By diving deeper into the interiority of Maya and Anna’s lives with a greater cinematic tone, PEN15 builds a subdued, magical, and successful second season.
Hulu dropped the first half of the second season of PEN15 last week, its Lonely Island-produced comedy with a high concept premise: Co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play teenage versions of themselves as they explore their middle school experiences in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The first season was largely about getting used to the fantastical world of PEN15. (Erskine and Konkle act alongside actual child/teen actors, adding to the surreal nature of the show.) But in addition to awkward humor, PEN15 also tenderly explores the raw emotions of childhood and adolescence.
The season 1 ended with Maya and Anna going into a closet with a boy named Brandt at the school dance. While the whole affair amounted to little more than surface touching, they leave elated that they’ve finally done something with a popular boy.
Season 2 picks up right where the first left off, with Maya and Anna not knowing how to act around Brandt, Sam (their friend who had previously catfished Maya), or Brendan (the aloof player who Anna briefly dated), and discovering the consequences (slut-shaming) of their budding sexuality as the season unfolds.
Overall, the season seems to zoom out of the show’s high concept, using the premise to mine for the emotional exploration of its characters more often than comedy this time around.
This allows PEN15 to play more with form, adding unexpected moments of magical realism and surreality, and a generally higher cinematic tone than the first season with each half-hour episode feeling like its own thoughtful, heartfelt, and hilariously funny short film.
On a narrative evel, the show primarily explores one specific issue for each of the girls, carried over from the first season.
After announcing their divorce, Anna’s parents follow through to heartbreaking realizations as they still share her house while they finalize custody arrangements and settlements, leading to multiple tumultuous moments for Anna.
Meanwhile, Maya’s story continues to explore her self-consciousness and budding sexuality and the way she perceives how others think of her as it intersects with her racial identity.
PEN15 uses hilarious teen tv and movie tropes to explore both general feelings and moments from adolescence (isolation, bullying, lust, jealousy) and dive deeper into both Anna and Maya’s specific internal experiences.
There are numerous hilarious episodes and moments, but PEN15‘s second season excels in its beauty to examine how it takes the absurdity of childhood seriously.
We all did embarrassing and cringe-worthy things as teens, but looking “under the hood” to understand why and to grant the space do so ultimately allows for a far more endearing and empathetic series than taking the easy route that would punch down at our former selves and the teenage experience.
The expanded order, up from four episodes to fourteen, allows the show’s writers, headed by the incisive Gabe Liedman, to breathe and explore topics in greater depth, allowing for larger arcs and some unofficial two-parters.
For example, episodes four and five introduce a new friend, Maura, who throws off the tender balance of Maya and Anna’s relationship. The episodes introduce suspenseful tonal shifts, allowing for PEN15 to engage with clever genre play that highlights the trauma of sleepovers and best friend necklaces.
The final two episodes are a great example of this, too, following Maya and Anna’s diverging paths in the school play. But the highlight of the first half of season 2 is easily the third episode, especially due to its early fall arrival.
“Vendy Wiccany” follows Maya and Anna using witchcraft as a way to process the world around them. Perhaps the best episode of the series thus far, it takes a high-concept witchy approach to show how desperate kids are to fix their surroundings, especially when they have undeveloped coping mechanisms to deal with heartbreak and traumatic life changes.
On a surface level, “Vendy Wiccany” feels like an homage to or spoof of The Craft, with the girls diving headfirst into an alienating aesthetic and hobby with the hopes it will get them what they want.
But PEN15 makes it clear that Maya and Anna are making up the witchcraft as they go, with the completely ridiculous and repeated “magic” phrase of “Shalaylay pumpano,” they show the desperation of Maya’s desire to be wanted and Anna’s to keep her parents together.
Of course, despite all of the show’s surrealism, it’s still heavily grounded. The spells don’t work, and reality sets in. But that’s when these two friends have each other. In a stunning shot and gorgeous moment, Maya comforts a crying Anna all night long, under the shadow of their “wiccany” tree.
And that’s what PEN15 always comes back to, the intense friendship of two deeply lovable characters you have no choice but to root for. While it’s uncertain when the second half will drop, we can’t wait to keep watching these kids grow up.
All episodes of PEN15 are streaming now on Hulu. Have you watched the newest season? Let us know what you think in the comments below!