'Pen15' Season 2: TV Review

Pen15 - Season 2
Lara Solanki/Hulu
Less gimmick-driven and even better than before.

Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle and Sam Zvibleman's delightfully awkward Hulu comedy continues to evolve beyond its thirtysomethings-in-teenage-drag gimmick.

The title of Hulu's Pen15 sets you up for a goof.

See, the combination of letters and numbers has a strong resemblance to the name of male genitalia. Get it?

That was probably the level on which most viewers approached the first season of Pen15, because the entire premise sounded like a one-joke affair. Series co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, both actresses in their thirties, play 13-year-olds in middle school in 2000, surrounded by actual teenage actors.

It took less than an episode to see that Erskine and Konkle, along with co-creator and frequent writer-director Sam Zvibleman, weren't in this for a goof. Yes, Pen15 is a coming-of-age comedy, but the gimmick is played entirely straight, no matter how much the looming possibility of fictional Maya or Anna sharing a first kiss with a pubescent actor might make you cringe (and no matter how clearly the whole thing was shot to protect the innocence of juvenile thespians). The result was a first season of wonderfully recognizable discomfort, topped by two of the finest and most committed performances on TV.

Something strange happens to Pen15 in the first half of its second season (seven episodes premiere this week, with the rest launching in a hypothetical future): For the first time, it's possible to forget, if only occasionally, that Erskine and Konkle are executing a high-wire stunt. Instead, you can just appreciate the bracingly honest, wonderfully embodied, frequently (though, by intent, not always) hilarious thing they're doing.

The new season picks up basically where we left off at the end of last season, with Maya (Erskine) and Anna (Konkle) reveling in the aftermath of a school dance that climaxed in a moment of closet intimacy with brooding Brandt (Jonah Beres). Their attempts, particularly from Maya, to get closer to Brandt lead to awkward party interludes and a newfound interest in wrestling. Meanwhile, Anna is struggling with her parents' (Taylor Nichols and Melora Walters) in-home separation, which leads to a brief dalliance with witchcraft. Along the way, they make a new friend (Ashlee Grubbs' Maura) and dive into the world of junior-high theater.

The tendency when approaching the first season was to feel like Erskine and Konkle were doing something that wasn't sustainable — the stuff of an audition reel or a comedy sketch, but perhaps a trick that would wear thin after an episode. Or then after 10 episodes. What's astonishing is that as we begin the second season, it doesn't feel at all like veteran actors using a bowl cut or orthodontics or kitschy '00s fashion as crutches, a development confirmed by how effectively the second season uses these exact same characters for drama. Some of that drama is mortifyingly right on the cusp of laughter, like the humiliating events Maya encounters at a slumber party. But Anna's sadness at her family's domestic friction generally isn't funny at all. And working with Zvibleman, the stars have found a way to push the extremes. That's best illustrated in the witchcraft-infused third episode, in which Erskine's performance takes on a frenzied intensity the first season never would have attempted, perfectly grounded by Konkle's quieter gloom.

That third episode represents the show's biggest tonal stretch, but also briefly made me ponder if the second season was about to go dark in a potentially alienating way, perhaps somewhat similarly to how Ramy Youssef reached to make his character borderline irredeemable in the second season of Ramy. Instead, the last four episodes kept some of the moroseness and brought back some welcome levity, underlining unexpected versatility for a show called Pen15. As that third episode, titled "Vendy Wiccany," understands, when you're 13, almost any emotion can become heightened and lead you teetering toward a childish breakdown. And as the rest of the show understands, clever deployment of corny needle drops, fashion and other period-precise details can diffuse even the most miserable of mood swings.

This will presumably always be Erskine and Konkle's showcase — both should be awards contenders — but the second season accentuates casting director Melissa DeLizia's smart work selecting the younger actors. Dylan Gage's Gabe has a full arc that emerges beautifully and Grubbs seamlessly interacts with her older costars in a way that's utterly integral to maintaining the illusion of the show. From Taj Cross as Sam to Brady Allen's Brendan to the myriad popular kids who come and go tormenting Anna and Maya, none of the actors comes across as needlessly precocious, and there's no question that the creative team is keeping a close eye on which kids have potential to carry their own storylines.

Although a key part of the theater storyline develops around an unnervingly relatable on-screen first kiss, I'd say the season hinges less on "Oh dear God, how are they filming these scenes between the co-creators and the kids" comic-horror. Or maybe Zvibleman, director of all seven episodes, is just becoming more savvy with the stand-ins and one-sided shooting.

There's a general sense of growing confidence to all aspects of Pen15, one that makes it justifiable that episodic running times were pushing past 35 minutes by the end of the season. Perhaps you still can't escape defining Pen15 through its core conceit and puerile title, but it's becoming easier and easier to see how the series is becoming, along with Netflix's similar-but-animated Big Mouth, the most watchably unwatchable treatment of "ordinary" adolescence since Freaks & Geeks.

Creators: Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, and Sam Zvibleman

Stars: Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle, Mutsuko Erskine, Richard Karn, Taylor Nichols, Melora Walters, Taj Cross, Dallas Liu, Dylan Gage, Jonah Beres, Brady Allen, Ashlee Grubbs

Premieres Friday, September 18, on Hulu.