Pop Culturing: Bullying, Boys and BFFs in the Wonderful 'PEN15' Season 2

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Sunday September 20, 2020

Anna Konkle, left, and Maya Erskine, right, in a scene from "PEN15."
Anna Konkle, left, and Maya Erskine, right, in a scene from "PEN15."  (Source:Lara Solanki/Hulu)

The second season of Hulu's brilliant comedy "PEN15," which debuts Friday, will be 14 episodes split into two parts (the second half will debut sometime next year due to the pandemic halting production). Though there are just seven episodes, "PEN15," created by its stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle along with Sam Zvibleman (he directs all of Season 2), ends up being a near-perfect stretch of TV, somehow improving on its fantastic first season.

"PEN15" follows Erskine and Konkle playing 13-year-old versions of themselves as they navigate all that comes with being a seventh grader in 2000. The gimmick here is that the two adult actors star with a number of actual teens. But the comedy is much more than genius gag and its juvenile name. It's an emotional journey that balances the trials and tribulations of how hard it is it to be a teen girl with some of the funniest writing on TV; it will make you laugh, cringe and cry and laugh again.

From left to right: Anna Konkle, Ashlee Grubbs, and Maya Erskine in a scene from "PEN15." Photo credit: Lara Solanki/Hulu

Season 2 feels bigger even with the shorter season (the second of half of Season 2 will arrive sometime next year); it's definitely more accomplished and ambitious, deserving to be in the conversation of the most-talked-about modern comedies ("Atlanta," "Insecure," "Better Things"). There's a small arc in the middle of the season where the tight duo meets Maura (Ashlee Grubbs), a fellow student who somehow has all the same interests as Maya and Anna. They take her into their small clique and come to realize that maybe there's something off with her; that relationship won't be spoiled here. But it's the last two episodes of Season 2 where the show explodes into something unexpected, putting both Erskine and Konkle in the conversation of the best comedic actors on TV. And a shout out goes to Zvibleman, whose direction this season elevates the show to a new level.

Best of all, "PEN15" radiates with empathy. The show cares about Maya and Anna and their deep bond (it's beyond friendship). The show treats their relationships — with each other, family, friends and boys — with respect and importance. (The show does the same with its support characters, including a friend on the periphery who is discovering his own sexuality.) Whether they're crushing on a boy who doesn't feel the same, discovering witch craft or having their first period, everything Maya and Anna experience is told with warmth but always remains funny. A situation or a problem that would be tossed off in another show is examined with care on "PEN15"; no trauma or change is too small.

Anna Konkle, left, and Maya Erskine, right, in a scene from "PEN15." Photo credit: Lara Solanki/Hulu

"When we were in the second season, one of the writers was like, 'I've never seen people break story like this. You break from emotion.' And we were like, 'Oh, yeah, I guess we do.' The challenge this season, which is not our comfort zone, was starting from plot," Erksine told Rolling Stone.

Things do get a bit serious in Season 2 as Anna's parents are going through a divorce and Maya again experiences bullying and othering as she did in the first season, and develops an unhealthy obsession with a boy. Both girls, too, have intense mother-daughter moments that climax when the foursome (Melora Walters plays Anna's mother Kathy and Mutsuko Erskine — Erskine's real mom—plays Maya's mother Yuki) get together for a shopping day that goes south.

"We're slut-shamed in the beginning and instantly start to hate ourselves, hate our vaginas and then hate women," Erskine told The New York Times. "So we wanted to show that reflection in our mothers, how you sort of turn against your mother at that age because you're kind of turning against yourself — your mom is a reflection of yourself. So I feel like that scene is something that you would be saying now, Anna, to your mom. It's sort of like a love letter, a rewrite apology."

Maya Erskine in a scene from "PEN15." Photo credit: Hulu

"PEN15" is so special because of how lived-in and real Maya and Anna feel. It's surprising then that Erskine and Konkle didn't grow up as teens together — they didn't meet until college.

"We didn't get to grow together as 13-year olds, but I feel like we had a second adolescence together now, truly. I'm thinking of us meeting in college, to now — that is another adolescence," Erskine told the New York Times.

Nevertheless, their connection radiates in "PEN15," making the comedy series truly unique. Season 2 ends in an exciting way, too, only making the second half more anticipated than before.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.