While there are many coming-of-age TV shows, very few have ventured into that time period between elementary and high school, known as middle school. At least outside of family corporations such as Disney and Nickelodeon, middle school fare is rare. Why is that? Regardless of the reason, Hulu’s PEN15 is one of the few shows that tackles tweens with an honesty that others are afraid to explore. Set in the early 2000s, the series is a time capsule for older millennials who are now grappling with the messiness of adulthood.
Created by Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, and Sam Zvibleman, PEN15 is one of the most refreshing shows on TV right now. In its second season, PEN15 is twice as awkward, but it’s twice as amazing. Hilarious with a lot of heart, PEN15 perfectly captures that strange time that’s so rarely depicted on screen. For those of us who weren’t cool kids, PEN15 will unearth some more than likely repressed memories. Better than the first season, the show’s second act gets a little deeper as its characters start to grow up and understand the complexities of life. Written primarily by Erskin, Konkle, and Zvibleman (along with episodes by Gabe Liedman, Josh Levine, and Vera Santamaria), the season is also directed by Zvibleman.
The new season of PEN15 begins days after the eventful dance that was shown in season one. With relationships changed, and their reputations on the line, Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna (Anna Konkle) face a fresh set of humiliating circumstances. Along the way, the best friends deal with unrequited crushes, lame pool parties, different extracurriculars, school superlatives, witchcraft, and more.
More so than in season one, Maya and Anna, and several other supporting characters start to grow up and open their eyes to the world around them. Anna deals with the repercussions of her parents’ divorce, and Maya continues to recognize microaggressions towards her. While racism doesn’t have as much of a starring role this season, it still hovers in the background. Additionally, the season gives more of a spotlight to Sam’s (Taj Cross) best friend Gabe (Dylan Gage) as he starts to discover romantic feelings, and question his sexuality. This is an interesting subplot that lends itself to some convoluted interactions with Maya and Anna down the line.
Another relationship we see with more clarity is Maya’s relationship with her mother (played by Erskine’s real-life mother Mutsuko Erskine). While Yuki can seem harsh and overbearing at times, she and Maya have a sweet relationship that blossoms in season two. We also get to see more of Anna’s relationship with her parents, particularly her mother (played by Melora Walters).
Like any middle school experience, PEN15 shows that friendships change, hearts are broken, and most kids simply want to be seen as cool. Those of us that actually weren’t cool will relate to the series, sometimes a little too well. For me, high school was a blip, a breeze even, but PEN15 reminded me of some events I haven’t thought of in years. Regardless of whether the memories were good or bad, they shaped me into what I am today. One thing that makes PEN15 special is that it doesn’t try to make its lead characters “cool.” There’s no magical makeover that changes everything. There’s no pressure for the girls to have sex or “grow up” in that regard. There’s no unrealistic portrayals of middle school kids (at least those that existed in the early 2000s).
Part of PEN15‘s brilliance and silliness is the fact that Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, completely grown women play the titular roles. In their performances, Erskine and Konkle are able to show a versatility that a lot of actors don’t get to show. What makes them stand out is how they embody being thirteen-year-old girls (kudos to costume designer Melissa Walker and the show’s makeup department) and it just seems to work. Erskine and Konkle are a dynamic duo, having created, written, and starred in their own show. Their on-screen chemistry is the heart of the series.
In episode six, “Play,” Maya rehearses for the school play. In the moment, the scene changes to where Maya is an adult version of her character, getting lost in her role. She sits at her desk, a shot glass to the side, a cigarette in her hand. This is one of the great acting moments of the season, showing the duality of Maya Erskine’s talent, and the power of a great makeup job. Outside of the serious moments, Erskine and Konkle seem to not take themselves too seriously, and play along well with the actual teenaged actors.
The conclusion of PEN15‘s second act is a cliff hanger, setting the series for a third season. With the currently television landscape, we hope that the series doesn’t become another victim of Covid-19 cancellations. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see Anna, Maya, and friends in eighth grade, where everything is tied up neatly. The show is a hoot, and we’re eager to see what comes of the PEN15 gang.