One of the best surprises about this year’s Emmy nominations was “Pen15” landing a nomination for outstanding comedy series. More than any other TV show about teenagers, the Hulu show — co-created by Maya Erskine, Anna Konkle and Sam Zvibleman — feels like an open window into my own past as a gawky teen with too many feelings and nowhere to put them but in the waiting arms of the few friends who might understand. It captures such a specific slice of 2000s life — post-dialup internet and pre-smartphones —with such a canny eye for lived-in detail that it almost feels like an invasion of privacy. “Pen15” is as smart and compassionate as it is hilarious, treating the growing pains of growing up — both literal and emotional — as the ridiculous, visceral trials that they are.
This year’s comedy nominees are a more varied bunch than most, but the inclusion of “Pen15” is a wonderful, welcome deviation from the usual script. Teen girls in all their furious, selfish, blazing glory rarely get the kind of spotlight “Pen15” affords them, let alone the kind of wider recognition that the Emmys represent. Nailing its specific combination of hyperbolic and specific, slapstick and devastating is a feat worthy of this honorific.
That being said: it’s shame that neither Erskine nor Konkle could break through to land acting nods since their pitch perfect portrayals of themselves as teenagers are the make or break it elements of the show that ultimately make it as good as it is. As Anna, Konkle practically curls her body with insecurity in the many moments when Anna’s second-guessing herself before shrugging on an almost tyrannical confidence when she’s not. As Maya, Erskine is a live wire of pent-up energy that could spark at any moment and light everything around her on fire. Together, they use the retrospect of spending decades removed from being teenagers to bring their performances the kind of lived-in authenticity that actual teen actors (understandably) typically can’t quite convey.
The second season of “Pen15” (or more accurately, the first half of the second season, as the pandemic cut production short in early 2020) heightens and sharpens everything the first achieved in almost every respect. Freed of having to revisit every “first” milestone, the sophomore season deepens Anna and Maya’s stories and friendship. It introduces longer rewarding arcs like Maya finding an outlet in theater and Anna’s helpless misery in the face of her parents’ divorce. It made more room to follow Gabe (an excellent Dylan Gage), a boy on the periphery of Anna and Maya’s social consciousness who’s quietly struggling to recognize and accept his sexuality. It experiments with form to land emotional gut-punches with impressionistic sequences in episodes like the Emmy-nominated “Play” or “Vendy Wiccany,” when Maya tries to help Anna escape her home life by casting them in an all-consuming fantasy of possessing magical powers.
In fact, that final scene of “Vendy Wiccany” remains one of the most memorable I saw in 2020 for its clarity and poignance about just how terrible the pain of feeling overwhelmed can truly be as a teenager. When Maya and Anna sneak out of their houses and meet each other to perform a spell Anna hopes will make her disappear, the midnight sky appears to envelop them, enormous and ominous in its sheer scope. The second a sobbing Maya manages to break through Anna’s determined playacting, though, the spooky woods surrounding them fade to reveal the truth: that they’re just sitting on the lawn of a perfectly ordinary suburban street, backlit by humming streetlights and living room TVs. But Maya and Anna, bonded in teenage angst and passion, can imagine themselves anywhere and into anything they want as long as they have the safe harbor of the other.