Pen15 makes me sweaty. Much of the show’s comedy relies on dramatic irony, which — especially against the backdrop of middle school, a time most of us would rather forget — can make it incredibly difficult to watch. And cringe television has always been challenging for me, since dramatic irony is often at the expense of marginalized characters. But in the hands of Pen15 creators and lead actresses Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, these become tools that help an audience understand the genuine emotional tumult of the tween years, and how these challenges intersect with race and gender.
It’s clear the pair have sharpened their talent for using these stressful middle school scenarios to tell moving, relevant stories. The second half of the show’s second season, released several months after episodes 1-8, is as daring as ever in its exploration of tween girlhood. (So it’s hugely disappointing that the show won’t have a third season.) In its final episodes, Pen15 continues to have high highs and low lows, where the comedy is acidly funny, and the heartbreak is incredibly affecting — building on the excellent groundwork laid by the first season, and tackling serious subject matter.
At the heart of the show, of course, is Maya and Anna’s friendship, and their reliance on one another. Each of these new experiences leaves a mark on their friendship, challenging their easy intimacy, teaching them new ways to support each other. Anna is juggling the emotional lives of her parents — and she takes on adult tasks like unpacking, as her parents divorce and each tries to convince her to live with them full-time. She becomes increasingly anxious, which is only compounded by family tragedy. At the same time, Maya receives an unexpected diagnosis which explains her outbursts and emotional dysregulation, but she struggles with adjusting medication. Together, they navigate dance floors, bad teachers, a funeral, and awful high school boyfriends.
The show has always felt so much like a personal attack, because it deftly captures how Maya and Anna’s fairly different, highly specific experiences nonetheless hold kernels of universal truth. This is especially true in the way the show handles Maya’s Asian American identity, in these episodes, adding nuance to the subtext laid in season one. In season one, Maya learned about racism, and ended up trauma vomiting. It’s funny because it’s an unexpected reaction, in the moment of release. But it’s also painful and exhausting as it took me down that pathway, leaving me in a state that felt a lot like vomiting.
This second season’s episode “Shadow” demonstrates the way race can subsume a person’s identity — rendering someone exotified or ostracized, never accepted as whole or individual. In the episode, a younger Japanese family friend of Maya’s, Ume, comes to visit. The two struggle since neither can speak the others’ language. Maya takes Ume to school expecting her to be bullied — instead the class obsessed over her, touching her hair, grabbing her Tamagotchi. But Maya doesn’t understand Ume is being objectified, and instead becomes furiously jealous, screaming: “Why is being Japanese special on her and not on me?”
Through the episode, miscommunication abounds. Maya is too young to differentiate between objectification and adoration. She decides to be Ume’s translator — but subtitles reveal she only actually knows a few Japanese words. Her attempts, some of which are just random mouth sounds, mostly confuse Ume. Yet the show manages to never punch down on foreign language speaking. Instead, it mines humor from a rite of passage for a mixed race kid who never learned to speak their mother tongue, yet tried her hardest. When Ume and Maya eventually break down and embrace each other, the viewer gets the benefits of subtitles as Ume explains how much she hated being touched, objectified, and crowded in on.
Meanwhile, Anna’s put in a position of peacemaker between her parents — and no decision is ever right. The low points are devastating, with Anna dissociating on a dance floor and having a panic attack. But the show also delivers on hyperbolic cringe humor, as Anna increasingly develops a kind of hero complex, complete with existential crises about whether God exists during a history lesson about the Holocaust. In a classically underbaked school assignment where the kids present what “one item” they’d bring if they were “taken by the Nazis,” Anna brings a bullet casing and says she’d use it “to kill Hitler.”
Where so much of comedy’s relationship with discomfort is centered around an idea of being “transgressive” or “edgy,” Pen15’s discomfort mostly forces a viewer to confront social expectations and gendered standards. And these scenes, however traumatically funny, are always grounded by their truthfulness. Seeing Maya caught masturbating on the bathroom floor with her “stash” might make you want to crawl out of your skin. But comedic shows and films have also made uncomfortable jack-off jokes about boys for years — which are jolting, and exploitative. And it’s worth noting Erskine and Konkle are both in their 30s, playing teenaged versions of themselves, and not putting actual young-aged actors in harmful scenarios.
Both have spoken in interviews about how certain uncomfortable bits are based on real experiences they had at that age: Erskine has mentioned masturbating through her middle school years; Konkle described her first kiss as an “alien drilling my throat.” In Pen15 sexual urges are a punchline, but not at the expense of the characters. Instead, they’re a commentary on that phase of life where every new impulse is loud and discombobulating. Whether it’s a first period or first kiss, Pen15 normalizes these private experiences by showing them on screen, and reaffirms the rewards of female friendship as Maya finds hushed solidarity with her best friend.
In the final episodes the show grapples with the weightier, traumatic topic of coercion, and the power differential between middle school girls and high school boys. Maya’s “boyfriend” asks her to do a physical act she’s uncomfortable with; not wanting to seem “uncool,” she complies. These scenes aren’t cut through with humor, and they are the most challenging to watch. It’s made choppier by the fact that these traumatic moments don’t get the kind of unpacking or denouement that they really deserve. It feels very much like there were too many ideas, too much ground to cover, in the limited space allotted. The season’s more jovial wrap-up feels very abrupt, in this context, especially when earlier episodes dedicated so much space to one-off comedic bits — like slow-dancing wedged between your crush and your best friend, or stealing back an expensive Bat Mitzvah gift from the wealthy girl who was unimpressed by it.
Still, these episodes cement Pen15’s commitment to the importance of the inner lives of young girls — digging into the difficult truths of adolescence, rather than portraying young girls as flat concepts. Capturing tweenhood on screen is no easy feat, not least of all because that phase of life exists in a developmental grey area, where many of us didn’t know how to make good decisions. These are Erskine and Konkle’s stories, told honestly and directly, and there’s a degree to which casting aspersions can also feel like casting judgment. Asking for a clear resolution might be enforcing closure on a phase of life where that just doesn’t exist — and, as a whole, the show’s frank exploration of girlhood is incredibly valuable.
We made mistakes at ages 12 and 13. We were also disempowered and often taken advantage of, and it wasn’t our fault. It’s cringe to watch, but we deserve to have our experiences legitimized, rather than made small and shameful. Pen15 is a funny, and painful, reminder of that.