Entertainment

'PEN15' Season 2 Invites You to Revisit the Messy Hysteria of Middle School

The nostalgic comedy is back with more cringe-worthy high jinks on Hulu.

pen15 season 2
Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine | Lara Solanki/Hulu
Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine | Lara Solanki/Hulu

It's not an understatement to say that when PEN15 first hit Hulu in early 2019, a lot of people were hesitant to watch the comedy. If it wasn't the cringe-worthy title pulled from a trick 11-year-old assholes play in homeroom that made people roll their eyes, it was the bizarre and seemingly problematic concept of two 33-year-old women playing seventh graders among a supporting cast of actual 13-year-olds. But as anyone who's ever gone through middle school knows -- AKA literally everybody -- middle school is uncomfortable, so it makes sense that a show about it would be too.

PEN15 is also weird, but it's more than a one-season gimmick. The Lonely Island-produced show, created by stars Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine, as well as Sam Zvibleman, which launched the first half of Season 2 on Hulu on September 18, is one of the more relatable series on TV right now. While just about everybody is averse to recalling their embarrassing, unstylish, acne-prone days of yesteryear, PEN15 forces you to both laugh at that time in your life and earnestly recognize just how influential it is, all of its hysterics included.

Konkle and Erskine star as Anna Kone and Maya Ishii-Peters, a pair of best friends who are essentially 13-year-old versions of themselves, as they navigate seventh grade in the year 2000. That means going through puberty, trying to impress their more popular classmates, and struggling with self-esteem -- you know, that terrible, universal experience we all go through -- set in the days of AIM, gel pens, Spice Girls, and Tommy Hilfiger to especially pang the hearts of millennials everywhere. Like similar, recent works about middle school made for adults like Bo Burnham's 2018 film Eighth Grade and Netflix's animated series Big Mouth, PEN15 is willing to laugh at adolescence and unafraid to explore topics that made you cringe back then, and make you cringe even more now.

Season 1 unlocked the girls' Password Journals to cover the subjects of masturbation, make-out parties, chatting with strangers online, and wearing a thong for the first time. It's as if it's part light-hearted trip down memory lane and part harrowing endurance test, making you find the humor in your awkward adolescent shortcomings and see how important what mattered to you then really was, and still is.

pen15 season 2
Lara Solanki/Hulu

Of course, all that happens while Konkle and Erskine, donning bowl cuts, braces, and Lip Smackers to pretend to be kids, are acting opposite literal children who also play up their roles as tweenage brats that remind you of all of the dweebs and snobs from your own school hallways. While the age gap between the actresses and the kids serves as the show's operating punchline, there's something clever about the way that the two leads seamlessly depict 13-year-old characters. Yes, it's strange and can be off-putting when their characters share romantic scenes with their younger cast mates, but don't worry: These scenes are executed appropriately by using adult stand-ins or by simply cutting away before anything actually happens on screen. (The creators have spoken at length about wanting to protect the minors on set.) Because they revert to who they were at that age, there's ultimately a lot of endearing self-awareness written into their performances, which makes the series resonate for the fellow grown-ups watching and reflecting on their past selves right along with them.

Season 2 (the second half of which arrives in 2021) should convince anyone who still sees PEN15 as just an extended bit that it's more than that. While Season 1 explored topics like racism and the shame around sexuality, Season 2 goes even further at illustrating how emotional middle school is and it does an excellent job at validating how tough that period of adolescence -- that many still look upon with humility years later -- can be.

The new episodes pick up immediately after the events of last season's finale when Brandt (Jonah Beres) felt up Anna and Maya in the custodian's closet at the school dance -- a scene shot using an older stand-in actor for Brandt and angled so the actors never actually touch -- which leads to a whole bunch of outlandish rumors swirling that take a hit to the girls' self-esteem. Meanwhile at home, Anna faces her parents' failed attempt at a live-in separation and Maya is increasingly upset that her musician father is frequently absent, which culminates in the all too real result of them acting out and everybody around them unable to uncover what's wrong. The themes, on top of Konkle and Erskine's performances, prove this time around that, as wacky as PEN15 may be, it's both well-crafted and serious in its exploration of the awkward years.

pen15 season 2
Lara Solanki/Hulu

There's a scene in the fourth episode of Season 2 where Anna and Maya go shopping with their mothers that, although is not as LOL-worthy as their attempts to impress at a pool party, captures the heart of the series. Browsing through rows of second-hand clothes, the girls obsessively attempt to find the right labels even if they don't fit right, they're insecure about their bodies, and they end up snapping at their parents. In one way or another, we've all been in that fitting room, saying things to our parents we don't necessarily mean, trying to figure out what kind of person we want to be.

With its pointed writing and thoughtful shtick, PEN15 invites us all to revisit who we were at 13 and realize how warranted all of those outbursts and silly moments of our past selves were. Few comedies are as worthy of getting the dial-up going and setting your Buddy Message to "Away" for as this show is.

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Sadie Bell is the entertainment editorial assistant at Thrillist. She's on Twitter at @mssadiebell.