‘PEN15’ Season 2 Understands the Angst of First Kisses and Tragic Putdowns

Even more than season one, this second serving of Hulu’s “PEN15” comprehends the very angst of pondering those little life developments, that in adolescence feel like life or death. Millennials who will instantly recognize the AOL dial-up ring or the absence of iPhones will surely bask (or shiver) in its middle school nostalgia, but while the technology and fads change, there are some firsts in life that will always be emotionally roiling. Today we fret over how our lives are perceived on social media, but in the arena of school life, whispered gossip is always a deadlier game.

The season picks up right after the school dance where Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna (Anna Konkle) had a clumsy exercise in sexual awakening when loaf Brandt (Jonah Beres), felt them up. That’s as far as it went and Maya has still not achieved her life goal of having a first kiss. Anna meanwhile, wants to end things with fellow dim “boyfriend” Gabe (Dylan Gage). How all this can spiral into social chaos become apparent when the two are invited to a pool party where Brandt and Gabe will attend. To Maya’s astonishment, Brandt is denying anything ever happened in that storage room during the dance. Anna makes sure to collect witnesses and proof, but this is just the beginning of a season where the two friends will endure humiliation, third wheels trying to enter their circle, parents split their marriages and Maya keeps edging closer to finally locking lips with someone.

“PEN15” continues a millennial reassessment of how mind-numbingly brutal growing up in the ‘90s and early 00s could be. While some characters are small storylines interconnected, the show works best as a flowing series of anecdotes or memories. Erskine and Konkle, who are also the showrunners here in addition to starring as adults walking through their own recollections, want nothing in common with those breezy, colorfully hopeful YA shows and movies. Instead you can easily link this series to movies like “Eighth Grade,” which are empathetic, darkly funny but very sober takes on growing up. Not every memory from middle school is great, and we all have memories that still sting. The boys in Maya and Anna’s world are never dreamy, but confused, clumsy, selfish and spoiled. Soon they spread around a rumor that Maya and Anna’s vaginas smell bad, which prompts the two friends to have a phone conference to try and make sure it isn’t true. Maya finally sees her chance to get a first kiss during a school play, but her scene partner, who also turns into her “boyfriend” offstage, will bring nothing but heartbreak. 

We are also spared the typical, woke and picture perfect suburban parents of other teen shows. The adults in “PEN15” are as flawed as the kids. Anna’s parents, Curtis (Taylor Nichols) and Kathy (Melora Walters), pretend to live in civil separation but slowly boil towards a bigger confrontation and divorce. Anna would like to boast to other kids with divorced parents that her home is the exception to the rule, but life will prove that’s just an illusion. While there are plenty of scenes that will bring back cafeteria or gym PTSD to some viewers, some of the strongest and most compelling moments involve parents. Maya particularly has some gut-wrenching scenes with her mom, Yuki (Mutsuko Erskine), whose more stern, traditionalist character gets more aghast at Maya’s restlessness. There is a trip where the two friends and their mothers go shopping together spirals into a hurtful series of verbal brawls. In these scenes the dialogue is so cutting sensitive viewers will want to pause the episode. Erskine and Walters are perfect in how their faces register shock and hurt. Personalities can clash because of that age old miscalculation by parents who think they know what clothes to pick out for their kids, and have no idea what their offspring are even into.

“PEN15” is almost a tragi-comedy of moods and manners. Someone might like you, but they’ll lie about it because it might turn them into an object of ridicule. Or when Becca (Sami Rappoport) tries to become the third member of Maya and Anna’s friendship it starts off well, then hidden resentments form, or Becca commenting on Yuki’s accent might trigger the awkward feeling that she’s an outsider. These are years where your entire social life is dominated by school and delicate situations arise over how much time your bestie starts agreeing with the newcomer. 

Uncomfortable but also feeling like a tonic, “PEN15” is great because it understands where we come from. Some shows about youth want to fill the viewer with nostalgic bliss, this one takes our hand and seems to say, “trust me, I know how it really was.” Maya Erksine and Anna Konkle haven’t just made an excellent show, they have created one for the ages.

PEN15” season two begins streaming Sept. 18 on Hulu.