"Over the course of season two’s first half — the latter half will arrive next year — Anna and Maya navigate unrequited crushes, slut-shaming, a brief phase in which they practice witchcraft, parental discord, and a foray into the world of middle-school theater," says Jen Chaney. "They also become tight with a new, seemingly cool girl named Maura (Ashlee Grubbs), who immediately changes Maya’s and Anna’s lexicon — they start using the word 'fool' a lot — and the dynamic between them. PEN15 is so astute in its observations of young female behavior that it instinctively understands how much even the smallest show of affection is magnified through young teen binoculars. Viewers may empathetically twitch every time Maura links arms with or hugs one of the girls and leaves out the other. When you’re 12 or 13, every cell in your body screams out for validation almost every second of every day. PEN15 makes that feeling visceral in constant awkward glances and the stunned expressions of girls being told they are ugly. Erskine and Konkle deliver performances that are so naturally believable that it’s easy to forget how astonishing it is that they are naturally believable. These are women in their early 30s, playing middle schoolers opposite other middle-school-age kids and actually pulling that off. Never once, in any episode, is the viewer even temporarily reminded that they are adults. Both of them were great in season one, but in this season they have seeped even more deeply into these characters. Though it’s never spoken, it’s obvious in the way that they carry themselves that any optimism about seventh grade is slowly starting to leak out of their bodies."
In Season 2, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle become indistinguishable from their adolescent characters: "A funny thing happens during Season Two of Hulu’s middle school comedy PEN15. Or, rather, it’s a not-so-funny thing, but a very interesting one," says Alan Sepinwall. "Early in Season Two," he says, "I found that I had stopped noticing the generation gap between the actresses and their alter egos. Maybe the show’s makeup team has gotten even better at disguising their star’s ages. Maybe Erskine and Konkle have grown more comfortable inside the skin of their younger selves, and/or they and the other writers have stopped treating the premise like a joke in and of itself. Or maybe it’s as simple as familiarity breeding belief: the longer you watch everyone treat these two as 13-year-olds, the easier it is to accept it as reality. There are still moments where you can’t help recalling the truth of the situation, but for the most part, PEN15 now treats Maya and Anna as genuine adolescents....The new season’s humor level definitely takes a hit thanks to its more convincing heroines. A lot of scenes from the first season were funny almost entirely due to the unmistakable fact that these were grown women very much not acting their age. The show still finds amusing ways to depict the awkwardness and absurdity of being in seventh grade in the year 2000 — I will never not laugh, for instance, at being reminded that Maya’s AOL screen name is 'Diper911' — but the comedy is less consistent, and at times less explosive, because everything feels more real. The trade-off is worth it, though, because the new episodes feel deeper."
Erskine and Konkle have found a way to take the sentimental flashback narrative to a fascinating new level: "Although both women are in their early 30s, they’ve chosen to play eerily believable versions of their 13-year-old selves in middle school, circa 2000," says Hank Stuever. "If one has to choose only one millennial-made TV series that ventures into adolescent angst in the AOL era, please make it this one. PEN15, which returns Sept. 18 with seven endearing new episodes (another seven will follow when production can safely resume), could be almost considered an act of communal therapy. In their unflinching and even brave willingness to reenact the range of hair-trigger emotions that turn teenagers into the worst kind of people, Erskine and Konkle (along with co-creator Sam Zvibleman) are offering a kind of catharsis to the rest of us: Yes, you were as awful as you remember being, but guess what? You were in the throes of becoming you. PEN15 is both an exquisite wallow in hormonal chaos and a belated act of forgiveness."
PEN15 manages to be one of TV's funniest comedies without its central conceit being the main source of its comedy: "The decision to have Erskine and Konkle play their younger selves, surrounded by a supporting cast of actual preteens, could so easily have been just a quirky gimmick," says Vivian Kane. "Instead, it gives their young pain a real weight, as well as driving home the fact that the even relatively small traumas of our youth stay with us long into adulthood. This season, I repeatedly found myself forgetting that I was watching two adults. Erskine and Konkle play their characters so straight, every moment feels genuine. Their young castmate Dylan Gage, who plays Gabe, has an incredible small arc that I really hope gets expanded on when the show returns with the second half of the season. His performance acting opposite Konkle is profoundly moving. PEN15 is easily one of the funniest comedies on right now, and it’s made so much better by the fact that the conceit of having two adults play middle schoolers surrounded by actual children is never the source of that comedy. Rather, that’s where its heart lies. That’s nothing short of remarkable."
