Just as funny with twice as much heart, ‘PEN15’ season two is best comedy series of 2020

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

In case there was any doubt after the first season premiered in 2019, the second season proves it: “PEN15” is the funniest show on television. The newly released episodes of “PEN15,” which make up the first half of season two, are just as laugh-out-loud hilarious as the first, with a deeper exploration of the show’s central themes. Just like its two protagonists, the show has started to grow up. 

Anna Kone (Anna Konkle) and Maya Ishii-Peters (Maya Erskine) are used to taking a few punches as they try to navigate the horrors of middle school, but the obstacles they face this time around are harder to overcome. By authentically exploring Anna and Maya’s pain and providing more earnest depictions of their friendship, season two takes the show to a new place, making it just as touching as it is hysterical. 

When we left Anna and Maya at the end of season one, they had finally achieved the notoriety among their classmates that they had been searching for all year. Now, as they’re about to enter eighth grade, they’re still reeling from the aftermath of these events. Their short-lived popularity quickly turns to infamy, and they are forced to manage and refute the nasty rumors circulating about them.

The series confronts the girls with seemingly small problems, but Konkle and Erskine’s performances are so genuine that their characters’ seismic reactions feel totally believable. The best example of this is the school play, which Maya stars in and Anna stage manages. Neither the play nor its auditions are mentioned prior to their introduction in the penultimate episode, but the show wastes no time when the plotline arrives: It’s immediately the most engrossing arc of the season. Throughout the last two episodes, the jokes are so specific and the archetypes so well-defined that the universally recognizable “school play” plotline feels like a new invention.

Not all of their problems are small, however. This is especially true in Anna’s case; her parents are in the middle of an ugly divorce while still living in the same house. The tension between the two of them undergirds much of Anna’s plotlines throughout the season, but it comes to a head at the beginning of the third episode. The episode contains one of the season’s sweetest, most endearing moments, and it’s an indication that the show is aiming for something deeper than it sought to achieve in season one. 

The new season is not only more ambitious in its content, but also in its cinematic construction. The second episode, “Wrestling,” breaks with the typical style of the series and aims instead for a more abstract, self-serious representation of Maya’s obsession with her crush. Together, Andy Rydzewski’s cinematography and Sam Zvibleman’s direction create a new, somewhat creepy tone that still holds the humor of the series at its core.

By far, the strongest element of “PEN15” — and that’s saying a lot — is the acting. The fact that neither Erskine nor Konkle were nominated for acting Emmys this year is a crime. On the surface, what they’re doing seems easy because they’re acting juvenile, but it takes an immense amount of control and commitment to make their portrayals so convincingly immature. Their physicality is unmatched; both actors know exactly what to do with their facial expressions and their posture to communicate their feelings and play them up for laughs. 

Between the two, Erskine’s performance is the standout. Her Maya is so incredibly weird and unpredictable; you never know when she’ll go from having a normal conversation to rolling her eyes back into her head and making dinosaur noises. It’s bizarre, but she embodies the character so well that it always works. Though her work on “PEN15” is transcendent to watch, it will be even more exciting to see what Erskine will accomplish as she takes on other roles in the future.

As the line between comedy and drama grows ever blurrier in television today, “PEN15” is a shining beacon of what comedic television still can and should be: innovative, exciting and truly, relentlessly funny.

Matthew DuMont covers television. Contact him at [email protected].