News of PEN15’s end after just two seasons was surprising, given it appeared to be a bona fide hit for Hulu. But now that I’ve seen it through to its conclusion, I can see why creators/stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle decided to not to extend it. Following its twenty-fifth episode, this brilliant, honest cringe comedy feels complete, having delivered its characters through the embarrassing and occasional harrowing trials of adolescence to the more hopeful place from which the stars seem to be reflecting — with relief for having put it behind them.
Erskine and Konkle star as middle-school versions of themselves, convincingly selling their youthful guises even though they’re thirtysomethings performing with actors who are actually in their tweens and teens. The show achingly recreates the awkward emotional trials of growing up, particularly for girls coming to terms with an awakening sexuality they’re ill-prepared to understand. And, of course, their journey is made immeasurably worse by both their peers and, more importantly, the selfish, angling boys in their lives. Authentically recapturing the stomach-churning mortification of puberty, PEN15’s episodes mix weird, absurdist comedy with earnest and relatable depictions of adolescent angst, using laughter and hindsight to reflect honestly on difficult, if not traumatic, life experiences. As such it’s frequently hard to watch, engendering waves of empathy for its beleaguered stars, but it also shows a keen ear for universal growing pains, and delivers an affirming message about the importance of friendship to surviving it. The final three episodes, in which increasingly awkward childhood problems give way to disturbing commentary on the minefield of toxic sexual politics girls are forced to endure at a young age, serve as a hard-hitting capstone to an unflinching series that never loses its upbeat heart, despite everything.