PEN15 season 2 is a marvel of middle school terror and wonder: Review
There's a mystical quality to PEN15, Hulu's spectacular sitcom about middle-school friendship. Co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle star as their barely teenage selves, in performances so full-bodied that you could be watching ghosts of the past conjured via séance. The show's Maya and Anna aren't just gawky 13-year-olds; they're gawky 13-year-olds who keep figuring out new ways to act grown up. So Erskine and Konkle are adults playing children role-playing adulthood, a double-reverse-realism deepened by PEN15's precise depiction of junior high life.
The seven new episodes, streaming Sept. 18, pick up two days after season 1's climactic dance. A pool party looms, and then a sleepover. There is a flirtation with a wrestling career, and the transformative discovery of the school's drama department. PEN15 takes place in the year 2000, and digs deep into some lost moods of early-internet adolescence, full of unspoken yearnings and sudden grenade-blasts of freaky maturity. Maya and Anna are riding high when the season begins, romantically fascinated with Brandt (Jonah Beres), a bad-boy-ish dreamboat with butt-cut hair. They're hitting the age when gossip becomes a lethal weapon, though, and soon everyone labels them "desperate sluts." It's a nasty insult — and a pointedly sexualized step up from last season, when the boys declared that Maya was UGIS (the ugliest girl in school.)
You're aware, at all times, that nobody has any clue what they're saying. PEN15 nails the outrageously wrong, cheerfully vulgar way kids can talk dirty, confidently throwing out bad words and suggestive phrases they just learned yesterday. When the class starts nominating people for superlatives, Alex (Lincoln Jolly) suggests "Best Couple: Me and your mom!" There's an in-depth exploration of the etiquette of grinding at school dances: "Did I have two threesomes?" asks Maya, genuinely concerned. Romantic talk can sound translated from a foreign language: Anna's ex Brendan (Brady Allen) brags that he and his new girlfriend "have a really good rhythm with our kissing." Another girl in school, the eerily serene Maura (Ashlee Grubbs), befriends Maya and Anna by out-pottymouthing some bullies with her own superlatives: "How about you get Smallest D— Most Likely to Have the Saggiest B—s in His Dad's Mouth?" At Maura's candy-stocked house, her way-too-friendly mom (Dendrie Taylor) asks if anyone wants a quesadilla. "I don't want a f—ing quesadilla, you c—!" yells Maura. Her mother looks scared, responding with a wonderful bit of parental impotence: "You're being a bad fairy."
Bad fairies, and confounded moms, abound in this half-season. (Seven more episodes will arrive in 2021.) Maturity brings its own new anxieties. In the fantastic third episode, the girls sit in Anna's living room watching Are You Afraid of the Dark? An argument echoes through the house. Anna's mom (Melora Walters) and dad (Taylor Nichols) are splitting up, their dynamic loudly un-amicable. Maya and Anna watch the argument unfold, until Maya takes Anna's hand. They race outside, running from suburbs into a shrouded forest. "There were five leaves here," Maya says, improvising supernatural shenanigans. "Now there's only three!" They indulge in some vaguely Wiccan spellcasting. Their breath is visible in the chilly air — and they're still young enough to pretend it's smoky dragonfire.
That is one of the best sequences I've ever seen: a magical mystery tour from nostalgic Nickelodeon horror to the brutal reality of divorce, then escaping into adolescent imagination. PEN15's third co-creator, Sam Zvibleman, directs every episode of season 2, and he finds a just-right rhythm in moments like this: the casualness of a weekend hang, the building tension of the marital spat, the mythic joy of the friends running into the dark woods. (Konkle wrote the episode, and has discussed how her character's arc comes from her own parents' divorce.)
I can't do justice to the vibrant thrill of the central performances. The bond between Maya and Anna feels unspoken and lived-in, full of sentences that trail off into meaningful glances. They can move you to tears or leave you ROFLing with just a couple wordless glances. Erskine's great with physical comedy. See: her re-creation of a key moment from Ace Ventura 2. Konkle steals her own laughs with sly reactions, and you have to watch every episode twice to catch them all. At one point, the girls play with dolls. "This is Robert," says Maya, gesturing to her plastic baby, "and I have to go to Blockbuster, because my other son Askrid is there, and he's just been there alone for hours, and I have to go pick him up." It's such a funny riff, and then the punchline is Konkle's visibly horrified face, as if Anna's genuinely worrying over the safety of this child.
Season 2 gives more attention to the ensemble of actual child performers surrounding Konkle and Erskine. Grubbs is great in a part that calls for an unusual mix of devil-child confidence and shy-weirdo desperation. Dylan Gage's Gabe is figuring out his sexual orientation at a time when "That's so gay!" is an omnipresent epithet. There are sharp observations about youth culture in its bygone era, yet PEN15 never seems to be preaching from the privilege of hindsight. The kids may do awful things, but the show doesn't shy away from their complexity; it's not afraid of their dark. "Do you think I've changed?" asks Maya. "I think that we all change all the time," Anna says. She could be describing the series, a totally unique combination of dear-diary authenticity, casual dream-state strangeness, and the genuine wonder of kids figuring out that nobody ever really figures themselves out. We're all just making it up as we go. Good thing Maya and Anna are so good at playing pretend. A