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Pen15’s animated special delivers another hilarious and aching depiction of teen troubles

Through animation’s storytelling capabilities, Pen15 once more deftly explores Anna and Maya's insecurities.

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Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle in Pen15's animated special
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle in Pen15's animated special
Photo: Hulu

In October 2020, when TV shows started finding creative ways to release new episodes during a pandemic, The A.V. Club wrote about which ones might succeed in the animated format. Pen15 made the cut. The Hulu comedy created by Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, and series director Sam Zvibleman is the epitome of cringe humor presented with heart. Pen15 brings heightened teenage drama to the forefront through best friends Maya Ishii-Peters (Erskine) and Anna Kone (Konkle), who want to make it through middle school without being dubbed as the awkward ones. The second season was cut short due to filming delays, wrapping up its first part with only seven episodes. The eighth, titled “Jacuzzi,” is an animated special that picks up with Anna and Maya on a road trip to Florida with Anna’s father, Curtis. The standalone carries the essence of Pen15's nuanced, unflinching portrayal of real teenage problems.

Pen15 uses the opportunities presented by animation to delve into Anna and Maya’s insecurities without missing a beat. The format allows them to dig into their thoughts and fears about how they look, using visuals to play around with creating a rounder face for Maya or a pointy, long nose for Anna. In live-action, the team would’ve needed intense makeup or prosthetics to achieve similar results. With animation, Pen15 lets its ideas run as wild as Maya and Anna try to be while they’re on vacation. Initially, they’re excited about being in The Sunshine State. They want to hit the pool, use their camcorder to record all the sights, and hang out on the beach. Curtis even gives them some money to spend during the trip as they would like, but not on “expensive water and stuff.” Well, they decide to purchase a portrait of themselves for $46.25 from a caricaturist sitting on the pier. The artist’s cartoonish final versions of them on paper sends Maya and Anna spiraling into self-doubt.

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Written by Konkle, “Jacuzzi” slows down on the Florida excitement as the girls struggle with how they think the world perceives them, boiling them down to simple adjectives like fat or unattractive. Suddenly, they’re nervous about going into the pool or even stepping out of the room at all. At breakfast, Anna skips it altogether while Maya barely touches her plate of a sliced melon and literally one strawberry. In such subtle ways, the episode exemplifies how impressionable minds navigate societal pressures from a young age. Pen15 is a comedy but it doesn’t hesitate from depicting the more harrowing moments of adolescence, much like Netflix’s Big Mouth does with each passing season. Every time Maya and Anna look in the mirror now, they don’t see their real faces, they see the caricaturist’s versions of it.

Their trip starts looking up when they finally meet two boys while in the hotel Jacuzzi. Ralph and Freddy are genuinely nice to them and call them cute, which considerably perks up their mood. How to confirm they’re starting to enjoy their vacation? They go up to the room where they think the boys are staying, and run around in the hallway screaming things like “Maya loves you” and “Anna and I want to have your babies.” Pen15's strength lies in these dumb, cringe-worthy tricks, and the power of this ridiculous humor comes through in animation because Konkle and Erskine know their characters’ idiosyncrasies extremely well. The actors and writers often mine from their real life experiences as teens, and the sincerity of their performance is alive even if we’re not seeing them in the flesh and only hearing their voice acting.

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Maya and Anna then go to an empty club the boys mentioned, In Da Club, hoping to run into them. Instead, they befriend three other customers: Ben, Jenny, and Venice. By standing up for themselves when Ben refers to them as butt-ugly, Maya and Anna win their admiration and even find inner confidence. They finally have a good time on their vacation. Too good a time, in fact, because Anna gets totally hammered. Once back in their room, their tipsy selves admit their insecurities to one another in an emotionally heavy scene. “God made me like he was on crack,” Anna cries, while Maya angrily responds: “My face is literally as round as a moon.” Looks like the unwanted alcohol helped them release all the tension, even if it means being grounded by Curtis when he discovers their actions.

The episode ends with the girls realizing Ralph and Freddy couldn’t meet them sooner because they were grounded. It’s a twist that in fact led to wilder adventures for them anyway, possible even more so than they experienced during “Vendy Wiccany.” “Jacuzzi” is a solid midseason outing—Pen15 season 2B is yet to air—because it’s a reminder of the show’s incisive hilarity. The animation is new, so it’s not top-notch unlike other adult animated shows on TV. It’s brightly toned and without too much fanfare, but it conveys the messaging sharply without losing Pen15's trademark awkwardness and light-heartedness.

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Stray observations

  • Maya and Anna overpay for everything at this Florida convenience store, getting ripped off immediately after Curtis told them not to. They spend $5.63 on Canada Dry and $6.22 on Cherry Coke.
  • It’s a brief moment but Maya yelling “You want me to take your picture” twice to the group of friends they meet at the club, but while they’re standing far away, just to feel included? Relatable to one and all. In their case, it does kind of work out.
  • I guess the animation helps them pull it off, but could you imagine being totally drunk and walking on some street of some Florida town and not be interrupted even once?
  • The final joke with Anna and Maya meeting up with Ralph and Freddy again and immediately losing their screen names is too perfect.
  • I sure hope Pen15 finds a way to take live-action Anna and Maya on a proper vacation in the future.