Farewell to 'Pen15,' the Weirdest, Sweetest, Saddest, Funniest Show About the Growing Pains of Middle School

“I don’t usually go for younger girls, but you’re different,” a high-school boy tells Anna Kone in the next new episode of Pen15. On one level, this is a wink at the central gimmick of the Hulu comedy: that Anna (Anna Konkle) and her best friend Maya Ishii-Peters (Maya Erskine) are 13 years old, but played by women in their early thirties, while all the other kids on the show are played by age-appropriate actors.

But by this point in the series’ lifespan, it barely even feels like a joke. When Pen15 returned last fall for the start of its second season, Konkle and Erskine had already disappeared so deeply into their gangly, awkward younger selves that it was easy to forget they were really adults squeezed into ill-fitting, year-2000 fashions, unflattering haircuts, and/or orthodontia. After a while, it was only during the opening credits, featuring photos of Erskine and Konkle when they were actually in middle school, that the casting of the two stars (who co-created the series with Sam Zvibleman) felt like an illusion at all. As a result, those episodes last year got to spend a lot of time digging into the emotional reality of the most awkward years of a girl’s adolescence, from Maya hiding news of her first period from Anna to Anna’s anxiety about her parents’ marriage crumbling before her eyes. What had once been a funny but extremely broad show was now something much smarter and richer, if also sadder.

Covid forced production on the second season to shut down after only seven episodes had been produced. The new episodes are officially referred to as a continuation of Season Two, even though the show has been mostly gone for more than a year. (The season’s eighth script was turned into an animated special about the girls’ trip to Florida, which debuted over the summer.) Erskine and Konkle had long looked at Pen15 as a three-season story, and over the break decided that this batch would be the end of things.

This news only went public in a New Yorker profile published earlier this week, as I was in the midst of bingeing screeners of what would now be the concluding episodes. That sense of finality isn’t really palpable in the new installments, other than a lovely, wistful, perfect closing scene featuring the two BFFs in a contemplative mood. But the episodes continue the shift into more dramatic territory, leaving Pen15 as one of the more unexpectedly perceptive shows ever made about the many horrors and complications of puberty.

Important themes and stories carry over from when last we saw the girls. Maya continues to wrestle with her budding sexuality, going through elaborate and secret masturbation rituals one minute, then loudly trying to reframe herself as still a little kid the next. (An old friend who’s a year younger comes to visit, and in comparison makes Maya look like… well, like a woman in her thirties.) The stress of her parents’ divorce, plus a social studies lesson about the Holocaust, sends Anna searching for a deeper meaning in life, and eventually joining her church’s youth group. The biracial Maya’s sense of otherness remains a constant source of microaggression from her peers — a popular classmate is surprised to learn that Maya is only half-Japanese with a white father (Richard Karn’s Fred), saying, “You look full.” (That theme is also central to the now-obligatory, but here wonderfully executed, episode told from a supporting character’s POV: This time we learn how Maya’s immigrant mother Yuki — played by Erskine’s real-life mom, Mutsuko — feels caught between her two home countries.)

Pen15 can still be a stressful and uncomfortable show to watch, whether the girls are obliviously walking into another public humiliation or acting very much beyond their years. Like Netflix’s Big Mouth, the use of adult actors playing middle-schoolers grants a license for a certain degree of sexual frankness that would be impossible with younger actors. But there are still plenty of moments where you may feel compelled to pause the action, take a walk around the block, and grapple with the choices that have brought you here, and whether you can watch any more.

But it’s always worth it to go back. As both actors and writers, Erskine and Konkle are so smart about the nuances of this moment in kids’ lives. They can still mine that knowledge for big laughs, like a surreal sequence where Maya has a bad reaction to ADD meds, or a disgusting joke about Anna’s pet hamster. But, to the end, Pen15 feels much more in the neighborhood of My So-Called Life than Saturday Night Live.

In another understated meta-joke, a girl in Anna’s youth group tells her, “You talk like you’re 40, kind of.” Anna takes this as a compliment, explaining, “Most people don’t reach their full potential until they’re 38.” Pen15 only needed a few years to reach its full potential. I’ll miss it very much.

All seven remaining episodes of Pen15 premiere Dec. 3 on Hulu. I’ve seen it all.

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