Talk to anybody who watches a sufficient amount of Brit TV, and the topic will eventually turn to the very British custom of the Christmas special and how great it would be if American shows followed suit. We do Christmas episodes, of course, but it's much rarer that an American TV show will do a proper Christmas special, which is to say a standalone episode that airs separately from any official season. Ted Lasso recently opted for a Christmas special that was standalone in concept, but still dropped somewhat awkwardly within the show's second season. (We're getting there, America!) Releasing today on Hulu, Pen15 's animated special is not a Christmas episode — far from it, actually. But it contains within it the standalone, slightly out-of-time spirit of a proper holiday special, and since we don't know when the rest of Pen15's second season is coming, it serves the purpose that many Christmas specials do: a little bonus taste of a favorite show while we wait for it to return in earnest.
The Pen15 animated special, a 38-minute episode titled "Jacuzzi," picks up where the show's mid-season finale left off, with Anna's (Anna Konkle) father, Curtis (Taylor Nichols), really feeling himself with his brand new midlife crisis convertible, so he offers to let Anna bring her best friend Maya (Maya Erskine) along on a road trip to Florida. After an opening shot of the three embarking on this open-air excursion, the screen is slowly painted and remains in animation for the duration. Rather than just rest on the laurels of the novelty of depicting Maya and Anna's tween adventures in animation, "Jacuzzi" takes advantage of its medium to address the battlefield of adolescence the girls face.
Case in point: they come across a boardwalk caricature artist whose renderings of the girls zero in on some of their most awkward qualities, at which point the animation changes to reflect how they see themselves, an exaggerated nose for Hannah and a round face and hairy upper lip for Maya. And while the episode never fully leaps the tracks into the surreal, the animation keeps us in the girls' headspace, an essential quality for a show that asks us to buy the adult Konkle and Erskine as the tweenage versions of themselves.
Originally this episode was meant to be live-action, with prosthetics used to alter Anna and Maya's appearances. But then the COVID-19 pandemic happened, leaving the show faced with the choice of either waiting and filming the episode when it was safe to film the rest of the season or turning to animation. Beyond the fact that the decision to turn to animation means we get an episode now, the animation feeds so well into the appeal of the special episode, something that feels outside of what the show would normally present, even if it never violates official show canon. It's the perfect setup for a summer vacation episode, too, given that what goes on when a teen has a summer adventure often feels so removed from real life.
In this case, Anna and Maya, still reeling from their caricaturist trauma, meet a pair of cute friendly boys at the hotel jacuzzi, and make plans to meet them at a local under-16 nightclub. What follows is a very Pen15 series of events, including slightly older teens who seem very realistic, which is to say insidiously mean in ways that will probably dredge up a buried high school trauma or two. Anna and Maya, meanwhile, try very hard to behave in ways they think will help them fit in with these new people, which — again — see above re: buried high school traumas.
Ultimately "Jacuzzi" is a small morsel to help tide us over until Pen15 returns, but it's a gambit that more shows should try, especially in an era where shows get chewed up far too quickly as we move to the next thing. Pen15 dropped its first two seasons all at once, and while it remains one of the best shows on TV, its moment in the cultural spotlight has gone by in a flash. This kind of "Christmas episode" model (even when it's really a summer vacation episode) gives the show more space on the calendar, which is to its benefit. Other shows should take note! A Girls5Eva holiday special? A Stranger Things one-off? The Other Two celebrates July 4th on Fire Island? This could all happen — and it should!
"Jacuzzi," Pen15's animated special drops today on Hulu.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: PEN15, Hulu, Ted Lasso, Anna Konkle, Maya Erskine