Monday, July 15, 2024

PEN15 Ends in Uncomfortable Glory

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PEN15 has always been a wonderfully strange show to watch. The premise alone demands it, as there is simply no way to tell a teen comedy tale where two thirty-year old women interact with actual kids without it being strange and sometimes uncomfortable. It is also a premise you can easily make too cringe and awkward to watch.

Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle have always avoided this by playing their roles as authentically as possible, something largely only possible because they are actually grown adults. You can’t really have episodes like the one where Maya is masturbating with every free moment if you cast an actual middle-school kid in the role, for example. This authenticity makes for hilariously strange moments confronting all the uncomfortable truths of adolescence and puberty. It is brilliant, and makes PEN15 one of my favorite comedies in recent years.

Maya wants a cell phone in PEN15

With the recently released second half of season 2, which also serves as the surprise final episodes of the show, PEN15 retains its uncomfortableness by taking it in a new direction. Rather than simply playing the awkwardness of adolescence for laughs, Erskine and Konkle put their characters in situations that make you squirm.

It is a noticeable change, and one that at times made me wonder if it was too drastic a change, and in one instance think maybe the show went too far. One thing PEN15 definitely did, though, was end its brief run in a way you will remember.

While this show has never shied away from the worst parts of middle school life, this final half-season took it to a different level. What surprised me is how often Anna and Maya were downright unbearable. One episode has them making fun of people at a cancer walk while completely unaware that the people around them largely have or survived cancer. Another sees Maya treat her cousin like absolute garbage out of jealousy over her popularity.

Even the first episode has Maya shame her parents over being poor in a way that makes you want them to scream at her, especially when she also embarrasses one of her best friends for his shoes. Then a later episode has her and Anna uncontrollably laugh at Anna’s grandmother’s funeral.

PEN15 has never shied away from the selfish annoyances of teenagers, but this half-season felt sometimes relentless and without quite the same balance of sympathy that previous episodes managed. It felt very intentional, as if all the frustrations and decisions had led Maya and Anna to this point, and into the worst, most uncomfortable episodes of all; the final two episodes of the season.

Their frustration and selfishness boils over when Anna is offered a modeling job by a stranger in the grocery store, while Maya throws a horrendously childish fit when she is denied a cell phone after her brother Shuji receives one. They run away, with the plan to live off Anna’s modeling. Not only does this plan obviously blow up in their faces, it leads them into distressing, threatening situations that are horrifyingly real for women of all ages, let alone middle school girls with no real sense of the world.

The modeling job is obviously a scam, one asking for thirty-thousand dollars to start Anna’s career, with a photographer who laughably ignores that Maya is not Anna’s actual mom, and degenerating into bikini pics before Maya bursts in to stop the shoot. Maya and Anna are often understandably unaware of the creeps around them (just see their boyfriends at this point), but Maya’s growing fear as she waits for Anna’s shoot to be over is one that anyone can understand. The audience should feel just as uncomfortable and suspicious as Maya, and we should feel it even sooner.

It’s a stark reminder of the way disgusting creeps and criminals are always waiting in the wings to exploit girls like these two. Then Anna starts making bullcrap excuses for why the shoot might not be a scam to get bikini pics, or maybe something worse, from young girls, and I feel even worse knowing how many girls think they should trust the photographer in that situation.

You can tell how this incident changes the way Maya and Anna look at the world, because suddenly they see threats in everyone around them. And you know what? I cannot say they are wrong. Girls deal with this every day.

Things somehow end up being even worse when they eventually call their high school boyfriends to pick them up from a stranger’s house, both of them clearly wanting to go home and put a bad day behind them but not ready to admit to each other. Their boyfriends take them back to one of their houses, where they obviously are looking for a little action. And, not unexpectedly, both Maya and Anna feel that pressure.

Anna in bed from PEN15

Maya’s new “boyfriend” Derrick, who is a friend of Anna’s boyfriend, acts like a low-key creep all season. He’s dismissive, clearly using Maya for her ADHD medication, and basically talks like an incel handbook. He is a perfectly realistic depiction of a disgusting high school boy. He never does anything particularly overt, but I spent the entire season waiting for that moment of no return where he steps too far. I hoped Maya would find an escape from that moment.

She does not, and the result is the most uncomfortable blowjob scene this side of actual porn.

There are so many reasons this scene felt like it was too much and PEN15 went too far. The camera angles bounce around to show the most suggestive and explicit angles they can short of an actual blowjob. The sound is even more graphic. You spend much of it looking right into Maya’s eyes and knowing just how much she doesn’t want to do it. She’s on the verge of tears, Derrick doesn’t give a damn, and we follow the whole thing from start to finish.

Then, when Maya is done and runs to the bathroom, Anna follows her and congratulates her, somehow completely unaware of how much the experience shook her best friend. It is unsettling, upsetting, and absolutely genius.

In a show that tried its best to be authentic to the teenage experience with its adult main characters, I think the blowjob scene is the pinnacle of what they could do with that idea. It was stunningly, disgustingly, perfectly real. The way Derek talked Maya into it, the way she went about it, even how long the scene lasted. It is a scene you could never do with any age-appropriate characters for many obvious reasons. And this was always the benefit of PEN15 having two grown women playing middle-schoolers.

In a show that typically used middle school authenticity to be funny, they flipped the script at the end to show audiences just how young girls are when they have to worry about the predatory creeps in their life. Was it too jarring a shift in tone? I see why some will think so. I think they led up to this brilliantly throughout the season, and it worked for me. It was real, and PEN15 has never shied away from being real.

Then they rebounded with an adorably sweet scene where Maya, Anna, and all their friends egg Derrick’s house, leading into Maya’s first kiss with Sam, a sweet boy her age and the kind of romance two children like that should have.

There is a dichotomy to this age that is difficult to reckon with, where kids want to be treated like adults while hanging on to their last gasps of childhood, and PEN15 always grasped that dichotomy so well.

As disappointed as I was to hear that the show was ending, if there was a proper way to go out then I think this was one of the best choices. I think this is the peak of how you can take advantage of PEN15’s strange premise. From here, Anna and Maya will grow up. They will become different people and grow out of childhood. Maybe they grow up apart, or maybe, as they say in the final scene, they will stay best friends living together on shared land with their husbands. Whatever happens, we saw the moments that began transitioning them out of childhood. For better and for obviously worse.

They will learn, and live, and love, and become complicated adults. We don’t necessarily need to see that. We can let Maya and Anna go here, at the end of two terrific seasons of television.

Images Courtesy of Hulu

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