PEN15 returns with a clearer, more devastating vision: "When PEN15 debuted in early 2019, anyone in middle or high school circa the year 2000 felt the pangs of familiarity and recognition. Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle created adolescent characters relatable in both the quiet and loud moments, in that age of perpetual eye-roll. PEN15’s second season heightens even more," says Audra Schroeder. "...Konkle and Erskine disappear even further into their characters; I found myself experiencing secondhand embarrassment (and empathy) for Maya when she gets her period at a sleepover, before remembering she is actually an adult woman. That’s how good the character development is. It also allows them to explore darker, more melancholic territory without it seeming hokey."
PEN15's understanding of what female friendship looks like during adolescence is rare to find on TV: "Everything that Maya and Anna feel is shared between them; what continues to glue them together is that they’re never self-conscious with each other, comparing their pubic hair while talking on the phone, or yelling made-up incantations while holding hands in the school greenhouse, or awkwardly taking a joke one step too far and pretending to be a baby and breastfeeding mom in the school hallway," says Allegra Frank. "(Never forget that these girls are extreme weirdos.) I consistently cover my mouth with my hands in horrified recognition of what Maya and Anna are going through, more than I do watching any other show."
PEN15 proves that it's more than a one-season gimmick: "Season 2 (the second half of which arrives in 2021) should convince anyone who still sees PEN15 as just an extended bit that it's more than that," says Sadie Bell. "While Season 1 explored topics like racism and the shame around sexuality, Season 2 goes even further at illustrating how emotional middle school is and it does an excellent job at validating how tough that period of adolescence -- that many still look upon with humility years later -- can be."
PEN15 can sometimes feel like it’s going too far, but that bluntness fits the tone of these characters’ bumbling attempts to grow up: "PEN15 never shies away from difficult subject matter, though is never dark (Anna’s parents’ divorce continues to be realistically drawn out and messy this season)," says Allison Keene. "But the show also shines as an example of true friendship, where Maya and Anna’s relationship is full of bust-ups but never break-ups. Their primary desire is to always make sure their bestie is ok, yet they are imperfect at doing that of course. The girls are also incredibly annoying, accurately so, and some of the scenes with them whining and yelling at their parents were chilling in that I could hear myself doing the exact same at that time. That’s the thing about PEN15: it gets to a deep truth about this particular time in one’s life (perhaps most especially for millennial girls), full of nostalgia but also a certain pain. More melancholic in its second season, PEN15 understands that junior high is the start of difficult, confusing, strange years of struggle to understand the world and one’s place in it."
PEN15 is even better in Season 2, even if it's less gimmick-driven: "The tendency when approaching the first season was to feel like Erskine and Konkle were doing something that wasn't sustainable — the stuff of an audition reel or a comedy sketch, but perhaps a trick that would wear thin after an episode," says Daniel Fienberg. "Or then after 10 episodes. What's astonishing is that as we begin the second season, it doesn't feel at all like veteran actors using a bowl cut or orthodontics or kitschy '00s fashion as crutches, a development confirmed by how effectively the second season uses these exact same characters for drama. Some of that drama is mortifyingly right on the cusp of laughter, like the humiliating events Maya encounters at a slumber party. But Anna's sadness at her family's domestic friction generally isn't funny at all. And working with Zvibleman, the stars have found a way to push the extremes. That's best illustrated in the witchcraft-infused third episode, in which Erskine's performance takes on a frenzied intensity the first season never would have attempted, perfectly grounded by Konkle's quieter gloom."
PEN15 Season 2 wants girls to know they are not the problem: "At one point in the first half of PEN15 Season 2, Maya and Anna make wishes," says Alexis Nedd. "They are just young enough to have faith in magic and just old enough to wish for solutions to heartbreakingly adult issues. Maya, half-Japanese and self conscious about her appearance, wishes for blonde hair. Anna, whose parents use her as a pawn in their divorce, wishes she 'wasn’t a problem.' It’s a brief, intentionally unfunny moment that underscores Anna’s emotional pain and encapsulates what PEN15 Season 2 wants to say about being a girl on the cusp of teenhood. The primary message is that being a girl sucks. The second message is that it’s not the girls’ fault. The exquisite cringe humor in PEN15’s first season came from its premise that adult actors Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play skewed pre-teen versions of themselves surrounded by a cast of actual children. The second season is equally funny as Erskine and Konkle melt more easily into their roles, but every joke is followed by a gut punch reminder that the basic indignity of being a 7th grader is only funny in hindsight."
