‘PEN15’ finishes with bittersweet goodbye to girlhood

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Grade: 4.5/5.0

The strangest, saddest and sweetest show of the past few years has finally come to an end. “PEN15” is cringe-comedy and gross-out humor at its best, full to the brim with heart and topped with a healthy dose of nostalgia. The show follows Maya Ishii-Peters and Anna Kone as they grapple with the realities of girlhood and growing up. Co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play 13 year-old versions of themselves in the year 2000, acting alongside real middle schoolers in a painfully realistic portrayal of the most awkward years of adolescence. 

Split into two installments because of COVID-19 related filming delays, the entirety of the second and final season of “PEN15” is somehow even better than the first. The first part of season two, released in 2020, left off at the cast party for the school play, where Maya (Maya Erskine) is dumped by her boyfriend and Anna (Anna Konkle) learns that she must choose which parent to live with during their divorce. Part two of the second season, released Dec. 3, focuses less on the pair navigating awkward situations at school and more on developing their relationships with family and each other, diving deeper into themes of identity and sexuality without sacrificing any of the series’s laugh-out-loud hilarity. 

In the show’s final episodes, the girls find themselves facing a Bat Mitzvah, a funeral, a Walk for Cancer, a modeling gig and more. An expensive Swarovski necklace forces Maya to confront the reality of her family’s socioeconomic class and a school lesson about the Holocaust sends Anna into a spiral about the existence of God. Like most preteen girls, they are simultaneously self-absorbed and self-loathing. In the animated special episode “Jacuzzi,” for example, their features are comically exaggerated to show the extent of their distorted perceptions of self and struggles with body dysmorphia. 

What makes “PEN15” stand out from other middle school comedies such as “Big Mouth” is its nuances regarding racial otherization, specifically when it comes to the experience of Asian American adolescence. In season one, Maya faced microaggressions and social exclusion as a half-Japanese young woman. However, season two goes even further — in “Shadow,” Maya’s classmates become obsessed with her friend who is visiting from Japan, and their fascination with her “exotic” qualities makes Maya jealous and upset. “Why is being Japanese special on her and bad on me?” she wails. 

Another episode, “Yuki,” is a beautiful ode to immigrant mothers. It follows Maya’s mom, played by Erskine’s real-life mother (Mutsuko Erskine), as she reconnects with an old lover at the supermarket and expresses to her husband that she always felt “stuck in the middle of two cultures.” Though Maya tends to dismiss her mom’s concerns, this episode makes clear the stark contrast between Yuki’s stern but loving nature and the inattentiveness of Anna’s parents as they constantly fight with each other. 

Season two also finds Anna and Maya in relationships with sleazy, stoner high schoolers Steve (Chau Long) and Derrick (Bill Kottkamp), respectively.  Like the 2018 film “Eighth Grade,” the show doesn’t shy away from depicting the uncomfortable and disturbing power dynamics of older boys preying on young girls. It’s heartbreaking to see Derrick belittle Maya’s innocence and take advantage of her romantic inexperience, but when she finally gets her moment of revenge against him, it’s hilarious and cathartic. 

All in all, “PEN15” is successful because of the phenomenal versatility and vulnerability of Erskine and Konkle as actors. Though both are 34 years old, their portrayal of wacky middle schoolers is so believable that the audience doesn’t doubt it for a second. It may seem easy, but it takes a ridiculous amount of skill and control to act so juvenile — Erskine and Konkle are masters of comedic timing and unpredictable physicality. 

Season two of “PEN15” sacrificed some of the gross gags and shocking vulgarity of its earlier episodes in exchange for more developed relationships and higher emotional stakes, but in the end, it seems like a fair trade. After all, just as Maya and Anna start to grow up, so must “PEN15.”

Contact Asha Pruitt at [email protected].