By Sarah Osman
Considering how dark 2020 is, it is a good time for a lighthearted remembrance of things past, before the pandemic.
As a millennial who attended middle school in the early aughts, I found that much of season one of Pen15 mirrored my own experiences. Like the two leads, Maya and Anna (played by 30-something Maya Erksine and Anna Konkle, who are also the creators of the show) I too took my AIM name very seriously (and tried to contribute to the “Hotties” chat room), and wore questionable outfits. Like Maya, I was made teased because of my ethnicity. So yes, some of the humor in Pen15 comes from its “gimmick” — two grown women are surrounded by actors aged 12 and 13. But the real comedy comes from how well Erksine and Konkle capture the excruciating pain and humiliation of middle school.
Season two heightens the cringe factor as it delves further into Anna and Maya’s personal lives. The storyline kicks off with a common middle school ritual — the awkward pool party — where Anna and Maya decide to plot out their romantic entanglements. Maya has decided to pursue a relationship with Brandt (Jonah Beres), who “felt up” both Anna and Maya in a closet during a dance. Anna wants to ensure that her relationship with Brendan (Brady Allen) is finally over. Both quickly find out that neither boy is interested, so they end up comforting each other in their misery. Watching the girls get rejected is painful, but their love for one another is quite endearing. It’s a reminder of how being jilted in middle school is emotionally magnified — all you want is to be accepted.
The series continues to delve into Anna and Maya’s problems. Anna’s parents continue with their nasty divorce, deciding to divide the house in half (which of course doesn’t work). Maya continues to pursue Brandt against her better judgement. At one point, the girls decide to become Wiccan, which gives them the power to cast “spells” (which include Maya putting her hair in Brandt’s locker to make him fall in love with her). Naturally, the magic doesn’t work — but the would-be witchery offers a hilarious flashback for anyone who dabbled with the “dark arts” in their youth.
A new, bratty friend, Maura (Ashlee Grubbs) causes more problems when she attempts to make the duo a trio. Maura plays on both Anna and Maya’s emotional vulnerabilities in a way that makes her intentions more than a little questionable. What’s more, she raises tricky issues when Anna and Maya pick up her rude manners. The results include a painful mother-daughter shopping trip and a sleepover filled with the revelation of discomforting secrets. For anyone who has experienced either disaster, they are reminders of just how embarrassing adolescence can be. It’s impressive how well Erksine and Konkle dive — head first — into the insecurities and psyche of middle school girls.
While the bulk of the series focuses on Anna and Maya and their friendship, at this point there is a bit more focus on the boys. Gabe (Dylan Cage) is struggling to figure out his sexuality, particularly his budding feelings for his pal, Sam (Taj Cross), who is busy trying to impress the cool guys. It’s a reassuring balance: we see how middle school is just as challenging for the males as it is for the females, which puts Anna and Maya’s quandaries into a fresh perspective.
Despite the fact we are being presented with a half season of the series (the rest will premiere in 2021), this serving feels surprisingly self-contained. A narrative arc is completed, and a few hints of what’s to come in season 2 are provided. You come away satisfied, yet looking forward to what’s to come for our female protagonists.
As in season one, Pen15 is full of early aught references. The girls chug Surge at a sleepover, gurgle down gushers, and both deeply desire an oversized Tommy Hilfilger shirt. For millennials like me, these reminders of past absurdities are part of the fun, a welcome indulgence in nostalgia. Even if you didn’t grow up during this period, the references can’t help but amuse, universal testimony to the strange fads we all obsess over when young. And, considering how dark 2020 is, it is a good time for a lighthearted remembrance of things past, before the pandemic.
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for Young Hollywood and High Voltage Magazine. She will be featured in the upcoming anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences under the Trump Era.