TV: PEN15 (Season 2, Part 1)

The adventures of Maya and Anna continue in season two of PEN15, Hulu’s weird, edgy coming-of-age comedy about the awkward trials of adolescence. The title may be profoundly stupid—I’m guessing it’s a nod to the juvenile sense of humor of pubescents?—but the show itself is smart, a tale of friendship and growth amidst the slings and arrows of middle school social torture.

Did I mention that the protagonists are played by series creators Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine, women in their thirties pretending to be thirteen? It reads like a gimmick, but Erskine and Konkle pull off their child-like poses brilliantly, and because the show is designed for reflecting adults, it’s actually tactically ingenious, providing a layer of distance that helps the viewer connect with the familiar problems Anna and Maya confront. It could be seen as a live-action feminine cousin to Big Mouth in its cringeworthy approach to teen sexuality. (Indeed, the shows are clearly aware of each other; Erskine and Konkle voiced animated versions of their Pen15 characters in an unlikely Big Mouth quasi-crossover episode.) But PEN15 is more about exploring the terrifying new feelings of youth than poking relentless, disgusting fun (as Big Mouth does) at its unavoidable awkwardness.

There are some central narrative through-lines in this short seven-episode half-season, including Anna’s struggles to come to terms with her parents’ ongoing separation, and Maya’s surprising and emotionally fraught involvement in a school play, a wildly inappropriate drama that thrusts her into a sad, doomed relationship with closeted gay kid Gabe (Dylan Gage). But really this show is less about narrative moments than the cumulative social pressures and emotional travails of adolescence, when the future seems limitless and every minor problem feels like the end of the world. Season one set the stage nicely for Anna and Maya’s awkward journey, but season two shifts into an even more effective gear, anchored by great performances from Erskine and Konkle and their fantastic, actual teen co-stars, including Gage, Jonah Beres, Taj Cross, and Ashlee Grubbs, among others. A unique, funny series.

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