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PEN15 leaves behind an indelible legacy in the teen genre

  • "In examining Maya and Anna through these tense subjects, PEN15 closes out a banger of a run, cementing itself as an essential teen comedy," says Saloni Gajjar. The Hulu comedy that has 30-something pals Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle playing 7th graders gets even more profound in the second half of Season 2, marking the end of the show's run after three years, two seasons and an animated special. "Shows like Netflix’s Big Mouth and TBS’s Chad also focus on cringe-worthy adolescent troubles with aplomb, but PEN15 makes a striking commitment to exploring the characters’ evolving identities and hormonal struggles through a female lens," says Gajjar, noting that "the strongest asset here is the seamless, soul sister-type connection between both characters, and the actors’ unrestrained chemistry. Season two’s first half separated them briefly during the school play debacle, but Maya and Anna are tighter than ever and looking to the future as the show wraps its run. PEN15 is a crackerjack cringe comedy, but it’s also a love letter to both performers. The show is very much built around their talent, and Erskine and Konkle give it their all." Gajjar adds that PEN15 "captures the essence of growing pains with pinching accuracy, and thankfully no baseless drama or romantic entanglements. Instead, the show firmly roots itself in its truth to become one of the funniest, most pivotal teen comedies to emerge in the streaming era."


    • PEN15 was groundbreaking with Maya Erskine's depiction of a half-Asian/half-white teen going through puberty and middle-schoolers’ unconscious racism: "When it debuted in 2019, PEN15 was routinely lumped with other middle-school-set stories aiming toward greater sexual or emotional frankness, like Big Mouth and Eighth Grade," says Inkoo Kang. "But such groupings failed to take into account PEN15’s other achievement: illustrating, with unsparing candor, the dual crisis of living in a body transforming from the inside and out. Puberty is bad enough. Learning that you don’t fit in because of your race — especially at an age when not sticking out feels as essential as air or water — is simply brutal. The first great episode of the show, which is set at the turn of the millennium, is Season 1’s 'Posh,' in which Maya, Anna and three friends decide to make a jokey video about the Spice Girls. Maya wants to be Posh Spice, but she’s told by one of the other girls that she 'look(s) the most like Scary' on account of her 'tan.' Once the camera starts rolling, Maya, now in Mel B’s trademark cat ears and leopard print, is instead given a new role: a Mexican butler named Guido. “Why do I have to be the servant?” she asks her classmates, who are all White. 'Because you’re, like, different from us,' she’s told. What’s notable about the middle-schoolers’ unconscious racism — and what makes 'Posh' feel so bruisingly realistic — is that there’s nothing specifically anti-Asian or anti-Japanese about their taunts. They intuit, without entirely understanding why, that Maya can be Othered, and when they see an opportunity to exert power — by assigning her undesired or subordinate roles — they take it." Kang adds: "Erskine and her collaborators are far from the only Asian American actors and comedians breaking sexual taboos; they’ve got predecessors in Awkwafina, Ali Wong and Margaret Cho. But it’s still all-too-rare to see that objective within such a youthful context: watching one’s body change and feeling oneself growing more desirous, yet simultaneously being taught that your face — and all those who look like you — aren’t so desirable. True representation has to include the messiness of humanity, and few characters are messier than Maya Ishii-Peters, a menstruating, masturbating, self-hating yet self-involved Portnoyette, disliked by many but loved more than she thinks. We just have to hope that Maya will make peace with her Asian eyes the way she eventually does with her period."
    • PEN15's final season is a punch to the throat: "PEN15 makes me sweaty," says Nicole Clark. "Much of the show’s comedy relies on dramatic irony, which — especially against the backdrop of middle school, a time most of us would rather forget — can make it incredibly difficult to watch. And cringe television has always been challenging for me, since dramatic irony is often at the expense of marginalized characters. But in the hands of PEN15 creators and lead actresses Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, these become tools that help an audience understand the genuine emotional tumult of the tween years, and how these challenges intersect with race and gender. It’s clear the pair have sharpened their talent for using these stressful middle school scenarios to tell moving, relevant stories. The second half of the show’s second season, released several months after episodes 1-8, is as daring as ever in its exploration of tween girlhood. (So it’s hugely disappointing that the show won’t have a third season.) In its final episodes, PEN15 continues to have high highs and low lows, where the comedy is acidly funny, and the heartbreak is incredibly affecting — building on the excellent groundwork laid by the first season, and tackling serious