‘Pen15’ Almost Grows Into Its Own Just as the Series Ends
“If you get a chance to live, live,” Anna (Anna Konkle) is told at the central party of “Bat Mitzvah,” as the second half of the final season of “Pen15” opens. “If you get a chance to dance, dance.” And if you get the chance to revisit every excruciating cringe-inducing insecurity you felt during your most awkward age, do it with older actors well versed in devastatingly embarrassing disappointment. Those Emmys? How can they make up for the what happened to the Jews, gypsies, disabled and homosexuals in the Holocaust?
Hulu’s “Pen15,” is not the kind of series you want to come to in the middle. We miss the immature, gross-out beginnings promised by the double-edged, single entendre of its title. Even fickle faddists numbered their pens in middle school, but when the leads make their presence in a history class, the mind immediately reverts to math. The two most immature and viscerally awkward kids squirming around inappropriate answers are twice the age of the rest of the student body. It’s a sight gag, and a surreal reminder that the noogies Gilda Radner endured from Bill Murray when they played teenagers on “Saturday Night Live” still resonate.
This is partially because the audience can accept some of the lines, sexual content, and situations Anna and Maya Ishii-Peters (Maya Erskine) have to put across. It feels like they can get away with more. Not that their classmates, adolescent actors Taj Cross, Jonah Beres, Dylan Gage, and Anna Pniowsky, are amateurs when delivering subtly inappropriate groaners, such as when Becca (Sami Rappoport) interrupts the lesson on the Holocaust to let her classmates know she is Jewish, and not to park in front of the temple when they come to her Bat Mitzvah, she’d hate to have her father have to tow their cars.
This is just a teaser for her introduction at the Bat Mitzvah itself. Carried by bearded strongmen in black guinea-Ts, she puts her high school musical talent to use in an inveigling version of “Whatever Lola Wants.” And the damn Yankees lap it up, but none more than Maya, who sees herself through the eyes of her affluent pseudo-contemporary, judges herself impoverished, and sets her heart on giving Lola exactly what she’d want, an expensive Swarovski bracelet. Maya’s brother doesn’t make it any easier explaining how their father is basically a homeless guy living in a house with his family, and Maya thinks her mother’s suggestion of the Jewish tradition of a lucky eighteen dollars is a cheap way to say l’chaim. Let’s not even talk about her shoes, she certainly doesn’t want to hear it.
If Maya is the schlemiel in this episode, Anna is the schlimazel. She brings a bullet to class, as the one item she would take if Nazis gave her an hour to pack and bag before being rounded off to a concentration camp. This triggers a debate over bullets, guns, knives, vengeance, premediated murder with cause, and ultimately the existence of heaven or hell. It is told with the same mortal topsoil of any mass grave and an equally mass-market feel. Everyone knows how appropriate it is to be inappropriate with easy answers when you haven’t figured out the questions.
“Are there Nazis in our family,” Anna asks her mother, Kathy (Melora Walters), as she hurtles towards the nihilism where all middle-school outcasts ultimately find solace. Though she and Maya escape far beyond their comfort zone when they run away from home rather than end the series. It’s almost as tough out there without parental assistance as it is living under their roofs. Anna’s parents Kathy and Curtis (Taylor Nichols) are separated and trying to live in different halves of the same house. It’s good to know “There are no Nazis in in their family, “Grampy fought the Nazis, you’ve seen the medals,” but it makes watching horror films like “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” much more frightening, though oddly less awkward.
Maya’s dad is a traveling musician who is usually away from home. He plays extra gigs to get nice things for the family. The nicest thing he does is get out of the way so Maya’s mother Yuki, played by Erskine’s real-life mother, Mutsuko Erskine, can have an episode all her own. She already steals every scene she’s in, often comically, but mostly through the drama of her daughter’s resentment. Even if it’s just the disappointment in not being allowed to own her first cell phone. Many of their scenes are stressful and almost uncomfortable to watch. The episode “Yuki” lets us watch Yuki alone, giving a window on her life when Maya is in school.
Maya and Anna face the dramas of Dance Dance Revolution routines, braces, bad haircuts, worse dates, cheap shoes, romance, grief, and the end of time. Erskine and Konkle are completely natural, bringing a knowing nuance to these childhood moments, and retaining their optimism about seventh grade, even in the sensory recall of the worst public humiliation.
A best friend can get you through anything, sudden death or teen pregnancy. “Pen15” ends its run with episode 15, “Home,” where poets say you can’t go again. Maya and Anna can’t stay 13 forever, even if Erskine and Konkle have enough makeup and attitude to get them left back forever. The series ending may seem bittersweet, but it does offer newer, more challenging characters for the two actors to play. It could be a fitting rebirth.
Part 2 of “Pen15” season 2 begins streaming Dec. 3 on Hulu.