At one point in the first half of Pen15 Season 2, Maya and Anna make wishes. They are just young enough to have faith in magic and just old enough to wish for solutions to heartbreakingly adult issues. Maya, half-Japanese and self conscious about her appearance, wishes for blonde hair. Anna, whose parents use her as a pawn in their divorce, wishes she “wasn’t a problem.”
It’s a brief, intentionally unfunny moment that underscores Anna’s emotional pain and encapsulates what Pen15 Season 2 wants to say about being a girl on the cusp of teenhood. The primary message is that being a girl sucks. The second message is that it’s not the girls’ fault.
The exquisite cringe humor in Pen15’s first season came from its premise that adult actors Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play skewed pre-teen versions of themselves surrounded by a cast of actual children. The second season is equally funny as Erskine and Konkle melt more easily into their roles, but every joke is followed by a gut punch reminder that the basic indignity of being a 7th grader is only funny in hindsight.
Pen15 Season 2 exposes the fundamental paradox of being 13, the exact time at which society wants children to learn who they are and where they fit in the world while denying them any agency, power, or control over their lives. The show counts on its audience remembering what it felt like to live through that disparity and encourages watchers to use the mounting middle school drama as a starting point for self-reflection. It’s effective and therapeutic, even as some of the scenarios the characters find themselves in hit harder than anticipated.
When Anna and Maya make mistakes like assuming an indifferent boy will like them if they talk to him enough or earnestly check to see if the schoolyard taunt “big smelly bush” is a correct description of their vaginas, it’s painful on two levels. The first pain comes because no one is there to tell these girls that they’re fine, perfect even, and nothing a boy says should impact the way they feel about their bodies. The second pain comes because no one was there to say that to us when we needed to hear it.
The first pain comes because no one is there to tell these girls that they’re fine, perfect even, and nothing a boy says should impact the way they feel about their bodies. The second pain comes because no one was there to say that to us when we needed to hear it.
Even when no one else is there, Maya and Anna have each other. When Pen15 isn’t acting as a checklist of traumas people should already have brought up in therapy, it’s a delightful examination of friendship and the way girls learn to protect each other above everyone else. Season 2 tests the deep, important, girlish love between Maya and Anna but there is never any question that boys, school plays, and badly kept secrets are corrosive enough to damage their bond.
One of the most impressive elements of Pen15’s fast, complex humor is that the children (Anna and Maya included) are never the joke. It would be easy to put lines in the characters’ mouths that make these 7th graders smarter, meaner, and funnier to each other, but Pen15 chooses instead to let the ambient awfulness of being a kid in the 2000s carry all of the comedic weight.
When a group of boys’ write in a male classmate’s name for a “class gossip” superlative because “someone said he was gay,” the quick cutaway to the visibly effeminate classmate in question isn’t there to make fun of him. It’s funny because one of the boys in their group is questioning his own sexuality, and his nervous reaction to the lesson he’s just learned about what being gay means to his friends is the only joke the scene needs.
What is currently on Hulu as Pen15 Season 2 is actually the first seven episodes of the show’s second season; the rest of the episodes will reportedly air in early 2021. Regardless of what the rest of the season holds, this season proves that while it’s easy to look back and laugh at our middle school foibles, it’s significantly harder to look back, laugh, and empathize with our younger selves. Anna and Maya are not the problem, and neither were any of us. If you happen to know any seventh graders, now is probably a good time to let them know that too.
Pen15 Season 2 is streaming on Hulu Friday.