When “Pen15” first premiered, it came with a lot of questions. Was it a satire? Was it a sketch? Was it yet another attempt by Hollywood to mine our collective nostalgia for cold hard cash? After all, the Hulu comedy’s initial calling card was that two 30-something women were playing seventh graders, surrounded by a supporting cast of actual adolescents, in a ’90s show filled with landline phone calls, outrageous outfits, and an unnervingly real recreation of teenage AIM etiquette.
But just as Season 1 proved to the world what “Pen15” isn’t — it’s sincere, not satiric, hilarious but not a sketch, and nostalgic only when you aren’t quaking with horror from all that excruciating teenage angst — its debut also proved to its creators what these characters could do. Thanks to convincing performances, beautifully evoked empathy, and top-notch detail in its production and writing, Anna (played by Anna Konkle) and Maya (played by Maya Erskine) connected with viewers as real people — they weren’t caricatures, sketches of characters, or self-mocking recreations of the co-creators’ past selves. In Season 2, it’s clear that Konkle, Erskine, and Sam Zvibleman (the one co-creator who does not play himself) trust their story to honestly tackle big moments, and that allows “Pen15” to become even better than before.
Season 2 kicks off innocently enough, as Maya and Anna head to a friend’s pool party in the hopes of sorting out their respective romantic entanglements. It’s only a few days after the dance, when they were both “felt up” by Brandt (which, it must be said, is an epically douchey boy’s name), and Maya still hopes to salvage a relationship with the apathetic young man. Anna is more concerned with shutting things down for good with Gabe (Dylan Gage), and the shared doom of each mission only brings the two closer together.
Maya and Anna’s indelible bond remains a high point, and there are still new secrets, pastimes, and in-jokes that only we, the audience, get to know. Being invited to behold such innocent mutual adoration, such pure friendship, feels exciting on its own, and credit must again be given to the energetic and in-tune collaboration between Konkle and Erskine. They really throw themselves into each other in a way that cements the connection we’re asked to invest in.
…which makes it all the more painful when their inevitable disagreements arise. Erskine, Konkle, and Zvibleman (who also directs every episode) really hone in on the complicated feelings of jealousy, ownership, and betrayal that are so heightened during adolescence and so hard explain — then and now. When a third friend enters the picture, Maya and Anna are both drawn to her, but that doesn’t mean the duo can easily transition into a trio. Little moments, be it a miscommunication or an overstep, are magnified by the savvy observance of each perspective. Cutaways are well-timed, scenes are tightly crafted, and it all works together to create an immensely awkward and painfully relatable experience.
The fourth and fifth episodes are particularly difficult to endure, and anyone still coping with painful memories of adolescent embarrassment should go in with shields up. Still, “Pen15” masterfully orchestrates these humiliating set-ups — a shopping trip with the moms, a sleepover filled with secrets — not just because they’re truthful reminders of what teens have to endure, but because they show us how true friendships are forged. (Though hoo boy, are they an icy Gatorade shower kind of reminder of what a flood of hormones can make you say and do.) And above all else, “Pen15” is a convincing and grand portrayal of friendship.
The last two episodes in the first half of Season 2 — which consists of 14 total episodes, with seven premiering in September and the rest expected in 2021 — again push the two stars to new extremes and again pull apart the friends. This time, it’s only a slight divergence rather than a heated separation (Anna and Maya join the same play, but on either side of the curtain) and the way “Pen15” coaxes many, many laughs out of their dispute shows just how in tune the writers are with their story. Tone can be a tricky thing to balance, but this team leads their audience on an enriching journey; welcoming them in with a few charming entries, pulling them through the hardships, and then rewarding them with a cathartic triumph.
“Pen15” will have you screaming at your fellow viewers over how hard it is to watch friends and families fight, and a half-hour later you’ll be howling with laughter at their wild, endearing antics. Typically, half-seasons can make for a disjointed experience, as you’re jerked away from the story before it delivers on its set-ups. There’s a bit of that here, but “Pen15” Season 2, Part 1 still feels whole enough to watch right now. Not only do we really need some joy in 2020, but confidence is contagious — and Season 2 has confidence to spare. Don’t miss it.
“PEN15” Season 2 premieres its first seven episodes Friday, September 18 on Hulu.
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