The thought of reliving the awkward growing pains of early adolescence is probably unappealing to most. Thankfully, Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine do not share this view as they return for the second season of the boundary-pushing, Emmy-nominated middle school “traumedy” PEN15.
Portraying versions of themselves as 13-year-old best friends Anna Kone and Maya Ishii-Peters, the thirtysomething series co-creators are surrounded by teenage actors playing their classmates. An unusual coming-of-age conceit that continues to bear fruit (adult body doubles are used for sensitive scenes, notes a disclaimer) allows for an in-depth exploration of topics previously considered taboo. Taking place in the year 2000, the time capsule element adds to the wistful, cringe-laden nostalgia.
“Everyone hates me at school,” Maya tells her mother (played by Erskine’s real mother, Mutsuko Erskine) after a particularly devastating incident. The life-ruining hyperbole runs throughout the pair’s antics from rebuffed romantic overtures to not being able to afford the latest fashion fads. Season two kicks off days after the events of the dance when Brandt (Jonah Beres) took the best friends into a closet and hit an over-the-shirt second base milestone.
Worried about his reputation, Brandt tells the social outcasts to keep this indiscretion to themselves. As with the previous exploration of burgeoning sexuality, PEN15 tackles the double standards adolescent girls face with pinpointed truthfulness. Reputations are etched in stone at this age (one girl earned the nickname “Icebox” for something she didn’t even do) and cruel gossip thrives in this setting.
Teen television has long set out to portray the nightmarish existence of growing up. Recently, Netflix’s Sex Education takes a head-on approach to hormones, Euphoria is every parents’ fears come to life, and adult animation Big Mouth expertly navigates the middle school quagmire. The latter comes closest to PEN15, which also doesn’t shy away from menstruation and female desire – two traditionally underrepresented topics.
Maya got her first period at the end of season one, which she lied to BFF Anna about. The so-called “elephants in the basement” (Anna accidentally renames the idiom) lingers, a secret bubbling between the pair with the potential to threaten their close bond. Everything is heightened at this age, including feelings of betrayal.
Anna’s parents’ impending divorce is a thread weaving throughout the first seven episodes of this season (the second half will air in 2021) that doesn’t get any easier for the only child. Fraught mother-daughter interactions are a repeated theme in both households, as the pair seek independence while clinging to the security of home. “I’m sorry, I’m just hormonal,” Anna yells at her disappointed parents in the third episode.
Last year, a Maya/Anna sleepover earned the pair (with Stacy Osei-Kuffour) a writing Emmy nomination. Expanding the number of participants, another overnight get-together walks a fine line between hilarious and devastating. A stomach-churning portrayal of insecurity, embarrassment and excitement, ‘Sleepover’ is a searing depiction of teenage anxiety that hits on a visceral level. Boys aren’t exempt from social paranoia whether it is reputation, ditching friends for the popular kids, or the cruelty of homophobic slurs when coming to terms with sexuality.
It doesn’t matter if you were thirteen at the turn of the millennium, some feelings and experiences are universal. The potency of PEN15 is in the moments that send you spiralling back to adolescence, whether capturing the ache of a first crush or grappling with burgeoning adulthood. It is also incredibly funny with both Erskine and Konkle manifesting the uncomfortable physicality of a changing body.
Additionally, the supporting cast makes you forget the unique concept with a standout performance from series newcomer Ashlee Grubbs as potential friendship wedge, Maura. Maya and Anna might be unpopular at school, but the second season of PEN15 proves they are anything but.
The first seven episodes of Pen15 Season 2 will be available on Hulu from September 18.
Published 8 Sep 2020
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