Hulu’s PEN15 is back with the first part of a Season 2 packed with more cringe moments, more emotional nuance, and increasingly better performances from series co-creators and stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle. What began as a show interested in revisiting the growing pains of life while on the cusp of puberty — and steeped in early ’00s pop culture, making it extremely appealing and relevant to older Millennial viewers — is now a show focused on exploring the emotional stakes of the narrative groundwork laid down in Season 1. This results in a thoroughly rewarding return, one which bears the fruit of careful consideration about how to develop the characters and arcs we became familiar with back in February 2019.
Life feels like it moves at a brisker clip as you ride the hormone-laded puberty rollercoaster, the ticket to which you don’t necessarily remember buying but was somehow shoved into your hand at some point without you knowing. Soon, you’re fully in it, the disorienting whirlwind of being a teenager. It feels like everything can change in the blink of an eye. Small moments get blown up and overanalyzed. The stakes of navigating the world feel higher and rockier as you come into your own.
This is the mindset of PEN15 Season 2 and especially true at the start of these first seven bold new episodes, all directed by series co-creator Sam Zvibleman. The story picks up just two days after the school dance which capped Season 1. Anna Kone (Konkle) and Maya Ishii-Peters (Erskine) are still physically the same people, but they’ve hit a milestone that has now permanently changed their outlook on life: Getting felt up together by #UltimateBroodyBoy Brandt (Jonah Beres). The event doesn’t impact Anna, who went with Maya and Brandt as emotional support for her BFF, as much as it does Maya, who is now full-on smitten. But Anna and Maya have crossed into new territory and, beginning with a season opener set at a pool party set to the nostalgia-stirring vibes of Will Smith‘s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” they must figure out what to do with their newly-attained (sorta) maturity. Naturally, nothing will go as planned or as smoothly as they hope.
PEN15 is ready to dig into the discomfort even more in Season 2. In order to do this, the show smartly stops leaning on the overt nostalgia of its ’00s setting and instead focuses on the growing pains of its characters. We’re in the real shit now: The discomfort of unrequited love, the pain of rumors, the sting of friendships tested by outsiders, the turmoil of rocky home lives, and even the intense emotions around both failed and nascent relationships are all explored more honestly and openly. Unlike Season 1, there is no deflecting with cringe comedy (although there’s plenty of that to go around) but rather an effort to grapple with serious shit when you’re ill-equipped to do so. As such, every mini-arc becomes a sweeping, high drama affair of all-consuming intensity that comes to define Anna and Maya’s development as young women.
I know I’m speaking pretty vaguely here, but I don’t want to spoil the goodness that awaits you by telling you the specifics of storylines that deal with Maya’s attraction to Brandt, or Anna and Maya’s mean girl best friend Maura (Ashlee Grubbs), or the school play that leaves Anna and Maya at odds. Those are the three big storylines guiding the first half of Season 2, but they’re packed to the rafters with visual jokes, sentimentality, and honest coming-of-age explorations I have no interest in spoiling.
What I will say is that Konkle and Erskine have stepped it up big time for Season 2. I was all in on what they were delivering back in Season 1. Both actresses were serving up in-the-pocket, fully-felt, specific performances that were enjoyable and relatable. Their chemistry as best friends is anchored in believability because Konkle and Erskine are close friends in real life. Yet, in a fascinating and magnificent development, Konkle and Erskine have somehow managed to take their transformation as their middle school alter egos to a new level this season. I had to actively remind myself I was watching two people closer to my age than an actual 7th grader because both Konkle and Erskine’s line deliveries, mannerisms, physicality, and choices during big emotional beats all culminate in respectively incredible performances.
And while I appreciate all of the work Konkle is turning in here in Season 2, especially as she plays a young teen caught in the middle of her parents’ messy separation, it’s clear that Maya’s emotional journey is the anchor of PEN15 this season. Some of the most terrific moments of comedy and drama happen thanks to Erskine and what she chooses to do as Maya while sporting a terrifically horrifying bowl cut. Her ability to sell looking cool while sucking on a jawbreaker or vying for her mom’s attention during dinner by whining and faux-threatening her with supposed witch powers (I’m not kidding when I say this is why you need to watch!) is masterful. Erskine’s confidence in knowing how to play Maya without bringing any sense of condescension or enlightenment an adult actor playing a young teen in what is ostensibly a comedic show is key here. PEN15 is all the more compelling because of what Erskine is doing, the choices she is making in depicting Maya’s journey.
Erskine is even more electric during some of Season 2’s most heartfelt onscreen moments shared with her real-life mother Mutsuko Erskine, who returns as her PEN15 mom Yuki Ishii-Peters. The developments Yuki and Maya’s relationship undergoes in Season 2 are some of the most profound and touching, with the real-life familial bond arguably bleeding into this fictional one, makes for some of the best TV Season 2 has to offer.
PEN15 Season 2 is very much worth the binge, as well as the wait for the second half, set to premiere in 2021. The seven episodes that comprise part one of Season 2 take bigger swings both in the comedy and the drama of Anna and Maya’s continuing adventures in the 7th grade. Erskine and Konkle are true delights and they are surrounded by an equally delightful cast of actual kids who showcase a range of talent that keeps the adult leads of this show on their toes (A special shout-out goes to Dylan Gage as Gabe, who excels in a tricky but solidly realized storyline.). It’s been a hell of a year, but PEN15 Season 2, Part 1 arrives at exactly the right moment to lift our spirits and bring us back to the simpler times where playing “MASH” with your BFF while chatting on a landline was all you needed to have fun.
PEN15 Season 2, Part 1 premieres on Hulu on Friday, September 18. Check out the official trailer below. For more, here’s the official list of everything coming to Hulu in September.
Allie Gemmill is the Weekend Contributing Editor for Collider. You can follow them on Twitter @_matineeidle.