‘Pen15’ Review: Season 2 Is All the Joy and Pain of Adolescence Captured in One Excellent Comedy (2024)

‘Pen15’ Review: Season 2 Is All the Joy and Pain of Adolescence Captured in One Excellent Comedy (1)

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.

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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.

Grade: A-

“PEN15” Season 2 premieres its first seven episodes Friday, September 18 on Hulu.

‘Pen15’ Review: Season 2 Is All the Joy and Pain of Adolescence Captured in One Excellent Comedy (2024)


Why is PEN15 season 2 split? ›

Leading up to the release of the second half of Season 2, both Erskine and Konkle had discussed the show's conclusion quite candidly, stating that they had envisioned the series' story as a three-season arc and that safety precautions necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic had made the production much more difficult to ...

Is PEN15 getting a season 3? ›

Pen15 won't be back for a third season so you can start sobbing into your Trapper Keeper now. The second half of season 2, the show's final episodes, will premiere in December.

How old are Anna and Maya in PEN15 Season 2? ›

The women, who are both thirty-four, are co-creators and co-stars of “PEN15,” a Hulu series in which they play versions of themselves as teen-agers, the thirteen-year-old best friends and misfits Maya Ishii-Peters and Anna Kone.

What was Maya from PEN15 diagnosed with? ›

They spend time reminiscing with each other, and whether they've made the right choices in their lives. When Yuki returns home, she spends time alone with Maya and Shuji, and tells them both how much she loves them. Maya is diagnosed with ADD and Irlen syndrome.

Were Maya and Anna friends in real life? ›

Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle don't just share names with the characters they portray on Hulu's PEN15, they also share the same close friendship in real life.

Why did PEN15 get cancelled? ›

The news emerged in a long profile of creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle in the New Yorker. The pair said that they always envisioned the series as three seasons but the pandemic – the show was forced to shut down production due to Covid19 – hastened the ending.

Did Brandt actually like Maya? ›

The show picks up just two days after the events of the Season 1 finale, which included Maya and Anna being felt up by Maya's crush Brandt (Jonah Beres) in the janitor's closet at the fall dance. Brandt admitted he likes Maya, too, but warned her not to tell anyone.

Is Maya half white in PEN15? ›

Family and background: Similar to the actress who plays her, Maya is born to an ethnic Japanese mother (played by her real life mother) and a Caucasian father. Her mother's occupation is not stated, but it can be implied she is a stay-at-home mom.

Is it Maya's real mom in PEN15? ›

There are many connections between the show and her real life— both her fictional and real father are drummers, and Maya went as far as casting her own mom to play alongside the fictional Maya, a comical version of her younger self.

Is Shuji really Maya's half brother? ›

In Sleepover, Maya reveals that Fred is not Shuji's biological father, saying that Shuji is her half brother, "but we're basically full." As a bit of trivia, Maya Erskine's father, Peter Erskine, is a professional jazz drummer who has played with many famous musicians/bands including Weather Report and Michael Bublé.

Why do Maya and Anna look so old in PEN15? ›

Erskine and Konkle are both 33 years old — an age that's a little too old, even in Hollywood, to be playing young teens. And although they're styled in middle-school-appropriate ways, the show makes absolutely no effort to conceal the actresses' ages; in fact, their adulthood is a key part of the show's quirky concept.

Did Maya end up with Sam in real life? ›

Of the budding relationship between the Maya and Sam characters, Konkle clarified that in real life Erskine and Zvibleman aren't in love. “So we added a lot of fiction into our experiences and tried to weave them together to create interesting dynamics.”

What mental illness did Maya have? ›

The name belonged to a 10-year-old girl who had just been admitted for abdominal pain. Smith listened as a doctor detailed the case. The girl's parents, Beata and Jack Kowalski, had told the hospital that Maya suffered from a neurological disorder called complex regional pain syndrome, or CRPS.

What parts of PEN15 are true? ›

Their connections with their parents reflected real-life and heartfelt moments. So much of the drama and intrigue of PEN15 was the coming-of-age struggles of Maya and Anna, and their connections with their parents reflected real-life and heartfelt moments that brought the over-the-top comedy back down to Earth.

Why does Maya throw up in PEN15? ›

Toward the end of the episode, Maya's older brother, Shuji (Dallas Liu), helps her realize she's been at the receiving end of racial microaggressions for much of her life but never pieced them in a pattern before. In classic “PEN15” fashion, Maya responds by trauma-vomiting.

Why is season 2 episode 8 of PEN15 a cartoon? ›

This episode was animated in part because of the shooting restrictions caused by the Coronavirus pandemic that began in March 2020.

Why did PEN15 end like that? ›

We were only 13 for so long. It's something we've gone back and forth with, but it does feel like you just don't want to stretch the premise too thin and keep the integrity of the show. ERSKINE: You don't want to jump the shark. KONKLE: Yeah, so that's the main reason.

What grade are they in in season 2 of PEN15? ›

PEN15 is middle school as it really happened, in all its R-rated glory. Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle star, playing younger versions of themselves as awkward 7th grade outcasts, surrounded by actual 13-year-olds. Set in 2001, Maya and Anna face the trials and tribulations of middle school.

Did they use body doubles in PEN15? ›

PEN15 Made Sure Everyone Felt Safe On The Set

Body doubles were used for romantic sequences. Body doubles were used for romantic sequences between Erskine and Konkle's characters and the kids in the series, and camera tricks were also used.

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