New season of ‘PEN15’ brings millennials back to scariest time of life: middle school

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The first season of ‘PEN15’ originally premiered on Feb. 8, 2019. The series holds a certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes with a 93% approval.

“PEN15” is not for the faint of heart. You will involuntarily pause the show and suffer through a cringe-induced catatonic state before siphoning enough courage to dare to press play again. You’ll then find yourself doing the exact same thing not even a scene later. It’s hard to watch, but yet, you can’t stop watching. The seven episodes feel like an eternity, but by the end you will wish that eternity never ended.

“PEN15” sent everyone back to middle school in the year 2000 when it first premiered on Hulu in 2019. The series was created by Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle and Sam Zvibleman, and  received praise for its out-of-pocket first season. Now, it’s back with the first half of its second season to remind everyone why it was once a good idea to stay inside all the time: middle school was a living hell. 

The series follows Erskine and Konkle as they play their awkward yet intriguingly annoying 13-year-old counterparts, Maya Ishii-Peters and Anna Kone. The show follows the best friends navigating life during Y2K. The catch is that every other character is played by an age-appropriate actor. Konkle and Erskine stand out as two obviously adult women acting as children.

Yet, Erskine and Konkle are grotesquely fantastic at playing two 13-year-old girls. Their awkwardness forces you to see them as kids. Both actresses regress back to that pubescent immaturity with terrifying accuracy that you end up believing that they are 13-year-old middle-schoolers. 

This season’s tone is different from the first. While last season ended with a positive outlook for Maya and Anna, they have now garnered the unwanted attention and vitriol from their classmates. They are torn between seeking approval and wanting to disappear altogether. 

The empathy of season two is turned up a notch. Both girls stumble through the embarrassment and anger of being slut-shamed and bullied. Topics like heartbreak, racism, struggling with sexuality and identity and the unbridled pain of a parent’s divorce are all delved upon more intensely than in the previous season. The jokes are still there, and the gags are more raunchy and gross, but the heart of “PEN15” is even bigger. 

Despite their disgusting imperfections, at the end of the season you can’t help but root for the two girls. You wince at the sight of what they’re doing because deep down you remember your own embarrassing experiences. You want to provide them with comfort and guidance that you may not have gotten at their age. With “PEN15,” you end up subconsciously reflecting on your own growth. That’s the unintentional beauty of this show, which at one point refers to their main characters as a “big smelly bush.” 

“PEN15” is not for everyone. In all honesty, it’s more enjoyable for adults who actually experienced middle school in the early 2000s. Anyone that started middle school after 2010 may have a hard time stomaching the gross-out gags, and may feel like the show is taking it a bit too far sometimes. Overall, it’s a painstakingly enjoyable watch.