A funny thing happens during Season Two of Hulu’s middle school comedy Pen15. Or, rather, it’s a not-so-funny thing, but a very interesting one.
You may recall that Pen15 stars thirtysomething actresses Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle (who created the show with Sam Zvibleman) as 13-year-old versions of themselves, opposite genuine middle schoolers. It’s a familiar sketch-comedy device — on SNL alone, everyone from Gilda Radner to Mike Myers to Amy Poehler played recurring kid characters — and the show’s first season leaned into the absurdity of two adult women dressing and acting like they were still going through puberty. Later episodes that year began considering young Maya and Anna’s complicated emotional lives, but the fundamental sight gag was always present.
Early in Season Two, though, I found that I had stopped noticing the generation gap between the actresses and their alter egos. Maybe the show’s makeup team has gotten even better at disguising their star’s ages. Maybe Erskine and Konkle have grown more comfortable inside the skin of their younger selves, and/or they and the other writers have stopped treating the premise like a joke in and of itself. Or maybe it’s as simple as familiarity breeding belief: the longer you watch everyone treat these two as 13-year-olds, the easier it is to accept it as reality. There are still moments where you can’t help recalling the truth of the situation(*), but for the most part, Pen15 now treats Maya and Anna as genuine adolescents.
(*) Unsurprisingly, the actresses’ adulthood becomes most palpable in scenes involving the girls’ dawning sexuality and/or romantic complications with boys played by their much younger co-stars. One of the girls gets cast in a school play where she may have to make out with a boy onstage; the tension over whether this will, or should, happen starts to take on a meta layer.
The new season’s humor level definitely takes a hit thanks to its more convincing heroines. A lot of scenes from the first season were funny almost entirely due to the unmistakable fact that these were grown women very much not acting their age. The show still finds amusing ways to depict the awkwardness and absurdity of being in seventh grade in the year 2000 — I will never not laugh, for instance, at being reminded that Maya’s AOL screen name is “Diper911” — but the comedy is less consistent, and at times less explosive, because everything feels more real.
The trade-off is worth it, though, because the new episodes feel deeper and more emotionally complex than Pen15 was even at its Season One peak: the ninth episode, “Anna Ishii-Peters,” where Maya grew jealous of how her mom seemed to like Anna more than her own daughter. “Anna Ishii-Peters” was almost startling in how clear, insightful, and occasionally sad it was relative to the juvenile antics the girls had been up to in earlier installments. In the new season, Pen15 goes to that same place more regularly. The girls are still doing dumb things, like joining the school wrestling team solely as an excuse to be near their crushes, but even those shenanigans have more of a core of truth to them. In one episode, the friends (who have no doubt watched both Practical Magic and The Craft many times) convince themselves that they are witches with magical powers. Much of what they do is absurd and over the top (and both stars utterly commit to the lunacy of it), but it’s also inescapable that the motivation behind their batty behavior — like a lot of this season’s action — lies in Anna’s fear that her parents may be getting a divorce. (Still, even there, the show finds room for sophomoric humor, like Anna explaining that she protected Maya from a spell using an invisible energy glove that “can also pull your farts out of your butt.”)
The new season is a bit more serialized, with one arc involving the arrival of new girl Maura (Ashlee Grubbs), who attempts to turn this longtime duo into a trio, while another places Anna and Maya on opposite sides of the cast/crew divide for the school play. The girls fight, pull away from each other, and reconnect in ways that feel smart and true and at times incredibly sweet. Anna and Maya still have a lot of growing up to do, but they’re capable of learning lessons along the way, like recognizing the double standard they’ll be held to by being branded sluts for fooling around with a boy who, as Maya acknowledges, is “just a player” now.
The greater tonal ambition for the new season is paired with a greater technical ambition. There are shots done as tributes to Boogie Nights, Sixteen Candles, and Goodfellas, among others, but presented in ways that feel like part of the world. The episodes about the school play are particularly confident and lovely, and also manage to sidestep some basic ridiculousness — the play is a kitchen-sink melodrama written by pretentious drama teacher Greg (Michael Angarano) — in favor of something that takes the girls’ conflicts (and Greg’s script) seriously.
The play also adds another layer to the whole matter of the stars’ ages versus the characters’, since one of the girls has to wear middle-age makeup for the production. This should be just too much — think Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria protesting about the insanity of being a woman pretending to be a man pretending to be a woman — yet by that point, both Erskine and Konkle have so thoroughly turned back time that it’s barely noticeable at all.
Early in the season, Maya asks Anna, “Do you think I’ve changed?” Anna replies, “I think we all change all the time, and that’s just normal.” Pen15 has definitely changed, but in ways that are almost entirely for the better. What was once a gimmick is now a thoroughly excellent and warm show.
Hulu is releasing the first seven episodes of Pen15 Season Two on September 18th, with the rest of the season coming later. I’ve seen all seven new episodes.