Pen15 is the most enjoyable stress test. With uncomfortable precision, the show depicts the coming-of-age of its two seventh-graders, best friends Maya Ishii-Peters (Maya Erskine) and Anna Kone (Anna Konkle). It revels in the granular moments that shape their impressionable personalities and resolute bond. The show gets even more profound in the latter half of its second (and final, for now) season, but balances its extreme awkwardness with as much tenderness.
Co-created by Erskine, Konkle, and Sam Zvibleman, Pen15 is a ’90s nostalgia fix of epic proportions as its two leads revisit (and play) their 13-year-old selves, resulting in discomfiting yet resonant humor. In the back half of season two, which premieres December 3 on Hulu, Anna is further pulled apart by her parents’ divorce while Maya comes to terms with her family’s lower socioeconomic class. The two buddies have always been curious about sex and forging romantic relationships with boys, but now they start confronting important themes of consent, peer pressure, and forms of harassment.
In examining Maya and Anna through these tense subjects, Pen15 closes out a banger of a run, cementing itself as an essential teen comedy. 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.
The show’s conceit is that the girls are forever in the seventh grade, which makes Maya and Anna’s perspectives absurd and hilarious; all stakes are at a life-or-death level for them, whether it’s a first kiss, a pool party, a sleepover, a school play. The show pokes fun at these middle-school experiences, but handles the girls’ often exaggerated point-of-view with seriousness and poignancy, like in episode nine, “Bat Mitzvah.” Maya worries about gifting classmate Becca (Sami Rappoport) an expensive Swarovski bracelet for her Bat Mitzvah. She forces her parents to spend money on a present for a girl who is barely an acquaintance, just to maintain a facade. The arc, inspired by Erskine’s real-life experience, is so personal, but it still taps into universal teen fears of feeling like an outsider, and striving to be liked or belong to a social group.
Anna divides her time between each parent, helping her father settle into his new apartment. It forces her to grow up at a young age. “You remind me of my mailman” and “You talk like you’re 40, kind of,” are just a couple of phrases people throw at her in her church group, for which she earnestly thanks them.
Konkle delivers a subtle, sublime performance throughout these final episodes—her best on the show yet. Her fictional teen self goes through multiple changes, including making out a ton with her first serious boyfriend, Steve (Chau Long). The actor doesn’t miss a single beat as she goes through Anna’s upheavals, including grief over the death of a family member.
Meanwhile, the show’s quiver-inducing and loud comedy comes via Erskine’s pitch-perfect performance. She swivels between vulnerable, stoic scenes and physical slapstick comedy with ease and nuance. Maya grapples with her cousin visiting from Japan, who is instantly liked by her peers, just as poorly as expected (even more so after she catches Maya masturbating on the bathroom floor). But when Erskine rage-cries, “Why is being Japanese special on her and bad on me?!,” Pen15 deftly maneuvers the story into a moving portrait of Maya’s identity crisis.
An expertly crafted episode follows a day in the life of Maya’s mother, Yuki (played by Erskine’s mother, Matsuko)—only, it’s the day she bumps into her ex-lover who happens to be the father of Maya’s half-brother, Shuji (Dallas Liu). The half-hour devoted to Yuki fleshes out her glamorous past, and strengthens her bond with her kids even more. Matsuko Erskine is so charming, it’s hard to believe this is her first on-camera role.
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.
After just two seasons and an animated episode, Pen15 leaves behind an indelible legacy in the genre. It 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.