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We don’t all have a ‘Pen15’

| Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Maggie Klaers | The Observer

I think we can all agree that middle school was an awkward phase in our lives. Unlike for middle schoolers today, who look like they are about to turn 25, middle school was once filled with prepubescent boys and hormone-ridden girls. It’s here where we can find boys with a newfound sense of irrational confidence and girls consumed with gossip and cliques. It is also a time when unfortunate events seem detrimental and life-changing. It’s strange and extremely unpredictable.

The year 2000, in itself, wasn’t too glamorous either.

“Pen15,” a Hulu original series created by Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle and Sam Zvibleman, isn’t just a satirical take on middle school, but one that also shines a light on the struggles, triumphs and strangeness of being a preteen. After a year of waiting, on Sept. 18, Hulu released the first half of the second season and it is everything that we have been waiting for.

After a first series of sexual discoveries, familial hardships, friendship disputes and uncomfortable social situations, the second season of “Pen15” opens with Maya Ishii-Peters (Erskine) and Anna Kone (Konkle) determined to rebuild their social status as ultimate best friends. Two days after the girls’ encounter with “cool-kid” Brandt in the maintenance closet at the dance, they are on the hunt for answers. Does Brandt really like Maya? Did their “hookup” spark a true romance?

At their friend’s pool party — where the yard is divided between girls and boys, of course — Maya and Anna end up stirring rumors about themselves thinking it would lead to answers. However, in typical middle-school fashion, the use of inappropriate terms without knowledge of their meaning, causes more social confusion. Subsequently, they are seen as sexually forward individuals, which later puts a strain on their mother-daughter relationships.

Maya takes up a new extracurricular activity in pursuit of her crush: wrestling.

Here, they begin to feel the effects of their self-produced rumors. Brandt starts calling the girls a demeaning nickname, and their good friend Sam Zablowski (Taj Cross) begins to pull away from his friends Gabe and Jafeer. As Maya and Anna try to save their reputations, Sam is trying out new friends, which disappoints his old friends, and it’s clear that “play time” is over. But not for Maya and Anna.

The two girls’ imaginations begin to run wild as tensions grow between Anna’s parents, who are on the brink of divorce. After watching a scary movie and hearing Anna’s parents argue, the girls run into the woods, where they imagine their secret powers will mend various aspects of their lives: specifically, Maya’s love life and Anna’s family life. Their imagined witch-like powers lead them to take it a bit too seriously, resulting in trouble with school, family and friends.

Already at an all-time low, the two besties meet a new friend: Maura. Maura is manipulative, controlling and an all-around bad influence. Subsequently, Maya and Anna become increasingly distant and hostile toward their mothers, and a sleepover nightmare unfolds, one which all middle school girls have experienced. This sleepover involves the anxiety of a first period, the dread of revealing something too personal during truth or dare and the burning desire to call your mom at 3 a.m. to come pick you up. Girls, we’ve all been there. This all-too-realistic slumber party is one that puts Maya’s patience — and Anna’s— loyalty to the test.

Adding to their already dynamic extracurricular resume, the girls try out for the school play. Maya is cast as the lead with her soon-to-be sexually confused boyfriend Gabe, and Anna decides to become a part of the lighting and stage crew. The play, while extremely mature for a middle school production, isn’t the focus; instead, the spotlight is on Gabe’s internal dilemma. Since the pool party, Gabe has been struggling to accept his sexuality. When the girls are at their sleepover, Gabe and Sam hang out and watch inappropriate films. After this, Gabe is seen struggling to understand his attraction to the male character in the film and simply being left alone with his close friend in the room. The play only makes his anxiety worse when he asks Anna to be his girlfriend and must face the looming prospect of an onstage kiss.

The post-play cast celebration leaves the girls with no new answers — and leaves us to wonder what the future may bring them.

Middle school tends to be overlooked as a “transitional” period. We often fail to recognize the importance of self discovery and development in our junior-high selves. The beauty of “Pen15” is the way it shines a light on the adolescent struggles of girls. Unlike shows like “Sex Education” and “Big Mouth,” which heavily emphasizes the sexual pursuits and discoveries of adolescent boys, “Pen15” highlights the often-unspoken events of preteen girls going through puberty.

The first season heavily featured the somewhat private discovery of sex, self-pleasure and menstruation against the backdrop of the complex social system of 7th grade and family life. Society often deems such discussion as taboo, and it shouldn’t be that way. “Pen15” challenges society’s comfort by placing the viewers in realistic situations which every one of us has experienced at some point in their lives. The second season deals with the repercussions of these discoveries and how it changes their outlook on themselves and those around them.

The series doesn’t only focus on the sexual aspects of the characters, but also their internal and external struggles. Understanding divorce is prevalent throughout Anna’s story; at the same time, acceptance of one’s own sexuality is illustrated through the eyes of Gabe.

The ironic nature of “Pen15” doesn’t diminish the reality of the stories in which comics Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play 7th grade versions of themselves. There is comfort within discomfort, and this series perfectly embraces just that.

Show: “Pen15” — Season 2, pt. 1

Starring: Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle

Favorite episodes: “Pool,” “Three,” “Play”

Where to Watch: Hulu

Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5

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About Willoughby Thom

my name is Willoughby. i am from Los Angeles. i am a sophomore studying French and Art History. i like music and words. my favorite band is Oingo Boingo and my favorite film is "The Royal Tenenbaums." follow me on twitter @willoughbythom !

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