PEN15 exposes the deep tragedy of being a millennial: "What it means to be a millennial has been explored academically, theoretically, and, often judgmentally. But it hasn’t been explored creatively, at a human level," says Kevin Fallon. "Certainly not with the brilliance, empathy, and insight of PEN15, a love story to the crowd that came of age around Y2K that exposes their greatest tragedy: Being them. Well, being us. (Hi, the millennial is me.)" He adds: "What makes PEN15 rise above other millennial 'takes' is its status as an origin story. It’s not elucidating who we are now, but how we got here. It’s incredibly hard to capture the mindset of that age without coloring experiences with regret or fantasy fulfillment, or filtering them through adulthood’s learned lessons. It captures the feelings as they emerged raw. None of us would have been capable of writing about what any of that was like when we are at that age. To have it dramatized for us so viscerally—and now, at this turning point in our (millennial) lives—is pretty astonishing."
PEN15's moms, played by Melora Walters and Mutsuko Erskine, are the unsung heroes of Season 2: In the second season, "the girls’ mothers come into sharper view than ever before," says Adrienne Westenfeld. "After all, who shapes a tweenage girl more than her mother, who can be at once her chief adversary and her closest confidante? As Kathy, a loving but insecure woman undergoing a contentious divorce, Walters is an incandescent flame of loneliness and need, struggling to save face in front of her increasingly rebellious daughter. Meanwhile, as Yuki, a Japanese woman raising a daughter who wants nothing more than to fit into their American suburb, Erskine captures the difficulty of straddling two cultures." Walters says of her character in Season 2: "I think she’s still acting out, which you see with her mothering—it becomes this very strange projection on both of them, full of guilt and discomfort. I don't think Kathy can handle it. She becomes a time bomb, and that just makes everything worse." Mutsuko Erskine adds: "As for me, it was always the dilemma of me carrying on what I knew and how I was brought up—not talking back, not saying bad words—but also trying to be more like American moms, who are more understanding."
What is Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle secret to adult women in their 30s playing middle schoolers?: “It’s all the physicality that really helps bring you there,” says Erskine, discussing the show’s makeup and costuming. “Putting the hair on, the mustache… You’re just like, ‘Oh, I’m her. She’s back now.’ But we would wear these bras that strapped down our already-small boobs…” “Our massive breasts, yeah,” Konkle chimes in with a laugh. “Yeah, our massive t*ts,” Erskine continues. “We would be strapping them down, and it naturally made you wanna, like, hunch over to make yourself even more concave.”
PEN15 tackles slut-shaming head-on in Season 2: “When we started, we knew that the girls were staying in seventh grade, always,” Erskine says, “so how do they evolve? What does that mean? How do they grow up? And so the idea of being exposed to more things and interpreting it differently but still not having the coping skills to deal with it, that was interesting to us. And also the idea of these girls, if they are being labeled in the beginning of the season as sluts, or shamed by their classmates, what different identities can they try on? And so it was interesting to watch two friends go through it together when they’re actually seeing dark, mature things in front of their eyes.”
PEN 15 didn't intentionally try to be darker in Season 2: “It was just more like, OK, we know that these girls are going to stay in seventh grade forever, but that they have to evolve," says Erskine. Konkle, meanwhile, lost her real-life father to lung cancer during filming of Season 2. “It’s been a wonderful time of reflection,” Konkle said. “It’s also been a really painful time.” Did acclaim change their approach to Season 2?: "Maya and I met as perfectionists and also, ironically, spent so much time in this industry failing," says Konkle. "I quit so many times — which is good, I needed to fail a lot. I was so afraid of that and it really crippled my work for a long time. When PEN15 rolled around, I was truly in a mind-set of: 'Come and get me, failure. Hate me. Hate the show. We love it.' But when there was success for it, that kind of messed up my mentality because I was pretty content, and felt like I had an understanding of myself and my creative process as an underdog. So that was hard going into the second season: People liked it. How did that happen? And what does that mean about your work now?"