.
It’s also going to do all the things that the first season of PEN15 did: make you laugh, cringe, and occasionally avert your eyes to avoid bearing witness to middle-school humiliations that may trigger seventh-grade PTSD. But in the initial seven episodes of season two, dropping on Friday, September 18, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, the creators of this off-kilter yet completely accessible Hulu series in which they star as their adolescent alter egos, commit even more fully to uncovering the fragility in every interaction between kids whose hormones have staged a coup on their hearts and minds.
Over the course of season two’s first half — the latter half will arrive next year — Anna and Maya navigate unrequited crushes, slut-shaming, a brief phase in which they practice witchcraft, parental discord, and a foray into the world of middle-school theater. They also become tight with a new, seemingly cool girl named Maura (Ashlee Grubbs), who immediately changes Maya’s and Anna’s lexicon — they start using the word “fool” a lot — and the dynamic between them. PEN15 is so astute in its observations of young female behavior that it instinctively understands how much even the smallest show of affection is magnified through young teen binoculars. Viewers may empathetically twitch every time Maura links arms with or hugs one of the girls and leaves out the other.
When you’re 12 or 13, every cell in your body screams out for validation almost every second of every day. PEN15 makes that feeling visceral in constant awkward glances and the stunned expressions of girls being told they are ugly. Erskine and Konkle deliver performances that are so naturally believable that it’s easy to forget how astonishing it is that they are naturally believable. These are women in their early 30s, playing middle schoolers opposite other middle-school-age kids and actually pulling that off. Never once, in any episode, is the viewer even temporarily reminded that they are adults. Both of them were great in season one, but in this season they have seeped even more deeply into these characters. Though it’s never spoken, it’s obvious in the way that they carry themselves that any optimism about seventh grade is slowly starting to leak out of their bodies.
Both Maya and Anna have unusual family situations. As a traveling musician, Maya’s dad is often away from home, but Anna definitely has it harder. Her parents are separated and trying to live in different halves of the same house. In one scene, as Maya and Anna attempt to watch Are You Afraid of the Dark?, a shouting match between Anna’s parents can be heard. Looking embarrassed, Anna admits that they argue a lot. Maya says she can’t even hear it, because she’s watching the show, and the way Erskine plays the moment, that reaction is obviously an act of generosity and love on Maya’s part.
Their mothers are much more invested in the girls’ upbringing and, consequently, are resented. During a shopping trip, Maya and Anna each call their moms horrible names. It’s not lost on the viewer that the sting their mothers feel is not so different from the sting the girls feel when they’re rejected by other girls, boys, or even each other. This especially won’t be lost on anyone who happens to be the parents of a preteen or teenager.
While Maya and Anna remain the focus of PEN15, the series broadens its focus a bit more to spend time with the boys, especially Gabe (Dylan Gage), who is struggling with his sexuality and his feelings about his best friend Sam (Taj Cross), who is spending more time with his friends from the wrestling team. In a lot of shows, Gabe would come to terms with being gay in an episode or two, but PEN15 lets him sit with his feelings and not fully figure out what they mean or how to process them.
In case this review suggests that PEN15 has become more My So-Called Life than comedy, rest assured there are some very funny moments. When Maya emerges from a duffel bag to announce her arrival at a sleepover, she announces that she’s paying homage to “Ace Ventura coming out of the rhino’s butt” in Ace Ventura: Nature Calls. Erskine’s expressions and sometimes over-the-top bids for attention, whether she’s directly paying tribute to Ace Ventura or not, have a genuinely go-for-broke, Jim Carrey quality. Konkle, the dry-comedy side of the duo, milks some very funny moments out of Anna’s power trip as stage manager of the middle-school play. “It’s a lighting thing,” she says self-righteously at one point. “You wouldn’t understand.”
As it did in its first season, PEN15 does a superb job of evoking turn-of-the-millennium culture. Anna and Maya drool over an oversize Tommy Hilfiger shirt and chug Surge soda when things get wild at that sleepover. Anyone who came of age back then will feel transported right back to that moment in time because of the attention to detail in the references, costumes, and production design. But even if you’re too old or too young to have gone through puberty in the late 1990s/early 2000s, the show remains relatable. The beauty of PEN15 is that it’s recognizable to everyone because we’ve all been through adolescence. We know how it felt. Sometimes we forget, but PEN15 is here to remind us of every glorious, agonizing, infuriating, beautiful moment.
Costume Designer: Melissa Walker