Published Oct 15, 2020PEN15 essentially boils down to one joke: lead actors Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle are real-life 33-year-old women playing 13-year-old girls, surrounded by a cast otherwise made up of actual preteens. The show's middle-school cringe-comedy — brace-faced smiles, painful attempts to kiss boys, desperate grasps to fit in with the popular kids — hinge on the fact that it's all being acted by grown-ass adults.
The second season picks up right where the first one left off, as turn-of-the-millennium teens Maya and Konkle awkwardly attempt to cozy up with the boys who ignore them, barely realize they exist, and otherwise act like typical brats. There are some new story developments — the girls develop a interest in witchcraft, make a new bestie, and sign up for the school play — but the specifics of the plot are less interesting than the hilariously accurate depictions of middle school life.
The larger-than-life humour is often hilarious, like a scene where the girls are caught performing spells in the school greenhouse and then attempt to cast a spell on their classmates; Maya rolls her eyes and speaks in tongues so convincingly that it might be scary if it weren't so ridiculous. A drama rehearsal scene builds up in hysterical, screaming confessions.
The real gold, however, is in the subtle details, like when Anna briefly does a comical breaststroke at a pool party, or when stoic dork Brendan (Brady Allen) creates a tall tower of Oreo crème filling. These jokes are never directly acknowledged, and are instead left like Easter eggs to discover — lifelike details that add a touch of reality to the otherwise goofy show.
Because, for a show based around a surreal age-based miscasting, PEN15 has surprising heart. A new friendship with the manipulative Maura (Ashlee Grubbs) starts off sweet but quickly develops an undercurrent of genuinely concerning sourness, Anna and Maya's clash with their mothers goes from cheeky slapstick to upsetting name-calling, and moments where the girls declare their friendship are as adorable as ever. A fantasy sequence in which Maya appears as her 33-year-old self is a riveting surprise.
These moments build up over the course of the seven episodes made available to critics, as the season goes from goofball parody to small-scale preteen tragicomedy. Not bad for only one joke. (Hulu / CBC Gem)