Cover art by @bbbreens on Instagram
By Alena Nguyen
I first got into the Hulu original series last year when I watched the pilot episode for a creative writing class. During that first watch, I was cringing at how awkward the protagonists were because of how much I saw myself within their awkward pauses and eccentric lines. From its unique take on juxtaposing adolescence with adulthood to the costuming, everything was superbly done and completely memorable. When I heard the second season was on Hulu, I raced to my screen the day of its launch, refreshing Hulu’s homepage until ‘Pen15: Season 2’ showed up. While I did not binge it in one day, the second season was worth savoring every line in every episode.
‘Pen15’ revolves around two characters named Maya and Anna (named after and played by the show’s creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle) as they navigate that awkward period of life known as middle school. The twist, however, is that Maya and Anna are mentally 13 but are played by adults. The show also addresses real-life issues such as bullying and divorce through the perspective of children. This sharp contrast in the mental versus physical mindset is one of the show’s most captivating aspects and both Konkle and Erskine do an amazing job of playing 13-year-olds despite being well over that age in real life.
Comparing Season 1 to Season 2 is like comparing apples to oranges- while both are fruits, they are still completely different in the taste. Season 1 got us observing the layers of the fruit and getting a feel of what it’s all about. We met Anna and Maya and watched them go through painfully awkward moments of boy troubles, exploring AIM, and even dealing with the annoying popular girls (and their even more annoying moms). However, Season 2 allowed us to peel back those layers and examine Anna and Maya in much more serious situations, one of the most prominent situations are Anna’s parents constantly fighting. When hearing muffled fighting noises upstairs, Maya and Anna take each other by the hand, run to a forest and explore their newfound magical powers in an attempt to get away from the distress at home. It was in this episode specifically that the writers did an excellent job of honing in on the mindset of a child when faced with danger. The escapism that this whole episode (and quite frankly the whole show) was so eccentric yet memorable and viewers of all ages can relate to that feeling of just wanting to run away from your problems sometimes.
Something that often happens in subsequent shows of seasons is the tone of the show often changes. Luckily, this was not the case for ‘Pen15’. In fact, the tone only became more quirky and charming. It felt like the writers and actors had a stronger grip on who the characters were since Season 1 and that deeper understanding that the creators had was effectively replicated into the quality of the second season. The tone of the episodes were more solidified than last season and the quirks that Anna and Maya had were more noticeable and relatable. I rooted for Anna and Maya to thrive in the second season more than I ever had in the first.
Middle school is an awkward time for everyone, and the well-timed pauses and cuts throughout the episode highlight that awkwardness in a comedically nostalgic way. The moments of jealousy, betrayal and loneliness, all because the duo was hesitant about becoming a trio, were so relatable and brought me back to times of not sitting with someone at lunch because I saw them hanging out with someone else came flooding back. Maya and Anna represent that feeling of our ‘personal bubble’ being popped perfectly- in fact, their pouts and small tantrums were reminiscent of my own after I saw my friend hanging out with someone else at recess and I felt excluded.
Everyone wants that person in their life- someone they can turn to whenever things get rough. Both Maya and Anna are very lucky to have each other and to grow up with each other through difficult times is reminiscent of everyone’s childhood best friends and trading secrets and snacks at lunchtime. ‘Pen15’ is one of those shows that looks like it’s made for kids but after watching it, you realize that kids won’t truly understand the nostalgia.