Season 2 of ‘PEN15’ (2019–) takes us back to middle school

A promotional poster for "PEN15" (2019-) is pictured. via IMDB

The success of recent titles like “Big Mouth” (2017–), “Eighth Grade” (2018) and “Sex Education” (2019–) makes it clear: raunchy coming-of-age cringe comedies are having a well-deserved moment, taking an unfiltered look at the nasty realities of adolescence with unprecedented aplomb. “PEN15” (2019–), whose first seven episodes of Season 2 dropped on Hulu onFriday (with the second half slated for 2021), is no different; its first season tackled masturbation, drugs and alcohol, first kisses, divorcing parents and internet boyfriends with searing comedy, yes, but, like “Eighth Grade,” differentiates itself from a show like “Big Mouth” by letting its comedy take the back seat once in a while to examine some of its harder truths. The first half of Season 2 builds on the strength of its first season to deliver even more of these emotional gut punches throughout while, of course, still remaining uproariously funny.

The premise of “PEN15”, while hilarious, pales in comparison to what the show ends up delivering: Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine, two of the show’s co-creators (Sam Zvibleman being the third) and actresses in their early 30s, don braces and lip gloss to play 13-year-old versions of themselves in middle school in 2000, surrounded by actors who are all actually teens. While its setup seems destined to get tired quickly, “PEN15” creates a deeply personal depiction of the female experience by committing, and committing hard. Beyond its painstaking attention to the time period — the butterfly clips, gel pens, stickers and floor-length cargo skirts Konkle and Erskine deliver such wholehearted performances that it’s easy to forget they’re adults. Konkle’s Anna is lanky, sweet and tries as hard as she can to shell out wisdom, while Erskine’s Maya is a pistol — hilarious, operating completely without a filter and constantly yanked left and right by her emotions.

The first seven episodes of Season 2 dive deeper than Season 1 into some of the more harrowing ills of middle school — slut-shaming rumors (from both the girls and the boys), manipulative new friends, peer pressure and a brief foray into witchcraft all lie atop the ever-present conflict in Anna’s house as her parents’ marriage falls apart. Season 2 also gives some of the secondary characters their own storylines — Sam (Taj Cross), one of Maya’s love interests, must decide where he stands when it comes to hurtful locker room talk, while Gabe (Dylan Gage) begins to question his sexuality in a time where offhandedly calling something “gay” is still commonplace. While Season 2 is admittedly a bit darker than its predecessor, dealing with these more serious issues allows “PEN15″ to bring the truisms of adolescence more clearly into focus: our moms will always accept us, even when we start acting out. When we mess up really badly, a sincere apology to those we care about can almost always right things. First kisses will happen when they’re meant to happen. And, of course, our ride-or-die best friends will always be there for us when we really need them.

Like the use of hormone monsters in “Big Mouth, “PEN15” explores its subject matter through surrealist expressions of what it feels like to be a horny, emotional middle schooler. “PEN15” relies on artful camera manipulation and deeply subjective forays into Maya’s and Anna’s psyches to achieve a portrayal so outlandish (yet so correct) that it seems more accurate than reality. For example, one of last season’s most painfully relatable moments came when, from the perspective of the toilet bowl, we watched Maya stress over accidentally trying to flush a pad down the toilet. As she stares past the camera, we see her flush, look like she’s about to cry, flush again, put her hands to her forehead, desperately jiggle the handle, wince at her work, then give up and leave the stall altogether — a moment made brutal by our proximity to it and hilarious by its honesty. 

Season 2 pushes this expression further than its predecessor, experimenting with montage, voice-overs and interpretive sequences in addition to the show’s already-impressive list of techniques. For example, when Maya, sitting at her desk in her room, begins practicing her lines after landing the lead in the school play, a spotlight flicks on as she, now dressed theatrically as her middle-aged character and taking drags of a cigarette, delivers the performance of a lifetime to the camera, only to struggle with her lines in school the next day while protesting, “I promise you, I did this last night, I was really good.” 

With such experimentation, however, there are bound to be a few depictions that don’t quite land — if you don’t get it, you don’t get it, whereas a show like “Big Mouth” can use its expertly timed witticisms to cue you when to laugh. As Season 2 pushes the bounds of its expression, it also risks some of these sequences not paying off, a tradeoff that, for me, is worth it to deliver the emotional truths that it does. Because when “PEN15” strikes that chord, unearthing a long-forgotten memory from middle school, it hits hard.

“All I know is that she’s my best friend on God’s green freaking earth,” Anna says of Maya in the first episode of Season 2. No matter how much Maya and Anna may fight over the course of the show (as is only natural with close friends), the ultimate certainty of their bond remains a constant, reassuring presence at the heart of this season’s story. It’s a depiction of female friendship nestled among secret handshakes, soda-chugging matches and half-naked crying sessions in the locker room that feels unique to “PEN15” among its cringe-comedy contemporaries. As a show, then, this season of “PEN15” delivers an experience just as weird, heartbreaking and unexpectedly wonderful as that of being a middle school girl.


Summary

This season of "PEN15" commits just as hard to its middle-school premise as last, delivering deeply emotional truths alongside its hilarious cringe comedy.

4.5 stars
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