Pen15 Grows-Up a Smidgeon by Figuring Itself Out In Season 2
As someone who grew up in the exact era and age of the show’s characters, what I really like about Pen15 is how painfully authentic it is. From first kisses to first drinks, interracial best friendships, and the guilt of masturbating, Pen15 has been unafraid to address issues of growing up in the early 2000s era. Which is why it has been praised by numerous critics as genuine in its depiction: both of its ignorance and of the era’s awkward uncertainty. Particularly, when compared to today’s norms of both race and gender.
Moments that I’d personally forgotten about from my youth resounded so truthfully in this series. I laughed with Anna when I watched her romantic interest, Brendan, dress in a spiked dog collar while rocking out to Limp Bizkit at the school dance. Mostly, because I had friends that did that in my youth too. I cried with Maya when I watched her become the fill-in minority and “Sporty Spice” of the group. Mostly, because I’m Asian too, and have been associated as the token Black or Hispanic person amongst a group by some white friends, despite being 100% Filipino.
Personally, my favorite moment from last year was witnessing Maya’s online relationship: a cautionary tale that works only for its time. Especially, in regards to online identity fraud and catfishing. I say this, in fact, as someone who’s witnessed it during this very era, as one of my friends catfished another one of my other friends, who in turn, was catfishing him in return on an AOL chat room. This was, of course, decades before catfishing was a thing, with neither knowing that they were unintentionally having a gay cyber-relationship with each other, not unlike the plot to Black Mirror’s Striking Vipers episode.
The reason I bring this up is that no one has so skillfully depicted this era of awkwardness, change, and growth during the millennia as well as Pen15.
The biggest concerns with the show from season one are that two grown women in their 30s are pretending to be 13 year-olds. It’s a gag that works but can grow stale, and its taboo placing them in pubescent situations of raging hormones and dating, in a school full of actual literal 13-year-olds. While funny, it only works by never getting too sexualized, pussyfooting around the issues using cutaways, and embracing awkward avoidance and generic teenage shyness. Which honestly works as a developmental depiction.
Likewise, the biggest celebration of the show has been its positive female role models. I also thoroughly enjoyed Maya Erskine’s Japanese-American experiences finding similarities with my own as a Filipino-American. I also loved the sweet Janitor woman offering some advice… or a sandwich… or a tampon… to be magnificent. We don’t get that kind of character as a woman, ever, which makes for some creative fun that the show is rather good at doing well.
Which is why I was surprised at Season 2 and how it does away with all that and goes into a different direction.
Pen15 Season 2
Season 2 begins two days after the end of last season. Where Brandt, the hottest boy in school whom the girls obsess over, had just reached second base with both Maya and Anna. Thus accomplishing the girls’ goal of doing everything together. This relationship is where the series pivots and is somewhat of its strong point. The season, not taking long to quickly break off the girl’s romantic arcs established last season, with a focus instead on Brandt. Or really, just how pervasive young crushes could be in adolescent living.
This year takes these actions and obsessions, looks over at school gossip rumor drama, and boys. As the girls gain a reputation for… well quite frankly, for being sluts despite Brandt getting praised for behaving in the same fashion. And like many rumors, much of these accusations are based on embellishes and outright lies, as the boys hyper exaggerate and the girls, quickly slut-shame. Embracing the harsh truths of school-gossip. Where it takes us this season is on a journey of both Maya and Anna seeking acceptance. Joining the wrestling team and even dabbling in a funny magic centric episode inspired by the 90s movie The Craft along with some Wiccan tendencies. Really, just expanding on the Ouiji board concept last year and going full ridiculous. Dialing it up to a 12 out of 10 on the scale.
This season, the humor really focuses in on Maya and Anna and their ideations on an episodic basis, with crazy antics, and cringe-worthy motivations. And while obsessions over Brandt drives a large part of the first half of the season, what’s an improvement is how evident it is because of how poor their life situations are. The two against the world mentality.
Maya has an insecure family life, with a father who’s always on the road, a mother who seems distant, and a brother who’s embarrassed by her. Anna, meanwhile, has her parent’s impending divorce tainting everything about her life around her. It’s the innocence of childhood lost in a fragmenting family setting. The fighting. The instability. The confusing signals of parents who still live and occasionally sleep together, despite seeking to separate. This show has drama yet handles it with the candor of the early 2000s. With avoidance and the obsession over the trivial: like Brandt.
What’s amazing about it is just how grounded both actresses are in falling directly into their roles. What many considered a sight gag of 30-year-olds playing teens, is now an outright oversight, as the women feel like 13-year-olds of the era. We soon forget about the age gap. It grounds everything and raises the emotional stakes, though at the cost of the gag; though but to be honest, we the audience don’t care.
There is also the introduction of Maura (Ashlee Grubbs) this season. She BFF who seeks to make the group move from duo to trio. And though I personally hated her this season (though hate in a good Mean Girls way), she’s also somewhat of a stuck-up and spoiled brat, who triggers the girls into really embracing their own inner angst. More importantly, get them to address their needs as young women and call out their mothers accordingly. As futile and disrespectful as it may be. Where the midseason finale culminates is in the girl’s debate over the school play. Maya is really good at wanting to be an actor. Anna, as budding stage director. The two work together, as always, working towards the culmination of their journey, as this season comes together in a way only junior-high theatre can provide. Playing identity, spotlight hero, and somewhat cathartic, revelatory acting.
Again, all-funny and all-embracing in their friendship, though it’s also, left a big decision for Anna. Because the truth is… despite how much we seek to control ourselves in spite of the bad situation, it doesn’t change the fact that the bad around you is still happening. Which is why this season really works in hiding the bad: Anna’s family, as she knows it, is very much over. Which is why she’ll need Maya and their weird adventures more than ever.
This season focuses on trust quite a bit, with a lot of exploration of liars, and a good amount of reliance on each other. As Anna and Maya take on the world. It’s an interesting take on adolescence that stresses on staying grounded in the hardships of change. Which is odd, because these are women in their 30s. Yet, it works because they do such a compelling job at selling it. And much like their adolescent characters, Pen15 has grown slightly more comfortable in its own skin despite the awkward pangs of getting there.