The first season of Hulu’s PEN15 felt like the Cliff Notes version of a TV comedy.
Fans knew what the joke was from the beginning: two thirty-something actresses playing the 13-year-old versions of themselves against other pre-teen actors. That exaggerated surrealism was the set-up and the punchline, the lens through which every interaction could be viewed. It made universal coming-of-age woes like bad haircuts and puberty painfully relatable, even if it allowed audiences to distance themselves from those traumatic memories with visuals of Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle sporting Care Bear hoodies and playing with Sylvanian doll sets.
The show’s humor rested in its understanding of nostalgia, in how well-attuned its leads were to the age of dial-up, chatrooms, gel pens, and the almost otherworldly bliss of being the first in your friend group to blackout from huffing a permanent marker. The gift of hindsight, and the show’s running gimmick, made its first season an addictive, if a bit shallow, binge-watch. But we’ve all grown up since then, and the latest installment of PEN15 reflects that maturity — not just in how comfortable both Erskine and Konkle seem to be in their characters, but in the storylines they’re willing to sacrifice laughs for.
We’re not saying PEN15 isn’t funny anymore. It’s a f*cking riot, one filled with more middle school theatrics, cringe-worthy pool parties, twisted sleepovers, and witchcraft, but we’re not sure it fits the “feel-good” label its first season so clearly boasted. Maybe it’s a product of just living within this world that the women have created, maybe its some actual sorcery they’ve employed, but at some point, you stop paying attention to the gag, and you start becoming genuinely invested in these girls’ lives.
It’s like watching Sandra Bullock try to survive a threatening cloud of space debris in Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity. There are moments when the silence of the movie theater weighs down rational thought when you forget that Bullock is not actually in space, that she can’t use a fire extinguisher as a makeshift thruster to reach a foreign space station and return safely home. The CGI plays a good enough trick on the mind, the wires disappear, and you’re left leaving the theater with a ringing in your ears and the illusion-shattering realization you’re still on Earth, walking down a busy Upper West Side block, disoriented and sill high on adrenaline.
PEN15 season two is like Gravity, but with more comedy and fewer space-walks. It makes you believe so intently that Maya and Anna are actual preteens, suffering through crushes and debilitating social awkwardness and parental neglect that you forget to laugh when they don mouthguards and best friend necklaces and chunky hairclips. The show’s better for it, exploring some thematically darker issues this time around, like the divorce of Anna’s parents. The tension hinted at in season one becomes a full-on civil war as both adults decide to share the house while they begin the process of separating, putting Anna in the middle and straining her relationship with her mother.
And while Anna reconciles with her changing family dynamic, Maya caves to an unhealthy obsession with a boy at school, joining the wrestling team to impress him, leaving locks of her hair in his locker, and fielding nasty rumors about her promiscuity and sexual desperation. It all builds to an end of the year middle school play that pits the friends against one another, the arrival of a new girl who inserts herself in their relationship, and a sleepover party that turns into a Lord of the Flies moment when a maxi-pad clogs a toilet.
Some of these moments are laugh-out-loud funny, but most are accompanied by a bit of introspection, not just from Konkle and Erskine but from us, the fans, who are watching and are bound to have some long-buried memory dredged up to fixate on all over again. Maybe its chanting spells in the school greenhouse or having your first sip of liquor behind the auditorium or leaving your mom alone at a restaurant because your dad’s having a mid-life crisis in his new convertible. It’s funny to look back on now, but it was painful then, and that’s what the show does even better its second time around: it reminds us that both can be true.
Hulu’s ‘PEN15’ returns for Season 2 on September 18.