There’s a brilliant visual gag in Hulu’s middle-school raunchy comedy PEN15. Co-creators and lead actors Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, both in their thirties, play the 13-year-old version of themselves while the other middle schoolers characters are played by actual middle-school-aged kids. This may seem a little distracting in the beginning, especially in the first few episodes of the first season. But as the show goes on, this hilarious gimmick evolves into something more profound: an excellent way to mine the catharsis of reliving past trauma that Erskine and Konkle, along with co-creator Sam Zvibleman, are clearly trying to capture in the first place.
Yes, underneath all the awkwardness and humor, PEN15 is a show about all the traumatic experiences that happen in middle school; about the insecurity of realizing that you’re not as cool as you assume to be; about what it feels like to be embarrassed in front of your first crush. And by having Erskine and Konkle play the tween version of themselves, the show grants itself an opportunity to address those middle school pain and trauma from the perspective of adults that watching it unfolds is like reopening an old diary from when you were a tween that you’ve kept hidden under your bed for a very long time.
The first part of season two (which drops September 18 on Hulu) doubles down on those cathartic feelings by zooming in even closer into all the personal challenges that Maya and Anna are facing both in school and at home. Racist remarks are still casually thrown toward Maya and her family’s Japanese heritage here and there; Anna is still struggling to deal with her parents’ divorce too; then on top of everything, the two still have to navigate the hell that is being the uncool kids on school at the same time. Obviously, by focusing more on the emotional catharsis of Maya and Anna’s middle school experience, the season can be a bit more dramatic — and at times, it does get a little more serious than the first season. But it wouldn’t be PEN15 if it didn’t know how to address all those topics with humor and heart. And season two, thankfully, still knows how to find the perfect balance between raunchy comedy and drama; so even when things get heavier along the way, the show always manages to be hilarious without dismissing the depth of the subjects it’s trying to explore.
Picking up exactly where the first season finale left off, season two begins with Maya and Anna still feeling the joy of being “felt” by Brandt (Jonah Beres) on the night of the school dance. Maya, in particular, is excited beyond belief, especially after Brandt utters the L word to her. What she doesn’t prepare, however, is whether or not Brandt means what he said the night before. So when she and Anna find out the next day at one of their friends’ pool party that Brandt doesn’t mean what he said to Maya, and that he refuses to even acknowledge what the three of them did together, they find themselves back at square one; feeling worthless and insecure just like how we saw them mostly in the first season. It’s an intriguing start point to begin the season, and not just because it allows our two heroines to still be the underdogs of the story, but also because of how it forces them to, once again, find a way to reinvent themselves to survive the tidal wave of disappointments that they keep getting every day.
And survive they must. Whether befriending a creepy rich girl named Maura (Ashlee Grubbs), despite all the warning signs, or joining the wrestling club just so they could get closer to the boys, who are less mean than most of the girls in the school, what Maya and Anna do throughout the season is a surviving mechanism; one that they assume can keep their heads above the water. The season’s outstanding third episode ‘Vendy Wiccany’ (directed by Zvibleman and written by Konkle), is a great example of that notion. In it, we follow Maya and Anna “practicing” witchcraft after the latter witnesses her parents get into a big fight at home. And in this particular episode, it’s become even clearer what PEN15 S2 wants us to understand: how transformative friendship and imagination are to a tween — an age when you’re still unable to fully process what’s happening around you, let alone articulate all kind of traumas that are subjected to you.
Throughout the season, this is the big theme that the show keeps coming back to. We see it when Maya projecting an image of her desired first kiss, or when she’s imagining how easy it must be to lead a school play despite her lack of experience. We also see it when Anna assuming that her witch power is the reason why her parents do not fight, at least for one night. Even from smaller characters, this theme of tweens’ imagination is still deftly explored, like when Maura creating a fake friend from a figure she sees in a magazine to deal with her loneliness. And all of these are always treated with care and empathy. Never once does the show ridicule what the characters are going through. Even when the jokes get increasingly hilarious from time to time, the struggles that Maya and Anna are facing never feels invalidated just because it’s not as big of a deal as the ones faced by adults. If anything, PEN15 always makes sure that no matter how seemingly trivial those struggles are, the pain and feelings that come with it are real.
While its depiction of pubescent trauma is what makes the season more cathartic, the best part of PEN15 remains the friendship between Maya and Anna, with Erskine and Konkle’s chemistry making their relationship all the more authentic. Particularly in this season, we see them coming to terms with the fact that they may not do all of their “firsts” together, and that they’re certain parts of their personal lives that they can’t always share with each other. But this is not by any means a sign of backward in their friendship; it’s growth, and it’s a good thing that Maya and Anna begin to realize how real relationships work.
In one episode, Sophie B. Hawkins’ “As I Lay Me Down” is played while the two are sharing a tender moment, being vulnerable in front of each other. And it’s the perfect song to capture Maya and Anna’s friendship. “I’m still recalling things you said to make me feel alright,” Hawkins sings as Anna lays her head on Maya’s lap. “I carried them with me today.” In the end, Maya and Anna may not be able to do and/or share everything together like they promised they would, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t always be there to comfort each other; to make them feel alright when the other needs them to. PEN15 understands this better than any other shows; how easier our lives would be if we can find the Anna to our Maya. And for that very reason, it’s safe to say that our lives will be better with Pen15 in it.