Spoilers up to S2E7 of PEN15 follow.
As expected following the success of its 2019 debut, “PEN15” didn’t fail to deliver with a depressingly and hilariously real second season, providing a much needed dose of early 2000s nostalgic escapism in the objective dumpster fire that is 2020. While “PEN15” continues to follow the painfully real exploits of Anna and Maya, the tween protagonists played by two adult women in a cast otherwise dominated by actual middle schoolers, its 2020 return to Hulu surprises watchers by exploring depths beyond the first season — because after all, middle school isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
Much of what set the first season of “PEN15” apart remains constant, as season two continues to explore female friendships completely outside of the male gaze. However, this season goes deeper: More of the complex dynamics of female friendship are drawn out with the entry of a new character who attempts to pit the two best friends against each other. We cringe as Anna and Maya change before our eyes, adopting the slang of their “cool” new friend and inadvertently hurting each other in a bid to fit in. We see how jealousy, possessiveness and sisterly love can simultaneously coexist; Anna both refuses to wish her best friend good luck before a play out of pettiness, and sabotages her own role in the play moments later to save Maya from humiliation. Beyond that, I found myself impressed yet again by how easy it is to forget that the premise of the show is two seventh-graders played by grown women. The directors also continued to entertain with the highly creative ways they sidestepped any uncomfortable moments between the child and adult actors, including a very 2020-appropriate masked (incredibly chaste) kissing scene.
What makes “PEN15” unique is the way it manages to balance being both heartwarming and heart-wrenching. Following the precedent set by the first season, it continues to be more introspective than you’d expect from a show called, well, “PEN15.” However, the show’s return clearly ushered in a darker season than the first, pulling no punches by starting off with the all-too-real themes of slut-shaming and objectification of girls as young as thirteen. The season also dives into the trials and tribulations of motherhood. The viewer can’t help but feel their heart break as the girls cuss out their well-intentioned mothers in a bid to be “cool” and wonder, was that what I was like as a teenager? Did I ever make my parents feel this way?
Season one left off with Anna’s parents in the midst of a messy separation, and where weaker shows may have only skimmed the surface of this uncomfortable subject matter, “PEN15” fully explores the difficulty of spending one’s formative years growing up in a divided household. In the midseason finale, Anna returns to a restaurant table to find her own teenage cruelty has reduced her mother to tears. Mere moments later, this is followed by the gut punch of her father announcing that she needs to pick a parent to live with, explaining his recent interest in her life. As the episode closes with Anna sobbing silently, her realization that her parents are flawed individuals — much as she is — evokes that distinct moment of reckoning when your worldview as a child is shattered, when you realize, for the first time, that your parents don’t actually have all the answers — or even any of them.
An unexpected gem from this season was the exploration of Gabe’s sexuality. Despite his being a fairly minor character, this is one of the most memorable parts of the season because of the way it portrays the discomfort and internal struggle that comes with growing up and realizing, just maybe, you’re not quite the same as your friends. As he struggles with the casual homophobia of his peers, we see Gabe realize he has a crush on his friend — and then do nothing about it. This is what makes “PEN15” so realistic. Gabe is profoundly and unapologetically uncool. It’s awkward, it’s not slick; this is no “Love, Simon,” complete with a ferris wheel moment sealed with a kiss. It’s a confused middle schooler forcing himself to kiss a girl he’s not interested in because he needs to prove to himself and his friends that he’s not gay, even though he might not quite fully realize it yet.
One of the hardest scenes in the series comes in the final minutes of the last episode, when, following the rejection of her first boyfriend, Maya resigns herself to a boyfriend-less fate. “I know I’m ugly now,” she says. Angsty though this moment may be, one can’t help but mourn this loss of hope and naivete in a once-optimistic girl hit for the first time by the cold indifference of reality, as her best friend sits by, powerless to reassure her. Despite the seeming focus of the two girls on finding a boyfriend, their search for validation is plainly not a product of boy-craziness. Rather, it is an attempt to fill an empty space inside each of the two girls, both of whom are products of messy home environments floundering in the lonely world of middle school, where the biggest and most comforting constant in their lives is their friendship. They don’t need romance. They need to be reassured that they are loveable and they are enough — whether for the boys at school, for their parents or even for each other.
If anything, “PEN15” almost makes me think harder than I’d like it to. Make no mistake — despite the goofy ads, “PEN15” isn’t afraid to go above and beyond the average sitcom and rip out the raw guts of the teenage experience. The second half of the season is slated to return in 2021, so mark your calendars, because this is a must-watch.
Melissa Adams | firstname.lastname@example.org