subject matter." Clark adds: "The show has always felt so much like a personal attack, because it deftly captures how Maya and Anna’s fairly different, highly specific experiences nonetheless hold kernels of universal truth. This is especially true in the way the show handles Maya’s Asian American identity, in these episodes, adding nuance to the subtext laid in season one. In season one, Maya learned about racism, and ended up trauma vomiting. It’s funny because it’s an unexpected reaction, in the moment of release. But it’s also painful and exhausting as it took me down that pathway, leaving me in a state that felt a lot like vomiting. This second season’s episode 'Shadow' demonstrates the way race can subsume a person’s identity — rendering someone exotified or ostracized, never accepted as whole or individual."
    • PEN15 ends as one of the more unexpectedly perceptive shows ever made about the many horrors and complications of puberty: The "sense of finality isn’t really palpable in the new installments, other than a lovely, wistful, perfect closing scene featuring the two BFFs in a contemplative mood," says Alan Sepinwall, adding: "PEN15 can still be a stressful and uncomfortable show to watch, whether the girls are obliviously walking into another public humiliation or acting very much beyond their years. Like Netflix’s Big Mouth, the use of adult actors playing middle-schoolers grants a license for a certain degree of sexual frankness that would be impossible with younger actors. But there are still plenty of moments where you may feel compelled to pause the action, take a walk around the block, and grapple with the choices that have brought you here, and whether you can watch anymore."
    • Thankfully, the writers, directors, co-creators, and stars made their decision in time to film a proper ending: "Episode 15, 'Home,' is a fitting, offbeat series finale, even if the preceding episodes play slightly more melancholic, given the news, and the final scene (which is spoiled in the profile) comes across as a bit sudden," says Ben Travers. "After all, the design of PEN15 seems counterintuitive to a temporary stay. As 30-something performers playing seventh graders among a sea of actual adolescent actors, Erskine, as Maya Ishii-Peters, and Konkle, as Anna Kone, aren’t meant to blend in with the cast; the actors’ committed performances and entrancing spirit bridge the obvious age gap, amping up the humor inherent to their all-consuming crushes and fearsome friendship while allowing for moments of maturation to resonate more fully. Having adults play 14-year-olds makes PEN15 funnier and, oddly enough, more genuine. It also makes the series sustainable (a contention Erskine disagrees with). Even if their actually young co-stars age faster than the fixed world around them, Maya and Anna won’t. They could keep playing seventh graders, well, not forever — the physical transformation is already taking a toll on the two leads — but barring injury, a more typical run of four, five, or six seasons seems not only plausible, but beneficial; that many seasons could reflect the lasting effects of our formative years. (Seventh grade is only a year, but the surrounding era of adolescence sure feels longer.) But Erskine and Konkle see it from the opposite angle and argue accordingly in the final episodes."
    • In its final episodes, PEN15 isn’t afraid to double down on its emotional turn: "Earning three Emmy nominations for Season 2 Part 1, the risk has paid off already, and those who enjoyed Part 1’s deeper, moodier tone will feel satisfied by this series’ conclusion," says Kristen Reid. "Despite Maya and Anna’s surface-level conflicts throughout, PEN15 reiterates its simple core belief: that with a best friend you’ll get through anything, whether it’s the sudden death of a loved one or being taken advantage of by someone you were vulnerable with, or any of the other million problems we face in our lives, big or small. In the last moments of the series, Maya and Anna have a tearful conversation about their future and what it will be like when they grow up and start families and stay friends forever. You simply can’t remain 13, and the real-life event of Erskine and Konkle giving birth to their first children earlier this year, just months apart, feels like a bittersweet but perfectly fitting goodbye to their alter egos."
    • Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle say that keeping PEN15 going indefinitely would betray the show’s conceit: “When we first talked about making the show 10 years ago, we talked about it in three chapters," Konkle said this week at a For Your Consideration event. "And even though (these episodes) are called (Season) 2B, this feels like a third season to us." She went on to explain that if the first season was focused on “firsts,” and the second season focused on identities, then the third season encompassed maturity and adult experiences, including death, drugs, sex, and so on. “It feels like we did it. For now,” Konkle said. “The other part of it is, we’ve learned that showrunning, acting, producing, it’s all the most creatively fulfilling experience I could ever imagine in my entire life and, like, a recipe for burning out.”

    TOPICS: PEN15, Anna Konkle, Maya Erskine, Sam Zvibleman, Asian Americans and TV, Series Finales, Teen TV