Pen15 is back, offering a fresh parade of cringe-worthy flashbacks to the agony of adolescence in the 2000s. Season 1 saw besties Maya Ishii-Peters (Maya Erskine) and Anna Kone (Anna Konkle) taking on 7th grade with clumsy first kisses, bullying boys, and stumblings into self-love. Season 2 shoves this daffy duo into the deep-end of awkwardness, from pool parties to sleepovers, school plays, and the requisite Wiccan phase.
The comedy of Pen15 comes not from laughing at our flustered heroines as they fumble desperately in their attempts to be cool. Instead, it comes from the startling recognition of these moments in our own lives. Season 2 leans even harder into the discomfort of adolescence, meaning the show is not laugh-out-loud funny as much as it is ruthlessly observational about our most ludicrous coming-of-age landmarks. While I watched, I was hit by wave after wave of memories. Classmates I hadn’t thought about in decades floated to the surface, full names intact, quirks radiant and weird as ever.
An episode in which the girls dabble in witchcraft plunged me back into that summer when a gaggle of girls and I created our own coven. Gathering in a cool basement den, we watched a VHS tape about ESP that we’d surreptitiously rented at a Family Video. When the girls meet a new friend who spins implausible stories and offers the snacking perks of upper-class domesticity, she was so familiar I had the strange urge to check up on her on Facebook. When the girls get into a savage fight with their mothers while thrift store shopping, I felt a pang of guilt that made me think I should probably call my mom. I could smell the musty carpet of that basement. I could see the sparkle of that girl’s braces and the desperation in her eyes. I could feel my shoulders tense in frustration. Season 2 captures these experiences so crisply that watching them is like time traveling back to when you too were painfully awkward.
However, what sets Pen15 apart from something like Eighth Grade or Lady Bird are the surreal elements woven into the storytelling. Most notably, co-creators/stars Erskine and Konkle are full-grown women playing 8th graders opposite actual children. In every setup, this visually sets them apart as misfits, while pairing them more fiercely together in their shared deviation. Then, to emphasize how the girls feel, the show abandons realism for bursts of absurdity.
In a sequence where the girls feel empowered by a recent bout of workouts, they don’t just strut down the school hallway. They do so with each wearing one half of a foam muscle suit under their clothes. Mya’s chest looks like a He-Man action figure, while Anna’s thighs are so ripped they could snap the head off a gym coach. To show us how one girl imagines her debut in the school play might go, her bedroom transforms into a spotlight stage, her head adorned in a sophisticated wig, her shoulders draped in a cool costume as she bellows lines like she’s Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Finally, to exhibit how the girls feel empowered by yet afraid of their spurts of spellcasting, their cozy suburban setting transforms into a wild forest where magic would spark like the campfire of Are You Afraid of the Dark?
These flights of fantasy are strange and exciting, not only because they usher us into the hearts of these thoughtfully crafted characters, but also because they display what fearless and fascinating imaginations Erskine, Konkle, and fellow creator Sam Zvibleman possess. Each episode makes you wonder what could possibly come next?
Yet, for all this spectacle of awkwardness, cringe-comedy, and empathetic fantasy, the scenes that hit hardest are those that allow Erskine and Konkle to just play kids who are crushed. The dropped head of an impossible extrovert or the crumpled chin of a Daddy’s girl don’t need any gussying up to devastate. The incredible team behind Pen15 knows it.
Often, it’s hard to top the first season of a high-concept show, because no matter how good the gimmick, the surprise of seeing it in action wears off. This is not the case for Pen15. Season 1 is an introduction not only to the concept and characters but also to the brilliant and bizarre minds of Erskine, Konkle, and Zvibleman. Season 2 is not about topping the first but about digging deeper into the feelings, fantasies, and side arcs. Small moments carefully laid across the episodes develop the characters of the girls’ former friend Sam (Taj Cross), his shy bud Gabe (Dylan Gage), and Anna’s mom (Melora Walters). The girls’ growing awareness of other people’s stories hints at a reluctantly blossoming maturity, which teases a third season in an emotionally jolting way. So, while this season may be less flat-out funny, it’s more poignant and fascinating. That has me hoping production halts won’t crush hopes of a what could come in a Season 3.
Pen15 Season 2 premieres September 18, only on Hulu.
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