Pen15 Season 2 Part 1 (Hulu)
Written by Sam Zvibleman, Gabe Liedman, Anna Konkle, Vera Santamaria, Josh Levine, and Maya Erskine
Directed by Sam Zvibleman
The first season of Pen15 was a wonderfully funny, absurd examination of female adolescence at the start of the 21st century. The creators and writers managed to balance the pathos & pain of growing up with inventive moments of comedy, most notably the two leads being played by thirtysomething against a cast of age-appropriate classmates. Season two took a slightly different route and ended up being much heavier & downbeat in its episodes’ conclusions, highlighting the melancholy nature of being a young teen in the 2000s.
After last season, Anna (Anna Konkle) & Maya (Maya Erskine) find their lives in disarray in the wake of the recent school dance. They both went into a janitor’s closet with Maya’s crush, Brandt, and now she thinks it was the start of a relationship. Anna is sitting in the middle of her parents’ messy divorce, having both her mother and father sharing details that are just entirely not appropriate for their daughter to hear. The lesson the girls begin to learn in this first half of season two is that all their expectations of becoming popular and having certain classmates end up as their boyfriends are dreams that won’t come true.
One of the most prevalent plot elements in these seven episodes is the systematic slut-shaming of Anna & Maya. The girls spend the first episode at a pool party where they share some details of what happened with Brandt while gauging where he stands with them. They are confronted by kids at school who start to label them as sluts and whores. Maya’s obsession with Brandt feels proto-stalker-ish, so we do have sympathy with him in that regard, but how he chooses to push her away reminds us of how messy these very adult relationships become in the hands of children. She joins the wrestling team to try and impress him, but it ends in a humiliating fashion as expected.
How the girls try and cope with their public shaming at their peers’ hands and the divorce of Anna’s parents takes on several different faces. They spend an episode inventing their own wacky version of Wicca, complete with a homemade spellbook. The intensity that they embrace these imaginary ideas justifiably frightens some classmates, and we find ourselves somewhere in the middle, wishing young people had the sort of communication skills, so many adults lack.
The best addition to this season is Maura (Ashlee Grubbs). She is the kid who curses out her mom in front of her new friends and faces no consequences. She buys and gives away expensive gifts. Her mom is always bringing in a tray of pricey snacks while the pantry overflows with more. But Maura is also the kid who sows discontent between those in her friend group, continually shifting to disorient and talk shit about one to the other. Maura becomes someone whom Anna & Maya admire for material reasons. They both come from average to lower-middle-class families and see Maura’s life as the one they wish they could live. This story arc plays out how you might expect, but it appears Maura will be sticking around as a recurring character.
This season’s magic comes in the two-part mid-finale where Anna and Maya become involved with a school play. The play’s content is comically mature for young kids, a middle-aged married couple’s marriage falling apart. But the sentiment, orbiting around the girls discovering new friend groups and finding a thing that feels like it was made for them, is so sweet & beautiful. Maya Erskine wrote the penultimate episode that sets all of this up, and I suspect it is heavily based on her own first experiences in the performing arts as a kid.
That final episode so perfectly captures the intense swing of emotions adolescents feel in a single night, from the euphoria of being applauded on stage to the sobering crash back to reality when boys reject you, and your family’s dysfunction rears its head again. Even as adults, we are experiencing this in 2020 on a larger scale. Every day is such a roller coaster of highs and lows, and Pen15 reminds us not to believe that things would be better if we could back. Wrestling with your emotions and the disappointments of life is just part of existence. When we can, we need to cling to the joy we find as a reminder that it is still possible.