Pen15 co-creator and star Maya Erskine is basking in the Hulu series’ first Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy nomination this year. Erskine, who co-created the show with co-star Anna Konkle and director Sam Zvibleman, has also bagged her second writing nomination for the series, for season two’s “Play.” In it, BFFs Maya Ishii-Peters (Erskine) and Anna Kone (Konkle) feud over their different titles in their school play: Maya is in the lead role and Anna handles the tech team. Suffice to say, the preparation gets intense.
“I was a middle school theater kid myself,” Erskine says. The trio behind Pen15 tend to draw from their own coming-of-age experiences to lend authenticity to the cringe comedy. “My theater community saved me in school, so part of me wanted that to be in our show, but I also know there’s nothing funnier than middle school kids and also adult teachers making a play life-or-death,” Erskine says.
Maya’s and Anna’s passion for their respective jobs leads to arguments during rehearsals in “Play.” Maya fumbles onstage and unable to act when Anna harshly gives her cues to get the lighting in order. It’s an entertaining back and forth between the two. “That part could’ve been 50 pages, but I had to do it in like one to two pages. It was interesting because we filmed it on separate days,” Erskine reveals. Their schedules didn’t match up so they edited the montage to make it look like they shot it together.
The episode further pulls back the curtain on Anna and Maya’s friendship as they begin to discover their own individual identities. Erskine says that was the goal she wanted to achieve with her work: “We’ve established they’re best friends, so it’s more about them needing to find their own place in life while still being able to be friends. The engine of the show is ‘alone you sink, together you survive.’ That can remain true but they also can’t hold onto each other forever.”
Pen15 strikes a chord because of its painfully realistic depiction of trying to be popular in school while discovering these individual identities. Erskine’s character had a masturbation scene on the show, and she says she is able to write such vulnerable moments for herself and Konkle only because she has co-creators who have her back. “I can’t think about whether it’ll be embarrassing or not when I’m going to perform, or I wouldn’t be able to write it down.” When writing the first season, they weren’t sure if people would even watch. Pen15's success meant there was definitely added pressure for season two. “We put out so much personal material on the show, I would feel the pressure even if one person watched it. It just helps that [Konkle and Zvibleman] trust me and love me for who I really am,” Erskine says.
Season two was cut short due to pandemic-related filming delays, so the Pen15 team pivoted to a special animated episode titled “Jacuzzi,” which premieres on August 27. Maya and Anna go to Florida on a road trip with Anna’s father, Curtis. The original intent was to make it as a proper live-action episode. “The animation idea luckily lent itself well to the episode, especially in terms of location and budget,” Erskine says. Set against the backdrop of a Floridian beach and hotel, Erskine says they were able to include boardwalks and piers into scene without any constrictions of live filming.
In “Jacuzzi,” Maya and Anna battle their fears about how they look and how others perceive their beauty. Their insecurities are inflamed when a caricaturist paints Maya with a round face and Anna with a long, pointy nose. They both keep seeing those versions of themselves in the animated special. “When we thought we would do this as a normal episode, there were going to be prosthetics for these exaggerated moments, but it was a saving grace we never did it. Our line producer was like ‘How will you film this? We will have 20 hour days.’ So animation was better than I even imagined, and it serves the story well.”
The episode exists in the bubble between season 2A and 2B, the latter of which is expected to arrive within the next few months. The “Jacuzzi” storyline won’t impact the rest of the episodes. Erskine says this division within the season means the two halves get to stand on their own creatively. “In the remaining episodes of season two, you do kind of want to see Anna and Maya evolve, but they’re in grade seven forever on the show, that’s our conceit,” the actor says. “Season one was them straddling childhood and pre-teen, 2A was the in-between of learning how to just be teen, and now there will be more mature content. It gets a little dark,” Erskine warns.